January 3, 2010
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.
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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
You may be wondering why we’re still singing Christmas songs and still talking about the three wise men after New Years. That’s a good question and I’ll try to explain.
I realize the consumer-driven world we live in now believes that the “Christmas” season begins the first of November (if not before) and ends on December 25. We may not like a Christmas season that lasts two months, but I’m not sure we can change it at this point.
That doesn’t mean that we can’t still hang on to our church traditions and one of those traditions says that Christmas begins on December 25 and lasts for twelve days, until Epiphany on January 6. Even if you haven’t heard of Epiphany you’ve probably heard the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and that’s where that whole business comes from.
In times past, people celebrated the twelve days of Christmas by giving gifts to each other because the wise men gave gifts to the infant Jesus. Epiphany marks the whole idea that God took human form in Jesus Christ and it especially remember the visit of the wise men, who symbolize the whole world recognizing who Jesus is.
That’s why we can still sing Christmas songs and talk about the wise men even in January because Christmas isn’t technically over yet – not until January 6.
In fact, the song we sang a moment ago, “We Three Kings,” was created by a man who wanted to give an Epiphany gift to some people he loved.
The man was John Henry Hopkins, Jr. He was a multi-talented Episcopal priest in Vermont, working for a church publication called Church Journal. The year was 1857, and the unmarried priest was puzzling over what to give his nieces and nephews as an Epiphany gift. He finally decided to give them a gift that would both entertain and educate them at the same. No, it wasn’t a video or computer game.
He sat down and wrote a song about the legendary visitors from the East who are described in Matthew’s Gospel. He tried to imagine what it would have been like to be one of the wise men. His words express the awe and wonder they must have felt when they saw the newborn king and the cadence and rhythm of the music he wrote capture the image of a trip across the desert on the back of a camel. (“We three kings of orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar…”)
I don’t know how thrilled kids nowadays would be if they got a song for Christmas (unless maybe it was a rap), but Uncle John’s song was a big hit in the Hopkins household that Christmas and Epiphany. After he published it in a songbook of his own it came to be included in the hymnals of lots of different denominations and has become one of our favorite carols. It stands out because it’s one of the only ones that focuses on the wise men.
There is a lot that’s left to our imaginations about the wise men since Matthew leaves them so mysterious. They raise more questions than they answer. Where exactly were they from? Matthew says they came “from the East,” but that doesn’t narrow it down very much.
How many of them were there? We’ve always assumed there were three, but all Matthew says is that there was more than one. We probably get three because they gave three different kinds of gifts.
Why did they have such an interest in the king of the Jews that they would travel so far? The song says they were “kings,” but that’s not what Matthew tells us. Matthew calls them “magoi,” which is the plural of the Greek word “Magos,” from which we get our words magic and magician. They were probably astrologers or astronomers, who spent their lives studying the stars. This star they observed when it rose told them someone special had been born – the king of the Jews.
The one thing Matthew tells us for sure is that they brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. That’s what I’d like us to focus on today. Those gifts may sound strange to us, but they had very definite symbolic meaning. Here the song “We Three Kings” actually has some very good theology.
“Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain, gold I bring to crown him again.” Gold is a gift fit for a king. The gold that was given to the baby Jesus represents the symbolic crown he would wear as our everlasting king. When the wise men gave Jesus gold, they were recognizing him as Christ the King, even though he was still just an infant.
“Frankincense to offer have I; incense owns a deity nigh.” Frankincense was used in the worship of God in the Temple. So the gift of frankincense meant that the wise men were acknowledging Jesus to be the Son of God. Matthew tells us in verse 11 that when they entered the house and saw Mary and the child, “they knelt down and paid him homage.” They worshiped the child Jesus because they believed he was God.
“Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom.” Myrrh is the bitter perfume that was used in Bible times for preparing dead bodies for the embalming process. In giving Jesus the gift of myrrh, the wise men were anticipating that thirty years later Jesus would die for our sins, be laid in a tomb and his body anointed with spices like myrrh, but on the third day rise from the dead.
These wise men traveled a great distance, at great personal cost to themselves and even at risk of their lives, because they believed Jesus was worth it. They offered Jesus gifts that weren’t just valuable, but they made a statement as to who they believed him to be: a king worthy of obedience; a God worthy of worship; and a Savior who would die for the people’s sins.
But maybe the greatest gift they gave wasn’t found in the gold or the frankincense or the myrrh. Maybe the greatest gift they gave was the journey to Bethlehem itself. They set out in faith, not knowing where the path would lead or how long it would take or whom they might find at the end. But for them there was nothing more important than seeking Jesus, whatever the cost.
I’m reminded of a wonderful story of a missionary woman who taught in a mission school. One of her favorite students was a young boy. At Christmas time he presented her with a beautiful, perfectly shaped seashell. She knew there was only one beach where he could have obtained this shell, but that was over 30 miles away and the boy had no means of traveling that far. When she asked him about it, he admitted that he had walked the 30 miles there and the 30 miles back in order to obtain the shell. She was amazed. “But that’s so far,” she said. “Why ever did you do it?” He answered gently, “The long walk was part of the gift.”
As we begin a new year, may it be our greatest desire to seek Jesus with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength. We may not know where the journey will lead us or how long it will last or what we will find when we get there. But the journey is part of the gift we offer the One who gives us life. Amen.