Realistically it may well be that the references to gold, incense, and, to a lesser extent, camels, have led to this passage being set for Epiphany, which no doubt many churches will be celebrating this Sunday. It is easy to see how the visit of the Magi to the young Jesus could be found here. But in its original context this passage is probably addressed to Israel newly returned from exile and asking the question ‘Now what?’
I’ve spent the Christmas holidays reading David Bosch’s magisterial Transforming Mission, where he traces the paradigm shifts that the church has undergone down the years in its understanding of just what it is supposed to be doing in terms of mission. What became clear to me was that in our changing thinking we have got it wrong far more than we have got it right. This passage is, I believe, a challenge to Israel to think bigger, to rediscover their original calling, and to go for nothing less than world domination!
I’ve never lived in exile, but I guess if you do the one thing which preoccupies you is getting out and getting home. You live, eat, breathe and sleep both hope and disappointment. But if you do finally make it back to where you belong, the question ‘What next?’ must be a huge one. It can’t take long for the novelty to wear off, and the Israel of the time of these final chapters of Isaiah has the feel of a somewhat disillusioned, purposeless and nominal bunch of people. Haggai suggests to us that in the absence of anything more exciting to occupy themselves, people simply turned to DIY and home improvements.
So the prophet brings them what in years to come would be the message of Epiphany, that God is for everyone, and not just ‘PLUs’ (‘people like us’). God chose Israel to be the waiters and waitresses of the eternal banquet to the gentile guests, but so often they had simply been content to sit and eat themselves. This passage calls them to something bigger and better: they must become those to whom all the nations would come, seeking wisdom, seeking light in their darkness, and in turn bringing tribute and praise to their God. When the Magi came to visit the infant Christ this process started as for the first time those outside the Jewish nation brought their worship to Christ.
This is therefore an incredibly challenging passage to a church in a time of marginalisation. It seems crazy to suggest that David Cameron might ring up the Archbishop of Canterbury and say ‘Tell me what to do, O Man of God, about unemployment, or the recession, or crime or people-trafficking’. My guess is that ++Justin would be pretty near the bottom of his speed-dial list. But what a vision! A church alive with the wisdom of God, receiving tribute from those who had finally come to see how much they needed us. A church winning the respect of those who had previously had no time at all for us.
Is that how it should be? Some would claim that the church is at its best when vulnerable, weak and marginalised. After all, a crucified Messiah isn’t much to write home about. But I believe we have at Epiphany a picture of something which may for now be only a dream, but which is in God’s purposes for his people: a victorious church receiving the tributes of the nations.