For Epiphany. On gifts.
Gifts at the Feet of God
A recording of this sermon can be found here beginning at 15:10.
Matthew 2:1-12: In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (NRSV)
Greetings to you and peace from God our Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Abiding Holy Spirit.
Stepping into this familiar story of a treacherous king, wise magi, a shining star, and lavish gifts, my attention got caught up in one sentence in verse 11, “On entering the house, [the magi] saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.” I was caught by the image of Mary, Jesus, and the magi all lined up in row. The magi joyfully taking in the sight of this blessed and promised child and his mother. Conversely, Mary contemplating these foreign dignitaries kneeling before her baby. This image of Jesus, Mary, and the magi all taking each other in, made me wonder what epiphany was Mary given that day? What was being made apparent to her about God’s faithfulness?
Piecing together the details we are given in Matthew’s gospel, it seems that Mary and Joseph had decided to make a go of it in Bethlehem after Jesus’ birth. We know this for two reasons: First, the magi had to travel all the way to Bethlehem from modern-day Iran. Not a short trip. Second, we know this because Herod went after every child under the age of 2 because of what the magi had him about when the star began to rise. So for months and months the star rose, the magi rode, and Mary raised her baby. Day after day, she fed him, her baby, calm and happy and sleepy in the nook of her arm. She learned the sound of his cries, when he was tired or when he was hungry. She delighted in watching him try new flavors, touch new textures, hear new songs. Maybe her memories of shepherds and angels got a bit dull underneath all the baby urp and dirty diapers.
And then, one day, there they were, these magi. So strange and joyful and reverent and generous. Mary had not expected visitors like these. She knew attention must befall them at some point, but surely from her own people, God’s own people. From priests or rabbis or even a prophet. But not these Zoroastrian scholars, these Gentiles with their foolish and superstitious science of the stars. And yet, here they were, kneeling in front of her baby. Her baby, the one they had been waiting and searching for. How could she deny that God had led them here? To her house out of all the houses? What was God up to? Who was her Jesus growing up to be?
It is striking to me that in the same moment, the same meeting that the magi found what they had been seeking, that what was unknown became known, that Mary meets God anew. In that moment, Jesus may have become someone startlingly unfamiliar even after months and months of cries and feedings and naps. She had watched his first steps, and had now received his first retinue.
That is what happens when God appears. God draws Their people together to witness. Side by side. Together they are given the gifts that come from seeing. Some will be given clarity or confidence. While others will see and be given mystery or modesty. But all are given the gift of company.
In that same moment, that same meeting, Mary saw a group of magi kneel before her toddler, and the magi saw a devoted mother with her child, and they knew they belonged to each other because they each belonged to this promised child. In the presence of God’s promises fulfilled and unfolding, they received each other. Mary received presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. She received the generosity of their reverence. The magi received her hospitality as she hosted the time they had with Jesus, sharing food and conversation.
It is also striking to me that the magi’s visit marked the end of Mary’s months of motherhood in Bethlehem. In a short time, she, Joseph, and Jesus would need to escape to Egypt. And as they made their long journey, likely funded by the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, to seek refuge in a foreign land, I can see Mary wondering with awe, if those strange scholars who followed stars could end up at her doorstep, then who might be preparing for their arrival in Egypt? Even if she could not anticipate who might show up around her son, she knew they would be there. A holy gift at the feet of God.