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Epiphany of Christ, January 6, 2019 | 8:00 a.m.
First Things First
Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Shepherds watch and wise men wonder;
monarchs scorn and angels sing;
such a place as none would reckon
hosts a holy helpless thing.
Stable beasts and bypassed strangers
watch a baby laid in hay;
God surprises earth with heaven,
coming here on Christmas Day.
John Bell and Graham Maule
“Who Would Think That What Was Needed”
Michelle Obama, in her recently published book, Becoming, tells of a family celebration that she and Barack felt was a failure. It was the Fourth of July, which also is the birthday of their eldest daughter, Malia. The whole family was in Butte, Montana, on the presidential campaign trail in 2008. Michelle wrote:
It was the end of our day there, the summer sun finally dropping behind the western mountains. . . . We were holing up for the night at a Holiday Inn Express next to the interstate, with Barack leaving for Missouri the next day and the girls and I headed home to Chicago. We were tired, all of us. We’d done the parade and the picnic. We’d engaged with what felt like every last resident in the town of Butte. And now, finally, we were going to have a little gathering just for Malia.
If you asked me at the time, I’d have said that we came up short for her in the end—that her birthday felt like an afterthought in the maelstrom of the campaign. We got together in a fluorescent-lit, low-ceilinged conference room in the basement of the hotel with [a few relatives] plus a handful of staffers who were close with Malia, and of course the Secret Service agents. . . . We had some balloons, a grocery-store cake, ten candles, and a tub of ice cream. There were a few gifts bought and wrapped on the fly by someone who was not me. The mood was not exactly desultory, but it wasn’t festive, either. It had simply been too long of a day. Barack and I shared a dark look, knowing we’d failed.
Ultimately, though—like so many things, it was a matter of perception—how we decided to look at what was in front of us. Barack and I were focused on only our faults and insufficiencies, seeing them reflected in that drab room and thrown-together party. But Malia was looking for something different. And she saw it. She saw kind faces, people who loved her, a thickly frosted cake, a little sister and cousin by her side, a new year ahead. She’d spent the day outdoors. She’d seen a parade. . . .
She marched over to where Barack sat and threw herself into his lap. “This,” she declared, “is the best birthday ever!”
“She didn’t notice that her mom and her dad got teary or that half the people in the room were now choked up as well. Because she was right. And suddenly we all saw it. She was ten years old that day, and everything was the best. (Michelle Obama, Becoming, pp. 271–272).
It is so easy for us to focus on inadequacies or peripheral issues and miss what is most significant. That can happen with the story of the astrologers who traveled a long journey from the East to pay homage to the newborn Messiah. Tradition makes this a story of three kings, or three wise men or three magi, who gave Jesus three gifts. But the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t say anything about there being three. The number three is probably an inference from the three gifts that the magi offered: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
These gifts are important because of their symbolic meaning. Gold was precious, worthy of a king; frankincense was incense, worthy of a divinity; and myrrh was a spice used in burials. These gifts all paid tribute to who Jesus Christ is: a king, a God, and a suffering redeemer.
But the traditional emphasis on three gifts given by three magi overlooks something more significant. What is more central is a word that occurs at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the story (verses 2, 8, and 11). The word in Greek is proskyneō, translated as “pay him homage.” Paying homage to Jesus Christ is the dominant, recurring theme of this narrative. Paying homage to Christ gives the story its purpose, direction, and culmination. It is much more important than whether there were three magi bearing three gifts (Thomas H. Troeger, Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 1,p. 215).
Proskyneō was commonly used to describe the custom of prostrating oneself at the feet of a ruler. When a subject takes a physical posture of kneeling or lying down in front of someone, it is an act of humble devotion and deference. The first thing the magi did upon seeing the infant Jesus was to kneel down and worship him. In physically humbling themselves in adoring Jesus, the magi expressed profound respect mingled with wonder, joy, and love. Proskyneō also dramatically expresses the idea of giving—not just gifts, but one’s entire self to Christ as his servant.
The magi do not immediately present their regal gifts. The first thing they do is pay him homage. Only after this act of worship, only after giving themselves completely to Christ, do they present their material treasures.
Preaching professor Thomas Troeger believes that the order of actions—homage first and gifts second—is significant. Gift giving can be a way of controlling others. If the first thing the magi did was present their gifts, they may have appeared to be in command of the situation. There they would stand with precious goods in their outstretched hands. They would appear like rulers presenting treasures to each other on a state occasion while meeting in the middle of a ceremonial room, each of them on their feet and facing the other in order to indicate their parity. But that is not what the magi do. They first express their relationship to Christ as humble, devoted servants, physically kneeling. First homage. First worship. First giving of themselves utterly and completely to Christ. Then their material gifts (Troeger, Feasting on the Word, p. 217). This is what is central to this story. First things first.
There is another reason that this order is important. If you are white, live in the United States, and especially if you have a Type A personality, you likely carry a sense of urgency to do something! It’s hard for us to pause and first discern whether what we want to do is really what God wants us to do. We need to examine whether we are just feeding our own ego, trying to establish our identity and worthiness through our own efforts. Some ideas are not right to act upon, or it’s not the right time.
All of us have immediate reactions—to an email or a comment or an event—that stir in us an urge to “set things right.” From time to time, all of us act out of momentary cravings, lifelong habits, or an ongoing drive to feel productive. We would do well before we react to slow down, to pray and seek God’s direction so that our response—if we even make one—flows from love.
Before we offer God the gift of our actions, we need first to humble ourselves before Christ and let his Spirit guide us. The practice of meditation, or mindfulness, is one way to do that. Mindfulness gives you time. Time to reflect and listen to God. Time to make choices. Mindfulness also allows us to be fully present to the moment and notice its blessings. It is so easy for us, like it was for Malia Obama’s parents on her birthday, to focus on our inadequacies or on peripheral issues and miss what is central. The most important gift we can give to Jesus Christ—and to one another—is our very selves. And it is enough.
There is another scriptural story about the order of giving gifts. Matthew 5:23–24 says, “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
Our reconciliation with one another is a priority for God. We glorify God when we extend love and forgiveness to one another. Author Anne Lamott witnessed an amazing experience of reconciliation on her visit to Japan. She and a traveling companion visited the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, built on a field created by the bomb the United States dropped in 1945. Then they wandered to the river dock in Hiroshima. Lamott writes,
There we saw something that shocked us into joy, full presence, into blown-away: a dock full of Hawaiian folksingers, in aloha regalia and leis, slack-key guitarists and small children, all singing to the people of Japan.
These first Americans attacked by the Japanese had been welcomed by and were singing to the first people in the world whom Americans had bombed with a nuclear weapon. . . . Thirty or so people. Western tourists and Japanese women and girls in kimonos, men in business suits and sweats. Asian youth in hip-hop gear, all stood gaping, immobilized . . . [listening to] just notes of a song and harmonies. . . .
After a long while, the singers took a final bow, and turned to give hugs to the Japanese helpers on the dock and then those of us onshore. (Anne Lamott, Hallelujah Anyway, pp.83–85)
These neighbors gave the gift of themselves to one another. Their singing and hugging didn’t bring back any of the people who died in the war, either in Japan or the U.S. But they offered one another their own presence, a gift of mercy, a gesture of reconciliation and love. They gave their hearts. They gave their very selves.
There is a lovely verse in the hymn “In the Bleak Midwinter” that goes
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him: give my heart.
In this new year, on this Epiphany Sunday, may we do first things first: pay homage to Jesus Christ, giving him our hearts. Amen.