Isaiah 60:1-6

Matthew 2:1-12

I owe this sermon to Kathy Stanaway, who called a week or two ago with some curiosity about the “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” Jesus receives in the reading from Matthew. Well, it turns out that the traditional answer is right in your hymnal, so open it up to We Three Kings. Note first, at the top left, it shows that unlike most Christmas carols, this one is not by Godhimself. Rev. John Henry Hopkins wrote it in 1857, early in the late-19th-century hymn-writing boom. In fact, this text captures some longstanding traditions about the gifts and their meanings, going back to some of the earliest Christian art.

Not that every tradition is legitimate, of course. Notice what’s not in Matthew’s story. Most of it is in the first verse; it gets better after that. First, “we three kings.” Does anyone know their names? Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar – they got these names about 500 years after Jesus’ birth. (For the scoop on all this, there’s a great Wikipedia article.) And there were three of them, right? Matthew doesn’t even say “some,” which is in our translation, he just says “magi.” The number came from the early Christian centuries, presumably because we picture one person per gift. And, of course, “kings”? Nope. Matthew says magoi, which probably meant Zoroastrian priests from Persia. They would have been astrologers, which is exactly what our translation says they were. The idea of them being kings comes from Isaiah, for instance Isaiah 60:3, the prophecy that “kings [will be drawn] to dawning of you new day.” Isaiah is talking about foreigners bringing tribute to the restored people of Israel. Matthew is all about Jesus fulfilling prophecies, and he’s clearly talking about this. What’s remarkable is that he didn’t bother to make it explicit.

I’m not sure what to tell you about “yonder star.” I suppose it’s Matthew’s interpretation of “your light has come” in Isaiah 60:1 (using a more common translation). The star fits the ancient astrological idea that a person’s star appears when they’re born. A bright, significant star would mean an important birth, such as a king. The star is also helpful for attracting people from the East, showing that Christ reveals God’s light to foreigners, even through natural wonders. And that’s Matthew’s big theological point: Jesus is God’s self-revelation (epiphany) to all people through Israel’s Savior.

The next three verses of the carol flesh out Matthew’s understanding of Jesus through those gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh. According to the carol, these are gifts for a king, a god, and a martyr (none of them are for a baby). First, you crown a king with gold. This king will rule something greater than a nation – he will be eternal (“ceasing never”) and universal (“over us all to reign”). And in the second verse, frankincense. Incense was a key part of religious worship, and Christ is God incarnate, the perfect intercessor (a priest greater than Aaron) who is God with Us. And it’s even better, because these two verses fulfill Isaiah 60:6 (and several other Isaiah and Psalm passages), where “they will come from Sheba, bringing gold and incense.”

This makes you want to skip verse four, right? Not just because it’s a tough thing to give a baby, but because it doesn’t fulfill a prophecy. Isaiah was happy with gold and incense, but not Matthew. Myrrh was so important that Matthew goes beyond the prophets to include it. Myrrh is a burial spice; like Rev. Hopkins says, it’s for “a life of gathering gloom.” This Jesus will die.

This is theology in a minor key. From the beginning, Jesus’ life has been preparing for his death. Matthew’s whole story points to its end. Matthew’s nativity story is not sentimental about children; the next part of chapter two kills thousands of infants and toddlers. Even here, Jesus’ life at stake. Herod was not interested in worshiping the newborn king, he wanted to kill Jesus in fear for his power. But none of that is where this myrrh points. This is about Jesus’ eventual (should I say inevitable?) execution.

I can’t make that easier, except to avoid it, but myrrh is about what happens when verses two and three come among us. Jesus’ birth, as God in human flesh, upends how we use power and practice religion. Jesus breaks all our human rules. He violates our boundaries about who gets to know God and share in relationships of love and wholeness. He transforms our use of strength, that we not use it to consolidate our own position but to join our power with those who have no power. The magi bring myrrh because Herod is there, because the chief priests are there, because God doesn’t fit in the world of political or religious power.

But that’s not the end of the story. Matthew points us to chapter 26, but he wrote 28 chapters in this gospel, which you have to read so you can get to the real end. Chapter 26 starts with a woman anointing Jesus’ feet with myrrh, then goes on through Jesus’ final meal, prayer, arrest, and abandonment. He made this meal a final token of love before all his disciples failed him, because the greatest sign of his love was still to come. In the next chapter, Jesus submits to brutal interrogation, an empty conviction, a torturous execution, with no defense but his faith in God’s eternal love. The eternal king conquers power by refusing to fight back; he lets our violence expose its emptiness on him. The perfect God-priest opens heaven by letting religion cast God out, just as religion does when it tries to keep God in. Life swallows death forever by letting “the stone-cold tomb” swallow it, and so it reveals a still greater Life.

That’s the epiphany, the unveiling of heaven, the shining forth of God’s life. “Glorious now behold Him arise, King and God and Sacrifice.” God is always and everywhere among us. New life eternally sprouts in our shadows of death and hatred. Even if we cast God out, as we do again and again, God remains the Life of all life and the Light of all light. Holiness submits to our sin in order to forgive us. Joy wades into our sorrows in order to redeem them.

The God of heaven and earth breathes life into a human body and entrusts himself to people no different from you or me. The Giver of every gift accepts gifts from mortals and lets even our gratitude and worship reveal who God is. So soon we’ll share our gifts, our monetary signs of power and our edible signs of sanctity, and God will be here. Christ will come, not because I say the right things, or because we’re especially qualified, but because Christ is God’s presence with us. Christ shines in us by the Holy Spirit because God’s love can’t be put out. It can’t be hidden. It can’t be lost. “Alleluia, Alleluia Sounds through the earth and skies”!

Amen

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