Today the Christmas season comes to a close. It comes to a close in the feast the Church calls the Epiphany. It may interest you to know that the early church started celebrating Epiphany before initiating a commemoration for Christmas, so important was it in the minds of our forebears in faith.
So why so important? What is an epiphany anyway? In Greek it means simply “a revelation from above.” So what we remember this day is a revelation from God, of God’s own redeeming action in a new and literally world-transformative way. The Nativity of Jesus Christ is just the beginning of the definitive chapter in God’s dealings with humanity, and we only grasp the full implication of that beginning here, when we consider not just the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ but how his birth was received.
That blessed birth was received by what Matthew calls the “great joy” of total strangers to the covenant between God and the people God chose unto himself. These strangers come from a foreign land, and they practice a strange art. They are astrologers, interpreters of celestial signs, which were in the ancient world often reported to attend the birth of great kings.
We suspect they are outsiders because they make an understandable mistake when they head off to Israel from their homeland; rightly believing that the celestial sign is a portent of a royal birth they wrongly look for the child in Jerusalem, the capital city and natural home of the ruling family.
Neither the visiting wise men nor the false and murderous king Herod knows the truth though, a truth that can only be revealed by the Hebrew prophet Micah, whom Matthew freely quotes in the middle of today’s passage. The birth of the real king of the Jews takes place not in Jerusalem but in little Bethlehem.
And this is not the only fulfillment of prophecy in Matthew chapter 2. For the Hebrew Scriptures are littered with the promised expectation that foreign powers will one day come to Israel not to threaten but to honor her.
The most obvious example is from today’s reading in Isaiah 60: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn… They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”
And so it came to pass in Bethlehem, that the infant Christ and his mother Mary received the gifts of the kings of nations and the Lord’s praise was proclaimed by the Gentiles as well.
That Jesus and Mary received the gifts of these Gentile ambassadors I believe was not merely to politely accept a donation but to enact a crucially important religious and political ritual.
What happens in Matthew 2 is that the nations, the Gentiles, powerful representatives of the world outside Israel and the covenant people, come to pay tribute to the Jews and to their newborn king.
And what do I mean by tribute? Tribute in the ancient world was a formal system of not just rendering gifts but rendering honor and recognition. When a king exacted tribute he did so not because he wanted to enrich himself, because to pay tribute is not just to transfer wealth.
To pay tribute is to acknowledge that the one you are paying is your true ruler, the one to whom you owe your allegiance and who in turn pledges you his protection and aid. Genuine tribute is not extortion but the free rendering of service to someone you recognize as worthy of your devotion. This is why Matthew says the wise men told Herod they intended to “worship” the new king and upon finally finding him at the end of their long journey they “fell down and worshipped.”
We talk a lot here at the Advent about worship. We take pride in how we worship here. We claim that worship is important to us. And so it is. But what is it at its most basic level? To worship just is this. It is what the wise men do. To worship is to pay homage, to render tribute, to the one who is worthy of it and to offer the worthy one whatever gift and service you have to bring. For Matthew, the wise men from the East are Christ’s first and perhaps exemplary worshippers.
Matthew describes the worship of the wise men in terms that are simple, direct, and powerful. Grammatically in the Greek there is a strict parallelism between the essential phrases of our Gospel reading’s final verses: “1.) they fell down and worshiped him… 2.) they offered him gifts… 3.) they departed.”
In three potent phrases we get a summary of what it means to worship. To fall down, to offer gifts, and ultimately to depart. These actions of the wise men can be read as the very actions of all formal worship. If we are to worship as they did, then we too must fall down before the one whom we know is our king; we must offer him whatever gift we have; and when our time comes we must depart from our service.
I said a few minutes ago that with Epiphany the Christmas season comes to a close.
Well, another season is coming to a close in the life of this parish. Today is the last day that our beloved rector of many years, Allan Warren, will celebrate the mass for and with us.
And though he is horrified to have a fuss made over him in any way, I cannot let this moment pass by without comment.
I have said that what we learn from the wise men is what it means to worship the Lord Jesus Christ, and I want to add to that my conviction that what we in this place have learned from Fr. Warren is above all else nothing other than that very same thing—how rightly to worship the Lord Jesus Christ.
Worship has been the beating heart in the life of this parish for as long as he has been our leader and example.
I know because it was at this time of year Roxy and I first set foot in the Advent, January 2006, 13 years ago.
It was blindingly obvious to us from the second we walked through the door that here Jesus Christ was adored and worshipped as Lord, that here in this holy place you could do no other than to fall down before him and to offer him your every gift.
That call to worship was palpable—even irresistible—in no small measure because of the man whose words and deeds, whose powerful Gospel preaching and reverent celebration of the liturgy, issued that call to worship.
Allan Warren has spent his life and worshipping, and leading others in worshipping, the Lord Jesus Christ.
He has offered his king every gift he possesses.
And now it is his time to depart from among us.
And so this is my tribute. I expect it is yours too. It is the highest honor we can pay him.
And yet I know he would be the first to say that neither I nor we owe anything to him because of who he is but that all our tribute—all honor, all praise, all glory, every gift we have to offer—goes to the Lord Jesus Christ who alone is worthy.