Tag Archives: magi

God’s Gift Unboxed by the Wise Men, A Sermon for Epiphany – Matthew 2:1-12

**sermon art: Journey of the Magi, c.1894 (oil on canvas), Tissot, James Jacques Joseph (1836-1902) / Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN, USA

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 5, 2019

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Matthew 2:1-12 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ” 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “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.”

9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

[sermon begins]

Boxes. Sometimes pretty in their own right, boxes usually hold other things – storing things like grits or jewelry; or moving things like books or refrigerators. There are classes about designing boxes. Boxes are big business. Don’t even get me started on the packaging inside. That’s a whole other level. Here’s what started me thinking about boxes, especially in these days of Christmas and giving gifts to children. We carefully pick out something special for a kid, then pack it and wrap it for Christmas. The gift is given, the paper torn off, the gift is plucked out of the box and then ignored while the box is played with for days. It makes me wonder if, like other kids his age, Jesus played with the boxes that held the gifts from the wise men, ignoring the presents inside.[1] He was two years old or less according to the stories about big bad King Herod.[2]  Toddler Jesus likely had little interest in the wise men’s presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But the boxes, now those would be a real treat. Stacking, climbing on, and filling them with dirt could occupy a good amount of time for self-respecting toddlers in any century.  In the 21st century, the crème-de-la-crème of boxes is the appliance box that transforms into a fort or a ship or a special hiding place.

There was no such hiding place for Jesus and his family. Apparently, they couldn’t quite miss being found with that torchlight of a star in the sky.  At least, the wise men found them and were able to drop off their gifts and ooohh and aaahh over Jesus before leaving. Herod had more trouble locating the toddler. The wise men ended up slipping out of town by a different road to avoid ratting out the holy family to the frightened King Herod.  The strange people from the East journeyed a long time for a quick visit. One thing their arrival signifies is that the very young Jesus is now revealed to more people than just his family and more people than Jews. Specifically, the wise men’s arrival reveals Jesus to the nations.  Note that the people bearing gifts are really the ones who found the gift of Jesus in a home – like opening another big box if you stop and think about it.  Yeah, I know, the box thing has a hold.

You know when you open a present partway and then you get an inkling of what’s in the box. Maybe you asked for something special. Or someone heard you mention something you’d really like a few months ago and they remembered.  You tear open the wrapping, slash through layers of tape (cuz if you’re a Trussell, you tape the heck out of the box as if the thing inside could escape by itself), you lift one box top panel to see something you recognize but didn’t for a moment expect and it was different than what you remember and maybe the better for your fuzzy memory. I wonder if the wise men had any of that anticipation and reaction. The star signaled something big. How could it not create anticipation as they journeyed? On departure, something special was clearly afoot because their dream protected the toddler and sent them out of their way to avoid Herod on their way home. Herod who was trapped in the even bigger box of his palace filled with fear. Herod may not have understood the complexity of what was happening, but he knew that that wise men showing up was problematic for him. Power emerging from within his empire but outside of himself must, indeed, have felt frightening.  It’s difficult to imagine those early rumblings of a faith that currently claims two billion followers. Herod’s imagination worked just fine.

Because Christianity is now a worldwide religion, it’s hard to remember that it began as an Eastern one – the original language was Greek; John, the gospel writer lived and died in Asia Minor; most of Paul’s work was in the fertile crescent also known as the Orient or Southwest Asia or the Middle East depending on your vantage point.[3] It was from the east the wise men came and into the east they arrived. The story is known to us and become westernized through our experience that it’s easy to forget the geography. Because Christmas has become a central holiday in the West, it’s hard to remember that Epiphany is centuries older than Christmas. The festival originated in Egypt and traditionally celebrated these events: the birth of Jesus, the wise men, the baptism of Jesus, and Jesus turning water into wine.[4]  In the Eastern Church, Epiphany is called the primary feast of the Incarnation (what we know as Christmas).  It had little to do with Jesus’ birth in early Christianity.[5]  We tend to get so locked in our box of time that it’s hard to imagine how our siblings in the faith may have experienced it differently and continue to experience it differently.

Kinda funny when you think about it. Epiphany is the manifestation of God shining to the nations through Jesus. The wise men embody the arrival of wisdom from the east paying homage to his arrival, kneeling deeply in reverence to the toddler King. The box is opened, the gift unleashed upon all people, and what do the people do? Well, they argue.  Argue about who Jesus is; who Jesus loves; who Jesus saves, doesn’t save, and what saves means. Honestly, we can make the shining gift of Jesus into the worst of ourselves. I’m not sure why that’s compelling and why we feel the need to do so. But we do it.  It’s like we can’t believe that the gift of Jesus isn’t one of our own making. We act like the birth-baptism-crucifixion-death-to-new-life-thing can be contained and taped securely by our wants, likes, and dislikes, or, worse, conforms to the shape of our self-interests and hatreds.  Odd how we want to close the lid on God’s love for the world and God’s forgiveness of sins.[6] Fortunately, for us and for the world, we’re not in charge of God’s gift unboxed to the nations so long ago.

Epiphany reminds us that the darkness inside our self-constructed boxes isn’t as powerful as the light marked by a star. Baptized into that light, we shine the light of Christ through good works so that God in heaven may be glorified. God builds our anticipation through the gift of Jesus and, on Epiphany, through the toddler Jesus who is reverenced by the strangers from a far-off land who seem to understand against all odds. Those of us in the West can give thanks for the wise men from the East who made a journey bearing gifts to the One who doesn’t fit in any box. Thanks be to God and amen.

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[1] “Scholars Now Believe Jesus Ignored Magi’s Gifts, Just Played With The Boxes They Came In (Satire).” December 26, 2019. Babylon Bee. https://babylonbee.com/news/biblical-scholars-claim-jesus-ignored-gold-frankincense-myrrh-just-played-with-the-boxes-they-came-in

[2] See Matthew 2:13-23.

[3] Christopher Hill. Holidays and Holy Nights: Celebrating Twelve Seasonal Festivals of the Christian Year. (Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Publishing House, 2003), 93.

[4] Ibid., 95.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Matthew 1:21

John 1:1-14 – Word Creates, Words Create [Or: A Christmas Conversation]

John 1:1-14 – Word Creates, Words Create [Or: A Christmas Conversation]

Caitlin Trussell on December 25, 2014 with Augustana Lutheran Church


John 1:1-14 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

 

 

A friend of mine recently preached that the fourth Sunday in Advent is like the last trimester of pregnancy.  If that’s the case, then today we are in the first day postpartum – the gift of the baby Jesus has arrived and we’re all a little giddy in our fatigue.  And yet the baby is noticeably absent in our gospel reading today.

John begins in the beginning… “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  The Greek logos, translated as “Word”, can also be translated as “conversation”.[1]  “In the beginning was the Conversation, and the Conversation was with God and the Conversation was God.”  It’s right here in the sermon that I wish that I had a cup of tea and a chair and an hour with you all.  And we could just sit and talk about the relationship between God, Jesus and Spirit as The Conversation.

We could challenge ourselves with what God as The Conversation means about God as Trinity and what it means for us as creatures of this Divine Being who are in conversation with each other.  If I believe that God’s holy Conversation within God’s Self  birthed all that has come into being (v. 2) then how do I understand myself as both created by God’s Conversation as well as a participant in what God is creating in the world today.  And how might you?

I invite you to consider Christmas in the light of The Conversation that creates…that brings things into being…that changes us as we engage with the story and with each other.  Even the Christmas story itself can be thought of as a conversation taking place between the four gospels.  Matthew covers genealogy, conception by the Holy Spirit and the magi on the move with the star; Mark begins with John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus and the urgency of Jesus’ ministry; and Luke gives us no-room-at-the-inn, singing angels, shepherds on the job and a manger maternity ward complete with the baby Jesus.  The four gospels each have a voice in the Christmas story.

The Christmas story assures us that words matter.  The words that tell us about a manger, a star, a young couple and a baby are a creation story of sorts for us.  This baby was born and then grew up to embark on a three year ministry that shows us how to love, care and serve so that the hope born in the manger really can mean joy to the world.

The power of The Conversation written about in John’s gospel creates life.  The new life of Jesus is The Conversation made flesh.  John’s gospel spends its precious space telling us about Jesus engaged in all kinds of conversations with all kinds of people.  If I as a Jesus follower take The Conversation seriously and believe that Jesus is working in me and through me then what kind of care do I take with myself and what kind of care do I take with you – what kind of manger am I that is able to reveal Christ?  If I believe that The Conversation created the universe with words and I am a person of the Word then I also believe that words create real stuff – that the words I use are important.  Words create friends, enemies, victims, wars, peace – words create!

Some time ago, I had the opportunity to visit a woman in the hospital – I’ll call her Rose.  I had never met Rose and her husband before.  We visited for a short time and then Rose told me that she had a feeling that she was not going to get well this time and she would never go home.  She then leaned toward me and asked if I had brought communion.  And, “no”, I had not brought communion.  We spent a few minutes talking about how that might happen and finally we decided that I would come back later that afternoon.

I headed back out there at the designated time with communion, using paper towels to create space for the meal on the bedside stand.  Rose and her husband shared a hymnal as they sat next to each other.  I read from Romans 8 where we are assured that “neither death, nor life… nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”; we reminded ourselves of Jesus words in Matthew 26 “given and shed for you”; and together we prayed the Lord’s prayer.  We shared in the meal of bread and wine.

After the final prayer, I knelt in front of them, held their joined hands with one of my own while I raised the other one in blessing.  Rose and I looked into each others eyes as I said, “The Lord Bless you and keep you, the Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you, the Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace.”  The next day, when I received the phone call that Rose had died, I realized that hope was birthed by The Conversation being present in communion just as hope is birthed by Jesus in the manger.

In a few minutes we will say the words of the Nicene Creed together.[2]  This Creed uses some language that sinks us into God as The Conversation.  We will speak the words of “begotten, not made” and “proceeds from”.   This language reveals God as The Conversation between Father, Son and Spirit.  And, we will also sing “What Child is This?”[3]  Reminding us about both the baby and The Conversation made flesh and the ways that the Bible places the gospel writers themselves in conversation with each other.

God is The Conversation – The Conversation who creates the universe; The Conversation who lives as baby in the manger for the sake of the whole world.  And as people of The Conversation, as Christmas people, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit for the sake of the world.

As Christmas people we are born of The Conversation to serve the world as mangers who reveal Christ; even as we are saved by Christ in the comfort and fearlessness of his grace.

And, as Christmas people, we are like Rose when she held out her hand to receive the bread. We hold Jesus in our hands; while at the same time, in a wild cosmic reversal, we are held in the hands of Jesus.

Merry Christmas indeed!


[1] Richard Valantasis, Douglas K. Bleyle, and Dennis C. Haugh.  The Gospels and Christian Life in History and Practice.  (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), 253-255.

[2] The Nicene Creed full text: http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Nicene_Creed_Evangelical_Lutheran_Worship_.pdf

[3] Lyrics “What Child is This?” http://www.metrolyrics.com/what-child-is-this-lyrics-christmas-carols.html