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The Fourth Gift

San Williams

January 5, 2014
Matthew 2:1-12

The previous congregation I served has something that few Presbyterian congregations have.  They have kneeling benches in their sanctuary.  While kneeling during worship is rare among Presbyterians, our founder, John Calvin, did commend kneeling as an appropriate posture for worship. Even so, the kneeling rails in this Presbyterian congregation never really caught on.  Oh, a few worshipers would use them, but they functioned more as a foot rest than a place to kneel.  While our Episcopal and Catholic friends will kneel on cue, kneeling doesn’t come naturally for us Presbyterian types. 

Still, we can’t ignore the fact that, according to Matthew, the first folks to worship the Christ child knelt before him and paid him homage.  Homage is not a word we use much today. Perhaps our word “worship” is close in meaning, though probably not as strong.  In biblical times, the act of paying homage typically referred to the way people would bow down or prostrate themselves before a powerful ruler–a ruler such as Herod or Caesar–thus signaling one’s absolute loyalty and devotion.  But clearly the magi did not come to pay homage to either Herod or Caesar.  Rather–and let’s not miss the utter strangeness of this–they came to kneel before, and pay homage to, an infant born in the little town of Bethlehem.  While Matthew’s story of the Magi is rife with symbolism and legends, let’s target this one theme of “paying homage,” because it is at the heart of Matthew’s story of the Magi.  In fact, Matthew frames this episode around the theme of paying homage, a theme that is sounded at the beginning, in the middle, and again at the end of the story.

The first mention comes when the magi arrive in Jerusalem.  They explain the reason for their journey.  “We have come,” they declare, “to pay homage to the child who has been born king of the Jews.” Curiously, though, this one all-important goal of the magi tends to be overlooked by popular descriptions of the visitors from the East.  For example, these spiritual seekers are often depicted as kings (as in the hymn We Three Kings), even though Matthew doesn’t describe them as kings, nor does he mention their number.  This episode does involve kings, but title belongs to Herod and–in a most paradoxical way–the Bethlehem child.  Even tagging these travelers as wise-men is misleading.  Yes, we do find some wise-men in the story, but they are the chief priests and scribes who function as Herod’s key advisers.  They are learned in the scripture and they possess academic knowledge that both Herod and the magi lack. 

So if these magi are neither kings nor wise men, who are they?  Well, we know that they are foreigners, gentiles, outsiders.  Given their interest in the stars, they may have been Zoroastrian priests.  Whatever their nationality and occupation, Matthew depicts them as persons who seek no honor for themselves, who gladly humble themselves, kneeling even before a woman and a child.  In truth, they fit the image of servants much better than that of kings or wise men. They come humbly as servants who worship the newborn king. 

And the magi’s worship, or the paying of homage as our Bible puts it, was no casual activity.  Rather it represented a total and complete giving of themselves.  William Temple, the late Archbishop of Canterbury, defined worship in a way that is true to that of the magi. Temple writes, “Worship is the submission of all our nature to God.  It is the quickening of the conscience by His holiness, nourishment of mind by His truth, purifying of imagination by His beauty, opening of the heart to His love, and all this gathered up in adoration…”  At the very beginning of the story of the Magi, Matthew proclaims the sole reason for their journey.  They have come to kneel before the Christ child, and pay him homage.     

Now this matter of paying homage appears for a second time in the story.  This time it’s Herod who desires to pay homage to the newborn king.  Herod sends the Magi in search of the child, declaring, “…when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”   Of course, we know that Herod is lying.  What he wants is to rid the world of this perceived threat to his rule.  When the Magi fail to give him the information about the child’s exact whereabouts, Herod orders the death of all infants in and around Bethlehem. 

There is tragic irony in Herod’s expressed desire to pay homage to the child, because Herod unknowingly states what in truth he does need to do.  This despot, who rules by violence and fear, needs to prostrate himself before the child in whom God’s peace, compassion and justice are incarnate.  Yet tragically, Herod has no intention of humbling himself.  In love with his own power, he refuses to pay homage to another king, even one who is very different from himself.  

But the Magi were undeterred. They continued on their way until they found the house where Christ was born.  Now, what happens next is often obscured by our traditions. We typically imagine that the Magi come in and immediately present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  But according to Matthew, the offering of gifts comes later. The first thing they do upon entering the house and seeing Mary and the child is to kneel down and pay him homage.  That is, only after signaling their complete devotion through worship, do they present their material gifts. 

Friends, Matthew is conveying a matter of great significance.  Our relationship to God in Christ begins with worship. Before we offer our gifts to Christ, we first must give ourselves utterly and completely.  This is what I mean by the fourth gift of the magi.  The fourth gift was the gift of themselves, and this fourth gift is actually the first gift, because it is the one upon which everything else depends.

So on this Epiphany Sunday, let’s put first things first.  Our deepest need and greatest joy is to worship, to pay homage to God who has taken on the flesh of a helpless child. Granted, we Presbyterians are not much for kneeling during worship. But be that as it may, figuratively speaking, let’s kneel with the magi and offer ourselves totally and completely to God.  For to us  a child is born, a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.