Sunday, January 06, 2008

Epiphany Sermon

The first Christmas present I received this year arrived in the mail late November. I opened the brown box with my name embossed in black permanent marker to find a crèche inside. “My first nativity,” I squealed, “and it’s Olive wood.”

I called my mother before I had even finished unwrapping the scene and sure enough, she had purchased it from her pastor who excavates in Israel every year and always brings home extra gifts. “Thank you,” I told her. “I love it.”

There was the stable with a star shooting over the top of it. There was a palm tree and a cow, a Mary, a Joseph and a removable Jesus in a manger. There were two shepherds complete with removable crooks, two sheep and two wise men.

Two wise men.

“I’m missing a magi!” I cried in dismay.

“Come on Ann,” my roommate said. “You know we don’t know how many there actually were anyway.”

“Of course I know that,” I retorted. “But I want three. This is my first crèche and I want the traditional three magi. I want them to stand just a bit further off than the shepherds since they arrived late and I want three of them.”

I mean, who puts only two magi at the manger scene?

It’s not even aesthetically pleasing.

Of course I set up my crèche on top of my grandma’s old record player anyway and resolved not to tell my mother she bought a nativity scene missing a wise man. I didn’t want her to feel bad. It did come all the way from Israel. ☺

The magi however came from the East – in the original story. They followed a star, so we call them astronomers and they brought at least three notable gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh, so we call them rich.

Truth be told, they probably were astronomers, or better put, astrologers, since they attributed meaning to what they observed in the sky. Everyone in the Middle East did. So if Herod hadn’t been so paranoid about the baby king, he would have been troubled by the appearance of the star alone. The text says all of Jerusalem was. Stars and comets and galaxies meant something tangible to the people back then and moving celestial bodies certainly drew everyone to attention.

The magi probably were Gentiles too, foreigners from Persia-Babylonia although in tradition we like to designate the three men as from Africa, Asia and Europe. This is our efficient way of assuring that we communicate that the magi were definitely foreigners. But these Gentiles speak of a desire to see the King of the Judeans. This was not terribly out of the ordinary. Everyone in ancient Mesopotamia was waiting for a messiah, or in the case of the Essenes, messiahs. And when these foreigners saw the star over Judea, the set out to find what special event accompanied it; they set out to find the king.

These magi were not, as they are now commonly called in Christmas carols, kings, but curious men who bowed before the Jesus-child and chose to call him king. Though they weren’t kings, they knew well enough to bring gifts fit for a king and despite his humble beginning; they bowed before the young child in worship.

And while I may insist on three magi next to my manger, there may have been as many as five or 15 persons who took that long trip to Jerusalem, and brought the king of the Jews the three treasured gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The however many men or women pooled their riches into their treasure chest and began to head west.

For as little as we know about them from these 13 verses in this one gospel, we do know enough to recognize them. Like several of the people listed in Jesus’ genealogy, the magi were foreigners who knew enough of Israel’s God to know to worship the little king. They looked to nature to teach them about the world and as Paul points out in Romans, the natural world is a valid reminder of our amazing God. They headed off on an adventure, not sure of their destination, but sure they had to go nonetheless. In an attempt to locate themselves alongside the Jewish scripture and religion, they stopped at the local palace and received a private consultation with a paranoid ruler. And they are the men, and perhaps the women, who pooled their resources to offer God the very best. We don’t know much, but we know enough to recognize them.

I’ve encountered the wise men in my life before – have you?

The wealthy people who have everything they can get their hands on but who still search the sky for something they can’t put their finger on. The lost people, the outsiders, the foreigners asking directions of the ones who hold the power, the prestige, the privilege... the map. The optimistic people who insist on giving the very best just based on a hunch that it is only in giving that they will receive. The people who start out unsure of their destination, but with a destiny they surely have to keep. The people who look to the natural and find the scriptural. The magi are all around us and in us and they describe us.

Some of us may be the startled shepherds, the ones off in left field, caught off guard in the middle of the night, but most of us are the magi – in a slow process of discovering Christ. Some of us get the lightening bolt encounter with Christ complete with angels singing and bright lights (the conversion story every youth group longs to hear), but most of us pack up our observations about the world and our questions about God, and head out on a journey to find out if what they say about Christ really is true.

The magi make sense. And yet, they make no sense at all.

I mean, who does that? Who abandons their homeland to go in search of a king of another region – and not just to find him, but to offer him gifts and worship? Speaking of worship, who worships a child, adorned not in purple majesty, but Osh Kosh overalls? Who packs a bag full of presents fit for a king, but doesn’t know who that king is yet?

The story, for all its familiarity, seems a little far-fetched.

But then, much of Matthew has so far.

This gospel writer starts his story with a genealogy that includes royalty. Now, I admit, this part is a little exciting. How many people can say they’re actually related to a king? I mean, the closest I get is that I’m a MacBeth, but that just means the women in my family are prone to killing their husbands. ☺ But Jesus’ genealogy goes beyond royalty into the depths of poverty and deprivation. His lineage includes a prostitute, explicitly noted in the text, not for her vocational infamy, but for her heroism. It includes a story of incest, also not swept under the rug below the family tree, but forthrightly stated with the daughter-in-law-turn-mother, Tamar, named and honored alongside her father-in-law/husband Judah and their twin children. This rather infamous lineage seems a little far-fetched considering it births God incarnate. Certainly God should come from royalty, but a long line of royalty and upstanding citizens. Senators maybe and preachers. Only the best of the best. ☺

And certainly God shouldn’t have been born in a cave. He shouldn’t have been born to a young girl made comfortable on old hay with hungry animals bellowing and stomping nearby. He should have been born to a princess with midwives and cool cloths and oil all around. He shouldn’t have been placed in a feeding trough but in a bassinette, golden with satin pillows and soft toys. The idea of God being born in a cave seems a little far-fetched Matthew, come on.

And shepherds being the first ones to make it to honor the birth – that doesn’t seem quite right either. Might as well have been the tattoo artists, or the café waitresses or the cattle farmers who scurried in that night smelling of their craft and trade. It should have been notable people, foreign dignitaries who came to visit God become man. Thank God the magi showed up. At least they had money to offer adequate gifts and their clothes were surely suitable; indeed the text says they bowed before the king of the Jews. Finally, God gets what God deserves.

Except that these magi, for all their expensive gifts and long travels, were not considered the most trustworthy crew. Astrologers, sages and magi were considered shifty back then - sinister sorcerers. Anyone skilled in the magic of pagan religions ought to be kept at arms length. And they were foreigners. They worshipped other gods, looked to idols for inspiration and probably even ate ham on the holidays. They were foreigners, outsiders, unclean.

And they got lost. They began to doubt the star’s ability to guide them and so they stopped in Jerusalem to consult yet another idolatrous man, King Herod. And what did that get them besides a lesson in Old Testament scripture… nothing! The text says the star eventually led them to Joseph and Mary’s dwelling! But King Herod, King Herod as we learned last week, ordered a slaughtering of the innocents after his encounter with the magi who never returned. Kill every child under two years of age!

And so those magi, the ones who actually seemed to know how to honor the birth of a king, those sorcerers, those foreigners, were the instigators, albeit innocent, but the ones who frightened the king enough to wreak havoc on an innocent town. Truly, they’re the reason pain and anguish accosted the Bethlehem community. It was their questions that ushered in a genocide, albeit unknowingly, to be associated with, spoken of in the same sentence as the birth of God.

They may have trusted greatly and brought gifts and bowed before the little king, but at what cost?

This whole story is ridiculous. Fit for Stephen King or Flannery O’Conner, not Jesus Christ, Savior of the World. What kind of a story is this where the baby King’s own people don’t know enough to worship him, so a bunch of Gentile magic men have to come in to make things right? What kind of a story starts off in cattle stall, provokes the murder of innocent children and ends up eventually with the hero dying the victim of capitol punishment?

Our story. God’s story. That’s how God’s story goes.

And ours joins right alongside it. Here we sit at Epiphany. After Advent and Christmas comes Epiphany: the celebration of the foreigners who knew enough to bow before God. Epiphany: the celebration of the beginning of Christ’s life, baptism and ministry. Epiphany: The magi came to see Jesus, and over the years, the people just kept coming – people like you and me.

Epiphany wraps up this twisted Christmas story with what will mark Christ’s career – all people being brought to God – all people: foreigners, idolators, the rich and the poor, people with names, people unworthy of being named – all come before Christ and receive the blessing of being called a child of God.

And we all get to begin again.

Epiphany. The magi. The baptism. The new birth. The new year. The closing of one chapter and the construction of a new.

As we pack up Christmas and put away presents and decorations and the only-two-magi nativity scene, may we remember the wise men, the foreigners who knew only enough to take the journey, and follow their dreams, follow the stars, and follow the stories home to God.

May this first Sunday of this new year initiate a journey for all of us to move closer to Christ in every aspect of our lives. Whether like the magi we follow nature and find scripture, or give back our gifts to the first gift-giver, or even if our journey means rejecting the Empire and choosing to go home with God – may we embrace that path without fear but with joy and worship in our hearts. He may not be where we expect him, but truly we will find the king.


Ann Pittman
First Baptist Church January 6, 2008


Joy said...

beautiful and inspiring. thank you. Oh - i can get you a third magi, maybe i'll send it back with kristen.
love to you.

jenA said...

well said, hon.
Although, if I may interject with some hope - if you are indeed a mick, rather than a mack, you have no need to worry about the propensity toward killing husbands in your real (or fictional) lineage :)

Ann said...

when i read that line the congregation laughed and then i ad libbed (don't ask my why) "That explains a lot..." and the congregation guffawed. nothing like a single pastor making fun of herself from the pulpit.

Anonymous said...

My dearest Ann, what a treat to talk with you this afternoon! Here I am leaving a comment to CORRECT you...something I don't think I have ever done! :) I, too, have a nativity just like yours. Thank you for posting the picture because I spotted the error! You have a Magi in Joseph's place. Poor Joe is off to the side away from the babe! I wonder if that is the way Jospeh ever felt---distanced, cast off to the side.

Next year nudge Joseph closer, Mary would like the company.

Blessings, E!

David McCullars said...

I've got some old GI-Joe action figures that would be perfect for the third magi. In fact, I recommend replacing the two you currently have. And you know they're "wise men" -- because "knowing is half the battle."