St Barbara’s 06.01.19
Rev Tulo Raistrick
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, like my daughter’s slime set? Did you get ones that were a gentle hint, such as my tea-towel? Or ones that left you baffled and confused until things were explained, like my Roman dice-rolling tower a few years ago?
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.
We begin the season of Epiphany by thinking about the presents brought to Jesus by the wise men, and what they reveal about who he is.
We don’t know much about the wise men. They were undoubtedly wealthy and learned, but there is nothing to say they were kings or that there were three of them. That is just the later 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 so striking.
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 that the wise men give to Jesus may have fallen into that last category. Gold was one of the most expensive gifts you could possibly give. One can imagine the thoughts of Mary and Joseph, poor villagers, as they opened the casket containing a gift worth more than all the money they had ever seen in their lives!
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.
At the beginning of this new year, I wonder in what ways can we recognise Jesus as king in our lives. What does it mean for us to bow down in reverence before him? Is he calling us to follow him in new ways, and are we willing to obey? Do we have valuable gifts that we can offer him – maybe the gift of time – time in prayer, time in reading his word, time in serving others – or the gift of offering him our skills and abilities, using them for the work of his kingdom and his glory.
Like the wise men, what gift can we offer Christ this year, that recognises him as our lord and king?
If the first present initially 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.
In viewing Jesus as both God’s Son and as bridge-builder between God and humanity, we say something of huge significance. We are saying that the God of heaven and earth, the God whose greatness and glory is beyond our comprehension, can indeed be known, can indeed be encountered, and that he, in Jesus, is reaching out to each one of us. This year will you more fully accept the invitation to cross the bridge, to enter into the presence of God – whether that is through more regularly worshipping here in church, or through creating space to be alone, or through getting out into the hills, or by seeking the spiritual support of close friends. Whatever you know helps you to encounter God and grow in faith – will you prioritise this, this year? Will you this year make a priority to enter more deeply into a relationship with God that Christ makes possible?
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.
As we receive communion in a few moments time, we will once again be reminded of the immensity of the sacrifice that Christ made for us. Will we, this year, live conscious of the sacrifices God has made for us? The sacrifices that speak of our utter need of God – the fact that such sacrifice was necessary; the sacrifices that speak too of God’s overwhelming love for us – the fact that he was willing to suffer so much for us. For the way of the cross is there from the very beginning of Christ’s time on earth, and more than anything else it shows us who God is – a God of utterly selfless, abundant and overflowing love.
If we allow our lives to be shaped by this story this year I wonder where it may lead us. I wonder what acts of love we will find ourselves instinctively doing. Which loved ones we will find ourselves instinctively going the extra mile to care for? Which people in our work or community we will reach out to in costly acts of forgiveness or love.
Gold, frankincense and myrrh – presents that speak of kingship, holiness and sacrifice. I wonder: what can we give Christ. In the words of Christina Rossetti’s carol: “What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man I would do my part, yet what I can I give him: give my heart.
May God help us all to be generous givers in 2019.