Sunday, January 15, 2017


A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 15, 2017
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Isaiah 60: 1-6
Matthew 2: 1-12
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives   
For your eyes show the way
    Your mind knows the truth
    Your being is the life.

 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet:
‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will govern my people Israel.’”
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; 11 and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

What to do when you have a snow day on a Sunday? Do you stay with the plan for the week before, even though talking about the wisemen on January 8th, two days after epiphany was a little bit of a stretch, so add another week and it is really a stretch. . . Are people still ready to listen about part of the Christmas story this far into January and the New Year, or have we long ago left Bethlehem behind, because now all of the Christmas decorations are down at our house, though we make a special dispensation for anything snow centered, it lets us hold on just a little bit longer, and we don’t get rid of our Christmas tree, instead we take all the decorations off and put in on the back porch as a living bird feeder. It was one of the best ideas I’ve ever had, and I don’t mind saying that it was a development and invention born not from necessity but from laziness, because who likes to take Christmas decorations down, and who wants to deal with the old dead, dried up, well dried up all except for the stickiness of the sap, that stays around, but who wants to deal with the dead tree? No we leave it up, but move it to the back porch and it is an awesome bird feeder, they hide and burrow in the branches, and when it snows it is the coolest. But yeah how far have we gotten away from Christmas? How did you like singing We Three Kings today? Are your ready to return to Bethlehem or have you gone home another way, or have you long since fled to Egypt?
I have to be honest, the Wisemen are my favorite visitors to the Christmas story. . . them and the poor Innkeeper, who always gets bad press, but I love the wise men. They spark my imagination so much. . . . Who are they? Where did they come from? Why did they leave their lands behind to follow a star? What were they hoping to find? Did they find it? Were they sure? How were they sure? I mean yeah they brought gifts and they gave the gifts, but were they convinced that they had travelled all that way for a momentous occasion, or did they feel like at the end of the trip the goal, the culmination of afterall the journey, was kinda anticlimactic? But it does say that they saw Mary with the child and bowed down and worshipped, so they must have known and seen something that clinched it for them, thinking somehow, yes this is the child we seek, this is the Christ Child, this is the promised one, born king of the Jews, what made them so sure? Was it the star alone, something about Mary, something about the face of this baby Jesus, something about his eyes, did he have a glow, did they just see him and know, like it wasn’t anything that they saw with their eyes, just something they saw with their souls, their inner eyes, the intuition from deep within, and if so then what were they sure of? What did they envision the future of the child to be? What did they mean by, this child born King of the Jews? Did they see an end to the Roman occupation like many later would, hoping that Jesus would be a military leader, a great king who would come and destroy the oppressors? Because these guys were from the East, presumably far enough east to be outside of Roman control? Were they from Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, or more like Persia, or as far as India, what about China? Why would someone from so far care about the oppression of Jews in Palestine? You see why I like them so much, the possibilities for imagination and myth making about them are endless. . .
and the Bible is mostly silent on them. Here in Matthew is the only one of the four Gospels to include them. It just says they are from the East, and that they have come asking where is born he is who is born king of the Jews, so that they may worship him. It says that they are, and the Greek Word is Magoi. . . so that is where we get Magi, which is contains the root similar to that in magician or magic. . . troubling, were these crazy eastern sorcerers. . . or some have translated it kings, like the hymn we sang We three kings, where does that come from, who knows, some say from Psalm 72 where in verse 11 it says, “may all kings bow down before him” and of course there is no mention of three, just that there were some Magi from the east. . . the three is based on the gifts, that there were three of them, and the translation wisemen, seems to remove the magic and the astronomy, making them more to be some kind of Philosopher seekers, much more safe for the superstition concerned Reformed folks like ourselves. So with there not being much here included factually about them you can speculate and create traditions about them, or as some do now, the more skeptical Biblical Scholars, looking for Scientific and Historical certainty, down grade them completely to saying that they are merely, like so many of the details from the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew a way of once again showing the connection of Jesus to the Prophetic books. . . so often do you see when reading Matthew. . . so it was to fulfill the prophecy. . . that he would be called a Nazorean, that he would come out of Egypt, that he would be born in Bethlehem. . . you know all that stuff. . . and that these wise men fit the prophecy from the reading of Isaiah that we read this morning:
A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.  

Yes of course camels right, I mean wise men without camels would be like Santa with no reindeer, though there is no mention of camels in Matthew, but here in Isaiah the prophecy about the Gold and the Frankincense. . . no mention of the myrrh though. . .
But me, I’m too much of a Romantic for such scientific and skeptical pseudo historical readings that think that anything not doubly attested to, must be made up. . . no I prefer the expanded apocryphal versions of the story. The Wise Men of the songs and the stories and poetry, riding their camels, traversing from afar over field and fountain, moor and mountain, a cold coming they had coming of it, in the worst time of year[1], “their ancient faces like rain beaten stones”[2] The three wisemen named Gaspar, Melchior, and Baltazar. . . . with the idea that Gaspar was an Indian scholar, Melchior a Persion Scholar, and Balthazar a Babylonian. . . the novel and movie Ben Hur develop on this tradition, especially that of Balthazar who the writer, Lew Wallace develops more into a character, who teaches Judah Ben Hur about Jesus and forgiveness and seeks to dissuade him from his singleminded quest for revenge. . . I’ve always liked this idea of the wisemen because it seeks to connect some of the ancient religions and philosophies to Christianity. . . I’ve always in my own writings wanted to take this one step further and show them seeking in Christ what is missing in their own religions and Philosophies, to connect Christianity to other cultures as it is already to Greek and Jewish.
But that gets into to the two main takeaways that people usually take from the Wise Men story. . . the first being about the idea that the inclusion of the Wise Men speaks to the universal nature of the message of Christ, that it wasn’t  to just be a Jewish thing, but also include Gentiles, that Jesus was coming for all of Creation. And then the other take away is that the Wise Men begin the idea of the giving of gifts at Christmas time. . . . everything from the most secular traditions of Santa Claus, Barbie Dolls, and Lego Blocks, to even the words connected with the collection of the offering on Christmas Eve. . . I used those words, taking them from the Book of Common Worship years ago, that, let us in the tradition of the Wise Men and the gifts that they brought to the Christ Child, let us bring our own gifts this night. . . may the offering be given and received, something like that. .. .seems a bit of a shallow stretch. . . but a harmless one I guess.
For the Wise Men do come bearing gifts. . . Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. . . I know right, what every child needs. It is a strange detail of the story when you think about it, here is a poor couple who has travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, why, for taxes, can’t imagine too happy about that one, finds no room in the inn, is given a stable, they have the baby, and all they have to give are gold, frankincense, and myrrh. . . seems inappropriate. . . like getting a savings bond or like getting a gift for an 8 year old when you’re only 3. . . what are these wise men? Bad uncles? What are they going to do with the Gold, Frankincense, and Myrhh? “We Three Kings” helps out a little bit with the lyrics of the verses, putting the gifts into context:
“Gold I bring to crown him again, king forever ceasing never, over us all to reign” – Ok, now I get it, this helps a lot. . .

Frankincense to offer have I incense owns a deity nigh, prayer and praising all men raising, worship him God most high – you see these are symbolic gifts, keep sakes, mementos, things, not meant to be useful just meaningful. . .

Myrrh is mine its bitter perfume, breathes of life of gathering gloom. . . sorrowing sighing bleeding dying, sealed in the stone cold tomb. . . – Whoa wait a minute? I don’t know if this is the choice I would have gone with?

Yeah, that’s even worse than the dude in the Do you Hear what I hear song, who hears the child, the child, shivering in the cold, and brings him silver and gold. . . not much warmth their from those hunks of metal in the short term. . . and all the stores are probably closed for the holiday anyway. . . . and these are the sources of our traditions of gift giving?
As long as we are going with extra biblical narratives and apocrypha I think the Animals, those friendly beasts do a much better job for practical gift giving. . . at least for a newborn.
The shaggy brown donkey, carrying his mother to Bethlehem town, and the cow, all white and red giving the manger for the bed, or the sheep with the curly horn, giving his wool for the blanket warm, and those doves always make me cry, cooing him to sleep his love and I, from those rafters high. . . that is a much better model. . . they each did their part, no repeats, no overlaps, very practical, they must have checked the registry, very responsible gift giving for sure. . . or even that Little Drummer Boy, who gives of his talents, or the Littlest Angel who gives his most prized possessions, you know the butterfly with golden wing, the little piece of the hollow log, and the two shining stones from the river bank, and the worn out strap from his faithful dog?
These are our models for our gift giving at Christmastime. . . but what do we think about gifts? What do they mean? Is it about the getting or the giving? Is it about how much the gift cost? How much thought went into it? How much time? Was it crafted and created by hand? Was it reciprocated? Was it used? Was it useful? Is it symbolic? Does it make you laugh? Do they sometimes make you uncomfortable, and why? Do they play games with our senses of pride. . . our humility. . . what about envy? Gifts can be a funny thing. . . we sometimes think about dessert. . . do we deserve this gift given to me? How do I? But I didn’t get you anything? Or what I got you wasn’t quite as grand. . . how come gifts have the unique ability to make us feel warm and loved and grateful, and at the same time uncomfortable, guilty, and disappointed?  Why is that? Because we can say all we want about our best days where we don’t feel any of those emotions, but I guarantee that you have felt each of them at some point in your life in and around Christmas time. . . I know I have. . . . why?
But to be honest the gift of Christmas isn’t the wise men, nor the sheep with the curly horn, it is the gift of Jesus Christ, born into our world, with all of the grace and love and crucifixion and resurrection tied up in it. How do you feel about the grace of God offered in the Manger, the Cross, and the Empty tomb? At the same time warm and loved and grateful, but uncomfortable, guilty, and disappointed, too? Yeah there is something about gifts, even the greatest gift of all that appeals to the best and worst of us all. . . Is it that we are wired for the world and trained in the world that we are so wrapped up in the exchange, the deserving, the owing, the putting forth that we have trouble with both the giving and receiving of a free gift of grace. . . at some level, I think so. . . it is too unlike our world and our fallen nature. . . it makes us uncomfortable. . . what were those wise men seeking? And what were they offering? I subtly alluded to TS Eliot’s poem Journey of the Magi, earlier, if you caught it, but he brings up this idea of what they were searching for and what they found in the end of the poem. . . I want to read it, it makes you think. . .
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

They had experienced God in their midst. . . but they had to return to their kingdoms, their worlds, this world, and they had been changed. . . forever changed. . . you see this was the birth and the death, the birth of the new and the death of the old, for all change includes both. . . but they were still living in a world unchanged. . . is this our discomfort with gifts rearing its head. . . that we linger with one foot on both sides of the river. . . we like the world of gift giving or making the other happy, of feeling what it is like to love, fully to give of yourself, your time, your talents, your all, to follow Jesus’ example of gift giving, to learn and seek who  you are just to become that and to give of  yourself, we long for it. . . but the fact that we remain here. . . holds us back. . . and it’s funny it’s like a circular trap. . . we are holding ourselves back while were are being held back by the world. . . it is our doubts making us uncomfortable, or cynicism, or Sin. . .  what would it take to transcend such feelings. . . another death and rebirth. . . if only in metaphor. . . is the metaphor enough? May it ever be so. . .

[1] “Journey of the Magi” T.S. Eliot
[2] “The Magi” W.B. Yeats