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Sermon by Rev. Mark Covington, Pastor
First United Methodist Church
Quitman, Mississippi
January 8, 2012
(First Sunday after Epiphany)

Topic: The Meaning of Epiphany and the Gifts of the Wise Men

Epiphany is important. Epiphany Day is always January the 6th, and Epiphany Sunday is the Sunday in-between Christmas and the second Sunday in January. It (Epiphany) helps to remind us of several important things. It helps to remind us of our Lord and Saviour before we begin our journey to Lent.

But there are several mistakes that we all make about Epiphany and the Wise Men. Perhaps the biggest and most glaring is this:

The Wise Men were not at the manger.

Now I know that our nativity scenes show the Wise Men there; I know that we sing songs about “We Three Kings” and it gives the impression that the Wise Men were there. But if you read the scripture (Matthew 2:11) you find out that it says, that when the Wise Men found Him, they came “into the HOUSE.” It didn’t say they went to the manger. And so the Wise Men coming is not concurrent with the shepherds coming.

How many Wise Men were there? Well, we sings songs about “We Three Kings” and nativity scenes always have three of them; but the fact is, we don’t know how many there were. The Bible doesn’t say there were three. We get that (number) because they brought the three gifts–gold, frankincense and myrrh–and we assume each one brought one gift; but the fact is, gold, frankincense and myrrh were a common currency at that date. And so all of them, however many of them there were, may have brought some gold, some frankincense, and some myrrh. But we don’t know how many of them there were. It could have been two; it could have been two hundred–We just don’t know.

Where did the Wise Men come from? Well the “star” appeared for the purpose of leading the Wise Men to Jesus’ home. If the Wise Men started their journey when the star first appeared (and that was at the birth), being from the “East” most likely meant they were either from Mesopotamia, or Persia, which is now Iran, and that would have been a journey of around 500 miles. We can get a general idea of how old Jesus was when the Wise Men came because a journey of that many miles under the best of conditions travelling long and hard each day would have taken at least 25 days.

The exact date of Jesus’ birth we’re not absolutely sure of, but we can pin it down as to season. We know that the shepherds were out in the field. In the harshest winter months they [the shepherds] would bring their sheep into a corral at night and stay inside, and the rest of the year [in the warmer months] they would be out in the field, so it probably wasn’t during the winter [that Jesus was born]; that it probably was not December 25th; but rather, some time a couple of months [or a few months] later.

The term “Epiphany” comes from a Greek word which means “appearance or manifestation.” In Western Christianity the festival of Epiphany (observed on the 6th of January) celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the Jews. “Epiphany” [in the Eastern Christian tradition] celebrates the coming of the Magi, who almost certainly were NOT Jews, and so we get by the coming of the shepherds this Messiah coming for the Jews, but we get from the Wise men Jesus coming for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. There are always 12 days between Christmas and Epiphany, and that’s where we get the Twelve Days of Christmas.

So why is Epiphany important? It’s for the reason I just told you. The shepherds (Jewish people) were brought to the manger, were attracted to Jesus and He was truly going to be the Messiah for the Jews. But the Magi (the Wise Men) come as evidence that Jesus came for everyone. It wasn’t just an accident that they came; it was a part of the plan and so that we could see from the very beginning that Jesus wasn’t just coming for Jews. He was coming for everyone.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem these people [the Wise Men] came to pay homage to Him. They were teachers; they were instructors; they were close to the Persian kings and in Persia no sacrifice could be offered unless one of the Magi was there. These were people who today we might call philosophers or doctors or scientists. They certainly were interdisciplinary: they knew a little bit about a lot of things, and one of the things they knew about was astrology.

In Jesus’ day everyone believed in astrology. They believed that whatever star you were born under sealed your fate for the rest of your life. These men interpreted dreams; and so, when they saw this star they were immediately attracted to it because it was different. They watched the skies and they could see the regularity of the movement of the skies year after year, and any time something new appeared they would be attracted to it and they would want to know what it meant.

We don’t know what the “star” was. it could have been Halley’s comet in 11B.C. We know that it streaked across the sky. About 7BC there was a brilliant conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter that shone exceptionally bright. In the years 5 to 2BC there was an unusual astronomical event. On the first day of the Egyptian month Mesorl, Sirius, the dog star, rose at sunrise, and shone with extraordinary brilliance. Whatever the star was, it caught these mens’ attention, and they wanted to follow and find out what it was.

It may seem extraordinary to us that these people would set out from so far away simply to follow a star. But it was more than that. They were setting out to find a king, because an unusual astronomical event usually meant that a king was being born.

Also at this time in history there was a sense of expectation that the world had never had before. There was this strange feeling of a coming of something BIG. The Greek historian Citonius writes, “There had spread all over the Orient an old and established belief that it was fated at that time for a man coming from Judea to rule the world.” And Tacitus, another historian, said, “There was a firm persuasion that at this very time the East was to grow powerful and rulers coming from Judea were to acquire a universal empire.” Even the Jewish historian Josephus would write how, about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth.

And so we have these men [the Wise Men] whose job it is to pay attention to the skies and the stars and to interpret dreams and prophecies, and their feeling this sense of expectation, and their hearing from different places the expectation, and then there appears the “star.”And these men want to go and see the king that is being born.

So when Jesus was born, there was this eagerness of expectation. People were waiting for God. People were waiting for SOMETHING to happen. And it was into this waiting world that Jesus came. And he truly WAS the king that has acquired a universal empire. He is the King that was born for all people.

Legends have been busy with the Wise Men. In the early days of the Eastern tradition it was said that there were 12 Wise Men. Now the tradition is almost universally that it was three. The New Testament doesn’t say that it was three, but we get the idea by the gifts–the three gifts.

These weren’t just ordinary gifts, either. These were gifts for Jesus. Each one of these gifts means something special:

The first gift was the gift of gold. In the ancient world it was almost unthought of to approach the king without a gift, and the king of all gifts was gold. Anybody who brought gold to the king had the king’s favor. Gold is the king of metals, fit for the king of all mankind. Jesus was born (the man) to be the King. But he wasn’t going to reign by force or coercion, but by love. He wasn’t to rule over the lives of people, but the hearts of people. He wasn’t going to rule from a throne, but from a crown. We would do well to remember Christ as King. When we remember Christ as King we know that we can never meet Him on a place of equality, because we are not equals. We must always meet Jesus in total submission to Him.

The second gift was the gift of frankincense: the gift for a priest. It was in the temple worship and at the temple sacrifices that the sweet perfume of frankincense would be used. The function of the priest was to open a way between men and God. The Latin word for priest is “pontifex” which means “bridge-builder” and so a priest was one who was to build a bridge between humans and God. Frankincense was a part of building that bridge used in the temple worship. And that is what Jesus did. He opened the way for us so that we might enter in to the very presence of God.

The third gift, myrrh, was a gift for one who is to die. Myrrh was used in the embalming process. Myrrh was also used as an analgesic. You remember when Jesus was on the cross they took a reed and dipped it in myrrh–wine and myrrh–to ease the pain? Myrrh is a gift for one who is to die, and that’s what Jesus did: come into the world, to die–for me and you. Jesus came into the world to live for us and in the end, to die for us. He came to give us life by his death.

So we have gold, the gift for a king; frankincense, the gift for a priest; and myrrh, the gift for one who is to die. These were the gifts of the Wise Men, and even at the cradle of Christ they foretold that he was to be the true king, the perfect high priest, and in the end, the supreme Saviour of all people [through His perfect and complete sacrifice].

Epiphany Sunday is important because it reminds us of the gifts that the Wise men brought. But more, it reminds us of the gifts that WE bring and give to Him: not just the gifts that we place in the collection plate, but the gifts and talents that we have that we can use in His kingdom here on this earth. And so I ask you, on this Epiphany Sunday, if you approach the cradle of Jesus as the Wise Men did, what gift do YOU bring?



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