The Great Migration

cloudsThe 2002 animated comedy Ice Age tells the story of a great migration. Thousands of animals migrate south to avoid a coming ice age. While all the other animals head south, three improbably paired prehistoric animals join forces and head the opposite direction to return a human baby to its family. As they travel together, they find ways to annoy, disgust, insult, and even threaten each other. But eventually, in the process of learning to work as a team, they become friends.

Today, there are many migrations of people around the world. By some estimates more than 230 million people worldwide — 1 out of every 30 human beings — are international migrants. Among others, Palestinian, Iraqi, Syrian, Somali, and Sudanese populations are uprooted from their homelands. These great people migrations are not because of a coming ice age but due to wars, famine, economic and natural disasters, and in some cases religious persecution.

The Bible includes a significant number of migration stories: Abraham and Sarah’s journey from Ur to Canaan by way of Haran; the exodus from Egypt; and the exile of God’s people to Babylon. The Lectionary readings for this Epiphany week—Isaiah 60:1–6; Matthew 2:1–12; Ephesians 3:1–12—highlight two great biblical migrations of a different character.

The first is a divine migration: God’s movement in history from mystery to revelation. The divine migration is the story of an invisible and mysterious God who, over time, reveals his character and purposes to humankind. God’s movement from mystery to revelation climaxes in the coming of Christ. In the Christmas story, the once invisible God becomes visible in the person of Jesus Christ, who is God’s fullest self-disclosure. By looking at Jesus, we get our clearest picture of what our invisible God is like. The text from Ephesians highlights another chapter in the story of God’s migration from mystery to revelation. With the formation of the church, God unveils another mystery: God’s plan for reconciling all things.

The second great migration is the human migration from darkness to light. This migration happens not as a result of human cunning and skill, but as a result of God’s invitation and grace. The texts in Isaiah and Matthew paint powerful pictures of this human migration. Isaiah portrays people from all nations streaming to God’s light, bringing with them their gifts and worship. The Gospel reading tells of Magi who are drawn to the light of Jesus’ birth and come to worship and to bring gifts to Jesus.

Isaiah 60 describes light breaking in upon a people, and an earth, shrouded in darkness, especially darkness caused by injustice and oppression that the prophet describes in chapter 58. People are exploiting workers (Isa. 58:3); quarreling (v. 4), failing to share food with the hungry (v.7a); failing to provide shelter to the wanderer (v.7b); and failing to clothe the naked (v.7c). In short, the darkness is a failure to care for one another.

But in the midst of utter darkness and hopelessness, in exile and under judgment, Isaiah promises hope. “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you” (Isa. 60:1). Although the darkness is thick, God’s people repent and learn to walk in God’s ways. God’s light and glory scatter the darkness and shine brightly on God’s people. Like ants to sugar, the surrounding nations migrate to God’s light — a light which is reflected by God’s people. “Nations will come to your light,” Isaiah promises, “and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (60:3).

As the nations stream to the light reflected by God’s people, they bring along their gifts. Just as the Queen of Sheba brought expensive gifts to King Solomon, the nations now bring along their riches — “the wealth on the seas” (v.5); “herds of camels,” flocks and rams (vv.6a,7a); “gold and incense and silver”(v.6b). These gifts are used to offer worship and praise to God and to enrich God’s people. Finally, when the nations come to God’s light, Isaiah says they will learn God’s ways (Is. 2:2-4).

The magi of Matthew’s gospel are a partial fulfillment of Isaiah’s hope-filled prophesy. Magi from Persia or some other eastern country follow a star, looking for the one who has been born king of the Jews. It was typical in those days to believe that a bright star represented the angel – or heavenly counterpart – of a great person. For example, in both Jewish and secular histories, stars announced the births of Moses and Isaiah.

The Magi come first to Jerusalem. This seems like a logical place to find the king of the Jews. But in Jerusalem the Magi encounter Herod – known as Herod the Great.

Herod is a complex character. On one hand, he seems to be a renaissance kind of guy. He is committed to the arts and culture, constructing many theaters, amphitheaters and monuments. He begins a massive reconstruction of the Jewish temple, a project that takes more than 80 years to complete. On the other hand, Herod is a brutal leader. He kills his wife, his three sons, his in-laws and, finally, all the baby boys in Bethlehem. Herod oppresses and rules with an iron fist.

So when the Magi come to Herod looking for the one who has been born king of the Jews, Herod is more than a little bit interested. A new king could be a threat to his power and influence. So he calls his advisers who tell him that Christ will be born in Bethlehem. It is perhaps God’s providence — or maybe Herod’s stupidity — that Herod did not simply tell his soldiers to shadow the Magi and to kill this new king right on the spot. After all, Bethlehem is only about 6 miles from Jerusalem. But instead, Herod enlists the Magi to scout the situation, and we know they decided not to report back and returned home another way.

Because Matthew writes primarily for a Jewish audience, he is bold to portray the Gentile Magi as among the first to recognize Jesus as the king of the Jews. This story of the Magi, told each year on Epiphany Sunday, foreshadows the fact that the Gentiles will have an equal place in God’s kingdom. Indeed it is often “outsiders” who see the light of Christ most quickly and most clearly.

Much more could be said here about the Ephesians passage for this week, but what stands out is what Paul calls “the great mystery.” This mystery is that through the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Gentiles, once enemies of God’s people, are now heirs together with Israel. Jews and Gentiles in Christ are members of his one body, sharing together in the promises of Jesus. God’s blessing, favor, and promises will be shared more broadly than ever imagined. Indeed:

  • God’s plan is always grander than we imagine.
  • God’s grace is always greater than we can grasp.
  • God’s mercy always reaches farther than we would allow.

God’s purpose is that this body, the church, will demonstrate “the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (v.10). We might think of these principalities and powers as giant networks or concentrations of power that shape or control our lives, like economic or political systems or ideologies. It is to these very systems that so often resist God’s reign that God has chosen the church to reveal his mystery. Principalities and powers usually seek to order life by means of domination and control.

God’s mystery – revealed in Christ and through the church – is that in God’s reign:

  • Life finds its order through serving others, not by controlling them.
  • Life is ordered by transforming enemies, not by destroying them.
  • Life is ordered by creating mutual relationships, not by dominating others.

Two great migrations: The divine migration from mystery to revelation and the human migration from darkness to light. What does all this mean for us at the beginning of 2015?

With God’s revelation comes human responsibility. Because Jesus has come to earth, we have clear and convincing evidence of what God is like and what God wants from us. As we look at the life of Jesus, we know a great deal about God’s concern for compassion, for justice, for serving one another, and for trusting God. And because, through Christ, God has in the church reconciled bitter enemies to himself and to one another, we know that the ministry of reconciliation is to be central to our work and witness in the world.

How often have you said, “I just wish God would tell me what to do?” But you know what? Usually we know as much as we need to know in order to make good decisions. We have the example of Jesus. We know that God has given the church the ministry of reconciliation. Within these parameters, God usually gives us broad liberty to make choices. God seeks neither to insult our intelligence nor to constrain our freedom to choose. What gifts has God given us? About what has God made us passionate? These are usually clues about the specific kinds of ministry we should be doing. How well are our lives and work lining up with what we know to be true of God’s purposes? We are called to:

  • Scatter God’s grace.
  • Practice God’s justice.
  • Model God’s peace.
  • Reflect God’s light.

God does not ask us to create light; God simply asks us to reflect God’s light and glory. That means that we dare not hide it under a bushel basket. We dare not keep it to ourselves. The world is filled with hurting and broken people who long for healing and grace. Isaiah reminds us that, when we reflect God’s light, the nations will stream to it.

It requires eyes of faith to see these great migrations. Perhaps some of you are thinking — well, if these are such great migrations — why don’t we see greater evidence of them? If God has migrated from mystery to revelation then:

  • Why is God’s will for my life so hard to figure out?
  • Why do God’s purposes sometimes seem so complicated?
  • Why is there still so much division within the church — the body that Christ has reconciled by his own blood?

And if the nations are really migrating from darkness to light then:

  • Why is there still so much violence in the world? Why is the threat of another war always so real?
  • Why is there still so much evil and hatred and pain in the world?
  • Why does so much darkness remain?
  • Why are there so many situations that seem hopeless?

Yes, it requires eyes of faith to see these great biblical migrations. But God’s word declares these migrations to be true. The writer of Hebrews says: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Heb. 11:1). Our faith is not rooted in some fuzzy or wild-eyed possibility, but in a God who is faithful and true. Our faith is rooted in what God has already done. Because of Who God is and what God has already done, we trust in what God has promised yet to do. This is our faith.

Great migrations are underfoot; they have already begun in Christ. We can choose for a time to resist the fact that God is drawing the nations from darkness to light. But it doesn’t change the fact that this is what God is doing in history. Like the Magi, the wise ones will see and come to God’s light. The wise ones will seek to reflect God’s light. The wise ones will join the great migration, sooner rather than later. May this be true for each one of us in 2015.

J. Daryl Byler is the Executive Director of Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. Previously he served with his spouse Cindy Lehman Byler as Mennonite Central Committee representatives for several countries in the Middle East.


Photo: Michael Faes

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