Tag Archives: Light for the world

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.)

“Being Light”

A Sermon for 5 February 2017

A reading from the gospel of Matthew 5:13-20. Listen for God’s word to us in this continuation of Jesus’ infamous Sermon on the Mount. Listen.

“’You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. 17Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!


Three years ago on my first Sunday as your interim pastor, the lectionary brought us together around this text; the very same part of Matthew’s telling of the Sermon on the Mount. . . . You may not remember it. But on that Sunday, I pulled out this prop (a container of salt) – I even told you I’d give you some at the sanctuary exit to keep in your pocket as a little reminder. . . . In a riveting sermon entitled “Salty Light,” I told you how difficult the winter of 2014 was around this country. Several states got hit hard with mounds of snow until many of those very same states – New York, Illinois, and other Northeastern and Midwestern spots – were in the middle of a salt crisis. They had put down so much salt to keep their roads safe and the snow melting for life to go on as usual, that salt supplies were dwindling away. If you’ve never lived in a state where snow covers the land from November til sometime around May, then it may be a bit difficult to understand the crisis of trying to live in winter without any salt! . . . Jesus knew the importance of salt – how treacherous life would be without it! One translation of Matthew 5:13 puts Jesus’ words this way: “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be the salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage” (Eugene Peterson, The Message). . . . Jesus preached about the importance of salt because he knew it is essential. Not just for keeping life moving along smoothly in the dead of winter, but even more so for bringing out the flavors of this world – things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Salt long has been a part of our faith ancestor’s life together. The traditional Jewish Seder includes a bowl of salt water on the table. Salt was to be a part of the sacrifices commanded by God. Leviticus tells of salt to be added with grain offerings (Lev. 2:13). And flesh offerings spoken of in Numbers remind of the covenant of salt – the sign of a perpetual covenant – the everlasting promise of God (Num. 18:19). Salt symbolizes a bond with the LORD God that stands forever. Salt was mixed with the people’s offerings as a pleasing reminder to them all. Not to mention that before refrigeration, salt was key for life – bringing the blood out of meat to ensure it was preserved; so, in turn, the people would be able to survive. O yes: Jesus knew, salt is essential to physical life even as it was a sign to God’s people of their everlasting spiritual life with their Maker.

Perhaps to a crowd that was tired of dreary winter days that can drag on and on to weary your soul as your body yearns for just a little bit of sunshine, Jesus puts the words of Matthew 5’s next verse this way. According to the same translation quoted earlier, Jesus says: “You’re here to be the light, bringing out the God-colors in the world” (Matthew 5:14, Ibid.). Allowing the best of God’s Spirit that is in each of us to be seen. . . . In this light metaphor, Jesus was referencing the covenant God cut with Abraham. That his descendants, as numerous as the stars of the vast night sky, would be the light to all nations. . . . Israel constantly was reminded of being light. We heard it in Isaiah 58. That beautiful promise that if the people would serve the interests of those in need, instead of just their own self-focused ways; then “your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly . . . if you remove the yoke from among you” – in other words, that which weighs one another down . . . “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted; then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom be like the noonday.” You again shall become the light you were intended to be. As the prophet writes, “you shall be called the repairer of the breach (or that which is separated); the restorer of streets to live in” (Isaiah 58:8, 9b, 10, 12b). You shall be those who create communities of peace – that’s what the light of the world does as it shines in the darkest of places.

Three years ago in my first sermon among you as your interim pastor, I told you that Jesus’ words aren’t just for those up on that mountain. His words are for you. For me. For every one of us baptized into his mission as followers of Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. . . . We are the salt of the earth. We are light for the world! . . . We watch the news. We know a little salt certainly is needed now. The seasoning in our families and communities and nations that will bring out the God-flavors of this earth: a little love. A little joy. A little peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The blessed fruits of the Spirit! A true taste of godliness. . . . And light? Dark places of life yet exist – seem to be growing more each day. Someone, and it might as well be us, needs to shine a little so the vibrant colors of this world can be seen. . . . I heard the other day that there are 9,000 children in Davidson County who are on a waiting list for food through Second Harvest Food Bank. They truly need the food they get through public schools – and the donated extras received for weekends and holiday breaks. When you bring a pack of snacks to be boxed up for Tulip Grove Elementary students, you’re being salt. You’re bringing light. . . . When you give a case of water for the homeless who are served through Room in the Inn, or for a family gathering at Hermitage Memorial Gardens to receive visitors prior to a service celebrating their loved one’s life; the God-flavors of generosity are tasted. The colors of compassionate care are seen. . . . When you stand at the sanctuary door to genuinely welcome someone who hasn’t dared entered here before, when you show kindness to the stranger at the grocery store. Maybe even, wherever you might be, you practice patience with a struggling mother whose hands are full with two fussy little ones. That’s being salt. That’s being light. That’s taking seriously Christ’s command for something beautiful to be taken in in this world. For something gorgeous to be seen. God’s ways.

About us, the church; one archbishop says: “The church is the only organization on earth that exists for those who are not its members” (William Temple as quoted in Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 1; Charles James Cook, p. 336). . . . The only group who gathers together to grow in giving ourselves away. . . . Since my first sermon as your interim pastor three years ago, I’ve seen that in you. The ways you continue to give yourself away. We certainly have had our times together of worshipping and learning and serving for the gracious love of God to be experienced among us. But we’ve kept to it always – at least I hope we have – so that we can get up from these pews at the end of Sunday worship to head out into the world to be salt. To be light. To give of time and energy and efforts for a homebound person in Hermitage to get a meal once a day. To be joyful and filled with hope among our neighbors even in the midst of health hardships, divided worldviews, and terrible difficulties around this globe. To be those able to speak a word of comfort among colleagues and cultivate inner peace for our calm to ripple out to soothe the troubled with whom we come in contact. Not for ourselves alone, but for all in this world who need to taste. For any who need to see. That’s what Jesus told us. It’s what we’ve been up to together these past three years and what we shall continue to be about wherever our paths shall lead . . . because we are salt for the earth. We are light for the world. . . . May it ever be so.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)