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The Gifts We Bring

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 1st of First Month, 2023

Speaker: Sabrina Falls

Scripture: Isaiah 60:1-6, NRSVUE

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.

Matthew 2:1-12, NRSVUE

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!