Come now oh Holy Spirit and kindle within us the fire of your love and may my words and our hearts together glorify you, oh God our Rock and our Redeemer.
I saw a cartoon on Facebook this past week. At the bottom it said, “after the three wise men left, three wiser women showed up.” The three wiser women brought gifts of diapers, casserole for a week, and baby formula. This seemed a little more sensible than gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The story of the visit from the Magi, is only found in Matthew’s gospel. If we were to really dissect this story, I believe most would find the facts hard to believe if not just plain odd. Fortunately we will not do that this morning. Regardless of how factual the story is, or how odd it may seem, I believe there are some things we can learn from it. But before we get into the story itself I want to remind us all what the season of Epiphany is. The day of Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season as we know it. Epiphany comes to us from the Greek word epiphainein which means to “reveal.” So Epiphany means the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi. Reveal…Revelation…those ahh moments, those all reflect what we sometimes hear as an Epiphany moment. We realize something new, perhaps something different. I personally like those ahh moments. I like when I can see how the pieces all come together. Something I have been thinking about, finally makes sense. As I continue to learn for example more about progressive views on Christianity, I see how at least to me, it seems to make way more sense then how I used to view the Bible and Christianity. Just like with resurrection, Epiphany does’t just come to us one time, but we have epiphany moments over and over again. Something new is always being revealed. A light is shined on something new for us over and over again.
Our story today comes right after the birth of Jesus and before the terrible story of children being murdered which thankfully the lectionary has left out. Jesus has just been born in a lonely manger and word of his birth soon spreads. The news even falls upon the ear of the ruler King Herod. The magi are wanting to go and visit this new born baby and they ask around to see where he has been born. The magi refer to baby Jesus as the newborn king of the Jews? As you can imagine, this didn’t sit well with King Herod. King of the Jews? I am the one and only King, who dare thinks that they too are king? This troubled King Herod and everyone in Jerusalem. From the time of his birth, Jesus was seen as a threat. This will follow him all of his life. In fact, Jesus being seen as a threat, putting fear in the hearts of the Roman government will ultimately lead to his death on the cross. I sometimes wonder how different things would have played out had Jesus not been seen as a threat. We often do the same. We are treated by those who are different than us, you know those whose skin color doesn’t match ours. Some of us see those who do not speak the same language as us as a threat. What about those whose religion is different from ours, some will see them as a threat. How would this story have played out if instead of a threat, Jesus was seen as a friend, an equal to all of those around him. It reminds me of a team. Just because everyone on a football team, for example, doesn’t look the same, speak the same, or have the same religion, they will play together as a team to win the game. But a big and powerful king feels threatened and decides that there is only room for one king and that it should be him, Herod. Herod, thinking he was slick, calls the magi over and tells them to go and search for this newborn king of the Jews and let me know where he is and what all they can find out about him. Herod didn’t want to waste his time going and searching if this had only been gossip. He wanted proof, people who could say they actually saw this newborn king with their own eyes.
The magi start off following the light of a star that would guide them to where Jesus was at. The magi are guided by the light from a star that is far above them shining down on the desert ground below. Light is a funny thing. Most of us I believe like light. Most of us can see clearer in the light. Light reveals things to us that would otherwise go unnoticed in the dark. In her book, “Learning to walk in the dark,” Barbara Brown Taylor talks about how we often associate light with goodness and dark with evil. She argues that this is not true. In the dark, we too can discover goodness, it may take more effort but it can be done. We like light because we can quickly see and discover new things easier. I admit I am not a fan of the dark. I wouldn’t go quite as far to saw that I am scared of the dark, but I do prefer a small light on at night in the room I am sleeping in. I have discovered the hard way where the bed rail meets my shin in the middle of the night on the way to the bathroom. Or how the leg of the bed frame will catch my pinky toe if I walk too close to the bed in a pitch black, dark bedroom. I use a nightlight in the same way a ship uses a lighthouse, to guide me around bedrails and legs of the bed frame. There are things that only come out in the dark, and having even having a small light can reveal to the eye what would other wise go unnoticed. As lights reveal things to us they can also guide us. The night light guides me where I walk if I have to get up during the night. As I mentioned before lighthouses guided ships long ago to steer clear from dangerous rocks and lights along runways guide planes as they land and take off. Lights of various kinds can direct and guide us in many different ways.
The magi set out to Bethlehem searching for the newborn child. They took a path following the star they had been told about. They find Jesus, spend some time with him and Mary. The magi may have even stayed the night with Jesus and his family before returning to their own country. We are told that in a dream, they were told not to return to Herod. They went back to their own country by another route. So they take route “A” to Jesus but return taking route “B”. Often, there is more than one way to and from your destination. When Samie and I plan to go out of town, we will google the route. You are generally given more than one option on how to get to where you are going. The first route is often the fastest and then it will show another route that will get you there just is generally longer. Then sometimes it tells you if you fly, this would be the time it would take for you to get there. We took another route to Dallas than most do when we went to the fall association meeting last year. I am not a big fan of driving in Dallas. As Samie will attest to, my patients with other drivers seems shorter and I find myself getting stressed by listening to the voice on the GPS which if there is no construction gets me to where I am going. How many times though have you traveled anywhere where there is no construction? The GPS tells me to turn left, for example, but there are orange barrels blocking that road. Then I hear a voice saying “recaculating your route.” There was construction on I20 around Sweetwater and I had heard from several co-workers that had been to Dallas the weekend before, that traffic would back up for miles and an hour or more due to the construction. We decided to take another route. I had been this other way once before but Samie had not. We took 114 from Lubbock to Seymore and from there to Dallas. It was not the fastest route, although it didn’t take much longer but what we saw on the way was quite different had we taken the interstate. We passed many small towns with old buildings that we both enjoy looking at. We even stopped in one small town to take a picture of an old Catholic church, that was on a hill of sorts, that you could see from the road. I think for both of us, it was well worth our time going the route less taken. The same can be said about our lives. We “travel” on paths thought out our lives. One view of this a very theological conservative view is that we are on one path or route but it is not one that leads to salvation. We realize that we are sinners, confess that we are sinners, accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, being baptized coming from the water a new person and on a new path or route to salvation. I have been there. However I would like to think I am on the right path now, the path I walk and travel with others including those of you in this room is not one that is often a straight path. You may agree or disagree. The path I walk as a Christian, as a disciple, is one that has many paths on one route. Sometimes I get lost as I think others do as well. Even with best intention, we seem to lose track of that light that is guiding us. We take little paths that lead to dead ends, or other paths that seem like we are just going around and around in circles. Other paths may circle back to where we have been before. Talking about paths and routes to God also raises a very controversial question and that, is Jesus the only way to God? If other religions do not recognize Jesus, are they doomed? I do not believe that they are doomed. As we see there are different routes to get to and from the newborn king, and different routes to get from here and Dallas and back, why must we believe that there is only one straight path that leads to salvation with God?
They opened up their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Why these gifts and what are they exactly? Ancient readings not found within the Bible itself, tell of how these three gifts were commonly given to kings during this time. Gold seems pretty obvious because of its value. But it seems, at least according to The Health Journal, that frankincense and myrrh were more valuable than gold. How could they serve the baby Jesus? Some believe the offerings were meant to protect and nourish him.
These shrubby boswellia and commiphora trees are found to be native to the Arabian Peninsula as well regions of northeast Africa. Harvesting the ‘tears’ of resin is a time consuming and laborious job. The trees are scored and then left for 2 weeks. The cuts produce a gummy sap that oozes out of the trees. These tears harden and are collected and sorted based on color and grade, and then distilled down to rich and powerful essential oils.
Both resins are extremely fragrant, particularly when burned, with frankincense emanating a sweet, citrusy scent and myrrh producing an earthy, slightly bitter aroma. Today we prefer to diffuse them instead of burning them to receive their most therapeutic benefits. Frankincense is known as the king of the essential oils. It has been shown to be a strong immune booster and has potent anti-inflammatory effects in the body. Myrrh has high antioxidant capacity, which helps the body’s immune system function properly. It also has calming and relaxing properties. Historically, myrrh was used to treat wounds and prevent infections with its anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. It was also used in embalming fluids. Just so you know, you can still buy both frankincense and myrrh for your diffuser at home. We still present gifts to one another during Christmas. Sometimes I am just like a child when I sit down and a gift is handed to me, I can hardly wait to rip into it to see what is under the wrapper and cardboard. But as the saying goes, it is better to give than to receive, as we will discuss in our annual business meeting, we will look at ways we give our money to various organizations that support things we believe in that truly help others and the life and mission of the church and beyond. We are a very giving congregation. 30-40% or more of the money we take in goes back out to serve organizations and groups that serve the wider community and beyond from there. The gift of giving starts with individuals who have pledged to contribute a set amount each week or month. WIth rising cost of doing business, utilities, wages etc, what we bring in and what we send out is important. Rick will break it down to us later on a spreadsheet.
What is this story in Matthew really about? As I was reading and listening to podcast commentaries on our reading from today, one commentator summed it up best and the thought would not leave my head. This story is not about paths, light, or gifts although they are important parts in the story and I hope we have learned something from them. This story is really about the tale of two kings. King Herod was troubled from the beginning from the news that Jesus had been born and was being called king of the Jews. He was a ruthless leader. He would later order that all soldiers be sent out and to kill all the male children, two years and younger, in Bethlehem and in all of the surrounding territories. Jesus kingship would look much different. Jesus brought about hope and joy to the world. He didn’t come to destroy the world, but came as God in the flesh to show love and mercy. Herod ruled with a sword in hand but Jesus ruled with love and compassion. Herod ruled out of fear, but Jesus ruled with confidence that the love he would show would overcome evil and fear. They were two totally different kings and ruled in very different ways.
What cannot be overlooked is what happened when the magi left. The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to take his family and escape to Egypt. They were an early family fleeing from their own country crossing over into a foreign land. They were migrants on the run. Thank goodness there were no border walls blocking their entrance, or asylum courts backed up for months to hear their case. In the same way today, we see so many families fleeing from their countries seeking asylum here in the United States, but our administration wants to say no, you must return to where you have come from. How would this story have played out if they were told no, you must return to where you have come from? You are not welcomed here, you cannot seek asylum here from King Herod. Go away we do not want you here. When we rule out of fear we build walls. When we let fear fill our hearts, we make people wait months in makeshift tents and housing. We we rule with fear, we tell others no, they are not welcomed here, and turn them away at the border. There is another way. We can lead with love and compassion that Jesus showed. We can allow families to come here to seek a safe place from the violence and persecution they are facing in their home country. We can let fear dominate our lives our we can let love dominate our lives. Which do you choose?
Epiphany calls us to recognize those ahh moments, moments when our eyes are opened. Moments when our hearts are open. Moments when our minds are allow to think outside of the box. Light shines on what we are to see, not always what we want to see. That same light will guide us if we let it. We will be guided to act out of love and mercy. We will be lead to show compassion on our neighbor no matter what path or route they may be on at that moment in their lives. Their route may not match our route. Their journey may be far different from our journey, and that is ok. Just as the magi brought gifts of healing and restoration to Jesus, we too receive gifts everyday. Gifts of life, love, grace, forgiveness, to name a few. But we are called as disciples not only to receive gifts but to give gifts. We are called as we are able to give gifts of money, time, talent, and ourselves. No gift is ever too small to make a difference in the lives of others. We can also give the gift of voice for those seeking asylum from violence. Voice that leaders cannot turn a deaf ear too. Voice of love and compassion that will hopefully drown out the voice of fear. As the star in the heavens shined down that day lighting the way for the magi, may we too be a source of light for others who cannot see anything but the darkness that surrounds them. May the light we illuminate, though Jesus Christ, give them comfort and hope for a brighter day. Thanks be to Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Amen.