Sunday, January 03, 2010

Sermon for Epiphany Sunday, "Until Next Time"

Sermon 1/3/10, Matthew 2:1-12

Until Next Time

Today is Epiphany Sunday, and it marks for us the change between the Season of Christmas and the transitional season after Epiphany that marks time until Lent begins in late February. Epiphany day is technically January 6th – 12 days after Christmas – making today technically the 9th 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.

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. Jesus is the light of the world, and because Jesus is the light, he expects us to be lights to the world also, when we let Christ shine through us, and 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.

It is the gift to us of Jesus, the light of the world, that we celebrate on Epiphany. 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 ninth day of Christmas. It isn’t too late for us to remember what the most important gift is. On Christmas Eve, when I was talking about the Magi, I mentioned that so many of our songs talk about the gifts of Christmas – not just the gift to us of the Christ-child, 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.

Of course, there’s “We Three Kings,” which we will sing in just a bit. 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. But there are many others. 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. But there’s also “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. There’s “The Friendly Beasts,” which we sang at one of our Christmas Eve services, 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 I shall 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! Through high school, okay, college even, I used to tell everyone when my birthday was, how many days away it was, and give helpful suggestions for presents. But I also truly love giving gifts! And some of the most fun I have with gifts is giving them to my nephew, Sam. In fact, it seems to be a problem for the whole family. My brother and sister-in-law try, regularly, to prevent my family from getting too much for Sam. I’ve never seen my grandmother move faster than when she seemed to be racing my Great Aunt to get a present into Sam’s hands. I’m afraid that he sometimes says now, on greeting you for a visit, “What did you bring me?” It’s a problem.

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 t-shirt that says “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” a line from Macbeth. This year I got Sam a book while I was at the Grand Canyon. Sam got a guitar this year from his great uncle, so that he can play like daddy does. 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 as I’ve mentioned in the past, 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. For some, that means sharing gifts of music – singing, instruments. For others, that means crunching numbers – caring for the financial health of our congregation behind the scenes. Some of you share the gift of education – teaching our children, our youth, and our adults, and helping them grown in faith. Some of you have a passion for generosity – we celebrate about 30 families increasing their pledge to the church this year, and we celebrate such giving to our food baskets that we hand out that I had one recipient tell me she hasn’t seen her cupboards that full in a long, long time. You share your gifts for leadership, as many of you are preparing even now to step into new roles on our Parish Council and committees. And there are so many other ways you have and can choose to use your gifts to serve God. And we do it, we give, 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.

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