Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Gift for the Infant King

The Epiphany – Year C (RCL)
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
Wednesday, January 6, 2010 – Trinity, Redlands

Today we come to the end of the Christmas season, with our celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany – the commemoration of the manifestation of Jesus Christ to the Magi in Bethlehem. Throughout the last 2,000 years, much effort has been made to attach significance to the Magi – to who they were and what they represent – and to their gifts – to what they represent and even portend. But much of it is probably historically inaccurate.

We don’t know exactly who the Magi were, other than the fact that because of the term used, they were scholars, probably astrologers, from the east, from the area of present-day Iran. We don’t know their names – Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar were the names the Venerable Bede attributed to them nearly 800 years after the fact, but he would have had no way of knowing for sure. We don’t know for certain that they were of various races as is often portrayed in Christian art. We don’t even know how many there actually were – we just assume there were three because they brought three gifts. And the gifts they brought – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – may or may not have been chosen to represent such things as royalty and divine authority, and as a foreshadowing of the death of the Son of Man. These gifts may have had different meanings to these people from a far-distant land. Maybe they just brought what they had on hand. The fact is, we just don’t know. The only remotely reliable information we have is what is recorded in 12 verses in the Gospel According to Matthew. All else is pure speculation.

Actually, any modern theologian will tell you that the important thing about Epiphany is not the specifics, but rather the overarching meaning of the Magi. They clearly represent the revelation or manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles – to non-Jews. After all, we are told in the second verse of today’s Gospel lesson that Jesus was “born king of the Jews.” And Luke’s account of his birth clearly has the angels proclaiming that the child born in Bethlehem is the Messiah –indicating the Jewish Messiah foretold by the prophets. The Magi were the first Gentiles to recognize the coming of the Messiah. But the really important thing is that their recognition of Jesus as Messiah exemplifies the comprehensiveness of the kingdom this Messiah would one day proclaim. Their recognition and paying him homage tells us that Jesus is not just King of the Jews, but is the Messiah, the Savior, of all people.

In addition to this revelation extending Christ’s salvation to all humanity, this story of the coming of the Magi contains another all-important element – gifts. We are told that they brought expensive gifts with which to pay homage to this new king, this Messiah. I think the giving of gifts is critical to the overall message. Because implicit in this act is the message of generosity. The Magi seeking the Messiah gave of their generosity, in response to God’s generosity in giving humanity the gift of his Son, the gift of God himself made flesh, the ultimate gift of salvation.

I think the perfect illustration of the importance of gift is from one of my favorite Christmas stories, which is in reality an Epiphany story. It is the story of Aaron, the Little Drummer Boy. You’ve all heard the popular Christmas song – “Come, they told me, pa rum pum pum pum. A newborn King to see, pa rum pum pum pum,” etc. Perhaps some of you might remember that this song was the basis for a Rankin-Bass Christmas special first aired in 1968. Admittedly, it was a pretty crude stop-action animation production, particularly by contemporary standards, but it is still one of my favorites nonetheless.

The television show provides the supposed back-story for the popular song. Aaron is an orphan, who, because of the murder of his parents by bandits, is an incredibly bitter boy, hating all humanity. His only possession is a drum his parents had given him. And his only friends are three animals – a camel, a donkey, and a lamb. During the course of the story, Aaron has a chance encounter with three kings who are following a star. When an unscrupulous character takes Aaron’s camel, Joshua, and sells it to the three kings, Aaron sets out in search of them to try to get his friend back. Aaron’s only lead is the knowledge that the kings are following a star. So, he too sets out, following that same star. Upon arriving in Bethlehem, tragedy strikes. A Roman chariot runs over Baa-Baa, Aaron’s lamb. Baa-Baa is in critical condition, near death. Aaron figures that surely the three kings, who have great knowledge, will be able to save Baa-Baa. He continues following the star and finds the three kings. One of them tells Aaron that they do not have such power, but there is one who does – the infant king lying in the manger ahead of them.

Aaron reasons that he cannot approach this infant king and present his supplication without a gift worthy of a king. After all, the three kings brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh – gifts of great value. But Aaron has nothing. “I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum. That’s fit to give a king, pa rum pum pum pum.” So Aaron gives the only gift he can think of. He takes his drum and beats out a song for the newborn king. Aaron gives the only gift he had – the gift of himself. And when he’s finished, the baby Jesus smiles for having received such a precious gift. And in the glow of that smile, Aaron receives a gift as well. In the beauty of that infant, in the glow of his smile, Aaron sees that humanity is not something inherently evil, to be despised, but something beautiful, to be cherished. His heart softens and he experiences a sense of love and joy that he has not felt since his parents’ death. By God’s grace, Aaron is healed of what had been burdening him. And Baa-Baa? He too is healed, further adding to Aaron’s joy.

While Epiphany is about Jesus being revealed to humanity, an equally significant aspect is how he is revealed. As indicated in the Gospel lesson, Jesus is there in the manger, available to us. God provides the star to point the way, to guide us. But we have to take the initiative. It is up to us to set out on the journey in search of that which the star illumines. As such, Epiphany is even more about humanity, about us, making the journey to the manger. It is about us moving toward Jesus and recognizing for ourselves that he is our Messiah.

We journey to the manger by many different roads and out of many different motivations. Some come out of a sense of intrigue. Some come out of a sense of longing. Some come out of a sense of need. Some come out of a sense of hunger. Some come with a sorrow that needs to be cheered. Some come with an illness that needs to be healed. Some come with a burden that needs to be lifted. Some come with an emptiness that needs to be filled. Some come seeking love. Some come seeking joy. Some come seeking peace. Some come seeking hope.

No matter how we come, no matter what we seek, we are assured, by the grace of God, that we will find it in the smile of an infant king. And in addition, we will find something quite unexpected. There, at the manger, we will find total love, total acceptance, total grace. There we will find fullness of life. And the only thing we are asked to do is to give a small token in homage to the infant king. It doesn’t need to be gold, or frankincense, or myrrh. In fact, we are asked to give the only thing that is truly ours to give. We are asked to give ourselves. And while that may not seem like much, to the infant king lying in the manger, that is far more valuable gift than all the gold, frankincense, and myrrh on earth.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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