Isaiah 60:1-6Matthew 2:1-12
As we make our way forward from Christmas, we’re playing a little fast and loose with the liturgical calendar today. We’ve lengthened the twelve days of Christmas to fourteen. And we linger, like that star over Bethlehem, just a little bit longer so we can hear the story of these strange visitors to the Christ child.
The story of the visit from the magi appears only in Matthew’s gospel. It’s not clear where they came from. One line of thought considers them Persians, Zoroastrian astrologers. Magi is a Greek word meaning just that. When the Persians conquered Jerusalem in the 7th century, the only church they did not destroy was Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. Above the door was a representation of three figures dressed in traditional Persian clothing. Another line of thought identifies them as Nabatean Arabs. Two of the gifts they brought, frankincense and myrrh, originate in the Arabian Peninsula. The designation “from the East” in Scripture, the only indication of the magi’s origins, usually refers to people from the East side of the Jordan river; not as far as Babylon or Persia. In either case, Matthew’s point remains the same: The magi are foreigners, followers of other faiths, scholars of other gods. And yet they recognize that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the king of the Jews.
It’s this point that gets under Herod’s skin. Herod has been on the throne for more than thirty years. He consolidated his rule early on with help from the Romans. And yet, there are whispers throughout Judea that he is no more than a usurper, a pretender to the throne. And then, along come these odd travelers to Jerusalem, suggesting that the true king has been born elsewhere.
There’s little doubt that early hearers of this story were reminded of Moses’ birth. Tradition has it that Pharaoh’s advisers had premonitions, not unlike those of the magi, of the birth of Moses, the savior of the Israelite slaves. Egypt plays a prominent role in both stories, though in an interesting turn, it now becomes the place of refuge as Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee there. And Herod, like Pharaoh, goes into a blind rage, slaughtering the innocents to protect his tentative hold on power.
And in this conflict, between the child of Bethlehem and the king of Judea, we can see Matthew’s unfolding of Old Testament prophecy. The chief priests and scribes know that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. Unwittingly, they lead the magi there to pick up the trail of the star. And in the background of Matthew’s narrative are echoes of our Isaiah text, where the nations will come bringing the treasures of Arabia, like gold and frankincense.
There they are again, these gifts. We may forget details of this familiar story, like the fact that the magi find the family not in a stable, but in a house. And we may invent other details, like deciding that there are three magi. Look closely: it never says that there are three of them. But the one element that we seem to remember is the gifts: gold; frankincense; myrrh.
The first gift is gold, fit for a king. Kingship plays an important role in the early Christian understanding of Jesus. And lingering in the background throughout the early stories of Christ is the figure of king David. He’s there in the genealogy, connecting Jesus to him through ancestry. He’s there in the mention of Bethlehem, the city of David. And he’s even represented by the shepherds, David’s original profession, as angels appear to them in the night sky. It is the birth of a king that brings the magi traveling, following a star, looking for the fulfillment of prophecy. It is the title of king that Herod jealously guards, leading him to brutality and violence. And it is the charge of claiming to be king for which the Romans crucify Christ in the end. Gold, fit for a king.
The second gift is frankincense, fit for a god. Frankincense means simply the finest incense. It was traded and bartered as a valuable commodity. One of its customary uses was in Temple rituals in Jerusalem. Perhaps it was originally used in that purpose as a potent, pleasant-smelling fragrance to mask the stench of sacrifice. But it eventually came to represent the act of sacrifice itself. There are numerous references in the Old Testament to the pleasant odor of incense filling the nostrils of the Most High. While Herod’s chief priests and scribes may have recognized that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, they would never imagine that the child himself was divine. Frankincense, fit for a god.
And the third gift is myrrh, fit for a savior. Our word in English comes from the Hebrew meaning “bitter.” It is another valuable commodity from Arabia. It was also known for its use in embalming. And so there is, in this moment not long after Christ’s birth, a foreshadowing of his death. Because after Christ is removed from the cross, Nicodemus wraps his body in myrrh and aloes in linen cloths before placing him in the tomb. Myrrh, fit for a savior.
Gold. Frankincense. Myrrh. King. God. Savior.
It is one thing to know this traditional interpretation of the gifts of the magi. But it is not enough to have a lecture on Biblical studies. As the magi brought their gifts to the Christ child, they did so in homage to him. When their gold, frankincense, and myrrh are brought together, they become not only a lesson in how we should see Christ. They are an act of worship in its purest form. They left their homeland, with only a star to guide them. They avoided Herod, with only a dream to warn them. And doing so, they showed the world what it means to pay homage to this king, this God, this savior.
Friends, it is one thing for us to agree to a set of beliefs. It is one thing for us learn the right doctrines, pray the right prayers, use the right words. It is quite another for them to transform into a living faith. We must allow this faith to shape us, heal us, challenge us, strengthen us, convert us, move us. When we follow the path of the magi, and when we have that encounter with the divine, we should be fundamentally changed.
If Christ is king, then it is to Christ that we owe our allegiance. This is the most challenging of the three. Our lives are thoroughly re-ordered. Christ takes center stage. All that we do, all that we have, all that we are, are seen through the lens of faith in Christ. How we speak, how we interact, how we spend, how we live, all of this is held up to the light of the world. There is not one of us here who can claim complete righteousness. None of us are perfect. And so, there is a constant, life-long conversion process that continuously confronts us and calls us to recognize what the magi seemed to know: that Christ is king.
If Christ is God, then we know in him the character of God’s very self. This is the most profound of the three. In Christ, there is revelation (as we discussed last week), that parting of the curtains where the heavenly is opened to the earthly, the eternal to the ephemeral, the infinite to the finite. And in that momentary glimpse, in the birth, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ, we see that God is merciful, forgiving, healing, loving, humble, willing to die, and eager to live. Once again, we are challenged. We are called to honor that image of God imprinted in humanity at creation. It calls us to live out that character of the divine in our daily lives, to recognize what the magi seemed to know: that Christ is God.
And if Christ is savior, then we know that there is salvation. This is the most hopeful of the three. I promise you that we will all fall short on number one and two. It impossible for us to live up to them perfectly. And when we fail, not if we do, but when, then there is forgiveness; there is grace; there is still salvation. The truth of the cross is that God loves us unconditionally. The truth of the cross is that Christ was willing to submit to humiliation and death. And the truth of the cross is that God turned its defeat into victory and life. If we know this, if we are willing to live in its hope, then we will be free to fail and fall and know that we will be held and healed. All in all, it calls us to recognize what the magi seemed to know: that Christ is savior.
And if all of this is true, then we bring these three together in homage, in worship. We bow down with the magi, proclaiming Christ king, God, and savior. We return to this place again and again and again to be healed, strengthened, and forever changed. And it is likely that the path we took to get here is not the one by which we will leave.