Sunday, 3 January 2016

Epiphany Sunday: gifts for a king

It’s great to welcome Elliot and all his family and friends here to Seal for his christening, and it’s especially good to do so on this day, Epiphany Sunday. The feast of the Epiphany is actually on 6th January but we celebrate it on the nearest Sunday so that everyone can be part of it. It’s the moment when we remember  the visit of the Magi to Jesus in Bethlehem, a feast which centres around a child, so it’s seems like a goodday for a baptism.

My guess is that, just like the Magi, many of Elliot’s family have come bearing gifts, but I suspect that they are rather different from the ones Jesus was given. I suppose it is just possible that there might be some gold, but I very much doubt there’s any frankincense and myrrh on offer.

I am sure, though, that any gifts Elliot is given today will have been chosen with great care. The gifts we give to new babies say something about what we hope for the child, what we believe about them. At the most basic level they say “you matter”, “you’re special” but they are often given with one eye on the future. If you google “christening gifts” you’ll often find things like money boxes, photo frames, or Bibles, things the child can’t use yet, but which the giver hopes they will grow to appreciate eventually.

The gifts the Magi brought  to Jesus were no different in that sense. They said something about who this child is and what the givers believed about him too.

In the second century, a Christian writer called Irenaeus suggested that each of the gifts had a specific meaning. His interpretation is still preserved in the carol “We three kings” which we’ll sing later in the service. He reckoned that gold was for king, frankincense symbolised divinity, because people burned it as part of their prayers, and myrrh reminded us of Jesus’ burial, because it was an ointment used to anoint the dead.

Frankly I think he may have been overthinking it. There’s no evidence that Matthew meant to be as specific as this, but he certainly did mean us to notice these gifts, to be aware of what kind of gifts they were. The really significant thing about them is that they were expensive. These aren’t bargain basement presents; they are luxury items.

Gold is obviously precious, but frankincense and myrrh were just as valuable in the ancient world. Frankincense and myrrh weren’t just used in prayer and for anointing the dead; they were, and still are, also used to make medicines and as perfumes. I’ve brought some along today, both in resin form and as oil – pass it around and have a sniff. 

They both come from trees which grow on the Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa – modern day Yemen and Somalia. But harvesting them is no mean feat. The scrubby bushes that produce them have to be painstakingly tapped,  then the resin oozes out and dries. Eventually it’s collected by hand and transported across the desert. You can’t produce them on an industrial scale, even now, so they are still expensive.

When Matthew tells us about the gifts the Magi bring he is telling us that they’re intended for a child who is very important. These are all gifts for royalty. The Magi packed them because they were expecting to find a royal child at the end of their journey.

As we see from the story, their first attempt at finding him led them up a very dangerous blind alley. They went to Herod’s palace. And why not? It was the obvious place to go. But of course there was no baby there, and Herod sent them on to Bethlehem. We know that Herod meant to have the child killed – he wasn’t going to tolerate any rivals for his throne -  but they didn’t, and so, quite innocently, they went on their way. 

And this time they did find the child, guided by the star which they believed was the sign of his birth. But instead of being in a palace he was in an ordinary home with an ordinary family. This can’t have been what they expected at all, and yet, oddly, they don’t seem to be at all disappointed. They kneel down and pay him homage, as they would have done to a king in a fine palace, and they have no hesitation in handing over their expensive gifts.  They don’t look at each other awkwardly and mutter that they could have got away with a couple of babygros and a bag of disposable nappies.

But if the Magi aren’t surprised by this turn of events, I think Matthew means us to be. He’s signalling to us something about who this child is going to grow up to be. He’s going to be a leader, a king, but not one like King Herod, or any other king people of his time had encountered. His kingship will be wrapped in humility. His power will be expressed in love and self-sacrifice.

Matthew was writing, just one generation after Jesus, from his knowledge of the adult life and ministry of Jesus, based on the memories of people who actually knew him. They spoke of a man who had had an authority that people sensed straight away, despite his very ordinary background.  That’s why they followed him. But what kind of leader had he been? He didn’t raise an army or start a revolution. He didn’t amass wealth or build fine palaces to live in. And he ended up on a cross, hardly a place for a king. The Roman soldiers mocked him, jamming a crown of thorns on his head. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, nailed a sign above his head on the cross saying “The King of the Jews”. He meant it ironically, but the truth is that Jesus has had more influence on the world than Pilate, or King Herod, come to that.
Matthew’s stories about Jesus’ birth point us forward to this; this was a man whose kingship was always going to look very different.

Yet billions of people have followed him, and follow him still, looking to his life for guidance. We often don’t get it right, of course, but the path he showed us is still one which many, many choose to follow. To call ourselves Christian is to acknowledge his authority over the decisions we make, to allow the pattern of his life to shape ours. His kingship is seen when our lives start to look like his, even if it’s only a bit, even if the likeness is dim. It is seen when we manage to love and serve others, when we work for justice and peace, when we befriend the friendless and feed the hungry, just as he did.

So, gold, frankincense and myrrh; it might seem strange to give them to an ordinary child in a Bethlehem back street, but it turns out to be quite appropriate.

But what has all this got to do with Elliot’s christening?

There are lots of different things going on in a baptism service. We are giving thanks for a new life. We are praying for Elliot’s future. We are reminding him, and ourselves, that God is with him and will always be. But we are also saying something very profound about who he is and who he might grow up to be. Every child is a child of God, we believe, and part of his royal family. But so often we don’t recognise or acknowledge that, in ourselves or in others. We think that ordinary people can’t make a difference, that ordinary lives don’t really matter, that it is only the rich and famous who count. But according to the Bible that’s not so. Each one of us has a royal calling. Following Jesus means learning to be who we really are, royal children.

That’s why, after his baptism I will anoint Elliot with special oil called oil of Chrism. It is the same oil used to anoint kings and queens at their coronation, and it’s scented with frankincense, that royal perfume.  It is a reminder that this is no ordinary child, but a child who can change the world for the better, as we all can, loving and serving others like that child in Bethlehem whom the wise men worshipped.  

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