Nations shall come

What kind of year do you think this will be? Will the economy gain enough momentum so more businesses will hire workers? Will the bloodshed in Afghanistan continue? Will the people of Haiti see some progress in the rebuilding of their country? Will the tone of the debates in Washington change? Dana Milbank made a new year’s resolution for all of us.

“I know we say it every year: This is the year we are finally going to go on a diet. If you look at the polls ... everything that we need to do as a government, as a society — we need to cut the debt, we need to cut the spending, we need an increase of taxes — all these painful things, we’re not willing to do. The polls show repeatedly we’re not willing to do the hard things. So this is the year we’re going to eat the vegetables, we’re going to eat the fiber and we’re really going to cut some of the fat out.”

Will this be the year when we find a way to do the hard things without assigning the pain to the most vulnerable among us? What vision, what promise will guide us?

I want to tell you a story from the good and golden days, and I won’t be talking about the 90’s or the 50’s or whatever decade has acquired a golden hue in your memory. There was a time when Jerusalem was the capital of a great kingdom, stretching from the Euphrates in the East to the land of the Philistines in the West, and to the border of Egypt. It was the time of King Solomon. His fame spread throughout the lands and to the coasts of Africa, and when the Queen of Sheba heard of him, she came to Jerusalem with her retinue; she came with caravans of camels bearing spices, much gold, and precious stones. The Queen of Sheba gave King Solomon those royal gifts, and he also received much gold from the traders and merchants, and from all the kings of Arabia and the governors of the land. Solomon was a king who excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom, and every one of them, year by year, brought him gifts of silver and gold, garments, weaponry, spices, horses, and mules (see 1Kings 4:21; 10:1-25).

Generation after generation, Israel’s children sat in the laps of their grandparents, begging them to tell them stories about Solomon, the wise king. And Grandpa and Grandma loved to do it; with lavish words they painted beautiful scenes of peace and prosperity. They told stories with a golden hue because for hundreds of years the kings of the nations came to Israel not to bring treasure, but to take it away; not to build up Jerusalem’s splendor, but to destroy it.

After two generations in exile in Babylon, the first groups of Israelites returned to Jerusalem, and things didn’t look good at all. Most buildings were destroyed, the economy was in a shambles, the temple lay in ruins, and the community was divided. Who would repair the city walls? Who would rebuild the temple? Who would pay for it? What had become of them and their city! The once proud nation was but a tiny colony on the fringe of the vast Persian Empire, and many of their people still lived far away on the rivers of Babylon. The whole city was sitting in the dust, under a grey blanket of disappointment and despair, and the old folks were tired of telling any stories.

Just then the prophet’s words pierced the gloom:

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. … the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; … they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord (Isaiah 60:1-6).

The prophet didn’t tell stories about the good and golden days of the past; the prophet sang a vision of God’s glory transforming the world. Now there is more than one way to hear this prophetic pronouncement. Here is one: Israel has been small, weak, and poor for so long, but now finally the tables are starting to turn: they would be great, they would be strong, they would be rich – greater, stronger and richer than all the other nations. Jerusalem would become the hub of the global economy, home to the largest financial institutions and the most powerful trade organizations. Sky-high bank towers would line the streets of downtown, and the world would play by Jerusalem’s rules.

But there is another way to hear the prophet’s words. It’s the same text, but a different voice and a different hope: Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. Jerusalem, this is the moment to let your life reflect the glory of God. Shine with hope, and the nations will be drawn to your light. The whole world will gather to be part of God’s future.

What kind of year will this be? What vision and promise will guide us? Matthew tells us that in the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.

We don’t know much about them, these magi from the East, but they have always fascinated us, these travelers from far away lands, bearing exotic gifts. And because we know almost nothing about them, our imaginations soar. Matthew gives us a blank canvas, and we gladly fill it with rich, colorful detail. First we look at the map, and we list all the lands in the East – Arabia, Babylon, Persia, India, and China – from how far East did they come, the wise men? The ends of the earth are the limit!

Then we look at the gifts they bring – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Not the kind of gifts you and I would bring to a baby shower, but didn’t Isaiah sing about gold and frankincense, and didn’t he sing about kings? In our imagination the wise men now certainly are kings, royal visitors bearing royal gifts, and because they come with three gifts, we determine that there are three of them. So now we’re singing, We three kings from Orient are, but our hunger for detail isn’t satisfied yet.

Did they walk all the way? Certainly not, and already we see caravans of camels, not just three or four, but the multitude of camels from Midian and Ephah we heard about in Isaiah’s song (Isaiah 60:6).

With passing centuries, the stories of the wise men from the East became ever more colorful and elaborate – all because of the child whose star they had observed and followed. This child calls forth holy extravagance in story, image, song, and gift. The nations are coming to the light that has dawned, and the travelers from the East represent all of them – Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and the Americas: the whole world is gathering to be part of God’s future. Matthew gives us a hint, and we run with it because we know in our hearts that this child of Bethlehem is God’s Messiah, born to bring us all together in a community where no nation, no person is an outsider.

To recognize Jesus as the new ruler is to side with an unexpected movement of God, a movement begun on the margins and plotted to break through to the center. The glory of God has not risen upon Jerusalem’s palaces of power and knowledge, but nine miles south, in a dusty little hill town. And this contrast, this conflict runs through the whole story, all the way to this new year and to what kind of year we will make of it. There are two kings and two kingdoms, and we must decide where we will go to pay homage. We must decide whether we want the peace and prosperity of Herod’s realm, the reign of fear and lies and violence, or the other kingdom that began in Bethlehem: the kingdom of mercy and grace.

The wise men didn’t hesitate. They took their wealth and wisdom and went to Bethlehem, to the house where the glory of God had entered the world in utter vulnerability.

I still wonder if this will be the year when we the people find a way to do the hard things without sending the bill to the most vulnerable among us. A few years ago, Miroslav Wolf wrote an interesting little Christmas commentary (see Christian Century, December 27, 2003, p.31): “The wise men did not huddle around a fire and give gifts to each other and delight in each other’s generosity.” Instead, they opened the circle and gave their gifts to the child before whose glory they bent their knees. Will this be the year when we open the circle?

Our life is a journey in search of One before whose glory we can kneel and to whom we can offer the best of our gifts – One who is worthy of our worship. And the gospel is very humble in its invitation to us to take the road to Bethlehem and find the glory of God in the face of a child. Great joy awaits us there, and in Jesus’ house all the nations are at home. I will travel on in the light of this promise.