I bought a camel from a sad-eyed Palestinian boy in the streets. Then I bought a whole caravan – which was described as a lead donkey and three camels – this time from a thin man hawking them by our solitary tour bus. We had been discouraged from “encouraging” these vendors by our tour guides, who understandably didn’t want to be distracted from leading us. But it was hard to resist the pleas of fathers who spoke of hungry children at home. It was hard not to notice the dust, disappointment and desperation. It was hard not to connect with the hope that lit up these faces when we appeared. Perhaps they’d have enough to eat tonight. Perhaps tourism would pick up. Perhaps Americans could do something.
Back home, we ended up giving the lead donkey to our godson Joey. His younger brother Daniel got the sad-eyed-boy’s camel. At bedtime, when we presented these far-away gifts to them, we talked about the Magi who followed the star, and their caravans – the single file pack animals banded together to cross the desert with spices and treasures. In the morning, we noticed Joey had emptied his bookcase! With the donkey proudly leading the pack, he’d lined up every animal in his room to form a eclectic caravan that switch-backed through the shelves. Plastic horses, stuffed bears, wooden giraffe, a ceramic piggy bank, an onyx whale, all on an expectant, single-file, upward march, toward… something wonderful, surely.
Today’s good news begins: “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage’.”
So begins the Epiphany text we know so well! But who really are the players? Who are the leaders? And who are the followers? Sad to say, even our preferred NRSV translation fails us here! Magi have been translated as “wise men.” And worship, as in worshiping God alone, has been translated as, “come to pay him homage.” I love the poetry here, but it somewhat misses the mark.
There are wise men in this story, but it’s not the Magi who come from the East. There is a king in this story, but Herod, whose title was: “King of the Jews”, who was a well known tyrant ruling Israel at the time, doing the bidding of Rome, wasn’t God’s anointed. Herod thinks of himself as king, of course. And so he is understandably “frightened,” as Matthew says, by the bold claim of the Magi, that a new king has been born! Herod’s smart enough not to kill the messenger, and plots how to use them to get to his rival. And so Herod consults the chief priests and scribes, literally the real wise men in this story, trained in theological interpretation of the scriptures and its Messiah’s and Kings, to play along with the Magi. ‘The prophet Micah foretold of a ruler,’ his wise men report. ‘A Shepherd-King, to be born in little Bethlehem, the city of David, just a few miles down the road.’
In our 1st Reading, Isaiah shouts for joy, “Arise, shine, for your light has come”! The light of the star, lights the way to, the Star of Bethlehem, Jesus: little child, the Son of God, and Light of the World! It seems like all the nations are in motion to find this gift! Only, the wise men of Jerusalem, and King Herod, are content with the way things are, holding on tightly to their positions.
These feast day texts set the stage for a Season of Epiphany that recognizes we are a people of God on the move. And so Matthew’s gospel begins with this wonderful story of foreign nations, represented by the Magi, who come to worship the true Shepherd-King. This gospel begins with the inclusion of, us, the Gentile nations. Just like Israel had been, we too are a people on a journey; Diaspora is as fundamental to the Magi, as it is to the Abrahamic faiths. In these days of global migration, as millions are displaced, does the church of Christ migrate, and when it comes time for resettlement, resettle? How can we be more nimble and ready to mobilize? Can we be those in waiting, as well as the caravan?
In my first call in Michigan, I considered it a high compliment to our congregation when Beth, who worshiped only occasionally, traveled to our church service because she felt welcome and alive there. As an outdoors person, she described the feeling she had when coming up to our church doors. It was as if she was on a hike in the woods, she said, and came upon an encampment of people along the trail! They were gladdened that she had appeared, but not surprised to look up and see her. They smiled as though they were expecting someone they didn’t know, and appreciated that she had gifts to bring. They were happy to be camped together, and in that joy, shared a meal and whatever they had, with all who came along.
That’s my favorite description of the feel of our communities of faith. Provisional, like an encampment, with opportunities to gather and worship. We look up, to see who’s coming, and in them, see God’s glory on the horizon. Our assemblies ebb and flow, but has a core, a heart, and a hope in Jesus, our guiding star.
For at our best, we, the church, are a sent people. “All diasporas are different, and often difficult — but every diaspora also holds the possibility for us of leading new and transformed lives, filled with much hope.” (Francisco Lozada, The Bible as a Text in Cultures: Latinas/os, The People’s Bible, (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2009)
So, who’s leading and who’s following? We follow the Magi, who followed the star – and don’t follow the wise men, the scribes, for the truth “will not be revealed to the wise and intelligent,” Jesus tells us. But we also, like the Magi, become leaders and bring others to the manger, to worship the true King, the Christ-child, on bended knee, as servant-Magi, that we may give and receive, the peace and love of Christ. We are a diaspora people. We continue to follow the star, and we settle only for a time, there by the manger, encamping with other believers, before going out to find other followers once again.