A Sermon preached by the
Rev. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, January 7, 2018
Text: Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)
“What can I give him, poor as I am?” Christina Rosetti penned these words more than a hundred years ago, and still the question seems timeless. What can I give him? What can you give him – Jesus Christ, Child of God, Maker of Heaven and Earth? Talk about the classic dilemma of what to give someone who has everything!
During other seasons, we frequently sing, as our Song of Response to the Giving of our Gifts,
We give thee but thine own,
whate’er the gift may be;
all that we have is thine alone,
a trust, O God, from thee.
We sing this partly because I believe it to be true. Jesus, himself, championed what is known as the debt code over against the more prevalent purity code practiced by most Jews in his day. It is an argument that, because all that is, including life itself, was created by God and shared with us by God’s grace, we are eternally indebted to God for everything. There are no hierarchies in the mind of God. None of us is better than another. None of us has a birthright to the privilege we hold. “It is God who has made us and not we ourselves. We are God’s people and the sheep of God’s pasture (Psalm 100:3). Our indebtedness to the Creator is a great leveler – we are all, each and every one of us, sheep of God’s pasture. No claims of purity, righteousness, class, race, nationality, gender, age, ability, intellect, power or privilege make us superior to another. God loves us everyone equally, without favoritism.
I suppose, at times, that can be hard for us to swallow, but it seems we have a lovely illustration of that reality in today’s text. Wise men from the East came looking for a child who had been born King of the Jews. Note that Matthew does not say how many are in the entourage. Tradition has limited the number to three because there were three sorts of gifts given, but we don’t really know. Tradition has also called them kings, though it is unlikely that they were kings in the same sense that Herod was. From the Greek original, we sometimes call them magi, though that carries all the trappings of magic with our suspicion of contemporary conjurers and tricksters. Scholars most commonly consider them astrologers, likely of the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism or an ancient Kurdish cult of star-gazers. Again, we moderns don’t give much credence to astrology and are not always patient with those lost out there in the stars.
So, it is important to remember that this was a different time and place. It was a time when the space between heaven and earth was much less clearly defined. Magic and astrology were respected disciplines in which practitioners focused on those thin spaces through which heaven invaded earth, where the sacred and the profane kissed, in which wonders beyond human knowing revealed themselves in stars and stories that held truth beyond any attempts at scientific proof or human rationalization.
It appears these wise men from the East were highly educated, wealthy, from an elite social class. They traveled in style. They had access to courts and kings. Their caravan must have made a big impression as they entered Jerusalem. The curious thing was that they came in search of a baby born king of the Jews. Their own king, even if he was, like Herod, a puppet of Rome, must at least have equaled Herod in wealth and power. Why had they made a long, arduous journey in search of some baby born in a social and cultural backwater like Judea? What could they get from an infant king of the Jews that they couldn’t receive ten-fold from the princes of Persia or the king of the Kurds?
Well, these ancient travelers were students of the stars. It is likely they were looking for signs of the sacred beyond the routines of earthly life. Possibly they hoped for a new and different world order. Perhaps they believed this infant king would bring a different kind of royal rule – something akin to what the Dalai Lama represents for Tibetan Buddhists today – a kind of God-king, a holy man who was much more concerned with compassion and care of creation than any trappings of royal wealth and power. Maybe this was crucial to their ancient wisdom – an understanding of peace and well-being for all creation that would eventually be seen in Christ’s vision of God’s Beloved Community. John Philip Newell comments on this text, “’In the beginning was the Word,’ says St John, and all things have come into being through the Word. Or in the beginning was the Sound, as some of our other teachers put it, and the Sound was with God and the Sound was God. Everything is essentially a sounding of God. The universe is like a sacred vibration, a living text that we can learn to read. And that includes the movement of the stars, the flowing of the seasons, the dreams of the night” (John Philip Newell, “The Light Within All Life,” January 6, 2013, day1.org). This realization may be the legacy of the wise men from the East.
So, what did they find when the star finally led them to the new born king, when it stopped over the place where the child was? There was no kingly palace, no royal trappings. There was a little baby, humbly housed with his peasant parents. Did the wise men, look at one another, shaking their heads in astonishment, agreeing that surely there had been some mistake? Clearly this was not the king of the Jews, or of anybody, for that matter. They must have made a wrong turn somewhere, or that evil old King Herod had given them bad directions. No, not at all.
One of the things I love about this text is that it proclaims, “…they were overwhelmed with joy.” Clearly, they were satisfied that this was exactly the one for whom they had been searching, not just the king of the Jews, but the Light of the World. Even in his infant state they recognized the Word made Flesh, the Sound of God vibrating through the Universe concentrated in this tiny infant. If they had been less dignified, they might have jumped for joy.
Instead, they entered the house, fell to their knees, and offered homage with their gifts, magnificent gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We’ve heard before the significance of the gifts – gold to crown him king, frankincense offered to a deity, myrrh for anointing as god-king and ultimately for burial. Truly, these are gifts fit for royalty. From this symbolic gift-giving, we’ve derived our own tradition of Christmas gift-giving. But somehow it doesn’t fit. How does the rampant consumerism of our just-completed holiday season reconcile with these gifts given in tribute to the Savior of the World?
I can remember many years ago preaching a sermon entitled, “Whose Birthday Is It Anyway?” As a student preacher, I may have been a little strident in chiding the congregation, but the question still nags me. Isn’t the truth of Christmas the celebration of the birth of the Christ? The wise men seemed to have understood. They brought gifts appropriate to the Christ child. They offered what they could, which in their case was both rich and rare. It wasn’t the result of a crazed shopping spree; these were very specific gifts in gratitude to God for the ultimate gift God had given, God’s own son, Light to the World, Hope of Healing, Prince of Peace, Christ of Great Compassion. Theirs’ were gifts of gratitude as, perhaps, all true gifts are.
Then, what can I give him? What can we bring? “If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part.” But we have no shepherds or magi here this morning. Nor are we particularly poor, as Christina Rosetti claims. What if were to follow the star? What if it stopped in some improbable place? Would we see and understand? Would we jump for joy? Would we fall on our knees in homage to God who made us and saves us, who loves us and gives us life? And then, what might we, in gratitude, lay before Light of the World, the Word Made Flesh?
Christina Rosetti, suggests that the one thing that any and all of us might offer is our hearts. I think heart here is symbolic of the very core of our being. It’s what Jesus was referring to when he reminded us we were made to love God with our whole being and our neighbor as ourselves. But, before we reach that point, do we have to secure our hearts, to realize that they are worth giving? John Philip Newell, again, wonders, “Do you know that you are loved? Do you know it in the heart of your being?” For, he says, “This is the truth of epiphany, that you are loved, that you are part of this beautiful Light of God, that you too are called to shine for the healing of the world” (Newell, op. cit.). What can I give him? I can let my own heart light shine in concert with the Light of the World.
In the end, the wise men are warned to find a new way home. The trappings of power and might are not trustworthy. The old order will no longer hold. For us, in our time, once we have trusted our gifts with Christ and given our lives to following him, we, too, must leave for our home country by another road. Bruce Epperly recognizes this and comments, “We are on another road and we have to find our own stars to guide us. We can’t let, as Isaiah proclaims, our fears of darkness dampen our lights. When political leaders lack a moral compass, we must supply a new ethical and spiritual direction. When religious leaders sell out their faith for power and the return of the good old days, we must chart a different course. Not letting go of the name, ‘Christian,’ despite the foolishness of popular Christian leaders, we must redefine Christian faith for our time to transform the world and to witness to those who have been traumatized or scandalized by ‘captivity of the church’ in our time” (Bruce Epperly, “The Epiphany of Christ – January 6, 2017,” patheos.com).
What can I give him? My own heart’s shining that, following the Christ child and reflecting his brilliance, it might light the way for me and others to a new and everlasting home in God’s Beloved Community, laid out for us all from the beginning of time. Overwhelmed with joy, like those ancient wise men from the East, let us each and all offer the gifts that we can in gratitude for all that is and in hope for all that will be. Amen.