given on Sunday, January 4, 2009
This week I saw something I have never seen before: first I thought it was a falling star, then I thought it was a bottle rocket, but finally I realized it must be space debris burning up as it re-entered the atmosphere. It was only around 5 p.m. so it was not dark, yet it went blazing across the sky and shooting off green, white and blue sparkles. It was beautiful and it took my breath away.
Then I thought about the three kings. Can you imagine what they must have thought when they spotted that star in the sky which they could not remember seeing before? Remember that the stars were vital at that time for a number of reasons. There was no Map Quest only the stars to use for navigation. There were not satellites circling the earth to explain the change of the seasons, but there were stars and constellations that appeared to move as the days passed. There were no telescopes that could pinpoint the galaxies and gauge the distances in the heavens; there were just the stars visible to the naked eye.
These three kings were also known as the wise men or the Magi, and were respected for their wisdom. No NASA, no astronomers, no Galileo was available to go seek answers. The three kings were the authorities. What these kings or Magi said made a difference. So just who were these Magi who saw the Messiah’s star that night over 2,000 years ago?
The Magi, according to the notes in the Archeological Study Bible, were a religious caste devoted to astrology, divination, and interpretation of dreams. When I read this, I had a little trouble because my mental picture turned into the Wizard character of Mickey Mouse –the one in Fantasia. That mental image made it difficult to understand just how respected the Magi were when Jesus was born. Still, I read on and learned that the Magi probably lived in Persia or southern Arabia which is where or close to where so many of our service men and women are serving in current-day Iraq.
On the night that the Messiah was born, the Magi saw something happen in the sky. They knew the prophecies that the Israelites talked about and were waiting to be fulfilled. The Magi, sometimes known as fortune-tellers or sorcerers, concluded that the vision they saw must be a sign that the king of the Jews had been born. When the Magi shared their understanding of the Messiah’s star with King Herod, he was alarmed. The question is why?
Looking at the history for more understanding, King Herod was a political leader who was named King of Judea because he suppressed opposition in Jerusalem. The news that a new King of the Jews was just born alarmed him and made him feel threatened, Herod had aligned himself with the Greco-Roman culture and religion even though he tried to stay connected to the Jews (interestingly enough, Herod’s father had converted to Judaism); but he feared the loss of his political power which was given him by the Roman government.
But back to the Messiah’s star. Whether or not the “star” that the Magi saw on the night of Jesus’ birth was an actual star or whether it was some other galactic event, the Magi’s interpretation set the world spinning, so to speak, into an entirely new direction. The prophecies are fulfilled, but the world did not immediately register the significance of the Magi’s journey to the see the baby in Bethlehem.
Look at the Christmas carol again:
We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar,
field and fountain, moor and mountain following yonder star.
The wise men were from another country, whether they were from Persia or Arabia, the journey covered far more distance than Joseph and Mary did on the three-day trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Joseph and Mary covered about six miles; the Magi traveled about 12 days so we can estimate that their journey was 24 or more miles. By today’s standards, that is not a major journey, but the Magi crossed the border between countries, traveled by camel and foot, and had no modern conveniences.
And they brought gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. We can look at the hymn again and find a secret in them. The three gifts themselves hold a prophetic message concerning the life of the Messiah:
…gold I bring to crown him again,
King forever, never ceasing, never over us all to reign…
Gold, frankincense and myrrh were the “most valuable, transportable, and marketable items of the day” according to the Archeological Study Bible. Each gift was important. Gold seems to indicate the Magi were crowning the Messiah as king, but what about the frankincense and myrrh?
Look back at the hymn:
Frankincense to offer have I; incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, voices raising, worshiping God on high.
The priests in the temple used frankincense as part of worship to God. It was kept burning as part of the ongoing worship in the temple.
The third gift, myrrh, has even a stronger prophecy for me especially after I hear the carol’s words of that fourth verse:
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breaths a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
Myrrh was a perfume often used to relieve pain and was used as one of the oil used to prepare the bodies for burial. Why I had never noticed the significance of that fourth verse before, I cannot explain. But this week I hear the words and see the symbolism of the three gifts, especially the myrrh.
The Messiah was born in order to make one more attempt to teach God’s unconditional love for each one of us. The Magi, on the twelfth day after the Messiah’s birth, delivered the gifts which explained the significance and the role that was prophesized: the role of a king, the role of the priest, and the role of a martyr—a man who died for his beliefs.
The Messiah’s star that appeared that first Christmas night was seen in a different land. The Magi, who were not part of the Israelites’ twelve tribes, still understood the significance of the Messiah’s birth. Herod, too, understood the significance of the Magi’s interpretation and felt threatened. The Magi’s behaviors were to go and find the Messiah and present him with gifts; but Herod’s reaction was to seek and destroy the Messiah.
As we leave the Christmas season, we leave with the beginning of the trials of a man. We leave with the vision of a king in a manger, and of a family who must flee their homeland to protect the life of their child. The significance of the Magi’s three gifts can be discovered as the story of Jesus unfolds.
Today we celebrate communion. Most of the time we see communion as a reminder of the final days of Jesus: the days in which he was taken prisoner, beaten, convicted, and crucified. But today, we can see communion as a reminder of the first days of Jesus. Today we see communion as a personal connection to the human Jesus, who was born of Mary, who was an infant that had to be protected, who grew up in a very typical Jewish family learning the trade of his father, who was taught his faith in the temple, who was baptized by his cousin John, and who began his ministry around the age of 30 only to be questioned, tormented, and killed.
The Magi saw the Messiah’s star and they knew all that was to be for this small child. They had to tell Herod, but they knew that they could not return to Herod and identify exactly which child that was born that Christmas night was the Messiah, the king of the Jews. The Magi saw the Christ child, gave him their gifts, and then departed, quietly returning to their own home so that they did not have to tell Herod who the Messiah was.
The story begins, the story gets messy, but the story lives. The Messiah was born, and the final verse of that Christmas carol sums up the story:
Glorious now behold him arise; King and God and sacrifice:
Alleluia, Alleluia, sounds through the earth and skies.
Let us join together to sing these words one more time as we prepare to remember the Messiah by taking communion:
[Sing the full hymn one more time, We Three Kings, no. 254.]
Dear Father Almighty,
We have seen your star, we have journeyed to the manger, we have heard the angels sing, and we have lifted our praises. Let us be like the Magi who knew the significance of the tiny baby. Let us bring our gifts to the manger, too, as thanks for the gift of God’s grace and eternal life. As we join together in the sacrament of communion, let us once again rejoice in the gift of your son who taught us your love. –Amen