When Wendy’s Mom was visiting with us in November we went into Belfast to do a bus tour. It was on the same day that Holland were playing Northern Ireland in the football. All over Belfast there were people dressed in Orange. It was quite an experience seeing Belfast invaded by all these orange uniformed Dutch football supporters. It was a reminder of just how small the world is. For someone from South Africa, Europe often felt so far away. But here, the rest of the countries of Europe are just a short flight away. It is quicker to fly from Belfast to Amsterdam than it is to fly from Jhb to Cape-town.
But seeing all these orange clad football supporters was also a reminder that even in modern Western societies, the concept of belonging to a tribe still exists, but in different forms than it would in other parts of the world, like South Africa, where the concept of tribalism is still very much alive.
In modern Western societies, sports clubs, like football clubs have become sort of substitutes, or modern expressions of that more ancient concept of tribal identity. On the whole, when it comes to sports, such tribal identities of being a Manchester united supporter or a Liverpool supporter are generally kept within the realm of fun and recreation. (I use the word generally, because I have seen that there are some in this congregation who take these affiliations very seriously.)
But in more ancient cultures, as reflected in the Bible, tribal belonging had far more at stake.
Rob Bell writes that in the Biblical Culture of the ancient Near East, your tribe was your family, your bloodline, your home, your identity – your tribe was everything. Everyone belonged to a tribe. Every tribe had it’s own God or gods who they prayed to and who they sought protection from.
The whole of life was regulated by one’s tribal affiliation. You worked for the well-being of your tribe, as did everyone else in the tribe. You accumulated possessions, fought battles, made alliances, all in the name of tribal preservation. And if you did something unacceptable, something shameful, it reflected poorly on your tribe.
The world that the Old Testament introduces us to was a world in which tribal war-fare was a regular occurrence. (There is a reference in the Old Testament that says it was the season for battle. War was a seasonal occurrence. And so, your tribal identity wasn’t just about your bloodline and your gods – it was also about safety. The world was an extremely dangerous place, and without the protection of a tribe, you could easily find yourself enslaved or killed by another tribe.
Tribalism was ultimately about survival. In the Bible, this was life and death. Kill or be killed. And no matter how many battles you’d fought and won, you were always only one battle away from the enemy crushing you and wiping out your entire tribe, or killing some of you and taking the rest to be assimilated into the conquerors tribe.
And so within this context, in the story Genesis chapter 12 with the calling of Abraham we find a fascinating and an interesting thing happening... something quite unheard of begins to happen within this world of ancient tribal identity.
In Genesis 12, into this world of tribal conflict and tribal protectionism, according to the ancient Jewish story , we find God calling a man called Abram (later to be called Abraham) to be the father, or the leader, of a brand new tribe.
And as God call’s Abram, in this ancient story, God tells Abram that “All the people’s of the earth will be blessed through you.”
At that time, tribes existed for their own well-being and preservation. That was the whole way they operated. In a sense it was their reason for being... to protect and preserve themselves against other tribes.
But in Genesis 12, as God calls Abram to be the father or leader of a new tribe, we learn that this tribe, would be different. This tribe would not exist just for itself and its own safety, this tribe exist to bless all the other tribes of the world.
Into this primitive and violent world, we find a leap forward in human consciousness, the concept of a new tribe that wouldn’t only exist for itself, but a tribe that would exist to be a blessing for other tribes.
The rest of the Old Testament is essentially the story of Israel trying to work out the implications of this sense of calling to be a different kind of a tribe. But generally in the Old Testament, Israel doesn’t quite get the hang of this new concept.
I guess, it is possible for all of us to see why this was such a radical new idea and why it would take so long for this idea to catch on. It is still a concept that is hard to sell in this world.
But the story of Jesus is essentially a story of a person whose meaning and purpose in life was to call his Jewish tribe back to their original calling to be a blessing to all other tribes.
It is one of the major questions in Matthew’s Gospel. Has Jesus as the Messiah, the New King David, come only for the benefit of his own tribe to restore the fortunes of the Tribe of Israel. Or has he come to restore Israel’s original calling as the tribe of Abraham to be a blessing to all other tribes and to the whole world.
Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, there are clues along the way, that Jesus has come to call the people of Israel back to their original calling to be a blessing to all other tribes and all other nations.
And that brings us to our passage today. In the story of the Magi from the East, we see the first major clue that the coming of Jesus is meant to help Israel to fulfill it’s destiny of becoming a new kind of tribe. A tribe that no longer lives for it’s own self-preservation and protection, but for the benefit of all people.
Right near the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, we see that Jesus has come for the benefit not only of his own people, but for the benefit of foreigners as well. People of a different skin colour and a different language and a different culture. Jesus has come to break down our old tribal identities and to make us into a new people a new tribe that will embrace and include everyone.
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the message is clear... go out into all the world and make disciples from every tribe or nation.
And in the book of Revelation chapter 7 we see a vision of this calling coming to fruition:
“9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages...”
The challenge of the Story of the Magi remains for us today... the calling to see beyond the boundaries of our own tribes.
The calling to become part of Christ’s new tribe that will include people from every nation, tribe, and tongue.
And the calling to move beyond just our own self-preservation to become a people who live to be a blessing to others... even those who are different from us. To become part of a tribe whose purpose is to bless all other tribes.
Let us pray...