Monday, January 10, 2011
Gifted: Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12 and Matthew 3:13-17
Our service this morning offers us a bridge between the Christmas season and what comes next—Epiphany, the Light of the world shining forth so that it can be seen by all people, and the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. Our readings this morning span nearly three decades. The events of Epiphany, the visit of the magi and the presentation of their gifts, probably occur about two years after the birth of Jesus. Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan takes place when he is about thirty years old. This morning, in all sorts of ways, we are taking the large view—the expansive, panoramic view. This is a big picture kind of morning.
But that’s not to say we can’t focus in on some of the details. Just for fun, let’s play a game. The story just read by our liturgist is so familiar. But how many of the details do we really know? For instance, how many kings came to pay homage to Jesus? Well, none. Jesus’ visitors are called magi, and one writer describes them as “magicians, astronomers, star-gazers, pseudo-scientists, fortune-tellers, horoscope fanatics.” In other words, they are not representatives of other states or countries, with diplomatic credentials. They’re spiritual quacks, really, they’re the wrong race and the wrong religion, and the fact that they are the heroes in Matthew’s very Jewish story is a kind of a scandal.
OK, we know there were no kings. So how many magi were there? Well, the text doesn’t tell us. The word is plural, so there are at least two. But there could be more. Nine, ten. We’ve settled on the number “three” because there are three gifts. And we might be right about that. Maybe there were three. And what are their names? Well, the bible doesn’t give us any names. A tradition that popped up about 500 years after the birth of Jesus names them Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar. But we really don’t know their names.
And about those gifts. Much has been made of the symbolic nature of the gifts of the magi. Gold, because Jesus is a king. Frankincense, a kind of incense, because Jesus is God. And myrrh, an ointment often used in preparing bodies for burial, because Jesus is the Lamb of God, who will be sacrificed. For those of us familiar with the items ordinarily brought to baby showers—and we had one here, not too long ago—well, the gifts seem kind of odd to us.
But here’s a surprise. The holy family could, in fact, put the gifts of the magi to good, practical use. Especially given that Jesus and his parents are about to become refugees. Gold, of course, could be used to finance the trip—gold was an easily tradable form of currency. In fact, all three of the gifts were usable for trade, and could have kept the wandering family fed and housed. Frankincense has properties that help to fight infection, boost the immune system, and reduce inflammation. It was a great addition to the medicine cabinet or first aid kit. And myrrh, an ointment, was regularly used (by those who could afford it) for all kinds of skin conditions. Yes, including diaper rash. So these highly symbolic gifts turn out to be incredibly practical as well. Because, let’s face it—the big picture, in this case, the Epiphany, the Light of the world shining forth so that it can be seen by all people, pretty much depends on small-picture details such as getting Jesus safely to Egypt and back again, seeing him grow to adulthood.
And we see him as an adult, in another “big-picture, but look at those details” kind of moment. The Big Story here is this: Jesus, at his baptism, evokes comment from God: a voice from heaven, proclaiming, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” But the details are fascinating. In the ancient world to be baptized by someone was to become a follower of that person. The people whom John baptized became his disciples. John, in this encounter with Jesus, says no, I won’t do it. In fact, the Greek verb tense indicates that this was an ongoing argument between the men, as in “I’ve come to be baptized.” “I won’t do it.” “But I want you to baptize me.” “But I won’t do it.”
John feels inadequate to the task. John feels that the roles are reversed, skewed, that Jesus should be baptizing him. He finally accepts Jesus’ argument that in this baptism, John and Jesus together would be fulfilling righteousness. This was a slam-dunk argument. Righteousness was something that would be prized by all observant Jews, a baseline for morality and integrity and right relationship with God. So John relents. And God rejoices.
I wonder whether our nominating committee had any conversations like that this year? “We would like you to be an elder.” “No, I won’t.” “But we would really like you to be an elder.” “No, I can’t.” “But we think you would make a great elder.” “No, I wouldn’t.” I’m not going to lie to you: everyone who serves—whether as a deacon, or as a minister of Word and Sacrament, or as an elder—needs to have certain gifts. Well, really, they need to have one gift—the one gift without which none of our service would be possible. That gift is baptism. By virtue of our baptism, God calls us—each and every one of us—into the ministry of the church. It’s that simple and that terrifying.
Oh, we need other gifts as well. But here’s the beauty of the situation: we need your specific gifts, R and H and D and K and J and P. We need the gifts you know you have—your analytical mind, say, or your love for events. But we also need the gifts you don’t even know you have yet—like your hunger for a prayer life, your kinship with others who suffer and sorrow. Your individual gifts are the details. The gift of your baptism is the panoramic view. It is the first and most essential piece of equipment for service to God’s people. The rest will unfold, in God’s good time.
Our service this morning bridges one season in the life of the church with what comes next. We say goodbye and thank you to those who have served as deacons and elders at the same time we ordain and install those who will serve this year and beyond. For each of us, the baptism we have received, the mark of water and the Holy Spirit, is the bridge to our service of God’s people. And what is our ministry, really? The basic, real, unabridged definition of ministry? We are called, every one of us, to shine forth the Light of the world, so that it can be seen by all people. We are called to show the world the love of God in Jesus Christ. And we are called to do it together. It’s that simple and that exhilarating. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Brian Stoffregen, “Matthew 2.1-12, Epiphany of Our Lord-Year A,” at Crossmarks Christian Resources (http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt2x1.htm).
Brian Stoffregen, “Matthew 3.13-17, Baptism of Our Lord-Year A,” at Crossmarks Christian Resources (http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt3x13.htm).