St Barbara’s 04.01.15
I wonder what presents you got for Christmas? Did you get ones that you had been hoping for? Did you get ones that caused a squeal of excitement and surprise? Did you get ones that were a gentle hint, such as my window-cleaning pack? Or ones that left you baffled and confused until things were explained, like my Roman dice-rolling tower?
Today marks the beginning of Epiphany, the season in the church when we remember those stories that mark the revealing of Jesus as God’s Son. Over the next few weeks, we will hear the words of God at Jesus’ baptism, we will be present at the wedding of Cana when Jesus does his first miracle, we will witness the calling of the first disciples, and we will be with Joseph and Mary as Simeon and Anna proclaim that the baby in their arms will be the saviour of the world.
Appropriately enough, we begin Epiphany by thinking about the presents brought to Jesus by the wise men, and what they reveal about who he is.
It awaits another sermon I think to explore more fully about the wise men themselves. Enough today perhaps to recognise that whilst they were undoubtedly wealthy and learned, there is nothing to say they were kings or that there were three of them. That is the tradition that has grown up around the story. But it was certainly a common feature of the ancient near eastern world for educated people to track the course of the stars and to believe that great events on earth would be reflected in the heavens. And there is growing astronomical research to suggest that something highly unusual was happening around the time of Jesus’ birth – Jupiter (thought of as the royal or kingly planet) was in conjunction with Saturn (often thought to represent the Jews) three times around that time.
So the appearance of wise men from the east following a star they believed heralded the birth of a new king, whilst highly unusual, would not have been beyond the realms of possibility in first century Israel.
But it is the presents they bring that is our focus today.
The first present they bring is gold.
Presents, it seems to me, can fall into a variety of different categories. There is, amongst others:
the “fantastic – this is what I was hoping for” category;
the “wow- what an incredible surprise – this is brilliant” type category;
the bemused “er… what is it” category, and there is
the “oh no, that’s a bit over the top, I only got them a box of chocolates” category.
I think the gift of gold may have fallen into that last category. Gold was one of the most expensive gifts you could possibly give. It was the type of gift only given to a king, as a mark of respect and obedience, the giving of one’s most costly and valued treasures. The wise men were making a statement as to who they believed Jesus to be – a king of immense importance and majesty.
No wonder Herod felt threatened. A notoriously suspicious and ruthless king, Herod had ruled Judea for over 40 years, a client king of the Romans. He had succeeded where few had succeeded in the past in keeping the kingdom of Judea relatively peaceful and free from revolt, but only by ruling with an iron hand, stamping down on any dissent or challenge to his rule. As he grew older, he grew increasingly paranoid. He murdered his wife, his mother-in-law, and three of his sons, suspecting them of plotting against him. Emperor Augustus, hardly averse to the assassination of relatives himself, once said that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son. And as he approached death, Herod rounded up a collection of the most distinguished citizens of Jerusalem and ordered that on his death they should also be killed, so as to ensure that as no one would mourn his own passing, at least there would be tears shed on the day he died.
We have sadly seen that story of paranoia and violence outworked many times even in our own day. Dictators from Zimbabwe to North Korea, from Iraq to Libya, have crushed opposition and decimated populations. Jesus knew what it was to be born into such a context, and yet he holds up to us a very different model of kingship and authority. He is a king who shows vulnerability, and whose power is expressed through love. He exercises his power for the good of others, not to lord it over others or to protect his own interests.
At the start of a new year, we would do well to think about how we may handle any of the responsibility and power we may have. Whether as a spouse or as a parent, whether in our workplace or in the community, how do we use the influence and authority we have? Do we use it for our own means, to ensure our own interests are primarily met, or do we look out for the interests and needs of those around us? And we would do well to pray for our government and community leaders too, that they may model such behaviour.
If the first present just seemed a little over the top, a gift of gold for a baby born in a smelly cattle shed, then the next gift may fit into that category of unusable presents: “its a nice thought, but do you think I could ever fit into that?”
Frankincense was used in religious worship. It wasn’t an air-freshener or a potpourri or a sweet smelling candle used in homes. Its purpose was quite simply to be used in the Temple for the worship of God. For a baby born into a family of carpenters it seems quite a redundant gift, like buying someone a tour guide of Australia when they have a phobia of ever travelling anywhere by plane or boat.
But once again, it is what the present reveals about who the wise men believe Jesus to be that is so important. To give the baby frankincense was to say one of two things about him. Either, that he was God – for only God could be worthy of receiving the offering of burnt incense; or that he was the high priest, the only person allowed to come into God’s presence and offer the incense.
Priest meant “bridge-builder” in Latin, the one who could build a bridge between people and God. If Jesus was to be a king, but of vulnerability and service; his ministry was to be one of reconciliation, of building the bridge between people and God.
That is our calling too. To be people of reconciliation. At the start of this new year, what will it mean for each of us to be people of reconciliation. How can we help those who we know are estranged from God to be reconciled to him? Maybe we can invite them along to church services or some of our events. Maybe we can chat with them about our own faith. Maybe we can find practical ways to express to them the love of God.
Well if the first two gifts initially appear somewhat over the top or unusable, then the third gift, myrrh, is just downright odd. Myrrh was a special cream used on dead bodies before they were buried to keep the body preserved. It’s like giving a fit and healthy person a magazine of coffin designs as a present. At some time in the future it possibly might be handy, but is this really the best or most appropriate present you could come up with?
It seems such a contrast to the gold and frankincense which speak of Christ as King and God. How did this third present get into the camel’s satchel bags? And yet its very oddness points to the paradox of the Gospel message. That the true King, the one who would reconcile us to God, would not live a life of triumph and glory, but live a life of suffering and death. Indeed, the whole of this story has resonances with a later story in the Gospel, the Passion narrative. There too Jesus is hailed as king of the Jews; there too, Israel’s leaders gather against him and form secret plots; there too his life is put at risk. We are left in no doubt. Jesus came into the world to die. It was not some terrible mistake, a plan that back-fired, but the only way for God to forgive us and draw us back to himself.
I wonder, in this new year, what sacrifices will be asked of us? What acts of love will we be called on to do? What loved ones will we be asked to go the extra mile to care for? What people in our work or community will we need to reach out to in costly acts of forgiveness or love, recognising that such acts may come at a high cost for ourselves?
The greatest presents we can give Jesus as we begin this new year are those that mirror the gifts of the wise men: using the power and authority we have been given with love and humility, working as people of reconciliation in bringing people back to God, and being willing to sacrifice ourselves out of love for others.
May God help us all to be generous givers.