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They brought him gifts, these magi: these wise men–mages–learned ones from the East. They came to find a king, and the one who was already king was not amused. He sent them on to Bethlehem: Herod, that fox, that sly wielder of power; plying them with smooth words even as his soldiers sharpened their swords.
They brought him gifts: these sages–these Persian stargazers–these Zoroastrian seekers after God. They followed a mystic light from heaven, and they came to a humble house. And they opened their chests and brought forth their treasures, rich gifts laden with hope and expectation: Gold. Incense. Myrrh.
What have you come to give him? What do you bring with you, tonight, hidden in the treasure chest of your deep and mysterious soul?
What do you bring?
Maybe you will give him your gold. Gold, a gift for a king: the currency of the rulers of this world. Gold for leadership and finance and getting things done. Gold for iPhones and project management and household budgeting and résumés. We all use gold—or dollars, or euros, or bitcoin, or the softer currency of time and energy and influence. We do work in this world, whether our sphere is the household or the workplace or the empire.
The rulers of this world know about gold, how it can be used for good or evil: gold to build public works, gold to feed the poor, gold to pay the soldiers to slaughter the children of Bethlehem. Jesus will grow up to say that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also—in that order: because our hearts tend to follow our wallets, rather than the other way around. Where we invest our money and our time tends to become that which drives our hearts. Choosing to give away what God has first given us is for most of us about the quickest and most basic spiritual practice there is. How will we allocate the resources of which God has made us stewards? Will we follow the path of Herod or of Christ? Maybe gold is the gift your heart yearns to bring him tonight.
Maybe you come bringing incense. That sweet-smelling sap of Arabia whose billowing smoke sanctifies temples of Jerusalem and Rome. Incense, a gift for a god: the fragrance of prayer and devotion. Maybe your heart yearns to know what lies beyond this world, to taste the transcendent and commune with the Holy One. These magi know well what it is to seek the face of the holy. And so do so many of us, who yearn for meaning in a world we fear may lack it. We live in an age of crumbling religious institutions, when respectability and certainty ring more and more hollow. But our hunger for holiness is as fierce as ever. We seek the sacred in church and at yoga and at meditation, in music and art, in wilderness, in beauty wherever it may be found. We seek it, sometimes, in substances or food or sex; or we seek to stifle it in those things or in work or self-harm. But we are spiritual beings. The spark in us is drawn to the flame of the holy. We are created for awe.
And so maybe tonight you have come to offer him incense: to kindle the flame of worship, to cultivate a life of prayer. Maybe your heart yearns for a deeper pattern of spiritual practice in your daily and weekly round. Maybe you are called to take up in a new way your priestly vocation in the priesthood of all believers. Maybe this year will find you deepening your spiritual practice. Offer the gift of incense.
Gold and incense: we heard of them in the words that were just read from the prophet Isaiah. Two gifts that were foretold so long ago, gold for a king, incense for a god. But to this newborn Jesus the magi have brought a third gift—an unexpected gift, an unforetold gift: perhaps an unwelcome gift. Another spice of Arabia—but this one not for a temple, but for a tomb. Myrrh to embalm the dead. And the time will come when this gift is needed, when the body of Jesus will lie not in swaddling clothes but in a shroud. No prophet could have predicted this crucified Messiah. Gold for a king—that we can understand. Incense for a god—just what we were looking for. But this king and this God has come to do something new: to go with us into death itself. Myrrh is for one who shares our vulnerability and our pain, who mourns and laments, who knows what it is to be left all alone and cry out to a God who does not seem to hear: My God, why have you forsaken me?
Maybe tonight you bring the gift of myrrh. Maybe what you carry with you tonight is your heart’s pain and sorrow, or the sorrows of someone you love, or even the sorrows of the whole world. Tonight we celebrate the Epiphany: and “epiphany” means the revelation of a mystery. Part of the great mystery revealed tonight–and revealed at every eucharist–is that this king prefers to rule not from the throne but from the cross, and this God has made the place of outcasts into the Holy of Holies. Our suffering is close to the heart of God, because God has chosen to come among us. Jesus has gone with us into the mouth of death. God has raised him from the dead, and in that raising is God’s promise that our own suffering and our own death is not the final word, and the powers of death will not prevail against God’s love.
Bring your gifts tonight as you come to meet him. Bring your gold: your money, your time and labor, the best of all your efforts in this world. Bring your incense: your prayers and devotion, your thirst to know the Holy One. And bring your myrrh: your suffering, your fear and anger, your vulnerability. Come to the prayers and the table.
And come knowing that in an even deeper sense there is nothing we can possibly offer, because Jesus himself is all gift, and his love and his yearning for you is already the gift that has brought you here in response.