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The Visit of the Magi

Christmas Sermon
(Eph 3:1-12 / Mt 2: 1-12)


There was a curate who would always preach on his pet subject "Love" every Sunday, until one day the Church warden collared him.

“Curate”, the church warden began, “you preached a great sermon today but do you think you could give us something new?”

So the Curate agreed to preach the following Sunday on the book of Revelation; and sure enough, the following Sunday he got up into the pulpit and started on Revelation, but eventually he drifted into preaching on "Love", as usual.

In desperation the Churchwarden picked up a copy of the Book of Common Prayer and hurled it at the pulpit.  Unfortunately his throw was off and he hit a young woman in the front row on the back of the head.

As she went down, several people heard her whisper loudly, "Hit me again, I can still hear him."

It’s often tempting to speak on favourite subjects when preaching, just because it’s easier than being stretched to find something new.  So when I agreed to preach tonight . . . and then realised what the scripture and gospel readings were I must admit I groaned a little bit and wondered what on earth I could share with you that’s new about the visit of the Magi.  There is one story I remember from my days of subscribing to the Readers Digest, which went like this:
“What would have happened if there had been three wise women instead of three wise men?

1. They would have asked the locals for directions to the stable instead of going to King Herod.

2. They would have arrived on time and helped deliver the baby.

3. They would have cleaned the stable and brought something practical for Mary and Joseph – like a casserole.

4. And they would have definitely helped to ensure there was peace on earth!”

Not especially edifying, but at least it raises a smile or two.

Something that did strike me quite powerfully, though, was how very different the attitudes of the Magi and King Herod were to Jesus. And what each intended to bring to this young child, the King of the Jews.  So that’s what I want to share with you tonight.

The one title used about Jesus in the Epiphany story is King of the Jews.  It’s interesting because it’s that’s only title used of Jesus at the very beginning of his life and at the very end; as Matthew records, “Magi from the East came to Jerusalem and asked “Where is the one who is born King of the Jews?”(Mt. 2:2)  And at the death of Jesus came the affirmation that he was King of the Jews – as Luke records (Lk 23:38), it was nailed above him on the cross, naming, ironically, the crime for which he was being crucified.  For both Herod and Pilate, the “King of the Jews” was a threat to their governance.  For the Magi, these sages or wise men the ‘King of the Jews’ was due their worship.


Let me give you some background on Herod.  The Jews hated Herod because of his successful alliance with Rome.  It was the Roman Senate – not the Jews – who appointed Herod king in 40 BC and by 37 BC he had gained control of the entire country.  Naturally, the Magi calling Jesus the King of the Jews on Herod’s own door step was seen absolutely by Herod as a direct threat, and he was very paranoid about his power.  He had his three sons, his wife and his mother-in-law put to death because he believed they were after his throne.  The Roman Emperor, Augustus, wrote in his journal, “It was safer to be Herod’s pig than to be his son”.

Herod’s murderous streak didn’t even end with his death.  Just before he died, he ordered some of Jerusalem’s most distinguished citizens to be arrested on trumped up charges and executed.  Their death-sentences were to take place the minute Herod died, because he knew no one would mourn his death, but he wanted to make quite sure that people genuinely mourned on the day he died.  That’s the kind of man Herod was.  You know, some modern theologians think that the Slaughter of the Innocents didn’t actually happen; that the Gospel writers just slipped the event in to emphasize the significance of Jesus, but actually, the slaughter of innocent babies up to two years old isn’t far fetched at all when you consider Herod’s character and what the ancient history books tell us about him.  Being half Jew and half Idumean (that’s half Edommite, and therefore half Gentile), the Jews didn’t accept him, though he did curry the favour of the people by rebuilding the Temple – and in his favour, he was an amazing architect.  Rabbis frequently said, "He, who has not seen the Temple, has not seen a beautiful building!"  And in Masada, in the holy lands lies Herod’s magnificent palace – quite literally hewn into the side of the mountain - a feat of breathtaking engineering in any era, let alone back then!

So, by and large, Herod was an evil man, but he did have moments of kindness.  During the famine of 25 B.C., he melted down one of his gold plates to use to purchase corn to feed the starving people.  (see Barclay, p. 19)  Which just goes to show that even evil people can occasionally do the right thing.  He became king when he was 33 years old – roughly the same age Jesus was when he died on the Cross; but the Kingship of Jesus was a sacrificial kingship; this King of kings loved and cared for his people; and ultimately gave his life for his people.  In contrast, Herod was a total despot and people had their lives taken for his delusion and paranoia.  His was a kingdom based on cruelty and fear; Jesus’ kingdom was and is based on love and the grace of God.

As far as Herod was concerned, Jesus as the King of the Jews was a threat to his kingdom and control.  Some people still see Jesus as a threat to their kingdom and control.  I remember Professor Paul Little once telling us about a student who, one day, had many questions about Christianity.  After he had answered all the student’s questions to the student’s satisfaction, Paul Little then asked him: “Would you like to become a Christian?”
“No, thanks.” the student answered, “It would cramp my style of living”

Herod saw Jesus as a threat to his autonomy.  Is he a threat to yours?  And what was the gift that Herod brought to Jesus with that attitude?  He brought DEATH. As Matthew recorded, he had all the boys in Bethlehem up to the age of two years old killed – probably about 20 - 30 little boys.  The only way he could keep the stability of his kingship was to lash out and murder.  Herod wanted to hang on to what he had so much that he completely missed out on meeting the real Prince of Peace  -  but I tell you, it’s never foolish to give up what you cannot keep, in order to gain what you can never lose.

As for the Magi, very little is known about them.  Matthew doesn’t even record how many of them there actually were.  All we know is that they came from the East to Jerusalem, so it’s extremely likely they were not Jews - although they seemed to know the Jewish scriptures, since they quote them to Herod. Tradition has it that the Magi came from Persia, once a mighty country, today known as Iran and Iraq; and they were steeped in occult traditions and practitioners of magic.

On the whole, what people think they know about the Magi comes from legends and from information gleaned from Persian history.  In the second century, the early church father, Tertullian, suggested that these men were kings, based on the Old Testament predicting that kings would come to worship the Messiah.  Tertullian also concluded that there were three kings because three gifts are mentioned, gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Then in the sixth century, someone just decided that their names were Melchior, Balthazar and Caspar.  Popular myth calls them astrologers: and they certainly studied the stars and planets but they weren’t necessarily astrologers.  It’s generally accepted that “the Magi were actually a priestly caste in the Persian Empire and were numerous enough to be regarded as one of the six tribes of Media” (see J.D. Davis Dictionary of the Bible p. 489).  Remember - in the book of Daniel, when King Darius is tricked into throwing his friend Daniel into the lion’s den – well that was in reference to the law of the Medes and the Persians; and it’s probably from the Medes that the Magi were descended. Their racial identity and profession tended to go hand in hand and they worshipped the elements of fire, air, earth and water, fire especially.  The only known temples they had were fire temples, more often than not on the roofs of houses, where they kept the sacred element burning day and night – a bit like the eternal flame of the lamp in the Jerusalem Temple.  

The term Magi is the root from which our modern words “magician” and “magistrate” are derived.  I love that God revealed himself to the Magi – people who practised magic that, back in the Old Testament, was expressly forbidden; and I think God did that for two reasons:

Firstly, because the Gospel the birth of Jesus heralded is for the whole world, not just for the Jews but all non-Jews as well.  We don’t have to wait until we are living a morally good life or a religiously pious life before God seeks us out.  If moral perfection was God’s criteria, I seriously doubt that churches would have anyone in them.  God accepts us “warts and all” – and I suspect the Magi had some really big warts!!!

Secondly, because the Magi were actively seeking God; definitely far more than the Jewish leadership was.  King Herod was set on killing Jesus.  The chief priests and scribes of the people were, at best, ambivalent towards Christ in his adult years.  They did nothing about going to find Him, but the Magi were actually looking for Jesus and actively seeking him out.  God will always honour the inquiring spirit within a person, when it’s heading for him.

What was the attitude of the Magi to Jesus?  Well, they followed God’s guidance.  They followed the star.  They tell Herod, “We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him” (Mt. 2:2).  They recognised that God was leading them somewhere special by that star and even though they didn’t know the destination they were prepared to step out and go.

Following the leading of the Lord can be quite risky at times, but will always reap blessing.  I want to share with you a wonderful story I heard Martin Dale, an Anglican vicar in Christchurch once relate.  He says:

I was at a Christian Conference just outside Berne in Switzerland one Saturday in May 1994, when I met a Texan called Harold Fox.  I asked him what he did for a living and he said he was a prophet!  Well, rather tongue in cheek I asked him “So have you got a word from God for me” to which he replied, “Yes I have, you won’t be in Switzerland much longer.”  Well naturally, thought this man was nuts and on the way home, told my wife Maddy what I thought.  After all, things couldn’t be better for me.  I had a good job as a patent agent in a Swiss multinational company called Sandoz and a lovely house in Switzerland with a swimming pool.  Why would I even consider moving?  Well, the following Wednesday, I got a phone call from a head hunter (nothing to do with Harold Fox) asking me if I was interested in a job in England.  I was just about to put the phone down when oddly enough I remembered the prophecy.  Well, one thing led to another and I was offered the position of Head of the Group Patent Department of Reckitt and Colman.

As for my wonderful job in Switzerland?  Within a few months, Sandoz sold off the Chemicals Division  -  the part of their business where I worked.  Those left in my group were very nervous for about 6 months, wondering if they would still have jobs.  Then Sandoz merged with Ciba Geigy and the rest of the Patent Department started to worry if they would have jobs at the end of the merger.  I went back to visit a few years later and someone asked me if I’d had inside knowledge warning me to get out when I did.  I told them ‘yes’, but it was a little higher up than the Managing Director!

The Magi sought Jesus for all the right reasons.  They were coming “to worship him” (Mt. 2:2).  Now this really challenges me.  Why do I worship the Lord Jesus Christ?  I don’t mean why am I a Christian . . . I really do mean why do I worship Jesus?  Is it because it’s my job to? I’m a theologian. I research, I teach occasionally, I preach sometimes and I’ve led a few workshops.  Is it because I’ve nothing better to do?  Is it because worship and praise gives me a lift from the rest of an ordinary working week?  It’s a challenging question that meets head on what I think and what I feel about my relationship with Christ and how I respond to what he’s done for me.

The Magi came to worship the King of the Jews for who he was, even as a little boy.  They gave Jesus of the very best that they had and they brought the very best they had; there was nothing half-hearted in their actions; and they brought costly gifts to Jesus.  I’d like to focus for a few moments on the gifts they brought, because - if the Gospel writer bothers to record the gifts so carefully, there must be a reason why.  The gifts as we know were gold, frankincense and myrrh.  

Gold indicates Kingship and royalty.  What is more fitting than gold for a King!  If Jesus is meant to be the King in my life, then I am challenged by the question: What gold can I bring to Jesus?  What do I regard as precious to me that I can give to the Lord.

A few years ago, the Gold that Martin Dale let go of was his secular career.  As you heard earlier he had a really good job in Switzerland and then later with Reckitts over here.  Yet God called him to give all that up, around 1994, when he was a member of a Pentecostal Church.  He had been asked at work “Where would you be prepared to go for us if asked?” and he was discussing this with Maddy, his wife.

At the time he said, “I’ll go anywhere in the English speaking world except England.  But if I do go back to England, I’ll never go to an Anglican church.  And if I ever go to an Anglican church I’ll never become a vicar.”

As people say from time-to-time.  Make God laugh – tell him your plans.

When Martin did come back to England, he managed to avoid going to an Anglican church until 1996, when a Christian friend talked him into at least trying the Anglican Church in Christchurch.  So he went, to keep his friend quiet and found that he really quite liked the church and so he stayed.  In March 1997, he told Maddy that he thought the Lord was calling him to become a vicar in the Anglican Church and she said: “Great! - the Lord told me that two months ago”.  The rest of the story, for the Vicar of Christchurch, is history.

Is the Lord is calling you to offer up your “gold” tonight?

Frankincense.  Why did the Magi give frankincense to Jesus?

Frankincense was used by the priests in temple worship to blend with the smell of the sacrifices, so the fragrance was far nicer than decomposing blood from animal sacrifice.  To me it signifies Jesus’ priestly role.

Jesus was the King of kings, but he was also the "great high priest."  The writer of Hebrews (2:17) puts it quite beautifully, "For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people."  Jesus wants us to offer up our lives as a sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Rom 12:1).  And just what is the sacrifice God wants?  I think, in this particular sense it speaks of the intimate time we spend with Jesus - in the quiet of our rooms in prayer and Bible Study.

This, for many of us, is probably the hardest time to find.  Since we tend to live busy lives, this is usually the first thing that gets pushed to the bottom of our ‘to do list.’  And most things that we do are tangible and measurable – but prayer is rarely like that.  Yet prayer – and our Quiet Time - is the priestly offering that God is delighted with, just as he was delighted with the frankincense of the Magi.

As for Myrrh, in Jesus’ time, Myrrh was used to embalm the dead.  So a gift for a baby shower . . . what were they thinking, these so called wise men?  Well, this particular baby was born for one specific purpose – to die.  And these wise men, in their wisdom knew it; profoundly, deeply, revealed by God, they knew it.  Maybe they even had an inkling what his death would mean.  Hebrews 10:10 says, "We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all."

When I think of myrrh, I am challenged to consider the mission of the Gospel and the part I play in that.  You might find sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ painful at times – you get thought of as a bit of a nut, or you’re met with rejection from family and friends; or the rejection we can all face when we try to account for being Christian and gay with those who adamantly deny even the possibility of that.  Sharing the Gospel can certainly be painful . . . but dying on the Cross wasn’t much fun either.

Mission is all about letting people know the Good News of Jesus and sharing what his death has done for us.  You know, I realised while I worked on this sermon that we actually rarely hear a Gospel sermon, even though there are Christians, non-Christians, agnostics and sometimes even atheists in most congregations, including ours.  Sermons, on the whole, provide a pious or inspiring thought – or they give history lesson.  Yet when the Gospel is preached, hearts can be healed and people are glad to hear the Good News.

So let’s give thanks to the Lord for the inspiration of the Magi, that they brought Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh to Christ as a child, and continue today to inspire us to find the courage and wisdom to discover and offer our own Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh to our King and Saviour.