Sermon for January 5, 2020
This past week, I received an email from my sister. She lives in northern Ohio and had taken a trip to visit an ancestral home in Marietta, Ohio which is on the Ohio River. She went to a park which had been a farm of our relatives in the early 1800s before it was donated to the city. My sister found some bricks with the names of our relatives on them. She was excited. My ancestors had come to West Virginia and southern Ohio as part of the expansion into the Northwest Territories. They left Maryland soon after the Revolutionary War and traveled by wagon on the National Road or Cumberland Trail to southern Ohio. It would have taken them several weeks to make the trip even though we can make that distance in several hours today. They went to Ohio for economic survival and for freedom.
I have been thinking about long journeys as I contemplate our readings for today. On Christmas, we read about the trip that Mary and Joseph took from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Today, we celebrate Epiphany even though the actual date of Epiphany is tomorrow, January 6th. We remember the journey of the wise men from so far away to come and see this child who will become the King of the Jews.
I would guess that everyone here has done some kind of move or relocation in their life. What caused you to make that change? Have you ever taken a trip for some religious purpose, a retreat or a chance to visit an important religious monument?
People have tried for centuries to provide additional details about the visit of the wise men. Matthew does not tell us how many wise men visited Jesus. He doesn’t tell us where exactly they came from. And he doesn’t tell us how old Jesus was when they arrived. Our understanding of the rest of the story is discerned from what Matthew wrote or perhaps just someone’s interpretation. We often refer to the wise men as three kings but they were not. We call them by the Greek word Magi. According to the Catholic resource center there are four possible meanings for that word Magi. “(1) a member of the priestly class of ancient Persia, where astrology and astronomy were prominent in Biblical times; (2) one who had occult knowledge and power, and was adept at dream interpretation, astrology, fortune-telling, divination and spiritual mediation; (3) a magician; or (4) a charlatan, who preyed upon people using the before-mentioned practices”. We believe it means court priests or astrologers. They may have come from Parthia which was in current day Iran. They were given the names Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Those names did not appear in Christian literature until five hundred years after the birth of Jesus. Saint Bede writing in the country we now call England in the seven hundreds wrote this "The magi were the ones who gave gifts to the Lord. The first is said to have been Melchior, an old man with white hair and a long beard... who offered gold to the Lord as to a king. The second, Caspar by name, young and beardless and ruddy complexioned... honored Him as God by his gift of incense, an oblation worthy of divinity. The third, black-skinned and heavily bearded, named Balthasar ... by his gift of myrrh testified to the Son of Man who was to die." (from Catholic Resource Education Center). People believe that it would have taken several years for the wise men to arrive in Bethlehem and Matthew refers to them entering a house, not a manger. They probably didn’t come when he was an infant.
It is unlikely, then, that our understanding is exactly what happened and some of the stories about the wise men don’t match what we read in the gospel. The embellished stories may cause us to miss the meaning of Matthew’ gospel. What dedication, what commitment they had to travel for several years to see Jesus. I imagine how much faith they must have had in their celestial calculations. Their journey was a pilgrimage and we might think of our journey to see Jesus as a pilgrimage too.
Aren’t we also seeking Jesus? How much effort are we willing to put forth to meet Jesus? If you were to meet Jesus today, what gifts would you bring for him? The wise men brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Their gifts were the things of value in the lands from which they had come. These gifts were a sign that they would give the best of themselves for this King of the Jews.
Saint John Chrysostem, whose name means the one with the golden mouth, wrote about the meaning of the gifts this way, “For by gold the power of a king is signified, by frankincense the honor of God, by myrrh the burial of the body; and accordingly they offer Him gold as King, frankincense as God, myrrh as Man.” Jesus is so many things to us. Jesus is our King and he is our God and yet, he is the one who understands us best because he became human for us.
I appreciate the words of a 17th century saint name Alphonsus Liguori. He wrote about how we might consider the gifts of the wise men, “Give me, therefore, I pray Thee, this gold, this incense, and this myrrh. Give me the gold of Thy holy love; give me the spirit of holy prayer, give me the desire and strength to mortify myself in everything that displeases Thee. I am resolved to obey Thee and to love Thee; but Thou knowest my weakness, oh, give me the grace to be faithful to Thee!” These are beautiful words for us to live by as we celebrate the life of Jesus.
In the song, the Little Drummer boy brought his drum and played for him. I say the gift we can best give Jesus is our effort to follow him in all things. I also believe we should give him our heart.
Matthew wanted us to know that Jesus is the King not only of the Jews but the Savior of all people. In Luke’s gospel, the birth of Jesus as proclaimed to the shepherds, the lowliest people, were the first to come and worship Jesus. Now, Jesus is manifested, is proclaimed to three wise men, three kings. It says Jesus is also the God of the wealthy and powerful. Matthew makes it clear that even people from other faiths and religions and from other nations come to see this child and to give gifts to this Son of God.
Even as a child, Jesus created change. After all, Jesus stirred up all the people of Jerusalem and disturbed the reigning king. He sent notice that he came to earth to bring salvation to all people. Given all of this, let us come and worship this child who changed the world and changed our lives.
Epiphany speaks about the coming of Jesus. The readings provide a continuation of the themes that we have heard already during this Christmas season. In the letter to the Ephesians, we read that Jesus came to earth to bless us. We are given every spiritual blessing that is available in the heavens and on earth. All of this is ours because we are followers of Jesus.
As followers of Jesus, Ephesians says we have been chosen as children of God. Jesus has broken through the veil of sin which separated us from God. Now that the bonds of sin are broken, we are free to fully encounter God’s love for us and to share that love with others. Jesus anoints us as his brothers and sisters, thus we receive all the grace that God has to give. We are to receive the gifts of wisdom and are instructed that “with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”
Epiphany speaks of Jesus as the light of the world. The wise men spoke of the light of Jesus rising. We think of it as a star or a cluster of planets or a supernova shining brightly in the sky. But the action of Jesus shows us that light. Jesus brings light to the world. Jesus takes us out of the darkness. Jesus brings us to the place where we no longer fear, where we have comfort and know of his grace and mercy. This theme that Jesus is the light will continue through the entire season of Epiphany.
I believe that our entire life is a journey. My ancestors traveled long distances for economic security and freedom. We may take a trip to see and learn many things. But our most important journey is our search and our effort to see Jesus. Let us be inspired by the knowledge, commitment, faith and dedication of the wise men. Let us never stop searching for Jesus and living our lives according to his teaching. Amen.
Sermon is based on these readings for January 5
O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Thus says the Lord:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
"Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel."
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.
Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, "He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock."
For the Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.
Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the Lord.
1 How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! *
My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.
2 The sparrow has found her a house and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; *
by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.
3 Happy are they who dwell in your house! *
they will always be praising you.
4 Happy are the people whose strength is in you! *
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims' way.
5 Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, *
for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.
6 They will climb from height to height, *
and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.
7 Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; *
hearken, O God of Jacob.
8 Behold our defender, O God; *
and look upon the face of your Anointed.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.
I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
`And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'"
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
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