“What Gift Shall I Bring Him?”
Isaiah 60: 1-9 & Matthew 2: 1-12 ~ Northwood UC ~ January 1, 2023
On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me a partridge in a pear tree. In the late 18th Century, it was an English Carol memorializing the 12 days of Christmas as we imagined the magi following the star and taking that sacred journey that Betty just retold for us. On the second day of Christmas, my true love sent to me two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree. On the third day of Christmas…do you recall what was offered? On their third it was three French hens. The fourth day…four calling birds. The fifth day…five golden rings. The sixth day…six geese a-layin. The seventh day…seven swans a-swimmin. The eighth day…eight maids a-milkin. The ninth day…nine ladies dancing. The tenth…ten lord’s a-leapin. The eleventh…eleven pipers piping. And, the twelfth day…twelve drummers drumming. And there we have the twelve days of Christmas. And, as you can see we are ahead of schedule with the feast of Epiphany, actually, occurring on January 6th our Epiphany celebration on the Sunday prior to January 6th is a little early. But at least you will be ready on Friday!
That is quite the list of gifts in the 12 days of Christmas song. Quite an array of offerings given. And, of course, these gifts take us back to the offerings of the Magi ~ the Wise Men ~ who inspired the whole concept of gift giving. And, as take a step back, it is quite amazing (sad really) to think at how these incredible gift offerings of the Magi later have been later turned around by retailers into the greatest money-making opportunity for the year. It is amazing how off the mark we have come when we look at our gift-giving practices. People max out their credit cards, line up at stores, and indulge in sumptuous foods all because of this text. So, let’s spend a little time, this Epiphany, pondering the real nature of gifts and what was really happening on the journey towards the star, and as the treasure chests were opened.
Theologians suggest that the most important part of the Epiphany reading is found in that odd word, rarely used today ~ “homage.” The Greek origin ‘Proskyneo’, that we translate as ‘homage’ is the action of prostrating oneself before a King. It is that physical action of dramatically offering all of oneself, not just one’s gifts, but ALL of oneself. And, a careful reading of the text reveals that proskyneo / homage is used three times.
The first usage is with the three Magi: “the wise men from the East come to Jerusalem asking ‘where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For, we have observed his star at its riving and have come to pay him homage.” Interestingly, the wise men don’t mention anything about gifts. They, first and foremost, want to go and bow down, to kneel before him, to worship him…and pay him homage.
The second use of proskyneo / homage was with Herod. He instructs the wise men “go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” This, of course, is a deep moment of irony in the story. This evil ruler Herod, whose power is based in violence and fear confesses his need to bow down before the true source of power: God’s compassion, God’s justice, God’s grace….to pay homage to God.
And the final use of this proskyneo / homage is in the moment that has been memorialized into many nativity plays worldwide. The Magi enter the house and see the child with Mary his mother; and they kneel down and pay him homage. Then, (and we pay particular attention to what happens next) they open their treasure chests offering him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Homage first…gifts second.
The order of the proskyneo / homage BEFORE the giving of the gifts is very significant (I think). And this ordering is something that no retailer would ever want you to hear. Before the Magi give their gifts, the first thing they do is give themselves; they give themselves in worship; they give themselves to their King. This text is a beautiful reminder that the most important thing that we can ever give God is our precious beautiful selves. As the Magi knelt before Christ, they were enlightened with radiant light of God! As they knelt, they received the light of Christ! As they knelt they became ‘Jesus’ people, kneeling before their king! One of the most important components of this Epiphany text is a reminder that YOU are a tremendous gift to God, in and of yourself. YOU are beautiful; YOU are wonderful; YOU are God’s delight. And, to offer yourself in worship / proskyneo / homage back to God is God’s great delight!
The second part of the interaction with the Magi and Christ was the offering of specific gifts. Much commentary has been made over the gold, frankincense and myrrh….some of it on the lighter side. Among my favourites is this one: what would have happened if it had been three Wise Women instead of three Wise Men? They would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts. Yet, these gifts were not meant to be impractical, they were meant to be symbolic. Gold…gold because it is a gift given to a King, and he would be their King. Frankincense…frankincense because it is an incense used for worshipping God in the temple, and they saw in Christ the full revelation of God. And Myrrh…myrrh because it is a spice used to prepare a body for burial, and they saw in Christ their King, the Son of God whose power would be based in suffering and sacrifice.
The question comes then to us as we find ourselves in the legacy of the Magi. If we were to kneel before him in in worship / proskyneo / homage…and proceed to open our treasure chest. What gift would we give unto him? What would your treasure chest contain? What would you offer to Christ? It is a good question for Epiphany Sunday, isn’t it? It feels like a New Year’s resolution kind of question as well, doesn’t it? How will I faithfully live my life as an extension of my faith? As a gift to God? What will your faith gift to Christ be?
I’ve been pondering this question, myself, as I composed this week’s message for our service. And I got to thinking about how my sabbatical time can be a gift back to God. I feel deeply honoured to receive the gift of the time after today for growth, rest and renewal. But the goal that I hope to achieve is to be an energized, creative pastor that continues to be ready to lead the congregation. And, I’ll be honest with you…as I prepare to start the sabbatical tomorrow, I am feeling less-than energized; less than creative, and very much look forward to the coming time to grow, rest and renew. As I talk among clergy, they share the sentiments that the onset through Covid and the proceeding waves through the pandemic have been incredibly challenging for us. We have a number of colleagues on leave. And, it has been very challenging for churches. Those of you who are in leadership at the church know that we have not returned to typical levels of attendance and involvement since pre-Covid. We are doing things in two formats (in-person and virtual). And we are doing more, with less people and less resources. Indeed, these are very challenging days!
Here at the Northwood, we have the incredible gift of the legacy of land that our Property Development Team have been steering us ahead on. Considering the possibilities of the sale of the northern portion of our property. This will allow us to maintain our existing parking lot and building structure. And, the proceeds of the sale will allow for two things to happen as we develop a Ministry Business Plan. Firstly, we will be able to address a number of immediate building concerns. Secondly, we will be able to look at widening our staffing beyond just one minister. The hiring of others (whether it is another full time person or a few part-time people) we can broaden our ministry so that we can be a gift to the larger community offering a full ministry to children, youth, young families, outreach, social justice…the list can be as big and broad as we are called! What a treasure chest offering Northwood can be!
So, all you wise women…all you wise men…you have followed the star, you have knelt down in in worship / proskyneo / homage. And you proceed to open your treasure chest. What will it contain?