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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Friday, January 02, 2009

2008-01-06 Mt 02 01-12 Epiphany - defining moments

2009-01-04 Mt 02
James McTyre
Lake Hills
Presbyterian Church (USA)
Sunday, January 4, 2009

You think kids grow
up too fast today?

Consider Jesus.

He was born just, what, a week and half ago.

In February we start
Lent, the time of getting ready for Easter.

Which means we've
got just eight Sundays, January and February to squeeze in all the years
in between.

Which means the
sermons have to be really long...

or really fast.

Would you like to
take a vote?

When it comes to the
early years of Jesus' life, the Bible makes Reader's Digest
look like War and Peace.

Luke 2:52 says, "And
Jesus grew in wisdom and stature...."

Well then.

Maybe that's the way
your parents prefer to describe your childhood, because if they ever
got started it would lead to some really long sermons.

"Oh, let's just
say, he (or she) grew in wisdom and stature.

And then he

It would have been
really nice if the Bible had given us parents some stories of the
obedient, saintly young Jesus to preach at - I mean - lovingly share
with our kids, like,

"See how Jesus
always did what his mother told him to, when she told him to do it?"

Maybe the gospel
writers chose not to include those stories for precisely that reason:
they wanted children to love Jesus.

We compress all those intervening
years between Jesus' birth and final days into just a few Sundays.

Today, we read about
Jesus being brought the first Christmas presents by the magi.


"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." (Mt 2:11)

From a gospel
perspective, what's important about the wise men from the East?

What difference does
it make that they arrived, bearing gifts?

There's no record of
the gifts ever being used, no reference to the magi ever again.

So why is this
moment worth including in the Bible?

means, "good news," so, apart from the value of their
gifts, what's good about this news?

First, the gifts.

Have you ever opened
up a Christmas gift and thought, what in the world is this?

Why in the world
would anyone ever give anyone (much less me) a gift like this?

Mary and Joseph must
have been wondering something similar.

"Who are these
well-dressed wise men, and why are they bringing our baby, wrapped in
the swaddling clothes of poverty, these expensive presents?

What use could they
possibly think we'd have for these things?"

Huggies might have
been more practical.

Instead the men who
were wise brought gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Gold was gold, and
needs very little explanation in an economic sense.

Symbolically, gold
stands for kingship, earthly kingship.

You brought the king
your very best, your most valuable offerings.

So the wise men
brought gold.

Next, the

Frankincense is a
kind of very strong incense.

It was used lavishly
in religious rites.

It was used by the
priests who performed the rituals that brought the people closer to
God (and vice versa).

So frankincense had
a priestly significance.

It symbolized Jesus'
priestly role as the one who would bring the people closer to God
(and vice versa).

Which is exactly
what Jesus does for us.

He brings us closer
to God, and he brings God closer to us.

And something else
about frankincense.

It was often used in
religious services to anoint infants or individuals who were
recognized as moving to a new phase in their religious lives.

In the baby Jesus,
all the world was moving to a new phase in its religious life, hence,
the frankincense.

Lastly, the wise men
brought myrrh.

Myrrh was another
kind of incense, even stronger than frankincense.

Myrrh was incredibly
valuable, worth more than its weight in gold.

But if frankincense
was for the first of life, myrrh was for life’s end.

Myrrh was used in
embalming, and was burned at funerals.

Myrrh symbolizes a
foreshadowing of Christ's earthly death, and how significant it’s
going to be.


So the gifts were
more than just Christmas presents.

They represented
part of the good news of the gospel.

They symbolized far
more than they were worth because they described who Jesus was.

An earthly king - a
heavenly king.

A priest, a
mediator, a Messiah who would bring God and the people closer

And, they symbolized
that this baby would grow up into a person whose death would be very,
very significant.

But what about the
wise men themselves?

Could someone else
have brought these presents, or were the wise men special?

Who were these
people, and where did they come from?

(There's an old
story about the little boy from Alabama who said they were firemen.

The Sunday School
teacher asked how he knew that, and the boy said, "Because it
says they came from 'afar'".

But we don't have
time for humor right now.

We've got to move

Who were the wise

This is a question
that's bugged people for centuries.

Who were these guys,
and why were they good news?

The Bible says they
were magi.

That's short for

Actually, magi were
more like what we'd call fortune-tellers; they looked at the
stars and predicted the future.

We'd call them

We kind of poo-poo
astrology and horoscopes - except when they're right.

(“Oh look,
Herb. Your horoscope says you’re an overweight middle-aged man
who reached his prime his senior year of high school. Spooky.”)

We have far more
reliable methods of predicting the future, like, Doppler weather
radar, preseason coaches' polls.

But, more than mere
fortune-tellers, the magi were men of science, at least as much
science as you had back then.

They were the
studious, bearded Ph.D.’s of their time.

But, who were they,

The mystery of the
magi did bother people.

It bothered people
that such wise men had no names.

So around the Eighth
Century, someone came up with Balthazar, Gaspar and Melchior.

These are good names
for wise men.

They’re the
kind of names you’d expect to hear in Science Club.

"Hey, Gaspar, can I borrow your calculator?" (Snork, snork.)

But still, that
wasn't enough.

The idea that they
were magi bothered people.

Except for these few
verses, the Bible doesn't says nothing nice about magi,

In fact, it says
some pretty mean things about them.

And this bothered

So somewhere along
the way, the magi were morphed into kings.

In 1857, the Rev.
John Henry Hopkins, Jr. wrote the hymn, "We Three Kings of
Orient Are," for a Christmas pageant in New York City.

And pretty much
every Christmas pageant since then has had the three kings visiting
at the manger.

But even that's
different, because for the previous eighteen hundred and fifty-seven
years, tradition had them arriving sometime after Joseph and
Mary had moved out of the manger.

For more than a
thousand years, the church had them arriving on the last of the
Twelve Days of Christmas, which would be January 6.

That seems rather

Christmas is already
a distant memory for most of us.

Which explains why
people would slide the three kings back to December 25.

But again, the
mystery bothered people.

Because the Bible
never even says there were three.

The Bible never
gives any number.

There were three
gifts, but there could have been any number of wise men.

There could have
been more.

And while some might
say finding more than three wise men in one geographic region is too
hard to believe, there's really no way to know.

Could have been six.
Could have been two.

The Bible doesn't

All we know for sure
is that they were foreigners from the East (Gentiles, pagans, not

We know they
followed the star.

And we know they
brought Jesus gifts fit for a king.

The Bible’s
story of the magi is a lot simpler than we make it.

Where in the gospel
simplicity is the good news?

Go back for a minute
to the idea that the magi arrived on the last of the Twelve Days of

Again, we have to
back up for a second minute and remind ourselves that the official
Christmas Season doesn't begin the day after Thanksgiving - or, at least the day after Halloween.

The official church
season of Christmas begins on Christmas Day and ends twelve days
later, January 6, which is this coming Tuesday.

Usually the wise men
arrive during our work week and we don’t even notice.

On the official
church calendar, January 6 is the holiday, the holy day, we call

The day the wise men

About once a year,
someone asks me, "What's Epiphany?"

This is one of those
questions ministers just live for, because we get to look like we're
wise men (or wise women).

Someone will ask,
"What's Epiphany?" and I'll say,

"It's the day
when the unspecified number of unnamed wise men who weren't kings but
were probably Gentile astrologers came late to visit the baby Jesus
in a place that wasn't the manger."

Which explains why
I'm only asked once a year, and never twice by the same person.

Actually, I usually
just say, “Epiphany is the day the wise men came.”

And everyone gets

No one asks, “Why
were they late? Were they really kings?” Or any of that other

They go, “Oh.”
And that’s that.

And we all go back
to putting Balthazar, Gaspar and Melchior around the manger in our
nativity scenes and pay no attention to the difference.

We live in a state
of anti-epiphany.

means a flash of insight, an appearance or manifestation.

An epiphany is an
“Aha” Moment, a God moment, when you “get it.”

An epiphany is a
moment when you feel like your eyes have opened for the very first
time, when you may not be
able to explain what you just realized about God, but when you know
you know.

You just know.

OK, back up one more

The gospel writer,
Matthew – who is the only gospel writer to include the magi in
the Christmas story – Matthew was Jewish.

Matthew was a Jewish
Christian, and this is really, really significant.

Matthew was an Old
Testament kind of guy.

For Matthew, if it
wasn’t Jewish, it wasn’t worth much.

And yet, he’s
the only gospel writer to include these Gentile, pagan magi.

Under normal
circumstances, Matthew would have crossed the street to avoid these

And yet, he not only
includes them in the gospel, he has them helping define who Jesus is.


It would be kind of
like some Iranian Muslims walking into our church and saying, “We
don’t really understand what you’re doing here, but we
think you might be on to something, so we’re going to give a check for
$100,000 to your church budget.”

Matthew –
good, Jewish Matthew – is sneaking in a little heresy, here.

It’s not just
that on Epiphany the eyes of the world might have peeked open just a
little bit to understand who the Baby Jesus is…

it’s also that
the new Christian world, the people who remembered and wrote the
gospels – Matthew – might also have had his eyes opened
just a little bit to understand that maybe, just maybe…

some unspecified
number of unnamed pseudo-scientific, chronically late magicians…
even people like these might have something to teach Christians about



What people, or what
group of people, would you think would be the last people in the
world to teach you something about Jesus?

Maybe they’re
kings in disguise.

Maybe they’re
gospel preachers, disguised as the absolute last people you’d
expect to know more than you about Our Lord.

Be like Matthew.

Those strangely wise
people, strangely dressed, strangely accented, strangely appearing
from the East or some other place…

Those unnamed

Even if you’re
not like them, even if you don’t like them, don’t write
them out.

Because over time,
they might just sneak into your manger scene.

Over time, you might
have an epiphany,

and realize how
important they really are, as they define who Christ is… for