Sunday, January 7, 2024
The First Sunday after the Epiphany
God and Gifts
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77450
This weekend we have Epiphany yesterday on January 6 and the first Sunday after Epiphany which is the baptism of Jesus today. Now I had originally planned on focusing on Epiphany and the wise men bringing their gifts to Jesus as a way to lead into the end of our Celebration of Stewardship.
However in the course of conversation with a member earlier in Advent I learned that swe have an adult who has not been baptized and Bobbie wanted to take that step. Now the first Sunday after Epiphany, that’s today, is one of the traditional days for baptism and so we will do that at the 10:30 service. Bobbie and her family have gotten very involved over the past 6 months and this seemed a natural step for her. Now what is really great is her wife and two children will present her for baptism and I think that is so special. That is exactly what happened to me and I remember that Easter Vigil back in 1992 very fondly.
That got me thinking that the two days are really quite closely linked and this year is a unique chance to experience that. The theme is gift. God so loved the world that he gave his only son. That is the greatest gift every given. The wise men even though they are not Jewish know that something great has happened and they bring gifts to an unknown “king”.
Let me remind you of that story. “ In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Matt. 2:7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 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. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
The wisemen were not kings but probably astrologers, possibly Zoroastrians but definitely from Persia, modern day Iran. In that part of the world Epiphany is the big festival and the day that gifts are exchanged. Now if you listened to the passage, you will note that nowhere does it mention three people. The three comes from several possible sources. First is the fact that there are three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. The three isn’t important. What is important is that the three stood as a question of what this great birth was. In other words what was this baby going to grow into. The legend was that if the child chose the gold it meant he would be a king. If he had chosen the frankincense, then he would be a great prophet. The myrrh was a powerful healing ointment so that would have meant that he would be a healer. Again this isn’t in scripture but the legend continues that Jesus reached out for all three which as the Son of God meant he would be all three in this world.
The three could also come from the legend that they were in fact three men named Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior. There is at least some archeological evidence that these three existed but all of this is really not important. We are not even sure how soon after his birth they arrived. There is no mention of a stable so maybe Mary and Joseph had found a place to stay with family in Bethlehem, after he was going there because his family roots were there. It seems logical to me that they would have found some relatives. There is also speculation that it could be as long as three years after the birth that they came. Why else would Herod have ordered the death of all males under the age of three if it was only a little baby that he was worried about.
The beauty and truth like much of the bible is not in the details, but in the story. Important people came at some time after the birth. Searching for the messiah in response to what they had heard or observed. They were not Jewish but from a distant land and they recognized Jesus for who he was. For Matthew that Jesus is recognized by the powerful is as critical to his narrative as the lowliness of the shepherds is to Luke. It’s all in the telling of the version of the story that is important to the author and the audience that will hear the story. There is no reason why it can’t be both and.
We too are asked to bring our gifts to Jesus. In the Rite 1 prayer of consecration there is a line that states. “And here we present our selves, our souls and our bodies to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.”
You have also heard language like this in the various offertory sentences I have been using over the past 6 months. These various phrases come from both the old and the new testaments. Most of them from the Apostle Paul. Many contain the idea of mutuality. Both God and us make gifts.
You see, we do not just give to God, but we also receive much from God. “All things come of thee oh Lord and of thine have we given thee,” is the doxology we use at both services during Lent. As with all gifts however we have to be willing receive these gifts and that’s why tying together Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus makes good theological sense.
Baptism is the acceptance of a gift from God. That gift is our acknowledgement that we accept that we are beloved children of God no matter what age we are baptized. I have a video of Rachel Held Evans that I will use in the confirmation classes that we will be doing before the bishop come on Easter. In the Baptism video in the series she says, “We do not become children of God at our baptism, but we acknowledge, accept that we are. Jesus does not become more beloved when he is baptized, he is saying that he knows that he is the beloved child of God. The world tells us all kinds of terrible things about ourselves, but in baptism we renounce that.” We not only renounce them, but we claim the gift that God has given us. Jesus didn’t need a voice from the heavens to tell him that he was God’s son and that God was pleased with him. He already knew that. The crowds watching did not know it and those were the ones who needed to learn the message of God’s love for us that Jesus came to teach us!
This is how the love of God and the Trinity work. It is an endless cycle of love that is both given and received. Best of all we are part of the circle. Our job is to accept the gift just as Jesus as a little baby accepts the gifts of the wisemen who used the gifts to know who he is for them.
So, this brings us to the end of the Christmas season. There is just one more thing for you all to do and that is turn in your gift, your pledge to Jesus for 2024. Just like the wisemen we will come to the manger and give our gifts this morning.
But the end of the Christmas season does not mean that we are finished, but rather the work has just begun for another year. I’d like to end with a favorite passage by Howard Thurman.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
…To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.
Merry Christmas and a Happy Epiphany season to all.