Opening The Old Testament
Gold, Frankincense, and Foreigners, Too: Reflections on Epiphany Sunday
However, Isaiah's vision of the return to Israel is not limited to Israelite exiles only. "Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn" (Is. 60:3). Along with the vast hordes of returning exiles will be found other people from other nations; even foreign kings will join the throng. Indeed, the multitude, led by the shining glory of YHWH, will especially include the young sons and nursing daughters of the exiles, specially noted, one assumes, because the youth must return if there is to be a future for the people. Those kings and foreigners will not come empty-handed. They will be leading a huge number of fine Midianite camels, along with the excellent camels of Ephah and Sheba. And the camels will be carrying among their wares gold, the universal coin of every land, and frankincense, costly perfume from exotic places whose worth was little less than gold. And the importance of the camels themselves must not be missed. Camels had by the 11th century B.C.E. become the quintessential beast of burden for all the peoples of the desert, due to its wonderful ability to walk seven days without additional water as well as to present a formidable phalanx of a charging army during times of war. The gifts of gold, frankincense, and camels were rich gifts indeed!
But the more important part of this portrait of Israelites and foreigners, laden with rich gifts, wending their way to Jerusalem, is to be found elsewhere. Matthew captured this aspect of Isaiah's picture by his employment of foreign wise men coming under the guiding light of the star to worship the child. This crucial idea is that the child's birth for Matthew, and the huge mixed wave of peoples coming to Israel in Isaiah, is precisely for everyone, not just for Israelites and not just for certain believers. The birth of Jesus is for all people, not merely for Christians and certainly not merely for just those Christians who profess to believe certain things. Isaiah and Matthew agree that the glory of YHWH and the birth of the child under the shining star is a universal sign of a God whose way is love and peace for the entire world.
I attended a Christmas Eve service this year where a rabbi read this passage in Hebrew and where many of his congregants were in this Christian congregation. The pastor preached a sermon that announced in no uncertain terms that the birth of Jesus was the announcement of God's love for everyone. At an earlier service, a Muslim Imam had read this same text in Arabic, and the pastor had made it plain that the birth of Jesus was for everyone. By this he by no means meant that the rabbi and the Imam would have to convert to "belief in Jesus" to be included in this radical claim of universal love. Not at all! The birth of Jesus made it clear that such divisions had ended forever, and anyone who persisted in such divisions did not fully understand what the birth meant for the whole world. To top off this glorious evening's worship I ran into a Jewish friend (from New York!), a long-time teacher of preaching at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who was visiting her daughter and son-in-law in a much warmer place than the Big City. Her surprising presence in that Christian place made the promise of Isaiah and Matthew all the clearer to me. Luke put it well. "I bring you news of great joy that shall be for all people," he said. Not for some. For all.
"Stand up and shine, for your light has come," sings Isaiah. And those to whom he is singing exclude none. "The glory of YHWH has risen above you," you gays and straights, you Muslims and Hindus and Jews and Sikhs, you liberals and conservatives and libertarians, you "nones" and nuns. All of you. All of us. God is with us, all of us.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.