A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 6, 2013 (Epiphany)
No one gets lost anymore. I mean really lost. I mean Hansel and Gretel, bird ate the bread crumbs you left behind lost. I mean driving down a dark and lonely highway with no signs of life on the horizon lost. Technology has taken care of most of our directional challenges. GPS, satellites, cell phones, Google Maps. It’s nearly impossible to be lost these days.
I’m not saying that getting completely and irretrievably lost somehow builds character. Though I do think reading a map while steering with your knees is a lost art (please, don’t try this at home). But I do think that never experiencing the feeling of total helplessness leads to a false sense of security. Armed with a cell phone or our trusty GPS, we often feel invincible; or at least supremely confident as we head out on a journey. Who cares that we’re moving into uncharted territory? If we have satellite service and an address to plug in, by gum we’ll get there.
The three kings had a similar sense of confidence as they headed out on this crazy journey that brought them to Bethlehem. They didn’t have the exact address, of course. Nor did they know exactly what they’d find. But it wasn’t hubris that led them to undertake their well-known trek without a map; rather it was a strong conviction and a deep faith that they would be drawn to a place of divine glory.
So who were these wise men that came from East to take a trip into the unknown; trusting in the divine force that held out a sign in the form of a star? Well, we know they weren’t Jews — they didn’t have a history with or a relationship with the God of Israel. By “East” we’re likely talking about Persia or present day Iran. And we also know they weren’t kings per se. They were most likely astrologers — which was considered an important branch of science back then — and spiritual seekers who drew inspiration from a variety of sources. They obviously had means — gold, frankincense, and myrrh were expensive items. They didn’t just pick up a couple of cheap baby gifts at a rest stop along the way.
But this still begs the question: why would God speak to these three scientists of the ancient world who studied and likely practiced a variety of religious traditions? I think the miracle of the Magi can only fully be understood in the context of God’s widespread embrace of all people. It’s not just the rich or wealthy or wise who come to pay homage to this newborn king. Nor is it only the Israelites or religious elite. Through the angels God shares the news of Christ’s birth with the lowly shepherds. They show up, dirty and smelling like sheep to worship the Christ Child. These wise men from the East, respected and honored members of the Gentile community, also arrive to worship the newborn king.
When we talk about Jesus as the light of the world, the Star of Bethlehem reminds us that he truly is the light of the entire world. Not a portion of it, not a particular section or region or people — the whole thing. But stars are like that aren’t they? No one owns them; you can’t claim a star as your own or purchase it for your sole use. Stars shine upon everyone — there’s nothing selective about starlight; there’s no off switch. They exist in a realm over which we have no dominion or say. Kind of like the kingdom of heaven; God isn’t interested solely in those who worship a certain way or think a certain way. And that can be challenging for those in religious circles who believe with deep conviction, that they have all the answers. God is broader than this; God is broader than the questions let alone the supposed answers.
I guess I should address the reason the Magi brought these seemingly bizarre and useless baby gifts. I’m sure Mary and Joseph were delighted when the three wise men showed up with gold, frankincense, and myrrh; though I doubt they had actually registered for these at Babies R Us. Gold’s a choking hazard, letting a child play with a flaming pot of incense is sure to bring DCF knocking at your door; and myrrh, well, baby oil generally makes more sense than an expensive embalming fluid.
Of course these gifts are symbolic rather than practical. Gold was a gift fit for a king. The Magi recognized Christ as king and this gift acknowledges his royal birth. Frankincense was burned in religious services as a symbol of prayer. The Psalmist wrote, “Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense; the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” And so Christ’s priestly realm is acknowledged. And then there’s myrrh. Myrrh was an aromatic embalming oil which foreshadows Christ’s death and points to his role as savior of the world. So in these gifts we see Christ as king, priest, and savior. And the journey of the Magi itself is symbolic of God’s wide embrace of all people.
We may not get physically lost much anymore. But spiritually lost — that’s a whole other issue. And unfortunately there is no technology to help us find our way amid the spiritual wilderness. In a sense the Star of Bethlehem was the original GPS — guiding the Magi to Bethlehem. Perhaps “recalculating” occasionally but ultimately it got them to their destination. We, too, can allow ourselves to be guided by this star but we’re not going to spot it by looking up and out. It’s only accessible when we look down and in; into our hearts; into the place Jesus dwells; the place where we’re able to minimize the distractions of this life and return to our essential lifeblood — our relationship with Jesus Christ.
In the next few weeks during the Season after the Epiphany we’ll hear a number of stories that describe God’s powerful and widespread embrace of all people. Throughout this time, the star looms overhead enlightening our hearts and minds and souls. And the words of the prophet Isaiah reverberate throughout the whole earth: “Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you.”
© The Rev. Tim Schenck