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Epiphany Cycle C (3)


Children’s Sermon

A popular theory that’s made the internet rounds is that the lyrics to “The 12 Days of Christmas” are coded references to Christianity; it posits that the song was written to help Christians learn and pass on the tenets of their faith while avoiding persecution. It’s not true but can you give me Catholic things related to these numbers

2 Turtle Doves = The Old and New Testaments / Two natures of Jesus

3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues / Trinity

4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists

5 Golden Rings = The first Five Books of the Old Testament, the “Pentateuch,” which gives the history of man’s fall from grace.

6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation

7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments

8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes

9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit

10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments

11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles

12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle’s Creed / 12 Apostles

The partridge in the pear tree, naturally, represents Jesus Christ.

Epiphany Cycle C (3)

Wisdom is an interesting word. Wisdom is a kind of combinatory faculty of the human mind which uses knowledge, experience, comprehension, common sense, insight, intuition, the senses, perception, compassion, and understanding of signs and oracles, mysteries and miracles to discern what is true about something or a situation.

For the wise, knowledge is not limited to facts and figures but can comprise all of the mysteries of the universe and beyond. A wise person assesses a situation or person and intuits, sees, or understands things that others may miss. Wise people are good decision makers and accurate readers of people and personalities. They recognize patterns, and they make choices based on what many others might dismiss as missing in accuracy, proofs, or tangible evidence.

The wise prove that knowledge goes far beyond what the simple eye can see or communication can reveal. In fact, wisdom argues that sight and words are easily deceptive. True knowledge lies somewhere in the “in between.”

Those who rely on facts prefer to see only in the bright light of day. The wise see best in (or shall I say through or past) the grey, haze of humanness to reveal what lies beyond or beneath the surface.

In early biblical times, and still in the time of Jesus’ birth, every court in the known world employed “magi” –that is, wise men. These would be advisors to the King, for they could “see” and foretell, warn that is, of coming dangers to the kingdom. They could interpret dreams. They could give sound economic and agricultural advice, based on the movement of the stars, weather patterns, the planetary positions, and the skies. They could predict calamities and see-through enemy posers. They could detect the best solutions to problems and discern the right paths to take. They were sound in judgment. They were mathematicians, philosophers, theologians, cultural gurus, intellectuals, and prophets. They were astronomers and astrologers, psychologists, and spiritualists. They not only understood their own culture and religion but they studied the cultures and religions of their foreign neighbors and enemies. They read widely from the available libraries. They were the scholars of their day. They held one of the most prominent and vital positions in the kingdom. Their word was as good as gold.

We can’t be sure who the magi were who came to see the baby Jesus. We aren’t sure from which countries they hailed or from which prophetic manuscripts they knew about the coming Jewish Messiah. But we do know they knew.

Most believe they were following the predictions of one of their own ancient magi –Daniel. Daniel, appointed magus extraordinaire to King Nebuchadnezzar in the Babylonian captivity, was known as one of the wisest men ever to advise a king. Unhappy with his own advisors, the king appointed the Jewish Daniel, who was able to advise wisely for many years. In his writings, Daniel predicted the coming of a messiah, who would rule Jerusalem but later be cut down. From other texts, the magi knew this messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, and that a star would lead them to the place (Daniel 9, Micah 5, Numbers 24).

They studied the manuscripts, they studied the stars, they constructed timelines, and they looked for signs in their culture and in their world. When the time came for the messiah to be born, they knew and made the historic trip that Matthew recorded for us.

Most interesting is that these magi did not fear the child. The countries they heralded from did not see the new Jewish king as a threat, for he was to unite the world in peace. The ones who feared Jesus were the ones holding power in Jerusalem. The magi discerned their characters very quickly. They understood jealousy. And they understood the dangers and temptations of power.

At this point I want to remind you that writers of the gospels could not possibly record every single thing about Jesus or his life, his teachings, or even his ministry. The volumes would fill a library. No one could possibly record everything even about someone’s biography. When we write a biography, we choose moments, memories, and acts that stand out, that define that person, that we find interesting or useful, or that we hold in high esteem.

The gospel writers too wrote this way. In their “biography” of Jesus, what they choose to include is important. What they choose to highlight is extremely important. And we must ask why.

Why did they make that trip then? Why did they first go to Jerusalem? Why did they bring the gifts they did? Why did they thwart Herod? All good questions to ponder. When we do, we realize how very wise these magi truly were.

Something else becomes extremely important in the magi’s discernment of the birth of Jesus: his heritage. The Jewish scrolls (including what Protestant bibles now call apocrypha and missing texts no doubt) pointed to a messiah, whose both parents would hail from the line of the legendary King David. The Essenes long knew the importance of this lineage and would have protected that knowledge (and the family who bore it) as long as they could to ensure the life of the future king.

The magi not only sought Jesus. They protected him. This is vitally important to understand about the role of the magi in Matthew’s gospel. They are responsible for keeping Herod away from the child and enabling his family to shuffle him undercover to Egypt for the next few years until the death of Herod. Herod was a real pain. The Roman government appointed Herod to rule over the region of Judea. In order to describe Herod’s political methods  Herod used one of two methods to respond to his enemies: he either “bought them or he butchered them.” And that’s an apt description of Herod’s methods.

To appease the Jewish religious leaders, Herod built a magnificent new temple. It was an effective way to buy off his opponents. But when the wealthy and prominent citizens of Palestine opposed his rule, he slaughtered 45 of the ruling families. Josephus wrote of Herod it was safer to be a pig in Herod’s home than a son.  He wasn’t exactly kosher and he killed his sons if he saw them as a threat.

Another example of Herod’s approach to ruling Judea: “. . . when it came to his chief opponent, Aristobulus, Herod invited him to a swimming party in the Jordan River, bribed his bodyguards and had him drowned. And then turned around and threw him a magnificent funeral!”

And those are just a few of the people Herod murdered so he could hold onto power. Think about that as you listen to these words from our Bible passage this morning: “Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

 Every November, a small village in England hosts the World’s Biggest Liar Competition. The folks in Santon Bridge hold the World’s Biggest Liar contest in honor of a local citizen, Will Ritson, who was famous for his tall tales. Ritson died in1890, but his reputation for telling colorful lies inspired the townsfolk to create the competition.

According to the official rules, the competition is open to everyone except lawyers and politicians because they “are judged to be too skilled at telling porkies, the British slang for lies.”

It seems that many around the Jewish territory understood what was going on in Jerusalem, understood the political and spiritual implications of the birth of this newborn king, understood the monumental religious meaning behind the birth of Jesus, and sought to honor and protect the newborn revolutionary.  In a sense, everyone knew but Herod and the Jewish elite! While the world was secretly contemplating and welcoming the birth of a prophetic Jewish ruler, who would revolutionize, bring peace to, and unite the world, the elite of Judea slept, or ignored the signs. They were too caught up in their own power and drama. Anything that would threaten it, they would see not as a welcome sign but as fodder for a kill.

By the time the magi saw the constellations that led them to make the long journey to Jerusalem in Judah, by the time they did their rounds with Herod, by the time they set off again in the direction of Bethlehem, and by the time they found the child, the child Jesus was in a house (most likely built by that time by his father Joseph) along with his mother, and he was probably at least 1 year old.

There they presented the child and his mother with gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Gold for the journeying and raising of the child, frankincense for incense (which was also an anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial), and myrrh for healing of wounds. All of these were care and protective agents to ensure the life of the child. Many children died young in those days. They needed to make sure this one was kept well. These were valuable and practical gifts to ensure the well-being of a child. For the magi were not only philosophers but healers, natural healers, who understood the medicinal properties of herbs and stones, spices and oils.  [1]

In everything they did, the magi protected Jesus. Finally, warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route. Who warned them? The God of the Hebrews? Their own perception of the situation? Their inherent wisdom?

We will never quite know. But we do know that the magi had a key role in protecting and guarding the life of the infant messiah, the Jewish messiah, for whom they had great hopes for that nation and the world at large.

Today, the magi have an even more important lesson for us: that knowledge lies far beyond what we can see with our eyes and understand with facts and figures. Intuition, signs, mysteries, prophecies –these begin with faith in God, the God who came down among us as the Emmanuel and started a revolution.

Never underestimate the power of your faith, your spiritual discernment, your prayers, and your meditations. These are your gateways to true wisdom and knowledge of Christ.

Be the “magi” of your day. Study the scriptures. Seek to understand the ways of God. Engage in daily prayer, meditation, and solitude. Take part in worship, praise, and thanksgiving.

These are not just the joys of Christmas. These are the ways of the faithful and the wise.

May Christ be with you this season and always!

  [1] See “Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh –the Truth About Their Significance at



Epiphany Cycle C (2)

You may have heard about the three six-year-old boys who were playing the wise men in their church Christmas program. As they came up to Mary and Joseph at the stable, the first one handed over his present and said, “Gold.”

The second  presented his gift and said, “Myrrh.”

The third one then gave them his treasure and said, “And Frank sent this.”

“And Frank sent this.” Makes sense to me. What do children know about frankincense and myrrh?
Of course, as someone has noted, if it had been the Three Wise Women who came seeking the newborn king, instead of the Three Wise Men, they would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts. 

One more interesting note: Back in 1984, a French perfume creator figured out a way to combine all three of the Magi’s gifts into a new fragrance. For $525, he would sell you a 24-karat gold-plated flask containing one-third ounce of “Amouage.” The perfume was a blend of frankincense and myrrh. (1) I’m certain that there are some people with more money than sense who just had to have this expensive concoction.

I wonder what kind of men the three Magi were?  In the folklore of our faith, they are given names–Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. In some portrayals of the men they have distinctive racial features–Melchior, European; Balthasar, African; and Caspar, Asian.  They represent people from all over the world coming to seek Jesus. 

The three men have been characterized as kings. Obviously they were not lowly peasants. Herod and all of Jerusalem would not have been distressed if three peasants came seeking the newborn king. I doubt that three nobodies would have had such impact.

They have also been called Wise Men, of course. Certainly they were students of the stars. Astrologers, perhaps. They had seen a star, a star unlike any other star, and they followed it until it came to rest over the house where the young child lay. 

It is a stirring drama. Magi, kings, wise men. European, African, Asian. We really don’t know much about these three men, but we do know three things. They were men of action. They saw their star and they followed it.  These are the people in every generation who contribute to the race’s advancement, people who see stars and follow them. Benjamin Disraeli once said, “The secret of success in life is for a person to be ready for opportunity when it comes.” H. Jackson Brown, Jr. put it like this: “Opportunity dances with those already on the dance floor.”  These three men saw their star, and without delay, they mounted their camels, and hit the road.

In 1982 a woman named Celeste Tate was shocked by how much good food supermarkets throw away. She persuaded a store manager to donate his expired items to help the less fortunate. She and David McKinley set up shop in a garage. Soon they had built the first Gleaners supermarket for the needy in Las Vegas. The name Gleaners comes from the Old Testament practice of leaving some grain in the fields after harvesting so that the poor may gather it.

Today the Las Vegas store serves about 20,000 people a month. There are now 194 stores based on the Gleaners model in the United States, Great Britain, Australia, Holland and China. These not-for-profit shops receive food and other perishable goods from supermarkets and big businesses, repackage them and either give them away to the needy or sell them at dramatically reduced prices for those whose budgets are limited. The Department of Health and Human Services has called Gleaners the most outstanding food program in the United States. And it began because one woman was shocked at the waste in our supermarkets.  (2)

Nothing happens in this world until someone sees a star and follows it. These three Magi were obviously men of action.

Of course, not every star is worthy of being followed. There are many people who are by nature impulsive. They may jump at any star–only to regret it later. 

Some of you are old enough to recognize the name Carl Perkins. Perkins was a popular rockabilly singer from the 50s and the author of the classic song “Blue Suede Shoes” which was one of Elvis Presley’s first big hits. As a guitarist, Perkins influenced many of the next generation of rock ‘n’ rollers, most prominently, George Harrison of the Beatles. Perkins never quite attained the fame of some of his more notorious colleagues.  He once explained it like this: “I never envied Elvis his mansion and all that. All those boys–Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison–they all lost their wives, their families.  People say, ‘What happened to you, Carl?  All of them went on to superstardom.  Where’d you go?’  I say, ‘I went home.’ And that’s a good place to be.”  (3)

Carl Perkins made a choice not to follow the star of fame with the same intensity as some of his contemporaries. He felt that his star was at home. Sometimes that is a wise choice to make.  Still, if we all chose to stay at home, the world would come to a grinding halt. The three Magi were men of action.

And they were men of determination. Theirs might have seemed to be a foolish adventure at times–following this star they had seen in the East. But they persevered until the star they followed came to rest over a house, and they knew their journey was complete. I love it when people follow through on a noble task and see it through until it is completed–whether the task is building a business, or a home, or a ministry, or whatever star they may be following. 

Mary Kay Ash, who built Mary Kay cosmetics into a corporate giant, once said this: “If we ever decide to compare knees, you’re going to find that I have more scars than anyone else in the room. That’s because I’ve fallen down and gotten up so many times in my life.” (4) Those are the people who are successful in the world. People who refuse to give up. People who follow their star regardless of the obstacles.

Motivational speaker Earl Nightingale once told the story of an American team of mountain climbers who set out to conquer Mount Everest. Before the team left the U.S. a psychiatrist interviewed them. Each was asked individually, privately, “Will you get to the top of Everest?”

There was a wide assortment of answers. “Well, Doc, I’ll do my best.” “I’m sure going to try.” Each knew how formidable was the challenge. But one of them, a slightly built team member, gave a totally different answer. When the psychiatrist asked him the question, he thought for a moment and then quietly answered, “Yes, I will.” Not surprisingly, he was the first to make it to the peak of Mt. Everest. 

Nightingale comments: “Yes, I will–three of the most potent words in our language. Whether spoken quietly, loudly, or silently, those three words have propelled more people to success and have been responsible for more human achievement than all other words in the English language combined.” (5)

The Magi were men of action, men of determination. They were “Yes, I will” people. But more than anything else, the three Magi were men of faith. As they told King Herod, they were following their star that they might worship the one who had been born king of the Jews. The three wise men came with pure hearts. Their purpose was worship and praise. They came not to find gold, but to find God. If they wanted gold they would have left the stable.  Sometimes life is like that we follow a star and end up in a stable.  Sometimes though the stable is where we need to be. When that happens, remember God was in that stable.  Like the wise men, offer your gifts to God.  Then head in a new direction.  Their purpose was to offer up gifts to their Savior and Redeemer.

One of the oldest Christian legends is the charming story concerning the Well of the Magi near Bethlehem. 

The people of Bethlehem made a practice of going to this well during Christmas week. There they would bend over the opening of the well and cover themselves and the opening with blankets or cloaks, to shut out the light of day. Then, as they peered into the dark well, the star of Bethlehem, according to this pious practice, could be seen moving slowly across the water–but only by those who were pure of heart. (6)

The three Magi would certainly have seen the star, just as they did 2,000 years ago. Why? Because they were pure of heart. Because their priority was worship and praise. Because they were men of faith.  I wonder if such a star should appear in the heavens this night whether you and I might see it. Are our hearts pure enough? Is our faith real enough? Follow that star. People who make a difference in the world are not content to sit on the sidelines. They set their sights on a worthy star and they follow it with all their hearts. Of course, the most magnificent star that we can follow is the same today as it was in the time of the Magi. It is the star of Christ, himself. Bowing before him in adoration and praise and offering the gift of ourselves. 


  1. Emphasis, Jan/Feb 2002, p. 15.
  2. Patricia Aburdene and John Naisbitt, Megatrends for Women (New York: Villard Books, 1992), p. 276.
  3. Source unknown.
  4. Deborah Ford with Edie Hand, The Grits (Girls Raised in the South) Guide to Life (New York: Plume, 2003), p. 230. 
  5. Pastor Dan Mangler’s Sunday Sermon, Shepherd of the MountainsLutheranChurch, ELCA Estes Park, Colorado
  6. St. Gregory of Tours (594), Libri Miraculorum (Book of Miracles). Cited in  Francis X. Weiser, The Christmas Book (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1952).  



Epiphany Cycle C (1)


Welcome on this first Sunday of a New Year. Some of you have probably been working on your New Year’s resolutions. On the other hand, it’s been three days. Some of you have probably already given up on your New Year’s resolutions.

One poor guy I heard about tried praying about his resolutions. He got down beside his bed one night, closed his eyes and offered this earnest prayer: “Lord, in 2016, my prayer for the New Year is a fat bank account and a thin body. Please don’t mix these up like you did last year!”

One conscientious man kept a careful record of his past resolutions regarding dieting. Here are his resolutions by the year:

2011: I will get my weight down below 180 pounds.

2012: I will follow my new diet religiously until I get below 200 pounds.

2013: I will develop a realistic attitude about my weight.

2014: I will work out 3 days a week.

2015: I will try to drive past a gym at least once a week.

The reason I have a copy of his resolutions is that finally he gave up altogether and threw his record of past resolutions in the trash where his wife retrieved it.

Someone has said, “A New Year’s resolution is something that goes in one year and out the other.”

Someone else has said, “Every year I make a resolution to change myself–this year I’m making a resolution to be myself!” That’s actually not a bad resolution.

One December 31 years ago Charles Schulz in his Peanuts cartoon strip had Snoopy the dog think to himself: “So this is the last day of the year. Another complete year gone by and what have I accomplished this year that I haven’t accomplished every other year? Nothing!” He smiles and thinks to himself, “How consistent can you get?”

Remember this year because it is leap year you will have 366 days total and you have only used three so far.

“We’ll leave the light on for you. . .” Whatever we think of the Motel 6 chain, they have a great motto.  How often we are consoled by seeing that a light is left on, that we have a place to go, that we will feel at home.  After a long drive, we arrive back at our home, the light shining on the porch. .  After long flight over the ocean, we see lights that show we are now over land.  The long flight is over.  People lost in the woods suddenly see headlights of cars on a roadway.  Someone will help them.

 Today’s feast of Epiphany is essentially a feast of light.  It revolves around the figure of a star in the sky, but it ends with the three wise men beholding the baby Jesus, who is light for the world.  The wise men represent the searching of all humans for truth, love and wisdom, how God’s light begins to shine on all human beings who open their hearts in honest searching. 

 The image of light has two aspects.  One is that we see it.  The other is that we reflect it.  Many people today claim to be spiritual seekers, so they are like the wise men.  But didn’t the star shine on many people back then, but only the wise men noticed it?  How many looked to the heavens and then just went on with the lives?  How many never stopped to even look up?  Because God’s wisdom can be seen only by those who take the time to look for it.  Epiphany calls us to contemplation, to pull back from the hundreds of smaller and distracting lights so we can see the light of God that we need to see.

But light doesn’t stop unless it’s blocked.  Last week we all marveled at the full moon on Christmas night, the first one in 28 years.  The moon reflects the light of the sun.  Those who find Christ reflect his light in their daily lives.  What does this mean?  We try to incorporate Jesus’ spiritual vision in our daily lives—that we so trust in the God of love and care that Jesus shows us that we show that love and care in our daily lives.  This doesn’t mean that we become monks, or escape from our daily routines.  It means that our daily routines become infused with the values of Jesus—how we live in our families, how we do our jobs and relate to our co-workers, how we volunteer, how we give time and attention to those with less than we have.

If we live in a time when people question religion and faith, maybe that’s because of the way believers live their faith.  We are so good at keeping our faith to ourselves!  And we so often live our faith begrudgingly, seeing it as a burden or an obligation, rather than as the way to joyfully encounter the God of Jesus.  Pope Francis has begun a year of mercy, calling on all of us to be missionary disciples—that is, followers of Jesus who show his quality of mercy to others and to the world. 

The wise men brought gifts; they had them all along and intended to share them with God’s newborn king when they found him.  The last thing they wanted was to lug their gifts back home!  Do we not find this true in our own lives—that when we give away the gifts of love and compassion, of generosity and kindness, that God has given us, then we see our lives take on meaning?  Just as light wants to shine everywhere, so the gifts that God has given us do not exclusively belong to us.  God has given them to us so we can give them away—and grow in joy as we do that.

We’ll leave the light on for you!  God has shone the light of Jesus upon all of us, so that people can see God has left the light on for everyone through us! So that people can see in us the way to the consoling light that is God’s unending love.