“Most characteristically Methodist of all was the ‘Covenant Service.’ Methodists all over the country began to repeat it, and it became an annual institution for the first Sunday of the year.” - from Methodism by Rupert Davies
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
Happy Epiphany. Today – Jan. 6 – is Epiphany; marking the end of the 12 days of Christmas. So, happy Epiphany. Many of you may not have even known that’s a thing. But here’s the thing: long before the Church celebrated Christmas, it celebrated Epiphany. We’ve all heard that word. Webster defines epiphany as a sudden appearance or manifestation. The fact that ancient Christians celebrated Epiphany before they began to celebrate Christmas should tell us something important: the birth of Jesus means very little if we do not recognize in his coming the appearance or manifestation of God. Matthew’s gospel tells us this baby is Emmanuel: God with us. It is not enough to celebrate a baby in a manger. Far more important is our recognition that the baby in the manger manifests the glory and goodness of Almighty God. This is more than a swaddled up baby to coo over and sing lullabies; this is the Son of God to whom we owe our worship, our gifts… our very selves. Or, as our communion liturgy puts it: “we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us.” Like the magi of Matthew’s gospel, we are called to offer Jesus our finest gifts.
Long, long ago in France there lived a juggler. He couldn’t read or write, and he spent his life at little country fairs and following around traveling carnivals so that he could do his tricks and make a few pennies. That’s all he knew how to do. His name was Barnaby—he didn’t even have a last name that he or anyone else knew.
Although he wasn’t educated, Barnaby was a wonderful juggler! He’d start by laying out his little carpet and stand on his head, balancing a tin pie plate on the end of his nose. Then he’d juggle six gold-colored balls in the air, still standing on his head! Finally, and STILL standing on his head, he’d juggle twelve sharp knives and catch them with his feet! The people loved Barnaby and would come from miles around to see him perform. They’d applaud wildly and even throw a few pennies onto his carpet. And at the end of a good day and before rolling up his carpet, Barnaby would get on his knees and bow his head and thank the Lord for his pennies and for the abilities and gifts God had given to him.
Those were the good days, the summer days when the sun was shining. But in the winter months, when there were no country fairs and all of the traveling carnivals went far away to warmer places, Barnaby was left alone with no place to sleep. He’d trudge along the country roads and spend a night or two in some farmer’s barn, but the winters were always harsh, and Barnaby was always cold and tired and hungry in the winter.
One particular winter the weather was extremely bitter. On a cold, wet day in late November, Barnaby stumbled along a country road, half-frozen and half-starved, with rain pouring down his face! Just as Barnaby, who was so weak and tired and cold, was ready to collapse into the ditch and let the Lord take him home, he saw something moving ahead of him in the rain. It was a fine, fat mule! But more importantly, on top of that fine, fat mule was a fine, fat monk! The monk, seeing Barnaby soaked to the bone and covered in mud, called out, “It’s going to be a cold night, my friend! Why don’t you come spend the night in the monastery?”
Barnaby, who could scarcely believe his ears, paused only long enough to ask, “Will they let an ignorant man like me in such a fine place like a monastery?”
“Of course, friend! Aren’t we all ignorant when compared to the Glory of our Lord? Come along!” The monk pulled Barnaby up onto the back of the mule and Barnaby held on with both arms stretched around the chubby monk.
That night, after they reached the monastery, Barnaby sat down to the first hot meal he’d had in weeks! He found himself at the table in the huge dining room. Of course, Barnaby sat way down at the foot of the table with the servants and the beggars, but he didn’t mind. Instead, he stared all around the room at the beautiful stained glass windows and the richly colored tapestries. Barnaby had never such wonderful things.
He was overcome. He suddenly leaped from his stool and ran down to the head of the table, where the Abbot was seated, dropped to his knees and pleaded, “Please, sir! Let me stay here! I know I could never be a holy man like you. But I can work! I’ll clean the stable or work in the kitchen or mop the floors, but please let me stay!”
And they let him stay. Barnaby worked tirelessly all day, scouring pots and pans, sweeping the floor, feeding and bedding down the cattle and other animals. The only time Barnaby did not work during the day is when the chapel bells rang for services—then he’d creep in through a side door and kneel in a dark corner and say his simple prayers.
These were glorious days, far better than any warm summer day where Barnaby made pennies! He went through his work each day, his face glowing with happiness. That is, until a few days before Christmas. Then you might say the expression on Barnaby’s face changed from one of happiness to one of bewilderment and uncertainty.
All of the monks were hard at work making special gifts for the chapel. Everywhere Barnaby looked, these educated, trained men were creating beautiful paintings and carvings and sculptures and music. Barnaby desperately wanted make something too, so he thought and thought and thought, but he could think of nothing. Late in his room, on Christmas Eve, Barnaby wept as he prayed to God, “Lord, I’m just a simple, ignorant man. I don’t know how to do anything—except a few tricks. Everyone has a gift to give You tomorrow except me.”
Christmas morning came! The sun was shining brilliantly over new fallen snow, and the great old halls of the monastery were decked with pine branches and green Christmas holly. The chapel, which rang out with music, was filled with local villagers for worship, and the many fine gifts made by the monks were presented to the Lord. But Barnaby had disappeared.
Later that evening, when the villagers had all gone home, and the chapel was quiet and empty, the monks were resting in their quarters. Suddenly, that fine, fat monk, the one who first brought Barnaby to the monastery, went running to the abbot’s bedroom! He shoved open the door, and grabbed the abbot by his arm, shouting, “We must hurry! It’s awful! It’s the most terrible sacrilege ever to take place in church!”
The two elderly men went running through the corridors and burst through the doors at the rear of the chapel. The monk pointed a trembling finger to the front of the chapel and cried out, “God forgive him! He’s gone mad.”
Down at the front of the chapel, right in front of the altar, was Barnaby. He had unrolled his carpet, and he was kneeling reverently, balancing a pie plate on the end of his nose and juggling his gold-colored balls and sharp silver knives—he was presenting his act.
The abbot exclaimed, “We have to grab him and drag him out of here!” At that exact moment, the whole room was filled with a dazzling light, a brilliant beam falling directly in front of the altar where Barnaby knelt!
The two holy men fell to their faces in reverence! But just as Barnaby finished his act, they saw a brilliant figure appear, an angel. The angel came down to where Barnaby still knelt, now in prayer, and, using the hem of his white robe, he gently dabbed the perspiration from Barnaby’s brow. Then, the light dimmed and the angel was gone.
The monk, in awe, said, “The Lord has accepted the only Christmas gift he had to give!”
And the wise, old abbot nodded in agreement.
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