Gifts of the Wise Men

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					                                   Gifts of the Magi
                                     (from Matt. 2: 1-12)

                                     (Sermon Jan. 8, 2006)
                                  - by Cathy Boyd-Withers


Introduction
Congratulations! You’ve survived Christmas and the holidays. And here we are, already a
week into the New Year – a week into those resolutions (don’t worry, I’m not going to
ask you how many you’ve broken so far…)

In the church calendar, we have just entered the season of Epiphany, which is ushered in
by the visit of the magi to the Christ child, with their gifts of gold, frankincense and
myrrh, as we read in today’s scripture passage. As I’m sure you know, in many eastern
orthodox churches, Christmas itself isn’t celebrated until Jan. 6, the traditional date of
Epiphany.

Epiphany means to show or reveal, and that’s really the symbolic purpose of the story of
the visit of the three Magi. The Wise Men – and they would have been men in those days,
given the culture and the times – are the first Gentiles to worship Jesus. They are not
Jews, nor are they from Palestine. They arrive from “distant lands” and in kneeling and
laying their gifts before the child, they reveal to the world the divinity of Jesus Christ.
They show us that this tiny baby, born in a manger, is indeed the Messiah, sent to save
the whole world.

I’ve always loved the story of the Magi’s visit – it’s such a magical, colourful part of the
story of Jesus’ birth, isn’t it? A touch of the exotic, of mystery, of poetry.
Magi, sages, Kings, come from The East, following a star. Can’t you just smell the spices
of the Orient and feel the luxurious texture and richness of their robes? Then again,
maybe my affinity for this part of the story comes from the fact that the Magi always get
the best costumes in the Christmas pageant – and hats, let’s not forget the hats! No
bathrobes and towels around the head for them! (Not that we ever stoop to bathrobes and
towels, in Runnymede’s costume cupboard!)

Who Are the Magi?
Just who were these famous Magi, and what gifts do they bring for us?

First of all, even though the three Wise Men have become such an important part of the
Christmas story for us, they are mentioned in only one account of the birth of Christ, that
of Matthew’s gospel. And Matthew doesn’t even specify there are three of them – he only
says “wise men from the east”. Really, there could have been any number. Of course, it’s
true that only three gifts are mentioned and that’s probably why we now think of them as
the three Wise Men.




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I was also astonished and dismayed to discover there is absolutely no mention of camels
in this Biblical account – I mean, what’s a Wise Man without his camel?? Still, I don’t
care if they’re mentioned or not, I’m not giving up on the camels – I know they were
there!

Tradition also gives us names for the Wise Men. In our culture they are usually called
Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior, though other parts of the world use different names, and
no names are given in the Biblical account. I did a little bit of searching but couldn’t find
the origins or meanings of these names, except for Caspar. This name is usually
considered a variant of the Persian word “Jaspar”, meaning “Master of the Treasure”. So
presumably, Caspar would be the Wise Man who gave the gift of gold.

The original translation “wise men” which first appears in the King James version of the
Bible comes from the Greek word “magi” (plural of “magus”). Magi were a priestly caste
of learned men – and here too, they had to be men as only men were allowed in this caste.
The original word held connotations of philosopher, scientist and esteemed personage of
a realm, as well as astrologer and astronomer.

No one is sure exactly where the Biblical Wise Men came from, but the most common
belief is that they were Persian and were most likely Zoroastrian astronomer-priests.
Zoroastrians followed the prophet Zarathustra, who was born in Iran. Controversy reigns
about the birth date of this ancient prophet, with estimates ranging from about 8000 B.C.
to 600 B.C. but Zorastrian teachings are still followed in various parts of the world today.
Zarathustra was one of the very first religious leaders to preach a monotheistic religion,
focusing on belief in one God. He was also one of the first to stress the difference
between good and evil, and to link an ethical system for right behaviour with religion.

If it’s true that the Wise Men were indeed Zoroastrian priests, then, to me, this makes
their story all the more remarkable and meaningful. These foreign scholars and priests
were not even Jews. They believed in One God, it’s true, but they would not have named
their God the God of Jacob – and yet they followed the star to Bethlehem, and knelt and
worshipped the baby Jesus as the Son of the One True God – God of the Jews, God of
Persia, God of every one of us.

So the message of their story is huge and well ahead of its time – probably even well
ahead of our time, and it’s this: no matter how we name God, or how many religions
exist on earth, there is really only one God, the same across every culture and faith. I
think the truly wise and holy sages of every great world religion have always known this.
(Although and there have been very few such enlightened ones in human history,
probably the Wise Men were among them).

The Gifts of the Magi
What is the meaning of the three gifts mentioned in Matthew’s account, and what gifts, if
any, does the story of the Magi bring to us today?




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Meaning of the 3 Gifts

“…. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered Him gifts of gold, frankincense,
and myrrh.” (Matt. 2:11)

Each of these gifts is symbolic of the different aspects of Christ and his calling: Gold to
represent Christ’s kingly nature; frankincense to show His divinity, and myrrh to
symbolize His humanity.

1st Gift - Gold, then as now, was extremely valuable. Gold has been used as a medium of
exchange since at least 2500 B.C. and was the traditional offering of subjects to kings.
This precious metal has long represented earthly wealth. To give a gift of gold was to
offer respect and acknowledge your subservience to the recipient. Even today, a gift of
gold is one of the most enduring and valuable gifts you can give on earth. So Caspar’s
gift of gold to Jesus also represents to me, the yielding up all worldly possessions and
worldly values to God.

I’d like to share with you now an amusing little story about gold. Once upon a time, there
was a very rich man - let’s just pick an arbitrary name for him to make it easier to tell the
story – oh, say, Bill Gates… One day, Bill went to the doctor and discovered he only had
one month to live. All of his wealth couldn’t help prolong his life, so he turned over a
new leaf and focused all of his attention on being an incredible philanthropist. But he had
so much money he couldn’t spend it all, and so he begged God to be allowed to take his
riches with him when he died. At first God said no, but Bill was so insistent that finally
God relented, out of compassion. “OK, Bill,” said God, “I’ll make you a deal. You can
bring one suitcase with you. You can put whatever you’d like in it, but only one
suitcase”.

Well, Bill wracked his brain and decided to fill the suitcase with the latest top-secret
computer technology – next-generation computer chips so small they were barely visible
to the naked eye. He crammed billions of dollars worth of the chips into the suitcase, but
he had no sooner closed it, than he began to fret: “What if they don’t use computers in
heaven?”

So he emptied the suitcase, and decided you could never go wrong with the good old
American dollar. He went to the bank and got bills in the highest denomination he could
find and filled the suitcase with American money. But again, he had no sooner closed the
suitcase when he began to have second thoughts. Who knows what the exchange rates
might be like in heaven? So as quickly as he could, he opened the case and dumped all
the money out.

Now Bill was running out of time and he realized there was nothing more solid and
reliable and valuable than gold. So, with no time to lose, he loaded up his suitcase with
heavy gold bars. Just in time, he closed the suitcase and died moments later.
Soon Bill found himself at the pearly gates, suitcase in hand. St. Peter met him, took one
look at the suitcase, and said “sorry, no baggage allowed in heaven. You’ll have to leave
that behind.”



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But Bill explained about his special arrangement with God and St. Peter checked the
story out with a couple of the angels. Finally, he reluctantly agreed, “OK, I guess you can
bring the suitcase with you, but first I’ll have to open it and make sure there’s nothing
dangerous in there.” So Peter knelt down and opened up the suitcase. For a moment, he
simply stared at the dazzling gold within. Then he looked up at Bill with a very puzzled
expression on his face and said, “I don’t get it. God said you could bring anything at all
with you, and you brought PAVEMENT??!”


2nd Gift: Frankincense, the second gift of the Magi, was a very expensive, fragrant gum
distilled from a type of tree found in Persia, India and Arabia. Frankincense was prized
for its beautiful aroma when burned and was also used as a medicine and a perfume. As a
result of its wonderful fragrance, frankincense had long been used in worship, where it
was burned in offering to God. So the Magi’s gift of frankincense acknowledges the
divine nature of Christ.

3rd Gift: Finally, the gift of myrrh represents the humanity of Christ, and foreshadows his
death and suffering. Another aromatic gum taken from an Arabian and Ethiopian thorny
tree, myrrh had a very bitter taste, and was used in embalming because it had preservative
qualities. Myrrh was also a valued perfume, which was said to maintain its fragrance for
hundreds of years if stored in alabaster pots. In addition, myrrh was also an ingredient
used in holy ointments and had some medicinal properties as an anaesthetic when mixed
with wine. So, although the gift of myrrh is traditionally viewed as symbolic of the
bitterness of suffering that Christ would endure, you can see that myrrh had many
qualities, both good and bad, just as every human life contains a mixture of joy and
suffering. So myrrh was given to Jesus to represent his humanity.


Gifts of the Magi to Us
What about us? Do the Magi have any gifts for us, to take with us into the New Year?

I’d like to suggest several gifts that this story reveals for us. Since I’m getting a little tired
of all these “mystical three’s” (three Magi; three gifts; Bill’s three tries at the suitcase…),
I’d like to mention four gifts (just to be perverse!) that I think the Wise Men carry to us.

    1.Unity

The first is a gift I’ve already mentioned: the gift of Unity or Oneness. “Hear O Israel
the Lord Thy God is One God.” Whether they came from Persia or elsewhere, the Wise
Men show us that Christ came for the whole world – to make the world One; to remind us
of our connectedness, to heal our divisions and separations.

What about you? Is there a rift in your life that needs to be healed – some area where
perhaps you are holding a grudge and focusing on difference instead of unity? Why not
use this season of Epiphany to pray to the One God for healing in this area of your life,
for the ability to see and promote connection and unity rather than division?



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    (2) Humility

Second, the Wise Men show us the gift of humility. Although learned sages and possibly
even powerful rulers in their home countries, the Magi travel far and wide to reach Jesus
and when they find Him, they kneel and bow in humility before Him.

Now, I will confess to you that the word “humility” always makes me uncomfortable, I
think because it has come to have unhealthy connotations of lowliness and unworthiness.
Some people and even some religious traditions seem to revel in this idea of
unworthiness: they almost take pride in the awfulness of human nature. “I am a worm
crawling on the face of the earth…”

Call me sacrilegious, but I think the Christian message is a totally different one. I believe
God chose to enter human history as Jesus Christ in order to show us our infinite worth as
Sons and Daughters of God.

Jesus Christ is the pattern and the way for us to follow. He did not reject his humanity in
order to reunite with God, but lived among us, fully human to show us the way back to
oneness with God.

There is a spark of the divine living at the very centre of each one of us, waiting only to
be awakened. “Behold I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and
opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”( Rev. 3:20)

Humility, then, is not about abasing ourselves and calling ourselves less than we are.
A little while ago I came across this quote about humility and I think it’s a good one:
“Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” Rick
Warren says this in “The Purpose Driven Life”, but others before him have also come up
with the same insight, notably a former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, who
died in 1944. He put it this way: “Humility does not mean thinking less of yourself than
of other people, nor does it mean having a low opinion of your own gifts. It means
freedom from thinking about yourself at all.”

Interestingly, the sort of Uriah Heepish self-abasement that we commonly think of as
humility, is really just another form of self-absorption, and a very destructive one. God
does not make mistakes. You are God’s own child, infinitely precious in His sight. You
are loved exactly as you are right now. Your unique combination of talents and abilities
and, yes, shortcomings makes you who you are, and who you are is a child of God.

So, like the Magi’s gift of frankincense which recognizes the divinity of Jesus, humility is
actually about recognizing and honouring the Divine – in God; in Jesus Christ; in your
brother and sister; and also in yourself.

          3. Surrender

The third gift of the Magi to us, is the gift of surrender. At first, I was going to call this,
the gift of sacrifice – but, like humility, the word “sacrifice” for me has too many



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negative connotations, of self-punishment. I like the word and concept of surrender much
better.

Each of the Wise Men lays a worldly treasure at the baby’s cradle. Each expensive gift is
freely offered up to the Christ Child. The gift of gold, especially, to me symbolizes the
surrender of worldly wealth and worldly values to a higher, Divine order.

Surrender is all about letting go – even, sometimes, totally giving up - but giving up to
God, and that makes all the difference. In our culture, surrender is usually frowned upon
– we view it as losing. But we must learn surrender if we want to draw closer to God.

Surrender is closely linked to humility. When we surrender our will to God’s, we
acknowledge that God’s power is greater than ours and that we need God’s help. This can
be very hard to do. After all, we live in a very individualistic culture which highly values
independence and competence. So making that decision to let go of something – even a
burden or a problem which we can’t seem to solve on our own – can be extremely
difficult to do.

Here’s where the gift part of surrender comes in, though. Because as soon as you “let go
and let God”, you realize you are no longer alone and that you don’t have to do it all by
yourself. Surrender brings with it a profound sense of relief.

I’ve had many times in my life when I’ve fretted and worried something to death and
gotten nowhere. Then finally (usually long past the time I should have!), out of
desperation more than anything else, I’ve let go of the problem and surrendered to God
my inability to change or improve things on my own. When I do this, I always feel
immediately lighter. Sometimes nothing happens for a while. But other times – more
often than I would expect, in fact – letting go, for me, results in the problem being solved
almost miraculously. Usually, the solution comes in a way I couldn’t have foreseen and
rarely according to my timetable! But when I am finally able to surrender and let go, it’s
as if God were simply waiting for me to step aside, to make room for God to step in and
help.

Is there something you are holding on to, that you’re having trouble letting go of?
Perhaps there’s a challenge you face or a difficult relationship or a problem in your life
that you keep trying to solve over and over again, with no success. Then make the
decision – right now, today – to surrender that problem to God. Just give up on it. Let go.
Hand it over, lock, stock and barrel, to God, and then – this is the hard part! - leave it to
God. Resist the impulse to check in frequently to see how God’s doing: “oh, God?
Remember that little difficulty I handed over to you yesterday? Just wondering if you’d
gotten to it yet… I have some suggestions for you…” No no no! Let go; leave it to God.

         4.Hope

The final gift of the Magi which I want to discuss today, is the gift of hope. I don’t know
about you, but I often find this time of year, after Christmas but before spring arrives, to
be the most difficult. A New Year arrives, but we’re still in the dead of winter. They tell
us the shortest day has passed and the sun is on the upswing again, but it sure doesn’t feel


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like it here in Toronto in January! Christmas has come and gone, in a blaze of colour and
glory and overspending – and then we’re left with the bills, and the long dark days of
January; February; March… The Christmas message of hope can seem very far away at
this time. That’s why I like it that Epiphany takes place well after the Christmas rush has
died down and even after New Year’s.

Though the Magi were not even followers of the Jewish faith, they travel from afar to
follow the star to Bethlehem, where they see the Messiah with their own eyes. How
wonderful for them! It must have been easy for them to have hope, right?

And yet – these were learned, powerful, priestly men, so they were probably at least
middle-aged if not older. And Jesus was a newborn infant. Realistically, they were not
likely to see any realization of God’s plan in their lifetime. It would be 30 years before
Jesus would even begin his teaching. Quite possibly, they would die before Jesus reached
adulthood. Yet they understood that human time is not God’s time. As holy men, they
understood the full significance of Jesus’s birth, God’s priceless gift of hope to a hurting
world.

Because that is really the message of Epiphany and the final gift of the Magi to us – the
gift of hope. The knowledge that, no matter how dark the times nor how cold the winter,
God has not and will not forsake us.

The prophet Isaiah put it far more beautifully and poetically than I ever could, in chapter
60:
Isaiah 60: 1-6
60:1 Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon
you.
60:2 For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD
will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.
60:3 Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
60:4 Lift up your eyes and look around…
60:5 Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because …the
wealth of the nations shall come to you.
60:6 A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all
those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim
the praise of the LORD.

(And there are the camels, at last! I KNEW there were camels. See? There’s always
hope!)

So, as we go forward into these dark, early days of the new year let us carry in our hearts
the amazing message of hope, of the Epiphany. And let us remember not only the gifts of
earthly treasure which the Wise Men laid before the infant King, but the even greater
spiritual gifts they offer to us today: unity; humility; surrender; and above all, hope.

For Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is born, and He calls each one of us by name, saying
“Hear this good news, precious child of God:” (John 8:12) “I am the light of the world.


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Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Arise,
shine, for your light has come.
 AMEN.




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