Sermons That Work

The Twelve Days of Christmas Are Ending…, Feast of the Epiphany – 1996

January 06, 1996


By the Well, the Twelve Days of Christmas are ending in a burst of celebration and light. The Christmas cookies are nearly all eaten, even the fruitcake has been nibbled down, and the tree is starting to shed. The presents, every last one of them, are open — and lots of them are already in use. I think I see a couple of bright new ties, some mufflers and mittens, and a fancy new sweater or two out there! Did you get everything you wanted? What? You didn’t get seven swans a-swimming, or eleven lords a- leaping? Well, never mind. Maybe next year.

This year, at least, we got what we always get: the carols of joy, the angels’ promise, the shining star, the glowing faces, the mysterious hush of the shepherds and animals, gathered around the newborn baby. And in them, we got the age-old promise: that there is peace, there is joy, there is hope. God will not leave us alone, stranded, lost in darkness and misery. God will come to us in joy, in light, in peace.

Here on this very last of the days of Christmas, we celebrate another part of the promise: that God will come to us ALL, every one, if we seek his presence, if we invite him into our hearts.

Through these twelve days of Christmas, while angels and shepherds and donkies and sheep have surrounded the baby, a group of three stargazers have slogged along their weary way, day after day, seeking the promise, coming to find the baby. And today — this day, this blessed day — they have arrived at last. Have you spied the three figures, on their camels, moving closer, every day, to the creche? At last, here they are.

And who are they? Oh, you know: “We three Kings of Orient are, tried to smoke a rubber cigar….” No, no, I’ve got it wrong: “We three Kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar…” And you probably even know their names: Melchior, and Caspar, and Balthasar. And you know that they brought gold and frankincense and myrrh (whatever that is!). But who are they?

Well, friends, they are us. You may have noticed, when we read the gospel, that it doesn’t say anything about “Caspar, and Melchior and Balthasar.” Those names date from stories people told of them in the Middle Ages, not from the Bible. And the Bible doesn’t even say that they are “kings.” It calls them “magi” or “wise men.” Scientists, scholars, learned students of the stars and the signs, they were, and not necessarily “kings” at all — though Isaiah’s prophecy, that “nations will stream to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawning,” has helped us come to think of them as royalty, not researchers.

But most important, the Bible says, they are “from the East.” They are from outside Israel, outside the ancient covenant with the people of Israel. They are foreigners and strangers.

Throughout the Old Testament there is a struggle that goes on, an argument about just exactly who is included in the promises of God. One group of writers clearly believe that it is only the people of Israel who are, who ever will be, loved by God. They believe that everyone else, no matter how good they are, how moral they are, how righteous, is outside. Not in the covenant. Not beloved of God. If they are not in the bloodline and inheritance of Israel, they are forever outsiders.

But there is another school of thought that crops up throughout the history of Israel. These folks believe that when the Messiah comes, the promise is for everyone who comes to believe. There’s Isaiah, saying, “Foreign nations will stream to your light, and the rulers of the whole world will be drawn to you because you are a beacon of light, a sign of peace, of shalom.” The writer of the Book of Ruth weighs into the argument by making a great point of reminding the readers that no less a personage than King David himself was the great-grandson of a foreigner, the Ruth of the title. And over and over, as the scriptures lay out the Law by which the Israelites are to conduct themselves, they are called upon to make room for the “stranger and sojourner,” as the phrase goes: called to welcome the strangers, to offer hospitality to all comers, to receive those who would come to live among them.

This argument continues in full force in New Testament times. It’s at the heart of Paul’s argument with Peter, over whether the Gentiles — the foreigners, the strangers and sojourners — are to be received into the Body of Christ, or whether it is reserved only for those of Israelite blood and lineage. Paul is convinced that he has been called as an “apostle to the Gentiles”; Peter (and the Lord’s brother, James) think the proclamation was for Jews only.

You know the outcome, of course. There’s hardly a one of us here who would be here today if Peter had won that argument. Paul preached the good news to the foreigners, those considered to be outside the covenant, and so we — we, the Gentiles — are included in the Body of Christ.

But Matthew’s story of the visit of the Wise Men says that the matter was decided by God, long before Peter and Paul fought it out. These “wise men from the East” were Gentiles, who saw the star — a sign from God — and followed it. They followed it across deserts and mountains and across national barriers — and across their own scholarly barriers of skepticism and disdain and fear — and came at last to the place where the newborn King lay. And when they saw him, they knelt down and offered homage to him. In other words, they pledged their allegiance to him, and in that sign permanently committed themselves to follow him. And they were welcomed — as we are.

How do we know they were welcomed? Well, their gifts were accepted. In fact, their gifts symbolize the whole meaning of the life of this newborn King. The gold, which represents wealth and royalty, was the sign that he would be king. The frankincense — incense, which was burned daily in the Jerusalem temple as a holy offering to God — was the sign that he was holy, our “Great High Priest,” as the letter to the Hebrews calls him. And the myrrh, a bitter spice used to wrap the bodies of the dead, was the sign that, royal and holy though he was, he would die. And so it was.

This newborn baby was given by God to be a king of a new and spiritual kind for all the people who come to him. And this tiny infant is, as the song says, a “holy infant” who has become, in his dying, our “great High Priest.” And die he did — only to rise again, in glory, to transcend evil and death to lead us into life and light.

And we? We are the gentiles, called to be part of the covenant of love and peace, the promise of God given through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. We are called to transcend all the barriers to come to him. Well, no, not very many of us actually have to cross trackless desert on camelback. But we do have to transcend our own barriers: our skepticism, our self-centeredness, our pride. We are called out of ourselves and into Christ, to worship in silent awe at the cradle of this baby who is the creative force of the world.

But we are not alone. There are still strangers and sojourners in our world, people seeking light and truth, the love of God and the peace of Christ. The stable door is always open — to all. And we, those of us who have arrived earlier, are called upon, like our Hebrew ancestors, to welcome the stranger and sojourner to the stable, to the table, to our hearts, and to the life in Christ.

This Feast of the Epiphany not only marks the end of the Season of Christmas, but the beginning of its own season, the season of Epiphany. Through centuries of tradition, Epiphany has been the season to remember and celebrate the mission of the church, as it spreads throughout the world. As the light of the sun strengthens and lengthens each day of this season, so we are reminded that the light of Christ reaches ever further into our hearts and the hearts of the world — even into its most troubled corners.

This Epiphany is a time to commit ourselves to be part of this spreading of the light, of the Gospel, to the ends of the earth. Having worshipped at the manger, the Wise Men carried the light of Christ out into the world with them, as they returned to their homes. So we, too, are called to rise from our worship at the manger and move steadily into the world, bearing the light of Christ — to the places we work, the places we study, the places we play. And we are called always to welcome all who come to share in the light.

The Light of Christ!

Thanks be to God!

Amen.

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