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Wise People Bring Gifts

 

Matthew 2:1-12            1st John 5:3             Psalm 103

Everyone seems to complain about Christmas shopping. What are we supposed to give the relative who already has more clothes than she’ll ever wear, more books than she’ll ever read, and three waffle irons as well? Why are the stores so dreadfully overheated when all the shoppers are wearing overcoats and winter boots anyway? Why do so many salespersons seem to resent being asked to help when selling is their job? Still, despite our complaining about having to buy gifts, we continue to purchase them.

The real reason we keep purchasing gifts and giving them to those dear to us is that we relish giving them; we enjoy giving gifts even more than we enjoy receiving them. We are more excited, more suspenseful, when we watch someone else open the gift we have given than we are when we open the gift given to us. And we know why. Giving a gift is recognition of the recipient’s worthiness. It’s also a declaration of that person’s significance to us. Most importantly, giving a gift is a vehicle for giving ourselves.

Two millennia ago three Gentile men brought gifts to a Jewish child. They brought them for the same three reasons that we give gifts: they were recognising the child’s worthiness; they were declaring the child’s significance to them, and they were giving themselves to the child in the act of giving their gifts. Their gifts were gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Today we are going to examine each gift. Let’s start with frankincense.

 

I: — Frankincense was incense used in worship. In bringing incense to Jesus the wise men were admitting that Jesus is worthy of worship. Gentiles though they were, they knew that God alone is to be worshipped. They knew too that nothing so horrified Jewish people as idolatry. Then in worshipping the Bethlehem babe were the wise men idolaters (in which case they weren’t wise and we should pity them)? Or were they indeed worshipping him who is God incarnate (in which case we should emulate them)? Matthew tells us that this child is Emmanu-el, “With us-God”. The foundation of the Christian faith is precisely what the wise men were acknowledging: in this child God himself has come to live the life of humankind. Charles Wesley captured it all in his Christmas carol, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail th’Incarnate Deity.” Jesus Christ is God’s total identification with the human predicament through his self-identification with the Bethlehem babe.

And it’s precisely this notion that so very many people find unpalatable. They say it turns simple truth (as it were) into impenetrable labyrinth. Why not look upon Jesus as a splendid example, they ask, even a fine teacher, even a prophet, even the greatest of the prophets? He is all these, to be sure; yet the three visitors knew him to be so much more as well.

Within the church precincts there are always to be found those who secretly (or not so secretly) would really prefer to be unitarians. Unitarians speak of Jesus in glowing terms. Their admiration for him is genuine. Yet however much of the New Testament’s depiction of Jesus they esteem they finally reject the substance of the New Testament. For the apostles insist that this one Jew who knew that God alone is to be worshipped accepted the worship people rendered him and even insisted on it. Knowing it was blasphemy to claim to be Son of God, he yet claimed it. When Thomas fell before him in the wake of Easter Jesus didn’t say, “Now, now Thomas, there’s no need to get carried away. You flatter me with your exaggeration.” Our Lord never said that Thomas was exaggerating or had been carried away. When our Lord’s detractors had hissed at him, “Why do you pronounce forgiveness? Only God can do that” Jesus had replied, “My point exactly.”

The secret or not-so-secret unitarians among us maintain that the notion of incarnation is too narrow. Alas, they forget one thing: the effectiveness of a knife depends on the narrowness of its cutting edge. No one can do life-saving surgery with a crowbar. Church history demonstrates again and again that God surges over people and over congregations rendering them forever different not when God-in-general is talked about but rather when Jesus-in-particular is exalted. When Paul announces that he’s not ashamed of the gospel just because he knows the gospel to be God’s power for salvation (Romans 1:16 ), he’s always aware that the gospel is ultimately the risen, ascended Son himself. This one person and no one else seized him and shook him. Apart from this one person the world would never have heard of the little man from Tarsus .

One of my favourite scriptural episodes is that of the man born blind in John 9. Jesus enables the man to see. (Seeing, of course, is a biblical metaphor for knowing.) Are people overjoyed to have the fellow now able to see? On the contrary they harass him. Finally the man himself, simply knowing, says, “Listen. I was blind, I can see, and I know who did it.” And still they harass him.

When today, in our midst, the Incarnate one himself renders forever different the man or woman who can only speak simply yet gratefully of herself as lost and now found, dead and now alive, immobilised and now freed, silent and now speaking on behalf of her Lord; when it happens today detractors and assailants are as insensitive and aggressive as they were then. The theologian, embarrassed by the new believer’s simple testimony and wishing to take refuge in religious complexity, comments, “But are you aware of epichoresis and enhypostasia?” (Epichoresis is the mutual coinherence of the persons of the Trinity. Enhypostasia we’ll leave for another day.) The philosopher asks, “Are you aware of the metaphysical presuppositions of your assertion?” “Metaphysics” is a new word for the sighted blind man and he thinks it has something to do with Eno’s fruit salts. The psychologist suggests, “Let’s talk about your relationship with your mother.” His parents say, “We sent you to Sunday School all those years; we even sent you to Rev. Snodgrass’s confirmation class. And now you are telling us that only recently, when you really grasped the truth of the Incarnation, Jesus Christ himself lit you up?” The clergy say. What do the clergy say? Not much. Being face-to-face with someone who glows with the assurance that she sees and knows where earlier she was blind and unaware; this bothers many clergy. Meanwhile, of course, the browbeaten person continues to say, “I was blind, I can see, and I know who did it. What’s the problem?”

The wise men brought frankincense. They worshipped the child. They weren’t idolaters. They simply bowed in glad, grateful adoration before him who is in fact the effectual presence of God.

 

II: — The wise men brought gold as well. Gold was the gift that befitted a king. In the child they recognized the royal ruler.

It’s most important that we not stop with frankincense but offer gold as well. Not only are we to worship our Lord; we must also obey him. It’s too easy to worship him (or think we do) and then forget him; too easy to think we can profit from the salvation he has won for us yet refuse the sacrifice he requires of us; too easy to call upon him when we need him for ourselves yet ignore him when he needs us for work in his world; too easy to speak of what he has done in us while shunning what he needs to do through us. In short, it’s too easy to cheapen grace by claiming forgiveness from him while disdaining obedience to him.

Authentic believers always know that obedience isn’t onerous. Obedience is life; obedience is blessing. “His commandments are not burdensome” John exclaims in his first epistle. (1 John 5:3) Why aren’t they burdensome? Because the obedience we render our Lord is the natural expression of what he has made us by his grace.

Gold? Of course. He is the royal ruler who claims our obedience. If he has touched our eyes and made us to see then we know our obedience to be not irksome but rather the following of that path where life grows richer, even as other paths invariably find life growing poorer.

I used to think it was children, even adolescents, who had difficulty getting the point that while we can do anything in life that we want, anythingwe do entails momentous consequences.  I have found that most adults are as slow to grasp this point as any child or adolescent. Any choice we make, any option we pursue, any decision we settle on; these have irretrievable consequences. To expect anything else is to expect magic. Even the most enlightened people in our enlightened age, I have found, actually expect an infantile world of magic, only to rage and curse and lament and whine when, at age 40 or 50 or 60, it comes home to them that there is no magic and the option they pursued back then now has consequences pursuing them. To be sure, in our non-magical world there are also consequences to obeying Jesus Christ; these consequences, however, are all blessing.

“His commandments are not burdensome.” The apostle John wrote these words inasmuch as he had proven them true over and over in his own experience. But what had moved him to try them, try them out, as it were, in the first place? He had seen the commandments of Christ fulfilled in Christ himself. He had seen his Lord live what his Lord asks of his followers. He had seen that what his Lord lived was incomparably better, more satisfying than any “life” (so-called) he had seen to date, including his own. Then why not “give it a try”? And when Jesus had said to his disciples, “Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light”, John had seen the truth exemplified in the yoke-maker himself.

We must always remember that it’s impossible to be yokeless. Something is going to determine how we live and what we do and where we go and whom we obey. Our yoke can be an upbringing that we have put on unthinkingly; it can be New Age ideology (or something akin to it) that we put on deliberately; it can be the mindset that characterises our social class inasmuch as the last thing we want is to appear out-of-step with our social class; it can be capitulation to craving, whether our craving be for illicit sex or social climbing or financial superiority or intellectual snobbery. These are all yokes. They all appear easy and light but in fact prove themselves so very onerous that the yoke strangles and the burden crushes. Jesus says, “Since yokelessness is impossible; since something inside you or outside you determines what you do, how you live, ultimately who you are, why not try my yoke? For my yoke fits well and doesn’t strangle; my burden is light and doesn’t crush. In fact my yoke is like the well-fitted yoke that allows the ox to work all day without choking itself; my burden is no more burdensome than wings are to a bird or fins are to a fish or skates are to a hockey player; no burden at all.” It was because the apostle John had first seen his Lord do that truth which the master now urged upon all; it was because John had first found it so very attractive that he had come to try it for himself, then had found it easy and light, and finally had come to write, “His commandments are not burdensome.”

The wise men brought gold. They were acknowledging their rightful ruler. They wanted only to obey their Lord and therein “find” themselves.

 

III: — Lastly the wise men brought myrrh. Myrrh was a medicinal substance used for healing. The wise men admitted Jesus to be the healer; the healer, the healer of the world’s dis-ease, the world’s wounds, the world’s distress and disorder and dismay.

Today we associate healing almost exclusively with the reversal of physical illness and the discomfort associated with such illness. No one wishes to belittle this. Anyone who has found relief even in aspirin for headache or backache or toothache isn’t going to belittle healing in the sense of reversing physical illness. At the same time, the biggest ills in life aren’t physical. The most significant ill in life isn’t the broken bone or the arthritic joint or the gall stones or even that illness which will close out our earthly existence. The biggest wounds in life are the rent that has occurred between God and us, together with the rent that opens up between us and those dearest us, plus the seemingly chronic dis-ease that leaves us knowing something is profoundly out of order inside ourselves even as we are unable to name it or fix it. This is where healing is most sorely needed.

Unquestionably Corinth was a rough city. We shouldn’t think, however, that it was any worse than rough cities known to us. It was of the same order as the tough parts of Glasgow today or Amsterdam or the Bronx or even the Jane-Finch area of Toronto . Paul established a congregation in Corinth and subsequently corresponded with it. In his correspondence he lets us in on what he found when he first went to Corinth , what he found among the people who came to faith in Jesus Christ through his ministry and whose lives were different ever after. “Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, drunkards, revilers, robbers.” He adds, “And this what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (1Cor. 6:9-11) “This what some of you used to be.” Used to be, but are no longer.

Since I am a professor of historical theology I often return in mind and heart to the earliest days of the Eighteenth Century Awakening when John Wesley and George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards inadvertently touched a match to tinder and something burst into flame that surprised them as much as it surprised anyone else. I ask myself what was in the match that these men struck. There were many ingredients in the match, of course, one of which was their tireless insistence, “God can do something with sin beyond forgiving it.” People hungered to hear this and thereafter proved it. “God can do something with sin beyond forgiving it.” What can God do? “This is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”

That healer whom the wise men adored was the fulfilment of Psalm 103. The psalmist cries, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all God’s benefits. He forgives all your iniquity and heals all your diseases.” (Ps. 103:2-3) It’s glorious that God forgives all our iniquity; more glorious still that he does something with our iniquity beyond forgiving it: he heals all our diseases.

All of them? Yes. Because Jesus is resurrection and life he heals us of that disease which closes out our earthly existence; and in healing us of this he heals us of all those diseases that anticipate it. Then what about the remaining dis-eases, the ones I mentioned a minute ago: the deepest rent between us and him, between us and each other, between us and our truest self: does he heal these too? What the psalmist wrote he wrote out of his experience of the Christmas gift given to him a thousand years before the Bethlehem event as surely as the same gift is given to you and me two thousand years after the event. For this reason the psalmist was unerring when he wrote, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all God’s benefits. He forgives all your iniquity and heals all your diseases.

 

Three Gentiles spared nothing to get themselves to a Jewish newborn. They wanted to bring the child gifts. They brought frankincense, for they were bowing in worship before one whom they ought to worship just because he was, and is, Emmanu-el, “God-with-us.” They brought gold, for they were obediently submitting themselves to their rightful ruler, only to learn subsequently that unlike all other yokes and burdens in life his yoke is easy and his burden light. They brought myrrh, for they knew that in Jesus of Nazareth there had appeared the kingdom of God , and the kingdom of God is simply the creation of God healed.

   In it all, of course, the wise men knew that their gift-giving was the vehicle of their uttermost giving of themselves. These men were wise, really wise.

 

Victor Shepherd

December 2000