‘Unwanted Gifts and Epiphany’

Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson, Dean

On Christmas Day I began my sermon by gasping at the thirty-seven billion dollar spend by Australians in December. Today I begin with an equally astounding, disturbing, figure of an estimated $500 million plus worth of unwanted Christmas gifts that will find their way on to eBay, Gumtree and equivalent websites! This got me thinking about the gifts given to the baby Jesus by the Wise Men. There is no comment in Matthew’s Gospel about what Mary and Joseph might have made of them. Gold they could probably cope with – not a bad start to one’s super fund; but I am not sure about the frankincense and myrrh. They are not the sort of things a new born baby and his parents would expect or want.

The well-known and easy to sing Christmas Carol, “We three kings”, explores the meaning and symbolism of the three gifts. Gold – the most precious of the ancient metals, associated with royalty.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.

Frankincense was associated, still is, with worship – we use it in this cathedral as a sign of our prayers, our praise and adoration of God, and indeed, a symbol of the presence of God among us.

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising,
Worshipping God on high.

Myrrh is one of the spices used for embalming bodies – especially by the Egyptians. According to St Mark it was offered to Jesus with wine at the crucifixion. Oddly enough Mary could have been well-pleased with the myrrh for it is a useful antiseptic and was, and is, used as a mouthwash and in toothpaste! The carol associates the gift of myrrh with the tomb and that moving quartet of words

“sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying…”

Whoever painted the figure of the king in our nativity set understood clearly the morbid association with myrrh. Have a look at his face – it is a picture of lugubrious misery!

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

Christmas and Epiphany is of course, about gift – THE gift of God to the world. While many who celebrate Christmas remain blissfully or intentionally unaware of the reason behind the gift – the custom of giving gifts has caught on in a very big way, pushed harder every year by retailers delighted to get the big bucks we suckers seem more than happy to spend year after year. There are some special people who have the gift (that word again) of searching until they find the right gift. You may be one of them; and lucky the person who has such a person in their circle and receives such gifts.

Which all makes me wonder again about those kings, the magi, and their search and long journey. Matthew simply tells us that wise men came from the East, drawn by a star. Folk lore has given the three names, personalities and even nationalities. In the Christian church this incident recorded by Matthew is known as Epiphany. Coming from an ancient Greek word Epiphany means a sudden and striking realisation. It’s the penny dropping moment of clarity. We see that in Matthew’s Gospel with the kings. Initially they go to King Herod – assuming he has a new son. Then they find their way to Bethlehem – to this most unexpected newborn. Epiphany is particularly associated with the revelation to the Gentiles – no longer is God for the Jews alone. Presumably influenced by readings like Isaiah 60 the early Christians opened up their ranks to non-Jews, the despised Gentiles. This Jesus, this one called Lord and Saviour, is to be shared with everyone. There are many stories in the Gospels of Jesus himself reaching out to, having conversations with, and even performing healings on, the non-Jews. Today’s reading from Ephesians 3 spells out the revelation of the mystery of God to all people, Gentiles as well as Jews.

It’s a powerful message that Epiphany brings. The God revealed in Jesus, the God who surprised everyone by becoming human, is not to be held exclusively, does not belong to one group alone. That’s not an easy message for us locked up, as we are, in our denominations, our nationalities, our isms and, all too often, our ignorance about those we consider ‘other’.

In a world torn apart by suspicion and fear of one another, Joe Ware, a worker for Christian Aid, points to the humble mosquito as one who does not know the difference between Christian and Muslim. Writing in the Christmas edition of the Church Times (18/25 December 2015) he reminds his readers that Nigeria is in the news at present as a place of conflict. It is a vast country of 180 million people, almost equally divided between the Christian south and the Muslim north. Boko Haram, a home-grown radical Islamist group strikes terror into the lives of villagers, killing, burning, looting, raping, abducting. It’s a country of imbalance – the very rich fuelled on the abundance of oil, and the very poor, by far the vast majority, struggling to make ends meet largely by subsistence farming or in the slums of the cities. Rich or poor, Muslim or Christian, the mosquito knows no boundaries and brings its unwelcome gift of malaria – the country’s, and Africa’s, biggest killer. Christian Aid is one of a number of philanthropist organisations working to combat the ignorance of this mosquito-borne disease, even while distributing mosquito nets – the gift of those in better-off countries.

2015 saw other unwelcome gifts being given far too often – the fear that terrorism engenders. Charlie Hebdo and now the Bataclan theatre have become household names thanks to terror. One of those killed in the theatre was 35 year old Héléne Muyal. A few days after the tragic death of his wife, mother to their young son, Antoine Leris wrote an open letter to the gunman who killed her.

“On Friday evening you stole the life of an exceptional person, the love of my life, the mother of my son, but you will not have my hatred …. If this God for whom you kill blindly made us in his image, every bullet in the body of my wife is a wound in his heart. Us two, my son and I, we will be stronger than every army in the world. … I cannot waste any more time on you as I must go back to my son who has just woken from his sleep. He is only 17 months old, he is going to eat his snack like every other day, then we are going to play like every other day, and all his life this little boy will be happy and free. Because you will never have his hatred either.”

(Church Times, 15/25 December 2015)

There is something of the nature of Christ on the cross in this response. The ‘unwanted gift’, if we dare call it that, of murderous death is received and transformed with a courage I can barely imagine. And that is what the God who gave his son, revealed to the Gentiles at Epiphany, did – to the hatred, scorn, fear, pain and death – he transformed them with gifts of life and love. Would that we could be more like him!

There is a further comment on this letter from a grieving father. Immediately following today’s Gospel story of the visit by the wise men to the infant Jesus, we read of King Herod’s mad and murderous attempt to kill Jesus – by killing all the children under two in and around Bethlehem. (Matthew 2: 16) Sadly the slaughter of the innocents continues today – still in Bethlehem, and in other places that have become household names – among them Nigeria, Syria and South Sudan.

This Cathedral and our Diocese of Adelaide are in the process of making two life-giving gifts which, we trust and pray, will not be returned unwanted. A significant part of the proceeds of the Art Show has been sent to the Magdalene Centre. At the start of the school year the $5000.00 will pay for 50 school uniform packs for needy children. And in a few weeks’ time an Adelaide contingent will leave for the Diocese of Bor in South Sudan to help with the final construction of a fully equipped medical clinic – a gift from this diocese.

Let me end with a little piece doing the rounds on Facebook. They are the words of one of the great 20th century African American preachers.

“When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.”                 Howard Thurman

Will we receive the gift of God? Or will we discard it inot the unwanted pile?