January 5, 2020, Unwrapping a King, Matthew 2:1-12 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, which we generally think of as the day the Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem. But the meaning of the word Epiphany is a revealing or manifestation of something, an “aha!” moment. We experience little epiphanies in our lives when something that has been puzzling us suddenly becomes clear – when after hours of head-scratching the answer to a math equation is right there in plain sight, when after ripping out rows of knitting we finally “get” how to do a yarn-over, when we’re reading a mystery and we suddenly know who the murderer is.
An epiphany is like unwrapping a gift. We’ve done a lot of gift-unwrapping these past couple of weeks, and no matter how old we are it’s always exciting. Have you ever noticed that most unwrappers fall somewhere between two extremes? There are those maddening people who slowly and methodically peel away the scotch tape so they don’t spoil the wrapping paper, while the gift-giver sits there in an agony of anticipation waiting for the big reveal. And then there are those free-spirited sorts who ignore the painstakingly careful wrapping job, the spectacular bow and the little extra touches of shining beauty, and just gleefully tear it all to shreds in a matter of seconds. Either way, there comes that moment, soon or late, quick or slow, when the box is opened and the gift is revealed in all its glory.
The thing about a well-chosen present is that it says a lot about the person who is receiving it. This Christmas in our family there were some excellent gift choices. Carroll, who loves to regale us all with little-known facts, got a whole book of trivia, which he proceeded to read to us. Roseanna, who is always ready for a cup of tea, got a beautiful teapot from Colin. Victoria gave Wyatt a carved walking-stick, because he loves to go on hikes. If someone who didn’t know us was watching us on Christmas Day, they could have learned a lot about us by the gifts we opened.
And so it is on this holy day we call Epiphany. Magi from the Far East came carrying well-chosen gifts for a little child who had been born in Bethlehem. And the gifts that they brought were a glorious revelation of who the child really was. These were men who studied the stars and the meanings of celestial events – kind of a combination of what we would call astrologers and astronomers, with a little magician thrown in for good measure. They had seen something new in the sky that they read as the announcement of the birth of a great king in a little nation hundreds of miles, maybe a thousand miles or more away. As it turned out, they read it exactly right, too. And they set out to find the child.
Guided by the star, whether it was a natural phenomenon or a supernatural one, they came at last to the house in Bethlehem where Mary and Joseph and their little boy were living. And it reveals a great deal about those wise men when Matthew tells us what they did when they got there. When they found the house they were overwhelmed with joy, literally, they “rejoiced with an exceedingly great joy.” They were thrilled to bits. They knocked on the door, and they were welcomed into the house, and when they saw the child, with Mary his mother, those wise, wealthy, foreign dignitaries fell flat on their faces in worship.
When they had worshiped Mary’s little boy, they opened their treasure chests and they brought out their gifts. And here is a moment of great Epiphany, when we see the gifts that the Magi offered. Because each gift is an “aha!” moment – each gift revealed something to the world about who this child really was.
The first gift was gold. We read this morning, how the prophet Isaiah had written about this gift, centuries earlier: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn…. the wealth of the nations shall come to you. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”
And we read in Psalm 72, how King Solomon had written of the long-awaited Messiah, “May the kings of Tarshish of of the coastlands render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him! Long may he live; may gold of Sheba be given to him.”
The first gift, gold, revealed what no one could possibly have known about Mary’s little boy, growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood in a small town in a fairly insignificant nation. The first gift of the Magi revealed that this humble little child, maybe still a babe in arms, maybe just beginning to toddle around a little – that he was born a king.
The second gift was frankincense, which is a sweet-smelling resin. Fun fact: frankincense comes from a tree called a Boswellia tree. But it was a priceless gift in the ancient world. And in Israel all the more so, because frankincense was an essential ingredient in the incense used in Temple worship. In Exodus we read: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take fragrant spices – gum resin, onycha and galbanum – and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer. It is to be salted and pure and sacred. Grind some of it to powder and place it in front of the ark of the covenant law in the tent of meeting, where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you.” This incense was so holy that it was forbidden to make it for any common use. Moses wrote, “Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to the Lord. Whoever makes incense like it to enjoy its fragrance must be cut off from their people.'”
In John’s Revelation, the angels hold golden bowls of incense, and the sweet smoke rising up is the prayers of the saints rising up to God.
Frankincense was to be sprinkled on the meats or grains that were burned on the altar as a fragrant offering to God, but it was so holy that the priests were commanded never to use frankincense on sin offerings. The second gift of the Magi revealed that Mary’s little boy was pure and holy. But more than that, it revealed that he was divine, the Son of God.
The third gift, myrrh, was also a sweet-smelling resin, very costly and highly prized. But myrrh was used for a special purpose. It was used for the anointing of bodies for burial. Of all the gifts, I wonder if this gift brought sorrow and pain to Mary when the Magi brought it out of their treasure chests. I wonder if she understood, even a little, that this third gift foreshadowed something of the death that her little child was destined to die.
One of the early church fathers, Origen, wrote about the meaning of the three gifts that the Magi brought, and what they revealed about the child in Bethlehem, They brought “gold, as to a king;” he wrote, “myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God”. That was the Epiphany, the Great Reveal, that came forth from the treasure chest of the Travelers from the East. That was what the gifts of the Magi showed the world about Mary’s little child in Bethlehem.
The people of God throughout the centuries have offered gifts out of the treasure chests of our hearts. Sometimes Christians have offered grand cathedrals and enormous monetary offerings, as if we think he is a God who is impressed by worldly wealth. Sometimes Christians have offered the gift of our self-denial, even our self-abuse, as if we think he is a God who is pleased to see us suffer. Sometimes, like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, we have arrogantly offered our good works, own self-righteousness, as if we think he is a God who can’t see into the depths of our hearts where all our selfishness and greed and fear are hiding.
But if we listen, he has told us what gifts he wants from us. Jesus told us, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice. For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” David, who was a man after God’s own heart wrote, “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; …The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” And God told the prophet Samuel, “I don’t see things the way people do: man looks on the outward appearance, but I see the heart.”
All that God asks of us are our fickle, imperfect hearts and minds, our joys and our fears and our shame and our weakness – just our selves. If we are honest, when all the wrapping is torn away, that’s really all the treasure we have to offer, whether we are shepherds or kings, whether we are young or old, whether we are rich or poor. The gift that he asks of us reveals that he sees each of us as we really are, that he knows that we are broken and imperfect, that he is willing to forgive and able to heal us, but more than that – that he delights in us. The Epiphany, the great “aha!” moment is this: when we simply offer the gift of ourselves, it is revealed in glorious light that the holy Child of Bethlehem is the eternal God who loves us.