Sunday, January 5, 2014

Three Gifts

January 5, 2014 –– Epiphany Sunday
Isaiah 60:1–6 / Matthew 2:1–12
Three Gifts

I want you to think about three kinds of gifts today––and three givers. The Magi gave gold, frankincense, and myrrh. God gives grace, mercy, and peace. We ourselves give.... well, I’ll end with that.

Over the next several weeks we are giving prominence to the themes of grace, mercy, and peace. It is our prayer that such a focus will penetrate the entire parish in ways that open us to new things from our Lord. As a bit of orientation, I offer one way to think of these words:
Grace is being given good things we do not deserve.
Mercy is not being given the bad things we do deserve because of our sins.
Peace is the result of understanding that we have been given grace and mercy through Jesus.

We live in a world that often gets things upside down and backwards. Possessions are substituted for meaning and purpose. Sex is isolated from relationships. The pleasure of the moment is exalted beyond higher rewards that can come from delayed gratification. The world thinks we gain personal peace by getting our own way and fulfilling our own desires.

We see this with Christmas. Our culture jumps into what it calls “Christmas” (or, at least, it used to call it that before “Holidays” usurped it). While the Church is calling us during Advent to get ready for the Coming of the Son of God, we are inundated with a party-spirit of buying and decorating and increasingly silly music. And just when the Church calls us to the joy of celebration, the world around us dismantles everything, shuts off the music and turns its attention to a one-night party where a ball drops.

The world does things upside down and backwards. We need to remember this when we are tempted to let transitory or even artificial issues dominate our minds. We need to remember this when we realize that we have become distracted from living in the awareness that the Son of God truly has come into our world to save us. The temporal things of this world come and go. Some of them do affect us, even in big ways, but none of them alone are worthy of our allegiance. They certainly do not give us peace. In every situation of life we have an invitation to bow before the King of kings and Lord of lords and give him the true worship of our hearts. It is there we find the peace the angels sang about to the shepherds.

Today is Epiphany Sunday. This is the Sunday that the Church’s readings take us to the Magi. This is also the first Sunday of a new year, and there is a bizarre juxtaposition: As the world gives attention to all the things to which it gives an obscene amount of money and attention, we in the Church are directed, like the Magi, to the King of kings and Lord of lords.

The Magi were searching for God. [It might help to rethink our understanding of the Christmas manger scene. The shepherds were at the manger; the wise men probably were not. The Magi came later. Matthew says “they entered the house” where Jesus was, not the stable or cave where the manger would have been.] They are accurately described as “wise men”––they were interested in understanding wisdom and mysteries. The prophet Daniel had been promoted to the rank of Magi when he served the Persian Empire.

About the year 6 B.C. (according to our present calendar), an unusual “star” appeared. St. John Chrysostom rejected the idea that the Star of Bethlehem was a normal star or similar heavenly body because such a star could not have specified the exact place where Jesus was found, being too high in the sky to be that specific. Also, he notes that stars in the sky move from east to west, but the Magi would have travelled from north to south to arrive in Palestine from Persia. Instead, Chrysostom suggested that the star they followed was a miraculous occurrence, comparable to the fiery cloud mentioned in Exodus as leading the Israelites out of Egypt.

Early Christian tradition names three Magi as Casper, Melchior and Balthasar. Their journey took perhaps two years. There is a legend that the Christ-Star replenished their supplies of food and water so they had no need to stop on the way to Jerusalem, but I think the reality is that those men traveled for months in very inconvenient circumstances to find the One their hearts hungered for. God says, “You will find me when you seek me with all your heart.” These men gave themselves to search for God. They modeled humble belief as they knelt with their gifts. 

When we truly believe that God comes to us in Jesus––that he gives us grace, mercy, and peace ––there is a shift in the way we see things. We begin to understand that the world indeed does things upside down and backwards. Peace comes from God and not through a convenient arranging of our circumstances. The Magi came looking for God, and when they found him they gave their best gifts. We live in a world where attention is so often focused on what we can get–– “what’s in it for me?” We live in a climate of growing hatefulness that does not want even to hear of Jesus. Personal “peace” is offered in almost any way other than one that honors what God has done through Jesus Christ. Yet we are given an opportunity on this Epiphany Sunday to confess that Jesus has come into our world. We are invited to come to him―like the Magi.

One of the songs I love to hear at Christmas is In The Bleak Mid-Winter. The last verse is so appropriate as we seek to hold on to the true season of Christmas and remember the Magi with their gift of worship exemplified by their material gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

In this world that is so often upside down and backwards, we come to give our worship to the Son of God who came to save us from all that is so inverted and twisted. We are offered the gifts of grace, mercy, and peace. You can receive those gifts when you give Jesus the one thing you have. Give him your heart.

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