Sermon for Epiphany – High Mass Monday 6 January 2020
Sermon preached by The Rev’d Anna Matthews
Twelfth Night, and already a shadow is cast over the crib. Visitors from the East arrive, trailing spices and the cold night air, having already caused consternation in Jerusalem. Diplomatic niceties ignored, they arrive seeking a king. In Jerusalem, Herod is afraid – and all the city with him.
Herod’s grasp on power is precarious. The unsettled populace of the occupied corner of empire over which he rules as vassal king regularly seethes with discontent. The last thing Herod needs is a figurehead, one who can rally the people in a challenge to his power. So he is immediately alert to the news of the arrival of the wise men, and their search for a king. Herod reacts to the news of Jesus’ birth with a plot to murder that he deems expedient.
Jesus has yet to learn language, and already he is a threat to Herod’s power. For in Jesus a kingdom of an entirely different order breaks decisively into the world. But he is not a king as the world has come to understand kingship, of which Herod is simply the latest and local manifestation.
He is a king who will reign over a kingdom far more extensive than the political entity that is Israel. The coming of the wise men confirms this: kings from far off lands bow down before Jesus and render him tribute, as the Psalmist had promised. Gentiles will come to his light and belong in his kingdom.
And the gifts of the wise men help us understand more about who this child is, this long-awaited one whose coming both meets and confounds expectations. The people of Israel looked for the coming of a Messiah, a king who would rule over them. This hope had sustained them through long years of exile and persecution and through the indignity and humiliation of occupation. It was a hope cherished for its promise of deliverance and justice – which is why Herod knew it was a dangerous hope.
And in the first gift, it seems that this hope is fulfilled. Gold, in the bible, is often associated with monarchy. The offering of gold is a recognition of Jesus’ royal status. Born in royal David’s city, through Joseph’s genealogy born of David’s line, the gift of gold confirms that this is the one on whom Israel’s hope rests. The child is born to be king of the Jews.
But the frankincense indicates that one even greater than David is here. Frankincense was burnt before the Ark of the Covenant in the sanctuary. It symbolised the presence of God in the midst of his people, and burned as a symbol of holiness and divinity. Its offering to Jesus is a recognition of the presence of God no longer veiled in the tabernacle but made manifest in human flesh. The child before whom the wise men bow down is not just royalty, but God.
Myrrh is a bitter spice. It had two main uses in the Old Testament: firstly, mixed with oil, it was used to anoint the high priest, the one who would mediate between God and Israel. Messiah means ‘anointed one’ – the myrrh shows that Israel’s hopes are being fulfilled. But the second use of myrrh tells us that this hope will not be fulfilled as they expect it to be. Myrrh was also used in burials. It will be among the spices taken to the tomb when Jesus’ dead body is anointed. This child, who is king, and God, and anointed one, is born to die.
For this is how God brings the redemption for which Israel and the world long. His promised kingdom of justice and peace is an alternative to the world’s politics of fear and brutality. In response to the violent who would seek to take his kingdom by force he comes in vulnerability and gentleness. Against the nationalists who think redemption is only for them he draws Gentiles to him in worship. For those who feel far away and cut off from God, and from hope and promise and deliverance, he comes as one of us, willing to die our death to bring us back to God.
This is what endures, once the decorations are packed away for another year; once the wise men have made their long trek home, their eyes full of starlight and strangers now in their own lands: the kingdom of this child, its door open wide to us.
And to receive this kingdom asks us simply to follow in the path trodden before us by shepherds and wise men, to the stable where heaven comes down to earth. With the wise men we offer our gifts: our gold or our riches; our frankincense or our worship; our myrrh for our griefs and bitterness. And like the wise men we journey back different because of this encounter. Their bags are empty of the gifts they’ve offered as they return to their own country, but this emptiness creates space for them to receive the unexpected gifts this child has given them. For their riches he gives them poverty; for their worship, humility; for their offering of myrrh he gives them vulnerability. And they return to their home country by another way, but they are different too, having crowded into the kingdom of heaven and been sent out as emissaries of it into a cold and harsh world.
For the gifts they leave with, the Christ child’s gifts of poverty, humility and vulnerability, had seemed natural, easy even, in his company. Now they must return, bearing these gifts in a world that often doesn’t know how to receive them. What use is vulnerability in a world ruled by Herods? What place have poverty and humility in a world that tramples on the lowly and despises the poor?
Yet these are the gifts of Christ to his people; they are the gifts by which the light that illuminates the crib extends into the whole world, and by which his kingdom grows. In poverty we are made sharers in his riches and so learn to judge wealth by a very different standard. In humility we learn that he is God and we are not, and nor are any of those who clamour for our loyalty and allegiance in the world. In vulnerability we learn that we are loved, and so are given grace to attend to our own and others’ vulnerabilities with gentleness not judgement.
These are the Epiphany gifts Christ offers us. To worship this king who became a servant; the God who became man; the author of life who goes to death for us is to be drawn into his kingdom and to be changed. The wise men could not go from the stable to Herod. Their loyalties had shifted; the habits and rules and priorities of their former lives made different. Poverty, humility and vulnerability, it turns out, make space also for courage to defy tyrants, because they remind us who our true king is. When we come to the crib, as when we come to the altar, this is what Christ makes possible for us, too: we return by another way, because we are no longer our own, but his.