Matthew 2: 1-12
Rev. Barrett Ingram
January 3, 2021
Today is the tenth day of Christmas. We know from the song that there are twelve days of Christmas. I don’t know about you, but by the time December 25th finally rolls around every year, I’ve had just about enough of Christmas. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that, by the end of October, you can walk into many stores and hear Bing Crosby crooning, “White Christmas,” or “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” Because of the pandemic, many of us did our shopping online this year. If you buy something online, they send an e-mail confirmation. Then, they send follow-up e-mails offering special deals at special prices. If they’re not nice, they share your e-mail address with affiliate stores, so that your inbox is flooded with promotional advertisements. Retailers have to do what they do to make things work financially; I get it. But, it means the holidays get pushed on us earlier and earlier, with more aggressive marketing. And now, of course, they are on to the next holiday.
But here in the Church, it is still Christmas. And after the twelfth day of Christmas, we have Epiphany on January 6th. Epiphany, from the Greek word epiphaneia, means an appearance or manifestation. The Early Church decided that Epiphany would be the day to mark the coming of the Magi (also called the wise men or the three kings), to worship the baby Jesus. Jesus’ life becomes “manifest”; it “shows forth” the glory of God. We know this story well; the Gospel lesson will be familiar to you. So, listen now for God’s word to you from Matthew 2.
Eternal God, you have made known the light of your eternal glory in the face of Jesus Christ. Fill us, your children, with the light of your love, so that the darkness of sin might be dispelled in us and in the world around us. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
I don’t know that this can be said of many professions, but I’ve discovered that there’s no quicker way to end an otherwise good conversation at a party than to tell the folks you’re talking with that you are a minister. Invariably the question comes up: “What do you do?” So, I tell them, and then there’s a blank stare. “Oh, that’s so nice – very honorable,” they say – not quite sure how to keep the conversation going. “Look, Jane just walked in. Let me go speak to her.” So, the next time you’re stuck in an uncomfortable conversation, just tell them you’re a minister. It works every time!
Maybe you’ve had the experience of showing up at a function and realizing that you didn’t quite fit in: you weren’t part of the in crowd. Maybe you weren’t popular in school. Or, maybe in you felt undervalued at the place where you were working. If you’ve ever felt like that, then that experience will help you understand what it’s like to be outside of God’s chosen people.
If you know your Bible stories from the Old Testament, then you probably remember the story of Abraham in the Book of Genesis. God told Abraham that his descendants would be a blessing to all people. Ancient Israel was called by God to tell the whole world about God’s goodness and mercy; they were to be a “light to the nations.” In the Gospel of Matthew, there is an underlying polemic that the people of Israel are not doing this anymore. They have taken their position as God’s chosen people for granted and have turned their attention inward.
This tendency to take our blessings for granted is not something that happened once upon a time. We’re all guilty of it in some ways. When we get used to being on the “inside” we tend to forget about those who are on the “outside.” Back in the 1800s Presbyterians were known for our mission work overseas, and as a result of that work there are now more Presbyterians in countries like Kenya and South Korea than there are here in the United States. Our own denomination – like so many mainline churches – has turned in on itself. In the last 40+ years, we have spent much of our time arguing amongst ourselves over controversial issues and polity and writing theological position papers. All of this work has its place of importance, but it is ultimately an insiders’ conversation. And, this inward turning phenomenon can be a problem for local churches, too. Sometimes individual congregations get so embroiled in conflict, wrapped up in some melodrama, that they forgot what it means to be the Church. We all can forgot that we are the blessed recipients of God’s grace and mercy – Good News too good to keep to ourselves. We are predestined for a purpose; we are saved to serve; we are blessed to be a blessing.
The story of the Magi is the story of the blurring of those lines between “insider” and “outsider.” Here is a story of “outsiders” – from the East, from a foreign land, Gentiles – searching for God’s Messiah. Verse 10 says, “When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.” They had seen his star and they wanted to know who he was so they could worship him. In Christ, God brought light to the nations – to the Gentiles. That’s why we are here. We’re not Jews; we’re Gentiles. And God declares his love for us – love for people who were once outsiders, but are now insiders. In Christ, God promises redemption to the world. When we come in faith, God accepts us. We are included in the family of God. The Magi came to worship the Christ child. It was and is a manifestation – a showing forth – of God’s love and mercy.
Another thing we might notice about the Magi was their willingness to pursue their goal. They had an open heart toward God that gave them a determination to find God’s Messiah. Someone once observed that “you generally get what you want, and you find what you are searching for.” That’s a key for our faith, too.
From history, two scientific pioneers demonstrate this truth. The first is Thomas Edison. He was determined to make a new kind of light bulb, which led to years of experimentation. After thousands of failures, he finally found the right combination of material and environment. Edison could have easily given up; it might have been a prudent move. But he was determined, and his determination let him to success. The second notable scientist was Marie Curie. She wanted to learn about the mysteries of a newly discovered substance called radium. She and her husband kept working and experimenting, and they became noted for pioneering research in the field of radioactivity. People who keep trying and working and thinking, regardless of the field, usually succeed. Think of any notable athlete or successful entrepreneur. The same principal applies. With passionate engagement and a sense of purposeful determination, we can often find what we’re looking for in life. That’s what the Magi demonstrate for us. From a distant home they journeyed – no doubt a perilous and unpleasant trip – looking for the Messiah. All they had was a star to guide them and an inner sense of direction. They recognized that something had happened, and they were determined to find out what it was.
Their sense of determination can be convicting, because so often we lack it – especially when it comes to our faith. We want our faith to be easy and convenient. But like real life, real faith requires work. God’s grace is a free gift; we don’t earn salvation. But if we are to enjoy the benefits of grace, then we have to be willing to engage our faith. For some, that might mean spending some extra time in quiet. Turn off your favorite electronic distractions, and pray or read your Bible. For others, it might mean getting involved in something – volunteering. Chances are you know what kind of faithful work is best for you. It has been at the back of your mind for some time. The challenge is to find the determination to do it. For the Magi, it was taking a distant journey from a distant home to find God’s Messiah. And because they pursued that end, they found the Christ child.
Jane Marshall was a composer and hymn writer who taught at SMU in Dallas for many years. In one of her hymns, she writes:
What gift can we bring, what present, what token?
What words can convey it - the joy of this day?
When grateful we come, rememb’ring, rejoicing,
what song can we offer in honor and praise?
The Magi brought physical gifts to the Christ child: gold, frankincense and myrrh. But the real gift they brought was their worship. Gold, frankincense and myrrh are symbolic gifts that recognize who this Holy Child really is. Gold is the gift for a king, and Christ is the King of kings and Lord of lords. Frankincense is a form of incense that was used in Jewish worship as an offering to God (Psalm 141:2), so it recognizes Christ’s priestly role. He ascended into heaven and sits on the right hand of the Father, where he intercedes on our behalf (Romans 8:34). And myrrh was used to embalm the dead, so this recognized Christ as prophet. The prophets spoke God’s truth, which usually cost them their lives. So as the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians (5:2), “Christ loved us and gave himself for us an offering and sacrifice to God.” So by their gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh – the Magi recognize that they understand who this Christ child is. What gift can we bring, what present, what token? We bring our worship – “come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ the newborn King.”
That’s what we’ve done this Christmas. And Epiphany brings all of that to a close, but it leaves us headed in a new direction. I conclude with the luminous words of the poet Howard Thurman.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
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 brothers and sisters,
to make music in the heart.
… a charge for us all in this New Year, as we continue “showing forth” the light of Christ to our world.