Sermon - 4th January 2015
Epiphany - Gifts and Meaning
Isaiah 60:1-6 & Matthew 2:1-12
Revd Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available in mp3 format via the link on our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
We have all, hopefully, had some experience of gifts over the last week or so! We’ve chosen gifts, wrapped them, given them and, hopefully, been delighted by the reaction of the recipient of the gifts we’ve given. We’ve also, hopefully, received some gifts this year which have delighted us. Giving is a large part of what this time of year is about.
Giving, however, can be so difficult. How do we choose the right thing? What meaning will be attached to the gift – if we give someone toiletries are we saying they don’t smell nice? If we give chocolate what if they are on a diet? They say the thought counts but what if they hate what we give?
We give and receive gifts at Christmas and, in doing so, we both remember God’s gift to us in Jesus and the gifts of the Wise Men whose visit to the baby Jesus we recall in worship today.
We know very little about the Magi – the wise men – who came to visit the baby Jesus. We sing, and think, of three kings. Yet they weren’t kings (the use of the Word king comes from our Old Testament reading which says that kings would come and worship the Messiah) and we don’t know how many of them there were – just that they brought three gifts. My friends in Cologne tell me their remains are in Cologne Cathedral – and there certainly is an elaborate casket with some bones within them there (though I’m not that sure how on earth they got to Cologne on the way back from Bethlehem!
The word “magi” comes from the same root that we get “magician” from. It refers to the priestly class of the Zoroastrian religion in Persia – the area now covered by Iran. As part of their religion the priests paid attention to the movement of the starts and saw meaning in their movement. Astrology was then seen more of a science than we see it now. Interestingly Zoroastrian priests were often eunuchs – we know that the term eunuch means much more than a castrated male in the ancient world and often referred to people who didn’t have children and included gay men. So those wise men who had to go shopping before they visited baby Jesus may have more in common with some of us than we may, at first, realise!
Matthew is the only gospel writer who seemed to know about the visit of the magi, their initial confusion in going to visit Herod to find the new-born king and Herod’s dreadful murder of toddlers in Bethlehem when he realised the magi had tricked him. Matthew is the only gospel writer who knew of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt to find asylum. He has a purpose in including the story in his presentation of Jesus, however. The Magi both fulfil an Old Testament prophecy – which for Matthew was important as he was writing for Jewish people and Jewish converts to Christianity who needed to see Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in Jesus. But the story is more than that – it’s about the showing – the epiphany – of Jesus to the gentile world. The wisdom of the East – gentile wisdom – both finds Jesus and comes to worship him. The learning of the East led the Magi to the Old Testament texts and helped them find Jesus.
Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh
And then they brought their gifts. As we know choosing a gift is difficult; getting it right can be a bit of a nightmare. The gifts the Magi brought to Jesus, however, all have their own meaning.
Gold was, perhaps, the most useful of the gifts and probably helped with the living expenses of the family – especially when they were in Egypt. But aside from it’s practical use, gold is an expensive commodity – both then and now. It speaks of riches, luxury and royalty. Gold was a gift fit for a king – a gift which spoke of Jesus’ kingship.
Frankincense is rather different. It is the congealed gum of a shrub like tree found in the Arabian peninsula. When it’s burned it gives of a sweet smelling smoke and is used in worship. Those of you who came to MCC when we met at St John Chrysostom’s church, or who have a Catholic or Orthodox background will know the smell as incense is used in worship in these churches to represent the prayers of the people rising to God. Incense was used in the Jewish Temple, John the Divine pictures its use in heaven and it has been used throughout the history of the church. In contemporary Protestant churches it is starting to appear in “alternative worship” settings. A colleague of mine proudly told me that he was starting an alternative worship service. When I asked what it involved he told me it had smoke, images and candles; he was a little crestfallen when I said that it sounded like a Catholic mass to me! The gift of frankincense, then, is about worship and prayer. It’s a gift which recognised Jesus’ priestly role.
Myrrh is the most troubling gift. It too comes from the congealed gum of a shrub found in Yemen, Ethiopia and Somalia and gives off a smoke when heated. The smell of myrrh however is not sweet but incredibly bitter. Indeed the word “myrrh” comes from the Aramaic – the language Jesus spoke – word for bitter. Myrrh was used for its value as a perfume, as a treatment to wounds and as something to anoint the dead with. The Egyptians used to it to help embalm mummies and at times in history it’s been worth its weight in gold. According to Wikipedia myrrh is still used today as an active ingredient in toothpaste and mouth washes to help treat and prevent gum disease. In the time of Jesus, however, it was used most to anoint a body after death. It’s a gift which speaks of death – an odd thing to give to a new-born baby. Yet the gift is thought to look towards Jesus’ sacrificial death. The gift recognises Jesus’ role as a sacrifice.
Giving and Recognition
The magi searched their own wisdom and learning when they saw a new star arise in the sky. They may have known of the Jewish Bible and of the long-promised Messiah – they may not have known of these writings until they met up with Herod. Yet their own searching and learning let them to start a pilgrimage to see the new-born king. They recognised in Jesus the hope of the ages and they acclaimed him as king and God and sacrifice as the words of our last hymn described.
We too have searched for Jesus. We may not have started with the Bible – but with a sense of yearning for something more, a sense of wanting to find acceptance and love, a desire to thank God for the things God has done for us, a need to find comfort and meaning in a world which can be so painful or any number of other things which started our search. Maybe our searching wasn’t started by anything as dramatic as a new star appearing in the sky, but we started to search and we have found Jesus. Not in the stable of Bethlehem but at work our world and in our hearts.
We too are required to bring gifts full of meaning to Jesus. We don’t bring the gold, the frankincense and the myrrh, but instead, we bring ourselves to offer them anew to him. We read again the gospels, we hear them read to us each week, and these tell us the things that Jesus was interested in, the aspects of life with which he involved himself and the concerns he had. As we seek to know and serve Jesus, we have to involve ourselves in the things that he did.
Jesus was a great observer of his own society. He saw the injustice of the tax collectors who added a huge commission to the taxes they had to collect (that was the system), he criticised the religious leaders of the people who denied them real spirituality in order to keep the status quo with the powers of the day, he got angry with how religion was made into a money making scam and excluded the poor, he was concerned with how people lived and his words echo the Old Testament prophets in their concern for justice.
How do we observe and critique our own world. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s not. Where are the injustices that we need to critique? In an age of the mass migration of people, limited economic resources and a shrinking of public services injustice surrounds us. We are not kept docile by religious leaders but by the media who entertain but don’t challenge us, who help us become outraged at the things which don’t threaten the powerful and whose attention span is very limited indeed. The next scandal, the next person eliminated from the talent show or the next political crisis keeps us entertained but never worked up enough to help change our world.
The Magi discerned who Jesus was and brought their gifts to him. They knew nothing about him, what his message or concerns might be, yet they came to worship.
We know what Jesus’ concerns are, we know what things he was interested in and we choose whether to bring the gift of our lives to him.
We choose whether we worship Jesus in the abstract – the harmless babe of Bethlehem or if we truly worship Jesus and involve ourselves in his concrete concerns of life, injustice and righteousness.
This involvement in his concerns, his ministry, is the gift we can bring him this year.