Well the Kings have made it. That’s the good news. It seems like just a couple weeks ago Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspar began their journey in the far distant land of the area right in front of the Cathedral’s lectern, and then they made their way over to this side of the space, pausing here at the stairs. And then finally this week they arrived at the manger.
And all that is great, even though in the Gospel it’s clear that the Kings do not arrive at a manger but they find the baby Jesus in a house. And even though in the Gospel it does not say they are kings but they are wise men. And even though in the Gospel they are not named Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspar, they have no names. And it doesn’t even say that there are three of them, there could be fifty. But none of that matters.
What we see in the story of the three kings is that the understanding of this moment, the cultural understanding, has grown beyond the basic details that we find in this morning’s Gospel. What we see culturally in our creches and on our Christmas Cards and in out pageants everywhere, and what we sing about in our songs like We Three Kings, all of that is based on the Gospel but through the years all of these extra details have been added – like names and descriptions of the kings and so on. And I think that’s fine because these details help make the story more alive.
To me it is way more interesting when we hear that those who are travelling to see the baby Jesus are foreign kings, who bow before Jesus presenting him with exotic gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. Because even if we don’t really know what Frankincense and Myrrh are, they sound impressive. Who would not want to receive Frankincense and Myrrh from foreign kings? I have fantasized about that many times. And the details of the three, their names and the fact that one of them has darker skin, also help make the story more interesting and approachable. Which is what Epiphany is all about, that God becomes approachable.
Even if the details of our cultural depiction of the 3 kings are not accurate, the truth of this story is. And the truth of this story is that people saw Jesus Christ and recognized him and gave themselves to him because he was clearly the manifestation of God.
Last week on the Feast of the Holy Name we heard from the Letter of Paul to the Philippians that God exalted Jesus and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend. And today that’s what we see in the Gospel: this moment of 3 Kings bending and bowing before Jesus. Which is what adoration looks like. It is what worship looks like, when you are fully present to the Divine there in your midst. And even the highest and most exalted among us – the kings, recognize that there is something higher and more exalted than they are. And they say, behold, here is our King.
This week I was honored to offer an invocation prayer at the Springfield City Council as they began their session for the year. And City Council President, Jesse Lederman, who is a member of Christ Church Cathedral, just asked me one thing. He said please – offer a prayer that is interfaith, which means a prayer that does not just pray to Jesus. And I am used to praying in interfaith contexts where you can’t assume that people are Christians or even religious. So I was happy to do that.
And as I was thinking about what my interfaith invocation would be, I of course thought about Jesus since I was not going to mention him. It’s like when someone says to you – try not to think of elephants so of course you think about elephants. And what I realized is exactly how important Jesus is to me. You would think as a priest I would know that, but it’s not always something you think about and reflect on. And I’m glad that I did.
I would invite you, at some point during this season of Epiphany, to think about the role that Jesus Christ plays in your life, if you haven’t thought about that recently.
With our understanding of God as a trinity that is made up of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I think there are times in every Christian’s life when we are more aware of and more present to God the Father. And there times when we are more aware of and present to God the Holy Spirit, especially at Pentecost. And there are times when we are more aware of and more present to Jesus.
And there is something especially powerful about this thing we find at Epiphany of bending down to Jesus and giving ourselves to him that you don’t get bending down to the Holy Spirit. You are lifted by the Holy Spirit. You don’t bend down to it. You go up to the spirit. And the same is true of God the Father. I think we are awed by God our Creator and amazed by creation and many of God’s works. But you don’t bend down to that – it’s too much.
This act of bending down and offering and adoring is what the Three Kings do. They get on their knees and lay their possessions down. And I think you can only do that if there’s a presence before you. Which is what a manifestation is, which is what the Epiphany is, which is what Jesus Christ is, the approachable presence of God. Jesus is the approachable presence of God.
A couple months ago I had my own Epiphany experience. It happened one morning when I was in my office praying and I sat there with my eyes closed and, as often is the case, even though I was trying to pray, my mind was running all over the place with its joyful obsessions and its worried anxieties about all these things that I cannot control.
And as I sat there praying with my eyes closed, suddenly there before me was Jesus. There was no beard or long hair or anything like that. But without a doubt, I knew it was Jesus. And he had this message, which said– okay you’re here praying, but you’re busy distracted with your mind running all over the place. Whenever you’re ready to come back, he said, I’ll be here. He was right here with this message – I’m here. And I can still feel him here.
One time a parishioner told me she was sitting in her pew at church one Sunday feeling probably the worst she had in her life. Her marriage was falling apart, and she felt horrible. And she sat there praying, and then she felt someone sit down next to her. And the weight within her was suddenly gone. And she opened her eyes and no one was there. But she knew it was Jesus.
Epiphanies and manifestations like this happen in so many ways. And you can’t even characterize them or put them into nice, neat categories. Jesus appears when we are down. He appears when we are praying. He appears to us in other people. His face or his hands come upon us. He enters our mind. And each and every appearance of Jesus is unique. But I think there are some commonalities that they all share.
And the first is that in a moment of Epiphany, through Jesus Christ, God is approachable. Something comes over you in such a way that it is clear, and God, who often seems so unknowable, is suddenly known. And that is a great gift in life.
And the second thing about Epiphanies is that if God or Jesus appear to us it often a call for us to bow down. Have you ever had those moments when suddenly the whole universe boils down to one thing, and that thing is right there and that thing is so appealing and it’s so clearly worthy of your awe that you have to give yourself to it.
In the church where I served in Los Angeles we had a family who one day got into a horrible car accident. The mother and father were in the front seat of the car and the three children were in the back and their car was hit and practically totaled. Yet by some miracle everyone was fine.
And that Sunday the family came to church but they didn’t walk into the church, they came in on their knees. Which I think is a Mexican custom because I’ve seen it happen a couple of times and I saw people do the same thing at the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico. People come in on their knees. And this family did, and they told me that they did so because they knew going into God’s house that they would be in the presence of that which had spared their life, so they wanted to show their respect. So they bowed down.
We are missing something if we are not able to take a moment from time to time to say to Jesus: I am awed by your presence. I am amazed by what you have done for me. We are missing something if we never come to church not on our knees but in our hearts bending and adoring that which has given us life and blessed us in so many ways.
And if you think about why we don’t do that, or why we don’t do it too much – I know for me it’s often because I have this deep and internal sense of myself as a king. That I am too important. I often have this sense that I am too successful or too worthy or just too proud to have to bow down to anyone or anything. Even if it is God.
And this is a third truth about epiphanies – that they happen to kings. The birth of Jesus happened in the presence of lowly shepherds before the humble couple Mary and Joseph. But the Epiphany of Jesus, this manifestation we see today, happened to kings. And maybe they are just wisemen, but they are important wisemen with expensive gifts.
And I know that we don’t think of ourselves as kings (or queens), but we are. For we rule our lives. We make decisions about what we do. If we want to stay away from God, we can. If we don’t want to go to church, we don’t. We can read the Bible or not. We can pray to God or not. No one makes us do these things, we’re kings of our own faith.
Likewise, we are the ones who decide where our treasures will go. Every year at stewardship time we make that decision – is it worth giving our treasure to God, well maybe it is and maybe not. Maybe we say, I don’t like the direction the church is going in or I don’t like something the priest said, so I won’t give. Or we say- something else demands my money more than God, so I won’t lay my treasures down there. A Church’s whole financial wellbeing is based on the fact that we kings have decided to lay some of our treasurers at Jesus’s feet. We’re kings of our treasure.
And, we are kings of our lives. How much and how often we bend to Jesus to offer ourselves is something we decide. Will I put the ultimate gift I have, the control of my life, into his hands? Or will I try and keep that control myself? Will I give it to you? Will I give it to something like money, or anger or jealousy or lust?
Or do I join the kings today and see that star there before me and follow it, taking a chance to go to this place where I am not necessarily in charge, but where I share that charge with Jesus Christ? Am I, a king or queen of gigantic proportions, able to admit that I am not able to do everything on my own, but that I need help. Am I able to admit that I am a sinner who needs pardon and a beggar who needs food?
Sometimes, if I am blessed all I can do is bow down. And I’m not bowing to just anything. I am bowing down to love. I am bowing down to goodness and mercy and a respect for all people. I am bending down to radical justice. And I am bowing down to a baby. But it is a baby in which sll the things of God are made real.
My fellow kings and queens, my prayer for this Epiphany Sunday is that Jesus may be manifest to us today. And that his star may be so clear in the sky that there is no mistaking his presence in our lives. And that in the time of Epiphany ahead, we may have many chances to be with him and give to him and receive what he has for us. For he is there, right there before us, waiting for whenever we are ready.