One of the joys for me in recent years has been telling Bible stories to children and families at our church’s Messy Church. Maybe it was because I never felt I was entirely comfortable in the rarified world of theological education, and Messy Church was an opportunity to let my hair down and be a fool for Jesus. (OK, the bit about letting my hair down is a metaphor.)
One Thursday evening, I forget what the story was to be—and it hardly matters—but I began by asking, “How many stories are there in the Bible?” After a moment’s thought, the answers began: Ten! A hundred! A thousand! Twenty-seven! The adults sat in amused silence. They were experienced enough to know a trick question when they heard it. Then I sprang the trap: “The answer . . . is one! There is only one story in the Bible.”
Then of course I had to explain. The big story of scripture is the drama of a world gone wrong, and of a loving Creator who works to put things back together—and recruits human beings as “co-workers” along the way. And the hundreds of little stories we are familiar with (and tell at Messy Church) are the subplots to that biggest of stories, as the characters contribute their lines to the unfolding plot, for good and (all too often) for evil.
Is this story a comedy or a tragedy? Lots of tragedy certainly—and the tragedies continue to this day. But in classical terms, a tragedy consists of the central character’s rise to success, fame, and (possibly) fortune, and their eventual fall and destruction. Think Macbeth. Comedy, on the other hand, is a story of one thing after another going wrong—but then everything working out right in the end. Think Midsummer Night’s Dream. An upward parabola and a downward parabola, if you like. Or, as my 11-year old daughter explained it (well, her mother is an English professor, so what do you expect?) many years ago, “Like a smiley face and a frowny face.” Exactly. So, which is the story of the Bible? Clearly a smiley face, since it is a story with a happy ending to outshine every other conceivable happy ending. The Divine Comedy indeed.
This is why one can even say that the main theme of the Bible is the Gospel—the Good News. Yes, I know, it was Jesus who made that term central to his message. But in a sense, he is simply summing up the story of the Bible so far, and sowing the seeds for the rest of it to be written. And in his teaching, his life, his death, his resurrection, that work of God to put things right in a broken world finds unique focus. Truly Good News.
So, what has this to do with Epiphany and the visit of the magi? Well, one early stage in God’s Gospel work in the world was the call of Abraham. In Genesis 12. God calls Abraham and promises to make of him a great nation. But why? The reason God gives is crucial: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Somehow, this new nation is to be the source of blessing to a hurting world. New Testament scholar Tom Wright quotes a Jewish commentary on Genesis which, tongue in cheek, has God saying: “I will make Adam first, and if he goes astray, I will send Abraham to sort it all out!”
Some of the prophets also foresee the international reach of the Good News: Isaiah, Micah and Zechariah all foretell that “Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD … that he may teach us his ways, and that we may walk in his paths.’” In other words, all nations will recognise the goodness of the Creator’s ways for the world, and come to share in the shalom.
Isaiah adds some interesting details: “Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn . . . They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.” Anything familiar there?
One more piece before we actually get to Epiphany. The final vision in the book of Revelation includes this in its description of the new Jerusalem: “The kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. . . . People will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations.” Once again, there is a picture of the Creator’s renewing love drawing all “the nations”—and contributing to the beauty of the new creation everything from their cultures which (knowingly or unknowingly) has contributed to that work of renewal and to the flourishing of all creation.
And so to Epiphany. “There came wise men from the east.” Indeed there did. Hardly surprising, is it? They are the first-fruits of that multi-cultural, healing revolution announced and embodied in Jesus Christ. They are a foretaste of God’s ultimate happy ending.