WHAT GIFTS SHALL WE BRING?
Let’s whistle through Matthew chapter two this morning. One of the favourite images of Christmas is the wise men travelling by camel through a star lit night. One star dominates the sky as they arrive on the crest of the hill overlooking Bethlehem. The journey is almost over. It’s been a long trip from a country far away in the east. There have been dangers along the way and now they are at the town of Jesus’ birth. Just a few hundred meters to go. The wise men look down from the star in the sky to the building lying below its light. This is where they will find the new born king of the Jews that they had read about in the Scriptures.
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king (Mat 2:1),
This is Herod the Great — by the way, do you know how tall he was? Apparently, he was just a bit over four feet. A little monster, for he really was horrid, and like many short guys, probably had a big ego problem, so he compensated.
He built great fortresses out of huge rocks. The Western Wall in Jerusalem is part of a huge retaining wall Herod built, to raise up the temple mount, upon which the Temple itself would be constructed. Underground, there are excavated parts of the base of the wall that are are out of blocks forty-seven feet long, ten feet high, and ten feet wide. Each one weighs and estimated hundred and seventy tons. Little Herod had those massive blocks of stone put there. He was a genius at building. He built a huge fortress in Alexandria, similar to another one of his he called the Herodian.
He built the great temple in Jerusalem. He built the temple mount area. He built Caesarea, the pools near Bethlehem, and a remarkable water system for Jerusalem. Today you can still look at many of Herod’s buildings and stand in awe of the little fellow’s building genius. He also was horribly cruel and paranoid. Thinking his sons and wife, Miriam, were plotting against him, he had them all put to death. Later, he missed Miriam, and built a large monument to her. They used to say, “It’s safer to be Herod’s pig than to be his son,” because he was paranoid his sons were trying to take over his throne. He eventually killed most of his sons because of this fear. A very insecure little man. His large fortresses made him feel safe. As time went by, he figured out that nobody would weep when he died, so he gave instructions that when he did die, all his top officials should be executed, so that at least there would be some genuine mourning going on at the same time. Fortunately, when Herod did die, everyone quickly realised he would not know if his top guns were executed or not, and he did depart the world unmourned.
Now in those days when Herod was king, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, and they said, Where is he that is born the King of the Jews? (Mat 2:1-2).
Imagine the scene – insecure Herod hears about some well-to-do wise men, looking for a newborn king. These guys are asking strange things. I’m the King of the Jews. What do you mean, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” Their arrival shook him up a great deal. They said,
for we have seen his star in the east, and we are come to worship Him (Mat 2:2).
A lot has been written about the star of Bethlehem. It may have been a conjunction of planets, and many different speculations as to what astronomically constituted the star of Bethlehem have been put forward. In a number of reputable observatories they roll back the stars through the centuries, and sure enough, around the time we believe Jesus was born (between 6 and 5 BC) it certainly does look like there was a very unusual conjunction of planets in the middle eastern sky. It is well worth reading up about. But exactly what made this special sign in the sky is a matter of speculation, so let’s leave it there. One day the Lord will show us what it was. For now I am happy to simply believe he found a great way to draw the Magi on a very long journey. They said,
we have seen his star in the East, and we have come to worship him(Mat 2:2).
If they were in the East and saw the star, then it evidently led them westward. So perhaps it was some kind of special and supernatural sign.
When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all of Jerusalem with him (Mat 2:3).
Because when Herod is troubled, everybody is troubled.
And when he had gathered all the chief priests and the scribes of the people together, he demanded [not he inquired] of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, [look these fellows know their Scriptures] in Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet [the prophet Micah], And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel (Mat 2:4-6).
They didn’t finish reciting that prophecy from the prophet Micah, but if you go back to Micah you read, “whose going forth is from everlasting”(Micah 5:2). And Micah speaks about His sitting upon the throne and reigning. So Bethlehem is pinpointed as the birthplace. Matthew 2 continues,
So when Herod had privately called the wise men, he inquired of them diligently when they first saw the star (Mat 2:7).
So they told him when they first saw the star and began their journey. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also (Mat 2:8).
Herod obviously had a very perverted sense of worship.
When they had heard the king [that is king Herod], they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was (Mat 2:9).
It is pretty hard to explain this star by some kind of a natural phenomenon. Think about it — they saw it in the East and it led them west, but now it is leading them back east, because Bethlehem is actually south and east of Jerusalem. We need to notice that, “It stood over where the young child was.”
It didn’t stand over the manger. It didn’t stand over where the baby was, but it stood over where the “young child was”.
Here is where our Christmas cards and our Christmas nativity scenes, depart from the reality, because actually, the wise men were latecomers. By the time that they had arrived, Joseph and Mary had moved out of the manger and had moved into a house in Bethlehem.
And when they were come into the house, [not into the manger, but into the house] they saw the young child with Mary His mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto Him gifts; gold [befitting the king], and frankincense, and myrrh (Mat 2:11).
Now being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way (Mat 2:12).
They didn’t bother to go back to Jerusalem because God warned them not to.
And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph (Mat 2:13),
Now again, Joseph is really in contact with the Lord and the Holy Spirit.
and the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word: for Herod is going to seek the young child to destroy him. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: And there he was until the death of Herod: [in order] that it might be fulfilled (Mat 2:13-15),
I hope you can see that Matthew is showing that all these aspects of the life of Christ were in actually a fulfilment of prophecy,
which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my Son. Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked by the wise men, was exceedingly angry, he sent forth, and killed all of the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the area around, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men (Mat 2:15-16).
Remember, Herod had said, “when did you first see the star?” That’s why he killed children two years old and under, because they had first seen the star some two years earlier. More evidence that Christ was not a baby in a manger when the wise men arrived. So Herod killed many children,
Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, In Rama was there a voice heard, of lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, as Rachel was weeping for her children (Mat 2:17-18),
Why is mention of Rachel significant? Because Rachel actually died on the outskirts of Bethlehem, and her tomb is still visible in Bethlehem. She died during the birth of Benjamin. She called his name Benoni, because of the grief. Rachel had died there in Bethlehem and through the ages, the people around Bethlehem revere the place of her burial. “Rachel weeping for her children and would not be comforted because they are not,”because they have been killed.
When Herod was dead,[he died shortly thereafter], behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life. And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and they came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there: notwithstanding, he was warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the area of Galilee (Mat 2:19-22):
He went back up into the area where he originated from, actually in Galilee where Mary had first received the word from Gabriel that she was to become the mother of the Christ child.
And they came and they dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene (Mat 2:23).
All the way through, Matthew is showing you that Christ is the fulfilment of prophecy. There are a lot of things that we don’t know about these wise men – like how many there were, what their names were, where they came from exactly, and how far they travelled following the star. We do know they studied the stars and were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures but Matthew doesn’t give us too many other details. One fact Matthew does give us is that the wise men came with special gifts for the new born king. The gospel writer tells us, “They went into the house, and when they saw the child with his mother Mary, they knelt down and worshiped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him.”
Gold, frankincense and myrrh – strange gifts for a new born child. Baby food, nappies and clothes would have been more practical than a lump of gold and two bottles of perfume. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Perhaps these gifts were symbols of who this baby was.
Gold is a gift for a king. It represents power and wealth. This child Jesus is royal and kingly.
Frankincense because this baby is God come to earth.
Myrrh was used in embalming the dead. It indicated this child’s humanity and foreshadowed his suffering and death as Saviour of the world.
However, Matthew doesn’t give any explanation why they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh, he simply gives us the facts. “They knelt down and worshiped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him.”
What do you give a child who is the all-powerful God who controls the stars to such an extent that a particularly bright star travels westward and stops over the place where Jesus and his parents were living? When the Lord of the universe reaches down from heaven and touches the earth, condescends in love to come to us, in the flesh, as one of us, a baby come to do battle with Herod and all evil in this world, what do you give? When we consider the greatness of the gift we have been given in Christ, – the wonder and majesty of it all – what can we give in return? My little offering, my tithe, my yearly pledge seem so puny and pointless. The wise men realised their expensive presents were hardly adequate for this child, the God who has become a human and now rests in his mother’s arms. Maybe that’s just the point. I think we are meant to be simply blown away by the awesomeness of God’s love that led him becoming flesh in a little child. We fall to our knees, and fumble for a gift worthy of such a gift. What can we give in return? All we can ever thrust forward is the best we can offer at the time. For the wise men it was a bag of gold, the fragrant gum resins of frankincense and myrrh.
It is always that way. Everything we offer in worship – our praise, our music and singing, the words of our liturgies, the words we mutter in prayer, this chapel building, the envelope we drop on the offering plate are – just gold, frankincense, and myrrh – tiny gifts in comparison to God’s goodness and love toward us. All we can do is to offer God the best of what we have at the moment. When Jesus was a man, a woman extravagantly wastes a jar of expensive perfume over Jesus. The disciples cry, “What a waste!” But Jesus says, “Let her alone. She has done a beautiful thing, anointing me for my burial.”
Jesus is about to make a really extravagant gift on the cross, and so accepts the woman’s extravagant gift. The woman expressed her love for Jesus in an unreserved and unrestrained way. Her act was wasteful – no doubt about that – but she gave the best of what she had. The wise men were in the presence of God who had chosen to reveal himself in a child, and they opened their boxes and emptied them, they gave over everything they had. The best gifts we can offer the Christ-child are the gifts of ourselves. The gold, frankincense and myrrh of the wise men are trivial and useless for the God of all creation, the saviour of all people. But as useless as these gifts are for God, they were the way the wise men gave of themselves. We are told, “They went into the house, and when they saw the child with his mother Mary, they knelt down and worshipped”.
Learned, wealthy, wizards of the east, non-Jews, kneeling at the tiny toddler’s feet of the true God, realising that even the gift of themselves is far too small for this king of kings. What you give to our Lord may seem so trivial and modest and poor, but if it represents giving yourself to God, it is the most important gift. The wisemen went home by another road, we too can walk a different road this year, a road where we can make the king of kings the living, active centre of everything we are and do. The challenge in front of each of us is to make each breathing moment a gift worth giving to the King. Amen.