January 5, 2020
January 5, 2020 Worship
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, transferred
You know, there are so many things about this church family for which I’m grateful, and among them are those three kings. I just love them. I guess more precisely, I just love the hands and hearts that created those kings for us. Their names are in the bulletin this morning, the team that, last year, brought these new kings to life. It’s amazing to see what God does with the talent God creates – and it’s just as amazing to see how many people are blessed by it. The first set of kings here lasted 20 years and blessed thousands of people who came to see them. These three will certainly bless thousands more.
Seeing these works of art makes me wonder about the kings themselves – these guys who trekked across distant lands to find the true King signaled by a star. We call them “the three kings,” but the Gospel story tells us they were “wise men.” The Greek word is magi, taken from the Persian name of a class of priests and astrologers. So, they weren’t kings themselves but proto-scientists serving kings – the members of the Royal Society of their day. To our modern, bifurcated minds, they were the people we’d least expect to be looking for the messiah, guys who today would be spending the night at the telescope, searching for quarks and black holes. But back in the day, people could hold more gently side by side the search for God and the wonder of natural observation.
Anyway, we’re told these magi came looking for the one born to be king of the Jewish people, Yahweh’s people. Their plans are almost foiled by King Herod, the Jewish anti-messiah, the little man playing with power like a spoiled child. Herod cozies up to the magi trying to protect his position and planning to kill the child they find. Thankfully, the magi listen to God speaking in their dreams instead, and they go home by another way.
But before they do, the story tells us, they play the role for which we remember them. As we just heard in that great Epiphany carol,1 they bring Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Now, these gifts each have meaning, as the song tells us. But let’s hit the pause button a minute and wonder: Do you think the magi knew the deep, theological meaning of the gifts they brought? Those gifts were all valuable commodities back in the day, riches from the royal palaces where they served. But do you think the magi knew the future? Could they see what was coming? Or was God using their story to help tell a story bigger than their own?
Anyway, the gifts they brought tell Jesus’ story. First, the magi brought gold, truly the gift fit for a king, symbolizing earthly power and majesty. This is the gift you might expect for a baby born to be a king.
They also brought frankincense. It is what it sounds like – incense. Now, this gift’s not so obvious for royalty, but it had deep meaning for this king, God’s own king anointed to rule God’s own people. For centuries, the kings of Israel were seen not merely as political authorities but as God’s viceroys, stand-ins for the true king, Yahweh. In fact, at coronation, the king of Israel officially became the son of God, as the psalms say – Yahweh’s adopted child and ruler on earth (e.g., 2:7; 89:26-27). To honor that, incense would be offered, just as it was offered in Temple worship and just as we offer it here – fragrant smoke rising both to delight the deity and to carry the prayers of the people heavenward. So, frankincense honors not just a king but a god – or, in Jesus’ case, both king and God.
And then there’s myrrh. Again, there’s a huge double meaning here. The kings of Israel were anointed with this fragrant resin in oil as a symbol of their royal authority, being set aside not just in power but in holiness. But myrrh was also used to embalm bodies for burial, practically coping with the smell and symbolically setting the person aside for a holy journey into the afterlife. It’s no accident that it’s myrrh that’s used to anoint Jesus’ body once he’s taken down from the cross (John 19:39). So, as the song says, this little child is “king, and God, and sacrifice” for us.
But back to the question: How much of all this did the magi know? I suppose there’s some comfort in thinking they got the full picture up front, maybe seeing visions of Jesus’ miracles, his crucifixion, and Easter morning. That could be. But each of their gifts also made sense as a token of fealty for merely a new king of the Jewish people. So, what if the magi were living into the story as they went, beginning a journey they’d be making for the rest of their lives? What if they were giving the best they had to offer in the moment, living as faithfully as they knew how to live, right then and there?
In other words, what if they were like us – doing the best they could with the life they had?
As most of you know, we’ve had a tough couple of weeks around here. Alongside the joy of Christmas has come nine funerals between Dec. 19 and yesterday. We’ve bidden farewell to these children of God: Robert Helmstetter, Bryant Barnes, Bill Meeker, Sid McKnight Jr., a child of Cate and Stephen Duerst lost during pregnancy, Todd Johnson, Harry Jordan, Becky Benson, and Louise Schloerb. In the nine funerals celebrating these lives, we’ve noted their unique stories, the ways each not just brought joy to the people around them but changed people’s lives as they revealed God’s love in ways large and small.
And I wonder: How much of the narrative of their funerals would have been news to the people whose lives we were celebrating? I really hope that, when we die, we get the chance to listen in to our funerals, either in person or through some cosmic livestream. I really hope we get the chance to hear how people remember us, the difference we ended up making, the ways we brought love to others. Because my hunch is that none of the people I just listed would have recognized the huge difference they were making as they just did the best they could in life as it unfolded. So, I hope they got to hear not just the remembrances and homilies but the conversations at the receptions afterward. Because, as these people gave the best they had to offer in the moment, they were revealing God in the world, putting flesh and bones on God’s love – even though they likely had no idea, most of the time, just how much their lives mattered.
So, what about you?
It seems to me there are at least a couple of important questions for each of us here. First: How do you think you’ll be remembered at your funeral? It might be worth some assessment, as we begin a new year with resolutions about making fresh starts. I would encourage you to be lovingly honest with yourself in asking and answering that question: How do you think you’ll be remembered at your funeral? Just as some of us maybe think a little more highly of ourselves than we ought, many of us err the other way, blind to the blessings we are to those around us. If you take a lovingly honest look in the mirror this new year and see that you’ve been a little too pleased with yourself, fair enough. But take just as long a look to see how you, yourself, are an agent of God’s love – how you, yourself, give people a window into heaven.
Here’s the thing. If all these funerals have shown us nothing else, they’ve made clear that every life matters – including yours. Your existence points to realities way beyond the mornings when you’ve measured out your life with coffee spoons.2 Every day, as you give the best you have to offer in the moment, God uses your own life to make divine love real and change the world.
So, now you might expect a grand call to action: Go out and save the planet, or reform our politics, or end poverty, or stop gun violence. Now, if you can see a way to do any of those things, by all means, go get busy. But for the rest of us, here’s both a lesser and a greater call. In this new year, amid your resolutions to exercise and eat better, resolve this: Read the Bible. Say your prayers. Come to worship. Forming your heart for good is really no harder than that. We’ve even got a great way to start – taking part in the Good Book Club, a chance to read the Gospel of John as a congregation over the next couple of months. But the point isn’t checking a box on your list of resolutions. The point is forming your heart to make your life a blessing to the people you touch. So, I’ll say it again, because it’s simple enough to remember: Read the Bible. Say your prayers. Come to worship.
Maybe that seems like a cop-out in a world of problems, but I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s God’s solution to a world of problems. God came into this world as one person. God touched the hearts of individual magi and fishermen, merchants and tax collectors, asking each one of them to live differently, to love more, and to share what they found with others. Your life matters just as much as theirs because God uses us – uses you – to put flesh and bones on love. And your capacity to love grows with every choice you make, every action you take, to form your heart more and more like Jesus’ heart.
So, in this new year, make the time to read the Bible, say your prayers, and come to worship. Follow the star – and just see what happens next.
- Hopkins, John Henry Jr. “We three kings of Orient are.” The Hymnal 1982, 128.
- Eliot., T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Available at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/44212/the-love-song-of-j-alfred-prufrock. Accessed Jan. 3, 2020.