A Sermon preached on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 8th 2017 (transf.) at St. Augustine’s, WiesbadenIsaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
"Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:2)
Pay homage is an interesting phrase. The Greek word being translated is proskynesis, which describes, and I quote, “an attitude of humbling submission, or worship adoration – particularly towards a sovereign ruler, God or the gods.” Most other English Bible translations I looked at, just use the word “worship,” but I think the NRSV is right to look for a different word with more emphasis, this is more than just “worship,” this is about commitment. The English word homage means a “special honor or respect shown publicly,” and that is clearly what the Magi or wise men have in mind. The word homage comes to us from medieval Latin, via Old French and it contains the root word homo/hominis, Latin for man – for the original use of homage was to describe the ceremony at which a vassal declared himself to be his lord's ‘man.’
So, how and why do the Magi show respect publicly and declare themselves to be the Lord’s men. Well, to start off with, by coming an awful long way on what would have been a difficult and dangerous journey just to see Jesus, the king of the Jews. And by bringing him gifts – as prophesied by Isaiah (60:6) “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” For one thing, the presents can be seen as tribute – a payment made to a ruler as sign of dependence. We heard about this in Psalm 72 (v.10) earlier, when – referring to King Solomon – “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute, and the kings of Arabia and Saba offer gifts.”
The gifts have a deeper meaning too. On the one hand they are simply rare and valuable items, standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world: a precious metal, a rare and fragrant form of incense. But they have a spiritual meaning too - gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense as a symbol of deity, and myrrh (an embalming oil) as a symbol of death. I’m certain you noticed that myrrh was not on Isaiah’s list – it is a gift that is already pointing forward to Jesus’ destiny in Jerusalem – pointing from the cradle to the cross.
The Magi also pay homage by kneeling: “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.” (Matthew 2:11) Putting yourself below the person you were paying homage to, by falling down, bowing, or kneeling was another way in which respect was and still is shown. It was also mentioned in the psalm: “All kings shall bow down before him, and all the nations do him service.” (72:11)
And why do the wise men want to pay homage? To travel such a long way, they must have been convinced that this child was more than just the king of the Jews, and more in fact than any normal earthly king. Their very act shows that they consider this child to be above their own kings and gods. They follow a star, a symbol of light and “when they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy” (Matthew 2:10) because the star was shining its light onto the Light of the world, the one Isaiah describes so beautifully: “Your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.” (Isaiah 60:1-2)
Psalm 72 also describes the priorities of the one whose light will drive away the darkness of sin and despair: “He shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress, and the oppressed who has no helper. He shall have pity on the lowly and poor; he shall preserve the lives of the needy. He shall redeem their lives from oppression and violence.” (Psalm 72:12-14) To be freed from sin is to be liberated from oppression and violence. It is sin, the sin of greed that keeps the poor, poor. It is sin, the sin of pride that oppresses. It is sin, the sin of selfishness that keeps us from loving God and our neighbor. The wise men know that they have come not just to pay homage to an earthly king, but to the Savior.
And what about us? How do we pay homage? I know that some of you travel quite far to be here on a Sunday, from Nierstein, Wispertal, Taunusstein, Hadamar … and many other places. It is important that come to church we worship together, but that is not the long journey I am thinking of. Unlike the Magi, our journey does not end with Jesus, it begins with him. Our long, difficult and dangerous journey is the journey of faith that begins at our baptism when we promise to follow and obey him as our Lord. If we take this promise seriously and with full commitment it will take us to places we do not expect, but where we can serve our Lord best.
In my Christmas Day sermon, I talked about gifts, presents. About how we are the ones who received a huge present, God’s gift of God’s Son. But as part of our homage we are called to bring gifts too. We give of our time, talent, and treasure to God’s church and to God’s people in need. Most of all though, we give ourselves. In the words of the traditional language, Rite I, Eucharistic Prayer “we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies.”
What about kneeling? Well, depending on your tradition many of you bow or kneel during our worship, as a sign of respect. I haven’t seen any of you fall down, mind you. We bow to the altar, we bow to the cross, we bow our heads at Jesus’ name, we bow or bend or knee before the bread and wine made holy, in which we believe that Jesus is present. Just how that happens I will not try and explain …. We had that discussion 500 years ago (it wasn’t pretty).
But it is not just God and God’s Son Jesus who we need to show respect to. I said earlier that the word homage comes from the Latin homo/hominis for man, as does the word ‘human.’ And I want to dwell a little on that connection.
The story of the visit of the wise men already points to the climax of the Gospel, when Jesus comes face to face with the Pontius Pilate, the representative in Palestine of the world’s greatest king, Caesar. In Matthew’s Gospel, Pilate’s soldiers are the first gentiles since the Magi to call Jesus the “King of the Jews;” even if it was meant mockingly. But in John’s version of the event, Pilate uses a very special title for Jesus. When he brings Jesus out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, to show him to the crowd, he says Ecce homo: Behold, here is the man! (John 19:5). There is that word again. I don’t think Pontius Pilate meant to pay Jesus homage, to be Jesus’ man, but he does manage to remind us of an important truth about Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Man.
We worship and adore not just Jesus the God, but also Jesus the man, Jesus the human, the perfect human, Jesus the new Adam. We can and must do that at church, in our worship services of course, but we also worship and adore him everywhere and anywhere and when, in the words of our Baptismal Covenant, we “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself and strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”
Paying homage is a commitment, to follow Jesus on our journey through life, to give fully of ourselves, and to serve him and those he came to serve and to save.