The Greatest Gifts

St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Chelsea, Alabama
Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ
First Lesson: Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Second Lesson: Ephesians 3:1-12
Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12

Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak with them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

magithreegiftsIt’s normally a strict rule in the Mancil household each year that no Christmas presents may be opened until Christmas morning, and with a couple of exceptions, we’ve stuck pretty close to that rule. You can ask Sophie and Jude if you don’t believe me. However, we decided this year to let that rule slide just a little bit.

A few months ago, I discovered a new children’s book that I really wanted to give to Sophie and Jude on Christmas Eve night, a book by one of my favorite authors, Barbara Brown Taylor. If you’ve heard me preach at least a few times, you’ve probably heard me use a quote from Barbara Brown Taylor, whether it was from a sermon that she once wrote or from one of her many outstanding books.

In her new book for children, entitled Home By Another Way, she offers readers a creative interpretation of our lesson this morning from the Gospel of Matthew, told from the perspective of the three wise men from the East who eventually make their way to the city of Bethlehem to pay homage to the newborn King. Barbara Brown Taylor’s book is a retelling of the story that so many of us have heard countless times. She draws from the traditions of the Church as well as her own artistic imagination to create something new and fresh for readers to think about as they ponder the significance of this timeless tale.

“Once upon a time,” the author writes, “there were three very wise men who were all sitting in their own countries, minding their own business, when a bright star lodged in the right eye of each one of them. The star was so bright that none of them could tell whether it was burning in the sky or in their own imaginations, but they were wise enough to know it did not matter all that much. The point was, something beyond them was calling them, and it was a tug they had been waiting for all their lives. Each in his own country had tried books, tried magic, tried astrology. One had lived on nothing but dried herbs boiled in water. Another had spent his entire fortune learning how to read and write in an ancient language. The third had learned to walk on hot coals, though it did nothing for him beyond the great sense of relief he felt at the end. Despite their best efforts, all three of the them still felt that something was missing.”

The story continues as the three wise men depart from their respective countries of origin, following the very same star. Eventually, they meet each other along the way and decide to travel together. They aren’t exactly sure what it is they’ll discover when they reach their final destination, but they believe that the star is leading them to Jerusalem where they will meet a king. When they arrive in Jerusalem, the king they encounter, King Herod, is not at all what they expected. He’s nasty and conniving, and they know that he’s not the one they’re looking for. They ask him, “Do you know of any other kings in the general area?” Immediately, Herod is intrigued and suspects that the wise men know something that he doesn’t about a new king who might threaten to take away his power. So, he confers with his priests and decides to send the three visitors to Bethlehem to investigate.

The same star that had led them to Jerusalem once again appeared in the night sky and led them to a tiny, one-bedroom house in Bethlehem. When the men knocked on the door, they were greeted by a frightened couple, a man and a woman, who invited the three strangers inside. Immediately, they saw the one they’d been searching for all along. Him. The baby, wrapped in a simple blanket, lying in a basket of straw on a table. In the eyes of the infant Jesus, the wise men saw the same star they had seen before. Reverently, they fell to their knees and bowed their heads. They presented Jesus with expensive gifts from their own countries. One brought gold. Another brought frankincense, and another brought myrrh, a type of costly perfume. Of course, they realized that all of these things were useless to a newborn baby. What he really needed was to be cared for with things that a baby might need, such as goat’s milk and warm blankets.

When morning came the next day, the wise men discovered two things. First, they found they could no longer see that precious star in their eyes that they had once seen, and second, they came to realize that they no longer had any need for the star. They had already found what they were searching for.

The time soon came for them to return to their own homes, but before leaving, they thanked the infant Jesus for the gifts he had given them. “‘What in the world are you talking about?’ the baby’s mother said, laughing.”

“‘For the scent and weight and skin of a baby,’ said the first wise man, who had no interest in living on herbs anymore.”

“‘For this home and the love here,’ said the second wise man, who could not remember how to say it in the ancient language.”

“‘For a really great story,’ said the third wise man, who thought that telling it might do a lot more for him than walking on hot coals.”

Each of them, in their own way, had finally come to understand why they were led by the star to travel such a long distance from their homes. They were called to bear witness to the truth of God’s grace, that, through the birth of Jesus, God’s perfect love was poured out freely and made known to the whole world. Those three wise men from faraway lands discovered, through the birth of God’s only Son, that sometimes the greatest gifts are those that can’t be purchased in a store or given monetary value. The greatest gifts that we have to give are born from love. It’s like the last verse in that beloved Christmas hymn, “In the bleak mid-winter,” when we sing, “What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him- give my heart.”

My brothers and sisters, when we encounter the love of God in Christ Jesus, we can’t help but be transformed. That love that we experience through moments of pure grace is the same love that we, as Christians, are called to share with our neighbors. Like the three wise men who were led by the star to discover its true meaning, may we also be led by the Holy Spirit to go forth to proclaim the Gospel. On this Feast of the Epiphany, may the light of Christ shine in us and through us so that the love of God may be known to all the world. Amen.

Click here to listen to an audio recording of this sermon.


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