A Sermon for 3 January 2016 – Epiphany Sunday
A reading from the gospel of Matthew 2:1-12. Listen for God’s word to us.
“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
Just before the holidays in 2007, something extraordinary took place. We could call it a Christmas miracle! . . . The setting for this miraculous event wasn’t a stable in Bethlehem in the dead of winter. Rather a Starbucks drive-thru on an overcast day in South Florida. (www.huffingtonpost.com/arthur-rosenfeld/pay-it-backwards-an-act-o_b_151793.html) . . . On his way to teach a morning tai chi class, a gentleman decided to warm himself up with his favorite cup of Starbucks tea. It started like any other Starbucks drive-thru. “Welcome to Starbucks. Would you like a tall, venti, or grande?” The gentleman placed his order at the menu board then pulled up as far as he could to wait his turn to pay. No sooner did the gentleman place his order and pull up in the line as far as he could, than the guy in the SUV behind him started laying on the horn. He obviously had left home before having his first cup. Shouting all sorts of expletives, and throwing in a hand gesture or two for certain effect, the guy in the SUV apparently was ticked that he STILL wasn’t close enough to the menu board to place his order. . . . It was just a few days before Christmas – nerves sometime can be quite frayed. The tai chi centered gentleman in the car in front was about to get out to let SUV man have it. Teach him a lesson or two about messing with a martial arts master. In his own words he reports that “my heart beat was up, my hands were clamming, my muscles were tense, and the whole world had constricted down to the tiny business of completing my hostile mission.” One last time he glanced in his rearview mirror, when suddenly he noticed that the twisted, hate-filled angry face of the man in the SUV behind him had become the same one staring back at him in the features of his own face. In that moment, he didn’t like what he saw – hostile ill-will quickly rising in that Starbucks line. . . . As he pulled forward to pay for his own tea, he took out an extra $10 and told the barista to throw in the cost of the order for the guy behind him. Shocked, the barista reminded him of what a jerk SUV man was being. Was he sure? Especially because SUV man just had ordered breakfast and coffee for five – totaling a small fortune at Starbucks. The extra $10 wasn’t nearly enough to cover the cost of the order. . . . He didn’t have to do it. He could’ve just taken back his money and pulled away. No one would have been the wiser. Instead, in an act far exceeding the norm, he pulled out his credit card and told the barista to run it. After all, it was just a few days before Christmas. “Peace on earth, goodwill to all, and all that jazz.” It would be his unexpected gift of goodwill to all – not only to transform his own spirit, but maybe to do a little for the undeserving jerk in the SUV behind him. . . . The miracle was that when SUV man pulled forward, his face still seething in impatient anger, the barista explained to him to keep his own credit card because his order had been paid for by the gentleman in the car in front of him. Instantly the generous act melted SUV man’s heart. He insisted to pay for the order of the car behind him. It was the least he could do. And for the next several hours, in that little Starbucks drive-thru in South Florida, humankind was on fine display . . . as one driver after the other graciously accepted the unexpected gift, then in turn enacted the same generosity to the person in line behind them. . . . No angels showed up to herald the good news. But on that day, those who had driven through that Starbucks not only experienced, but they also, in turn, embodied the true spirit of giving. Christmas in a nutshell.
So many of us love Christmas because it is a time for seeing the generosity in people all around. There’s something about Christmas that makes many of us a little merrier. Even if we never will any other time of the year, at Christmas we more freely express our appreciation for one another. We’re kinder – even to total strangers. The whole world shines a little brighter. . . . Maybe it’s the carols that cheer us. Or the excitement in children that has the capacity to get under the toughest skin. I know a lot of us carry deep pain over loved ones lost that seems even harder to bear during the holidays. . . . And many of us get all stressed out trying to make for that one perfect night. . . . But if we’d stop long enough, we might realize that growing inside us is a desire to give to those around us as freely and as joyfully as was given to the world that first Christmas night. The true generosity of Christmas.
Today we’re nearing Epiphany – on January 6th when the twelve days of Christmas come to a close at least for this year. It’s the Sunday at last for the wise men. The ones for whom we can give great thanks – for that’s what they’re doing: embodying the generous spirit of Christmas! . . . Even if we typically have them right there in the nativity with the shepherds and the angel, the gospel of Matthew alone records the story of the travelers who came from afar under the glow of that star. Whether they arrived the night of the birth or a few years later, as is suggested by King Herod’s hateful edict to slay all the children two years old and younger. Whether there were three or a whole caravan of twelve as some scholars have suggested. We know that the gospel of Matthew places these generous gift-bearers at the start of the story – a significant way to begin the good news of what God is up to in the world and how God hopes for the world to respond. . . . They are foreigners from another land. Most probably professional star-gazers who spent their lives waiting for something. . . . Really it’s quite odd; their story half-plausible. I mean, why would anyone from so far away even care about a new star rising in the sky? And how did they know to link that star to a new king born of a little clan so far-off in Judea? It kinda makes you wonder what they already knew of the Messiah’s prophecy, as it’s entirely possible they were from what once was Babylon where Jewish exiles kept hope alive with stories of a Messiah someday to come set the world aright. Had these wise ones heard and hoped all along? Is that what caused them to risk such a trek and not be deterred until at last they reach the house where the child Jesus is? . . . “Overwhelmed with joy,” the scriptures read. “They saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage” (Mt. 2:10-11). Somehow they know something amazing is in their midst: a gift beyond measure that floods their spirits with the very same generosity. . . . With them they carry chests of treasure. Items they must have considered precious – worthy for a new born king. They offer the child gifts. . . . Even though Mary and Joseph know his impressive future, this display must have seemed as unexpectedly miraculous to them as the revolution of generosity in that Starbucks drive-thru a few years back.
Epiphany is about giving gifts – humankind’s real reason for generosity. For Epiphany is the story of the manifestation of God’s great gift spreading out into the world as the wise ones return from their Bethlehem trek – like a light expanding from its source to inspire us with overwhelming joy that we might live the same generosity as God’s amazing gift. . . . I’m sure many of us have taken down the trimmings of the season. We’ve packed away the Christmas carols and returned the less-than-satisfying gifts. The cheer of the season’s about worn off as it’s time to figure out how to pay off the incoming bills and get back to business as usual – at least for another three hundred-fifty-some days. . . . But here we are with travelers from afar. Ones of exceeding wisdom whose gratitude moves them to act – to give their very best gifts in honor of the One who gave the greatest gift to us all. . . . We’d do well to spend some time with these wise ones. To meditate upon their example – not just for one season, but every day of the year. . . . Because wouldn’t it be awesome if even a few of us kept the generosity of Christmas alive all the days of the year? Wouldn’t it be remarkable if even a handful of us return from this year’s Bethlehem trek like a light from its source radiating something different because of what we’ve made such a fuss to celebrate? Wouldn’t that be the most wonderful miracle from Christmas this year?
One of the songs of the season that I fell in love with the instant I heard it – and most probably have shared with you before – includes these words: “Emmanuel. Prince of Peace. Love come down for you and me. Heaven’s gift: the holy Spark to light the way inside our hearts. Bethlehem, through your small door, came the hope we’ve waited for. The world was changed forevermore when love was born. I close my eyes and see the night when love was born” (When Love Was Born, Mark Schultz, WOW Christmas 2011). . . . Love come for you and me. Heaven’s gift: the holy Spark to light the way inside our hearts. . . . I wonder if God’s amazing gift just might be enough to overwhelm us with gratitude until our lives are changed each day and forevermore.
Happy Epiphany, brothers and sisters in Christ! . . . Every day let us live the Light of the Lord our God!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2016 (All rights reserved.)