Second Sunday of Christmas 2014

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Tim Schenck on January 5, 2014 (Christmas 2, Year A)

Every Christmas pageant you’ve ever witnessed is all wrong. If Stephen Spielberg was directing our pageant here at St. John’s — which is unlikely because he’s both too expensive and Jewish —  he’d be storming all over the set yelling “cut, cut!” There’d be an awkward silence as shepherds stared at wise men and Mary shot Joseph a quizzical glance.  

The thing is, in the Bible, there are shepherds and there are wise men but never the twain shall meet. Luke’s gospel has shepherds; Matthew’s gospel has wise men but they don’t arrive until twelve days later – the arrival of which we celebrate on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany, which concludes the 12 days of Christmas. So the traditional Christmas pageant is really a mash-up of these two stories. 

It’s not really that big a deal — they all eventually arrive in Bethlehem to worship the newborn King. And I’m certainly not going to be the Grinch who stole the Magi and disallow wise men in the pageant. So we can call this poetic license and leave room for everybody — that certainly speaks to the spirit of the manger. 

But we do lose something when we combine these stories so it’s important to pull them apart once in awhile. The shepherds with all their requisite livestock, point to Jesus’ humble birth and his coming to the marginalized of society. Shepherding wasn’t a glamorous vocation — it was hard work, lonely, and it certainly wasn’t lucrative. The presence of the shepherds also showed that Jesus came first to the Jews. He was the Messiah intimately connected to the God of the Hebrew tradition — the Law and the prophets.

The arrival of the Wise Men tells the world that Jesus came not just to the Jews but to Gentiles as well. These foreigners had access to the salvation freely offered to all people. This was quite a radical thing — and difficult for Jews who had been waiting so long for the arrival of their Messiah to accept. “What do you mean with have to share him with the rest of the world? His arrival was foretold by our prophets, our Scripture, and he’s one of us.” We see in the early years of the church, as recorded in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, that this was a major theological struggle, one eventually falling on the side of salvation for all believers.

Now lest you think I’m in a debunking mood, this might not be the best time to mention that the three kings weren’t actually kings at all. “Wise men” is a much better translation. These three men, known apocryphally as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar (their names aren’t in the Bible) were star gazers, early astronomers perhaps. The word “magi” is a Latin version of the Greek magoi, referring to a sect of eastern holy men. It’s where we get the word “magic.” So unlike almost all of Jesus’ early followers they were not Jews expectantly waiting for the messiah. They were Gentiles from a distant land, which made them outsiders.  And so these wise men, knew little if anything about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yet something compelled them to follow this star that had risen in the east. 

The symbol of this universality is, of course, that star; the Star of Bethlehem. The thing about a star is that you can’t own it. Stars can’t be hidden; there are no “private” stars – stars are visible to everyone. Different cultures may call a particular star by different names but it’s still the same star. So there’s a universality in this particular star – one that transcends race and nation and social status.  

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was in Kentucky this past October to lead a conference for a bunch of clergy in the Diocese of Lexington — I realize being trapped on a mountain with a group of priests is a recurring fantasy for many of you. We stayed at a rustic camp owned by the diocese up in the mountains. And the first night as we passed around the moonshine (that’s a terrible stereotype, it was actually expensive bourbon), I gazed up at the sky. I had forgotten just how many stars there actually are up there. The sky was covered with stars of all shapes and sizes. And it made me think about this special star that had such a compelling hold on those wise men and how it connects all of us one to another throughout the world. I’m pretty sure that was a theological insight rather than the bourbon talking.

But this also seems to relate to the prologue to John’s gospel we read last Sunday — the same reading we hear every year on Christmas Day. That line about how “The light shines in the darkness but the darkness did not overcome it.” Stars shine in darkness; they are surrounded by darkness. As bright as they are if you go far enough away, you will encounter darkness. Jesus came to us as the Light of the World, as that light shining in darkness. This doesn’t mean there isn’t still darkness. Jesus’ entrance into the world doesn’t mean that darkness automatically goes away. There is still evil in the world; bad things still happen. But the Light of the World gives us hope even in the midst of the darkness — that’s the Incarnational promise made manifest by Jesus’ birth.

And in this story darkness, or evil, is personified by King Herod. You can almost hear the trickery in Herod’s voice as he tells the three wise men to “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” There’s a sinister quality to this that, fortunately, the wise men caught onto.  

What happens next is a gruesome tale you’ll never see portrayed in any Christmas pageant. When Herod can’t locate this child, this king of an entirely different kingdom, he slaughters all the babies under the age of two in and around Bethlehem. The light shines in the darkness but the darkness cannot overcome it.

In a sense, we’re all a bit like the Magi. We may not have camels or carry myrrh around in the trunks of our cars but we’re all searching for Jesus. We’re all on a spiritual journey that can take us to some pretty dark places along the way – for the wise men it was Herod’s palace. For us it might be pain or abuse or addiction or isolation or depression or a broken relationship. But like that ever-present star it continues to shine in the darkness offering up hope and giving us direction.

The next time you see a Christmas pageant — presumably about 12 months from now — enjoy it. Here at St. John’s it’s hard not to from the gold star thingy that I’ve come to refer to as the holy tarantula to the Chambord bottle carried in by one of the three kings — I think that’s supposed to be the stand in for myrrh. But remember the distinct traditions of the shepherds and wise men as they both add to the fullness of the Christmas story. And then go ahead and hitch yourself to that rising star.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 

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Epiphany 2013

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

Feast of the Epiphany 2008

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on the Feast of the Epiphany 2008. 

“Is that it?” Christmas morning is not complete at our house until one of the kids looks around at the wrapping paper strewn all over the floor and asks, “Is that it?” And, yes, that is it. Well, at least until we go over to Grandma’s for lunch and discover that Santa accidently dropped a few gifts off at the wrong house. Only then is it really ‘it.” Then the kids tune me out as I explain for the umpteenth time that Christmas is about more than the presents. Or as the Grinch puts it, “Maybe, Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” And they know this, in theory. At least until the last gift has been torn open. 

Everyone likes to get presents. I’m sure Mary and Joseph were delighted when the three kings showed up with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Although, let’s face it, these aren’t the best baby gifts. Gold’s a choking hazard, a flaming pot of incense is sure to cause third degree burns, and no one really knows what myrrh is. A Diaper Genie would have been so much more practical.

Of course these were symbolic gifts. 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.  

But as with Christmas morning, it’s not about the gifts. As we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany this morning, it’s about the star. To follow the proverbial star in our lives is to follow Jesus. Following the star is what gives meaning to our lives. Otherwise we spend our days on this earth searching and wandering aimlessly. We flit from one thing to the next without purpose or direction. Until suddenly we’re either engaged in a massive midlife crisis or we come to the end of our lives wondering if there’s been a point.

The good news is that there’s always time to follow the star. It’s easy enough to spot. It’s the only one you can see by looking inward instead of upward. It’s the star that resides within. The three kings followed it by looking into their hearts first and then gazing into the sky to follow it.

This morning we’re baptizing a couple of babies. Tyler Mook and Charlotte Anderson will be welcomed as the newest members of the Christian faith. And through baptism we will set them on the path towards that star. In a few moments as we all renew our own baptismal covenants we will reorient ourselves in the direction of the star. But we can’t always follow this star in isolation. It takes a community of faith to keep us focused on the star that leads to the risen Christ. Which is why baptism takes place in the context of the larger community of faith. The Christian life is best approached “with God’s help” and with the encouragement of our fellow pilgrims on this journey of life and faith. And it is to this faith that Tyler and Charlotte are called by Jesus through all of us. 

After the baptism I will give each child a candle with the words, “Receive the light of Christ.” Now you could argue that a lit candle is about as good a baby gift as frankincense. Okay, I’ll probably give the candle to the godparents rather than to Tyler and Charlotte. And the tradition is that the candle is relit each year on the anniversary of the child’s baptism as a reminder of the promises made on their behalf. But it’s also a reminder to keep following that star.

Because that’s what this day is really all about. The miracle of the Epiphany is the universality of the star. The three kings were not Jews expectantly waiting for the messiah. They were gentiles, which made them outsiders. They were star gazers, early astronomers perhaps. The word “magi” is a Latin version of the Greek magoi, referring to a sect of eastern holy men. It’s where we get the word “magic.” And so these kings, or wise men, knew little if anything of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And yet they had access to the salvation freely offered to all people. That’s the thing about a star. It can’t be hidden; there are no “private” stars – a star is visible to everyone. Hence the word “epiphany” – which we define as a sudden perception of meaning. The Magi had an epiphany when they followed the star and met the Christ-child. 

I’m not sure if Mary and Joseph immediately recognized the significance of the gold, frankincense, myrrh after they tore off the wrapping paper or if they just stared at each other wondering why the kings didn’t simply give them a gift card to Baby Gap. But whatever their reaction, it was never really about the gifts. It was about the star that brought the Magi to the stable. And the ensuing knowledge of salvation that the light of the world had been born in Bethlehem. May we all continue, with God’s help, to follow the star that leads us to the risen Lord.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2008

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

Second Sunday after Christmas 2004

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on January 4, 2004. 
Based on Matthew 2:1-12 (Christmas 2, Year C).

Magnets fascinate me. I don’t actually understand how they work, which just adds to the mystery. Something about polar opposites that I never paid attention to in science class. But I happen to think it’s kind of cool that an outside force can make another object bend to its will so quickly and so completely. Once that magnetic pull kicks in, there’s just no stopping it. 

I don’t get to play with magnets very often anymore but at our house we have a lot of small wooden trains that attach to one another with magnets. The trick is finding the right end so the trains stick together. If you try to connect them at the wrong end, the two magnets push against each other and you can’t get them together. But when you get them in the right order, they magically snap together and only the most hideous train wreck will pull them apart. Train wrecks are popular at our house. 

In the context of the Epiphany story, I couldn’t stop thinking about magnets. Because something like that unstoppable magnetic pull must have drawn the three wise men towards that star of Bethlehem. They knew nothing about this God; they weren’t Jews, after all. They weren’t breathlessly awaiting the arrival of the Messiah as foretold by Hebrew Scripture. But they felt the pull of the divine. A pull that is not reserved for the outwardly religious, but a divine beckoning open to all people. It is a universal pull. One freely offered by God to all humanity. And it’s as if the three wise men had no choice but to follow that star towards the manger. Unbeknownst to them, they were being pulled by God. But that’s the power of Christ. He draws us towards him in mysterious and magnetic ways.

And it was this great yearning to be near the heart of God, unarticulated though it was, that drew them to Bethlehem. It’s a yearning we all know and feel. It’s what draws us here this morning, it’s what draws us to seek out a community of faith, it’s what draws us to this altar. The very calling of God was that inexplicable force that drew the wise men towards the star of Bethlehem. It’s what compelled them to take up a journey into the unknown. And it’s the same spirit that drives our lifelong human response to the divine initiative: a yearning to draw near with faith.

Another thing I like to do with magnets is to take two trains and see just how close I can bring them together before the magnetic pull become irresistible. You can get pretty close, you can feel them start to pull together, and then if you’re fast enough you can pull them apart again before they stick. But at a certain moment you reach the point of no return and whatever you do, you’re powerless to pull them apart again. The two magnets stick together and there’s nothing you can do about it. Now, in my defense, I don’t do this for hours at a time. But I do sometimes find myself on the floor playing with these trains while the boys have long moved on to other toys. It’s a little embarrassing actually.

But, again, in the context of the Epiphany story it’s a helpful thought, that God is continually pulling us closer. Because, as we all know, there are certainly plenty of things that pull us away from God. Temptations abound. Distractions are everywhere. And it’s easy to lose sight of our relationship with God. I guess the trick is to put ourselves in position to feel this divine pull. And there are many ways to do this. Through worship, serving others, the reading of Scripture. And this is as good a time of year as any to think about ways to put ourselves in better position to experience God’s loving tug. It’s a new year after all. Many of us are concerned with getting some order back into our lives. Resolutions run rampant. And while diet and exercise often top the list, what about spiritual resolutions? Last week Nora’s sermon urged us to spend more time with Scripture. That’s not a bad place to start. 

In order to feel that magnetic pull of Christ in our lives, we need to put ourselves in position to be pulled towards him. We need to turn towards God and simply let God do the hard work of pulling us in the right direction. We just have to turn and surrender. That’s what the wise men did. They opened themselves up to the possibility of hope and then they simply followed the star, drawn like magnets to the newborn Savior of the world.

Here’s an easy resolution for all of us: let that inexplicable magnetic pull of Christ draw you closer to the risen Lord. Don’t try to resist the power of Jesus. There’s freedom in just letting go and allowing the divine magnetism of Jesus to pull you along. And in this offering up of ourselves, we mirror the magi. We let go of our fears and simply follow the star wherever it leads.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2004

Second Sunday after Christmas 2010

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 3, 2010 (Christmas II, Year C)

It’s irrational really. Big bad Herod afraid of a little baby. King Herod the Great, powerful and feared ruler of Ancient Palestine, terrified of a helpless infant lying in a manger in Bethlehem. A man who ruthlessly ruled for 37 years as the appointed Roman king scared of a newborn child.

For all his bluster Herod lived in constant fear of losing his throne; which only made him tighten his grip, brutalize his subjects, and abuse his power. When he encounters these three Wise Men from the East who inquire about this child who “has been born King of the Jews” Herod’s hackles are raised. Seething with anger and driven by insecurity he plots to destroy this perceived threat to his sovereignty. But of course this child was no danger to Herod’s reign, for Jesus was a different kind of king; one not concerned with earthly power but one possessing heavenly authority. 

You can almost hear Herod’s internal conversation: “Newborn king? But I’m the king! And it’s good to be the king. This pretender must be eliminated.” So he tries to trick the Wise Men into telling him the exact location of this new king so that he, too, can go “worship” him. But, of course, it doesn’t work out this way.

Now what truly frightened Herod was not, obviously, a newborn child. It was the potential loss of power and control. Never mind that Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world; that he had no interest in overthrowing temporal rulers. The mere hint that Herod would lose his grip on his kingdom led him to drastic measures. In an attempt to rid himself of this potential threat he would order the murder of every male child in Bethlehem under the age of two. This slaughter of those who would be known as “the Holy Innocents” gives a glimpse into Herod’s true character and the lengths he would go to maintain control of his kingdom.

Herod’s reaction to this perceived threat to his power is a pretty natural human response. Not the slaughter of innocent children – that’s diabolical. But we all get territorial at times; and when we get territorial we get defensive; and when we get defensive we sometimes do irrational things.

The stereotypical fiefdom syndrome is the lady at the Registry of Motor Vehicles. She has a job no one else really wants; she deals with cranky people all day; she’s heard every excuse and plea ever created; and she has to deal with the annoying masses day after day after day. Maybe she has a great life outside of work but probably not. She’s a lifelong civil servant, waiting for that pension to kick in so she can leave all the joy behind. But what she does have is the ability to impact people’s lives on a daily basis. She’s a gatekeeper and she’s in complete control. You don’t have that third form of ID? Sorry, Charlie. You can rant and rave all you want but when it comes down to it, she’s both judge and jury. She’s the Ruler of the Registry and she’ll cling to that power with a death grip at least as strong as Herod’s. In a world of uncertainty and change people will do almost anything to hold onto the things they can control. 

Now let’s contrast Herod’s approach with that of the three Wise Men. We don’t know much about these three kings except that they came from the East. We don’t know anything about their kingdoms. But we do know that they were on a journey; they followed a star seeking a force beyond themselves, beyond their own control. They were willing to let go and enter into the unknown. Even if it meant behind leaving the familiar; places where they were the top dogs, or at least the top camels.

Herod sought to “worship” Jesus by killing him. But the Wise Men paid him homage not only by bringing gifts but also their joy. We hear that when the star stopped over that stable in Bethlehem they were “overwhelmed with joy.” Something it’s hard to imagine Herod ever being overwhelmed by.

Of course the Magi brought some pretty lousy baby gifts. Gold’s a choking hazard, you can get a nasty burn from an incense pot, and no one really even knows what myrrh is. But these were symbolic gifts rather than practical ones. If they were trying to be really helpful to a couple with a newborn baby they would have brought a supply of sippy cups, a stroller, and a bunch of diapers. 

I’ll say a word about the significance of these gifts of the Magi and I’ll start with myrrh since it’s the least common of the three. It’s actually an oil that comes from the sap of certain trees. During Biblical times it was considered very valuable and hence was quite expensive. It was used as an embalming ointment. And so the significance of this gift is the foreshadowing of Christ’s death upon the cross. This young infant will one day hang upon a cross as savior of the world.

Frankincense is, of course, a type of incense. Like myrrh, it also was a resin from a particular tree found in the Middle East. Once it hardened and was scraped off it was put onto hot coals and used as incense. And incense has been used as a companion to prayer for thousands of years. The Psalmist writes, “Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense; the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” So Jesus would be a man of prayer in intimate relationship with God his Father; the one who would teach us to pray in what became known as the Lord’s Prayer.

Finally, there’s gold. Not a great mystery as to what it is but symbolic as a sign of royalty. Again, not the earthly royalty of Herod but the heavenly realm of which Jesus is the one true king.

Being territorial – in small ways like the woman at Motor Vehicles or in evil ways like Herod – usually draws us away from God because it’s such an inwardly focused posture. It’s hard to be joyful or open to the movement of the Spirit when we’re fighting to keep hold of a fiefdom. Be that at work, at home, or even in church. Yes, churches are often breeding grounds for fiefdoms, as hard as that is to imagine. But the only authentic fiefdom is the realm of God. God does deserve our full attention and the inherent control over us that this implies. The Wise Men understood this; Herod did not. So I bid you to think about ways in which you can give up some of the fiefdoms in your own life and hand the control back over to God. Which is where it rightly belongs.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2010