Happy New Year and happy Epiphany! Today is the twelfth and last day of Christmas. It’s the day in the church year in which we remember and celebrate the wise men coming from the Far East to visit baby Jesus and bring him those three famous gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It’s a day that’s all about revelation, and similar to Christmas when we focus on the light of Christ shining in the darkness of Bethlehem, on Epiphany we celebrate the light of Christ shining out into the darkness of the far corners of the Earth. It turns out no one is safe from the light of Christ, not even a couple of weird stargazing Magi.
I once heard a talk in seminary about how laudable and incredible these Wise men, who are also known as the Magi, were. They were like the great Ancient Greek and Christian philosophers, I was told, like Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas, who used natural and divine revelation to find their way to the truth, and eventually to Christ himself. In this talk the magi were turned into great examples of initiative and combining your own gifts with the power of Jesus to really get stuff done. But the more I’ve thought about this, presenting these men as exemplars of anything just seems completely wrong to me.
I think these magi are supposed to be a little bit more like your weird aunt who just came over for Christmas and instead of giving you something like a nice book or bottle Scotch, she gave you a funny looking crystal to stick in your sock drawer to manage your mood swings.
I think the point here isn’t for us to try and be more like the magi, but to see the Grace involved in a couple of odd magicians, stumbling around the world and finding themselves in the presence of the Messiah, at the feet of their one and only Savior Jesus Christ. What is revealed in the Epiphany is how God’s mercy extends even to the least and most eccentric, even to a few star worshipping wizards.
I think that this is particularly good news during the first week of January. It’s a new year and a new you, as we say. Sounds good to me! Who doesn’t want to change in one way or another? Who doesn’t want to improve or kick that habit or lose that weight or stop feeling sad, start listening, stop arguing, stop being so angry? Who doesn’t want to move out of whatever darkness has set in like a thick fog in their life and spark the new year off with just a little bit of light?
We all want these things, and perhaps the fact that a similar wish list comes to mind for each and every one of us demonstrates how futile it is for us to think we can erase our flaws and make ourselves into a new creation in 2019. It’s a new year, but at the end of the day it’s the same old us. Walking around in the dark until a light of Grace and a light of mercy from an unexpected place shines upon us and brightens our path—just like these three wise men.
A few weeks ago I was at one of our jail Bible Studies and we were looking at that passage from John where Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). And an inmate told us about the darkness he has felt throughout his life caused by hate and addiction and sin, and how despite all of that, he has always been good at finding a way to fix certain things. He’s good with his hands, so he could fix his mom’s car when it broke down. He’s a good listener, so he could help his girlfriend or his son with their problems by listening and giving advice. He could fix a lot of things, but as he said, “I’ve gotten older and failed time and time again, and I think what I’ve finally realized is that I can’t fix me. When it comes to me, I need something more than myself. It’s like I’m a small child walking around scared in the dark. I know what’s wrong and I know where the light switch is, but I’m not tall enough to reach up and turn the light on myself. I need someone else to turn it on. I need someone else to give me the light.”
Much like Herod, who said he wanted to worship the Messiah, but then went about plotting to kill him, the world often says one thing and does another. It preaches tolerance and acceptance, but in reality, it’s an incredibly merciless place. You may feel like you’re looking for a little more light in your life, but the world remains a what have you done for me lately kind of a place. Everyone is welcome, we hear and say, but if you’re not producing some light, the world casts you right back out into the darkness.
And this is how we twist the story of the wise men visiting Jesus. We think that they become worthy of Jesus’ presence because of how they think and use their minds, or because of what they bring to the table—because of the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh that they bring. We always think that we have to earn Jesus, even baby Jesus. That his love simply can’t be free. Our shame or our pride blind us from seeing the grace unconditionally laid before us—already given to us.
About seventy years ago, a Swedish man named Bo Giertz wrote a story called “The Hammer of God”. It’s about a young minister named Savonius fresh out of seminary with an impressive doctorate to his name. One night while he’s drinking whiskey with some of the elder deans and bishops of his area, each one trying to impress the other with their knowledge of philosophy, theology and literature, a peasant rushes in and says that a local man is dying a dozen miles away and urgently needs a visit. So, they send Savonius, and he hops into the peasant’s carriage, with his shiny new Communion Kit in hand. On the way there the peasant tells Savonius what to expect when he arrives; “Johannes, the man who is sick, he is in such vexation of spirit that we fear for his sanity. He has for a long time been under a powerful conviction of sin. He has always been a godly man in externals and has not neglected the means of grace, but now the agonizings of soul have come upon him. It seems as though all light has gone from him. He sees only his transgressions…But grace he cannot see. He has eyes like a cat to see in the dark, but he is blind to the light.”
Blinded by his shame, Johannes can’t see the grace he’s been given. So Savonius searches through the leather-bound volumes of theology he’s put to memory for an argument to offer the man, but once he arrives he finds that all of his quotes and prayers do nothing to relieve the man’s anxiety. Johannes knows that he’s a sinner, that he’s lived an imperfect life—and on his death bed he’s certain that nothing in life is free. He knows that try as he might he can’t bring anything to God to make himself worthy of mercy—so he’s stuck, and so is Savonius, who defeated and unable to help this dying man walks out into the cold and begins to weep.
But then along comes a woman from the village named Katrina, wondering if Johannes is still alive. Savonius tells her he is, but he’s in a bad way. She calmly nods and walks in to hear the man cry out; “God will be exalted and declared righteous in all his judgments because I will be found unworthy. I am a sinner, a great sinner.” Katrina sits down and looks at him, nods and says, “Yes, that you are Johannes. But Jesus is a still greater Savior.”
“But I lack repentance, I can’t bring anything to God, certainly not a penitent and clean heart. “
“That’s right”, she responds, “but that’s exactly why Jesus died on the Cross, [for those who are unable to save themselves, for the sick and the needy and the human].”
Johannes became perfectly still, and then asked if Katrina had anything else to say, still not sure what to make of her words.
She said, “Yes, one more thing Johannes. Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.”
And Johannes sat back in his bed, closed his eyes and sighed a deep sigh of peace.
We always think that we have to earn Jesus, even baby Jesus. We think that grace can’t possibly be free. But the only gift that we bring to the table and lay at Jesus’ feet is our guilt, our shame and our sin. That’s it. What we bring to the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, what we bring to the light of the world, all that we bring is our burdens; that tightness in our chests, that lump in our throats and this darkness that we cannot seem to shake or overcome. We lay it all down at the feet of Jesus, and what we are given in return is the gift of our salvation.