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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Epiphany 01/05/2012

On Christmas Eve I talk a lot about the power of the story to captivate us on that night, and it’s true, it does.  Tonight’s Epiphany story though, is equally captivating and compelling, maybe even more so, with the image of the exotic Wise Men dressed in colorful clothes, mysterious strangers riding camels across field and fountain, moor and mountain, bearing gifts as they follow yonder star in search of the newborn king; it’s another literary masterpiece.  In our minds it does all blend together as part of the Christmas story along with Luke’s angels and shepherds, but in reality it’s a different tradition.  Both Luke and Matthew wanted to tell a story of Jesus’ birth but knowing and believing what they did about Jesus, they each had different points that they wanted to emphasize.

Luke was concerned with Jesus care for the “least of these.”  The main characters in his birth story are unlikely people of little note.  Jesus’ humble beginnings are emphasized by Luke and this theme of the lowly being lifted up is one that continues throughout his gospel in stories about Jesus and also in his teachings.   

Matthew’s emphasis is different; his emphasis is on good news for foreigners as well as for Jews.  In Matthew the first ones to pay their respects to the newborn baby are not Jews who knew the scriptures and had been waiting for a Messiah and they’re not lowly shepherds either.  Instead, it’s these exotic foreigners who had traveled great distances not because of their religious faith but because of their reading of the stars.  Their behavior of course is in contrast to that of Herod, the ruler of Jerusalem, along with the chief priests and scribes who did not believe but who instead conspired against this “king.”  

No doubt Matthew’s telling reflects what was going on in his community as many Jews were reluctant to accept Jesus as the Messiah while Gentiles were attracted to this new interpretation of things.  The main point though is that the Wise Men believed even though they were outsiders, foreigners, Gentiles from the East.  They believed even though they practiced strange customs like astrology which was considered suspect according the Jewish law.  They followed the star and as outsiders they believed while insiders didn’t.      

There are differences in how Matthew and Luke tell the story but perhaps what should be emphasized is the similarity that the two stories have.  Both are stories of inclusiveness; people who would have been considered outsiders are given prominence in both accounts.  That was the nature of the church in its earliest stages but of course it didn’t take long for the situation to change.  It didn’t take long for Christianity to become a religion of insiders.  It was only a few hundred years until Christianity was the religion of the empire rather than the religion of a persecuted minority of outsiders.  Ever since, we’ve had to struggle with that, or at least we should struggle with it.  We’ve become the insiders who echo the empire rather than pose an alternative to it, insiders who resist the inclusion of those who we deem to be different. 

We can wind up like Herod and his cronies who don’t dare entertain new possibilities because they might lose something in the process, a big part of that something being their status and their comfort.  We love the story that Luke tells and the story that Matthew tells; we love the sentiment but we’d rather not think about the radical nature of what they are really saying. 

On the other hand, as what are called “mainline Christians” we may be living during a time when we’re moving back to being the outsiders. Overall church attendance is in decline; there are some loud voices openly hostile to religious faith and many more who are happily indifferent to it.  There are other approaches to Christianity these days that are much more popular than what we do.  With that can come hand wringing and despair among us, or it can be seen as a time of new possibilities as we remain faithful to what we believe in a changing religious landscape.  It can be a time to consider who we are and what gifts we have to offer. 

It’s largely from the Epiphany story that the custom of gift giving at Christmas has developed.  Church tradition has interpreted the gifts of the Wise Men as a foreshadowing of things to come.  Gold is fitting for a king, frankincense would be used by a priest and myrrh was a spice used to anoint a dead body prior to burial all of which is seen as being part of the revelation of Jesus’ identity and story.  Whether or not all of that was on Matthew’s radar is open to question, however.  It is likely that he was aware of Isaiah chapter 60 with its reference to gold and frankincense but his point might simply have been to connect Jesus to this Old Testament prophecy as other aspects of his story connect Jesus to the Old Testament; we can’t really know for sure.  For us the most important point may be just the fact that the Wise Men brought gifts; they honored the child by giving him what they could.

According to our Christmas gift giving tradition though, you would think that the Wise Men gave gifts to each other in honor of this child’s birth; that’s what we do.  Now I’m not suggesting that we stop giving gifts at Christmas; it is out of control, we know that, but there is joy that comes with giving and receiving gifts.  When you think about it though, this story of the Wise Men provides a perfect opportunity for a stewardship emphasis.  I don’t think it would go over very well during the “holiday” season, but stewardship is about what gifts you have to offer in the name of the Lord and that’s part of this story of the Wise Men.  They offered gifts; they gave what they could which is exactly what we are called to do. 

With the Wise Men the focus tends to be on the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Another gift that they give though is their worship.  In Matthew they are the first one’s to worship Jesus.  That too is an important Epiphany lesson as our worship is a gift that we can always bring.  While in this or any church there are other activities that go on, worship is and ought to be the central activity.  It’s why we have services even on occasions like tonight when we know there won’t be a lot of people.  It’s what we do though; we’re a church; we provide opportunities for worship; together we offer our gift of worship sometimes in large numbers, sometimes in small.

The final thing that always strikes me in this story is the last line about going home a different way or by a different road.  In the story it’s so the Wise Men can avoid Herod, having been warned about him in a dream; but is it also Matthew’s way of continuing the story? 

Tonight or tomorrow concludes the twelve days of Christmas; even in church it’s over.  The Wise Men made it to our manger scene tonight and that’s the end.  But perhaps we should leave the figures of the Wise Men on display for a couple of weeks, in the back of the church somewhere, their backs to us, headed home.  They might serve as a reminder to us not to lose the sense of wonder and imagination that this season allows. 

Had they returned by way of Jerusalem and King Herod, the Wise Men would have quickly returned to a practical, efficient, work a day world where imagination and wonder are frowned upon, useless, the stuff of children.  Going home another way they bought some time; going back over field and fountain, moor and mountain they could travel in wonder, they could dream, they could imagine the different futures made possible by the child they had worshiped.

We need that; we need that sense of imagination and wonder, imagination and wonder that lets us believe in angels singing to shepherds and Wise Men following a star, imagination and wonder that leads us to the reality and truth of a baby, Jesus, who is Christ, the Lord.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
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