(A Sermon for Epiphany)
Matthew 2:1-12 (NLT)
Well, the Christmas season is officially over. Today, all the decorations at our church will be taken down and packed away for another year, and no doubt, you have done the same at home. We already are thinking about Valentine’s Day, and Easter, and summer vacations. We are ready to put Christmas behind us and move on.
But then we come to worship this morning and hear the story of the Wise Men and their journey to find the baby Jesus, and we wonder what on earth the preacher was thinking in choosing such a Christmassy theme.
But the truth is that, in the lectionary of recommended scriptures for each Sunday of the church year, this story of the coming of the Wise Men is not a “Christmas” text at all. It is a story to be read on Epiphany, which always falls on January 6th, a season of the church year that lasts until the first Sunday of Lent, when we begin the journey toward the cross and the empty tomb.
Epiphany is not a very prominent season in the church year – in fact; at Mims UMC, we usually barely mention it. But since today is the actual day of Epiphany, I decided that this year, it would be good for us to mark Epiphany in our congregation.
Epiphany is overlooked in many churches, primarily because it is not very clearly understood. According the lectionary of recommended scripture readings, during this season of Epiphany, we are to recall what seems to be a hodgepodge of stories from Jesus’ life: the coming of the Wise Men, the baptism of Jesus, Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, and the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, to name just a few. What on earth do these diverse passages have in common that they should be thrown together during this season?
Well, the clue is found in the meaning of the word “epiphany.” What does “epiphany” mean? In general usage, the word has come to mean “revelation,” as when the light bulb over someone’s head pops on, and they have an “ah-ha!” moment. And that certainly is related to the meaning of the season of Epiphany. The word itself is best translated “manifestation.” In each of the stories of this season, we have “ah-ha!” moments as we get a glimpse of just who this Jesus really is. Whether it is the insight of the Wise Men in seeking the Christ Child, the declaration by the voice of God at Jesus’ baptism that “This is my beloved Son,” the first time Jesus performs a public miracle, or the disciples witnessing the mountaintop meeting between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah – each story reveals the true identity of Jesus. The season of Epiphany falls just after Christmas because the Wise Men are the first to follow the star that identified Jesus as the Christ.
There used to be a TV show I liked to watch. It was called “Star Search,” sort of the precursor of shows like “American Idol” that we seem to find on every channel today. Perhaps you remember it. The “stars” they were searching for were amateur performers who were looking for their “big break” into the entertainment industry. Our text this morning is about a different kind of “Star Search,” . . . a star search in which every individual is involved. We ALL are searching the heavens for a “star,” one beckoning us to follow wherever it leads.
Unfortunately, there are many different “stars” out there that we might choose to follow, most of which lead only to disappointment and despair. Then there is the “Star of Bethlehem,” the one TRUE star that leads us to hop and joy, because it leads us to Jesus.
What is this story really about? It’s a story about men from a far-away country who, like the shepherds who heard the singing of the angels, were perceptive enough to recognize the revelation of God when it came to them, and who were open to God’s prompting and leading. Also like the shepherds of Bethlehem, the Wise Men were willing to put their faith into action: Once they received the revelation from God that the Christ Child had been born, they set out on a journey to find him. And, just as the shepherds had done, the Wise Men knelt before the Christ Child and worshiped him.
But who WERE these “Wise Men from the east?” All of us have our own mental picture of the “Wise Men.” I suppose, for most of us, that image is one of “The Three Kings.” On our Christmas cards and in our manger scenes, the Wise Men often have crowns on their heads like kings. And, of course, one of our favorite carols that we will be singing this morning is “We Three KINGS of Orient Are.”
I’ll never forget when I was about 10 years old. We were living in Perry, Florida at the time. That Christmas, we put on a musical Christmas pageant in which I had been chosen (against my will, by the way) to be one of the Three Kings. It was the first time I ever sang a solo. Walking down the aisle of the church all alone, singing, “Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain; Gold I bring the crown him again….” I was shaking with stage-fright under my cardboard crown and the oversized bathrobe I wore as a costume. All I can say is that I’m glad those were the days before video recorders!
We all have our own ideas about who the Wise Men were – many of them mistaken ideas. WERE they kings? Probably not.
The word Matthew uses for them is “Magi.” According the Joe Pennel, in his book entitled, The Whisper of Christmas, the magi may have been Zoroastrian priests who probably came from Persia (what we know of as Iran, today).
William Barclay described them as “men who were skilled in philosophy, medicine, and the natural sciences.” Others have described them as fortune-tellers and interpreters of dreams. Like virtually all people in the ancient world, the Magi believed in astrology. They believed that IF the order of the heavens was disrupted by an unusual event such as a comet or the appearance of a new star, this marked a major historical event, such as the birth of a new king.
We cannot know for certain what astronomical phenomenon the Magi witnessed, but SOMETHING unusual must have happened – something THEY interpreted to be a sign from God that a new king had entered the world. They were perceptive enough to notice a new star in the heavens.
But, not only did they SEE the star – they FOLLOWED the star to the Christ Child. And THAT is why they have been called “Wise.” For them, their “star-search” was over.
Once they found their way to the house where the Holy Family was staying, they presented Christ with special gifts – gifts which were powerfully symbolic.
You know, I’m glad that the Wise Men didn’t bring the baby Jesus the kind of gifts most of US would think to give a baby. The story would not have nearly as much significance if the Wise Men had presented Jesus with a rattle, a teething ring, and booties.
The power of the story is caught up in the significance of the gifts the DID bring to Jesus: Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. This morning, I’d like for us to take a few minutes to reflect on the meaning BEHIND the gifts of the Magi. In the, we can understand something of who this Baby Jesus REALLY is – and also something of what the Christian-life should be like.
The Bible itself doesn’t specify how many Wise Men followed the star, but legend tells us that there were three Wise Men – and even gives us their names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazzar – each bearing a different gift for the Christ Child.
Caspar, so the legend says, was the one to present Jesus with GOLD.
The ancient writer, Seneca, said that no one should ever dare to approach a king without a gift of Gold. Gold, the “king of metals,” seems to be a proper gift for one who is to be the “King of Kings.”
And, while Jesus WAS a king, he was NOT a king in the worldly sort of way. His was NOT to be a kingdom ruled by force, but by love. He would NOT be enthroned in some earthly palace, but rather, in the hearts of men and women. Those who wish to become citizens of his kingdom must be willing to surrender to his divine authority, and allow him to rule in their hearts and to be the Lord of their lives.
I think Gold is an important gift, NOT because of its value as a precious metal, but because it reminds us that Jesus Christ is our King – and that WE are his subjects. Therefore, we can never meet Jesus on an equal plain. We must always meet him on terms of complete submission.
The great British Admiral, Horatio Nelson, always treated his prisoners of war with the greatest respect and courtesy. After one of his naval victories, the admiral of enemy ships that the British had defeated was brought aboard Nelson’s flagship and into his quarters. Having heard about Nelson’s reputation for courtesy, and thinking that he would take advantage of it, he approached Nelson with his hand out-stretched as if to shake hands with an equal. Nelson’s hand remained by his side. “Your sword first,” Nelson said, “and then your hand.”
Before we can know Christ as our personal Savior, we must FIRST submit to him as our Lord and Master. We must lay our defenses down at his feet in surrender. That is the meaning of Caspar’s offering of Gold – a symbol of tribute laid before the throne of a King.
If the gift of gold was a gift fit for a king, the second gift Jesus received was a gift fit for a priest.
Tradition tells us that Melchior presented the Christ Child with FRANKINCENSE. Frankincense was a type of incense used by the priests in the Temple at Jerusalem to offer sacrifices to God.
We in the Protestant Church have a difficult time understanding the significance of incense. The aroma of incense is symbolic of the offering of our prayers to God as they ascend to heaven. In Psalm 141:2 we read, “My prayers rise like incense, my hands like the evening sacrifice.” The ones who offer these prayers and who burn the incense have always been the priests, both in Jesus’ day, as well as in the liturgical churches of our day.
The function of a “priest” is to open the way to God for humankind. In fact, the Latin word fro priest is “pontifex,” which literally means “bridge-builder.” The gift of frankincense, therefore, is to signify that Jesus is to be our “Great High Priest,” who bridges the gap between God and humanity. The Book of Hebrews in the New Testament reflects this role of Jesus, when the author writes, “But when Christ came as a high priest . . . he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:11-12)
This is what the incarnation of God in Christ is all about. This is the TRUE meaning of Christmas – that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” building a bridge allowing us to have fellowship with God.
There is a little story called The Parable of the Birdsthat goes something like this:
Once upon a time, there was flock of birds that forgot to fly south for the winter. Now, it was late in December and it was getting awfully cold. God loved those little birds and didn’t want them to freeze, so he sent his only Son to become a bird, and show them the way to a warm barn where they would be saved from the cold.
Most of the birds were leery of this cocky new bird who said he knew the way to safety. The leaders of the flock felt threatened by this bird – so they killed him. But some of the flock believed this new bird and were saved from the cold by flying to the warm barn, just as the new bird had directed them. Sadly, most of the flock refused to believe this bird, and because they were so stubborn, they froze to death.
God sent Jesus to be our High Priest, to build us a bridge to heaven, and to show us the way in from the cold. This is the meaning of Melchior’s gift of incense to the Christ Child – that this baby is the “missing link” between God and the world. Not only is he our King, but also, our Great High Priest.
The third gift the Wise Men brought is perhaps the most difficult to understand. Belchazzar, so the legend goes, brought as his gift, MYRRH.
The reason why this seems such as strange gift is that myrrh was used in the ancient world for preparing dead bodies for burial. There is nothing in the Christmas stories more poignant than Belchazzar’s gift of myrrh. Clearly, if foreshadows the passion and death of the One he had traveled so far to worship.
Holman Hunt painted a famous picture of Jesus. It shows Jesus at the door of the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth. Jesus, still a young man, has come to the door to stretch his limbs that had grown cramped as he labored over the carpenter’s work bench. He stands there in the doorway with arms outstretched. Behind him, the setting sun throws his shadow on the wall, and it is in the form of a cross. In the picture we see the figure of his mother, Mary, as she notices the shadow, and sense her fear as she foresees the coming tragedy of Good Friday.
Jesus did NOT come to live a life of comfort and ease, but to enter into the suffering of men and women. Many people want an “easy” religion. They want the manger without the cross, the glory without the suffering, the joy without the pain, the prize without ever running the race.
There is a wonderful little poem that I came across, that goes like this:
If there is no cross, there is no Christmas.
If we cannot go, even now, unto Golgotha, there is no Christmas – in us.
Myrrh, although a strange gift for a child, was none the less appropriate – for it reminds us that, not ONLY did Jesus come into the world to be our King and to be our High Priest, but he also came as One willing to be our Savior.
So, on this Epiphany Sunday, OUR “star search” comes to an end. Let us not forget the lessons of the gifts that the Wise Men brought: Let us present unto Christ our GOLD, enthroning Him as King and Lord of our lives. And let us offer him FRANKINCENSE, inviting him to be our High Priest, thanking him for building for us a bridge to God. But let us also present him with MYRRH, remembering his willingness to suffer with us and die our death, so that we might live forever with him.
But most of all, let us present him with the gift of our lives, for when all is said and done, that is the only gift Jesus really wants.
Let us pray:
We thank you, O God, for the wisdom of the magi, who experienced an epiphany when they observed that new star in the heavens. They followed the prompting of your Holy Spirit until they found the Christ Child, and knew without a shadow of a doubt that in fact they were actually worshiping you. As we come to holy communion this morning, may we experience that same epiphany of your presence among us as we behold your Son in the bread and cup we share. Amen.