by Rev. Doug Gray
A Brief Note about Pastoral Ethics and Preaching: Preaching is an event that is meant to be fresh for the hearers, so under normal conditions most pastors recognize that it is unethical to preach a sermon more than once if there’s anyone in the room who has heard it before. However, if you’re going to another church—as I was supposed to do for “Switcheroo Sunday”—then that’s perfectly fine. With the crazy weather the evening of January 7, the pastors decided to “unswitch” which left me with a prepared sermon I had already preached to my fellowship. The sermon below I originally preached a year ago, and had shortened and adapted it to preach at the First Congregational Church in New Bedford. I ask your forgiveness if you have heard it before. It was a good sermon when I preached it the first time, but I hope it’s a little better this time around.
After all the Christmas carols we’ve been singing, it seems fitting, that we should pause for a moment and consider the Christmas carols as they might have been written for those with psychological disorders:
• Schizophrenia — Do You Hear What I Hear?
• Narcissism — Hark The Herald Angels Sing (About Me)
• Paranoia — Santa Claus Is Coming To Get Me.
• Dementia — I Think I'll Be Home For Christmas.
• Manic — Deck the Halls and Walls and House and Lawn and Streets and Stores
and Office and Town and Spare No Expense!
• Histrionic — You Better Watch Out, I'm Gonna Cry, I'm Gonna Pout, then MAYBE
I'll tell you why.
• Multiple Personality Disorder — We Three Kings Disoriented Are...
I think for many of us, Christmas is a mixed blessing—a time we treasure and a time that makes us crazy. Our passage for today is the story of Epiphany, and through the great hymn, my prayer is that we would find ourselves much better oriented!
We three kings of Orient are;
Bearing gifts we traverse afar -
Field and fountain, moor and mountain -
Following yonder star.
Isn’t it funny that we use the word “orient” to talk about how we know where we are, but it actually comes from the Latin word for “East.” The kings (or more properly, magi) in our passage are from the East, and they are following an astronomical event: the extremely rare conjunction of planets: Jupiter (the planet of rulers) and Saturn (the planet of Palestine) in 7 BC. Johann Kepler calculated that it happens only every 805 years, and that they came close three times in 7 BC in the constellation Pisces—the constellation connected with the Hebrews and with the Last Days. These magi are the brightest of the bright, the rocket scientists of their day. They have been crunching the numbers, predicting the paths of the stars, and by all their calculations, some amazing ruler will be born in Palestine. Maybe they didn’t know much about Hebrew or Judaism. Maybe they didn’t understand the political forces they would unleash in Palestine. But they knew if they went where the star said go, they would find a great king.
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain;
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign.
Herod was the King of Israel when Jesus was born. A great builder and a crafty politician, Herod was actually only half Jewish! He had worked out a deal with the Romans so that he could be king, and he mostly kept the Jews out of the Romans’ hair for 34 years. He was admired by some, hated by many and feared by everyone. When Jesus was born, Herod was in a sorry state with all sorts of physical ailments and addictions. So when the magi came, asking “Where is the newborn King of the Jews?” you can imagine Herod being scared, furious and “troubled…and all of Jerusalem with him.” The gold these magi carry is for a king, but his kingdom is not Palestine, nor of this world.
Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh.
Prayer and praising, all men raising,
Worship Him, God on high. [Refrain]
The story is told that three small boys were in a Christmas play at school. They represented the three wise men and they were to give their gifts to baby Jesus. The first boy stepped forward, held out the gift in his hands and said, “Gold.” The second boy stepped forward, held out his gift and said, “Myrrh.” The third boy stepped forward, held out his gift and said, “Frank sent this.” We understand gold, and we’ll get to myrrh in a moment, but what the heck is frankincense? Frankincense is tree sap from a desert tree in desert Africa and the Middle East. When you burn it, it sends up a sweet scent of piney lemon. People even today light incense—frank and otherwise—as a prayer. Not only does it smell good, but the smoke rises, and the thought in Jesus’ day is that as the smoke rises, so do our prayers. In ancient times, the other idea was that if you burned something that smelled good and cost you a lot of money, the gods would pay closer attention. But Jesus came to show us that God was already paying attention, and that God listened to our prayers because God loves us and desires a relationship with us. In fact, frankincense hints that perhaps God didn’t just send this baby…perhaps God Himself came to us in this baby!
Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom -
Sorr'wing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
Imagine you’re hanging out at home when you get a knock on the door. When you open the door, someone shouts, “You won!” A camera and sound crew are rolling. People are popping confetti and it’s flying all over the place. Your neighbors start to gather to see what is going on. And the question in your mind is “What did I win?” It’s a million dollars, the most expensive perfume in the world…and a really nice coffin. What?! Probably Jesus’ parents experienced something like that. A knock on the door and it’s three kings plus their entourage. They have brought gifts for your child. Gold you can spend on anything; Jesus and his family are taken care of. Frankincense is cool; it smells really nice. And then there’s myrrh, the earthy, licorice-smelling resin and oil the people of Jesus’ day used in preparing bodies for burial. What?! Myrrh is the reminder that this young child, would grow to be
…despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering…
Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted. (Isaiah 53:3, 4)
And so the gifts of royalty, and of divinity, and of sacrifice are given to Jesus and foreshadow, this Jesus Who is truly our King and truly our God is crucified, and sealed in a stone-cold tomb…prepared for burial long before.
And if that was the end of the story, we would not be here this morning! Certainly not with joy in our hearts or grace in our lives!
Glorious now behold Him arise,
King and God and Sacrifice;
Earth to heav'n replies.
Risen from the dead, Jesus’ sacrifice turns to resurrection power, and a mere martyr becomes evidently much more. That is the hope we have: that when we offer ourselves as Jesus did, when we set aside what we want to do for what God wants, when we love the least, the last and the lost, we too will have more than we thought, become more than we imagined. It’s the hope of Easter, in the Christmas manger.
The magi were not believers. “Messiah” was not a word that meant much if anything to them. They were people—like many of us—who saw that something really amazing was going to happen, and they wanted to be part of it. The magi are seekers after the Higher Power, and because they followed it, they found their way to Jesus. In a sense, they are symbols of the truly oriented, signs that Jesus is indeed, the Way and the Truth and the Life. They remind us that we are all of us on our own journey to find God, and that God will show us the Way, and help us walk it.
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.
Note on Our Calendar
Jesus was probably born in 6 or 7 BC. How can it be that Jesus is born Before Christ? In 525 AD, a man named Dennis the Short (for real!) set up a new calendar so that time would be measured by Jesus’ life instead of by the founding of Rome or the reign of a Roman Emperor (some of whom persecuted Christians). Dennis the Short counted backwards from his time, and came pretty close. Now we have his calendar, but have done more precise counting so that Jesus was born in 6 or 7 BC, and died at the age of thirty-three in year AD 27 or 28. There was no year 0! AD stands for “Anno Domini” which is Latin for “in the year of our Lord.” Since according to Christians, Jesus is still alive, we are still “in the year of our Lord.”
Herod ruled as a “tetrarch” (part of a series of four kings) starting in 41 BC. In 37, Herod and the Romans captured Jerusalem, and Herod became the King of Palestine. Herod died in 4 BC (give or take a year). For more info on the oddnesses of our calendar, see the brief “Notes on Our Calendar” at the end.