Marcy, our beloved Parish Administrator, was visiting her grandchildren over Christmas. She brought The Jesus Storybook Bible to read to the kids. Juliet, who is 4, was enthralled. Marcy began at the beginning, with Adam and Eve, Noah, and Moses. But Juliet kept interrupting.
“But, Gramma! Where is the Baby Jesus? When do we get to the Baby Jesus?” “Well, Juliet, He comes later in the story. But we have to start at the beginning. Ok?” “But Gramma! Can’t you just show me a picture of the Baby Jesus? Please?!?” To Juliet’s delight, Marcy flipped the book to the middle section and read the story of Jesus’ birth.
Juliet, just beside herself, then became a little evangelist. “Clara! Quick! Come see Baby Jesus!” Clara, her more worldly older sister, begrudgingly put down her IPad, wandered over for a quick glance at the infant savior, and quickly returned to her game of Angry Birds. Oh well. You can’t win ‘em all.
The impulse to find and see the Baby Jesus is neither new nor unique. Today we celebrate Epiphany. We read about the wise men from the East who came to Jerusalem asking, “Where is the child who was born King of the Jews?” They wanted to see the Baby Jesus.
In “Journey of the Magi”, T.S. Eliot speaks with the voice of the 3 Kings, or Wise Men, or Magi as they are variously called.
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly
It seems to me that the Magi serve as symbols for all of us. Although there are certainly voices singing in our ears that it is all folly, we all yearn to be in contact with God. Everyone needs God. The gifts that the dignitaries from the East bring to Jesus show us the kind of God we seek, the kind of God we need.
The scripture tells us that, “opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” First – the gold. Gold is obviously a gift fit for a King. After all, the Magi wanted to see the child born King of the Jews. As we sing in our famous hymn, “Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain, Gold I bring to crown Him again. King forever, ceasing never. Over us all to reign.”
We need a God who is our King because we are perennially tempted to be our own Kings – to reign over ourselves. As the serpent told Eve in the Garden, “Eat this fruit and you will be like God.” There is an old riddle, funny and profound.
Q: What is the difference between you and God?
A: God never thinks He’s you!
Thinking that we are fit for self-governance is a recipe for woe. You probably remember Lucifer’s famous line in Milton’s Paradise Lost – “it is better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.” Not true. We are designed to serve a King, a King who reigns over us in Love.
And thinking that we are fit for self-governance sometimes leads us to think we are fit to govern and control others. We all know how that ends! We would be wise to heed the Old English Nun’s Prayer, whether we be young or we be old.
LORD, Thou knowest, better than I know myself that I am growing older and will someday be old. Keep me from the fatal habit of thinking I must say something on every subject and on every occasion.
Release me from craving to straighten out everybody’s affairs. Make me thoughtful but not moody: helpful but not bossy. With my vast store of wisdom, it seems a pity not to use it all, but Thou knowest Lord that I want a few friends at the end.
The second gift given to Jesus was frankincense – a gift given to a God. “Frankincense to offer have I. Incense owns a Deity nigh.” It is particularly meant of a God who intercedes for you on your behalf. Incense is connected to prayer – which is why many churches use incense during the service. The psalmist says, “May my prayer be set before you like incense.”
So we need a God who is our King, but we need a King whose throne we can approach. As we read in our Ephesians passage today, in Jesus Christ, “we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.”
In a new book about prayer called Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Anne Lamott includes a prayer everyone can use.
“Hi, God. I am just a mess. It is all hopeless. What else is new? I would be sick of me if I were you, but miraculously, You are not. I know I have no control over other people’s lives, and I hate this. Yet, I believe…that you will meet me wherever I am.
Wow! Can this be true? If so – how is this afternoon – say, two-ish? Thank you in advance for your company and blessings. You have never once let me down. Amen.”
So we have a King who is a God who intercedes for us and helps us even though we are just a mess. And yet we need more. The Magi came to Jesus through ways deep and weather sharp: a cold coming and hard time they had of it. The beauty of the gospel is that when we cannot or do not come to God, He comes to us. When the way is too hard, the voices of folly sing too loudly in our ears, God comes to us.
When we have believed the serpent and eaten his fruit, when we have displaced the rightful King from the throne of our hearts and placed ourselves there instead, then we need a God who will trade his throne for a cross. He is the God we really need.
The little King was under immediate threat. The wise men left by a different road because Herod did not want to be dethroned. He ordered the slaughter of all male children under 2 years old. One legend says that the Holy Family used the gold given by the Magi to finance their flight into Egypt. Early on, Jesus forsook the claims of His Kingship so He could grow up to assume another kind of anointing.
“Myrrh is mine: it’s bitter perfume / Breaths a life of gathering gloom. / Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying, / Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.” Myrrh was used to anoint Kings, as well as anoint the bodies of the dead for burial.
Why did the Wise Man from the far-flung eastern corner of the world come all the way to Jerusalem to bring the gift of myrrh? Did he somehow divine that the child born King of the Jews would became the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?
The Magi show us the kind of God we need. They also show us our response to this God. “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.”
Glorious now behold Him arise, King and God and Sacrifice.