Gifts to Bear the King
Girdwood Chapel, Epiphany Sunday
8 January, 2016
Gifts to Bear the King
Let’s face it, there are good gift givers and, well, let’s say, “poor” gift givers. In my life I have been both. The good givers are the ones who put extraordinary thought into the presents they purchase. Each present, when opened by the recipient, is greeted with “ooohs” and “aaahs”, because the object beneath the wrapping paper is so in tune with who the recipient is and reflects their nature and needs and is a perfect representation of the care and love had for that person by the giver of the gift. Yes, these presents are even wrapped in an attractive and decorative style, most times to include a beautiful bow and an intricate name tag.
But, then, in the corner behind the tree is the brown paper bag. The top is folded down and the corners are crumpled. The recipient’s name is scrawled in handwriting that was being accomplished as the package was being carried up the sidewalk to the home where it now rests. The package is handed to the recipient and it is met with quizzical looks and a nervous smile. The top is unrolled and the eyes look in to see the gift purchased only moments earlier at the only gas station open on Christmas morning. Oh, and a lottery ticket.
In truth, there is only one difference between these gifts. Preparation.
Our text today concerns three of the best known gift bearers in the history of Christmas. Through the season of Advent and during Christmas it is common to see nativities in churches and homes throughout the world. These nativities usually include the standard cast of characters; many animals, several shepherds, a kneeling Mary, a doting Joseph, an angel with a banner claiming, “Hosanna in the highest!”, and a holy Child laying in the manger with arms open and a smile on His face. There are three other characters though. Three characters that are mentioned only in one Gospel. Three characters that have great meaning in the story, but spark great debate concerning their depiction at the birth of Jesus. The three magi are as commonly associated with the typical Christian birth of Jesus narrative as Bing Crosby is to the tune White Christmas. A nativity set is not complete without the magi and their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Talk about good gifts! Those took some serious thought.
But, there are questions to be answered that are often left unexplained, such as; Who are the magi? Where did they come from? Were they really present at the stable? What caused them to follow the star? Why are they not mentioned in any other Gospel? What does their search for Jesus and honor given to Him mean to all God’s people? The narrative of the magi may hold some answers in the pursuit of a greater wisdom concerning the understanding of God incarnate and the Epiphany.
The Language of the Text
As we have seen in the past, especially when looking at the story of creation, the words used by the writers in the Bible can often reveal a deeper meaning than the surface story reveals. The story of the magi’s visit is a good example of this type of language use. Translating from the original Greek can reveal multiple uses for the words in the Matthew text.
First, let’s take a look at who the magi were. Following this sermon we are going to sing a well known and beloved Christmas song titled, We Three Kings. Perhaps, it is the lavish gifts that the three men brought the child that has allowed them to evolve into Kings over time, but the word “magi” in of itself is similar to our current word “magician”. The meaning, just as we learned during our time with the children, is quite different though. These were not men who did parlor tricks or who made things disappear with smoke and mirrors. They were the earliest scientists of ancient times. They were concerned with how the world worked and the properties that caused things to interact in certain ways. They were chemists and biologist; astronomers and physicists. They were truly, wise men.
Second, let’s look at where they came from. The scripture says they came from the “East” and they traveled west following a star they had seen in the “East”. “East” is a key word here because the direction seems to change in the narrative. It the location where the magi came from and where they saw the star, but the star is also in the place where Jesus lay. So, it should be concluded that the star truly moved or that the word might have an additional meaning. It would be safe to translate the word as “arose”, but it is also important to remember that in the Near East, “East” would have been the direction in which the compass would point. For us in the Western Hemisphere, the compass points North. All of this seems a bit odd for a simple direction, but we will come back to it, I promise.
Lastly, in verse 12 the reader is informed that the magi, being warned in a dream about King Herod’s bad intentions, return home another “way”. The definition for the word can certainly be “route” or “path”, but it can also be “a manner of life”. The multi-definition use of this word can unlock some deeper meanings of the Matthew text.
Why the Words Matter
Who were the magi then? The most important thing to take away from the reading is that the magi were outsiders. They were Gentiles from another region and were in search of something wonderful and unexpected. Their study of ancient texts and their knowledge of science and astronomy had led them to conclude that the time was right for something extraordinary to occur. They desperately wanted to be part of the event which was being revealed to them. There is no intervention from an Angel in their search for the child of Jesus, there is no great proclamation from God for them to follow, there is only a sign, a star that shines light on ancient prophecies and eternal promises. In their wisdom, the magi follow the star.
It is a great and stark contrast between these excited seekers of the child and the presiding King Herod and that of the Jewish religious leaders. For while the magi are bursting with anticipation in seeing what is in store for them, the Jewish religious leaders approach it with ambivalence, and King Herod approaches it with hatred. To best explain my meaning here, look at Matthew’s text verses 4-6. In this portion of the text, Herod has called for the religious leaders to explain to him where the Christ was to be born. The religious leaders provide the exact information and reveal the specific text. But, that is it. That is all we hear from the Jewish religious leaders in the text. There is no excitement or volunteering to accompany the magi. There is no great anticipation that the long awaited Messiah is soon to be among them. There is simple matter-of-fact complacency in reading the text and moving on with no thought or emotion one way or the other. King Herod, on the other hand, is “troubled” by the news of the birth for he does not like the threat to his reign. He has no intent to worship the child, but only to end the child’s life. Yet, he still sends the magi on their way without accompanying them, or sending any of his court with them. Perhaps, ambivalence and hatred do not lead us to the true search for Christ.
The star plays a prominent role in the story as well. It is the sign that calls the magi to their journey and it is the “x” that marks the spot over the stable and manger where Christ is found. There has been much research into the astrological and astronomical phenomena that could have taken place the thousand years ago to create such a presence in the heaven that showed great movement and burned with prolonged brightness. Some astronomers believe that the convergence of Jupiter, Mars, and Venus in the sky during the time period could have worked to make the great light. Others believe that a fast moving body in space, such as Haley’s Comet, could have created the fireball effect of the star in the sky. But, I would suggest that these theories, although possible in the indication of the signs, were not the sole source of the star seen by magi.
The star provides two amazing qualities that neither of these theories are able to attest. First, the star moves in a direction which none of the other stars in the sky move. Second, the star disappears at a time when the magi are seeking guidance in direction from a source other than the one God has provided. Upon, their reliance upon the direction from God once again, they find the star before them. If one were to read the scripture with the understanding that East meant the direction to follow and that of a rising, it is more plausible to see that the terminology could represent the Christ was rising in the city of Bethlehem and the road to follow points to Him, just as a compass points to Magnetic North in the Western Hemisphere. The star is the sign from God and the only physical properties that apply to it is presiding over the place where Jesus lays, and the only requirement to see it is that one must be seeking Christ.
Finally, let us look at the gifts that were given by the magi. There were gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Many scholars debate over the significance of the gifts. Some believe that these gifts were very valuable possessions at the time of Jesus’ birth and, as such, were given to Him to show His meaning and value. Additionally, the thought of such expensive gifts would make the necessary abscondence into Egypt and back financially doable by the new family of three. Others, however, see a deeper meaning in the gifts brought to Jesus. These meanings are more demonstrative of the role Jesus had in life as the Messiah and provide a deeper consideration of the magi’s interest in the Child in the first place. Personally, I am in the camp with those who see the deeper meaning in the gifts. It gives credence to who the magi were in their search for knowledge and understanding, as well as, their scholarly adherence to the Scriptures and texts they had developed their understanding of Jesus’ coming from in the first place.
Given all of this. The deeper meaning behind the gifts, also revealed in the “We Three Kings” hymn, are indicative of the life of and the salvation provided by Jesus. The gold was a gift for King, while the frankincense was a gift for a priest and the mark of someone Holy, and the myrrh was a perfume to be placed on the dead, a sign of the pain Jesus was to endure.
Application to Us
We sit here today waiting for the coming of Christ. The twelve days of Christmas came to a close earlier this week and, soon, if not already, we will begin taking down the tree and stowing away all of the Christmas decorations. The children will go back to school and our focus will be squarely on the events that occupy our time and our minds. We will be busy with work, with winter sports, with projects around the house, and with the demands of raising our families. When it comes time to come to church on Sunday, we will consider it, if it fits in our schedule and we are not too tired. When it comes time to volunteer for a function or to participate in a Bible Study, maybe we will, if it is not too taxing on us. These gifts we bring Jesus, they are in a brown paper bag with His name scrawled quickly across the front.
The magi sought Jesus out and upon finding him bestowed the best gifts they had to offer. They believed these gifts were fit for the King that they understood Jesus to be. But, upon presenting the gifts something happened to the magi, they realized there was something better, something more appropriate and something more loving. They understood that the true gift to give the newborn King was themselves. The text says they returned “another way”. This new way was not a route or a road that they took. It was a way of understanding, a way of life, that the magi now understood to be true. It was a new life in the revelation of Christ’s salvation.
Each of us, right now, today, has the opportunity to give a gift that is wrapped in beautiful paper and accented with the richest of beautiful red bows. It is the gift of our heart and soul to the true way of Christ. Let us not be like the religious experts who were content with the status quo and let us not look to the material world worshipped by Herod. Let us truly turn our intentions and our priorities on Christ and give Him the gift of our worship. This is the reason the star shines in the East.