We are celebrating Epiphany today by looking more closely at the gifts the Magi brought to the baby Jesus. January 6th is the date of the Feast of the Epiphany-- twelve days after Christmas. Matthew's account tells of the wise men seeing the star, following it to Israel, stopping at Jerusalem to inquire of King Herod and finally arriving at the house where the holy family now stayed. But the gifts they brought did have significant meaning. Perhaps not to the family at the time but in retrospect, the three gifts were symbolic of the Messiah's life and purpose. But first, let's set the scene a bit more.
Now onto the gifts; Isaiah mentioned two, gold and frankincense. The gold seems pretty obvious, gold was a traditional offering when visiting a king. Gold has always been highly valued and so it was an appropriate gift for a king but in retrospect, really seems out of place for this poor refugee family. But I'm sure they were able to make good use of it.
Frankincense is an aromatic incense still in use today. As to what this gift of the the magi means. I found a concise explanation on crosswalk.com: “In the ancient near east, the cost of frankincense precluded it from being used as a common household air freshener. Rather, the burning of frankincense was closely associated with ceremonial worship of a deity. In this way, the inclusion of frankincense as a gift for Jesus may have indicated that the wise men understood that the prophecy of the newborn king carried with it a claim of deity.” Frankincense as a gift was, probably unknowingly, the promise that this baby was not just a king on earth but was the Son of God. It's hard to imagine that the magi understood this, but as we look back on this gift we understand its significance; the deity of the baby Jesus.
Myrrh was not in the prophecy but is the third gift listed by Matthew. This is not the only time myrrh is mentioned in the life of Jesus. At the crucifixion, Mark tells us that Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh to help alleviate his pain. (15: 23) But more significantly, John writes that myrrh was used at the burial of Jesus. (19: 39) Myrrh was a common material used for embalming the dead. It wasn't as valuable as the other gifts, and it certainly was not an appropriate gift for a new born baby; a gift for death presented to a baby. But as we look back at the life of Jesus, we recognize that death was always a part of his life. Myrrh portended what was to come for this infant-king. It was appropriate for this child brought into the world where King Herod indicated a desire to worship but intended death for the new-born king.
We did some study during our bible study in Acts of the different Herods encountered during the life of Jesus. This was Herod the Great and he was particularly evil. Herod had his wife killed so he could marry another. He murdered several sons because he believed they wanted to usurp the throne. Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor, famously is quoted as saying that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son. As the would-be Jewish king, Herod could not eat pork, so his pigs were safer than his progeny! The mere fact that the wise men spoke to this killer hints at the violence that was there at the beginning and end of the life of Jesus.
A less obvious symbol in the myrrh is also found in that crosswalk article, “there is a Temple connection with myrrh as well. Exodus 30 tells us that liquid myrrh was a main ingredient in the anointing oil used to ceremonially prepare the priests, the instruments, the altar, and the Temple itself before sacrifices could be made. Again, parallels to Jesus’ consecrated life and sacrificial death are immediately noticeable.”
And so the three wise men come bearing their gifts. We so often picture a serene and peaceful scene; silent night. But this time was filled with anxiety and danger and terror. But there is also praise and wonder and worship. Herod sought to destroy the object of worship, but the magi defy the king and come into the presence of the holy family kneeling in worship and offering their gifts. This worship is the beginning of God's gift being shared with us gentiles! “They saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.” Or as most translations say, they worshiped him. We don't want to miss the worship in all the symbolism and mystery. The light has come and is revealed to Jewish shepherd and gentile wise men. And they all worship the new born king. We know more about who this baby grew to be than any suspected at the time and with our knowledge we have even more reason to worship. Not just in church on Sunday; every day we are to come before the Lord and offer our gift of praise.
Back to those three gifts; gold, frankincense and myrrh. The three gifts of the magi were, as the wise-women would point out, not practical, but they do tell the truth about Jesus. King, God and Sacrifice. Ruler, Lord and Savior.
We are about to sing We three Kings of Orient Are. The verses are the gifts and they echo what I've shared this morning. The gold, “ Born a King on Bethlehem's plain, gold I bring to crown him again, King forever, ceasing never, over us all to reign.”
The frankincense, “incense owns a Deity nigh; prayer and praising, voices raising, worshiping God on high.”
And finally, “Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom; sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.”
As we sing our hymns, it is easy to miss the theology in them. And I apologize to those on line as I know that zoom distorts the music. But the words speak biblical truths, theological understandings. And we can miss it when we worry about the quality and don't concentrate on the words. As we sing this hymn, please notice the message it brings. And when we sing each chorus, note it brings us back to the beginning of our sermon. Isaiah's words, “Nations shall come to your light...” Those three kings followed the star, and we sing, no longer about that specific star but about God's Holy Spirit and the church, asking that they, “guide us to thy perfect light!” Amen.
Hymn: We Three Kings 66 PH