I have always enjoyed the story of the Magi. It is one of my favorite parts of the whole Christmas story. Every Christmas Pageant has 3 kingly characters bearing gifts –spray painted and glittery boxes that trail sparkles all down the church aisle. They come wearing crowns and long bathrobes. Each nativity set has 3 kings and 3 camels. We sing the Christmas carol, “We three kings. We talk about and sing about the star that the magi followed. It is almost impossible to separate the telling of the Christmas story from the tale of the magi. And like much of the Christmas story, we have romanticized and sanitized it. It is almost fairy tale like in its perfection of sparkling gifts and exotically dressed wise men traveling from the east, a bright and shining star leading the way.
The real story of the magi is actually much more like a good mystery than it is like a fairy tale. The magi may have arrived up to two years after the birth of Christ; isn’t it surprising that the wise men didn’t even seem to bat an eye at bending their knee before a baby a simple carpenters family? This story is notable for the questions it raises and the mystery that surrounds it. This is not a fluff story to be viewed through a hazy romantic lens. It is a dynamic story that stirs the soul; that piques the imagination and the desire to KNOW. In the wise men we note three significant things – their willingness to act in faith, their willingness to give of their gifts (even if the gifts seem a little weird), and the willingness to be obedient to God’s instruction even when it caused them inconvenience.
This passage, and this brief episode in Matthew has captured the imagination of Christians for centuries and around it numerous legends have formed. At various times in church history the magi (from which, by the way, our modern day word magician is derived) have been called kings, but more often they were called “wise men” as we read in our NRSV translation this morning. Sometime in the Middle Ages the Western Church decided there were three magi (probably based on the naming of the three gifts) and assigned them names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. We really don’t know how many magi actually traveled to Bethlehem or who else may have traveled along with them. But these guys were probably the nerds or geeks of the day. This particular group of magi were astrologers and they studied the stars. They were probably from Persia. They were Not Jews; in fact they were pagans and followers of a religion called Zoroastrianism. Yet they came looking for the child who was born “King of the Jews!”
What the magi discovered in the skies, that we call the Star of Bethlehem, in the period leading up to and following Christ’s birth is the subject of much speculation. The four most popular theories are: 1) that the star was some sort of comet similar to Haley’s comet; or 2) that it was a nova or supernova, which is the sudden brightening of a star due to a stellar explosion; or 3) it was the alignment of a couple of sizable planets, most probably Jupiter and Saturn; or 4) that is was a UFO. But I like theory number 5, which is that it was a miraculous phenomenon directed from behind the scenes by God.
Whichever it was, it was convincing to these Magi. Can you picture it, these science guys, getting all excited about this? It was so compelling that they packed up and hit the road to follow the star. They were willing to travel in faith, because something greater than anything they had ever known compelled them. They followed the star and the signs over a great many miles and at a great expense – both personal and financial. And so, I just have to ask – Don’t you think that these guys could have brought some gifts a little more appropriate for a baby? Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Really? Those were not high on the list for expectant mothers the last time I checked. No, these are not your typical baby gifts. You have to wonder if Mary and Joseph looked at each other and said, “huh?” when they saw what was brought.
Last week as we celebrated Christmas, I hope you got what you wanted! Some gifts we receive are very practical and useful – a new frying pan or a drill, a vacuum cleaner or a shop vac; some gifts are just silly and serve no real purpose other than they are fun. (Remember when pet rocks were popular?) Some gifts can be very meaningful and significant; a treasure, so to speak such as an engagement ring, or a special gift made by a child or grandchild. At one time or another, we have all received a gift that had special meaning for us. When we look a little closer at the gifts brought by the Magi, maybe we will discover that they hold a special meaning, maybe more thought went into their selection than at first it seems, perhaps they weren’t just random things picked up at the last minute at the Sinai 7/11.
Each of these items were considered luxury items: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. Gold, as a precious metal has always carried great value. It was a fitting gift for a king. In the gift of gold, we find an affirmation and symbol of Christ’s kingship and royalty. In this gift of gold, these very non-Jewish, pagan magi were proclaiming the kingship of Jesus. It signaled that Christ’s royalty would extend far beyond the Jewish community, for Christ is King of All. Another legend holds that Joseph then used the gold to aid in the family’s flight to Egypt after the angel’s warning that Herod was seeking to destroy the child. So some see that the Gold is a sign of God’s provision.
Frankincense is an incense that was often used as a rich perfume and in religious rituals. Theorists point to this use of frankincense, claiming that this particular gift – frankincense – symbolizes priesthood and the spiritual nature of Christ.
Myrrh is perhaps the most odd of the three gifts to offer a baby. Myrrh was closely associated with death. It was commonly used as an anointing oil for the dead. Myrrh then is often seen to represent the sufferings of Christ and his death on our behalf.
The Gifts are a part of the mystery and drama of this story – as strange as the choice of gifts may have been, the magi brought the best gifts they could. One of my favorite devotionals is, “God Calling” and it says this, “bring to me, the Christ child, your gifts, truly the gifts of earth’s wisest. The gold – your money. Frankincense – the adoration of a consecrated life. Myrrh – your sharing in my sorrows and those of the world.” Perhaps a part of the lesson that we can take away from the wise men is that we are to give to our Lord the best that we have, indeed, all that we have.
When the wise men came to Jesus in his humble location, expecting a king but finding a humble carpenter’s babe, they did not turn away, instead they fulfilled the goal of their quest by bowing before the Jewish Messiah, the one called King of the Jews. It is difficult to find an English expression that translates Matthews writing, which adequately captures the joy of the Magi when they arrived at their destination. They were so overwhelmed with joy that they fell to their knees in worship. These pagan scholars, who worshiped stars and not God were compelled to kneel and worship right there. God’s grace offered them an invitation through the star and they responded. Then in verse 12 we read this: And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. Just a matter of fact sentence thrown in there almost as an afterthought – but nonetheless important. For in this simple verse we see obedience to God’s plan. The spontaneous joy and worship of the magi was followed by their unquestioning obedience to God’s direction.
There was a longing in the hearts of the wise men that drew them from their places of stature in the east. To leave their familiar surroundings: their papers and studies to head out in search of the baby who was to be King. They risked it all – their integrity and even their safety. They brought the best they had to offer and gave generously. Then they were willing to change their own plans to fulfill the plans God had for them. Today, wise men and women, children and young people still seek him, they still follow the deep longing of their hearts. My prayer for you and me today is that we will be among those who continue to follow God’s divine invitation: follow me, follow my star, follow my son. Bring the best of yourself, and I will change your life forever.
Go in peace; love and care for one another in the name of Christ; and may the Spirit of God which guided the Magi fill your hearts, souls and minds; may the power of God, strengthen you for each day; and may the love of God be your guiding light and your shining star, both now and forevermore. Amen