Monday, January 05, 2009

Sermon for Epiphany Sunday

(Sermon 1/4/09, Matthew 2:1-12)

Sing We Now of Christmas: We Three Kings

Today is Epiphany Sunday, and it marks for us the transition between the Season of Christmas and the ambiguous season after Epiphany that marks time until Lent begins. Epiphany day is technically January 6th – 12 days after Christmas – making today technically the 11th day of Christmas. But we celebrate the Epiphany on the closest Sunday before January 6th when it doesn’t fall on a Sunday. Epiphany is the day we remember the arrival of the Wise Men or Magi, men from the East from a sort of priestly class, men whose religious practices included an interest in astronomy, to see the Christ-child. The Wise Men visit Mary and Joseph and the child sometime after Jesus is born – he was maybe already a toddler by the time they arrived at his home, even though we see many Magi in nativities. They brought gifts for the child, believing he would be a king – gold and frankincense and myrrh. Gold for a king, frankincense for priestly significance, myrrh, a perfume used at death in burial rites. There’s no mention of a number of Magi – some traditional stories numbered them anywhere between two and twelve. (1) But over time, of course, we’ve come to think of there being three Wise Men, perhaps because three gifts are mentioned and it seems to work out so nicely.

That brings us to the last hymn we’re focusing on this season: “We Three Kings.” This Epiphany Carol was written by John Henry Hopkins, Jr. in 1857. Hopkins was a Pittsburgh-born clergy person, author, illustrator, and designer of stained-glass windows. One year, he wanted to make a special Christmas present for his nephews and nieces. He travelled to the home of his father in Vermont, who was a bishop in the Episcopal church, and there offered to his family his dramatization of this text from the gospel of Matthew in the form of a hymn, “We Three Kings.” The hymn became published a few years after and quickly spread in popularity. (2) The hymn focuses in each of the three middle verses on the particular gifts that the Magi bring with them, as a verse each describes the reasons behind the gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The word Epiphany is from a Greek word that means literally “coming to light,” or “shining forth.” Epiphany in our faith context is a day when we think of the light of Christ shining forth in the world – Christ coming to light. It’s particularly of note that since the Magi weren’t Jews, their visit to Jesus, recognizing him as a king, symbolizes that Jesus in the light of the whole world, not just of the then-very-small Jewish faith. Jesus comes to be light for the world – that’s what we’re celebrating on Epiphany Sunday. You might remember that back in the middle of Advent, we talked a lot about Jesus being the light of the world, and how because Jesus is the light, he expects us to be lights to the world also, when we let Christ shine through us, be reflected out from us to others. Christ is the light, and because he is, we are also called to share the light of the world ourselves.

Today, on Epiphany day, we can think of a similar comparison. The Christ-child is the main gift to us. The present given to us by God – God come to us in human form. We think a lot about gifts – what we’re giving and what we’re getting during the Christmas Season. But the gift at the center of it all is the gift to us of God-with-us in the Christ-child. I hope we try to let that sink in, even at this late hour, this eleventh day of Christmas. It isn’t too late for us to remember what the most important gift is. But as I was thinking about our hymn focus for today, “We Three Kings,” I started taking note of just how many of our Christmas Carols are about gifts – not only the gift of the Christ-child to us – but songs that are about the gifts that we bring to the Christ-child. Like we are lights to the world because Christ is the light, so, it seems, we bring gifts to the Christ-child out of response to the gift of Christ that God gives to us.

So many of our carols feature a longing desire to be able to return some sort of gift to Jesus. Of course, the Magi bring gifts – maybe gifts a bit out of our league – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But today you also heard an anthem – “The Little Drummer Boy.” This song features a little boy who sings that he is poor like Jesus too, with no gift fit to bring for a king. But he decides to play his drum for Jesus, and Mary nods in appreciation and the baby smiles at him. Or there is the carol that we’ll sing later in the service, “The Friendly Beasts,” where each of the animals at the manger makes claim of a gift they’ve offered to Jesus: hay, the manger trough, a cooing lullaby, wool for a blanket, a ride to Bethlehem for the Holy Family. “In the Bleak Mid-winter” features a verse that reads, “What shall I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would give a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part? But what shall I give him? Give my heart.” Or the Spanish carol, “What Shall I Give to the Child in the Manger?” which talks about bringing grapes and fig leaves and garlands to the baby Jesus. We receive the gift of the Christ-child, and through the years, through centuries of music, across continents, our songs seem to reflect our human response, a desire to return a gift to the baby Jesus, despite feeling that we might not have much to give. In most all of these songs, the narrator wonders if they have something worth giving – and in most all of these songs, the gift given to the Christ-child is something personal, meaningful, from the heart, of special significance to the giver, a gift that only he or she can offer. As appropriate as the exotic gifts of the Magi are for these strange figures from unknown lands, so only the drummer boy can give his drumming song, and so only the donkey can bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. The gift to us is personal – literally, God-in-person, and so the gifts given in response are personal – something of ourselves for the baby Jesus.

This makes a lot of sense to me. I love receiving gifts – I won’t deny it! – and I love giving them! And some of the most fun I have with gifts is giving them to my 1 ½ year old nephew, Sam. In fact, it seems to be a problem for the whole family. My brother and sister-in-law were lamenting this week that they had to rearrange their furniture to fit all the new toys people got for Sam. And what I’ve noticed about the gifts we give Sam is that most of the time, they represent something of us to Sam. My brother Tim gets Sam Yankees gear. Todd got Sam a book about Shakespeare. I’ve gotten Sam a little Drew outfit. Sam’s dad, Jim, gave Sam a travel mug this year just like the one Jim uses, so that Sam can pretend to drink coffee with him in the morning. Mom’s given Sam many items that say “Grandma” on them, or given him toys that remind her of her own children growing up. We all want to give a bit of ourselves to Sam it seems, to give the best of us, our favorite things, our passions, to Sam, so that he’ll love what we love, and know how much we love him!

I think it is meant to be the same for us when we think about Jesus, the Christ-child, the Savior. What do we have to give? What will we give to this child in the manger? What gifts do we come bearing today? Well – what are your passions? What brings you joy? What do you love doing? What do you do well? What motivates you? What gets you excited? For each one of us, we can answer these questions in different ways. We’re unique creations, uniquely gifted. But make no mistake, we can all answer these questions. Sometimes we don’t see ourselves as gifted. But I’m afraid that failing to see the gifts in ourselves can only lead to believing that God has somehow passed us over in creating us uniquely and purposefully. And I’m not willing to go there. So if we’re gifted, it is from these gifts that we can find something to return to the Christ-child. What can we bring him? Or course, we give a bit of ourselves, just like my family seeks to give ourselves to Sam. We bring our best, our favorite things, our passions. And we do it to say to God that we love God as God loves us. Truly, this season really is about gifts – giving and receiving – a gift for us that is priceless, and gifts from us that are unique and from our very hearts, from us, who we are.

We’re at the start of New Year. I know some people don’t like to make resolutions, but to me, resolutions are just signs that we have hope, just signs that we believe, despite our past mistakes, that we can do something different, something new, with the time and life that we’ve been given. And I always want to have that kind of hope. So this year, I’m asking you to make an easy resolution: Make this a year when you resolve to give gifts, give abundantly, give of yourself, and give out of love. What will you give to the Christ-child?

Amen.

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magi

(2) William Studwell, The Christmas Carol Reader, http://poetry.poetryx.com/poets/108/bio/

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