By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, January 8, 2023
Reading: Matthew 2:1-12
Our gospel today comes from the Bible. It quotes the Bible. But the people in the story . . . don’t know the Bible. King Herod was a puppet “king of the Jews.” He hears a new king of the Jews is born and he doesn’t like it one bit. He has to ask his religious advisors where the messiah is to be born. Stop right there. How much has Herod been paying attention in church? He could have used one of our children’s Sunday School classes or an Alpha course, just one of Rev. Lori’s discipleship classes, and then he’d have known.
The magi, these wise men, traditionally called kings, also don’t know the Bible. But it’s not their fault. They know the stars. They’re really astrologers, who seek signs in the heavens. They’re not from Israel, they’re from far away. Scripture says, “from the east,” perhaps Persia, modern-day Iran, or Parthia, one of Rome’s enemies, but no one knows. They come following a star. Now, you’ll notice there’s not much stargazing in the Bible. The Jews aren’t stargazing people. They knew some neighbors who were, and they rejected that way of knowing God. Jews learn about God from the Bible, by retelling the stories. Not by following the stars. These magi belong to some other religion, if we were being rude, we might call it a pagan religion, foolish enough to seek out signs in the heavens.
Now this is rich. Israel’s messiah is born, the savior of the world, and who notices? Not Israel. Not the religious people. Not . . . us. But the wrong sort of religious people, these foreign, pagan stargazing enemies from God knows where. Have you ever noticed that Jesus always attracts all the wrong people? There’s wisdom here for talking kindly about other religions. And for realizing how far short we fall of our own faith.
If you’ll bear with me, I’d like to try an experiment. I’d like to intertwine what I say with “We Three Kings.” It’s an Epiphany hymn, about illumination, “ah hah,” or “oh, that’s the way things are.” I do this partly because I love this hymn, and am sorry Christmas is over. But also, to show what can be learned from every hymn. We don’t sing in here to pass the time. We sing so the truth will burrow deep down in our souls and make us new. No need to stand but let’s sing the first stanza of number . . .
We three kings of Orient are;
bearing gifts we traverse afar,
field and fountain, moor and mountain,
following yonder star.
The first gift is gold. Jesus is a king, receiving a royal gift. Gold is also a strange gift. What does a baby need with gold? A baby is fascinated by a rattle, a bug, her own fist. Why gold? We remember taking our sons to the zoo when they were little and saying, “Look elephants!” They said, and “Look here, ants!” That gold will make sense soon though. The holy family will be on the run for its life, to Egypt, to escape Herod’s fury. How will this poor family make that trip? With this royal gift of gold. Look at how God provides.
A writer I admire points out where gold comes from. Deep in the earth, it has to be hauled out at great expense, purified, heated, pounded into shape. Then it’s not just strong, its useful and beautiful. So too with us. We have gifts deep inside us. But they take time and energy to be hauled out and purified. And that can be painful. But it results in beauty and strength both.
I’ve visited with some of you recently. Two are professionals in opera. Not my genre of choice, but it’s pretty clear how singing can enrich our church’s life. And if we think it’s hard to make church relatable to a new generation, how much harder opera? Please let’s share notes. Another works in event-planning. Yeah, we need to throw more parties for our neighbourhood like Jesus does. In a church I once served a soon-to-be new member joked, “Well I collect comic books.” No use for that right? Except we started a ministry in a local trailer park, and guess who could relate to kids 50 years younger? Comic book man. God provides everything we need, whether gold or opera or comics, all we have to do is look.
What strange gift do you have to bring to Christ this new year?
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
gold I bring to crown him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
over us all to reign.
Frankincense, divinity. We don’t tend to use incense in Protestant churches, and maybe this story will explain why. I was in charge of the chapel at the divinity school, and I found a censor and a brick of incense. What could go wrong? I lit that thing. And people went running from the chapel, one lady fainted, you couldn’t see the smoke was so thick. I asked someone who knew how long that brick of incense was meant to last. Four months. I burned it up in 20 minutes. Oops. Incense smells strong, its smoke rises up toward God and disappears. It’s that way in our souls. We all have a prayer in us, even if we don’t know it. But it takes fire to rise.
Smell can be our most powerful sense. Ever been surprised by a smell and suddenly you remember something decades old? Or swear you catch a whiff of your mother’s cooking? It’s also fleeting, just a whiff. Try and grab for a smell, a memory, and you can’t catch it, it’s off, elusive, like God, just out of our grasp. The hymn sings that “incense owns a deity night”: it’s a sign of divinity. This little one rules. St. Ephrem the Syrian said that at Christmas, the reigns of the universe are handed to a baby. Bumpy ride ahead. For right now we know the little one rules. One day all creation will.
Have a look at the painting in your bulletin. Too small I know, one day we’ll project images, and all be illumined. Our forebears loved this scene of the magi coming to the royal family. Often, you’ll see them in a ruined building. The old truths are crumbling with the truth in person cooing in Mary’s lap. And the magi are leading a train of people, countless throngs, all humanity coming to Jesus. One of the kings is often depicted as African. Another as Asian. Another as European. The gospel spreads to every corner of the earth. God loves every person and longs for relationship with all of us.
I wonder what surprising persons will come to Jesus here, in this new year? Let’s sing verse three.
Frankincense to offer have I;
incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, voices raising,
worshiping God on high.
“Myrrh have I its bitter perfume.” A massage therapist brought her strange gift to church once. A cotton ball dipped once in myrrh. And it about knocked me out. That stuff could raise the dead. In the hymn it’s a sign of Christ’s coming death. Not to throw too big a damper on the party but Christ is born to die. In icons of Jesus’ birth his swaddling clothes look a little like grave clothes. Myrrh is bitter. For now, gentiles bend the knee to the king of the Jews. Later, a so-called “King of the Jews,” Herod Antipas, will execute Jesus. Other gentiles will write “King of the Jews” above his head. His crown will be thorns, his throne a cross. And his few friends left will anoint his dead body with, you guessed it, myrrh.
But the hymn writer didn’t know everything. No one does. Myrrh was also a medicine in the ancient world. This third king’s gift also shows us that Christ heals. Some of you suffering right now would like to know when. I would too. We don’t know. But we do know he heals. And will one day heal everything that hurts. Death, disease, pain—Christ absorbs it all, and gives us back nothing but life. Let’s sing again.
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
God getting born in our world ends up in death. And yet, and yet, somehow, in some way beyond our ways, this death means life for the world. “Sealed in a stone-cold tomb,” we sang, but life will flicker there, the seal will fail, it’s really death that’s been killed.
T.S. Eliot imagines the return of the wise men this way:
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
These astrologers made their livelihood on their star-gazing faith. Now that the stars have pointed out the king of kings, they have to die a kind of death to their old ways and be raised again. Just like all of us have to. Not just once, but again and again. Sergei Bulgakov a great Russian Orthodox thinker, says this, “The wise men recognized his birth was also the beginning of the way to Golgotha. The crib was the symbol of the grave.” This is good news, the strangest sort of good news ever: “Death in Christ is actually life; it is resurrection with him.” Dear Russia, please return to your genuine Orthodox roots and their deep peace. That’s what “enemies” are for—to be converted into friends.
I love the word “sighing” in that last verse. Every sigh will be transfigured into praise. You’ll see. One day everyone will see. Let’s sing that final great verse.
Glorious now behold him arise;
King and God and sacrifice:
sounds through the earth and skies.
Bethlehem, where Jesus is born, means “house of bread” in Hebrew. I like to invite folks to the communion table by saying Jesus was laid in a manger, a place for food, surrounded by animals, so all of us, God’s animals, can eat him up. When we take the Lord’s Supper it works backwards from ordinary food. Most food we digest, and it becomes part of our body. But with the Lord’s Supper, it digests us and makes us part of the body of Christ. Now one knows how, we just know that’s what happens. Friends, let us bring our gifts to the Christ child, and in return receive his gift of his body and blood. Alleluia, alleluia, sounds through earth and skies. Amen.