Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Matthew 2:1-12, "Camels on the Roof Top", Epiphany 1, 2013

Theres an old story about an Islamic Saint named Ibrahim Ibn Adam who was King of Balkh, which is Modern day Northern Afghanistan. One night the king was roused from sleep by a fearful stumping on the roof above his bed. Alarmed, he shouted: 'Who's there?' 'A friend,' came the reply from the roof. 'I've lost my camel.' Perturbed by such stupidity, Ebrahim screamed: 'You fool! Are you looking for a camel on the roof?' 'You fool!' the voice from the roof answered. 'Are you looking for God in silk clothing, and lying on a golden bed?' This might be a funny story and we might dismiss it because of our aversion to anything Muslim, but it carries with it a profound truth. It essentially asks the "Epiphany" question, "where are you looking for God?" This is an excellent question to ask this first Sunday of a new year. It is also appropriate to add to that "Epiphany" question, "where have you found the past year?" 

The profound truth communicated in this Islamic parable is simply this, God is not found where the rich and the powerful dwell. This is contrary to what is often taught by Evangelical prosperity gospel stars like Joyce Meyer, Paul Crouch and Franklin Graham of Samaritans Purse, a not-for-profit whose written mission is to "provide charity and good news to the poor." These three church mega stars combined salaries for 2012 was over 2million dollars with Joyce Meyer netting the largest annual income at $900,000 a year. Thats about $2,500 a day. The average American makes that much in about a month and 2/3 of the world lives on about 1/45 of Joyce Meyers daily salary per year. This is amazing and disturbing, especially when you consider the fact that the King of Universe was found in a barn, wrapped in shreds of linen and born to impoverished and marginalized parents. So it's obvious that God is not found in palaces and mansions, but instead in the the words of St. Teresa, "Places that sinketh and where no one loves."

So What is Epiphany and why does it pose such a question? Epiphany is a Greek word that means "appearance or manifestation especially of a Deity." The Epiphany season then is when we celebrate the appearance of God. Epiphany is one of the oldest fest times in Christian history, second only to Easter, or what is often called the Paschal season. Epiphany has been celebrated within Christianity since the 2nd century. It was originally a unitve festival, celebrating both the Birth and Baptism of Jesus Christ, but because of the Gnostic heresy that taught that Jesus was not the Christ until his baptism, the church separated the festival into two distinctive celebrations, Christmas or the Feast of the Nativity and Epiphany. When that happened the church needed an event to center the new Epiphany festival around and the most obvious was the arrival of the Magi, which became known as the Festival of Kings. 

Our passage this morning is the only passage in the Gospels that speaks to us about these three kings, in fact it doesn't even say there where three. There could have been 2 or 4. The only reason we assume there were three is because there were three gifts. So who were these three kings or magi and what is a magi exactly? Scholars have varying opinions on just who these men where. Some believe that they were Zoroastrian priest ( Zoroastrianism or Magisim is a Persian religion which was influenced by the Jewish exiles in Persia) who believed that the birth of the King of the jews would turn the tide of the battle for humanity towards the ultimate good, the Creator God Mazda. Others believe they were astronomy philosophers from a particular school of thought called the "school of the east." In any case the Christian tradition, at least in the West, has always been that they were Kings representing the various Kingdoms of the world that would eventually receive the Gospel. There was Malchar of Africa, Gaspard of India and Balthazar of Arabia. In Spanish speaking countries this feast day is known as Tres Reyes Magos or Three Royal Magi. During this festival children write the three Kings asking them for gifts and if they are good on Epiphany the Three Kings bring them. 

This bring us to the three gifts that are mentioned in our passage today. The bible tells us that the magi brought with them Gold, oil and incense. The ancient church father Origen said the gifts represented the three natures of Jesus; "Gold as for a king, oil as for a moral and incense as for a God." These gifts do have interesting spiritual and theological meaning, especially if you think of them in this way. Gold was something that was given to a King as tribute, Jesus as King. Myrrh or anointing oil was used at burials to ward of bugs, Jesus as a mortal. And Frankincense was used in worship at both the Jewish temple and pagan temples as an offering to the gods, Jesus as God. These three gifts sum up the person and nature of Christ in a very convenient and easily taught lesson.

Theres another Islamic parable I'd like to share with you. It's another story about camels. Of "Seventeen Camels" that tells of a Mohammedan who died and left his seventeen camels to be divided among his three sons. One was to receive one ninth; one was to get one half; and the third son was to inherit one third of the camels, but the sons were not satisfied with this, they wanted the camels divided evenly. Seventeen camels, however, aren't evenly divisible by three. Hence the three sons argued long and loud about what to do. In desperation they agreed to let a certain wise man decide for them. He was seated in front of his tent with his own camel staked out back. After hearing the case, the wise man took one of his own camels and added it to the other seventeen camels, thus making the total 18. This number is easily divisible by three. Each son received 6 camels, but this is not what the wise old Inman did. Instead he gave to one son 3 camels, 1/9, to the other 9 camels, 1/2 and to the last he gave 5 or 1/3. On top of all that he had his own camel left...which he kept for himself. Essentially the wise old man settled nothing. Whats the moral of this story? God cannot be discovered through logical, calculating schemes that insure that we all get what is "ours."

What the Magi discover is that God appears in the most unlikely of places and the most inconspicuous of times. Finding God in a manger, in those places that "stinketh and no not love." is much like finding a Camel on a roof top. Having the king of the universe live a life of homelessness, pennilessness and then die a criminals death is probably the most scandalous story of all time. But this is where God is found. Not in palaces, not in mansions, not in multimillion dollar nursery additions with all the latest gadgets for baby, but with the poor and unwanted of this world. This year may God reveal Gods-self to you in new and challenging ways that help you to see the least of these are the most in God's heart.

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