Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 6 January 2013: Year C, Epiphany
King and God, and sacrifice!
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
A trick question: how many wise men were there? We don’t actually know, for the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t tell us. It tells us there were three gifts, and on that basis Christian tradition decided that the wise men must have come bearing a gift each. And puzzled about who, in fact, these Magi were, later Christians thought that they might be kings. By the time we get to the nineteenth century, and the carol we are going to be singing after this sermon, the three kings of the orient have acquired names: Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar.
So the carol We three kings of orient are is hardly Biblical- it’s a product of pious imagination. Yet if it plays fast and loose with the identity of the Magi, it does faithfully tell us about the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and their symbolic significance. There’s no doubt that Matthew the gospel writer meant these gifts to be deeply symbolic. Each of them is meant to tell us something about Christ, about the significance of the baby in the manger. And so, on this Epiphany Sunday, the first Sunday of the year, I’d like to ponder these gifts with you, think about what the tell us about Christ, and what it means for those of us who follow him.
The satirical magazine Private Eye often publishes cartoons in the run-up to Christmas which satirise the traditional Christmas story, with references to more recent concerns. For example, there is a cartoon of the holy family, staring at the bright star above their stable, as Joseph says, ‘Blimey, I hope we are on the lowest tariff!’
There was one this year which almost seemed a sermon in itself. It’s the stable: in the background, Mary and Joseph stand by the manger, looking a bit put out; in the foreground, a group of people kneel and worship before a bar of the gold brought by the wise men- worshipping wealth, as the child in the manger is ignored.
Christians are people who follow one who came from a very humble background. His parents, it seemed, hardly had time to find any shelter before he was born. They were soon to become refugees, fleeing their homeland and seeking asylum in Egypt because the child’s life was in danger. So Christianity-born in the midst of poverty- is inevitably opposed to greed. For when it comes to material things, Jesus of Nazareth is Lord of all that as well. The wise men arrived in Jerusalem and said to King Herod: ‘Where is the baby born to be the king of the Jews?’ And because they sought a king, they gave a gift for a king: gold. And they worship, not the gold, but the divine king.
Someone said to me recently, ‘Ever since the financial crash, the politicians have talked about getting back to how things were before. But we shouldn’t be doing that. We should be seeking something better’. I think I know what he meant. Before the crash, there was greed, there was inequality. We were damaging the environment in our quest for ‘things’. There was a spiritual hunger which could not be filled, for we were telling ourselves that material things would make us happy. And many, many people, in this country, in our city, and around the world, still lived in poverty, or suffered because of wars caused by our greed. As the hymn says, ‘Lust of possession causes desolations’ (Father Eternal, CH4 261). We need to find a different, better way.
Well, the opposite of greed is generosity. At Christmas, we experience anew the generosity of a generous God who gives even his own Son to redeem a fallen world. And even in the midst of the commercialism and gluttony of our modern midwinter festival, you can still see signs of generosity. Once more this year, we saw wonderful Christmas generosity from this congregation: all the gifts for the giving tree, Blythswood boxes, soaps, our Christmas offerings for medical work in Israel and Palestine.
It is not enough for the Church to simply condemn people for worshipping the gold bar instead of the baby in the manger. We ought to show how it is done. In this congregation, we are good at generosity. So let’s resolve, this year, to be generous- as God is generous to us in Christ. Generous with our giving of money, yes. But also generous with our faith- let’s share our faith as well. Let’s find ways to share why we think the one who was born in the manger is, indeed, the king of all creation. Let’s find ways of sharing with our crazy, mucked-up world why it is we want to worship the one born in a manger, instead of the all the other false gods the world seeks. And let’s hope the Church can learn to be generous to whoever comes seeking Christ.
The second gift and third gifts are also costly gifts. Frankincense and myrrh were both derived from the resins of trees or bushes. They were prized, above all, for their smell. Frankincense was used as incense in religious ceremonies, so this is, perhaps, a gift more fit for a priest. Our word priest comes from the Latin pontifex, which is based on the Latin word for a bridge. And, when you think about it, that’s exactly what a priest’s function is- to act as a bridge between God and humanity. The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of how Christ supersedes the priests in the Temple of Jerusalem. ‘For we have a great High Priest who has gone into the very presence of God- Jesus, the Son of God’ (Hebrews 4.14). For that is what Jesus did with his life. He made it possible for people to come into the presence of God.
Just the other day I was reading about how many people now describe themselves as ‘spiritual without being religious’. Many people feel that the cannot connect to God through what they dismiss as ‘organised religion’, and they are trying to find other ways of experiencing what they might call ‘a higher power’ or attempting to fathom the mystery of life through all kinds of exotic and esoteric means. But according to the Gospel- which it is the Church’s task to proclaim- Jesus has done this for us already. Jesus is the bridge across which people can cross, in order to come into the presence of God. So something has gone wrong. The Church is supposed to point people towards Jesus, who shows us the way to God. We are clearly failing to do so. I wonder if that’s because we quite often talk to people about the Church, and not about Jesus? Or is it that people cannot quite believe it’s so simple- that the one born in the manger, who forgave sinners and healed the sick, who taught love for neighbour, and who died and rose again- he is the way to God. The wise men understood- and they worshipped at the manger.
The third gift, myrrh, was another costly, sweet-smelling resin. Its significance is that it was used to embalm the bodies of the dead. Myrrh, in ancient times, was the smell of the tomb. So there is prophecy in this gift. The myrrh suggests that there will be a significance in the death of the Christ-child. Luke’s Gospel tells us that after Jesus’ death, there was little time to prepare his body in the normal way for burial. He seems to have been hastily buried, in a borrowed rock tomb, before the Sabbath began, when no work could be done. It was only the day after the Sabbath that the women returned to the tomb: ‘Very early on Sunday morning the women went to the tomb, carrying the spices they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the entrance to the tomb, so they went in; but they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus’ (Luke 24.1-3). Myrrh was probably among the spices the women were carrying that day when they made the discovery that Jesus’ body was no longer there. He had risen from the dead. He had no need of being embalmed.
And so the third of the wise men’s gifts remind us of Jesus death- and his resurrection. You see, Christmas does not make sense without Easter. The reason the baby is in the manger is because he has come to die, and to rise again. And so, for those who can believe it, ‘death has lost its sting’, to use the language of Paul (c.f. 1 Corinthians 15.55).
Many years ago, I was waiting the vestry of a crematorium while the previous funeral service was ending. They had a speaker system, so you could hear what was going in as you sat in the vestry (it was a very busy city crematorium, and quite often there was almost a queue of clergy and mourners, so it was handy to know when the previous service was coming to an end so that you could get out there quickly!). As I listened, I realised that the previous service was a humanist service, for someone who clearly did not believe in any possibility of life after death. So I was surprised when, at one point, the leader read a poem about how death was like the person simply slipping over the horizon like a ship- out of sight, but not out of mind. That might have been comforting for the congregation, but it was surely not what the deceased nonbeliever had had in mind. For when a ship crosses the horizon, it does not cease to exist. It is still there- and that was surely the point of the poem. I’d been taught to reflect my theology in the words I used at funerals, so I was, as it were, professionally appalled, as it were, that my humanist colleague had not done so.
But perhaps he was simply reflecting the confusion there is around the whole issue of death nowadays. Strange things happen, and odd words are used, at funerals nowadays (even funerals led by Christians). People today are not quite sure what they want from a funeral, because they are not quite sure what they are marking. Quite often they seem attracted to eastern religious conceptions of death: that when we die, the soul somehow joins the cosmos; and many people seem to take the idea of reincarnation seriously. People will tell you that they didn’t like the hellfire of a previous generation (although I’m not sure how much that was ever mentioned in Christian funerals in the past). But they have also given up in heaven (as John Lennon does in the first few lines of ‘Imagine’: imagine no heaven and no hell). If there is no heaven and no hell, perhaps there is nothing at all- but people struggle to believe that there is nothing at all.
Christianity, I think, takes death seriously. Death is real, and it is something to be overcome. And so a Christian funeral service is what we call a ‘rite of passage’. Like baptism, or a marriage service, the funeral marks a stage on life’s journey. It is the end of one stage of a Christian’s life. But it is also the beginning of the next stage, as we move into the resurrection life promised us by Jesus. For death has been overcome by Christ. His resurrection offers hope that we will also be resurrected- that one day, each of us, in all our individuality, will see God face-to-face. Not only that, but the whole of creation is being renewed by Christ. Our future is with God- and the future is God. Our hope is not just for ourselves, but for the whole world- that one day God will wipe every tear from every eye. We need to find ways of sharing this mystery, and this hope, with our muddled contemporaries.
Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, myrrh for one who was sent to die, and to conquer death. The gifts of the wise men are Matthew the Gospel writer’s way of pointing to the significance of the baby in the manger- and who he will grow up to be. If he is the king of all human life- even of our economic life- then his followers ought to be generous. If he is the great high priest, then we who follow him ought to proclaim that he is the way to God. And if myrrh- the smell of the tomb- seems a strange gift for a child, it reminds us that death is a central theme in our faith, and that we should not shy away from confidently speaking about Christ’s death and resurrection, and how that brings hope both to individuals and the whole world. Three New Year resolutions for us, then, for ourselves, and for our congregation. Let us be generous. Let us tell others about how Christ is the way to God. And let us be people of hope!
Hymn after sermon: We three kings of Orient are
1 The Kings
We three kings of Orient are;
bearing gifts we traverse afar
field and fountain, moor and mountain,
following yonder star:
O star of wonder, star of night,
star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.
Born a king on Bethlehem plain,
gold I bring, to crown him again-
King for ever, ceasing never,
over us all to reign: Chorus
Frankincense to offer have I;
incense owns a deity nigh:
prayer and praising, gladly raising,
worship him, God most high: Chorus
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
sealed in the stone-cold tomb: Chorus
5 All Glorious now, behold him arise,
King and God, and sacrifice!
earth to heaven replies: Chorus
John Henry Hopkins (1820-1891)
Ascription of Praise
Praised be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who by his great mercy
in raising Jesus Christ from the dead
has given us new birth into a living hope:
the hope of an inheritance reserved in heaven for us
which nothing can destroy or spoil or wither! Amen!
From 1 Peter 1.3-4
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2012 Peter W Nimmo