A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2021 All Rights Reserved
Epiphany Sunday • January 3, 2021
Today is a unique and special day. It is for me the conclusion of a long career as a pastor and minister of churches from Boston to Seattle, in six different states, sometimes in cities, sometimes in small towns. It is as well my last day here with you as a pastor. For though it may be that I will come back some time, see you some time, it will not be the same, it will not be as your pastor or the minister of this church. Something is being put away, something I have savored and enjoyed and for which I have knelt here in this same room so many times and thanked God. So there is a temptation to simply bathe in the warm waters of memories, share them, shape them into a message. But it is also the day we celebrate the final story of Christmas, the visit of the Magi to the stable, and join together in communion. For over 45 years, I have focused my life, my mind, my talents on connecting the scripture to the life of a church, the life of people with whom I shared a church, as I do with you. So let me today, one last time, set aside the backward pull of memories and look with you once again at the strange and wonderful story of the Wise Ones who came so far and see how it calls us forward to follow the star ourselves.
The first problem with the gospel story is that we’ve already heard it. We have little statues of the Wise ones, we have a song, We Three Kings, there is a kings cake, and a whole festival day dedicated to them, Epiphany, January 6. In many countries, that’s the day you give and receive presents and eat special foods—did I mention the cake? With a new story, we pay attention to the details, we figure out the plot, learn the characters. With an old story, we tune out. It’s like listening to your dad telling you how many miles he had to walk to school. So our problem is how to pay attention. We can do that by treating the story like a white board, erasing it, and starting with the same questions we’d have about any story. Who’s involved? What’s their mission? Are they successful? Why is this story here?
Let’s start with the characters in the story. Who do we meet? First of all: Herod, the Roman appointed king of the Jews, a man almost universally despised by contemporaries and historians. Behind him stands the emperor and the might of Rome. The second character we meet is the people of Jerusalem; they’re a walk on part, we’re just told they are sort of a chorus for King Herod, frightened as he is. I’m going to skip the wise ones for the moment and go to the end. There, we meet Mary and, “the child”—isn’t it interesting that the story doesn’t call Jesus by name?
In between are the wise ones, called “magioi” in the original text. That’s a Greek word, a plural, that usually refers to intellectual religious authorities from Persia. They might be priests, they are certainly astrologers. They are Gentiles. The text in our translation reads “Wise Men” but the actual text doesn’t call them wise men, it says nothing about gender, it says nothing about wisdom. It also doesn’t say there are three. That tradition probably came about because of the three gifts.
Now that we’ve met everyone, consider what happens. The wise ones come to Jerusalem, to King Herod, tell him they’ve seen a predicted star—which simply means a particular bright light in the sky—and that there is a prophecy that a new king of the Jews has been born.
It’s interesting to contrast the missions of Herod and the Magi. Herod is all about power. He’s scared; all kings get scared when their successor is talked about. He helps the Magi by getting his experts to send them to Bethlehem but later we learn it’s so he can accomplish his own mission, getting rid of the new king. In the next story, in fact, he is so afraid of this new king that he orders all boys born during the period killed; Mary and Joseph have to take the baby and flee to Egypt for a time to avoid this murderous mission of power.
The Magi, on the other hand, are on a mission to pay homage to the new king. They also give three gifts, often thought to have symbolic significance. Gold, the traditional tribute for kings, myrrh, a very costly ointment used for embalming and frankincense, used as a symbolic upwelling of something good to God, a tangible symbol of prayer. Notice they didn’t give Herod gifts; they didn’t give Herod anything. After they give the gifts, they depart by another way.
Why does Matthew want us to know this story? He’s the only one who tells it. The context can help us understand. Matthew starts out with a long genealogy almost never read in churches that connects Joseph to Abraham and King David. Matthew wants us to know Jesus is part of the continuing story of God’s promise of presence to Abraham. Matthew wants us to know Jesus is born of a royal line, a king in waiting. But the only ones who are going to know this are Jews; no Gentile is going to see Jesus as royal because of David. The implication that the baby will be royal is made specific by the second story. There, an angel connects Joseph to Marry and goes on to say that Jesus is going to fulfill a scripture promise of God’s presence so that he will be called Emmanuel, meaning Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God with us.”
So before the story of the wise ones, Jews have been given a reason to believe Jesus is the Lord. But Matthew is seeing a larger vision. By his time, Christians had stopped being a Jewish sect and included Gentiles. Now he tells this story of the wise ones and the message seems to be that even the Gentiles recognize Jesus as king, and they do it even if the Jewish authorities like Herod don’t. Matthew wants us to know what Herod couldn’t understand: Jesus is Lord.
Jesus is king: Jesus is Lord, Jesus is God with us. That’s the message of this story and we have to ask: so what? What will we do about it? Matthew is telling us about the past: what difference does it make that Jesus is Lord to our future? The first time I preached here, I said that the problem of faith was whether you believed Jesus was here to stay. It’s still the greatest question. Because if he’s here, if he’s staying, if he’s Lord, shouldn’t we do what he says? And what he says is, “Go make disciples.”
What is a disciple? Is it someone who gives to the church, serves on a committee or Board, comes regularly?Look at the disciples in the gospels. There’s James and John, who snap and snark about who’s number one, Judas who betrays Jesus, Thomas who doesn’t believe in the resurrection and Peter who seems to get everything wrong all along but is the first disciples to understand the message of the Magi and call Jesus the Christ. So in a way, the bar is pretty low. But in another way, it’s very high. Because discipleship is giving your whole self, sharing your whole self, in the service and following Jesus Christ. To be a disciple is to know Jesus is Lord and act on it, live from it.
Long ago, the prophet Isaiah said,
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…Isaiah 61:1-2
When Jesus first began his mission in Galilee, he began with this same text: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me.. [Luke 4:18f] Anointing is what you do with kings: it signals someone who leads. Matthew’s message is the same: here is the king, here is the Lord.
Now when I was ordained to the ministry at the Seattle Congregational church, when a group of Deacons of that church and clergy laid hands on me, this same text was read. It’ a mission statement and the mission is to show God’s presence in the world by bringing God’s light to darkness, to show God’s presence in the world by bringing God’s love to the unloved, to follow where Jesus leads as his disciple and invite others to come along.
Today is my last Sunday as a pastor, though not the end of my ordination. It’s fair to ask: did you accomplish the mission? I’ve started two preschools, nurtured another, helped four churches grow their membership, baptized a lot of people, including Jacquelyn and all five of my grandchildren. I helped start a food pantry in one place, a coat ministry here. But the mission isn’t a list of what you’ve done: it’s a challenge about whether you’ve made disciples and that’s harder to know.
When I came here, it was clear this would be a different kind of ministry, one exclusively about preaching and praying. At times it’s been hard for me to give up trying to program things; I think I wanted to build things here. But like Peter stumbling along, you have wonderfully let me learn. Sometimes we’ve prayed in hospital rooms, sometimes here. I learned the answer to conflict wasn’t to win but to go pray for those who disagreed. I learned to do something ancient: to walk humbly with God, inviting others along. Has that made disciples?
The first time I preached here, almost seven years ago, I said the church was intended to be a school for discipleship. So the same question applies to all of us: have we accomplished the mission? We’ve done some amazing things in the last few years. We helped a young woman get free of bondage, we have brightened Christmas for many, many children through the mitten tree, we’ve gladdened the heart of homeless folks through the Capital Latinos, we’ve praised God, worshipped God, listened to God’s word together for six and a half years. But have we made disciples?
It’s a hard question. So much of what we do in churches is just like home: maintenance. There we is always a tendency to polish old furniture rather than finding new missions. There is always a pull to measure attendance instead of discipleship. But people who come here, visit here, are looking for a new vision, not a photograph of the past.
I’m about to do something rare in my life: find a new church where I’ll worship in the pews. And my hope is that I can find a church making disciples. This is what I look at when I visit a church: how many pictures on the wall are people praising the Lord recently, how many announcements in the bulletin are about helping others rather than committee meetings, how many voices are heard in worship. So it ’s not a question just for me, it’s a question for all of us in churches: are we accomplishing our mission, making disciples by sharing the light of God’s love?
The Magi came to signal that the new King of the Jews, the Lord, was also here for the whole world. Great churches are built by being a community open to all, where all take responsibility for the worship and mission of the church. We must constantly fight the tendency to let a church be run by one person or family or an inner circle. We must constantly fight our human tendency to listen to our own wisdom instead of the wisdom of God, which is the Cross of Christ. We must constantly ask: mission accomplished?
So I leave you with that question. I ask it of myself. When two boats meet on a voyage, perhaps both in a strange harbor, the crews will talk, share stories, give advice about the next harbor or a hazard or opportunity ahead. But then there’s a moment when they both untie the lines, leave the dock, depart and watch each other as their courses diverge, finally out of sight. This is the day we untie the lines. But even out of sight, we will remember, we will share a hope and a mutual concern.
I remember laying on a dock in northern Michigan when I first felt the stirring of the Spirit, when I learned to listen to the gospel. I remember all the ways, all the years, I’ve tried to tell what I heard there. I remember the first time I stood in this pulpit, called here by God, chosen by you, to share the call of Christ to discipleship, to ask again and again, “Are we accomplishing our mission?” It’s still my question, it’s answer is still the star that can guide us on our separate ways. May your journey lead you to the Lord;.