Most of you know something about the story of the wise men coming to visit Jesus, even if it is only a vague recollection or if it is all entwined with the Luke 2 account of the birth of Jesus. That account has the angels and the shepherds. And many of our churches, schools and other groups tend to just lump both Matthew and Luke’s accounts together. The truth is the account of the wise men from the East is recorded in Matthew and there are no angels or shepherds present and no mention of Joseph, either. We are pretty sure it happened long after the birth, some having estimated up to 2 years later. And we aren’t really sure who or how many they were. They’ve been called Magi, wise men, astrologers, kings. We think there were 3 because of the gifts they brought—gold, frankincense and myrrh. And it is these gifts I want us to think about today.
The gifts are named in verse 11, “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” If the Scripture can be bothered to record these gifts so carefully, there must be a reason why. If you know anything about Matthew’s gospel, you will know that he was very deliberate in what he included. From very early times, the gifts the wise men brought have been seen as particularly fitting. Each gift has been seen as representing something which specifically matched some characteristic of Jesus and his work. These are not just individual gifts; they build on one another. And as we look as these gifts, I want us to think about the significance of them for us in 2016 and how we can honor Jesus in the same way as these gifts.
The first gift listed is gold. Back then, just as today, gold was a precious and costly metal. Gold is made into all types of jewelry, stamped into coins and used as money; it’s in some of your electronic devices and shaped into crowns for kings to wear. It’s the kingly part that comes to mind in the scripture. Gold is an appropriate gift for royalty, a king, because it is precious and costly.
Because we know of Jesus’ life, we can easily see the connection between gold for a king and Jesus being a king. The wise men knew of God’s promise and they are acknowledging that not only was Jesus a king at his birth, Jesus is king of us all and he reigns over us even now. When a king rules, his subjects must be loyal and follow obediently. If Jesus is to be the King of our lives, then the challenge is what gold can we bring to Jesus today? What is it we can bring that offers loyalty and obedience? Maybe it is a job that is more important than your time with God or your family. Maybe it is all the things you have that, again, keep you from God. If Jesus is our king, we must focus less on what we want and more on what Jesus wants from and for us. We must focus more of our time on Jesus and learn to trust him. If Jesus is to be king of the church, he needs to be king of each of our lives. So, what areas of your lives do you still need to give over to Jesus? What are the things you hold as precious in your life that you have yet to give to God? What is the kingly possession you worship that keeps you from God?
Because Jesus is King, we must be loyal and faithful and we must honor him by spending time with him. The second gift is frankincense. Why did they give frankincense to Jesus? Frankincense was used in temple worship and burned as an offering to God. It is a gift of worship. This gift recognized the Deity of Jesus that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. With the gift of frankincense, the gift that is about worship and honor, we must think about the time we spend with God, the time we give to being loyal and obedient. How do we do this? Well, how is your prayer life? Are you taking time to study the Bible? Is worship, whether it be Sunday morning or Wednesday evening, a priority for you? And not only that, when you are worshipping, are you giving your full attention to God? Here is a news flash for all of us, me included, worship is not about us! It is not about whether you enjoy it or you have a good time. Worship is about glorifying God with our whole hearts, minds, bodies and souls and then listening to what God is saying to us. God sacrifices his all for us, are we sacrificing our all for God?
And that leads to the third gift, myrrh. In Jesus’ time, people used myrrh to embalm the dead. Now let’s think about that a moment. Who do you know that brings embalming fluid as a gift to a baby? Myrrh was connected with death. And in this gift, myrrh signifies the death of Jesus. If you look further at the story of Jesus, there are only 2 more times myrrh is mentioned. In Mark, it is mentioned as being mixed with wine and offered to Jesus on the cross. And then when the women when to the tomb on that Easter morning to anoint the dead body, they had with them myrrh.
Myrrh is a gift of sacrifice. These wise men, in their wisdom, knew that Jesus was born to die. So when you think of the gift of myrrh brought by the wise men, you should also think about why Jesus came to earth, to die for the sins of the world. In the midst of all the joy and hoopla of Christmas and the New Year, this third gift reminds us that being a Christian is not always fun and following Jesus is not always easy. Sacrifice and death are involved. We must die to our old selves, our fears and desires and our self-centered lifestyles and be willing to sacrifice our wants and needs for God.
Sacrifice means doing for others when we would rather help ourselves. Merriam-Webster defines sacrifice as “the act of giving up something that you want to keep especially in order to get or do something else or to help someone.” To sacrifice means moving towards a risky, costly, Christ-centered discipleship. To live as a Christian is costly. We must sacrifice time, money, energy, friendship and sometimes status. But when you are willing to sacrifice, you can grow spiritually. Sacrifice is probably the hardest of the gifts for all of us to offer because it does not focus on us. It focuses on God and others. Think about it, there is no ministry without sacrifice. The work we do in Jesus’ name requires us to sacrifice. And without the sacrifice God made for us, there is no forgiveness.
As I was thinking about the gifts the wise men brought, I started thinking about one of my favorite Christmas books, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” by Barbara Robinson. I remember my 2nd grade teacher reading it to us. You remember how after lunch, when you got too old for nap time, the teacher would read a chapter of a book each day? Well, during December that year we heard all about the Herdmans. If you haven’t read the book, get a copy. It will have you laughing and smiling. Anyway, the Herdmans were a family with 6 kids, the worst kids you can think of. They were dirty and had regular visits from social services. They were always getting in trouble both in school and at home. They stole things as well as food. They were always picking on all the other kids and basically cast aside by everyone. The Herdmans show up for the Christmas play auditions at church and want to be a part of the play. You know the kind of play most churches have where when you get older you move into certain roles like the shepherds, wise men, Mary and Joseph. My home church had one of those. Well the Herdmans end up as Mary, Joseph, the angel of the Lord and the wise men. As you progress through the story, you get a lot of insight into the scripture as the Herdmans ask a lot of questions about why things happened a certain way. In fact, when they find out that Herod wanted to wise men to tell him where Jesus was so he could kill Jesus, the Herdmans decide they will hunt down Herod and fight him. But, by the end, the Herdmans have gotten it. They have realized how significant the story of the birth of Jesus is for all of us and it is not just about what they can get. Towards the end of the story, both the book and the pageant’s story, the wise men make their appearance. They bow before the baby Jesus and leave their gifts. What surprises everyone is that Leroy Herdman has left the family’s Christmas ham for the baby. The ham welfare gave them for their Christmas meal. And he refuses to take it back because you don’t take back gifts. Sacrifice, it means giving of something you really want for someone else.
In order to be faithful followers, we must be willing to offer ourselves to God and follow where God leads. That means following obediently even though we may not know where we are going. That means giving up control and allowing God to lead our lives.
We are wise men and women. We come together to worship God and offer God our best. We may be kings and queens, astrologers and bankers, lawyers and doctors, but when we come before God, we are followers and disciples who yearn to learn more about being faithful people. It is amazing what God can do with even the most unlikely of followers, even Herdmans who just want to worship God. God loves us all, unconditionally. God can and does use each of us to further God’s kingdom.
Today’s scripture underscores the truth that Jesus is God’s revelation to the whole world, the perfect light we all still seek. And symbolized by the coming of the wise men, the men from the East who shouldn’t have known or cared about this baby born as King of the Jews, all the nations come to worship Christ and offer gifts. Gold, a gift for a king, calls us to acknowledge that Jesus is king of our lives. Frankincense, a gift for worship, urges us to think about what we are doing to grow deeper in our faith. And myrrh, the gift of sacrifice, that makes us all a little uncomfortable but is what the kingdom is truly about. Like the Herdmans who heard the story of Jesus’ birth with fresh ears and responded, I hope we too can hear with fresh ears and respond to the challenge of the wise men. These wise men brought tangible gifts to Jesus. Their gifts are challenging us as a community of faith and as individuals to bring the gifts of ourselves to Jesus Christ in 2016. This morning, we will celebrate Holy Communion. We will remember the sacrifice God made for us and the grace God extends to each one of us. Listen to the words and hear what God is offering you. What do you have to offer God? What sacrifice will you make? What gift will you bring? Amen.