A Sermon for the Salem United Church of Christ, Harrisburg, PA
by Rev. James Eaton, © 2023
Epiphany Sunday • January 8, 2023
Isaiah 60:1-6 • Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 • Ephesians 3:1-12 • Matthew 2:1-12
Rise, shine, give god your glory. I can’t help hearing the old camp song when I say this; do you know it? Rise, shine, give God your glory. Today is Epiphany Sunday here, two days after the actual day, January 6. Sometimes it’s called Three Kings day and in the rest of the world, it’s when gifts are given and the promise of Christmas celebrated. ‘Epiphany’ is a Greek word meaning manifestation. I said that once and after the service someone said: great you explained one word I didn’t understand with another I don’t get. It means seeing suddenly some flash of God’s presence. It’s as if the whole world is lit up, it’s like a dark night split by the instant flash of lightning. Epiphany is God’s light shining into the world and as John said, as we read in our call to worship, the darkness has not overcome it.
I grew up with the Three Kings: did you? My grandmother had a small nativity scene, little wooden figures like the ones we have here but much smaller. Every year we’d set it out on a low end table. When she wasn’t around, my brother and I would take the figures down and play with them. I liked making sailboats out of a pointy board and a dowel mast; Joseph and the shepherds became crew. Mary and the baby were passengers; the animals came on board too, like the ark. But the kings on their camels weren’t meant for shipboard life; they galloped on the shore. Originally they were joined by a chain but that got broken; so did one of the camel’s legs. We saw them as toys and didn’t understand when my grandmother got angry at us for playing with them. That’s what the Three Kings are for many of us event today: the last toys of Christmas. No other Christmas characters have had so many stories made up about them; no others are so richly embellished with fantasies and made up things nowhere in the Bible. Today, I want to put away the toys, stop playing with the figures, and see how this story in Matthew can help us rise, shine and give God the glory.
Who are the these three? They are Magi. The word gets translated “Wise Men”—although the text says nothing about gender—or ‘Kings”—although the Greek text doesn’t call them kings. In the area that’s now Iraq and Iran, schools of magicians and astrologers and dream interpreters existed for hundreds of years. They were called Magi, from the same root word that gives us ‘magic’. We have such people. They are the talking heads on TV, who guess about the future, they are the therapists who help you look forward, they are the people who magically make Alexa work for you. They aren’t kings, and sadly even the camels that were so much fun in the crèche aren’t in the story. There is something else to understand about the Magi: they are rich Gentiles.
We’re all Gentiles, so we often miss how important this is. Yet in that time and place, no more fundamental distinction existed. So it’s surprising to see them here in this Jewish story. Matthew gives us a long, detailed genealogy of Jesus, connecting him with Abraham, detailing how he is descended from King David. Then he tells us about Joseph’s reaction to Mary’s pregnancy, and how it takes an angel visit to get the two together. Not a word from Mary but isn’t that just like a patriarchal culture to tell us about a birth by telling how hard it is for the father without mentioning the mom? After the story we read today, we hear about Herod’s slaughter of young male children which is so like Pharaoh in the time of Moses. When Herod dies, the whole family goes home to Nazareth and we pass to John the Baptist. These are all good Jewish stories and yet here, right here, smack in the middle, is this strange story of these rich Gentiles, the Magi.
They know what they are doing; they’ve seen a star, read the ancient Jewish prophecies, risen up from their daily lives and gone on a long journey. Now they’re near the end; they go to the Jewish king, supposing he will know what’s happening. Yet here is Herod and his advisors without a clue. Bethlehem is about five miles away but the Magi who have come over a thousand miles know more than Herod. They are the emblem of what the Apostle Paul will later call a mystery; that, “…the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” [Ephesians 3:6] No more fundamental distinctions exist in that time than Gentile and Jew, rich and poor. But here is God breaking boundaries, bringing rich Gentiles to poor peasants.
Why are they here? To give gifts. The one part of the creche Magi that is in the story are the gifts. A lot of stories have been made up about the gifts but the truth is these gifts are the working tools of Magi. Incense is burned when mysterious things are done; myrrh is used for magical tattoos. And gold always comes in handy. The other thing in the real story which often isn’t in the creche is a star. To all who had to navigate before GPS and maps, stars were a real gift. Since ancient times, humans have used the stars to mark a path. The story tells us the Magi saw a star and it leads them to Mary, Joseph and Jesus; they give their gifts and then a dream tells them to go home a different way. No names, no genders, no kings; instead, a story of the gift of a star, the gifts to the child, the gift of direction. This is a story about gifts.
Gifts aren’t always easy. Sometimes we don’t recognize them. One father told this story about a special gift.
I was cleaning my 6y.o. son’s room, and doing my annual purge of crap he’s managed to hoard. I have this big pile of stuff to throw out in the living room, when he comes in, pulls some stupid paper butterfly out of the trash pile and tells me I can’t throw this away because it was a present.
He goes to a lot of birthday parties and gets a lot of goodie bags with this sort of thing, so I tell him it’s junk and it’s going in the trash. Besides, it’s all bent up and I tell him…that if he values things he should take care of them.
He leaves, and some 5 minutes later he returns, visibly distraught (he’s clearly been thinking hard about this). He says “It was a present…for you.”
“For father’s day.”
I swear at that moment I heard every angel in heaven slow clapping.1 https://www.reddit.com/r/tifu/comments/4bpzmj/tifu_by_cleaning_my_sons_room/
What is a gift? Is it the stupid paper butterfly or is the butterfly a pedestal for the time and care given to make a connection with someone? We make up stories about these gifts when the truth is staring us in the face: God has given a gift of presence—the Magi rise up from their homes, go following the shining light of that gift before they even know where they’re going. And they give God not just gifts but their witness of God’s glory. Rise, shine, give God your glory.
Isn’t this what we mean to do every Sunday during the offering? Passing around plates is not an effective way to raise money. Someone has to hunt through her purse; someone else pulls out his wallet and considers which bill to give. I know personally, it’s the one check I write all month, all our bills are handled electronically. Sometimes I forget on my way out the door and then there’s nothing to put in the plate. All our pews are numbered and the reason is that once upon a time the church raised money less by passing a plate for a collection but more efficiently by renting our the pews. Anyone who knows about fundraising today would tell us to use email and a web service that does subscriptions so our offering is automatically deducted from our bank accounts just like Netflix. No, we don’t do the offering because it’s efficient, we do it to act out this mysterious thing: giving gifts.
Christmas is not about toys and the real Magi are not toys. They are an emblem and a guide to how we should react to God’s gift of presence in the world. That gift is for all people and it’s fitting that here in this story, in the midst of these Jewish stories, it’s Gentiles, not local leaders who recognize the gift and respond by bringing their own gifts. Rise, shine, give God your glory, indeed. That’s what they are doing: giving gifts that may be strange to us but are their stock in trade, giving what they use, giving what they have, giving who they are. For them the “Joy to the World” about which we sing has become real. And, as one writer said,
…when joy to the world becomes real, it breaks chains, topples hierarchies, knocks over our carefully laid out game and says: Start over, start new, start now. This is the message of the story of the sages, this is the message of Christmas; joy to the world, the savior reigns.Diana Butler Yeats
Rise, shine, give God your glory. Isn’t your glory the gifts God has given you? Isn’t that what we are meant to be as a church?—people who give themselves, give their gifts, imitating God’s gift giving in Jesus Christ. When we do this, when we rise up and become part of that great giving, then indeed God’s presence shines, then we give God glory. And then, how wonderfully, then indeed: Joy to the world.