St. Giles’ Episcopal Church
January 6, 2019 – The Epiphany
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
Today we celebrate Epiphany, the day following “the twelve days of Christmas” commemorated in that familiar song, the end of the Christmas season. The word “epiphany” means manifestation or appearance; a literal translation of the Greek would be “phenomenon to you.” At the church’s feast of the Epiphany we focus on the wise men who traveled from the east, following a star over Bethlehem where they would find the infant Jesus, God made manifest in human form, and would present the child with kingly gifts.
We are familiar with the story of the wise men. As we see in our crèche, there are traditionally three men and they are royalty. Matthew’s gospel is the only one which includes an account of the wise men. And in this gospel we find little information about them. We don’t know that there were three men, only that there were three gifts. These men were not necessarily kings themselves; the gifts they brought were appropriate for a king: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We do know that they were rich men because they were able to travel a long distance and because they had such treasure to give.
Matthew calls these men “magoi” or “magi” as we say in English. “Magoi” is the name of one of the tribes of the Medes, who ruled the east along with the Persians at that time. Before the Persians conquered them in 535 BCE, the Babylonians had ruled this territory. Both the Babylonians and the Persians had developed sophisticated astronomical observations. The Babylonians thought these observations were indications of what would happen in the future.
Biblical writers did not agree that celestial events should guide one’s life. The prophet Isaiah sarcastically says, after the fall of Babylon, “Let those who study the heavens stand up and save you, those who gaze at the stars, and at each new moon predict what shall befall you” (Isaiah 47:13). Jesus does not accept the practice of looking to heavenly phenomena for guidance. Matthew reports that in response to a demand for “a sign from heaven,” Jesus replied, “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil … generation asks for a sign” (Matthew 16:1-4).
But in the case of the wise men coming to where Jesus was born, Matthew is telling us that just this once, a sign in heaven is a sure guide. The infant Jesus is the earthly manifestation of the divine creator of the heavens and the earth, and therefore the heavens can point the way to “the place where the child was.” Then, and then only, the studies of the “wise men” led to true wisdom. Not because their methods were intrinsically valid and reliable, but because of who Jesus was, God made manifest.
Let’s look at the gifts the wise men brought to Jesus. All three of the gifts are expensive. Gold. From ancient times to the present, gold has served as a symbol of value. It is rare. It is used to make attractive and impressive jewelry and other objects. It does not rust. Golden crowns symbolize kingship, so when the wise men offer gold to Jesus, they are acknowledging that he is a king.
Frankincense is a fragrant resin. In the Old Testament book of Exodus we learn that “pure frankincense” is part of the mixture of costly spices to be burned in the holy Tabernacle. It is to be used exclusively in worship, not as a personal perfume. Incense symbolizes prayer; Psalm 141, verse 2: “Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense.” Incense is offered to a divinity.
Myrrh is a pungent fragrant resin. Once again from the book of Exodus we learn that the sacred oil used for anointing was scented with myrrh, and Psalm 45 informs us that a mixture of myrrh and aloes was a kingly perfume. In John’s gospel we learn that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrapped the body of Jesus in linen cloth containing a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes. Myrrh symbolizes kingship and death.
The wise men’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh stand for “King, and God, and Sacrifice,” as we will sing today in the hymn “We Three Kings of Orient are.” Matthew tells us, in this brief passage at the beginning of his account of the life of Jesus, that the infant whom the wise men came to adore is the divine king who will die on behalf of all people, Jews and gentiles alike. At his birth, gentiles from the east are drawn to him. And at the end of Matthew’s gospel, the risen Christ instructs his apostles, “Go … and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). The manifestation of God in Christ is for all people.
On Epiphany we focus on the wise men from the east who were led by a star to the infant Jesus, king and God and sacrifice. They brought the child gifts fit for such a king. They did not know the child himself. They only knew from the star what an unusual child he was. They honored him out of respect for his being this unusual child.
There is a very different quality to the gifts offered by Jesus’ disciples – the men and women who knew Jesus intimately and who loved him and were loved by him – at Jesus’ death. Joseph of Arimathea freely gave his tomb for Jesus’ burial. Jesus was a man who in life and in death had no home – he had said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). Joseph freely gave his own final resting place to his homeless Lord. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrapped the body of Jesus in linen cloth containing a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes – surely a wildly extravagant gift to honor the precious Lord they loved.
No one offered gold to the body of Jesus when he died. The corpse of a man needs no gold. But when Jesus had risen from the grave and the Holy Spirit had come among his followers, they did offer their gold, not to a corpse, but to the living Body of Christ, the women and men and children of the early church. We learn in the Book of Acts that “all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44). For love of the Lord people gave their wealth for the members of Christ’s body who were in need.
So here we are today, worshiping Christ our Lord, and offering ourselves to God. We offer our time to praise God. We offer our talents in the corporate worship of God. We offer gifts of money for the work of the church and food for the people in our community who are in need. We offer this church as a place of welcome and safety and prayer, open to all.
I pray that as each of us walks with Jesus day by day, we will know him better and our love for him will grow. I pray that each of us will be filled by his Holy Spirit more and more, and that, for the sake of Christ and the world he came to save, we will become extravagant givers and ardent lovers who know the incomparable joy of the Lord. In Jesus’ name. Amen.