Gifts of Homage --- A Sermon for Epiphany Sunday

Adoration of the Three Kings - Andrea Mantegna (15th century) 

Matthew 2:1-12

In the beginning, when God was busy creating things,  darkness covered the earth, and God said: “Let there be light; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good” (Gen. 1:1-4). From the very beginning of the biblical story we see the light of God shining into areas of darkness so that the people can experience the presence of God. 

This morning is not only the first Sunday of the year; it’s also the Day of Epiphany. Growing up at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church we celebrated Epiphany with a special evening service followed by a time of fellowship that featured a cake with three Monopoly pieces baked in. One was a thimble, which meant that whoever got that piece of cake had to sew something for the church in the coming year. Then there was a piece that represented the cake, and whoever got it, had to host the next year’s feast. Finally, there was a third piece, but I can’t remember what it was, but it had something to do with this festival we called the Feast of Lights.  That’s an appropriate name for the celebration of Epiphany, because the day invites us to give homage to the light of God revealed to us in the person of Jesus. The opening verses of the Gospel of John declare that the Word of God, which is Jesus, is life, “and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (Jn 1:4-5).  We have come today to celebrate that light, who, according to Matthew, was born in Bethlehem of Judea and is the  ruler who will arise and shepherd God’s people Israel. 

This feast of Epiphany rarely falls on a Sunday, so we tend to skip over it. But this festival reminds us that Christmas doesn’t end on Christmas Day. Although the tree has been taken down, there are still signs of Christmas present in the sanctuary. This includes the Christ Candle, which remains lit. This candle allows us to hear once again the story of the magi, who follow a star to Bethlehem, so they can pay homage to the one who they believe has been designated as the messiah, the king of the Jews. But, the message of Epiphany has more to say to us than revealing the identity of a king. It is a reminder that Jesus embodies God’s light in the world, and that we have been drawn to this light.  

Our creche scene, like most creche scenes, has three kings, just like the song suggests. They kneel, along with the shepherds, before the baby Jesus, who lies in a manger. These creche scenes combine elements from both Luke and Matthew, even though these two stories are very different. For one thing, there aren’t any shepherds in Matthew’s version. There are only magi or astrologers, who travel not to a manger in Bethlehem but a house in Bethlehem. These magi who may or may not be more than three in number,  have followed the star to this place so they can pay homage to the child the stars reveal is destined to be the king of the Jews. While there have been many explanations as to the nature of this star, it really doesn’t matter whether this is a comet or an alignment of planets or some other phenomenon. That’s because it’s the child and not the star that is the light drawing this group of Gentile astrologers to Bethlehem so they can share gifts of homage with the Holy Family. These gifts, which include gold, frankincense, and myrrh, are all gifts worthy of a monarch. 

While the magi believed the message in the sky warranted their journey, not everyone received this news in the same way. We sometimes forget the magi didn’t follow the star directly to the home of the Holy Family. They first stopped at the royal palace in Jerusalem, so they could consult with Herod, the reigning king. After all, if you’re looking for the heir to the throne, wouldn’t you look in a palace?  That makes sense, except Herod didn’t know anything about a new king being born. As far as he was concerned he was king of the Jews, and he didn’t welcome any rivals. So this news frightened him, and apparently, the rest of Jerusalem with him. 

So, to catch us up on things, we have a child living with his parents in Bethlehem, along with astrologers from the east who want to give him homage. They follow a star to Jerusalem, where they consult with a rather tyrannical and devious king about where this child might be found.  When Herod heard this news, he was disturbed, but he knew how to deal with rivals. So he offered to help the strangers. He called in his advisors and asked where the Messiah, the promised one was to be born. His advisors pointed his attention to Micah, who pointed the way to the “little town of Bethlehem” (Mic. 5:2-5). That’s where the promised ruler who will shepherd Israel is to be born. Once Herod learns this information, he sends the magi on their way, with one request. When they find this messiah, he asked that they return and let him know where to find this messiah, so he could go and give him homage.

Now, if you know the rest of the story, you know that Herod had no intention of bowing before the messiah who would shepherd Israel. He didn’t intend to bring gifts to the party. No, he just wanted to know where he could send his hit squad, so they could get rid of the threat before it became a problem. After all, that’s what kings did back then. You get rid of rivals by any means possible. Herod’s plan, if you read just a few verses beyond our passage, was to have every boy aged two and under put to the sword. Jesus would have fallen victim to this plot had his father not received a vision in the night. Joseph heeded the warning and gathered up the family and headed down to Egypt, where the family would live as refugees until such time as it was safe to return home. When that time came it wouldn’t be Bethlehem, it would be Nazareth in Galilee. 

Very soon we’ll sing all five verses of “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”  I’d like to invite you to imagine yourselves being those three kings who bring  gifts of homage to the one who is the light of the world. As we sing, may we heed the call of Isaiah, who cries out to us:  “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”  Yes, the “darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”  (Isa. 60:1-3). 

Isaiah invites us to lift our eyes and look around so we can see who gathers at the light. Then as we celebrate Epiphany Sunday, consider with me these questions: What is the light with which you see God’s presence? That is, how is God present to you at this moment in time? And, do you feel yourself drawn to the light of God? Do you see the pathway that leads to the light?

This epiphany, this manifestation of the presence of God at the birth of Jesus, is but the first of several epiphanies to come in the next few weeks. Next Sunday, for instance we’ll celebrate the baptism of Jesus, at which time God declares Jesus to be God’s son. Later on, we’ll join Peter, James, and John in climbing the mountain, where we’ll see Jesus be transfigured while he talks with Moses and Elijah. These are also points of light that reveal God’s presence shining into darkness. We’re invited to join the magi in seeking the light that is God and that is embodied by Jesus.

As we gather at the light, what gifts do you bring so that you can acknowledge this light of God that shines in the darkness? While gold, frankincense, and Myrrh, might be worthy gifts to bring, the most valuable gift of all is our own lives. As Isaiah speaks of this gathering at the light, when exiles return home and the nations gather in Jerusalem, the prophet says to Israel: “then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the seas shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.” (Isa. 60:4-5).  With these gifts, all creation will “proclaim the praise of the LORD” (Isa. 60:6).  We don’t simply bring gold and frankincense or even camels, we bring our lives to God, so that we might be servants of the Light. As we begin this new year of 2019, having heard the message that the light of God is with us in Jesus, may we join the magi by bringing our gifts into the light and give praise to God.  

Picture Attribution - Mantegna, Andrea, 1431-1506. Adoration of the Three Kings, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46220 [retrieved January 5, 2019]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.




Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Epiphany Sunday
January 6, 2018

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