Gifts of the magi
Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:11-12, January 24, 2016
We’ve been spending extra time on Epiphany this year. The gifts that the magi brought are really the closest thing I know of to a Biblical basis for the giving of Christmas presents. When I was a child I asked why people gave presents to each other at Christmas—not that I minded, I was just curious—and that was what my mother told me. The magi brought gifts because Jesus was special and we give gifts to people we love because they are special to us. I like that. I like that our gifts are expressions of our love. And that our gifts are responses to what we have already received.
At last week’s Presbytery Leadership Council meeting, part of the opening prayer went this way, “All that we are is thanks to you, all that we have has come from you.” Gifts that we give, and the feeling of love and attachment that our gifts convey, all have their origin in God’s having first loved us. And loved us enough to enter the world as a vulnerable baby.
The gifts the magi brought from far away are well known to us: gold, frankincense and myrrh. And someone said at Bible Exploration Tuesday that we use those words one day a year and pack them up and put them away December 26. That’s unfortunate, because these gifts have deep symbolic importance. The magi were really clever gift givers. They didn’t just get a gift card to be done with the whole reciprocal giving economy. They gave gifts that were epiphanies, demonstrations of how significant Jesus’ birth was.
Twice in the last week I have been reminded of the worst mistake I made in worship. Ever. About ten years ago I burned some frankincense during the worship service. Now I need to be clear about this, I came into the sanctuary on Thursday and tested the frankincense. I did not care for the smell, but it was not horrible. Three days later, I lit the same amount of frankincense and it was a catastrophe! The smoke filled the sanctuary, at least one worshipper ran out of the sanctuary and still got a migraine. I carried the incense burner not just out of the sanctuary, I carried it out to the dumpster, even then, I feared that it might kill a passing pigeon. It was a bad, bad smell. When you sang “odors of Edom” you were singing about frankincense.
Here’s the map that shows the places I’ll be mentioning.
Still in Biblical times it was very valuable, a precious, luxury item. It came from Sheba, which is an ancient name for what it today part of Arabia, Edom is another name for the same place. Frankincense appears about 20 times in the Bible. Twelve of those times it’s mentioned as being necessary to offer the correct sacrifice as described in the Torah. It was an ingredient used to consecrate something—that is to set something apart to a holy use. When the temple was being rebuilt and dedicated in the Book of Nehemiah, for example, frankincense is used. For practicing Jews, like Jesus, Mary & Joseph, frankincense was necessary for them to worship the Living God at the temple in Jerusalem.
In the New Testament, frankincense is only mentioned twice, once in Matthew, the part that Gregg read today, and again in Revelation, where it’s part of a long list of luxury items that will be destroyed when Babylon is destroyed. Even the best metals, woods, fabrics, spices, food and livestock—all the finest things--will not spare Babylon in Revelation.
By now I hope you know that myrrh is an aromatic gum that grows in Arabia and India. It was highly prized in biblical times as a perfume and pain reliever. That’s the only fact that has found its way into the Wise Guys’ skits. It appears that myrrh came in two form: ointment and liquid. Liquid was more valuable. Myrrh is mentioned only 16 times in the Bible. In the Old Testament it was used as a pleasant smelling substance which is used to anoint the tent of meeting and the Ark of the Covenant in the Book of Exodus, and as a cosmetic—maybe even an aphrodisiac. It was part of the cosmetic preparation that young women received for six months before…well…being introduced to King Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther. It is also mentioned repeatedly in the Song of Songs.
In the New Testament, myrrh is only mentioned four times, but each is very significant. It’s one of the gifts the magi brought; it’s on the list of luxury items, signs of Babylon’s decadence and coming destruction. But it also appears two other times in the gospels. In Mark, Jesus is offered wine mixed with myrrh as he was dying on the Cross. Myrrh was a pain reliever; this was a humane gesture, an effort to ease Jesus’ pain. He declined to drink it.
Myrrh appears again at the end of John’s gospel. After Jesus had died on the Cross, Nicodemus asked Pilate if he could take the body off down. It was close to sundown and the start of the Sabbath, so Nicodemus wrapped Jesus’ body in linen with a mixture of myrrh and aloes to preserve the body until they could give it proper attention at dawn on the first day of the week. That was when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb at first light and saw that Christ is risen.
That the magi brought frankincense and myrrh feels eerie to me. How did these foreign astrologers know that frankincense was necessary to offer sacrifices at the temple? How did they know that this little one they were seeing soon after his birth would die wrapped in myrrh, and save the world from our sin?
Then there’s gold. Gold is mentioned more than 400 times in the Bible. It is synonymous with wealth and money. It is also valuable as jewelry. It is beautiful and very easy to shape compared to other metals. That means it is also used in works of art. Many of the fixtures in the temple, for example, are made of gold or plated with gold. We know what gold is. We know it’s valuable. It is also fungible. That’s a word I’ve never used in worship before. Gold can be used for a lot of different things. And even in places where each province and nation had its own currency, gold was easy to convert to other kinds of money and was readily accepted. It was the MasterCard of first century Palestine. And think about that. That’s a good thing.
You know the next part of the story. The magi went to Bethlehem and Herod asked them to tell him where they found the newborn king, so he could pay homage to him. Not! They were warned in a dream not to tell Herod and to return to their home by another way. And what did Mary, Joseph and Jesus do? They did not return to Galilee; they headed for Egypt. They waited there until they got word that Herod had died, then went home. Maybe the gold was what they needed to live on when they journeyed to a foreign land as refugees. Gold was universally recognized as money. It wasn’t just valuable, it was practical! If we think of the arrival of the magi as a baby shower, gold was the Huggies and playpen of the gifts of the magi. It was practical and they could use it right away.
The magi brought great gifts, because they had seen something amazing. Next week, you’ll be asked to respond with a pledge to the amazing gifts you receive every day, the grace of Christ. Your support helps this church tell the story of the life-changing, life-saving love of Jesus Christ. It is an act of worship and dedication to give generously. Amen.