Feast of the Epiphany 2002

Epiphany, Year A
January 6, 2002
Old St. Paul’s, Baltimore
The Rev. Timothy E. Schenck

They may have been wise, but their choice of baby gifts leaves a little something to be desired. I could understand if they’d showed up bearing a rattle, a sippy cup, and a new car seat. Something a baby could actually use. But gold, frankincense, and myrrh? What are a baby and a couple of first-time parents possibly going to do with those? First of all, gold coins are a choking hazard, an infant could easily get burned with frankincense, and, well, what exactly is myrrh?  Hopefully they included a gift receipt. 

But at another level, what else could these three men possibly have offered? This was no ordinary baby who was born in Bethlehem, but the savior and redeemer of the world. Their response to the news that the long-awaited Christ child had arrived was one of adoration and love. No gift would have been truly adequate or appropriate. So it’s really the act of giving itself rather than the gifts themselves that are significant in this story. The act of a long and hard journey just to be in the presence of the baby Jesus for a brief moment: this is what the wise men had to offer. Simply following the star was their real gift to Jesus. And the only possible response to Christ’s entrance into the world was to literally change the direction of their lives by taking a detour to Bethlehem. The gifts themselves, the gold, the frankincense, and the myrrh, were symbols of their adoration and love of God. And they were gifts worthy of a king, the finest the wise men had to offer. But they were merely tokens of their affection. A response to a kingship no one yet understood, a kingship not based on thrones and robes and kingly power. The wise men certainly didn’t have a full understanding of Jesus’ ministry or his place in the world. They didn’t know the nature of Christ’s kingship. But they knew that God had acted in a tangible and dramatic way. And they came to the manger to honor God and to praise God for this new revelation of the divine presence in the form of the baby Jesus.

Okay a quick aside. I guess I should at least have the decency to explain what myrrh is. It’s actually an oil. Not an ancient form of Johnson & Johnson’s baby oil mind you, but a rare oil made from the resin of a particular desert tree. In biblical times it was a very valuable commodity and was, therefore, thought to be a gift fit for a king.

Each Sunday morning we follow the example of these three wise men because worship itself is a gift to God, a human response of praise and thanksgiving. This morning and every Sunday morning we gather as a community to offer our own version of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We offer our prayers, our voices, our gifts of money, bread, and wine, as well as our time. And we bring them to this altar just as the wise men brought their gifts to the manger. Worship is the only response we know how to make to the loving grace of God. And as inadequate as it feels sometimes, God accepts this response as a sign of our desire for an ongoing relationship with the one who has created and redeemed us. We may have a better understanding of Christ’s kingship than the wise men had, but our real gift is still the same: we offer ourselves to God as a sign of our adoration.

And if the very act of worship itself is a way of offering our gifts to God, there is one specific moment in the liturgy when this is most evident. You’ll notice that in a few minutes the choir will sing an anthem while the ushers pass around the offering plates. After that we’ll all stand to sing a hymn as our offerings of money and bread and wine are processed up to the altar. In a very real way we’ll be following that bright star right up the aisle as we head straight to the altar. And obviously there’s a practical element to this – these gifts need to make their way up to the altar so we can continue the service (it’s hard to have communion without bread and wine). But more importantly, through these gifts, the entire congregation is symbolically gathering at the altar. We are offering our gifts to God in the same way the wise men offered their gifts to the baby Jesus. We approach the altar, they approached the manger.

As we take down our Christmas trees, pack up the ornaments, and decide whether to eat or toss out that last piece of fruit cake, I’m reminded of the last verse of the Christmas hymn In the bleak midwinter: “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.” There is no greater gift that we can offer to God than ourselves. All we can do is offer our hearts, minds, and souls back to God. God’s loving hand is extended to us and we respond by reaching back in the only way we know how. Just as the wise men reached back and paid homage to God in the only way that they knew how. So, through worship we offer our own modern-day version of gold, frankincense, and myrrh and we, like the wise men, continually gain so much more in return. 

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2002

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