The Epiphany of our Lord festival lands on a Saturday only every five or six years. We last celebrated it six years ago in 2013. Although most of you do not wake up in the morning thinking about hymns … I sometimes do … Adam does too, I suspect … I am in good company. There is a hymn associated with today’s festival that has only been in one hymnal of the Lutheran Church that I have ever used — With One Voice. That blue soft-covered hymnal in which many good hymns went to die. The hymn I am referring to is, of course (PAUSE) … We Three Kings of Orient Are. Let’s sing Verse 1 together – the words are in your bulletin.
We three kings of orient are, Bearing gifts we traverse afar, Field and fountain, moor and mountain, Following yonder star. Oh, star of wonder, star of night, Star with royal beauty bright. Westward leading, still proceeding, Guide with thy perfect light.
It is the story we all know, right? Three kings traveling from the east … following a star … bearing gifts. What do you know about this story, I wonder? — Three kings … Literal gifts or symbolic ones … Came to the manger … There on the day we call Christmas … Balthasar, Melchior & Gaspar … All are legend. What we know — Sent by Herod … Followed a star … Found Jesus with Mary and honored him … Honored him with gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh … Avoided Herod after the visit. Quite different, don’t you think? The constant is the gifts they bring – that seems to be the heart of the story. Let’s look at those gifts. We’ll start with gold, as the next verse of our hymn identifies.
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain, Gold I bring to crown him again, King for ever, ceasing never Over us all to reign. Oh, star of wonder, star of night, Star with royal beauty bright. Westward leading, still proceeding, Guide with thy perfect light.
Gold … we know gold, don’t we? Maybe our most precious metal … not literally, of course … platinum and rhodium and two that come to mind as more valuable. But gold still owns our hearts. I’m not really a fan of gold … I’ve always preferred the look of silver to gold. But when Nancy and I bought wedding rings we chose gold – white gold, admittedly – but gold none-the-less. There is something iconic about it. Pirates search for it … Fort Knox houses it … and every spy movie has bars of gold as part of their plot. And the Wise Men brought it … because it was the gift offered to kings. And if they knew anything, they somehow knew that this child would be a king. That is what gold signified … kingship … the Wise Men got that right. Let’s sing the next verse.
Frankincense to offer have I, incense owns a Deity nigh, Pray’r and praising, all men raising, Worship him, God most high.Oh, star of wonder, star of night, Star with royal beauty bright. Westward leading, still proceeding, Guide with thy perfect light.
Do you know what frankincense signifies? … Divinity. It reminds us that the wise men came to Jesus to worship him, too. His calling to earth was not solely a nationalistic one for Israel, it was also a religious calling. He came to Israel as her messiah.
Each year on the Tuesday of Holy Week our synod has a reaffirmation of vows service that many in our synod attend. It is an opportunity to affirm the vows we made at our day of consecration or ordination, and in essence says … “Yup, God, we’re still happy with this gig to which you have called us.” And, at these services there is a blessing of oil rite. Each of us is invited to take a small bottle of that oil back to our congregations for use in healing and anointing rites, along with baptismal sacramental services. Now … guess what aroma is mixed into the oil? Right again! Frankincense. It is a reminder that while we are called to be priests and ministers in our callings, we also have the privilege of bringing this blessed and aromatic oil back into our congregations. There it is used in baptisms and healings and end of life rites. And in such a way we are reminded that we are all priests serving God in our lives. That, my friends, is the Kingship into which we are anointed – a kingship grounded in service. Whether the three kings saw it that way, is not something we can claim with certainty. But it is what God had in mind … in this miraculous story whose setting is not the manger, but Jesus home in the early days of his earthly life, since most agree that by the time the magi got to Palestine, Jesus was probably at least two years old. It is time to sing about the third gift the magi bring.
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume, Breathes of life of gathering gloom, Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, Sealed in the stone-cold tomb. Oh, star of wonder, star of night, Star with royal beauty bright. Westward leading, still proceeding, Guide with thy perfect light.
This may be the most important gift. What do you know about myrrh. YES! … it is a burial spice. And so, at the moment of Jesus birth … God is already thinking about his death. As we sometimes say, “Jesus is born to die.” The third gift of the Wise Men affirms this. King Herod’s role in the story plays a part in the earth threat of death Jesus faces in Matthew’s Gospel, and is what sends the Holy family to Egypt. And our faith would be null and void without this promise.
So, whether you found an iPhone Xs under your tree … or Santa brought you one of the new Harry Potter book collections, bound in a case that bears the color of your favorite house … or you were treated to the medicinal healing of the Calm Dead Sea Bath Salts from Herbivore Bottanical … remember what is the real gift of the season. It if the gift of life beyond this world, which Jesus has purchased for us through his death and resurrection. But it is more than that, also. Because the promised gift of that life, allows us to dare to try to live in this world as God’s anointed servants … those blessed so that we can be a blessing to the world. Knowing the world that awaits us, we can see the world we live in through different eyes. Yup … and that is the best gift ever.