Sunday, January 4, 2015

Sermon - Epiphany of our Lord

What gift will you offer the King?
Three wise men came from country far,
following a star,
to seek for a king.
When they finally arrived,
when they finally found the king they had been searching for,
they entered in full rev’rently on bended knee,
and offered there in his presence
their gold and myrrh and frankincense.
Fit gifts indeed for one of royal birth.
What gift will you offer the king?

This would be a great way to end a sermon
on the Epiphany story.
And if, by chance,
you’re wondering what gift to offer the king,
I’ve got a few suggestions.
To be frank, our gifts from afar fund is running low this Epiphany,
for whatever reason.
Normally, we gift our gifts from afar on January 6,
but I might like to wait a little longer this year.
We remember that when we give to those who are in need,
we are giving to the king,
the king who says,
‘Truly I tell you, as you did it to one of the least of these
who are members of my family,
you did it to me.’

We pastors are always encouraging our congregations
to regularly give time, talent, and treasure
not only because the church needs it,
but because we ourselves need to give,
our lives are made for worshiping God,
and to give indeed is to worship.

And so we can ask ‘What gift will we offer the King?’
and it is an edifying thought for today.
But Lutheran sermons are not just about edifying thoughts for the day.

For some of us may wonder if there is anything the King wants from us,
or if there is anything that we have to give.
Not only do some of us have no gold, no frankincense, and no myrrh,
some of us are not wise.

Some of us have little book-learning,
and some of us have little common sense.
We have little time, and we don’t think we have too much talent, either.

Even if we are unfamiliar with the entire poem,
many of us will know the last stanza
of Christina Rosetti’s hauntingly beautiful
In the Bleak Midwinter.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

Now this would be a beautiful place to conclude an Epiphany sermon.
What gift will you offer the king?
Don’t envy what other people have,
or wonder about what you don’t have,
Give Jesus your heart,
the greatest gift of all.

But you know that my sermons usually run longer than this.
So this can’t be the end of the story.
More to the point,
some of us will wonder
just exactly what our Lord Jesus wants with our hearts;
our battered, bruised, broken, rebellious and stubborn hearts.
Hardly gifts fit for a king.

In Bishop Bo Giertz’s novel The Hammer of God,
we meet Fridfeldt,
an earnest young Swedish curate
who has been swept up in the revivalism of the nineteenth century.
He has been assigned as an associate to an older pastor.
He’s not even sure whether this pastor is really a Christian.
Rather than a cup of coffee,
the rector prefers a glass of cognac
to warm him up after dinner.
He reads sermons he’s prepared
rather than preaching from his heart,
inspired by the Holy Spirit.
And his conversation after dinner is not of spiritual matters,
but he shows the new vicar his collection of small figurine soldiers
which remind him of the great history of Sweden.
Fridfeldt decides that he simply must let his mentor know
just exactly where he stands.
‘I just want to let you know from the beginning, sir,
that I am a believer.’
And after the rector asks what he believes in,
the young man replies,
‘In Jesus, of course.
I mean that I have given him my heart.’

‘The older man’s face became suddenly as solemn as the grave.
‘Do you consider that something to give him?’

By this time, Fridfeldt was almost in tears.
‘But sir, if you do not give your heart to Jesus,
you cannot be saved.’

‘You are right, my boy,
And it is just as true that,
if you think you are saved
because you give Jesus your heart,
you will not be saved…
One does not choose a Redeemer for oneself, you understand,
nor give one’s heart to him.
The heart is a rusty old can on a junk heap.
A fine birthday gift, indeed!
But a wonderful Lord passes by,
and has mercy on the wretched tin can,
sticks his walking cane through it,
and rescues it from the junk pile
and takes it home with him.
That is how it is.’

The old rector realizes, of course,
what the zealous young man does not –
that our hearts are not pure.
Even when we have given them to Jesus,
we still have fears and fighting within ourselves.
And so we may wonder what Jesus may do with such a gift,
a gift which we wish to take back for ourselves,
as soon as our hearts turn in another direction,
as soon as we wish to have God and anything else,
rather than anything through God.

We get this story slightly wrong, you see.
We look at the gold, frankincense, and myrrh,
and we see these as gifts fit for a king,
which, of course, in a sense they are.
But is that what the wise men thought?
Perhaps indeed they wondered,
as they prostrated themselves before the child Jesus
and his Blessed Mother,
just what was to be done with the gifts
they had so painstakingly prepared,
just how they could possibly face the King with such paltry trifles.
Gold, frankincense, myrrh:
What could these mean to the infant King
who was revealed to them in weakness and humility?

And yet what could they do?
They had come all this way.
And so they lay the gold, frankincense, and myrrh
before Him,
and he accepts them,
not because they are worthy gifts,
but as a gift to the wise men themselves.
He accepts them,
just as he accepts us.
We have nothing to offer him
that he has not already offered to us.
We have nothing to offer him,
only battered, bruised, broken, rebellious and stubborn hearts.
Rusty old cans on a junk heap.
And yet our Lord has mercy on us,
and accepts the gifts,
and out of these gifts he fashions something,
something which may not look particularly impressive to us,
but because it is God’s work, we ought not despise it.

What gift will you offer the King?
Do offer him your time, talent, and treasure,
and offer him your battered, bruised, broken, rebellious and stubborn hearts.
Give him your sinful and anxious self.
Give him the worship that is ready to be given to another
at the slightest provocation.
Give him the life that can be snuffed out at a moment’s notice,
He accepts our gifts,
as he accepted the paltry gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh,
and he gives to us
the endless treasures of his kingdom.