“Otherwise” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! Happy New Year to you — I am happy to be back with you again. It sounds like you had food for thought and some good sweet bread for last Sunday’s New Years day worship service. Thanks to Betty Kelsey and the Worship Team for their planning. This is the Sunday we are observing Epiphany, or the arrival of the three kings. This has become a favorite observance of mine, but it may not be familiar to all of you, so if you’ll bear with me, I’ll indulge in a bit of definition and church history.
Epiphany with a capital “E” is the holiday which Christians celebrate on January 6 — twelve days after December 25. That period was commonly known as the Twelve Days of Christmas — fortunately most of us are do not actually collect drummers, swans, milkmaids or French hens during this period, but it was an extended celebration of Christmas, culminating on January 6. In many countries still today, especially Spain and Spanish-speaking former colonies such as Mexico, January 6, Three Kings Day, is the day when families gather and exchange gifts. It is also the date which Christmas is celebrated in the Orthodox Christian tradition. Epiphany, along with Christmas and Easter, was one of the first regularly observed Christian holidays. One Epiphany tradition is to bake a gold coin or a little figure of baby Jesus into a cake. The person who finds it gets a gift, or, as Mexican friends tell me, the person who finds baby Jesus has to bring the tamales to Epiphany for the next year. We’ll have a version of this during our Fellowship time following worship. There are three coins: whoever finds one will get a little gift: you don’t have to worry about the tamales.
There is also an epiphany with a lower case “e.” In this usage, an epiphany is the experience of a sudden or striking realization. It can be a scientific breakthrough or a religious or philosophical discovery, but an epiphany is any situation where enlightenment gives new or deeper perspective. Epiphany was originally insight through the Divine, or enlightenment. You may be able to sense all the connections with light, insight, discovery and wisdom. These are all part of the Christian story which Jan read to us from Matthew 2. You probably know, but I’ll remind you anyway, that the only time and place that these wise men, or magi, are mentioned is in this passage from Mathew chapter 2. All those nativity figures and Christmas cards and stars on the top of our Christmas trees are taken from these 12 verses.
There is a lot which we have come to associate with the wise men which is not found in our text from Matthew — it doesn’t mean those things are wrong, we just don’t have complete information. Matthew does not tell us how many wise men there were, only the three gifts which they brought. There is no mention of camels — darn it! There are always camels on the silhouettes on the Christmas cards, and the camel who showed up here this morning did such a fine job. Camels may be a reasonable inference, but we can’t know for sure if any accompanied the wise men. We don’t know the ethnicity of the wise men, only that they came from the East and were not Jewish — they were following a star, not Old Testament prophecy. Christian tradition has even given them names: Melchoir, which means King of Light, who brings the gold; Balthasar, which is Hebrew for God will help, whose gift is incense; and Gaspar or Caspar, which is Persian for Treasurer-keeper. He brings myrrh. I frankly love how these images can take hold in our imagination and become part of our celebrations, but for the rest of this sermon, I want to focus on what is in the text from Matthew.
First of all, there’s a whole lot of homage going on. Homage is the word in the New Revised Standard translation which Jan read for us, but all the other translations I checked just say “worship.” The wise men’s stated purpose for making this journey from the East is found in verse 2: to find the child who has been born King of the Jews so that they can worship him. And when they find him in verse 11, they kneel down and worship. However, not all the worship which Matthew mentioned is sincere; Herod, the Jewish Prelate, invites the wise men to come back to Jerusalem after they locate the baby in Bethlehem so that Herod can worship the baby, too. R-i-i-i-ight. The wise men are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, which turns out to be a disastrous decision for the children of Bethlehem. I have to wonder if these magi were so wise after all — they seem to have a shocking level of naiveté to walk into the court of a reigning king and expect him to be thrilled that the next king — no relation — has just been born. Surely politics and ambition have not changed that much in 2,000 years.
And then there are those gifts — gold, frankincense and myrrh. These are no ordinary gifts, and nor are they, as commentators and cartoonists have pointed out, the most practical gifts for a young child. The gold would have been a heavy responsibility for Joseph and Mary to carry around; frankincense is an incense burned in religious ceremonies, and myrrh is an oil used to embalm dead bodies. Just what a poor couple in sub-standard housing with a new baby needs. Thanks, you shouldn’t have. Really.
What this story tells me is that we are not dealing with conventional wisdom here. There is symbolism and spiritual meaning in this story which defies practical, literal interpretation. Trying to find a specific location by following a star? How does that even work? I can barely follow a GPS, let alone an STAR. Asking directions from a murderous political rival — who thought that was a good idea? Expensive oil for dead people — is that what kids want these days? None of that wisdom really works. We need to look in another direction for enlightenment; not to wise, but to otherwise.
These men from the East were foreigners, non- Jews. They were given and used the wisdom to recognize a sign from God: a new star which had risen in the heavens. Only God could put up a sign like that. Nobody else who came to find the child Jesus got there by following a star — His parents weren’t led to Bethlehem by a star, not the shepherds, not the neighbors. Why would God send a star which only outsiders would see? Maybe a God who had come to earth to save all people and not only the Jewish people: this is a sign that Jesus was not only Messiah, but Savior for all. This is a bold statement for Matthew’s gospel to even hint at: the early church would fight about its mission to the Gentiles, the non-Jews, for more than a hundred years after Jesus’ death. We are still waging that battle today in various forms. Who is Jesus for? Is Jesus is for us and others like us? Yes, and . . . Jesus is for everyone, all people. This is a radical statement, a statement which does not line up with the conventional categories of insiders and outsiders: not now, and not in Jesus’ own time.
And those gifts — gifts fit for a king, both the givers and the receiver. Gold, frankincense and myrrh are not gifts for a child: they are gifts for a ruler and a deity and a martyr. John Henry Hopkins put it beautifully in the final verse of the hymn “We Three Kings”: Glorious now behold Him arise, King and God and Sacrifice. The foreshadowing of that gives me the chills. For these wise men to have brought those gifts shows a depth of insight — an epiphany — about who this child is and who he would become which surpassed the understanding of the Jewish people including Jesus’ own disciples. With these three gifts, the gospel of Matthew is setting the stage for the rest of the story — not only the story of God-made-flesh, born in Bethlehem to save his people from their sins, but Jesus the Savior, come for the salvation of the world through his death on a cross. It is a breath-taking literary device.
Although this story is filled with historical and theological meaning, the reason I love the observance of Epiphany is because of its personal meaning — and that is worship. Worship is not just a smart move — a wise thing to do given the star and all that — worship is what we are compelled to do, what we cannot help but do, when we have the epiphany of who Jesus is. Not just a child, not only a rabbi and teacher, not merely an example to follow, but King and God and Sacrifice. Halleluia! That realization should bring us to our knees and humble us in the presence of our Lord and King. That realization reminds us that there is more to the story of this little child. We’re going to hear from another character in this story next week, when we meet a Jerk of the Bible. Remember to join us for Fellowship time today to continue our Epiphany celebration; and chew your cake carefully. Christ is King, and God and Sacrifice. Amen