Epiphany 2013: Gifts

Isaiah 60:1-6     Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14     Ephesians 3:1-12     Matthew 2:1-12

This is a congregation participation sermon … I cannot tell the story by myself.  Ready?  Okay —

We have many questions about “the wise men,” even though we think that we know a lot about them.  We know about them, right?  Where did they come from?  “The East.”  Where is “East” to us?  (Albany, MA, lots of places)  Think about what is or was east of Jerusalem:

(from Kate Huey, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/january-2-2011-i-second-sunday-after-christmas.html#Additional%20reflection%20on%20Matthew%202:1-12) : the same direction from which most of Israel’s conquerors approached, including Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. … Richard Swanson says: “East of Judea is the Tigris and the Euphrates. East of Judea is the Garden of Eden. … East of Judea is Babylon, where Jews lived in Exile after the destruction of the first Temple. East of Judea is the Jewish community who stayed behind when Jews returned to rebuild the Temple and Jerusalem….”  The wise men came from some of the places we fear most in the world, from the areas that are now Iran and Iraq.  We might have had reason to fear these visitors to the baby Jesus.  But instead of conquering and destroying, these visitors do something very unusual.  They bring expensive gifts.  So … the wise men are wealthy.  They bring gold and spices – spices which were very valuable in our first century world.  Frankincense and myrrh were things worth fighting over, worth claiming land over, and the kings brought these extravagant gifts to baby Jesus.

And then what happened?  (They bow to Jesus.)  They knelt down in a stable and paid him homage, worshipped him.  It is highly unusual for someone of such wealth to bow to anyone, let alone to a baby in a feed trough.  This must be a very special baby.

What else do we know about these kings (let’s get it all out).  We know their names, right?  Come on, what are they?  You know – Balthazar, Melchior, Caspar (or Jaspar).  It’s like the three tenors, we can usually think of 2, and then there’s “the other one” (straight out of Seinfeld).  [Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti]  Okay.  While the three tenors ARE real and have names, we do not actually know the names of the three kings.  Their names are not – they are not – in the bible.  The gospel of Matthew tells us that wise men came from the East, and we have added the rest of the story.  And that’s okay!  In a Jewish world, such speculations and additions, story-telling, if you will, are called mid-rash.  Midrash adds to our understanding of what really happened.  It may help us place ourselves in the picture, the story, that we derive from some historical facts.  (Facts:  Jesus was born in Bethlehem, not in a house, wise men of some sort and name and number came to see him.)

The wise men travel to see Jesus, and they are guided by what?  A star.  Think about the star that guides our lives.  Is it the star of Jesus or something else?  We can easily be guided by greed, apathy, insecurity, and fear.  What are the fears we have that keep us from coming to meet Jesus?  (That question is your homework.)

That the kings came from somewhere else tells us something.  The kings come from the source of life (rivers and Eden), from a place of oppression and exile.  The kings are outsiders!  They were most likely gentiles and we are Jewish.  We are of afraid of outsiders … can we bring “them” into our midst?  Look at the gifts that these outsiders brought to Jesus….  They bring to us the light of Jesus Christ.  They introduce us to God-with-us Immanuel.

How did the kings know where to go?  The kings were guided by a star and by God.  The kings were guided by Scripture.

(Kate Huey, with changes in punctuation/ italics mine) “They are also helped by scripture, when they ask for directions from Herod and hear from the religious authorities who know right where to look for the answer. The chief priests and scribes look to Scripture, the Old Testament, and find their answer in the book of Isaiah.  There are many ways that we “find our way” to God, to the little baby born King of Kings: nature does indeed point to the glory of God, the care of God, the presence of God, but we need scripture and personal experience and the community; all help us understand those gifts.”

Scripture, personal experience, community

“Then, like the Magi, we’re drawn to worship the One we seek. Thomas Long says that “the world is full of ‘stars in the East’ – events in nature, personal experience, and history that point toward the mystery of God…”but we need “the defining and clarifying word of scripture” to “recognize these holy moments for what they are…to see God’s face clearly in them.” Without scripture, we would be like the wise men, “aware that something had happened.  We would not, without the revelation of God in scripture, know where or how to worship.” Just being a biblical scholar isn’t enough: the [New Testament] chief priests and the scribes missed the meaning of [the book of] Isaiah.  Herod turns to scripture to use it for his own purposes: “One can, like Herod, be in favor of studying the scripture and still be on the wrong side of God’s will” (Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion).”   Herod reads Scripture and kills baby boys.

The wise men were driven by their sense of an event so important and so powerful, something that drew them far from their home and called forth their generosity and their humble worship.

We are called to do the same thing:  to be drawn from our homes and into generosity and humble worship of our God and our king.  The kings bring gifts.  We do too.  What do we offer our Lord and our king – of ourselves, and of the fruits of our labor?  We give financially, of our time and talents:  some read, some repair things, clean our holy spaces; today we give food so that people who don’t have food can eat ….  We have many gifts and it is together that these gifts become our church.  It is our responsibility to examine ourselves and our lives to make sure that we are giving in a way that is holy, sacrificial, and worthy of honor to our Lord and our God.  We offer … and we worship.

The wise men go home.  The wise men go home and tell the story of Jesus, remember, to all of those outsiders in the land from where they came.  “Matthew wants his audience to hear the Good News of God’s all-encompassing grace, even if they’re offended, even if they’re appalled that such “objectionable” people are included in the story.  Matthew is giving a Gospel sneak preview: the Christ child who attracted these odd Magi to his cradle will later have the same magnetic effect on Samaritan adulterers, immoral prostitutes, greasy tax collectors on the take, despised Roman soldiers, and ostracized lepers” (The Lectionary Commentary)”  Our job is to figure out how to see Christ in each and all of these visitors to our humble and holy places.  When we have met Jesus – and we have – we are called to live in a way that lets the world know that we have seen the light of Christ.  Our job [straight from the BCP] is to seek and to serve Christ in all persons. 

I invite all of us to continue to seek and to serve Christ in all persons this year.  Our diocesan vision is “joy in Christ as a way of life.”  To what will we be prompted when we live into the joy of having seen the light of Christ?  We are called to serve Christ in ourselves, our homes and families, with friends, in our community and into places we cannot yet imagine, this year.  Come and worship, then go and tell the world.  Welcome, light of Christ.  Welcome.  To you we bring our gifts, give honor and glory; then we, too, go home by another way.

 

 

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