Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 1st of First Month, 2023
Speaker: Sabrina Falls
1 Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 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. 3 Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together; they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried in their nurses’ arms. 5 Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you; the wealth of the nations shall come to you. 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.
1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star in the east and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him, 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the magi and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out, and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen in the east, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Isn’t this a wonderful story? There’s so much in it that stirs the imagination: a star rising in the east, a spiritual quest, a clandestine royal rendezvous, fear and joy, extravagant gifts, mysterious dreams and visions, a secretive return home.
Who were these wise travelers from the east? How many of them were there? Why did they brave this long and perilous journey? Did they find what they were seeking? What gifts did they bring?
Before we try to answer these questions, let’s consider what we already know. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was born in the Judean village of Bethlehem in the time of Herod, a king appointed by Rome to rule over this particular corner of the Roman empire known as Palestine.
Even though he’s a Jew, Herod’s knowledge of Judaism seems a bit lacking, as he needs to ask his advisors where the Messiah was to be born. Meanwhile, this band of non-Jews from the east apparently know enough about Judaism to link a certain star they see rising in the east with someone they call “the child who has been born king of the Jews.”
In some Bible translations, they’re called “wise men.” Others call them astrologers, kings, or magi. Which is it?
The Greek word here is “magoi,” which doesn’t mean either “wise men” or “kings.” Depending on how you understand wisdom, some of them may have been wise; others maybe not so much. Some of them, but not necessarily all, may have been men.
Wise or not, male or female, they were likely highly educated and knowledgeable in astrology, astronomy, history, philosophy, medicine, and mathematics. They were not kings or queens, but they served as advisors to kings and queens.
They seemed to have special insight into the mysteries of the universe and supernatural abilities to interpret dreams, foretell the future, and read the stars and how they affect human events. Some were magicians – mediators between humans and the higher powers—and would attempt to use their own rituals and methods to manipulate events.
With regard to wisdom, the magi here are wise enough to recognize this star, and to leave behind their own religions, traditions, and cultures, and take this pilgrimage of faith to Jerusalem.
In contrast to their faith is fear: the fear of Herod, who thinks the phrase “king of the Jews” means himself, and feels threatened when he hears the magi say they’ve come to Jerusalem to find and pay homage to the “child born to be king of the Jews.” And the religious and political elite of Jerusalem are afraid of losing their own power and control.
Once Herod finds out where this child is to be born, he holds a secret information-sharing meeting with the magi and then sends them to Bethlehem in hope of carrying out his paranoid plot to thwart God’s will!
Our travelers from the east leave these dark shadows behind and walk in the light – the light of the star – as they make their way to Bethlehem. When the star stops at the child’s house, they’re filled to the brim with great joy!
They go in. And when they see the child with his mother they don’t just kneel–they fall—in worship. They’re the first gentiles not only to recognize who he is, but to lay down their former beliefs and practices, and turn their hearts and hopes over to him.
And they offer their most precious gifts. They open up their treasure chests.
I think of my grandkids with their treasure boxes, where they save and protect their collections of little jewels and coins and rocks and sea shells and pine cones and Pokemon cards and whatever else they cherish. Their delight when they open the box, take each treasure out one-by-one, show them off, then put them back and close the lid and keep it somewhere safe.
Imagine giving any of these treasures away to someone! It would have to be someone very special. Someone you loved so much that you just had to share something of yourself – your most cherished treasure – with them.
That’s what the magi do.
But hang on a sec. What would a baby or new mom do with gold, frankincense, and myrrh? If I were Mary, I think I’d prefer diapers, or teething toys, or a casserole! Maybe if, instead of “wise men” these visitors had been wise women, they’d have brought much more practical gifts!
And they could have been women–or some of them at least. The text doesn’t say they were men, or how many of them came, or how many gifts they brought.
Matthew mentions only three– gold, frankincense, and myrrh—which in the ancient world were standard gifts to honor a king or a deity.
Gold is a highly precious metal and you’d have to be very wealthy to give it as a gift. Frankincense is a perfume used in offerings, including at the Jerusalem Temple. (Ex 30:9, 34-38) Myrrh provides an oil for anointing and embalming of the dead. Here, these three gifts are richly symbolic–pointing to the Christ child as king and as divine, and to his death.
As we heard in our first scripture this morning, the prophet Isaiah (60) envisions nations and royals and all sorts of people coming from afar to God’s light, bringing their abundance and their gold and frankincense and praising God.
This event described in the Gospel of Matthew represents what much of the Christian church will celebrate next week as “epiphany”—or manifestation—when the incarnation of God in Christ Jesus is made known and shown to the whole world, the gentile world.
So what these magi do is revolutionary! It’s a cosmic shift, as they come to Christ, as they give up their most precious treasures—perhaps even some of the tools of their trade—and lay them all down at Christ’s feet, as if to say:
We’re done with the darkness of fear and superstition, and thinking we could figure out and control or manipulate events by any power or wisdom other than Yours! Your birth sets us free from all that, and we worship and honor and praise God alone!
It's extraordinary! These insanely rich and influential sorcerers and sages leave the comfort and prestige and power of their world, and risk the discomfort and dangers of a weeks-or-months-long journey to what could have been a hostile and unwelcoming place.
They give up so much, make themselves so vulnerable, and feel such exuberant joy when they find this child!
I feel like there’s something Matthew isn’t telling us. I find it hard to believe that their only gifts were gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Maybe it’s the Quaker in me, but I would call these “outward gifts.” And yet the whole story points to a profusion of “inward gifts.” Inward gifts are unseen to the human eye, but not to God, who sees the heart (1 Sam 16:7).
Actually, inward gifts are visible when we put them into action. In forgiveness and mercy, in advocacy for justice, in peacemaking and kindness and acts of service, in gratitude, in all the big and little ways we share faith, and hope, and love.
The prophets and psalmists teach us that it’s these inward gifts that matter most to God.
Hosea: For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifices… (6:6)
Psalm 51: …the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart… (16-17)
Amos: Even though you offer me your burnt and grain offerings, I will not accept them…But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (5:21-24)
Micah: …will Yahweh be pleased with thousands of rams, with 10,000 rivers of oil? God has told you, O human, what is good; and what does Yahweh require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (6:6-8)
So maybe Matthew only writes about the fancy, flashy gifts because that’s what impresses “the world,” or to make a theological point. But reading between the lines of this story, I see more. I see a group of women and men—their wisdom, their courage, their humility, and their exuberant joy, and imagine that at least some of them brought simple gifts.
Gifts of the heart.
Like the song we sang earlier “In the Bleak Midwinter,” especially the last verse:
What can I give him, poor as I am
If I were a shepherd I would give a lamb.
If I were a wise man, I would do my part.
Yet what I can I give Him, Give my heart.
Matthew doesn’t say anything in this story about faith, or hope, or even the greatest of gifts–love. And yet, faith, hope, and love are everywhere in this story!
What else but faith could have opened the eyes and hearts of these magi to perceive the world in a whole new way and turn their lives upside down?
What else but hope could carry them through the darkness of fear, deceit, confusion, and uncertainty into the clear and compassionate light of Christ?
What else but unbridled love could move them to feel such pure joy at the sight of a child?
And they are moved by love—the love of God—a love so beautiful, so powerful, so vulnerable—a love they had never fully understood before—now made known to them and the whole world.
In this new year, in this time of Epiphany, I invite you to consider how their story becomes our story. I invite us all to go deeper with this story, to travel with the magi, to contemplate what God is making manifest to us at this time, to think about how Christ Jesus has transformed our lives, or our way of seeing the world and our fellow beings, to consider what gifts—both outward and inward–we can and will offer to Christ.
For this process I offer a few queries:
What might we be clinging to that’s holding us back, or keeping us down, or in the dark? Is God calling us to let it go, to leave it behind and move in the direction of the healing light of Christ? Are we willing to take the first step—or the next step–on that sacred pilgrimage?
Who or what are we seeking? When we find it will we recognize it? Will we know it by its love—for us and for all others?
Will we have the trust and the humility to lay down our burdens and struggles and fears right there, give a huge sigh of relief, and just collapse in God’s arms?
What gifts are worthy of this Holy One who is embodied in all God’s beloved creation?
In the bleak midwinter of our world today, it’s hard to trust anything, to have hope, sometimes even to love or feel loved. The good news is that we don’t have to figure it out or understand it or manage it all ourselves. We have seen the star. God’s love has been made known to us.
So may we, like the magi, come from wherever we are, and with gratitude, bring our best gifts: the deep trust of faith, the courage of hope, and the generous love that has its source in God’s intimate and infinite love for us.
Let’s look into our own treasure boxes and consider what gifts we can—and will—offer to Christ today and in this new year!
New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
This document is protected by U.S. and International copyright laws. Reproduction and distribution without permission from the author is prohibited. © 2023 Sabrina Falls. All rights reserved.