Monday, January 6, 2014

The multitude of Camels

A multitude of camels shall cover you,
the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.

A multitude of camels shall cover you? Really? Every year I hear that verse on Epiphany and I just want to laugh. The idea of being covered by a single camel, much less a multitude of camels, sounds exceedingly unpleasant and smelly. I know when I read it more closely that it means that a multitude of camels will cover the land of Israel, not a single person… but it always takes me a minute to remember that “you” means “Israel” and not an individual.

But they’re in Isaiah because camels represent wealth. A lot of wealth. Both then and now—a friend deals with banking around the world, including spending some time in Mongolia, and he mentioned to me a few months ago that camels were what you really wanted for collateral for loans in Mongolia—every camel is worth one and a half horses, or 3-4 cows.

This Isaiah passage is like the culmination of the entire book of Isaiah: Isaiah has prophesied that if the people do not repent and follow the Lord they will be exiled; that has happened; the people have endured the exile; and then Isaiah has prophesied that they will be returned to their homeland and that has happened; and now the prophesy is that this new Jerusalem and rebuilt temple will be so amazing that everyone from the nations—and all their wealth—will flow in to Israel. “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.” Being covered in a multitude of camels means to be covered in a multitude of wealth; to have the honor and adulation of all the surrounding people, and have them pay homage to Israel.

Matthew’s Gospel takes this prophecy and puts an interesting spin on this. Here are foreigners, members of the nations, who are bringing gifts to the land of Israel. No camels are mentioned… but gold and frankincense are, along with myrrh. It’s just like Isaiah! But the riches they are bringing are not going to King Herod (even though they stop by), nor to the Temple (which they completely ignore). They are bringing the riches to this baby in Bethlehem, not to the nation as a whole. It’s not quite what Isaiah was aiming for in his prophecy about the camels.

And then it gets even stranger. One reason that the Magi enter into the birth narratives is to showcase that Jesus is king, not just of Israel, but of all people; and that the gospel Good News is for the all the nations, and not just the chosen people of God. Even at his birth in Matthew, he is worshipped first by the foreigners. People who are outside of Israel have something to offer—and even offer more than they know in terms of understanding the identity of this child: one interpretation of the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh is that they were intended to highlight Jesus’ identity as King—from the gold; as divinity—from the frankincense; and as mortal from the myrrh, which was used to anoint the dead. Mary and Joseph may not entirely grasp who their child is; but these Magi tell the reader what we need to know.

As an aside, the kerfuffle this week about how the numbers of Americans who believe in evolution have actually declined is perhaps a modern example of the need for this Epiphany story. The Magi of the gospel were the scientists of their era—they looked to the stars to understand the past, present, and future—we obviously have a different understanding of astronomy and astrology today, but the idea that we learn about ourselves and the nature of the universe by looking at the natural world still stands. And through their wisdom, they had knowledge that was important for the people of God, even though they were not themselves part of that nation. The Gospel is open to—and even requires—the wise input of the outsider, of the non-believer, for the true identity of Christ to be revealed. And in turn, that exchange of the wealth of knowledge and revelation has the capacity to change the outsider—because by the time they leave, the Magi are believers. They have worshiped. They have responded to divine intervention in dreams. When Christians are loathe to accept knowledge from outside our own people, whether from science or from other faith traditions, or even different kinds of Christians, we can miss an essential part of the Gospel—as well as an opportunity for evangelism. There are obviously many scientists who are people of faith—some of them here in our own congregation; but I wonder if much of the hostility of some scientists towards religion would be tempered if they perceived that people of faith not only honored their wisdom, but found it valuable and enlightening for our faith.

And that outward orientation is what the Epiphany brings on all levels. Even the orientation of wealth has changed. Instead of the nations having wealth that God wants to bring into Israel, now Israel is in possession of the greatest item of wealth and is called upon to share it and send it out into the nations. Paul writes to the Ephesians today, “Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” As Christians, it is our mission to share the riches of Christ with everyone—even those who we perceive as being outside the boundaries of God’s grace.

So what does this mean for us today? We talk a lot about needing to bring people in to the church—and that’s true. Please—be evangelists, be inviters… but at one level, is that just another way of waiting for the camels to show up? Or are we called not to ask people to come to us, but for us to go to them? The invitation isn’t “Please come to church to make our church better and richer,” the invitation is “I have good news for you that I would like to share so that you can become better and richer.” We’re not inviters and evangelists for the sake of the church; we’re inviters and evangelists for the sake of the world.

Yesterday afternoon Nathan took the city’s gifted and talented test. I am not above bribery, so of the last three delicious gold-foil-wrapped Italian chocolates that were left from my parents’ visit here, I gave him one before to get him out of the house to get him to the test, and brought the other two (along with some goldfish and a juice box), saying he could have them afterwards. They do the test in groups of kids, and he had made a new friend; Max followed him out and announced to his mother that he wanted to keep playing with Nathan. Nathan came to me and got his chocolate, and then started eating goldfish crackers, and offered them to Max. How sweet, he’s sharing, the other mother and I remarked. Then he reached into my purse, took out the last chocolate, and without a word, gave it to Max. There was a part of me that wanted to scream, “that’s the last one, and you gave it away!!!!” I was hoping that I could sneak it myself it he forgot about it… But of course he was right. If someone gives you something precious, you share it, especially if you’ve already been fed.

It’s time to get on our camels and share the riches of Christ. Give them away freely. Because we won’t run out of them. We will come back here and find the food we need to sustain us for our journey and we’ll go out again. I know that sharing the gospel and sharing the riches of Christ is something that makes us feel self-conscious as Episcopalians—talking about our faith is one of those things we could maybe learn from other Christian traditions outside of our own. But at least you won’t have to do it from the back of a camel. You have been given priceless riches—now share them. Not for our sake, but for the sake of that world.

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