(Matthew 2: 1-12)
I am fascinated by the idea of the belated birthday card. It’s rare I have to use them anymore, should circumstances require one. Much easier to send a quick text or short video: oops, forgot your big day, hope it was a good one! But in those instances when an actual card is in order, there are some good ones I’ve seen in the racks. One had a tortoise on front who said, “So I’m a little slow…” When you open it up, the inside read: “What? Are you in a hurry to get old?” There’s also one with a cute puppy: “I missed your birthday…” Inside: “Do I still get cake?” And then there’s my favorite. On the outside it reads: “Sorry I forgot your birthday, but I have this problem with short term memory loss….” You open it up and it says: “Sorry I forgot your birthday, but I have this problem with short term memory loss….”
I wonder if the Wise Men in our story today might’ve brought their own belated birthday card with their gifts for baby Jesus. Because despite our tendency to lump them in with our other manger scene participants – the shepherds and angels, the barnyard animals, baby Jesus and parents – despite all that, most scholars agree that the Wise Men’s arrival happened long after the others – weeks at least, and in some traditions even a year. I wonder what their belated birthday card would’ve said? 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 a lot about Epiphany in the church, and that may have something to do with it falling on a calendar day – January 6th – rather than a particular Sunday. It also has the disadvantage of following closely on the heels of Christmas and New Years, getting lost in the seasonal shadow.
Even so, Epiphany is the day we typically recognize the arrival of the Wise Men. So, a few things 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 – that’s something we’ve probably just deduced from there being three gifts.
Something else that doesn’t get a lot of attention is the role that King Herod plays. He, too, wasn’t actually a king, 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 it’s no surprise, his reaction, when these wise men from the East show up and start asking questions about a “king of the Jews” who’d recently been born. Right under Herod’s nose.
It’s no surprise that Herod receives this news as a grave threat and something to be reckoned with. He’s a crafty guy, so he asks the visitors to return to him after finding this new king so he can worship him too – yeah, right. And when they don’t return, Herod has every boy age two and under put to death. It is an unspeakable horror, and it is certainly the reason Jesus and his parents flee to Egypt.
So we have the three kings who aren’t kings, we have Herod with a major insecurity complex and violent streak. And we have the star that shone in the night sky. A couple of weeks ago the “Christmas star” made all the news, even though it wasn’t really a star. The “great conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn, something that hasn’t happened for 800 years and won’t happen again until 2080. Right at sunset, it looked like a bright star, and just a few days before Christmas it was hard not to think of the Wise Men looking up at that light in the sky, guiding them to Jesus, leading the way so they could bring their gifts and worship him.
The word “epiphany” means “a moment of sudden revelation or insight.” That revelation, that light, came to these men from the East in the form of a bright star – a sign that something had happened, that 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.
That is our story on this first Sunday of January, as we begin a new year – a cause for reflection of what has been and what is yet to come. A time making resolutions, if that’s your thing, or at least taking stock. A season for pondering, thinking, praying.
And so it is appropriate for us to ponder and think and pray about what our epiphany might be as we approach January 6th, as we enter a new year. What our moment of revelation and insight might be. As we look ahead to 2021, a blank canvas upon which we write our individual and collective stories as the people of God, what new thing might God be telling us, directing us toward, shining on us like a bright star in the night sky.
I wonder if our epiphany might be found in those very gifts the wise men brought baby Jesus. But not the actual gifts. 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. They were great, for sure, if not a little out of place. One wonders if Mary smiled the smile of a grateful new parent but in the back of her mind wondered why these visitors could not have checked the registry!
No, I’m talking about the gifts lifted up by a young child who, with his three other siblings, was putting on a Christmas pageant for their parents on Christmas Eve. 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!
Sounds about right for the year we just came out of, don’t you think? Goals, circumstance, and mud. The truth of it is, though, is that they really aren’t bad gifts to bring to Jesus. There’s a lot packed into those gifts, if we think about it.
Bringing our GOALS to Jesus. Our vision as a church; our hopes and dreams as followers of Jesus, all that we long to be with God’s help. Goals – more than simply doing what we’ve always done, because the church of today has to be more than that. If these past ten months have taught us anything as the church, it has been that we cannot simply do what we’ve always done. Goals – more than us achieving something, because ultimately our purpose as the church is to further the mission of the One who has called us here in the first place. It is what God wants for this church, not what we want, that should be our goal.
Bringing our CIRCUMSTANCE to Jesus. Laying before him our very lives, just as they are, just as we are. Because while the God of the manger is interested in so much about us, one of the things God is not interested in is our pretense. Baby Jesus is not as concerned with the lives we might live as much as the one we’re living right now. He prefers us just as we are, our various circumstances and roles in life, complicated and imperfect as they might be. Husband, wife, daughter, son, employer, employee, neighbor, garden club member, church member – child of God. We bring all of ourselves to Jesus, and that is more than enough.
And MUD, yes, even bringing our mud to Jesus. That side of us that we’d rather God not see; those parts we’re not proud of and are 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 Jesus, we are giving him our whole selves. We’re not holding back. We’re not putting on a facade or burdening ourselves with an image to project. We’re “being real,” in the same way God is real with us when he comes into the world 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.
Goals, circumstance, and mud – now those are some gifts right there. The best we have to offer, just like the wise men did. Those wise men brought their very best to Jesus. They didn’t short-change the baby 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 others would “come through” with their gift so they wouldn’t have to be as extravagant with theirs. Each gave their personal best to the son of God, because each gave themselves as they were.
And you know something, Trinity Presbyterian? You and I are called to do the exact same thing. Our task as the people of God and as this church is to give God our very best, to give God ourselves.
And I believe we’re already doing this. I see it all over the place. I see it the six women and men you’ve elected to serve as ruling elders in this church, who we’ve installed and ordained in worship today. I see it in the session they’ll join; an amazing group of spiritual leaders who make a habit of bringing their best to the Lord as they guide our church into its future.
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, and I want to invite you to continue thinking and praying about what you can bring to God’s church in this new year, what your gifts might be; so this church may become all that God wants it to be. And if you’re wondering how to discern that, if you’re wondering how one figures out what their gifts are, I want to share with you something I’ve shared with you before; a question a minister colleague of mine has posed to every church she’s ever pastored when it seemed like the right time to ask it. Imagine what it would be like, she said, 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 church?
Now think about that, people of God. What would it take for this church to be so essential to the well-being of Charlotte – not just our well-being but our city’s – 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 interpersonal connections would stay unconnected? What neighborhood partnerships would disappear? What new things, things we haven’t even thought of yet, would simply never happen?
Friends, in this new year, whatever it brings us, our work continues. And if our visitors from the East are here to tell us anything, it is these words beautifully by author, theologian, and civil rights leader Howard Thurman:
When the song of the angels is stilled, he writes,
When the star in the sky is gone
When the kings and princes are home
When the shepherds are back with their flock
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.
Guide us, God, to always bring our gifts to you, and to be filled with the light of your love, on this Sunday and every day.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, 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.
 “The Work of Christmas” by Howard Thurman
Featured image – Three Wise Men Original Abstract Religious Painting, Three Magi, Christmas Story by Luiza Vizoli.