Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 2, 2011

2011.01.02 – “The Gift of the Magi” Matthew 2: 1 – 12 – Epiphany Sunday

Central United Methodist Church

“The Gift of the Magi”

Pastor David L. Haley

Epiphany Sunday

Matthew 2: 1 – 12

January 2nd, 2011

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the reign of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born.  They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

            You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,

            because from you will come one who governs, who will shepherd my people Israel. ”

            Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.”  When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.” (Matthew 2: 1 – 12, Common English Version)   

      It’s been many years now since I first read the short story “The Gift of the Magi,” by O. Henry, the pen name of William Sydney Porter.

Written in 1906, the story still sounds contemporary, in economically difficult times. It is about a young couple, Jim and Della, very much in love, but so short on cash they can barely afford their one-room apartment. For Christmas, Della decides to buy Jim a chain for his prized pocket watch, which had belonged to his father and grandfather. To raise the funds to buy the watch, she has her long, lovely, knee-length brown hair cut off and sold to make a wig. At the same time, unknown to Delia, Jim sells his watch to buy Della a beautiful set of combs made out of tortoiseshell and jewels for her . . . lovely, knee-length brown hair. Although – in the end – each is disappointed to find their gifts useless, each is pleased with the gift that they receive, because it represents their sacrificial love for each another.

O. Henry ends his story by comparing their gifts of love with those of the Magi, whose story we read today:

      “The magi, as you know, were wise men – wonderfully wise men – who brought gifts to the new-born King of the Jews in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. In a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the Magi.”

      It is those wonderfully wise men – the Magi – whose story we hear in the first Sunday of a new year, Epiphany Sunday.  Our question is this: How can we offer the gift of the Magi?

        Of all the stories in the Bible, the story of the Magi is one of the most fascinating, and one that we also read the most “into.” The story, found only in Matthew’s Gospel, says that “magi came from the east,” asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and have come to pay him homage.”

      In the text, it doesn’t say kings, nor does it say three, much less give their names, which later church tradition filled in: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. Most likely the number three came from the number of their gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

As to whether they were wonderfully wise, well, we might question that, as, according to O. Henry, they were the ones who started this whole Christmas thing of giving gifts, and we know what that’s taken us. Which for some means they’ve got a lot to answer for.

According to the story, they weren’t that good at the whole pilgrimage thing anyway, given that by their miscalculation they almost got the child killed. When they should have been looking in Bethlehem, they wound up in the royal palace in Jerusalem, nine miles away.  This alerted Herod, to whom the news of a new baby with his eyes on the throne sounded like a threat, and if he’d had his way, would have snuffed out the child’s life with the Magi’s unknowing aiding and abetting.

It might lead us to conclude either that a star is not the best means for GPS navigation, or that they weren’t that good at it.  Too bad they didn’t have the resources of our digital age, because maybe it would have gone like this, The Digital Story of the Nativity.  Take a look . . .  

View it here:

When they get to the right place, they may have found they’d brought the wrong gifts. Nobody in Bethlehem had any need for frankincense or myrrh; gold, maybe. In the infamous 1979 Monty Python film, The Life of Brian, when the Wise Men show up mistakenly (wrong again!) at Brian’s birth instead of Jesus’, Brian’s poor mother says: “Next time, bring the gold, leave the frankincense and myrrh behind.”

What were these odd gifts of the magi? Gold, we understand. Gold was precious, then as now, worthy of a king. Frankincense was incense worthy of a divinity; and myrrh was a spice used in burials. So the gifts were appropriate for one who was a king, a God, and a suffering redeemer. They might also symbolize our response:  gold – virtue or good deeds; incense – worship or prayer; and myrrh – suffering and sacrifice.

      But because tradition has concentrated so much on the gifts given by the Magi, we have missed a more important detail, more central to the story’s interpretation, the first and best gift of all. It is found in a word that occurs at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the story. The word is “proskyneo” in Greek, translated by the NRSV as “pay him homage.” In Greek, this word was commonly used to describe the custom of prostrating oneself at the feet of a king.  It’s what devout Catholics still do when they enter a church, genuflecting to the altar before entering a pew.

      In the beginning of the story, it is announced as the reason for their journey: “We have come to pay him homage.”

      It occurs next not on their lips but Herod’s, who tells the Magi he wants them to report back to him when they find the child, so he too may “pay him homage.”

      Not only is it a lie, it is ironic, communicating the earth- shaking character of Matthew’s story. The irony is that Herod unwittingly confesses what he needs to do. This despot who rules by violence and fear needs to bow before the power of compassion and justice, to give himself to the grace incarnate in the child whom the magi seek.

      Herod’s ironic lie helps us understand why the magi’s quest frightened not only Herod, but “all Jerusalem with him.”  They understood exactly the implications of the birth the minute they hear what that it has impelled the magi’s journey: if there is a new king who can inspire people to undertake such a strenuous journey to an unknown location so they can pay him homage, then their power is challenged. And as the entire rest of Jesus story reveals, whenever power is challenged, things get ugly.

      Even more significant is the fact that these who have made this long journey are not Jews, but Gentiles. In the child, God has breached the boundaries of faith, and the nations are now entering in to worship the Messiah, and doing so with joy. 

      This is exactly what the Apostle Paul was talking about in the passage we read earlier from Ephesians, when he says:

      “The mystery is that people who have never heard of God and those who have heard of him all their lives (what I’ve been calling outsiders and insiders) stand on the same ground before God. They get the same offer, same help, same promises in Christ Jesus. The Message is accessible and welcoming to everyone, across the board.”

      You may not realize how significant this is, until you realize, we’re sitting here today because of it. No matter who we are, whether we’re just beginning to seek God, or whether we’ve worshipped God all our lives, whether we’re insiders or whether we’re outsiders, we stand on the same ground before God. We get the same offer, the same help, the same promises in Christ. The Message is accessible and welcoming to everyone – young or old, male or female, gay or straight, people of every race and color -across the board.  Such is God’s inclusive kingdom, revealed early on here in Matthew’s Gospel through the story of the Magi.

      They continue on their way until they find the child, and then something very significant happens, something that our traditions, pageants, carols, and epiphany celebrations often miss. The magi do not immediately present their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  The first thing they do upon entering the house and seeing Mary and the Child is kneel down and pay him homage. In other words, they give themselves. Only after this act of worship, only after giving themselves to Christ, do they present their gifts.

      The order of actions, homage first and gifts second, is significant.  If the first thing they do is present their gifts, then it might seem they are in command. There they stand with precious goods in outstretched hands, like rulers on a state occasion in a ceremonial room, each on their feet and facing the other, in order to demonstrate their parity with each other. 

      This is not the case with the Magi. They express their relationship with Christ by kneeling before him, offering themselves to him. First, homage.  First, worship.  First, giving themselves. This is their first and best gift.   What is ours?

      The truth is, it is the same as the Magi’s. Because until we give ourselves to God, our gifts are only our efforts to curry God’s favor. But once we give ourselves to God, completely and unreservedly, we realize that everything we are and everything we have belongs to God, and there is nothing to hold back.

        On this first Sunday of a new year, doing what those wonderfully wise men  – the Magi – did, giving the gift that they gave, might just be the best thing we can do.  We go into this new year as innocents, not knowing what the year will bring. What better can we do than – like them – give ourselves to God, knowing that whatever the year brings, we are in God’s hands, the servants of Jesus the Christ.

It was the tradition of John Wesley, the English founder of Methodism, to do just this. He began each year with a covenant service of recommitment, and invited his people – The Methodists – to do the same. In the invitation to that service, Wesley says:

“Commit yourselves to Christ as his servants.

Give yourselves to him, that you may belong to him.

Christ has many services to be done.

Some are more easy and honorable,

others are more difficult and disgraceful.

Some are suitable to our inclinations and interests,

others are contrary to both.

In some we may please Christ and please ourselves.

But then there are other works where we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves.

It is necessary, therefore, that we consider what it means to be a servant of Christ.”

On this first Sunday of a new year, I invite you to join me in praying to God John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own, but yours.

Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will.

Put me to doing, put me to suffering.

Let me be employed by you or laid aside for you, 

exalted for you or brought low for you.

Let me be full, let me be empty.

Let me have all things, let me have nothing.

I freely and heartily yield all things

to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, O glorious and blessed God,

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

you are mine, and I am yours.  So be it.

And the covenant which I have made on earth,

let it be ratified in heaven.  Amen.


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