a sermon, based on Matthew 2.1-12, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, commemorating the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6) on the 1st Sunday after the Epiphany, January 10, 2016
Epiphany. From the Greek, meaning “revelation.” The season following Christmas when the church proclaims that Jesus came as Messiah not only for his people, but all people. Today, we reflect on that initial, seminal sign of the universality of his mission. Magi, astrologers, philosophers from the East, possibly Babylon, Persia, or Syria, therefore, symbolic representatives of all people other than Jews, come and worship.
Yet, in their worship, the magi are Jesus’ people, for they know who he is; their gifts revealing what he will do. Gold. The tribute to a king. Jesus will rule with love and govern with justice. Frankincense. An offering to a priest. Jesus will make sacrifice, will be a sacrifice. Myrrh. A memorial for a prophet. Jesus will speak God’s truth to heartless, heedless powers and principalities; and, being true to that truth, will die.
Now, Matthew wrote his gospel narrative after the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. After the claims of his kingly, priestly, and prophetic ministry had begun to be made. Thus, Matthew uses the story of the magi interpretatively, revealing who we, as readers of this story, are, Jesus’ people, and what we, like the magi, are to do.
We are to offer sovereign gold to Jesus, thus give less freely the tribute of our loyalty to worldly powers. Powers, whether secular or sacred, that, as institutions, however praiseworthy their founding cause, always have as their primary motive self-preservation, self-perpetuation.
We are to offer holy frankincense to Jesus, thus sacrifice the illusion, our self-delusions of the righteousness of our sacred theologies and the rightness of our treasured philosophies, so we might be free, able and willing to encounter, engage, and learn from folk who are unlike us.
We are to offer a martyr’s myrrh to Jesus, thus acknowledge our mortality, the inevitability of our dying, and, so doing, recommit ourselves to our life’s purpose.
As a preacher, one of my responsibilities is to look through the lens of scripture, always first and foremost, and then to offer to you my reflections on our human existence. And this is what I see in this story of the magi…
As I believe that the meaning of the Christian gospel is love and justice, unconditional generosity and equality for all people, and that Jesus is the incarnation, the embodiment of love and justice for which he lived and died and that the church, the community of his people, is to be an incarnation, an embodiment of love and justice, then I give the gold of the tribute of my loyalty to this cause. Not to an institution for the institution’s sake, even the church.
I often describe myself as “flamingly liberal.” This means that as I age, my list of non-negotiables, the perceptions and opinions, ideas and beliefs to which I am unwaveringly wedded, grows shorter and the list of things I am able and willing to consider grows longer. I am far less devoted to my own worldview. Far more open to meeting and being challenged, changed by encounters with those who differ from me. That openness is the frankincense of my self-sacrifice.
On April 15th, I will celebrate thirty-eight years as a priest of the church and on June 8th, sixty-four years of life in this world. I neither will be as active nor as alive for as long as I already have been. The fragrant myrrh of my mortality and the urgency of engaging my life’s purpose daily fill the nostrils of my consciousness.
So, my dear Epiphany community, I ask to what or to whom will we, people and priest, offer the gold of our loyalty, the frankincense of our self-sacrifice, and the myrrh of our mortality and, thus, our daily urgency to press on in the pursuit of our life’s purpose as Jesus’ people?
Illustration: The Adoration of the Magi, Matthias Stom, 1600-1630