Sermon for Epiphany
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from the God who came to us as a child. Amen.
Today we celebrate the beginning of the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is the season where we can see clearly that Jesus is our God. There are signs and miracles that point out exactly who Jesus is, for everyone to see. Stars and light are the primary symbols of epiphany.
Epiphany begins on the 12th day of Christmas with the visit of the Magi. January 6 only falls on a Sunday about every seven years. So we don’t get to talk about the visit of the wise men very often. I am happy I get to talk about them today.
We don’t really know how many Wise Men came to see Jesus. The Bible doesn’t say. Matthew tells us there were 3 gifts and we hope no one came empty handed. The tradition of the church gives their names as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.
The Magi, or Wise Men, were astrologers, probably from Persia, modern day Iran. Astrology, or finding messages in the stars, was highly respected as a science in those days. The Magi were priests of the ancient Zoroastrian religion.
They believed that the stars gave important information about the world. A new star was a sign that a new king would be born to usher in a new world order. This would be a king of the whole world, not just a king for one country. Something as important as a new star in the sky could mean nothing less.
Since stars don’t move in the sky, astronomers now think the star may have been the conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn in 7 BC or perhaps Haley’s comet in 12 BC.
So, anyway, the Magi were foreign scientists who followed a different religion. They were probably not kings themselves, although they may have been of noble birth. They were important enough for Herod to give them an audience.
The church got the idea that they were kings from our psalm today – Psalm 72:11, “May all kings fall down before him.”
Let’s take a look at the gifts the wise men brought. The gift of gold would always be welcome, by any of us, but it has special meaning here. Gold is the appropriate gift to give a king. Gold was the symbol that Jesus was a king.
The second gift was frankincense. Frankincense is a kind of incense. Since ancient times, people have burnt incense as a sign of prayer, in the belief that the smoke carries our petitions up to God.
Aaron, who was Moses’ brother, and the high priest, used incense at the altar to offer prayers to God. Many churches, especially in Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions, use it regularly in worship.
We even sing about it in the Holden Evening Prayer service we use in Advent and Lent. We sing the evening psalm, 141: “Let my prayer rise before you as incense, the lifting up of my heart as the evening sacrifice.” Psalm 141:2.
This symbolism is also one of the reasons we still use candles in worship, even though we have electricity, because the smoke symbolically carries the prayers up to God. The gift of incense meant that Jesus is God.
Gold to welcome a new king, incense to proclaim that Jesus is God, so what about the myrrh?
You may even be wondering what myrrh is. It certainly isn’t something most of us have ever used. Jimmie Jacobsen is the one most likely to know about it.
Myrrh was a spice. It was used in embalming. A very strange gift for a child, to be sure. The gift of myrrh was a sign that Jesus was mortal. We are also mortal, and that means we will die. Myrrh was a sign that Jesus would die someday.
The visit of the Wise Men was a blessing to the Holy Family. Receiving any guests is an honor and a blessing. But receiving foreign nobility is especially an honor and a blessing.
Just imagine if Queen Elizabeth came here to St. Paul! Or any member of any royal family for that matter! It would be an honor to host them.
The Wise Men brought their blessing to the home of Mary and Joseph, as well as their gifts for Jesus. That is why we bless our homes on Epiphany when we remember their visit.
We like to remember the story of the Wise Men the way we have seen it so many times in Christmas programs. We picture 3 boys in colorful robes wearing crowns bearing gifts for the child. We think to ourselves how nice it would have been to be there with them. To see the child sitting on Mary’s lap, and to give him a gift.
We weren’t there then, but we can still give Jesus our gifts.
This Epiphany, what gifts will we bring to Jesus?
Will we be like the wise man who brought the gold? We can certainly share our wealth with Jesus. He has told us many times that whatever we do for the poor, the hungry, the oppressed, we do for him.
We can give him gold when we bring our offerings, when we give to charities, when we use our resources, time, and talents to work for justice and peace.
Will we be like the wise man who brought the frankincense? Incense is a symbol of prayer. We can bring our prayers to Jesus any time. He has assured us that whenever two or more of us are gathered in his name, he is present with us.
We can bring our frankincense whenever we worship and recognize that Jesus is the Christ, the God and Lord of all.
Will we be like the wise man who brought the myrrh? The embalming spice? Maybe we don’t like thinking about death. Maybe we especially don’t like thinking that someday we ourselves will die.
We bring the myrrh whenever we remember the death of Jesus. By his death and resurrection, Jesus conquered death itself.
The horrible death of Jesus, our God and King, brought salvation to the whole world. If Jesus had not died, our story would be very different. Death would be the end of it.
Because of the death of Jesus, the only death we have to fear is behind us. It is the death we died in our baptism, when our sinful self was drowned in the waters.
Because of the death of Jesus, we will live forever with our heavenly God and King.
The wise men brought three important gifts to the child Jesus.
This Epiphany, we can do the same.