May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts make plain the gifts of God, shining brightly in Christ Jesus, the light of the world. Amen.
I haven’t seen most of you folks for a couple of weeks, long enough that I need to catch up and wish you all a merry tenth day of Christmas as well as a Happy New Year!
Like many of you, I did some traveling over the holidays. Kerry and I took off after services on Christmas morning and drove to Des Moines to spend a few days with my family there. People were worried that we’d get stuck in a snow drift along the way, but we were surprised by how good the driving actually was. Pretty much clear roads the whole way, until we got about ten miles east of Des Moines.
This wasn’t Kerry’s first time meeting my family, but it was the first time he got such a close look at some of the Christensen family craziness and holiday traditions. The long, drawn-out ritual of opening presents; the ham and broccoli chowder that I request every year; and the Christmas tree – resplendent in its ornamental glory.
Almost all of the ornaments on the family tree were gifts. The ones given to my dad, who is a musician, are usually instruments or images of musical notes. The ones given to my mom, a teacher, are often chalkboards, apples, rulers. The ones given to me and my sister were more eclectic: porcelain teddy bears with our names on them, a smurf, a violin, a Raggedy Andy figure. All gifts given with the intention of communicating that we were known, that our hobbies and our professions and our interests were being noticed and appreciated by our friends.
Watching our family’s Christmas through Kerry’s eyes, I found myself retelling stories familiar to all of us as if for the first time again. For example, one evening as we were all sitting in the living room, just talking, Kerry asked, “is that a raisin box hanging from your Christmas tree?” Instantly we were all smiling, remembering how the empty raisin box came to be among the most treasured of our Christmas ornaments.
To look at it, it’s nothing much. A small, empty raisin box. The size that you pack with a child’s lunch. A red Sun-Maid raisin box with a loop of green yarn taped to the top you use to hang it on the tree. I gave the raisin box to my mother as a Christmas gift when I was about three or four – the age when these gifts still seem precious, not cheap – and Mom loved it. It hung on the tree that year and every year afterward until it was so beat up and ugly that we had to admit it looked pathetic. So we made another one to take its place.
Each year, as we unpack the ornaments, someone discovers the raisin box and then Mom says, “oh, look, the raisin box.” As a young child I was embarrassed by the raisin box. Once I was old enough to understand money all I could see was how cheap and inappropriate the raisin box was. I hadn’t even decorated it with glitter or puff paint. It was just a used up, empty food container. I couldn’t imagine that my mother’s affection for the dumb raisin box was sincere. As I got older I mistook her joy in the sight of the raisin box for nostalgia. I thought she was just reliving the pleasure of the memory of her son as a little boy so many years ago.
Trying to remember what it felt like to be the four year old boy who gave his mom a raisin box is very difficult. I remember being completely immersed in the task of constructing the gift: of emptying the box, cutting the yarn, taping the loop. But more than anything I remember the feeling of giving the gift. I was too young to worry about whether or not she would like the gift or not, all I knew at that age was how much I loved my mom and how much I wanted to give her something nice. And she knew that, she could see it on my face as I gave her my gift. She loved it, because it was love. Love unattached to money, or conditions of any kind. Pure love. Finding the raisin box each Christmas season was not remembering some pleasant memory, it was a sign of the present reality of the love between a parent and a child.
This morning we are celebrating the Epiphany of our Lord, and for the next month or so we will be hearing stories from scripture that reveal to us Jesus Christ as the manifestation of God among us. This morning it is the three wise men who come at Christ’s birth to name him a king – a strange revelation for a child born in a barn. Next week is the Baptism of our Lord by John the Baptist, the occasion when the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus and is heard to say, “you are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22). The following week we’ll hear the story of the miracle at Cana, where water is turned into wine, another occasion in which the identity of Christ is revealed. All of these readings are designed to make it clear to us that in Jesus, God is being revealed. Thus we hear his titles: “messiah,” “king,” “savior.”
The story of the three wise people, or the magi, or the kings… whatever you choose to call them, has a long history of interpretation. Sometimes they are discussed as representing the continents of the known world at that time: Africa, Europe and Asia. Their arrival is taken as symbolic of the whole world coming to recognize Jesus as Lord of all the world.
Hearing the story this year I am simply struck by the desire of the kings to give something to the Christ child. I remember the joy I felt delivering the raisin box to my mother, and her joy at receiving it. If this child was who the wise men understood him to be, then surely they knew that gold, frankincense and myrrh were not what he needed. Gold for a king who chose to live closest to the poor. Incense for a high priest who broke religious laws to bring freedom to the people. Myrrh to embalm one who would rise from the dead. But still they came to lay what was precious to them at his feet.
The psalm we sang this morning is a song written for a king, one that asks God to bless the king and to remind the king of his duties.
“May all kings bow down before him, and all the nations do him service. For the king delivers the poor who cry out in distress, the oppressed, and those who have no helper. He has compassion on the lowly and poor, and preserves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their lives, precious is their blood in his sight.” [Ps 72:11-14]
Can you imagine such a king? Can you imagine living with the assurance that those in power are most concerned with the poor, most concerned with those whose lives are in danger, with those who are oppressed? Can you imagine living with the promise that help has come to those who have no helper? Can you picture a king, a nation, that could deliver the whole world from violence? To one such as that, what could you offer that she or he would need?
You could offer your heart.
Today’s gospel is a story of unusual strangers who come to an unlikely place looking for a child who carried all the promises of God in his very flesh. We, the church, the body of Christ, should not be surprised when the very same thing happens in this place. When the church proclaims the good news of God for us, when we announce the promises of God that we heard in this morning’s psalm, we should not be s
urprised to find guests from faraway lands, with customs and experiences very different from our own, bearing strange, new and exotic gifts showing up at our door. They take their place right beside each of us, each of us offering a piece of ourselves, each of us offering our hearts to One who receives them for what they are: offerings of love.
A raisin box posing as a Christmas tree ornament; offerings of gold, frankincense or myrrh; gifts from the heart designed to show some knowledge of the one to whom the gift is offered. But the most unusual gift of all, the epiphany encountered today, comes in the form of Christ Jesus himself. In Christ, God offers the whole world a gift in a form so ordinary that we will all recognize it: humanity. God – all-powerful, all-mighty, transcendent and immortal – communicates that we are known. We, in our weakness, in our mortality, in our frailty and in our flesh, are known by God. The fullness of God’s love communicated in a fragile child lying in an empty trough, a manger, an oversized raisin box.
What a strange God it is that we worship, that we love. In Jesus, God is revealed to us as one who is willing to set aside wealth and power for the sake of the poor and the powerless. God travels to us from beyond our knowing to offer to us the gift of love and we, along with strangers and wise people everywhere, gather at this table to receive the gift. This is the manifestation of God for us, all of us. This is our Epiphany.