(Matthew 2: 1-12)
I have a good seminary friend who keeps a stash of birthday cards in her desk drawer, so when a friend’s birthday slips up on her she doesn’t have to make a mad dash to the store. Over the years I’ve adopted this practice, and modified it a bit, by having on hand a supply of belated birthday cards. Because while it’s one thing to be prepared, it’s another thing to be prepared to be late, right?
I brought a few of my favorites to share this morning:
- Tortoise on front: “So I’m a little slow…” Inside: “What? Are you in a hurry to get old?”
- Cute puppy on front: “I missed your birthday…” Inside: “Do I still get cake?”
- Front: “Sorry I forgot your birthday, but I have this problem with short term memory loss….” Inside: “Sorry I forgot your birthday, but I have this problem with short term memory loss….”
All of which makes me wonder if the Wise Men brought a belated birthday card along with their gifts to baby Jesus – and if so, what kind of card. That’s because, despite our tendency to lump them together with the shepherds and angels of our annual Christmas pageants, the Wise Men were weeks late getting there – in some traditions, even years late. I wonder how their belated birthday card would’ve read? Sorry about the delay, but there was this bright light in the sky, and we couldn’t see a thing! Or, Yeah, we’re late, but we brought gold and frankincense and myrrh – so we’re good, right?
More on those gifts later. This coming Wednesday is Epiphany. We don’t talk about Epiphany all that much, probably because it falls on a calendar date – January 6th – rather than a particular Sunday. It also happens to be right on the heels of all the Christmas hoopla, lost in its large seasonal shadow.
Nevertheless, it is the day we typically recognize the arrival of the Wise Men to Jesus. So, a few things to note about that. First, contrary to popular opinion and a hymn we’ll sing in a few minutes, there’s no hard evidence that these visitors from the East were actually “kings.” Nor is there any indication that there were just three of them – something we’ve probably deduced from the three gifts.
Something else that doesn’t get mentioned much is the role King Herod plays in all this. He wasn’t actually a king either, although apparently he liked calling himself that. Herod was the Roman ruler of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth and was known for being mighty protective of his power. So you can imagine how he reacted when these wise men from the East came asking about a “king of the Jews” who’d been born right under his nose. Herod asked the visitors to return to him after finding this new king; and when they don’t, he has every boy aged two and under put to death. An unspeakable horror for sure, and the reason Jesus and his parents flee to Egypt.
And yet, there all along is the star – the star that shone in the night sky. That’s the truth in all of this, isn’t it? That the star is still there, shining its light, showing us the way through the darkness?
After all, the word “epiphany” literally means “a moment of sudden revelation or insight.” That revelation, that light, came to these men from the East in the form of this bright star – a sign that something had happened; something had changed. That revelation was confirmed when they traveled to see the reason for the star – and in doing so became the first non-Jews to see Jesus and recognize him as the son of God. An epiphany.
So what, then, is our epiphany as we approach January 6th? What is our moment of revelation and insight? As we look ahead to a brand new year, a blank canvas upon which we write our individual stories and our collective story as the people of God, what new thing is God telling us, directing us toward, shining on us like a bright star in the night sky?
I wonder if, more than anything, our epiphany lies in those very gifts the wise men brought baby Jesus? Gold – the earth’s most precious metal. Frankincense – an expensive oil used in religious rites. And myrrh – tree sap resin fashioned into a lavish ointment. Wonderful gifts – although granted, they are a bit odd for a newborn baby. One wonders if Mary smiled the smile of a grateful new parent but in the back of her mind wondered why they couldn’t have checked the registry before they came!
There’s this cute little story about four kids who put on a Christmas pageant for their parents one December evening. Joseph was played by the oldest son, draped in his father’s bathrobe and mop-handle staff; Mary depicted by his younger sister looking solemn with a sheet-draped head; the angel of the Lord played by the next in line with pillowcase wings. That left the fourth child, the youngest of the bunch, to play the part of all three wise men, which he did with great pride, at one point proclaiming, I’m all three wise men, and I bring precious gifts of goals, circumstance and mud!
It made their parents laugh, as it did you! Goals, circumstance and mud. Although, come to think of it, those are some pretty sweet gifts, aren’t they?
Bringing our GOALS, our vision as a church, prayerfully and faithfully setting priorities and then working by the grace of God to fulfill them. More than simply doing what we’ve always done, because the church of today has to be more than that. More than us achieving anything, because ultimately our purpose as the church is to further the mission of the One who has called us here in the first place.
Bringing our CIRCUMSTANCE to God: laying before God our very lives, just as they are. Because the God of the Manger is not interested in our pretense. Baby Jesus is not concerned about our successes or triumphs. He much prefers us just us as we are, our various circumstances and roles in life. Husband, wife, daughter, son, employer, employee, neighbor, garden club member, church member – child of God.
Even bringing our MUD to God – that side of us that we’d rather God not see. Those parts we are not proud of; that we’re ashamed to admit are even there. As strange as it might sound, this “mud” of ours is a gift. Because when we give our “mud” to God, we are giving every piece of ourselves. We’re not holding back. We’re “being real” with God, in the same way God is real with us when he comes to us as a baby in a manger – not in a spiritual or symbolic way, but in a flesh-and-bone, rubber-meeting-the-road kind of way.
And that, my friends, is the lesson the wise men have for us in the second chapter of Matthew on this almost-Epiphany Sunday. They brought their very best to the Lord that day. They didn’t short-change the baby Jesus with a second-tier gift; a token present like the fruit cake the boss plops on your desk every December. Nor did they assume one of the other two would “come through” with their gift so they wouldn’t have to be as extravagant with theirs. Each of those wise men gave their personal best to the son of God. They each brought their very best to the Lord.
And you know something, Trinity Presbyterian? You and I are called to do the exact same thing. The very same! That is our task as the people of God and as this church. That is our calling as we enter another year of serving God on Providence. If 2016 is nothing else, it is a year in which you and I are being challenged to commit to bringing our best to the Lord, each and every day.
And in some ways I believe we’re already doing this. I see it in so many places. I see it the six women and men you’ve elected to serve as ruling elders of our church, who we’ll install and ordain next week in worship. I see it in a church that is growing – growing numerically, but also growing spiritually, as over 30 of you eagerly began your Bible In A Year Adventure a few days ago (and it’s not too late to sign up, by the way!).
I see you bringing your best to the Lord in the faithful way you’re addressing some of the challenges our church faces – physical, financial, spiritual. It’s a strong church that faces their challenges head-on instead of ignoring them or hoping they’ll just go away. Because ministry is never a stagnant thing. There will always be changes and challenges when God’s people are in the business of building God’s kingdom on earth. And yet, through these times of transition we are led to transformation; and transformation leads God’s people to discover what its purpose in the world really is.
I see you bringing your best to the Lord all the time. But friends, I want to invite you to bring your best to the Lord in a new way. I was thinking about it this past week, when I had some time off. As much as I love being here day in and day out with you, I’m grateful, very grateful for vacation. To be with family and friends, to catch my breath, and to think deeply. And I thought deeply when I heard a pastor friend of mine paraphrase a question asked by a colleague of ours, Andrew Foster Connors, who preaches in Baltimore.
Andrew asked this: what if your church, your faith and practice, your witness was so essential to the essence of the community in which you live, that when you told people where you went to church, their response was, “I don’t know how our city would survive without that congregation? Let me say that again: what if your church was so essential to the essence of the community in which you live, that when you told people where you went to church, their response was, “I don’t know how our city would survive without that congregation?
Think about that. Think about it because you’re going to hear me ask it a lot of you in the coming year. Your session is going to hear me ask it a lot of them at our session retreat in a few weeks.
What if this church was so essential to the well-being of Charlotte that, when you told people you were a member here, their response was, “I honestly do not know how our city would survive without Trinity Presbyterian Church”?
What “witness” would this city miss out on without us? What transformative outreach and mission initiatives would go untapped? What new music and worship efforts would never materialize? What neighborhood partnerships would disappear? What new things, things we haven’t even thought up yet, would simply never happen?
I want you to know that your pastor has a dream for 2016, and it is this: that we become a congregation that consistently brings our very best to the Lord. So that the mark we leave on our community and world is uniquely Trinity, and that those outside these walls see the manifestation of God’s spirit that we all know is here, because we make it a point to get out there and show it to them.
Will you join me in making that dream a reality in the new year?
Guide us, God, to always bring our best to you, and to be filled with the light of your love, on this Epiphany Sunday, and forever.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.