(Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11; Sirach 24:1-12)
There were three friends who had spent their lives growing in wisdom and knowledge. They prayed together, they studied together, they discussed and argued together, they served together as holy people in their community where they accompanied their people through births and weddings and deaths and through fearful times and times of feasts and through the ancient cycles of initiations and ritual. These three accompanied each other, as friends, through their own struggles and joys and griefs as they lived through their years.
These three sought wisdom in their relationship with God and with each other, and in their relationship with dreams and sacred rituals. But they also sought wisdom in their relationship with the natural world. These wise men studied plants and the human body and the cycles of the seasons and of the stars. They knew that Wisdom herself, as we heard from the scripture this morning, Wisdom herself alone “encompasses the vault of heaven and traverses the depths of the abyss. Over the waves of the sea, over all the earth, and over every people and nation,” Wisdom holds sway, as the physical laws of the universe, as the moral laws. Because all of Creation, from galactic superstructures to subatomic waves, all of Creation rises and falls, swells and subsides, cycles and hums according to God’s Wisdom.
These three wise men discovered one day, probably to their surprise, that they had a special task together. They were to journey to a distant land in search of a child, a child who was to embody Wisdom for his generation and for all generations to come. Their task was to offer him a blessing.
So they set out. They followed the stars, they followed signals in their dreams, they followed leadings they received in prayer. And, after a long journey, they came to find a young mother named Mary in a tiny desert village called Bethlehem with an infant child named Jesus.
When they blessed this baby they gave him three gifts, which were surprising gifts.
This baby boy, because of his cast and family, if he survived infancy he would take on the trade of his father. We say Joseph was a carpenter, but it’s a mistake to imagine a modern day highly skilled tradesman, small businessman who hangs cabinets in fancy home kitchens and can make a very decent living. No, imagine instead a day-laborer who works construction. The evidence is that Joseph’s vocation, a tekton, actually had lower status than a peasant.
So it’s a surprise, a total surprise for these holy magi to come from far away, to have left their holy temple and holy work in some distant foreign city, to leave and come to this child of a day laborer in a tiny Judean town and give him gold.
Surprise – you could say epiphany. That’s what this event is called, when the wise men bless Jesus. Epiphany, a sudden insight, a sacred surprise, when we wake up to what is true and good and wise.
Gold. A precious metal, so rare and special that royalty love to show it off to show how rare and special they are. To give Gold to this baby Jesus means, “here is the precious child of God.”
And it’s a surprise, an epiphany, for these wise men to give this child frankincense. Frankincense was the holy incense of priests. Priests burn it to consecrate a place, to make it sacred. It belongs in beautiful temples. To give Frankincense to this baby Jesus means, “here is the holy child of God.”
It is even more of a surprise, an epiphany, for these wise men to give this child myrrh. Myrrh was a resin or an oil used to anoint bodies before burial. If you skip ahead in the story you may notice that myrrh makes an appearance again … after Jesus is crucified. His friends use it to treat his body before burial.
But the other thing about myrrh is that it’s part of the recipe for the oil to anoint a king or a prophet or the savior. Messiah, Christ, means “the anointed one.”
So the gift of myrrh to the young Jesus means, here is the precious and holy child of God, who will, to everyone’s surprise and scandal, face the fragility and the pain and brutality of mortal life among a fallen humanity.
What is the insight here? What is the wisdom? What is the epiphany we can have, about Jesus … and maybe about ourselves?
Scripture says, at the beginning of the Gospel of John, that all who receive Christ, who welcome this child, who welcome this child of light, are given the power to become themselves children of God.
In a way the gifts that these wise friends gave to Jesus were the gifts that he, in the course of his life and death and resurrected life, he multiplied and gave to everyone one else. We are all beloved precious sacred children of God, even in our fragility and sin.
The problem comes in refusing to receive these gifts, and refusing to pass them on beyond ourselves.
Some ask: if we’re all beloved children of God, then what’s so special about Christ?
I answer: we need Christ because we need to know that we receive our belovedness as a gift. And we need to know that we receive our belovedness as a gift from the Holy One who knows the pain of mortality, and – more importantly – who knows the pain of everything in this world that seeks to tell us that we are not beloved.
If we know that we receive our belovedness as a gift, then we feel freer to give it to others.
So, if you haven’t received it, or if you’ve forgotten it, let me offer it to you…
This I know because of Christ:
You are, each and all, beloved – each and all, precious, beloved children of the living God. Your Creator gazes into your eyes, and calls you by your name, and says “I have made you beautiful in your time. I have set eternity in your heart.”
You are beloved and you are, at the same time, brief – each and all of us – fragile, mortal, specks of stardust wheeling in cycles that we can only dimly comprehend. After all the milk and honey, after all the gold and frankincense, after all the blood and bitter herbs … in the end our bodies fall. They are anointed with myrrh, you can say, and returned to the earth. And our souls are released, to return to our Source… if we are prepared to receive that final gift.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered January 8, 2017, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)