A Sermon for 6 January 2019 – Epiphany
A reading from the gospel of Matthew 2:1-12. This is the gospel text assigned for today that tells of the gifts of Epiphany. Listen to 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, 2 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.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 ‘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.’” 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 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.” 9 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. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 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. 12 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!
Are you familiar with something called the Magi Complex? I learned of it from a friend who has been thriving for 6 years after breast cancer. Part of the protocol used after her surgery, she found that the Magi Complex is one of nature’s most powerful healers. Supposedly it’s a revolutionary supplement good not just for reversing inflammation to reduce pain in the body, but also for keeping cancer cells from growing within. I admit I haven’t tried it myself – and anyone certainly should ask their medical professional before doing so, though my friend is living proof. Along with other natural healing interventions, the Magi Complex kept her from any radiation or chemo after a double mastectomy. In case you’re wondering just what’s in this miraculous Magi Complex, you guessed it. As every wise healer knows: gold (known in the essential-oil world as turmeric). Frankincense. And myrrh: gifts from the earth fit for a king!
It makes good sense, actually. Thanks to biblical details and historical legend, we know a little bit about the Eastern travelers called the magi or the three wise men. They come seeking. 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” (Mt. 2:2). They are foreigners from another land. Most probably professional star-gazers. Likely ones familiar with the healing arts of the earth. In the light of the rising star, they are aware that something bigger than themselves calls them – like a tug they had waited for all their lives. Some legends trace them back to Persia – others Babylon. There, Jewish exiles once kept hope with stories of a Messiah who someday would come to set the world aright. Had the promise reached their ears so that these wise men already knew of the one who someday would be born? Think of the words of the prophets: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid. . . . Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low” (Is. 40:1-2a, 3b-4a). And “he shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” (Is. 40:11). “Here is your God,” the prophet also proclaimed, who “will come and save you” (from Is. 35:4). Then, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (Is. 35:5-6a). According to the prophets; the anointed of God, the Messiah, Israel’s long-awaited king would be the Great Healer. Had these wise ones known all along the gifts fit to bring?
We hear the story and tend to envision the other kind of gold: the precious metal of the earth’s crust that across cultures has connoted great wealth. Frankincense, which biblical scholars tell us symbolized “an oblation worthy of divinity” – as the aromatic incense often burned in temples (Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1, William J. Danaher, Jr., p. 212). And myrrh – known in Jesus’ day as a resin or essential oil used not only for healing, but also for burial. The ancient Egyptians actually using myrrh for embalming their mummies. So that even in the gifts given, we are told to hear clues of who the baby born in Bethlehem is destined to become. . . . The gospel of Matthew is keen to point out the three gifts from the Eastern travelers. A detail so specific that every nativity now contains just three wise men – though the gospel never mentions the number of travelers, just the three gifts. Magi, on bended knee, falling in awe around the precious child.
In her newly released children’s book entitled Home by Another Way: A Christmas Story, Barbara Brown Taylor tells of the gifts received by the travelers from their time with the blessed baby. On a page near the book’s end, the three elderly men stand by their camels ready to depart as a young mother holds a swaddled babe in her arms. The page imaginatively reads: “So the wise men picked up their packs, which were lighter than before. Then they lined up in front of the baby, to thank him for the gifts he had given them. ‘What in the world are you talking about?’ the baby’s mother said, laughing. ‘For the scent and weight and skin of a baby,’ said the first wise man, who had no interest in living on herbs anymore” (as he’d been found doing at the opening of the story when Taylor imagined each of the three men seeking something more in a life of ascetism, a life of study, and a life of rigid spiritual discipline). Of the second gift given by the baby, Taylor writes: “’For this home and the love here,’ said the second wise man, who could not remember how to say it in the ancient language. ‘For a really great story,’ said the third wise man, who thought that telling it might do a lot more for him than continuing to walk on hot coals” (as he had been doing at the opening of the story, according to Taylor, in his search for something more) (Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way: A Christmas Story, illustrated by Melaine Cataldo; Flyaway Books, 2018).
Gifts, given and received, are a huge part of this day. The final celebration of the Christmas cycle known as Epiphany. The day assigned to the wise men. The liturgical feast marked as the manifestation of God’s amazing gift: the healing of the nations! The East and the West – represented in the story by the Eastern travelers and the Western puppet-ruler Herod; who, according to one commentator, clashed “over the birth of a little Jewish boy” (Connections, Yr. C, Vol. 1, Emerson B. Powery, WJKP, 2018; p. 155). If the magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh truly were gifts to be used by the one foretold by prophets, then the wise ones knew what Herod and Jerusalem could not see. Among them was rising one who would shepherd the people – all the people. Standing and feeding the flock that had been battered and bruised by their own. Binding up the wounds of those longing for a little good news. Proclaiming release to captives. Recovering the sight of the blind. Letting those oppressed go free. The Great Healer of all nations shining as the Light of the world from the humble spot in Bethlehem. Gifts given. Others received as the magi gave witness to The Morning Star that had dawned. The great Light to light the earth as guide through the night.
When I think about the gifts of Epiphany, first given: gold, frankincense, myrrh. And first received: the divine in our flesh. Love radiating from a little place in Bethlehem. A story about one born to change the trajectory of the world. I think too of the gifts given us. From the magi we learn to seek. Like them, we heed the words that would come from the baby’s lips when from a Mount he first taught: “Ask, and it will be given you; search and you will find” (Matthew 7:7). From the magi we learn to believe. To trust the signs given us. The promises of hope to heal us all. From the magi we learn to stay open. Waiting when we must. Falling on our knees in wonder – even if what we’ve found doesn’t quite match any expectations we might have had. From the magi we receive the greatest gift of all. The reminder that we cannot go home from Christmas the same. God’s gift is meant to change us. Transform us from the inside out.
In Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons, Jan Richardson beautifully summarizes Epiphany’s gifts. She reminds: “There is no reversing this road. The path that bore you here goes in one direction only, every step drawing you down a way by which you will not return. You thought arrival was everything, that your entire journey ended with kneeling in the place you had spent all to find. When you laid down your gift, release came with such ease, your treasure tumbling from your hands in awe and benediction. Now the knowledge of your leaving comes like a stone laid over your heart, the familiar path closed and not even the solace of a star to guide your way. You will set out in fear. You will set out in dream. But you will set out by that other road that lies in shadow and in dark. We cannot show you what route will take you home; that way is yours and will be found in the walking. But we tell you, you will wonder at how the light you thought you had left behind goes with you, spilling from your empty hands, shimmering beneath your homeward feet, illuminating the road with every step you take” (“Blessing of the Magi,” p. 70-72).
These are the gifts of Epiphany. Given and received so that the Light now shines in us – through us – to illumine the Way home. For us. For all. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)