January 6, 2019 sermon

Posted by on Jan 7, 2019 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

January 6, 2019

On Christmas Eve, Sue and I presented a dialogue that looked at the two themes of Light and Darkness. In that dialogue, I suggested that all people experience times of darkness and times of light in their lives. The message of Christmas is that in the person of Jesus, the light has overcome the darkness. Hope is better than Despair. Joy is what we all want instead of Sadness. Love is stronger than Fear. Jesus has made it possible for people to live life in a manner that makes their lives better.

Today, on the Sunday which we call “The Epiphany of our Lord” we once again focus on the theme of Light. In the Gospel of Matthew, we encounter a cruel King who is known as King Herod the Great. In fact, he is so cruel that he arranges the death of anyone who he thinks might threaten his power and throne, including the death of some of his own immediate family. We also encounter wise men from the East who are also known as magi or astrologers in today’s language. These wise men are probably well-respected in their home country and supposedly saw a star “at its rising” or appearance in the sky and after examining their astrology charts conclude that it means a king has been born in the land of Judea. With their caravan of servants and camels loaded down with supplies they leave their home in what is likely today the country of Iran and head west. When they reach the city of Jerusalem, King Herod questions the wise men, attempting to find out who they think might threaten his kingdom someday. King Herod’s own scholars study their records and decide that a Messiah, which means Saviour, will be born in Bethlehem, a small town not far from Jerusalem. The wise men travel to Bethlehem and find a mother and child living in a house, according to Matthew’s gospel. It is then that the wise men kneel down and present the child with treasure chests filled with gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

So, what might this biblical story really be about? It is usually included as part of the Nativity scenario in Christmas pageants but the gospel account makes it clear that it is not. The visit by the wise men would have occurred months, and maybe even a year or two, after the birth of Jesus. Often, Christians understand it to be a literal event but in my opinion it doesn’t really matter whether this visit by the wise men to Jesus is meant to be taken literally or metaphorically. What does matter is the meaning within the story. That is what I would like to look at this morning.

In this story we have three main sets of characters. The first are the wise men. The second is King Herod. The third is Jesus and his mother, Mary. It’s fairly obvious that King Herod represents the Darkness that people can succumb to. Almost anyone can be taken over by fear and live in the shadow of its power, carrying out evil acts or getting involved in wrongful deeds. It’s also clear that Jesus and Mary represent the Light that people can experience. All people are able to learn to live with love and live in its light, becoming people who carry out good acts and get involved in helpful deeds. What I think is important in this story is who the wise men represent. I think the author of this story, the writer of the gospel of Matthew, was intending to have the wise men represent anyone who is seeking to live in the light of God. They are the seekers of light and goodness and hope and joy and peace. They represent all people who know that if they can find this Messiah and learn how to live in its light, they will be saved – saved from times of darkness, despair, sadness, and living in fear. For Matthew, Jesus was that Saviour.

In Matthew’s bible story, the wise men bring three gifts to present to the one they believed or hoped would be the source of light for the world. The gifts are gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In the time of Jesus, these were very valuable gifts. Many scholars have researched these items and presented various interpretations as to what each of them is worth, represents or means. I won’t go into that today but simply acknowledge that they are valuable and represent gifts that demonstrate how important these wise men consider Jesus to be. What they seek is of great importance to them. As I already said, but needs repeating, they are seekers of wisdom, of goodness, of love, of all that they believe God is. Their gifts tell the readers of Matthew’s gospel that no earthly tangible, touchable, physical item or treasure, no matter how valuable it might be, is of as much importance or value as these intangible, untouchable items.

I wonder how many people would agree with those wise men? Would their fellow citizens have thought these so-called wise men were very wise in giving away gifts of such great monetary value? Would we today think people are very wise if they gave some peasant child gifts worth tens of thousands of dollars simply because they think he or she might grow up to be a great teacher of goodness who could become a world leader and ruler? How many of us today would give away a large portion of our wealth, regardless of how much or how little that might be, to someone born in near poverty conditions who we hope or think has the chance of becoming a future prime-minister of Canada who will lead us in the ways of goodness, kindness, and selfless acts? I can’t imagine many of us thinking that would be a wise move.

However, that might be true only if we are living in conditions that are favourable and in a state of mind that we find acceptable. I think it’s difficult for anyone who is enjoying life for the most part to understand the appeal someone like Jesus would hold for people who are living in intolerable conditions or a state of mind that causes untold anguish and despair. Imagine, if you can, living in a filthy apartment, crawling with bedbugs and other undesirable creatures. Imagine, if you will, going through life with a mind that is filled with fear or addicted to harmful substances. Imagine a life without all the comforts we now enjoy. Imagine what it might feel like to be threatened with eviction and having to wander homeless. Imagine your family being killed by an impaired or careless driver and going home to an empty house each night. Imagine living in a country overrun by war and having to flee to a refugee camp and the possibility of staying there for the rest of your life. Imagine coming down with a chronic, painful condition that robs you of sleep and keeps you from working. Imagine, if you can, what it might be like to live in conditions so different from what most of us know.

If we can imagine that, maybe we can also understand how much appeal someone like Jesus and what he offers would have to people living in such terrible conditions. We might even be able to understand how much we would be willing to give to someone who could lift us out of those terrible conditions. How much gold would you give to someone who could give you hope when you are filled with despair? How much frankincense would you offer to someone who could bring you joy when you are filled with sadness? How much myrrh would you present to someone who could fill you with love when you are filled with fear? I don’t know about you, but I know that if my life was one of despair, sadness, and fear most of the time, I would be willing to give a lot of any material wealth I might have to someone who can remove those things and replace them with hope, joy, love and peace.

If you were present for the Advent and Christmas worship services this year, you may remember that this was the theme of the messages Sue and I presented. To be given these wonderful gifts of joy, love, hope and peace is worth a great deal if you don’t have them. And the less you have them, the more valuable they become. This, I think, is the message in the telling of the wise men visiting Jesus. They had an epiphany, which means they suddenly understood how important these gifts are. They became aware of how much more valuable these intangible things are than the tangible things they now possessed. And so they willingly and joyfully gave away their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, which now were not nearly as important to them as they once had been.

I wonder if we realize how fortunate we are if we have both tangible and intangible wealth? Do we really appreciate that we are among the most lucky people on the earth to have enough money to purchase land and homes, to have jobs and freedom, to enjoy safety and access to health care and education, to live in a country free of war, to not be ruled by a dictator, to be able to travel and take vacations, to worship without fear of arrest or torture, to be able to speak critically of our government without being thrown into prison, and the list goes on and on. Do we understand how blessed we are! I’m not sure we are, and maybe that will always keep us from understanding or at least fully appreciating the power of this story of the wise men and their gifts to Jesus for the readers of Matthew who were not as fortunate or lucky as we are.

I also wonder how we would react if someone tried to take away our good fortune or luck? As much as I don’t like to admit it, I wonder if we would be a bit like King Herod if our wealth, possessions, and favoured status were threatened by people who wanted some of what we enjoy? If someone from a neighbouring country, such as those refugees fleeing from oppressive governments and cruel dictators showed up on our Canadian soil, asking for entry to our wonderful country, and wanting to make this their new home, would we welcome them with open arms, gladly sharing with them what must appear to be great wealth to them? Or would we turn them away, sending them back home, afraid that they would take away some of our possessions and privileged status? Would we even go so far as to seek to punish them for daring to ask us for help and taking away some of our jobs and putting a strain on our health care and education systems?

What if the tables were turned and we suddenly became a country that was devastated by war, natural disasters, and crop failure? What if we ran out of natural resources and a dictator took over, compelling us to live in unsafe and intolerable conditions and we fled to a country with plenty? How would we want to be looked upon? What sort of reception would we hope for? Would we want to be greeted by someone like King Herod or someone like Jesus?

This story of the visit of the wise men to Jesus is often portrayed as a warm and wonderful event, especially at Christmas pageants. But we need to remember that the original author of Matthew did not write his gospel for that purpose. He was writing for the many people of his country who were suffering greatly under Roman rule and who wondered if God still cared about them. Who were hoping that God would send them the Messiah, a Saviour who would rescue them from their oppression and suffering. Matthew is proclaiming to his fellow Jewish citizens and to anyone who read his gospel account, that God had answered their hopes in sending them Jesus. The wise men from another country recognized this wonderful news and offered their most valuable gifts in announcing it.

May we all experience an epiphany this year and appreciate the many wonderful gifts we have been given as we share them with others as we are able.