This morning, I want to do something a little different, and that is to preach a sermon that I’ve preached here before. This is something I have never done before, and I have no intention of doing it again. There are many reasons why I have never felt the need to recycle, among them the fact that my own theology is always changing and growing, so where I was then is rarely where I am now. The other is that I am always preaching to a different congregation, even if it’s in the same church. The goal in preaching, after all, is to discern what it is that the Spirit is saying to the church today, not at Y2K. But for whatever reason, as I played with today’s texts, I kept returning to a sermon I preached here seven years ago. I’m going to trust that spiritual hunch and take another look at those simple gifts the magi brought: the Gold, the Frankincense, and the Myrrh.
The visit of the magi appears only in Matthew’s gospel. It’s not clear where they came from, and there are essentially two lines of thought:
One is that these are Persians, astrologers of the Zoroastrian faith. As evidence, we have the Greek word “Magi”, which means Zoroastrian astrologers. The three gifts they bring are only found together in Zoroastrian scripture. And later, when the Persian Empire conquered Jerusalem in the 600s, the only church they did not destroy was in Bethlehem where a mosaic representing the magi in traditional Persian clothing apparently gave them pause.
Another line of thought is that they are Nabateans, Arabs. Two of their gifts, frankincense and myrrh, are from Arabia. The only clue Scripture gives us to their origins, “from the East”, always refers to people from the Eastern side of the Jordan river; not as far East as Babylon or Persia.
But in either case, Matthew’s point remains the same: The magi are foreigners, followers of another faith, scholars of other gods. And yet they somehow recognize that Jesus is the Christ, the true king of Herod’s people.
And this is what gets under Herod’s skin. He has been on the throne for more than thirty years, consolidating his rule with help from the Roman Empire. And yet, there are many who say that he is no more than a pretender to the throne. When these foreigners come claiming to find the true king, no wonder Herod gets paranoid.
And when this escalates, as Herod flies into a blind rage in the slaughter of innocents, the story becomes a conflict between the child of Bethlehem and the king of Judea. And so we see Matthew’s unfolding of Old Testament prophecy. Herod’s own religious advisers know from the prophets that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, and lead the magi there to pick up the trail of the star. And Isaiah, among others, spoke of the nations coming, bringing these treasures of Arabia, this gold and frankincense.
There they are again, the gifts. We may forget details, like the fact that the magi find the family not in a stable, but in a house. And we may invent others, like deciding that there are three magi. Look closely: the magi are never numbered. But there is one detail that we remember: the gold; the frankincense; the 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, a gift fit for a king.
The second gift is frankincense, fit for a god. Frankincense, the finest incense, was traded and bartered as a valuable commodity. One of its customary uses was in Temple rituals in Jerusalem. Part of its original purpose was as a potent, pleasant-smelling fragrance masking the stench of sacrifice. Eventually, though, it came to represent the act of sacrifice itself. 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, a gift fit for a god.
And the third gift is myrrh, fit for a savior. Our word in English comes from the Hebrew meaning “bitter,” and was also traded for its value. It was also used in embalming. And so there is, in this moment not long after Christ’s birth, a foreshadowing of his death. After the crucified Christ is removed from the cross, Nicodemus wraps his body in myrrh and aloes before placing him in the tomb. Myrrh, a gift fit for a savior.
Gold. Frankincense. Myrrh. King. God. Savior.
The story of the magi is probably my favorite in Scripture because of these layers of interpretation and meaning. And yet, while I love the poetry of these three gifts and what they represent, it is important to remember why it was that the magi brought these gifts to Bethlehem. They did so in homage. The gold, frankincense, and myrrh, are not merely a lesson in how we should understand 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.
Let’s put it this way:
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 confronts us to recognize what the magi somehow knew: 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, where the heavenly is opened to the earthly, the eternal to the ephemeral, the infinite to the finite. And in that 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 as we are reminded to honor the image of God imprinted in every person at the moment of creation. And we are called to live out that character of the divine in our daily lives, to recognize what the magi somehow knew: that Christ is God.
And if Christ is savior, then we know that there is salvation. This is the most hopeful of the three. We all fall short on the first 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, knowing that we will be held and healed, recognizing what the magi somehow knew: 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 come to this place again and again and again to be healed, to be strengthened, and to be forever changed. And like the magi, the path we took to get here is not the one by which we will leave.