Epiphany January 4, 2015 Isaiah 60: 1-4a, 6b Matthew 2: 1-12
Rev. Catherine Purves
By now I expect that we have given all the gifts that we had planned to give this Christmas. Sometimes it takes a while to get them all distributed. Our granddaughter, Isla, got her presents in installments this year, because it was too much for her to handle all at once. And we needed to wait until after New Year’s Day to share our gifts with belated Christmas visitors from California and Connecticut.
Apparently, Jesus had to wait for his final gifts as well. No one knows how long it took for the wise men to find him. A star is not quite as accurate as a G.P.S., and those determined astronomers somehow ended up in Herod’s court in Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem. Did you notice that when they finally managed to find Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, Matthew tells us (in verse 11) that the wise men entered the house and presented their gifts? Apparently, Jesus and his parents were no longer living in a stall with the animals. Perhaps they had decided to stay on in Bethlehem a while after Jesus’ birth so that Mary could regain her strength and so that the baby would be a little older before they made their way back to Nazareth. Whatever the reason, on this slightly belated day of Epiphany we learn of the surprising visit of the wise men and the presentation of their very strange gifts to the baby Jesus.
I’m sure we have all received at least one gift this year that we contemplated returning. The Christmas sweater that was several sizes too big? The cologne that you could smell a mile away? Andrew decided to give our boys cans of haggis in their stockings this year. If you don’t know what haggis is, you can ask Andrew. Good luck returning those, boys. I think they came from Scotland. Surprising visitors who come with unexpected gifts are all part of the fun of Christmas, even if the recipients sometimes can’t quite fathom why they would have selected such a gift for you.
Imagine Joseph and Mary’s reaction to the arrival of those uninvited guests, strange foreign men, dressed in oriental clothes, who had been riding on camels and sleeping under the stars for a long, long time. They appeared to be educated men, but who did their Christmas shopping for them? Imagine Joseph opening the container of myrrh, a costly embalming spice. (No one had died!) Would he have politely thanked the odd gentlemen for that? Imagine Mary receiving the gift of frankincense. What was she supposed to do with a valuable incense that was used in worship? (They were not priests!) More to the point, why would wise men give such gifts to a newborn baby? Equally surprising, but perhaps more useful, would have been the gift of gold. But those were the three rather bizarre gifts that were presented by the peculiar foreign men who had suddenly arrived at the place where they were staying. I wonder if Mary and Joseph invited them to stay for lunch.
I said three gifts, but there were actually four. I have to credit one of the commentaries that I read with this observation. It was Thomas Troeger, a professor at Yale Divinity School, who pointed out that the wise men gave four gifts. Can you think what the fourth gift was? I’ll give you a minute. They traveled all that way, from the vaguely identified ‘East’ to give four things to the newborn king when they found him. They carried gold and frankincense and myrrh, but think what they said to Herod about the purpose of their visit. They came “to pay him homage.” That was the fourth gift.
The unusual phrase, “to pay him homage,” appears three times in our text. Some Bible translators substitute the word, “worship,” but the actual Greek word is normally used to describe the act of prostrating yourself at the feet of a king. This was an act of total submission – on your knees, nose to the ground. It was not a simple bow; it was not just a heartfelt prayer. It was worship of the sort that represents a total commitment, a giving of yourself, to the true king and ruler of your life.
This was the fourth gift, but in actual fact, it was given first, and it was the most important thing that the wise men gave to the baby Jesus. Unlike the other gifts that are not mentioned until the end of the story, we are told at the very beginning that this was why they came, why they made that long journey – to pay him homage. Herod too, though without a shred of sincerity, said that he was eager to pay homage to the child who would replace him as King of the Jews. Matthew, in telling the story, is suggesting, with some irony, that not only wise men, but kings and presidents and prime ministers should go on their knees before this child.
When the wise men finally arrived and found Jesus and Mary in Bethlehem, Matthew tells us that they were “overwhelmed with joy.” The first thing that they did was to kneel before him in worship, paying him homage, and displaying their utter devotion. It was only then, when their complete submission to this king was clearly demonstrated, that they could offer their other gifts. Though they were quite costly and rare, the three gifts that the wise men produced from their treasure chests were mere tokens compared to the fourth gift, offered first, the gift of worship and adoration.
For us too, worship must be the first gift. Coming into the presence of the Christ child and pledging our love and our loyalty, kneeling and bowing down to the ground, and promising through worship that he is our only Lord – this must be our first gift. The other gifts come later – gifts of service, gifts from our treasure chests, and our efforts to try to live a good life. These are all important, but by themselves they are not enough.
You can be a good person and support worthy causes, you can play by the rules and be a fine upstanding citizen, you can be wise men and women, or even a king, but if you are not really prepared to pay homage to that baby born in Bethlehem, then all of those other gifts and accomplishments are mere tokens. The fourth gift, the gift of your life in worship and undivided devotion, that gift must be first.
What better time than right now, as we are celebrating Epiphany, what better time could there be for us to offer that fourth gift to the Christ child? It’s a shame that we don’t have kneelers, because to pay homage you really have to kneel, at the very least. On your knees, nose to the ground, complete submission is what is called for. Are you ready for that? Is that not why you journeyed here this morning? It’s so easy to slip into thinking that you can get away with giving less. Plenty of people, like King Herod, manage to pay him lip service, going through the motions of worshiping Jesus, without really paying him homage.
Today, let’s make sure that we are following the example of the wise men by truly offering that fourth gift. Before you reach into your pocket looking for gold, or perhaps some frankincense or myrrh, pause now… and pay him homage with the gift of your life. For this baby born of Mary is Christ the King, the very Son of God, our Savior. Come, let us adore him!