Sermon Preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
St. Luke’s, Portland
January 7, 2017: Epiphany: Matthew 2:1-12
Good Morning. Happy New Year. A while ago a rabbi friend from Bangor posted a cartoon on Facebook with a man in a yarmulke who was saying, “New Year’s Eve? That’s so three months ago.” It made me chuckle. After all, our new year began in Advent, way back in November. The funny thing is that while the rest of the world thinks Christmas is over, we know it is still going on. While for most people New Year’s Eve is a fading memory, we know that it’s hardly begun. That’s why it is so fitting that – with Christmas decorations still hanging – we celebrate Epiphany today with the story of the coming of the wise men. It is significant that the story of the Wise Men comes from the gospel of Matthew. Matthew was given first place in the New Testament because it was seen as the bridge between the Old and the New. Written to a Jewish audience, Matthew intentionally makes the clearest parallels between Jesus and the Jewish scriptures. As Moses came out of Egypt, Matthew’s Jesus flees and then comes out of Egypt. As Moses proclaimed the Ten Commandments from Mt Sinai, Matthew’s Jesus told gave rules for life through the Sermon on the Mount. Seen on the Mount of the Transfiguration with Moses and Elijah, Matthew’s Jesus is the fulfillment of – and new embodiment of – the law and the prophets. This is even more meaningful when we consider that Matthew wrote his gospel after the Romans had destroyed the temple in 69 CE. In other words, Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience when Old Testament Judaism no longer existed. Matthew’s proclamation of Jesus as the new Moses and the new Elijah was not just a New Testament metaphor. This was a message to his readers about the future of their faith and how and in whom it would be reborn – a message we see in the story of the wise men and the epiphany they gave.
The word “Epiphany” means “showing” or “manifestation.” The technical name for the feast of the Epiphany is “the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” This title tells us that the significance of the Wise Men is that they were gentiles. In other words, the significance of the Wise Men is that they were not Jewish. The coming of the Wise Men was an epiphany because it showed that Jesus came not just for the people of Israel but for all people everywhere, regardless of culture, class, or creed.
A quick reading shows that this morning’s gospel is remarkable for what it does not say. It does not say that the Wise Men were kings. It does not tell us that there were three of them. (It only says there were three gifts.) It does not tell us that they came to the manger on that first Christmas Eve. (It was probably more than a year later.) It does not say that they rode on camels. (Camels were used by traders. People of those days with enough resources to give gifts would have ridden horses. Think of Arabian stallions!) Despite folklore which provides names and racial identities, it does not give any hint of ethnic background or tell us who they are. Recognizing that in many languages, a group of people that includes at least one male is referred to in the male plural (“men”), this passage does not even tell us that all three were men. Though calling them the “wise guys” might seem a little sacrilegious, calling them the “Wise Ones” might be far more accurate than calling them the “three kings.” From biblical sources, there is not all that much we know about those who followed the star. We do know, however, that they were wise and that in their wisdom they brought gifts: three gifts that I want to focus on today.
The gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh tell us who Jesus is… and who we are to be if we, like the wise men, are to follow his star. First, there is gold. Gold is a gift brought to a king to help his kingdom grow. In Roman tradition, kings of conquered territories often brought gold to newly crowned emperors. The gift of gold proclaims that the babe of Bethlehem would grow up to wear a purple robe and crown of thorns. Anticipating the words nailed above his head on the cross, the gift of gold tells us that the Christ child is also a king. Making the Christ child our king proclaims that his kingdom is worth not only being a part of but also something we want to help to expand. Giving gold is a way not just of honoring him but investing in the kingdom he proclaimed. (Note that the Episcopal Church’s canons affirm this idea by defining a member is someone who is “faithful in working, praying, and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God.” ) Much has been made in the news about tax reform. I wonder if those getting huge tax cuts will use their extra money to pay for programs and people that have been cut, for benefiting the common good, or for building up the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. If you get a tax cut? The gift of gold reminds us that the baby from Bethlehem is a king. It also reminds us that following him means putting our money where our mouth is – or where our heart is, as well.
The second gift is frankincense. Frankincense, used in the temple, is a gift of worship. It is a reminder that Jesus the king is also Jesus the great high priest and that the baby born in the manger is also God. Like a king, a priest is a powerful archetype. As shown in the popularity of the recent installment of Star Wars, people long for mystery, hunger for a power, meaning and purpose greater than ourselves. The wise men were probably as much astronomers and spiritual guides as they were kings. Their gift of incense tells us that we are called to be mystics and saints as well as evangelists and kingdom builders. Like wise men and women everywhere, we are called to be pilgrims who go on spiritual quests, seeking God and playing our part in the epic journey of the salvation history. The gift of Frankincense tells us that all this great spiritual adventure can be ours if we worship, remembering that Jesus – the Word made Flesh – is also God.
This brings me to the third gift: the gift of an embalming spice named myrrh. The gift of myrrh prophesies that the real power, the real kingship and priesthood of Jesus would be revealed in his death. The Wise Men are traditionally thought to be followers of Magus known as Magi, the word from which we get “Magic” or “Magicians.” Less like magicians than Zoroastrian astronomers, scientists or priests, the Magi were the type of people who would have recognized that the words “hocus pocus” came from a misunderstanding of the words “Hoc es meus corpus” (“This is my body”), said every time a priest lifts the consecrated bread. For them, myrrh represented the power that came from the self-giving of Jesus in his life and in his death . . . and the resulting forgiveness of our sins. The gift of myrrh shows that we who follow Christ can also follow his example and transform death into life.
In the end, the gifts aren’t as important as the people who brought them, people from outside the comfort zone of many of Jesus’ original followers. I’ll never forget a few Christmas Eve’s ago, when someone looked out at a church full of strangers, leaned over to me and said, “Who are all these people?” The unfamiliar faces made her uneasy. I think she felt a little threatened and perhaps annoyed by the people who she did not know who filled her church and who did not know the traditions she valued so deeply. As understandable as her feelings might be, the story of the wise men shows that it is precisely the strangers we need to listen to. The story of the wise men shows us that in this time of change, the future of our church may come from people outside our comfort zone… and outside our walls. With their presents, the wise men showed the first Christians who Jesus was and what they need to do to follow him. With their presence, they showed what Jesus’ church would be. With that Epiphany, they showed that something new, truly new, had just begun.