Matthew 2: 1-12
Gold; frankincense; and, myrrh; three gifts are ones that so called “wisemen” brought for a newborn baby. On the Internet I saw a cartoon with three women in different colored clothing looking at Mary, Joseph, and the baby. The caption read: “After the three wise men left, the three wiser women arrived bringing diapers, casseroles, and wine.” You decide what were the best gifts! Yes, of course, the wise women’s gifts were much more practical; but history his shown that the wise men’s gifts were more meaningful. Let’s see why. Today I want to connect some dots that occurred to me on Wednesday, and then in yesterday’s News Journal, Pastor Shane Looper confirmed them too. I’ll get to those dots in a minute.
Some have said that it’s not the gift that is most important, but what is behind the giving of a gift. If a father gives keys to a car to his oldest teenage son, it is not just a new car, it is a symbol of trust in the son. If a woman gives a family Bible to her daughter who is expecting a child—a Bible that was had belonged to her parents before her—she is not just giving a Bible, she is passing on a tradition and her faith. And if a woman gives hand made and cross stitched dinner napkins and a table cloth to a friend, it is not just a nice gift, it’s a sign that she’s giving some thing special to some one special! Think about why you give gifts, and what others may have been thinking when they gave you a gift. Today I have some gifts that I appreciate more with each passing year. My grandparents gave me my first Timex watch; I have it with me today. It was a loving gift, to help me learn how to tell time when I was six years old. I wonder how many children today can tell time from a clock with hands; an analogue clock? My grandmother also gave me an heirloom wooden box with a musical movement inside. She knew I had admired it; it has belonged to her son who died at age 14. I think she wanted her first born grandson to have it. It’s here today too. The best gifts are not just the first thing picked up dashing through an airport or going in a discount store. Sometimes the gift is emotionally costly or chosen carefully.
In the Gospel of Matthew, we find a sketchy report about men coming quite a distance to see baby Jesus. We don’t even know if there were three men; we only assume that because there were three gifts. And where was the “East” from whence they came? The late Biblical scholar Raymond Brown wrote a 600 page commentary called The Birth of the Messiah on just Luke chapters 1& 2; and Matthew chapters 1 & 2. Yikes! In that commentary he reminds us that the ones we call “wisemen” or “kings” were called magoi in Matthew and we have Anglicized it into the word “magi.” Says Brown, “The magi were Zoroastrian priests….In the Greek form of the Book of Daniel (second century B.C.) the author describes magoi as flourishing in every corner of the Babylonian kingdom of Nebuchanezzar. Along with the enchanters and the astronomers, they were thought to have the power of interpreting dreams and visionary messages.” (Daniel chapters 1, 2, 4, & 5) [Image Books, 1979, p. 167] I hope you heard those words! Did they ring a bell? When Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem in those days and took precious vessels from the house of God back to his land of Babylon, he also took four men with him. That was in the second century B.C. And among those Jews he took back to his kingdom were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, but he changed their names as they became his prisoners in Babylon to Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego! According to a Bible Study website, King Nebuchadnezzar promoted them to the rank of magi. The ruthless King from the land dreamers, visionaries, and astrologers eventually died, but the tradition continued in Babylon. And where is Babylon compared to Jerusalem and Bethlehem? Due east, 300 miles! So the mag—if they came from there—had a long history of reading stars and interpreting dreams. Could the idea of a king to be born in Judah have been planted in the minds of the Babylonian magi by none other than Daniel years before! Magi saw in the stars that a king was to be born when there was a confluence of light appearing in the constellation of Leo—symbolized symbolized by a lion—when a scepter was prophesied to appear at the feet of Judah. Could it be that these people of both faith and science believed that a king, a special king, was to be born in Judah? And if so, maybe even the treasures taken from the temple centuries before that were never returned, were used to honor God in the Temple? Gold was there—the most precious of metals and most beautiful. Frankincense was there—burned regularly in the Temple. As people smelled the aroma and watched the smoke rise, they believed it was pleasing to God. And Myrrh was there; a fragrant oil used in Jewish practice to anoint the bodies of the dead. The Temple would have had all of those. The magi would have traveled for many, many weeks or months, not knowing exactly when the newborn king was to be born, but having historical traditions that told his identity! In the giving of those particular gifts-instead of more practical ones—they might have been the actual items stolen from the Jerusalem Temple centuries before by Nebuchadnezzar, or similar gifts given to pay homage to a newborn King.
Gifts matter. It is one thing to get something that pleases the recipient; that’s what we usually do. But sometimes, the gift pleases the giver more, like giving the gifts of historical family stories, or items that have been in a family for generations. This summer, as my mother moved from our house to an independent living facility, we began to consider what to do with all the things my parents had collected. The piano that was bought by her parents for her to play—a piano that was in the house where she grew up—had gotten transported to our house in a moving van in 1966. It had it’s home in our living room all that time. I took piano lessons on it; and my mother played it for special occasions. But there was no space for that piano in my mother’s independent living facility. What would we do with it? She asked her children who would like it. None wanted to move a piano across many states. We thought about selling it, but wondered how much to ask. Then my sister came up with a brilliant idea: my mother’s next door neighbor—the one who had driven my mother to see my dad the day he died—had a daughter who was interested in playing the piano! Well it took no time at all for my brothers and sisters and my mother and I to agree to give the piano to the neighbor! It was so natural! We don’t know if they will love it forever, but my mother could not be happier with the new home of her childhood piano. What we know is that the giver—my mother—is delighted, and perhaps her parents before her would have been delighted with helpful neighbor getting the piano for her daughter to practice playing. Sometimes a gift carries more meaning to the giver than to the oblivious recipient. Could it be these gifts of the magi pointed to Jesus as the greatest gift of all; the gift that God loved to give? Sometimes a gift lovingly given only gets appreciated in hindsight. Who knew that a newborn King would change the world? I know who knew: the magi. And now, you do too.
Jeffrey A. Sumner January 6, 2019