Tag Archives: Epiphany Sunday sermon

The Gifts of Epiphany

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, 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.  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.)

Keep Christmas Alive

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.)