Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany
January 6, 2016
Calvary - St. George’s Church
What’s the strangest gift you’ve ever received?
The Huffington Post (the ultimate source for reliable news and opinion) recently ran a list of the “15 Weirdest Gifts Celebrities [have] Received From Fans.” Most of the gifts were quirky or fun: Ariana Grande received a 42 lb pumpkin, The Jonas Brothers a dead shark, and Taylor Swift, no stranger to being number one on the charts, got the top spot for being gifted a turtle shell. The list wasted about five minutes of my life, but I'm actually glad I fell prey to the click-bait because I found one of the gifts rather interesting. Nabbing the unremarkable fourth place spot was the legendary rocker Alice Cooper who, on an ordinary day just like this one, found a coffin on his doorstep. You heard right, a coffin. Was this from some hater who wanted him dead, or was this a fitting albeit creepy gift to one of music’s darkest musicians? Alice and we may never know.
But put up with a little bit of foolishness with me. What if you were in Cooper’s shoes? What if someone gave you a coffin? What if someone gifted you a place in our columbarium?
If you’re in your early 30’s, with decades of life ahead of you, you might take this as some joke that bombed. But if you’re in your 70’s or 80’s, with only so many years left in life to look forward to, then a present like this might cause distress or offense.
The magician-kings in our Gospel lesson for today are said to give three gifts to the Christ-child: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The first two gifts don’t seem so strange. Gold would symbolize wealth and power and frankincense his role as the spiritual leader of his subjects. Both fitting gifts from one king to another. The third though seems rather strange. Myrrh is a spice or ointment that was used to embalm the dead. This means Cooper's gift was not so unique after all. A coffin, more or less, was laid at the foot of Jesus' mother Mary on the thirteenth day of his life. But while this may seem rather strange to you and me, Alice Cooper and the Huffington Post, to the magician-kings even the myrrh was a thoughtful gift. Even the coffin offered at his doorstep was a way of paying him homage. Because these gifts taken as a whole were a way of honoring a king’s life from exciting beginnings to a gentle end.
The strange part of this story is not so much the gifts, particularly the myrrh, but the other details of the text.
The first strange thing to be aware of is that these magician-kings pay homage to the baby in a stable but not to the king in his palace. Notice, they only kneel to one of these ‘kings’--the lowly Jesus of Nazareth--and ultimately defy Herod the Great of Judea.
The second strange detail of this passage is just who are these magician-kings? “Wise men from the East,” the text tells us. Jews of the first century would view them not so very differently than those shepherds in the fields we heard about two weeks ago. They’d be seen as outsiders, sketchy and unclean. But here they are. Welcomed and received by his mother Mary. Seemingly knowing what they were doing, but having no idea what it meant.
Thirdly, the strange part about the myrrh is not the gift itself, but the type of death it foreshadowed. The magician-kings could not have known the kind of death this ‘coffin' would prefigure. Or that this baby-king would not live a life of luxury and ease, as the gold they gifted him symbolized. Or that he would not be particularly fond of the practices of the religious elite, as the frankincense might imply. Or that the final hours of his life would “not go gentle into that good night,” as of course the myrrh would have suggested. The strange thing in all of this is that Jesus's lowly life and humiliating public execution were so unlike what the magician-kings imagined. So very different from the life and death of any king worthy of homage. (1) (2)
But according to Matthew, the end of the story is what makes sense of what is strange at the beginning. Jesus’s hideous death and subsequent resurrection make all the wish-upon-a-star notions of a lowly peasant newborn being treated as royalty a reality. For in his resurrection the God-man is vindicated as king. His own loss the ultimate kingly triumph over Death. A true and successful "rage against the dying of the light." And as a result the outsiders, the unclean and sketchy; the shepherds and magician-kings, are made insiders. (3)
And the reason why we should care--the reason why this is still good news today--is because whether you're more like a lowly shepherd or a sketchy magician-king, this means that his death was for you.
Now most of you coming to Calvary-St. George’s on a feast day know by now that this means that Christ paid the price for the sketchiness of the whole world, including yours, and that he has forgiven all your crimes. But maybe you’re here tonight and, like me, you still feel like an outsider. Everyone thinks you’re so cool, confident, and self-assured but contrary to the front that you wear so well (or not so well), you feel left out and alone. You long to be loved and admired by the praiseworthy, by ‘the inner ring,’ as C.S. Lewis calls it, but you're just not welcome.
The good news of the Gospel does not promise you access into inner circles or acceptance by the friends you so desperately want, or that you'll feel like an insider, but it does make you an insider of a new community, whether you feel it or not, made up of adopted sisters and brothers and forever marked by the love and acceptance of the One who is most praiseworthy.
So let us "come," and like the magician-kings, "bow down, and bend the knee, and kneel before the Lord our maker" and redeemer. And then get to know one another in our post-service feast. (4)
(1) Crucifixion was reserved for the dregs of society.
(2) (3) Dylan Thomas, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night"
(4) Psalm 95:6