Sunday, December 29, 2013
Sermon: Matthew 2: 1-12 The Wise Mens' Gospel Gifts
This morning we’re looking at the wise men who came to visit Jesus. But have you heard this one before: What would it have been like if it was three wise women instead of three wise men: They would have asked for directions; arrived on time; helped deliver the baby; cleaned the stable; made a casserole; and brought practical gifts.
There’s a lot of mystery surrounding these visitors from the east, but perhaps the most mysterious thing about them is the gifts they bring to the baby. I mean, just stop for a moment and consider your reaction. You hear of a family member or friend who has had a baby. You want to bring a gift - do you immediately stop at Marks and Spencer to get some gold, frankincense and myrrh? They wouldn’t be top of your shopping list, would they?
There are a thousand and one things that could be more practical and useful for a first-time mother - baby clothes, nappies, towels, bibs, the list could go on and on. So why do these wise men bring these gifts? In verse 11, the treasure chests are opened, and gold, frankincense and myrrh are brought out - or, as a child at a nativity once said: ‘gold, Frankenstein and a mirror’. These gifts tell the story of the baby - the gifts are the gospel.
So let’s consider each of them briefly in turn, to see what they tell us about this special baby. The first one is obvious enough - gold for a king. It was the question on the lips of the wise men when they first appear in the Bible: ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’
They had come searching for the newborn King, which was why they had landed at the king’s palace in Jerusalem. Herod, however, wasn’t so happy to hear their question. You see, they don’t ask where is the one who has been born and will one day be the king of the Jews. They ask where is the child who has been born the king of the Jews.
The baby is already King. The gold is a recognition of the baby’s place as king of kings and lord of lords. The wise men come to worship, but did you notice that the people in Jerusalem aren’t bothered about the good news? The chief priests and the scribes can answer the quiz question - where will the Messiah be born - but they don’t come with the wise men to see their king. Will we be found with the wise wanderers who worship, or the precocious priests who prevaricate by staying away?
So first out of the treasure chest is gold, fit for a king. The second gift might be less obvious, but it also makes sense. These wise men were magi in the east. Over the last term we came into contact with one of the leading magi of his time - Daniel in Babylon. The visitors to the baby Jesus were the very same sort of guys as Daniel had been in his day. You might remember that in Daniel 9, Daniel had been reading his scriptures, the writings of Jeremiah, and knew the time of exile (70 years) was coming to an end.
It seems that the wise men held on to Daniel’s scriptures, because our Old Testament reading (Isaiah 60) pointed forward to the coming of a new king, one in whom is the glory of the Lord, to whom nations and kings will come. In that very passage we even find a suggested gift list for those who come - ‘They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.’ (Is 60:6)
Gold and frankincense, declaring the praise of the LORD (of God). Frankincense is the sign of divinity - the sign that this is no ordinary baby, that this is God who has come. You see, in the Old Testament, frankincense was used in the temple offerings as an odour pleasing to the Lord. (e.g. Leviticus 2:1).
But it was even more exclusive than that. In Exodus 30, the Lord is instructing Moses on how to set up the tabernacle and begin the sacrifices and priestly ministry of Levi and his sons. Frankincense is used to make the incense of the tabernacle - a perfume that couldn’t be bought on the high street or used for anybody. It was only to be used in the place of worship, for God alone.
The baby is a king, but he is also God with us - as shown by the frankincense. As if him being the king is not enough reason, here we find that this is our God, to whom worship is due.
But what about the third gift? The myrrh is perhaps the strange one of the three. Sometimes you have to go into a Yankee Candle store. The blend of smells and fragrances can be overpowering. I find that if I take a deep breath and hold it as long as I can, I can just about survive until we’re out again. But in those kind of shops, you find all sorts of smells - the Christmas ones of cinnamon; or cranberry and orange; the regular ones of fluffy towels or lavender; even baby powder. But you definitely wouldn’t have chosen to buy a myrrh candle. Myrrh was the smell of death.
Imagine bringing a little baby something that smells of death? It’s almost unthinkable - as you celebrate life to have a reminder of death in your nostrils. You see, myrrh was used in the ceremonies of death in Jesus’ day. It was part of the spices used as the body was wrapped in the shroud, ready to be laid in the tomb. Towards the end of John’s gospel, we’re told that Nicodemus brought 100 pounds of the stuff to used for the burial of Jesus.
So even as Jesus is born, as the baby is growing, and these strange visitors appear, this gift is pointing to the reason he was born. The King who is God with us, came to die. Already his path towards the cross is marked out. His death is already present as he begins his life.
The King, God with us, dies - dies for us. This is the gospel, the good news of Jesus. He who had no sin; he who deserved to be worshipped and praised; he stepped down into this world to die for our sin. We don’t know how much the wise men knew, but they went on a costly journey, to bring costly gifts, to bow down and worship the baby king. They were the first Gentiles to come and worship, but they are by no means the last, as men and women from every tribe and tongue hear the good news and respond in the same way - to bow the knee and worship King Jesus.
The gifts tell the gospel. Jesus is the king - will you surrender to him? Jesus is God - will you worship him? Jesus is the one who died and rose again for your sins - will you take refuge in his sacrifice?
I once saw a bumper sticker which simply said this: ‘Wise men worshipped Jesus. They still do.’ Will you be a wise man, a wise woman today?
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 29th December 2013.