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January 3, 2010
Sermon:  Epiphany and Observance of the Lord’s Supper
Text:  Matthew 2:9-12


Christmas is over.  Your Christmas tree, probably like so many of your neighbor’s trees, has been kicked to the curb.  They lie along our streets like fallen soldiers.  Many of the decorations are down, and the “little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay” has been consigned to the attic or basement.  He has been tucked away in a box somewhere to endure a cold winter and a hot summer before being brought out again after Thanksgiving next year.  Christmas is over.

The Twelve Days of Christmas, an ancient tradition, extends the season of Christmas.  This tradition really grew out of a controversy about the date Christmas should be celebrated.  The western churches, or the Roman church, celebrate Christmas on December 25.  Eastern churches celebrate Christmas on January 6.  About half of the Christian world will celebrate Christmas Wednesday, January 6.  Right here in the city of Spartanburg, the Greek Orthodox Church will celebrate Christmas that day.      

One of the ways the western church met this challenge – and it was a challenge – was to inaugurate what are called the Twelve Days of Christmas.  The period really begins on December 26, a day called Boxing Day.  It was a day when people were encouraged to give Christmas gifts to those in servant roles:  people who delivered newspapers and mail, those who cleaned houses and cared for lawns, for example.  On that day, those individuals were presented a box of goodies, sometimes just staple food products.  Boxing Day was a time of giving. 

The song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” describes providing gifts on each of the twelve days between December 26 and January 6.  I actually thought about bringing in twelve drummers drumming if today had been the twelfth day.  If today had been the eleventh day, I might have gotten eleven pipers piping bagpipes, flutes, or some other type of instrument.  Today, however, is the ninth day of Christmas.   Bringing nine ladies dancing into a Baptist church just probably would not work.  You will have to use your imagination if you want nine ladies dancing.  The tradition of the Twelve Days of Christmas extended the season, and we have scriptural evidence for doing so. 

I want us to read a story that we all know, a story we have already read this season, about the arrival of the magi, the wise men, to worship the Christ-child.  I invite you to turn with me to Matthew, Chapter 2, beginning at Verse 9.

After they had heard the king (King Herod), they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.  On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.  Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.  And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

At our house, here in the church, and probably at your home, too, we arrange shepherds on one side of the nativity scene and wise men on the other.  We tell the Christmas story as if everybody arrived at the same time.  It is remarkable to think of the events as being so synchronized that shepherds in the field and this strange trio from Persia arrived at the same time to worship the Christ-child. 

Clearly, Scripture indicates that the wise men reached this destination sometime later, possibly even two years later.  You remember Herod’s edict that all male children through the age of two were to be put to death.  This may imply that Jesus was almost two years old when these magi from the East finally arrived to worship him.  Embedded within the text is the fact that the wise men did not go to the stable.  They did not first see Jesus in a manger.  They went to a house.  By then, Mary and Joseph had found acceptable lodging in the city of Bethlehem. 

The early church said, “The shepherds arrived on December 25, the day of Christ’s birth, but we will celebrate the coming of the wise men on January 6.”  Mike McGee tells me that people in Amish country still call January 6 the “Old Christmas.”  Celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas, extending the season, has a long tradition. 

The wise men from the East were of the Zoroastrian faith.  They believed that the heavens were like a mirror, reflecting in the sky something that happened on earth.  Seeing this new star over Bethlehem was an indication that new royalty had come on the scene.  They probably did not start following the star until the birth of Jesus.  It took them some time to travel all the way from Persia down to Jerusalem and into Bethlehem.  We cannot be sure when they arrived, but the celebration of Christmas over a twelve-day period at least gives some idea that the time of their arrival was different from the shepherds’ time.  In the gifts the wise men brought – gold, a gift for a king; frankincense, a gift for priest; and myrrh, which was an embalming spice, a gift for a savior – we see symbolism.  We celebrate and remember that Jesus, who came into the world, would sacrifice his life for the sins of the world. 

I want to tell you a story by Henry Van Dyke, a story I have told you before.  I really love this story called The Other Wise Man, as do some of you.  According to tradition in ancient Christian literature, the three wise men were named Melchior, Balthazar, and Jasper.  Dyke writes about a fourth wise man named Arteban who was to join the other three in a caravan headed to the land of Israel.  Listen now to this story.

Riding an Arabian horse, Arteban was making his way across the desert to join others in an early-morning rendezvous.  He came to an oasis where he watered his horse and refreshed himself.   There, he thought about this new King and the importance of the trip ahead.  He, too, had prepared a gift to bring to the Christ-child, to this new King.  Tucked away in his sash was a leather pouch that contained three precious gems:  a sapphire, as blue as the sky; a ruby, as red as blood; and a precious pearl.  Those three gems were to be his gift to the new King. 

As Arteban was preparing to remount his horse for the journey ahead, he heard a human groan in the darkness.  He turned aside to see a man who had been beaten, robbed, and left for dead.  A compassionate man, Arteban could not leave this man behind.  He knew the ancient medical arts, so he took from his saddlebag the herbs and medicines needed to treat this man’s wounds.  Once revived and able to ride, the man rode with Arteban across the desert to the capital city in the land of Persia. 

When Arteban arrived at the city, he found lodging for this man.  He told the innkeeper, “I want you to take care of him.” 

The innkeeper asked, “How will the bill for this care be paid?” 

Arteban reached into his little leather pouch and removed the sapphire.  “I can pay with this,” he explained. 

“That will be too much money.  Here, you take some gold coins in exchange.  I will help the man until he is well.”

Assured that the innkeeper would care for the wounded man, Arteban left the sapphire, which he had intended to give the new King. 

Arteban realized that because of the delay, he was too late to join the caravan.  He had been left behind by his three colleagues.  Still determined to continue, he organized his own caravan.  When he finally reached Jerusalem and went to the court of Herod, attendants there said, “Yes, your three friends were here not so long ago, several days.  They said they were going to Bethlehem.”

Arteban continued on to Bethlehem.  When he reached town, he saw great chaos – weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.  Roman soldiers were there slaughtering every infant male child under the age of two.  Arteban stepped inside one home and saw a frightened mother holding her boy child.  Just as he told the mother he was looking for a new King, the captain of the Roman guard stepped in the door.  He demanded to know, “Is there a male child here?” 

Arteban quickly reached in his pouch.  He pulled out the ruby and pressed it into the captain’s hand.  “You take this and call off your soldiers.  Take your soldiers and leave this city.  The killing is over.”  The captain took the ruby and left with his men.

Arteban inquired about the new King from several people in the town and learned that a family had traveled to Bethlehem all the way from Nazareth.  He also learned that just before the soldiers had entered the city and begun the infanticide, the carpenter father left with his family, going south into Egypt.  Determined to find the King, Arteban pressed forward into the land of Egypt.  He looked and looked and looked for the King, searching among the beggars and lepers, the prisoners and orphans.  Arteban hunted for the King everywhere he could think to look.  Throughout those years, Arteban found many people who needed help but never found the King. 

Finally, now an old man, Arteban decided to return to his homeland of Persia.  He retraced his steps back through Bethlehem and then on to Jerusalem, arriving there at the time known as Passover among the Jews.  He could hardly move through the crowded streets.  As he pressed through the horde, something caught his attention.  A man carrying a cross was being pushed along by Roman soldiers.  Above the cross was nailed a sign that read, “King of the Jews.”  Arteban wondered, Can this be the King?  Can this be the one I have been searching for all of these years?  Though he tried to move closer to this man, the Roman soldiers prohibited him from doing so. 

Arteban decided to take another route that was less crowded.  As he made his way through a back alley, he saw two Parthian soldiers holding a young girl in captivity.  Arteban, hearing her cries for help, asked the soldiers, “Why are you holding her captive?  What has she done?” 

The soldiers answered, “Her father could not pay his debts.  We plan to sell her into slavery to pay those debts.” 

Arteban reached in the pouch one final time and removed the last gem, the gift he had planned to offer the King.  Without hesitation, he gave it to the Parthian soldiers, saying, “Set her free.”  The girl was freed.

Suddenly darkness fell over the entire city.  The ground shook with a terrible quake.  A stone from a nearby building dislodged and struck Arteban on the head.  He fell on his back to the pavement, mortally wounded.  As he lay dying, he looked up and heard the King say to him, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me.” 

The word epiphany means “the manifestation of God.”  We see the manifestation of God in the Christ-child.  We see the manifestation of God wherever we encounter the living Christ.  Do you want to see Christ?  Do you want your own epiphany?  Go to TOTAL Ministries.  Go to St. Luke’s Free Medical Clinic or the Children’s Shelter.  Go to little children, to aging adults.  Go to Hospice House.  Go to SPIHN or Miracle Hill or the Soup Kitchen at Second Presbyterian Church.  Go where you find “the least of these.”    There, you will encounter the living Christ.

We come to this table today to remember our Lord, who lived this life as we live it and who teaches us how to live.  Jesus died on a cross so that we might have life beyond death, have salvation for our sins; he conquered death through his resurrection.  We come to this Lord’s Table to remember.  We will remember as we take this Supper together.

On the night when he was betrayed, Jesus took bread.  He blessed it and broke it.  He said, “This is my body broken for you.”

Prayer of Blessing for the Bread:  Dear Lord, what better way to start the new year than by remembering the sacrifice of Your Son for our lives.  We thank You for that gift.  We remember that gift today by the taking of bread as we are instructed.  The bread is a symbol of his body, broken for us.  We ask You to bless this church and to bless us to Your service.  Keep us ever mindful of what You do for us.  We ask these things in the name of Your Son.  Amen.

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him,
Nor the earth sustain;
Heaven and earth will pass away
When he comes to reign:
In the bleak midwinter
A lowly manger sufficed
To cradle God Almighty,
Our Lord Jesus Christ.
                                    – Christina Rosetti

Jesus said, “This bread is my body, given for you.”  Eat this as often as you eat it in remembrance of him.  Eat ye all of it.

Prayer of Blessing for the Cup:  John the Baptist, when he saw Jesus approaching, said, “Look, the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).  Father, thank you for sending your Son Jesus to be that precious lamb that shed his blood so that our sins could be forgiven, and so that we could be born in the Kingdom and become Your sons and daughters.  Jesus paid a debt he did not owe to meet a debt we could not pay.  We pray in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Tell me, what can I give Him,
Poor as I am?  
If I were a shepherd
I would give him a lamb,
If I were a Wise Man,
I would do my part, –
I will tell you what I’ll give him,
I’ll give him my heart.
                                                – Christina Rosetti

Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”  Drink it as often as you drink it in remembrance of him.  Drink ye all of it.

Christmas is over, but the Lord Jesus remains with us.  He is still Emmanuel, “God with us.”  Now, we set out in the new year to follow him in a new way with a deeper commitment, with a renewed understanding of this great gift, the inexpressible gift that God gave to us in love, the gift of His Son.  I have pretty much given up resolutions.  What I have not given up, though, is the idea that my life has to be consecrated to God in a new and fresh way every year. 

Now is the time for decisions.  Every person here has a decision to make.  Some of you need to make a public decision.  If you have never accepted Christ, what better day than the first Sunday of a new year to do that?  Others may have a decision about entering fulltime Christian ministry.  Others may simply want to rededicate their life.  You know what you need to do.  God knows.  This is the time of decision. 

Kirk H. Neely
© January 2010

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