A Homily for Epiphany I
January 12, 2019
All Saints Anglican Church, Prescott, AZ
Text: Matthew 2:1-12
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Shortly after the rise of the puritan movement in England and America, a movement known as the German Pietists arose in mainland Europe. Out of this group came what are now known as the Moravians. Like their English counter parts, the German pietists were interested in personal holiness and a robust pursuit of knowing God.
One of the leaders of the Pietists was a man named Count Nikolaus Von Zinzendorf. His adherence to holiness and the pursuit of the intimate relationship with Jesus helped the Wesley’s develop Wesleyan theology, which lead to the formation of the Methodist church. However the thing many remember him for more than anything else is the following phrase:
Preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.
This little sentence is perhaps the most beautiful prescription for the Christian. We are not called to be concerned about our brand, to be concerned about the number of bodies we have in church, to be concerned about what kind of car we drive, how cool we are, or whether we have the right friends, no we are called to preach the gospel at all times and in all places. We are called to go out, to make disciples, and to bring them into the covenant of Christ through baptism.
We are called to share with our friends, neighbors, and loved ones what Christ is doing in our lives and what he has done in our lives, we are called to share how is redeeming us from sin, drawing us away from those things that destroy our souls, how Christ has washed us clean from the sin which we were born with, how Christ has healed us from our deepest pain and giving us our deepest joy.
We are called to unashamedly share our lives, to show the ways in which Christ has healed us and is healing us, to show the love of Christ to those in our community that so need love.
Unless Christ returns we will all face death – now Count Zinzendorf is not saying – forget about your loved ones who have died, he is not saying you need to not remember them. Please don’t hear that. Rather – his sentiment is so wonderfully summarized by Rich Mullins, the faithful and thoroughly sincere early nineties Christian singer when he wrote:
If my life is motivated by my ambition to leave a legacy, what I’ll probably leave as a legacy is ambition. But if my life is motivated by the power of the Spirt in me, if I live with the awareness of the indwelling Christ, if I allow His presence to guide my actions, to guide my motives, those sort of things, That is the only time I think we really leave a great legacy.
In other words: preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.
Our calling is that when we go to our eternal rest – that we are forgotten, not because we are so forgettable, but because Christ became so important to us – that all else fades in our lives. Instead of being motivated the self – we are motivated by a deep desire to glorify God in all we do. Instead of being motivated by getting as much treasure in the here and now – we store our treasure in eternity – we make our concern for eternal things.
I remember for some time “developing one’s brand” was a rather popular sentiment, most peculiarly with pastors – people wanted to show off who they were as individuals, and make sure everything was presented perfectly and painted a unique picture.
This was troubling to say the least.
Yesterday, as the class I was attending this past week wrapped up, I was chatting with the professor. I think it will be the last class I’ll have with him, and as we lamented this, I asked him if he would survive without me to blurt out random thoughts in the middle of his lecture. He said that he suspected someone else would fill that hole for me. It was then I remembered this great comfort – the church doesn’t need me. (but how deeply I need the church!)
That is to say: your salvation, your spiritual growth, your sanctification does not depend upon me – but depends upon Christ and Christ alone. Yes – I am called to point you to Christ over and over again. I am called to remind you of who he is, I am called to exhort you to repentance when you have sinned, and comfort you when you’re wounded. I am called to encourage, strengthen, admonish, and direct, but the reality is Christ can use whoever he pleases to accomplish this, but I am so grateful that I get to do this for you all, but still I must remember that ultimately it is Christ who is working in you.
Traditional, liturgical churches are thoughtfully designed to reorient us, and remind us of this fact. For the priest – my vestments should keep me humble. Our first layer is the cassock, as you can see it is dark black and reminds me that I am spiritual dead – that without Christ, apart from God’s grace and mercy, I have no life in me. Then I put on the surplice, which reminds me of how we are washed white in the blood of Christ,
and finally the scarf, or tippet for the daily offices, that is Morning and Evening Prayer or for communion I wear the stole. This reminds us that we are yoked to Christ, that we have authority to preach, teach, exhort, to administer the sacraments but that authority only comes from Christ.
My friends – while I have authority – it is not my own, but only Christ’s, it is borrowed, and I am to use it as a servant.
But, we are all called to live this life of self-giving, of death to self.
We have put such an emphasis on making a mark and a difference and finding our true calling that we sometimes forget that our calling – is to let our light shine wherever God has placed us.
If you are here this morning – you are here by the grace of God, you are here because God brought you here. God does move us in and out of things, but I have spent an incredible amount of time comforting young Christians who feel lost because they can’t articulate their calling.
Our calling, if we are followers of Christ – is to glorify him,
our calling – if we are not yet His follower is to become followers of Christ, to let Him minister to you, to let his mercy envelop you so that we may all glorify Him and love others as He loves us. Yes – he may call you to some great task that will shape the world, or he might call you to simply be a good husband, a good wife, a good brother, a good sister, a good friend, a good parent, or a good child. But let us be first concerned with loving Him and loving others as He first loved us.
The Magi present for us such a calling. The lore and thoughts around them is seemingly unending. For example – we do not know how many of them there were. The western tradition tells us that there were three, and this is a fine number, for there were three gifts – but there could have only been two or their could have been 102, though the fact that they seemingly all went into a middle eastern house, makes an extremely large number rather unlikely. All we know is that the word Magi is plural in the text, and so there could have been many. In fact, the eastern church disagrees with the west and has settled on 12 magi to be parallel with the twelve tribes of Israel, this is as fine a number as three, but still unprovable.
Next we know very little of who they were. Some traditions tell us that they were kings – in fact this is where those names we hear from time to time – Gaspar, Melchoir, and Balthasar come from. Each of these men were legendary kings from India, Persia, and Arabia and while they were certainly from the east, there is no evidence to suggest that these were actually the men who visited the infant Jesus or even that they were kings.
The term Magi is particularly interesting – and it does give us a hint into who these men were. They were probably a special class of people in the ancient near east who were interested in religion and lore and the pursuit of wisdom, who were something like the combination of a pagan priest and the local wise man, having given their life to study of the ways of the world and also given to leading local religious ceremonies. This does seem to be the most likely explanation as this would mean they would therefore be aware of the world around them, and then having seen Jesus’ star and because they knew where to look they would have known something amazing had happened.
Ultimately, we got lost when we get anxious about who these men were. The point of the story is not that Gaspar, Melchoir, and Balthasar or for that matter Joe, Frank, and Bob took a long journey together – the point is that these men who were not Jewish recognized that God had been born among us and came to worship Him.
Here we get a hint that the magi knew that Christ was more than a man – for they came to worship Jesus, king of the Jews.
When we confront those who deny the divinity of Christ, here is one place that they get stuck. We might say to them, “but look! The wisemen came to worship Jesus,” to which they will respond, “but they shouldn’t have.” In fact, in their mind, the wisemen are not heroes of faith, but anti-heroes. They do not believe the wisemen show us the way to life as we believe, but rather a way towards death.
There is an error in their thought here – first scripture makes it perfectly clear that these men worshipped Christ, there is no other way to read the text. Secondly, when worship is wrongly prescribed in the Word of God, we see this in particularly with angels – the text tells us that this is a wrong thing to do, tells us do not worship Angels!
No, we worship no one but the one true God who is revealed to us in triune form – and whose second person became incarnate in Jesus Christ our Lord. No, if it was wrong for the magi to worship Jesus, we would know. Rather – they are wise and anonymous forerunners. They tell us – it is good and right to worship Jesus as our God, and we know from later revelations in scripture to worship him as our savior.
Now, let us compare Herod and the religious leaders of Jerusalem’s reaction to the news of the birth of Jesus with that of the Magi. Herod and all of Jerusalem with him was troubled – but the Magi “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” when God revealed the place of the house where Jesus was to them.
What is our reaction to new people visiting our church, what is our reaction to the to the opportunity to love upon someone destitute, to the migrant, to the one who is not like us but so desperately needs to know the love of Christ? Has it occurred to us that perhaps these people are angels, sent to give us an opportunity to ministry as the author of Hebrews tells us? That these people are images of the Christ, whom we have the opportunity to love upon?
My friends – you so often do a beautiful job of welcoming those who are unknown, but sometimes I grow distressed when I look out and I see someone new sitting alone. One day, I looked out and a man was visiting for the first time and it was as though he had the plague, he sat alone in a pew and no one was even in the pew in front of him!
I know at other times we are amazing at welcoming strangers in amongst us, and I know you all to be profoundly loving – but let us become even better at loving the stranger, let us not be afraid of him or her – for yes, we live in scary times, yes we live in times of deep hate and distrust, but we cannot combat hate with more hate, but only with the divine love of Christ, the sacrificial love of Christ. Let us great each person who enters this building, enters into our life with this love.
Someone posted this past year the three rules of engagement her and her husband have for when they are at church:
First: An alone person in our gathering (that is their worship service) is an emergency.
Second: Friends can wait.
Third: Introduce a new comer to someone else.
My beloved – please – if you see someone alone – even if church has started, even if it is half way through the service, and I know it is awkward, but get up, leave your friends, and quietly introduce yourself and ask if you can sit with them. I have chosen to attend churches because someone has done just that for me. I pray that the love of Christ abounds within our community, may we rejoice greatly when we see someone new.
But here is the second question – to follow Christ is a calling to a continual dying to ourselves. Here is a place I struggle too – when Christ calls us into deeper intimacy, calls us to the death to ourselves, calls us to leave behind some idol of the heart and beckons us into something deeper and more profound with him – are we troubled like Herod, or do we explode forth with joy like the magi?
When Christ calls us to live in a place of deeper faith with him may we rejoice – not be dismayed. May our hearts cry out with joy and not trouble, for how good it is to know Christ!
For in meeting Christ, in being drawn into a relationship with him, we are called to be ill at ease with the status quo, to be ill at ease with the way the world is and anxious for the way the world will be after the great re-creation. T.S. Elliot summarizes the Christian tension we feel in a poem he wrote for Epiphany, it is written from the view of the wisemen sometime after their great journey to worship the Christ:
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our palaces, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation
With alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Christ’s birth in our hearts calls us to shake up our lives, to shake out the old dead gods of our paganism and worldliness – calls us to live deeply profound and intimate lives with Christ and with the people of God. Our lives should not reflect the culture around us, but we should be transformed people, we should be a community that God’s love abounds in.
The wise men, though undoubtedly deeply educated, lacked the formal training of the religious leaders of Jerusalem. In this we are reminded that we are not called to trust in our upbringing or heritage. We are called to trust in Christ alone.
Too often as Anglicans we say “well, I was a cradle Episcopalian,” as though this brings us some status. It is so good to run the race faithfully, to have never turned our back on Christ, but we are not saved because we have attended church for our whole lives – no we are saved because we are in Christ’s covenant with us, because we have a deep and intimate relationship with Him, because every day we die to ourselves, and are born again in Him.
My friends – I am so thankful for the witness of those of you who have not veered from the path that Christ has laid before them, that have walked a life that glorifies God from Birth until this moment. Your witness is beautiful, but trust not in your witness but in Christ and Christ alone.
We see in this text – that the ones who showed true faith in Christ were foreigners, were the outsiders, while the insiders schemed and were troubled by the news. So too, I am thankful for those who lived rough lives, who stumbled and fell hard, and Christ came in and radically changed their hearts.
I remember talking to a friend who had lived a hard, rough and tumble life – and met Christ in jail. He confessed that he often felt intimidated in clergy gatherings because of his past.
Yet – he knew Christ, and His power in such a profound way, a way that many of us can barely imagine – because he knew how damaging sin was, he knew both Christ and sin so intimately. Let us rejoice when the prostitute, the criminal, and the drug-addict come to know Christ, not judging them for who they were but rejoicing exceedingly with great joy for what Christ has done. And let us not take for granted our lives because we were born into a Christian home – but take Christ’s saving grace as our own, and abide richly in that.
The wisemen finally arrive at the house where Mary and the child are, and they worship the child and lay before him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Here again the wisemen point us to the fact that this child was more than a baby lying in the arms of his mother, an interesting child, no, my friends - he is king and God.
Both the fact that they worshipped Him and brought these gifts – point us to this incredible truth. For gold, frankincense, and myrrh are gifts are only fit for the incarnate God. They are gifts fit for the one true God born to be amongst us.
It is easy for us to grow popular lore around these wisemen, but in reality they call us to live a life of faith, they set for us an example of Count Zinzendorf call that we may preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten, for they saw an amazing thing happening and set out in faith, were amongst the first to worship the incarnate God, were obedient to God, and went home, and were in the sight of history forgotten.
The great evangelical Anglican bishop J.C. Ryle summarized it perfectly when he wrote:
The conduct of the wise men described in this chapter is a splendid example of spiritual diligence. What trouble it must have cost them to travel from their homes to the house where Jesus was born! How many weary miles they must have journeyed! The fatigues of an Eastern traveler are far greater than we in England can at all understand. The time that such a journey would occupy must necessarily have been very great. The dangers to be encountered were neither few nor small. But none of these things moved them. They had set their hearts on seeing Him “that was born King of the Jews;” and they never rested till they saw Him. They proved to us the truth of the old saying, “where there is a will there is a way.
It would be well for all professing Christians if they were more ready to follow the wise men’s example. Where is our self-denial? What pains we take about our souls? What diligence do we show about following Christ/ What does our religion cost us? These are serious questions. They deserve serious questions.
My beloved friends – I know that most of us are likely to be concerned with our legacy, to be concerned with the mark that we leave on the world, and I would be lying if I told you that I was not. I too care and can find myself lost in the wrong questions – am I liked? Do they want me around? Am I good enough? Am I capable of building this church? And what of my reputation?
If we grow too consumed with worldly questions we lose this call to diligence, this call to a death to ourselves, and life in Christ.
May instead we live as the magi, as Count Zinzendorf, as Rich Mullins, and as J.C. Ryle both lived and in doing so call us to live – may we preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten, that we leave not a legacy of self but that all might be drawn unto Christ.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.