1/6/2019 Epiphany The text is Matthew 2:1-12.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Although most of us have put away the trappings of Christmas, I want to welcome the last day of the Christmas season. Within the Hispanic community, today is known as Three Kings Day. Within the church, this 12th day of Christmas is called Epiphany and this day, we finally get the story of the wisemen.
One of the favorite images of Christmas is that of the wise men travelling by camel through a starlit night. One star dominates the sky and it illuminates the place where they find the new born king of the Jews. This is the picture of the wisemen depicted on Christmas cards. In our nativity scenes and Christmas pageants, we place the wisemen around the manger with the shepherds who have come to the stable to see the baby boy. And yet, the wisemen don’t really belong in the manger scene. By the time the wisemen arrive, Jesus is no longer a baby. Jesus may have been 1-2 years old because Herod ordered the slaughter of all boys under the age of 2. So, the wisemen find him in a house with his family.
There are actually a lot of things that we don’t know about these wisemen, like how many there were, what their names were, where they actually came from, and how far they travelled following the star. What we do know is that they studied the stars and were familiar with the Hebrew scriptures but Matthew doesn’t give us too many other details. All we know is that the wisemen came with special gifts for the newborn king. And when they arrived, “They went into the house, and when they saw the child with his mother Mary, they knelt down and worshiped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him.”
Gold, frankincense and myrrh – what strange gifts for a new born child. A woman commenting on these gifts suggested that these men weren’t all that wise after all. If the eastern visitors had been wise women the baby Jesus would have received sensible gifts, like baby food, diapers and clothes to replace the swaddling cloths, and even a proper baby’s crib – not a useless lump of gold and two bottles of perfume. And yet, gold, frankincense and myrrh are the gifts presented. Why these three gifts among all the other items in the world? Some speculate that these gifts were the principal items used in the wizardry and magic that wisemen from the east dabbled in. So in giving the Christ-child gold, frankincense and myrrh, they are handing over their tools of trade. They are demonstrating that they are no longer pagan dabblers in magic. They are letting go of the past because they have found a new guiding star – the Christ Child. Others have reasoned that these three gifts are symbols of who this baby is. Gold is a gift for a king and it represents power and wealth. In giving this gift they are proclaiming Jesus as a king. Frankincense is given as this baby is God come to earth. Myrrh, which was used in embalming the dead, shows this child’s humanity and foreshadows his suffering and death as savior of the world. These are some of the popular interpretations of the gifts that the wisemen brought, but Matthew doesn’t give us any explanation why they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. Matthew simply gives us the facts – “They knelt down and worshiped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him.”
While these may seem like rather useless gifts, what do you give a child who is the all-powerful God who controls the stars to such an extent that a particularly bright star travels westward and stops over the place where Jesus and his parents are living? When the Lord of the universe reaches down from heaven and touches the earth, and comes down to us, in the flesh, as one of us, what do you give?
The wisemen with their precious gifts must have realized that their expensive presents were hardly adequate for this child, the God who has become a human and now rests in his mother’s arms. God’s gift is just too great, too wondrous to find a gift worthy of in return. So, they give the best they can offer and for the wisemen that meant a bag of gold, and the fragrant gum resins of frankincense and myrrh.
When we consider the greatness of the gift we have been given in Christ – the wonder and majesty of it all – what can we give in return? My little offering of time talents and resources seems so puny and pointless for I know that whatever I give pales in comparison to God’s goodness and love toward me, you and the whole world. What can I give? What can you give in return?
There is an old story told about an old professor who visited a former student whose first child was just born. He presented the parents with a gift for the baby, a book, all wrapped in fine paper, tied with a bow. Imagine their surprise and bewilderment when, upon unwrapping the gift, they discovered that it was a book, a very old, leather-bound copy of Shakespeare’s plays.
They thought, what a strange gift for a baby! How odd. An old book, written in archaic language, given to a baby who will not be able to read it for many years to come. And then they realized: the gift was not the book; the gift was the giver. The old professor had given himself. He had given the child that thing most precious to himself – his own love of language, his admiration for Shakespeare. His gift was an expression of his deepest joy at the birth of the child, his hope for the future of this new human being.
And so it is with us. All we can do is to offer God the best of what we have at the moment. That is what those wisemen did years ago as they opened their boxes and emptied them. They give everything they have as they worship the King of Kings and Lord of all. The gold, frankincense and myrrh are trivial and quite useless for the God of all creation, and the savior of all people. He has all the gold, frankincense and myrrh he ever needs as he is the creator and owner of all these gifts. But as useless as these gifts are for God, they are a sign of the way the wisemen give of themselves. For, “They went into the house, and when they saw the child with his mother Mary, they knelt down and worshipped.” These men, learned, wealthy, wizards of the east, non-Jews and probably pagans, kneel at the tiny feet of the true God, and by paying homage they give the gift of themselves.
And so it is with us. The best gifts that we can offer the Christ-child are the gifts of ourselves – the best gifts like spending time with God in worship, in prayer, in reading his word; the best gifts like giving of ourselves and our time to someone who needs love and compassion; the best gifts like letting this king rule in our lives by letting him make a difference when we are confused or lonely or devastated by what life throws us; the best gifts like using our gifts to do our work honestly and well – the best gifts we have to give, not second best, not what’s simply ‘good enough’, but the best of what we have to offer God.
Like the wisemen who went home by another road, we too can walk a different road this year, a road where we can make Christ the center of everything we are and do. The challenge in front of each of us is to make each breathing moment a gift worth giving to the King.
May our lives be a reflection of God’s love for us in the Christ child. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.