Our reading from Saint Matthew sounds more like something we should have read on Christmas Even instead of on January 6, on the coattails of nativity scenes going back into their boxes and stored next to the Halloween decorations and beach chairs. It is Epiphany and the magi having traversed a far, have arrived at the manger to pay homage to the infant messiah and present him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Guided by the light of a rising star, these visitors from the east were the first Gentiles to arrive at the manger.
Isaiah's vision of G-d's light intruding into the darkness came at a time with it seemed the covenant promised between G-d and Israel had been forgotten or deemed a broken promise. Jerusalem, in Isaiah's vision, would be restored and marked by peace, righteousness, and praise (v. 17-18). And in the restoration of Jerusalem, the light from the restorative work of G-d would draw nations and kings (v. 3). Not only would this light be visible and remind Israel of the covenant they were a part of, but the light in Isaiah’s vision would also signal a new dawn to rulers and kings outside of the covenant. Darkness, created by the curse of sin, had covered the earth. This curse had turned humanity against the will of its Creator and cause many to forget about the covenant made and promised redemption that was to come.
In his vision, Isaiah saw darkness being overtaken - a darkness Israel had experienced for generations because if exile, slavery, occupation, and sin, darkness we still experience today - by the light of the Lord. The only response to the in-breaking of divine light the prophet could see was for Israel, and the rest of the nations, to "Arise," an invitation to stand and notice what the Lord was doing. The source of hope was coming and this light would be a gift from G-d to Israel and all of the nations.
500 years later, Isaiah's prophecy was finally realized and the magi were the first outsiders to the covenant to arise and find the Light that had just entered into the world. Matthew does not tell us much about the magi but these star-following kings, according to the hymn, were Gentile leaders. All we know is they were from the east and seeking to find "the child who had been born King of the Jews." The star of the child was visible in the land they had departed, and when they arrived in Herod's court to inquire of the child's location it was not so they could present the child gifts. They had "come to pay him homage" (v. 3).
Homage is a word we do not hear often. I would not classify “homage” as stained-glass language but it is definitely a word use primarily in a religious context. We will talk about praising and worshiping G-d but the act the magi traveled to perform, paying homage, is only mentioned twice in the New Testament. First, here as the guests from the east approach the manger, and then during Holy Week as Jesus was mocked by Roman soldiers (Mark 15:19). In both instances, Jesus' title, King of the Jews, is acknowledged by both groups of Gentile outsiders.
The mag iin paying homage to the messiah is a reminder of the larger drama unfolding at the manger. The magi are more than three anonymous travelers from the east. They do much more than bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The magi are representatives of all the nations outside the covenant between G-d and Israel. They are Gentiles which is good news for us because we too are Gentiles. The covenant made between G-d and Abraham, up until this point in history did not include us, people outside of Israel, but in the act of G-d's light being revealed to travelers from the east, drawing their caravan westward, the vision of Isaiah becomes a reality, and thus extending the covenant to those who were initially thought to be beyond it's reach.
This new covenant, established by G-d taking on human flesh, takes the covenant of divine blessing beyond the covenants original recipients to include all of the nations - all of humanity. The covenant is now bigger and more inclusive than ever before. Because of the Gentile magi following a star to find Emmanuel, we as the body of Christ today are able to be a part of the process of being restored from the darkness caused by the curse of sin. This restoration, the work of G-d, enables us to join the procession of nations being drawn to the light and praising the Lord.
The nations gathering to worship the Lord, us this morning, outsiders to the original covenant, gathering to praise G-d has cosmological implications. Our gathering in worship this morning, gathering around Christ's table to share a meal, joins us in the heavenly chorus of saints praising G-d and is a foretaste of the kingdom of G-d being fully realized. Through the incarnation, G-d has gathered the multitude. Isaiah had a vision of this happening and local communities of followers of Christ, people like us who are a part of something bigger than we could ever imagine, who gather to praise G-d and share a meal of bread and juice, are a continuation of what the magi did in paying homage to the infant messiah.
To know G-d begins with paying homage.
To know G-d begins with worship.
Worship establishes in us a new posture to not only approach G-d with but also a new posture for how we approach all of creation.
Like the magi, we approach the manger not knowing all of the answers. We approach the manger not having all of the junk in our lives we continue to carry with us not quite figured out. We approach the light of the manger still struggling to over come the curse of sin that we fall back into no matter how many times we think we have overcome it.
When we approach the manger, worship comes first, and that is a difficult task, because we place conditions on worship.
We need answers.
We need our doubts erased.
We need G-d to straighten out aspects of our lives, fixing the things we don’t quite know how to leave behind or fix.
There are things about G-d we cannot understand until we pay homage to the infant wrapped in bands of cloth.
Handing yourself whole-self - the good and the bad - over to G-d is an almost impossible thing to do. The good stuff, sure we can do that. We love self-accolades. But the bad stuff, the things Fleming Rutledge describes as the "darkside" of ourselves, the things we will not tell those closest to us for fear of pushing them away, we feel as though we can't give those over to G-d.
Handing our whole selves over to G-d by paying homage to the Emmanuel is easier than waiting around for all of the answers we need to be revealed.
Handing our whole selves over to G-d by paying homage to the Emmanuel is easier than waiting around for all of our doubts to be erased.
Through the incarnation, the act of G-d before the magi paid homage to the Christ child, the curse of sin’s grip began to ease. Years later, after Roman soldiers mockingly paid homage to Christ, the curse was broken when Christ gave himself up for us and overcame the power of sin and death, leaving the tomb empty. Handing our whole selves over to G-d by paying homage to the Emmanuel is easier because the Light drawing us in is the same light of the One who extends grace, mercy, and love to us over and over again, regardless of what is revealed when we give our whole selves to G-d by paying homage to Christ .