The Rev. Carolyn Metzler, Epiphany Transferred, January 7, 2018

What a strange story we hear today of these mystifying people who traveled so far to find a baby, and who were the first to acclaim him king!  This story is about an announcement.  “Epiphany” means “shining forth!”  Or, in today’s lingo, “Ta daaa!”  “In former generations this mystery was not made known to human kind,” writes Paul in today’s epistle. “It now has been revealed…to bring to the Gentiles (that’s us) the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God.”  WOW!!

These Magi (or “wise guys” as we used to call them where I come from) or kings  came from modern day Iraq, from a tribe of priests who were the teachers of the Persian kings.  They were skilled in philosophy, medicine and the natural sciences.  They interpreted dreams and told fortunes.  They were about controlling events in human life through their charms, magic, and spells.  In those days everyone watched the patterns of the stars closely, and told fortunes by them.  If an exceedingly bright star appeared out of nowhere, it was certainly announcing something tremendous.  As seekers after wisdom and holiness, they were bound to set out and discover what it was.

We’re not sure what the star was they saw.  Halley’s Comet was making a spectacular appearance around 11 BCE, and there was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, two of the brightest planets.  Also, the dog star called Mesori (which means “birth of a prince”) rose with particular clarity and brilliance around then.  The world was truly waiting for a great king to rise, and all these things happened together.   The world waited, the stars announced, and the wise men came.

What they found was wa-a-ay outside their imagining.  They who could influence and control people’s lives found, in that manger, something which was completely outside their experience: they found the mystery of vulnerable love.  They found a Creator who was content to be made of all the elements of creation.  They found the Lord of all things as a tiny, mortal baby unable to care for himself. They found the God of Resurrection as a mortal, someday to die.

There is the old joke that if the wise men had been wise women, they would have arrived on time, boiled water, cleaned the stable, helped with the birth, prepared a hot meal, and brought practical gifts like diapers and blankets instead of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.   Matthew does not tell us how many kings there were.  The eastern Orthodox say there were twelve.  We tend to think three because of the three gifts.  Oriental rules of hospitality say that no one may approach a king without a gift.  So they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Gold, the most beautiful and precious of metals, is for kings.  I am not sure what one actually does with gold.  It did not seem to be used as currency, like pieces of silver.  I guess you put it in your treasury and look at it.  Gold is a gift for the king of kings.

Frankincense is the dried resin of a Boswellia tree.  It is burned to produce a wonderful smell.  In the first century it was largely used in religious rituals to cover up the nasty smells of animal sacrifice.  Many churches today still use incense.  Some even create lots of excitement by setting off smoke alarms at the high mass on Christmas Eve! The Psalms talk about “prayers of the saints rising like incense.”  This gift was symbolic because Jesus is our great high priest, the bridge between people and God.  So frankincense is a gift for a priest.

And myrrh is an ointment used in healing, a salve, or oil to ease wounds.  It is also used to embalm the bodies of the dead.  As a human being, Jesus was both wounded and killed.  So the gift of myrrh foretold his passion; it is a gift given to a mortal.

What happened to the gifts after the wise men went home?  We never hear about them again.  Mary was one of the women who cared for Jesus’ body after his crucifixion–did she use this same myrrh?  Did they live off the gold when they went to Egypt to escape Herod?  And what happened to the wise men after they went home?  How do you experience what they experienced there, and go back to same ole same ole?  I don’t think you can.  There are some wonderful lines from TS Eliot’s Poem, “Journey of the Magi” which speaks to this:  “We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their Gods.”  On journey, Eliot describes “the voices singing in their ears that this is all folly.” Did they ever doubt the wisdom of this venture?  Did they regret setting out on this wild goose chase?  Sometimes the journey of faith seems very foolish indeed.    Belief in this unseen God, who loves us even though we fail miserably to love God back, whose power is seen most clearly in weakness, and whose victory begins in failure; this king who rules from the cross, this Lord who serves the poorest and neediest among us, this Creator of all things who is made of his own creation, this Judge who is so quick to mercy, this God who makes the first last, the last first, who fills the hungry with good things, who sends the rich away empty–how do we follow such a God?  How do we speak of him convincingly in a world which demands physical proof of existence and which worships celebrities?  Do the voices ever whisper in your ears that “this is all folly?”  I’ll confess to you–I hear those ridiculing voices from time to time, especially when I am with someone who is suffering so deeply and for whom there seems to be no relief even after much prayer.  Oh yes, I hear them, too.

But then we come to that place where we allow ourselves to meet the Christ deep in the places where we struggle, and something happens.  We are changed by the encounter, and that change is the sign that we are on the right course.  Nothing can ever go back to same ole same ole.  Even the wise men have to go home by a different way.

We too, with the wise ones, are seekers after truth.  We too, are here, on journey, because we have seen something in that manger which speaks to us deeply, and calls us into the unknown to find what is already deep within us.  We have seen the Christ shining forth in the Incarnation, in each other, in Eucharist, and sometimes, maybe even—in ourselves.  We too are on spiritual journeys as individuals and as community.  God’s invitation to follow always comes on two levels: as individuals, and as community.  Both involve letting go of our own agendas, letting go the need to control, letting go the need to make others go also.  We come with differing gifts – gifts God has already given to us.  “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”  Like the wise men we leave our gifts at the manger and the altar to let God do with them as God chooses.  What gift do you bring to the altar today?

The journey of faith is trustable, even if it is sometimes confusing and mysterious.  The journey is an adventure.  We take it in community.  The map is scripture and liturgy.  Your marching orders are your baptismal vows.  Your supplies are issued at this altar.  Your traveling companions are those around you.  Whatever else you pack, don’t forget your gifts.  You never know who you’ll meet when the star comes to rest in a most unlikely place.                                      Amen.