Editorial note: I’m working on correcting spacing issues. Thank you for your patience in the meantime.
The magi story is really kind of crazy.[i]
Every time I read it that’s exactly what I think.
Who ARE these wise guys, who follow a STAR of all things,
into a foreign land where there is violence and great risk
only to bring three, somewhat random gifts to a baby?
The magi are like, well, some kind of crazy mix
between Emelia Earhart, Indiana Jones, Hannah Montana, and Ghandi.
–They have the courage and fortitude of an Emilia Earhart.
–They have the penchant for adventure
plus a sort of “coolness” factor like Indiana Jones.
–They have really great clothes
and successfully operate in a complicated world
like Hannah Montana did.
–And they possess the openness to God’s will
and the commitment to non-violent change of Ghandi.
I think that’s why I love stories like this in the Bible.
Such a crazy story.
I love how God is speaking to us today through the reading and reflecting
On crazy stories that are old and rich and life giving—stories like the magi.
Even people who don’t think they know much about the Bible
have heard of the Three Wise Men. Or We Three Kings, maybe.
Some call them “magi” (that’s the transliteration of the actual word, magoi)
and others call them kings, though that’s not in the text.
All Matthew tells us about who these enigmatic people are
is that they were “wise people from the east.”
Apparently they were the people who had treasure chests
rather spiritual people –
in touch with their dreams and astronomy.
People who knew their sky and their portents, their omens.
It wasn’t just any sign: it was a particular one,
in some quadrant that pointed them toward the Hebrew people.
And so they travelled, from their home…wherever that was, to Jerusalem –
the holiest city of the Jewish people (both then and now)
believing that someone in Jerusalem would surely know:
“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?
However, the story goes, there was someone else living in this holy city
another protagonist for whom this would be a very important question,
a very disturbing question
mainly because he called HIMSELF the King of the Jews.
That would be Herod, of course – the one who was known as “The Great.”
Sometimes on Seinfeld reruns, you see the episode where
a friend of Jerry’s, Bob Cobb, demands to be called the Maestro.
He is a conductor, after all. For the local police orchestra.
That’s how I think of Herod: a ruler that required people to call him
Herod the Great.
Herod the Great figured that
he would ALSO like to know the answer to that question –
where this so-called new king might be found.
And so he called together the holy men of the temple –
the scribes and chief priests who should know such things.
Herod claimed to be of Jewish lineage,
being a distant cousin from Idumea,
but this passage proves he wasn’t much of a student of his own people.
Otherwise, he would have been familiar
with the prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures
that the Messiah, the King of the Jews, would come from Bethlehem.
These travelers from the East weren’t called “wise” for nothing.
After being told that the King of the Jews would be born in Bethlehem,
the wise sages FOUND the baby – again, following a star
following where God was leading them…
He was with his mother.
And they opened their treasure chests and offered him three gifts:
Gold. Frankincense. Myrrh.
Notice, it doesn’t say anywhere that there were THREE wise men;
only three gifts.
We’ve always assumed that three gifts meant three gift-bearers.
But we just don’t know.
Gold. Frankincense. And myrrh. Such fascinating, awesome gifts.
When you think about it, though,
Except perhaps for the gold, who couldn’t use gold,
these gifts were rather useless for a baby.
But, and here is Matthew’s literary point, I think,
there was something the Magi knew about this poor child
that most people would not know. Did not know.
These gifts aren’t nearly as important, Matthew means to suggest,
As what they SIGNIFIED about the one to whom they were given.
What toddler has use for perfume?
A good teething ring, perhaps, but perfume?
Gold. Ok. But Frankincense? And myrrh?
On the one hand, the Magi gave these gifts to the newborn baby.
On the other hand, though: the gifts point dramatically
to the special gifts God had already given to Jesus.
These gifts were the sort of things you would give to a king:
Gold: the material of crowns and scepters.
The stuff of trade and coin. The sign of wealth
and thus worldly influence.
Frankincense was an expensive perfume.
(Most people didn’t smell very pleasant in those days.
Not just by our standards, but writings of the time
brought this up here and there.
But royalty was different;
royalty was expected to smell good.
So they wore perfume, perfume like Frankincense.)
myrrh a common and important element in anointing ceremonies,
that time when a king becomes a king.
Gold. Frankincense. Myrrh. Gifts for royalty. Gifts for a king.
But there’s something more. These gifts are also considered prophetic.
Again, gold symbolized royalty.
Frankincense symbolized the priesthood.
And myrrh was often used for embalming,
Anointing not just for a king,
But also one at the time of death.
In other words . . . these gifts suggest, for Matthew, that the wise sages saw
how THIS BABY would be an earthly king …and a royal priest,
One on a divine mission who would also die a human death.
A King that actually deserved to be called Great.
Now, I learned at our own baby shower, almost nine years ago now,
I learned that even in our day babies are often welcomed with gifts.
Today’s babies usually receive onesies and car seats.
Someone made this elaborate tower of diapers for us
put together in the shape of a tall cake.
Alas, no Frankincense at our baby shower.
But, have you ever noticed how, even today,
many times the gifts given to newborns are in some sense prophetic,
or at least a hopeful gift that is, on reflection, impractical:
– Maybe a silver spoon in hopes of lifelong prosperity
– Maybe a Bible in hopes of faith
– Maybe a tiny pair of Nikes in hopes of great athletic prowess –
or because … let’s face it: those tiny sneakers are adorbs.
Now: no newborn really needs a silver spoon, or any spoon at that point.
No baby can read a Bible of course.
No newborn needs those shoes,
especially expensive sneakers with a swoosh on the side.
But we have such great hopes for the babies and children of our lives!
Gifts such as these signify and give expression to those hopes and dreams,
And seek to recognize what gifts these babies might possess
their whole lives through…
So, there were great hopes for Jesus too.
At this point in his life,
only a handful of people was aware of who he really was.
Mary knew. And her relative Elizabeth knew. The Magi, it seems, also knew.
This child was special.
This child was gifted
in a way that no other baby has been gifted before or since.
When they saw it, scripture says, they were “Overwhelmed by Joy”.
Their lives were never the same.
The magi returned home by a different road,
Changed by the JOY they had witnessed
And by their humble participation in this divine story….
How are we to be changed by the JOY that we experience
In participating in God’s divine story?
Here is where stories such as this one speak to me on a day like this:
while we were not born with the same gifts as the Christ child,
it is nonetheless true that God has gifted us as well.
And gifted us abundantly!
Like Jesus, WE are gifted for ministry – every one of us.
How has God gifted YOU for ministry,
maybe in ways you don’t even recognize yet?
Next Sunday is the Baptism of the Lord Sunday
and I’ve been thinking a lot about baptism.
When we look at a newborn baby,
it’s impossible to know what God has planned for that child.
How God has gifted her, exactly.
–Maybe her fingers are long
and we imagine she might be born to be a dentist or a piano player.
–Maybe he has a look of concentration at an early age,
and we imagine he’s called to be a great thinker –
but we can’t know for sure how God has gifted that child.
SO, whenever we baptize children, we promise to help raise them in faith.
This includes watching them and getting to know them well enough
to help them figure out what gifts they have been given.
And when we form friendships, relationships in the church,
part of the reason we do that is to help each other discern
the gifts you and I have been given gifts for ministry.
The apostle Paul wrote that all of us have been given gifts for ministry,
For the building up of the common good…
In other words, our inherent abilities are not just for us.
They are from God, and they are for God.
Jesus had a special and unique role,
and he was and always will be the one and only King.
But he was never intended to be the only priest.
In baptism, all of us are anointed to serve.
All of us are invited to experience the Joy of participating in God’s divine story.
We affirm, in baptism, that we are a priesthood of all believers.
The magi appeared to this humble family,
And through their presence and their gift-giving,
They affirmed the angelic claims about who this baby would be.
We too, I think, have a role to play in helping each other recognize
and fulfill the gifts God has given to us.
My friend Jan is a pastor.
Jan happens to be married to a pastor as well,
And I read something she wrote this week about this encounter
That her husband Fred had when he was 11 years old
With an Episcopalian priest who was a close family friend.
This priest told Fred that he had noticed…SOMETHING…in him
That made him want to ponder aloud if…MAYBE…
Fred might want to consider entering seminary some day…
At the age of eleven, the last thing on Fred’s mind was graduate school,
but this family friend planted a seed that grew as the years went on.
Jan’s story made me recall another person I know who – as a 5th grader –
was told she was a pretty good writer.
She was mortified when others read her writing,
but one day, the cool girl sitting next to her – who was an excellent artist –
suggested that one day they might write a book together.
She has never forgotten this,
and it helped her figure out what her life’s calling might be.
Just one person noticing a gift and saying something
about it can change everything.
Paul wrote on more than one occasion that different people have different gifts,
and this is something to be celebrated!
Just as the wise men discerned that Jesus – from birth –
was born to rule, anointed to serve,
and destined to die a human death,
we are called –
to help each other discern what we were born to do,
to hold each other accountable to be what God has anointed us to be,
to offer to each other what we are destined to do.
I feel very blessed to do professionally both what I love to do,
And what I know God has called me to do.
During and after college,
there were people who would randomly tell me
that I seemed to have gifts in preaching and teaching the Bible.
And these gifts have been affirmed over the years.
But, and just as important, a few brave souls have also told me
what I’m not gifted to do.
For example, as you know, I’m not much of a singer.
I can follow a baseline if I have to, but too often I’m off the mark.
Once I was singing my heart out in worship,
but apparently, more than once I had my microphone on,
and afterwards, a thoughtful person shared with me, gently,
that I needed to take a step back
away from the microphone.
This would make worship much more meaningful for the rest of the people here.
My singing would not be as much of a distraction.
What LOVE it took to offer me a gentle word about what my gifts might not be?
Maybe, this new year, this season of pondering our future,
you are wondering what God is calling you to be, what you were born to do.
This is how it works: We get excited about something.
A passion is stirred within us.
We experience the JOY of God’s story,
and ask ourselves how we might participate in it.
We find ourselves thinking about a vision, imagining something that inspires us.
– Maybe it’s reaching out to our homeless neighbors.
– Maybe it’s working with a small group of teenagers.
– Maybe it’s organizing files.
– Maybe it’s freshening an office with new paint.
Something stirs within us, a desire to make a difference, to lend a hand,
but – here’s the confirmation:
others also notice that we are gifted to serve in these ways, too.
Just as God gave Jesus gifts to bring about the kingdom of God on earth,
our God-given gifts are offered to us –
not to benefit us alone, but to serve the greater good,
to do our part to bring God’s kingdom on earth.
Here’s the thing about a true Christian community:
we can’t know each other’s gifts unless we know each other.
It’s impossible to be a community
if we only see each other coming in and out of church on Sunday mornings.
It’s impossible to be a community of faith, to uphold our baptismal vows
if we don’t spend enough time with each other to notice each other’s gifts,
and to encourage each other in pursuing them.
This is what it means to be the church. The community of faith, the koinonia.
And this is what gives me such hope
about the Kirk and our future together.
The Kirk seeks to be a welcoming community.
We know this, and we know that it
that makes a real effort to get to know one another and to love one another,
where friendships in Christ form and last a lifetime….
I believe we are open to asking ourselves how we can do this better.
We are a community that is inspired by the unity we find
when we gather around this communion table
and when we remember our baptismal vows to care for one another
helping our youngest discern about their role in God’s story…
when a new group of leaders from among us
accept a call to lead,
as another group finishes a faithful tour of duty on our session.
The Kirk is a place where we are about living together
As people changed by the JOY we find in experiencing Christ
And as people called to be Christ’s disciples out there in the real world…
What a crazy story, this tale about the wise magi from the east!
May this new year bring an clear awareness
of our God-given gifts and the gifts of those around us.
May we encourage each other in noticing and sharing these gifts.
May we find ourselves Overwhelmed by Joy time and time again,
And run with that joy in ways that make the world a better place….
And may the gift of God’s grace and love in Christ
be the first gift we aim to share. Amen.
[i] This sermon is indebted to a sermon I heard many years ago by Rev. Jan Edmiston entitled “Gifted,” but for which I no longer have original citation material.
Image: Adoration of the Magi, by Qi He, Creative Commons license. Found here.