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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

Matthew 2:1-12 “By Another Road”

Matthew 2:1-12 “By Another Road”

January 6, 2013 – Caitlin Trussell

Lutheran Church of the Master, Lakewood, CO

 

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.

 

The wise men see a star and they take off for the West.  The conversation between them is interesting to imagine.  Did they spend a lot of time wondering where they were headed?  Or if they were going the best way?  The right way?  My husband and I often go back and forth about the quickest or most efficient way to get somewhere and I wonder if the wise men’s conversations sound anything like ours.  Examining roads ahead and questioning people who have gone that way about the road, safe rest stops or good places to eat.  Maybe there is a little frustration at the pace of things or with each other.  Perhaps they even wonder if they’re there yet or if they’ve taken a wrong step along the way.

The wise men take a lot of steps as they move west.  We love to guess about where they may be from and how long they journeyed but for the sake of today let’s just say they came a long, long way – taking a lot of steps that likely include a few in the wrong direction as they are drawn by a star lit by a God who they do not consider their own, to see a baby who is born King of the Jews; a baby whose arrival scares not only the actual king but “all Jerusalem with him.”

The epiphany, the manifestation of God in this particular baby, at this particular time, opens up the promises of God for the whole world.  After all, these wise men from far away are not Jews.  And, as Pastor Rob said in a beautiful snap-shot summary last week, we see the whole thing from where we sit – the baby, the man, the ministry, the death, the resurrection and the ascension.  I see two more things to wonder about in our story today.  I see us like Herod and the people of Jerusalem, frightened by the mystery of God showing up in Jesus.  And I see us like the wise men, but now following Jesus as the star.  Because if Jesus is the epiphany, the manifestation of God with us, then, like Herod in verse 3, the mystery of Jesus as the epiphany has us wondering what this is all about and what it means for us…and maybe even what it means about God.  And, like the wise men in verse 12, Jesus as the epiphany moves us out from here onto “another road.”

For the wise men, Jesus as the epiphany means a manger scene.  For us now, today, Jesus as the epiphany means a few different things about how God is revealed in Jesus the Christ.  In the bread and wine of communion, Christ enters into us bringing forgiveness and life. In the waters of baptism, the Holy Spirit plunges us into Christ’s death and raises us into Christ’s life in the community of God’s whole church, the church catholic.

One of the things that being church means is that the Epiphany of God in Jesus means being on another road, moving through the world differently than a wider culture.  I’m under no illusions that this has always been a good thing.  After all, this has brought us the Crusades and a myriad of other self-righteous acts wrought in the name of God.  But it also brought 17th century English Christians as the primary caregivers of those with the Plague and brings Christians today who fight against malaria all over the world so that people may live.

The mixed outcomes of the church globally are mirrored in local churches, mirrored here in our congregation today.  We have hits and we have misses as we respond to the Epiphany of God in Jesus in this place and time.  But there is one way in particular that the Holy Spirit, through the neighborhood church, moves us out another road.   And that is the way we agree and disagree with each other here in this place and also between churches.  Because the church is a public place and we are unable to indulge in creating our very own echo chamber of unilateral agreement.  United by the Holy Spirit as one in Christ means that many voices come together all at once in the space of the church that wouldn’t ordinarily mixed together outside of church.  It is good that we challenge each other about what keeping our eyes on Jesus as the star in our lives means so that our actions, like the wise men’s, pay him homage.  It is good that we do this is big ways in our church communities and it is good that this gets lived out in personal ways too.

Coming up on 16 years ago, Rob and I were drawn into this congregation when we brought Quinn here to be baptized and then Taryn too not very many months later.  Hearing the Gospel through Pastor Rob that we are saved by grace through faith, not through who we are or what we do, was and still is like breathing pure air.  And being with you all over time in various potlucks, Bible Studies and committee meetings has also revealed the Gospel truth that we are fully saints…and fully sinners…and loved by God and by each other.

Nearly 10 years ago, I preached my first sermon here – you indulged my fumbles, encouraged my enthusiasm and began saying things like, “Have you ever thought about seminary?”  Truthfully, I thought you were crazy.  At the time, Quinn and Taryn were three and five-years-old and I felt like such a freshie in the saved-by-grace-through-faith thing.  But I also knew that you all were affirming something that I felt deep inside – that I was supposed to be talking about this wild thing called the Gospel and this grace-filled God of light who puts us on another road.  Eight years ago, probably almost to the day, I turned to my husband, Rob, and said, “I think I’m supposed to be a pastor.”  His immediate reply?  “Of course you are.”  I quit my job as a nurse a few weeks after that conversation with him and my family and I hopped over to this other road with your constant encouragement as fuel for the journey.  I am eternally grateful for you.

This is but one preacher’s tale out of Lutheran Church of the Master.  The Holy Spirit, working through you, has sent several of us out by way of another road – Michael Tekrony and Gail Mundt, to name a few more recently.  But birthing preachers is not all that happens by the power of the Holy Spirit through this congregation.  Think of all the kids who have grown up here with your constant focus on how we might better serve them and their families as well as kids and families in the Green Mountain neighborhood and around the world – calling passionate shepherds among us like Jason, Brandi, BK and Pastor Brigette.  Think of everyone who gives and receives care through this worshiping community during times of births, life celebrations, poverty, imprisonment, illnesses and deaths.  Do you do this perfectly?  No.  Do you do this faithfully?  Yes.  The scope of God’s mercy and power made real through you simply boggles the mind.

The Epiphany of God in Jesus, revealed here through you by the power of the Holy Spirit is a wonder to behold and a wonder to experience.

Thanks be to God!