January 4, 2015: Epiphany Sunday
Isaiah 60:1-6, Gospel of Matthew 2:1-12
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
Book of Isaiah 60:1
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men* and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then 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.’ 9When 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. 10When they saw that the star had stopped,* they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On 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. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Gospel of Matthew 2:1-12, NRSV
The Magi 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
The magic of a star. Shining in the East. The mystical sign of a promise. So deep so enduring so enlightening, that we tell the story 2000 years hence. This morning’s Gospel reading from Matthew is half of our conflated story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The part about the angel Gabriel coming to Mary, the shepherds and the manger and the heavenly host, peace on earth and goodwill to God’s children….that part of the story is in the Gospel according to Luke. Matthew’s version does not even tell of the actual birth. Matthew tells the story not from Mary’s perspective as does Luke, but from Joseph’s. And so in Matthew’s version, the angel comes not to Mary, but to Joseph. And the story simply neglects any mention of the actual birth altogether. The first time we encounter the child is when the magi, led by the star, enter the house where the new baby has already been born.
When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house they saw the child with Mary, his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage.
And so we sometimes call Matthew’s version of this story one of the two birth narratives in our scripture, but it tells more of an appearance than a birth. Matthew’s big contribution to our beloved nativity story is the star in the East and the wise ones who have been sent by Herod on a sort of reconnaissance trip. Wise Ones who, in order to conceal the child’s whereabouts, wisely return home by another way. This, says Matthew, is told “so that what has been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled.” Luke might be all about writing a new history, but Matthew is all about fulfilling the scripture….the Hebrew scripture.
The prophet that Matthew refers to in this instance, is Isaiah. This morning’s reading Arise and shine! Matthew’s story is a near carbon copy of this reading from the 60th chapter of Isaiah. A passage written roughly 600 years before the author of Matthew’s Gospel was born. Isaiah’s text took place in a time when the Jews were returned to their bombed out city of Jerusalem after several generations in exile, in Babylon. And things were pretty dire. And the people were pretty depressed….deep in debilitating despair. Their land had been ravaged, their economy was in a shambles and there was no clear sense that anyone had any clue about how to fix things. But along comes Isaiah; God’s own prophet. And in the midst of their seemingly hopelessly disastrous mess, Isaiah declares from out of the blue – Arise, shine, for your light has come!
Say what? Our light has come? In the midst of the darkness, in the midst of this disastrous time? No really, says Isaiah, your star in the East, it’s here. And the nations, who are represented by the magi in Matthew’s retelling, the nations will come to your light, the nations will gather together and come to you, says Isaiah to the beleaguered Israelites. And they will come by camel, says Isaiah. And they will bring gifts, gift of gold and frankincense, and the will…..praise the Lord.
Hmmm. Matthew picked up almost the entire passage from this morning’s reading from this morning’s reading from Isaiah….”picked up” a euphemism for biblical plagiarism really. If Matthew had handed this story in to his high school teacher, he would have been suspended. But he covers himself by exclaiming that this story is told so that what has been spoken through the prophets will be fulfilled. Not exactly the thorough footnote we would expect from such a….revered source, but the point here is that Matthew is all about the fulfillment of scripture. According to Matthew, Jesus does not supersede scripture, he does not supplant the story in the Hebrew Bible, he is not the replacement for the old tired testament, but rather Jesus is the fulfillment of the story, the expected rest of the story. And Matthew tells that story, Isaiah’s story, to a tee…well, almost to tee. For although Jesus is the expected rest of the story, he is not exactly as they or we might have expected him to be. Matthew follows Isaiah almost exactly. But almost is the operative word. Matthew adds one small detail that changes everything.
Isaiah says that the ones who will follow the light will come by camels bearing gifts. They will bring gold and frankincense….and so says Matthew as well. Except, Matthew adds to the gift list because Isaiah does not mention myrrh. Matthew adds myrrh. And why does Matthew proof text his plagiarism? Why does he lift the scripture almost exactly and then add this curious element, this curious gift. Gold is the gift for royalty. Frankincense is the hallmark of one who is to be worshiped. But myrrh is…. an embalming herb. It is what was used to anoint Jesus’ body after he was crucified. It’s not exactly on the top ten list of perfect gifts for Christmas, especially for a child, a new born baby. In fact, those of you who remember the Monty Python film The Life of Brian will recall that when the wise ones visit the baby Brian, his mother is delighted with the gold and frankincense, but she spends the next ten minutes of the movie trying to return the myrrh. Get this stuff out of the house! What kind of gift is myrrh for a newborn babe?!
Well….it’s the kind of gift that says that this is not your ordinary run-of-the-mill child. It’s the kind of gift that says that death is part of this life. The kind of gift that says that death is not to be feared, but comes with the territory. The kind of gift that says that this life will be immortal in a whole new way; a way that will shatter our expectations; a way that will lift justice and peace and compassion over power and politics and oppression; a way that is born…off the beaten path. Humble and unpretentious.
It is Matthew’s equivalent of the humble manger in terms if what we can expect from this strange birth, in terms of turning the expectations of the world on their heads. The star is the part of Matthew’s story that we tend to embrace. But it is the myrrh, that is the punch line. The part we don’t see coming. This king whose birth is heralded by nothing less than a star, his own star in the sky….he is going to defeat the enemy not by star wars, but by…..dying, himself, a painful and shameful death. By dying a criminal’s death. The likes of a traitor to the empire in between two thieves. This is the punch line that awaits the story that we begin to tell in the bright shining light of this star, this blessed season. It’s easy to forget. With all of the tinsel and mistletoe….all of the bright and shining wrapping paper and bows….all of the gift giving and happy holidaying….it is easy to look no further than the star.
And in that star we often lose ourselves in the hope of our own calling. We take this season to be a fresh start, a fresh invitation to follow the star that calls us to God. It is almost the relevant theme of the season. How is the star in the east calling us? And sometimes, I think, we are maybe a little too worried about where we are being called. I know I am. What does GOD want me to do? Why does GOD want me to do so much? And then, why doesn’t GOD want me to do more? Where am I going? How will I get there? How will I know I am on the right path? Etc., etc., etc. I am so busy looking for that star and the coordinates of my destination that sometimes, much of the time, I get distracted….distracted I dare say, by the star.
Because I think it is very easy for the star to distract us from the gifts. And so we worry about where the star is taking us rather than the real stuff like what are we going to bring? Like how much of who we are and what we have are we willing to offer, to sacrifice for love? How much of our surplus are we willing to hand over to those who have no surplus? There is a great sign on a church in southern California that asks the question a different way: it says Why when I was hungry did you asked me for my green card? And why when I was thirsty did you tell me that my visa was expired? How much of what we have are we willing to share with each other, as God shared God’s own flesh with us? How do we reconcile the giving of our gifts with a star that might be leading us away from the manger; in one direction or another? How much are we willing to actually give and live for love? Where ever we are…. How do we select the gifts that we offer to God here and now? In other words, I think that we often have a tendency (or a fear) to act more like Herod (even if we don’t want to admit it) , afraid that his particular station or calling in life might be in jeopardy. But we might be better following in the footsteps of the magi who followed the star, but concerned themselves with the gifts; the gifts that they were bringing to the child who would change the world.
And so the question becomes, not Where are we called? But, Which of our many gifts will we bring?
Most of us here this morning have a range of options. We have many gifts at our disposal; too many gifts to bear fully, I am guessing. Most of us, many of us, are so well endowed by God, that we can pick and choose the gifts that we offer. What a blessing! What a quandary! And so, my friends, which gifts will it be? What will you bear for God?
And I urge us to pay no attention to the optical illusions of our culture. The optical illusion that tells us that the gold is the thing to be valued most. And by our culture I mean our global western culture.
The rich American couldn’t understand why the Irish angler was lying lazily beside his boat on the beach, smoking a pipe. “Why aren’t you out fishing?” asked the American. “Because I have caught enough fish for the day,” said the fisherman. “Why don’t you catch some more?” “What would I do with them?” “You could sell them and make more money,” was the American’s reply. “With that you could have a motor fixed to your boat and go into deeper waters and catch more fish. Then you would make enough to buy nets. These would bring you more fish and more money. Soon you would have enough money to own two boats . . . maybe even a fleet of boats. Then you would be a rich man like me.” “What would I do then?” asked the fisherman. “Then you could really enjoy life.” said the American. “And what do you suppose I might be doing right now?” said the Irishman, smiling and puffing away on his pipe.
I think they meant it as a slam on the American culture that values money over time and material success over spiritual grounding, but really it fits just about anywhere you go in the developed world these days. And it makes the point clear that gold is worth only what it can buy us and nothing more. So the gold is not the thing! And the frankincense is not the thing. It’s the rare thing, but it is not THE thing. As Matthew’s small addition alludes, the myrrh is the thing. The myrrh is the thing that says, I bring my whole self, unto death; whatever it takes, I’m in, all the way. We think that offering our gold is the hardest sacrifice, but it is not. If we can get ourselves to offer the myrrh; the gold will be inconsequential, and, not for nothing, the star will take care of the rest.
The star will take us exactly where we need to go. And it will likely be, as it was for the Magi, a place that we cannot see or even imagine from where we are right now. But when we get there, we will know the depth of the grace by the cry of the child in our arms.
The Wise Ones fretted not about where they were going, where they were called. Their agency and attention was firmly planted on the gifts that they would bring. What gifts will you bring? What will the new birth awaiting your journey require? What constitutes your gold? Your frankincense? Your myrrh?
Do not try to soft soap the myrrh. No substitutes are permitted. If your calling is from God….to serve God, you had better be prepared to pack your myrrh, because it is going to cost you, as does every true calling from God…..and likely, it will cost you everything you have, everything you are, everything you understand, everything you count on…that star may lead you straight to the spot, but it is going to cost you.
But, if we are willing to follow, willing to make that journey with the wise ones, ready to offer ourselves fully to God and all that God has in mind for us, we will truly and certainly be…pure Joy to the World!
© January, 2015 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw