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"Epiphany Gifts" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer


 

January 7, 2024

Matthew 2: 1-12 

 

“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down tool house.”[1]

           

So begins Barbara Robinson’s beloved Christmas book, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Robinson’s story centers around the six wild Herdman kids Ralph, Imogene, Leroy, Claude, Ollie, and Gladys who end up taking over the annual Christmas Pageant. Cast in all the leading roles because none of the other kids dare to volunteer, the Herdmans bring a unique approach to pageant rehearsals. After hearing a description of swaddling clothes Imogene asks, “You mean they tied him up and put him a feedbox?...Where was the Child Welfare?” and youngest hellion Gladys, who’s cast as the angel of the Lord, insists on yelling “Shazam” to the terrified shepherds rather than the more traditional, “Fear Not!”

 

But on the night of the pageant things come together for the best pageant ever because of touching moments like the 3 Herdman boys marching down the aisle as the wise men and bringing not gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but their own Christmas ham from their donated food basket. Then rather than “going home another way” the Herdman wisemen just sit there and as the narrator of the story says, “It made perfect sense for the Wise Men to sit down and rest...They’re supposed to have come a long way. You wouldn’t expect them just to show up, hand over the ham and leave!”[2]

 

Robinson’s work makes for an excellent play - especially when the actress playing Gladys commits to running around with a wand and yelling “Shazam!” - but it’s also sweet, and funny and pokes gentle fun at us church folks who like to mash up all of our favorite elements of the nativity story into one singular image. And it’s a good reminder for us as we dig into this morning’s text to remember the details of Jesus' birth correctly because they matter.

As I told the kids, today is Epiphany; the day we celebrate the revelation of Jesus as God incarnate and the visit of the wisemen. Epiphany marks the official end of the Christmas season on the church calendar and from here we turn and prepare for Ash Wednesday and Lent. This is a liminal space, the threshold between the celebration of Jesus’ birth and his incarnation in his ministry so keep in mind Matthew is the only gospel writer to include this special visit.

 

And despite what our nativity sets tell us, this meeting doesn’t happen around the manger with baby Jesus in swaddling clothes, the wisemen elbow-to-elbow with shepherds, cows, and donkeys as angels sing in the heavens. This morning’s story takes place later months, even years later as the term Matthew uses to describe Jesus in the Greek means “young child” rather than “infant” or “baby.”[3] Having come “from the east” the wise men somehow know that the star they’ve been following is a sign that the King of the Jews has been born, but what an assumption to make. What an assumption to stake an incredibly arduous journey on. Why are they so certain? What could motivate them to go to all this effort?

 

The answer lies in understanding that the appropriate descriptor for these visitors is neither “wise man” or “king” but magi because it comes from the Greek              magos/μάγος, which means “magician,” “wizard,” or “sorcerer” and is a common way of referring to Zoroastrian priests.[4] Well known for preparing daily horoscopes and telling fortunes, magi are scholars with access to the Persian emperor where Zoroastrianism is the official religion until the development of Islam.

 

Zoroastrians believe their prophet Zoraster has much in common with Jesus, including a virgin mother and a ministry that begins after his defeat of Satan.[5] Zoroaster predicts that “other virgins would conceive additional divinely appointed prophets as history unfolded,”[6] and Zoroastrian priests believe that they could foretell these miraculous births by reading the stars.[7] “Like the Jews, Zoroastrian priests were anticipating the birth of the true Savior.”[8]

 

So, the appearance of these magi following a star is not only confirmation within their own religion but also Matthew’s effort to make it clear to his audience that Jesus’ virgin birth is confirmation of Old Testament prophecy. In one fell swoop the Evangelist makes the importance of Jesus’ birth clear; he’s so special, so important, so much a King that people of other faiths travel `to find him, bring him gifts, and fall down to worship him.

And what gifts the magi bring! First is gold, a sign of kingship and long associated with the divine. Then frankincense, an expensive incense, representing wisdom. Finally, the prized perfume myrrh, a sign of long life and healing.[9] As you know these are gifts for royalty, another way Matthew uses the magi to point to Jesus’ status as the King of the Jews.

But I’ll be honest with you, the magi’s gifts have always niggled at me because I can’t help but wonder what Mary and Joseph did with them when the magi left. The gold in almost any form was likely the easiest to deal with, though a heavy gift depending on the quantity. But what about frankincense and myrrh? They’re the kind of thing used in the Temple for worship, what was this young couple to do with them? Symbolism and theological implications aside, these items are just so impractical for a couple with a young child. And they seem like exactly the kinds of things toddler’s going to get into and make a mess.

 

My preoccupation with the magi’s impractical gifts is likely why a recent internet meme appeals to me. You might have seen this floating around, this meme that lists how different this morning’s story would be if Three Wise Women had visited the young family. The meme suggests, “They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, brought practical gifts (like diapers), cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and there would be peace on earth.”[10]

 

As much as I like the idea of women visiting toddler Jesus - though to be fair Matthew doesn’t give the magi a gender or even a quantity, we assume there are three because of the gifts - is the point of Christmas to give practical gifts? Or should we be trying a little harder? As commentator Amy Lindeman Allen notes,

 

“In this season of giving, we tend to focus on the extravagant, or at least frivolous, rather than the practical. It is an opportunity to indulge...and, at its best, to let our loved ones feel seen and understood through the thoughtfulness with which we honor them this season.”[11]

 

Thoughtfulness and honor are at the center of the magi’s impractical, extravagant gifts to the Christ-child. Wholly impractical, these Eastern visitors “do not question whether Jesus ‘needs’ their gifts...They simply kneel before Jesus and offer him their gifts of indulgence... They understand who he is and who he will grow to be; they honor him.”[12]

 

My friends, what gifts do we have for the Christ-child? How will we honor him? The Good News this morning is that God joyfully accepts all the gifts we lay at Her feet, all the practical, necessary things we do and contribute to keep the church running, the lights on, and our families fed. But the challenge of this Good News is to do more, give more, and be open to more than just the practical, just the routine.

 

Hear me clearly,  I’m not suggesting you tithe beyond your means. I’m not suggesting you become a monk or nun so you can dedicate your life to prayer. What I am suggesting is that we should be fully open to God’s moving in the world and how that movement pairs with our passions and interests, even if those passions and interests aren’t practical.

 

What I’m suggesting is that we sit still long enough to feel the divine current that’s always moving around us and respond to it, even if that means something else doesn’t get done. What I’m suggesting is that we give everything we have and everything we are to God, even the less polished and underdeveloped parts we don’t know what to do with. What I’m suggesting is that we let ourselves be used, be changed, be instruments of God’s peace.                                                  

This is a new year my friends. The Christ-child is born among us, and we have the opportunity to respond. Let’s do so extravagantly.

 

 

 

 

 


[1] Barbara Robinson The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, 1971.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Amy Lindeman Allen, “The Gifts We Give - Matthew 2: 1-12” from the Political Theology Network, https://politicaltheology.com/the-gifts-we-give-matthew-21-12/

[4] Niveen Sarras, “Commentary on Matthew 2: 1-12” from Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3931.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Paul Fink, Comparing and Evaluating the Scriptures , 2011, pg.,30.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Sarras, ibid.

[9] Tricia McCannon, Jesus: the Explosive Story of the Thirty Lost Years and the Ancient Mystery Religions 2010.

[11] Allen, ibid.

[12] Ibid.

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