UCBR, January 3, 2016 “Gifts that Endure”
Before there were decked out Christmas trees with twinkling lights, before there were boxed CD sets with your favorite Christmas carols, sung by Glee or Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber; and before there were lawn decorations of glowing Santas and reindeers, candy canes and life sized nativity sets, and before there existed after-Christmas sales with 40% off for early bird shoppers, we are reminded once more there was the original story of the Word made Flesh. There was the original journey and there was those first gifts. The original gifts to Jesus that have meaning for us as we deal with gifts that have already been eaten, broken, stashed away to be re-gifted. The original gifts given once more to us today to prepare us on our journey into the New Year.
The visit of the Wise men, or “magi” from the east is one of the most exotic and mysterious stories of our Christmas narrative, that usually falls on Epiphany, January 6, the official end of the Christmas season. These magi were the scientists, priests, astronomers/astrologers, the philosophers of their culture, advisors to their kings and people in power. Legend even tells us that they came from Asia, Africa and Europe – the entire known world at that time – signifying the fulfillment of the messianic prophecy in Isaiah 2 that all nations shall stream to the house of the Lord.
So the Wise men, or the wise ones, as I prefer to call them, are here to advise and teach us in our New Year. They share their wisdom with us and they guide us as we struggle to name and claim our gifts to bring to Jesus and we seek to set our course for the New Year.
Our lesson begins when the wise ones, following the star, find Jesus and after a journey of about 1500 miles, finally found Jesus. As the wise ones offered their joyful worship to the Child Jesus, they presented gifts, unusual, practical and yet symbolic gifts, to him: Gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Gold has always been symbolic of wealth, beauty, power and royalty. The most essential item to any king or queen’s wardrobe is a golden crown on his or her head. In the book of Exodus, God instructed that the most the most sacred articles of the Tabernacle including the Ark of the Covenant, to be made of gold, overlaid with gold, or interwoven with gold (Exodus 25:10-40; 28:6-30; 30:1-10).
The same was true on an even larger scale in the temple, which King Solomon later built in Jerusalem to replace the tabernacle. Solomon himself took a liking to gold. It is said: All King Solomon's drinking vessels were of gold, and all the vessels of the house of the forest of Lebanon were of pure gold; silver was not considered valuable in the days of Solomon. 2 Chron 9:20. Many monarchs and extremely wealthy surely find gold an easily acquired taste.
Even today we have a saying, “As good as gold,” or “worth their weight in gold,” implying that someone, or something, is solid, outstanding, tried and true. Gold, which doesn’t rust, is considered enduring, eternal even. Although gold has been used in currency since at least 700 BC, it’s not its monetary value that the Wise Ones want us to focus on. They brought gold to Jesus not just because his family would need it one day, but because Jesus was, in their estimation, King of the Jews, the foretold messiah. They brought a gift worthy of a king.
Most of us do not have much gold, per se, to offer. However, the wise ones would ask us, what is precious to us? Is it our actual wealth? What is of the greatest value in our lives? What of the gift of our life itself? Are not these things, these people, these activities, like gold before the throne of God? To worship well, to experience to the joy of the wise, all the gold of our lives must be first dedicated to God as we journey into 2016. Everything. In turn, God must become the golden standard against which all we do is measured. What is the gold in our lives? Let us name it and dedicate it to God to start our journey into 2016.
The wise ones offered a second gift; the gift of frankincense, a very expensive gift having a wonderful fragrance. It was used for a variety of purposes such as incense and worship (Ex. 30:23, 34), medical treatment, and as perfume (Song of Solomon 3:6; 4:14). God commanded the use of frankincense as a chief ingredient of the incense which was to be kept burning in the tabernacle and also in connection with the grain offering. (Exodus 30:34-38, Lev. 2) Thus this specially made incense was placed in front of the Ark of the Covenant within the Tent of Meeting in the Tabernacle. Incense produces an aroma, and an aromatic smoke when burned, that rises up into the air. It is thus seen as a symbol of prayers and offerings that are pleasing to God.
When the wise ones gave the infant Jesus a gift of frankincense, it symbolized the gift of our devotion, prayers, and our thanksgiving. Our words are powerful. The wise ones advise us that the gift of frankincense is a gift of pleasing, praying words and praise that build up one another; a sacrifice of devotion, and a continual giving thanks to God. This is the sweet frankincense God seeks from our lives. To be praying people. An encouraging people, that buildings up one another, nothing is sweeter to God than this. That we proclaim as the psalmist does: “May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice. Psalm 141:2”
Frankincense was traditionally seen as a gift that signified Jesus as a High Priest who offered the sacrifices, and who himself made the greatest sacrifice of his life. However as we see, the gift of frankincense, asks us this and more: our journey into 2016 needs to include an active prayer life a life that daily builds people up with the words we have to offer. Do we pray for one another? Do our words build up? Do we make the sacrifices of praise and support that we can offer? This is the Frankincense the wise ones would place in our hands in 2016.
The Wise Ones gave Jesus a third gift called myrrh—like Frankincense another tree resin. In Exodus (30:22-33) God directed that the priests were to be "anointed" with a divinely-designed oil, the main ingredient of which was myrrh. This sacred oil was used in anointing the Tent of Meeting and the sacred articles in it, as well as to anoint Aaron and his sons for service to the Lord as priests. This use of myrrh points out its symbolism of consecration to active service to the Lord.
This type of special ritualistic anointing was also applicable to kings and prophets. For example, Samuel anointed Saul and later David to be king over Israel (1 Samuel 10:1; 16:13; Psalm 89:20). Myrrh also was used for a variety of purposes, such as: a perfume (Song of Solomon 3:6; 4:14), an anesthetic, burial embalming, and as a cosmetic used by women. The gospel of John (19:39) records that myrrh was used in Jesus' burial.
It is commonly believed that when the wise ones gave the baby Jesus the gift of myrrh, it was foreshadowing his death. Perhaps this is true. However, the Old Testament evidence would have us consider that gift of Jesus being anointed, as Aaron, as Samuel was, and David was, to a life of total service to God, as King, prophet and priest.
So when the wise ones gave the infant Jesus a gift of myrrh, for us it symbolizes the gift of our willingness to serve Jesus actively in our lives by living according to the truth that Jesus teaches. Myrrh asks us: how will we dedicate our lives to God in 2016? What is your gift or gifts of service? How has God anointed us to serve? It isn’t a question of has God called us to serve, but to what has God called us to serve. Each of us has gifts and talents. Each of us has gold. Each of us has sweet-smelling frankincense to offer up. This is what our Mission Review Team and our Stewardship season calls us to discern – how shall we best serve God through the ministries of Union Church through our time, our talents, and our financial gifts? Now it is time to use the myrrh to fully dedicate everything we have and who we are to the active service of our Lord.
Perhaps, like for Jesus, will this myrrh of dedicated service will entail some suffering as it will some joy? The wise ones ask us to name our gifts, the gold of our lives, the frankincense of the deepest prayers and words of encouragement we have to offer, the myrrh of the suffering and joy of our service. As we lay our gifts before God today: are we also willing to open the gifts of the gold, frankincense and myrrh that God has to offer us? God wants to give us his very self. God prays for us, God gives us His Holy Spirit, and anoints us for service. Our Cup runs over.
We remember as we prepare to pray and come to the Lord’s table, those wise ones, the example of their giving, the giving not just of their gifts, but of their journey and their worship. These wise ones could travels so far on star beams, to encounter Jesus bearing gifts with joy and worship, they avoided the danger of Herod through attention to a dream and they go home a different route. The same is true for us – in the dedication of our lives in this New Year, we accept that these gifts will take us on journeys never before imagined – and new roads, and new dreams by staying open to the gifts and the Great Giver.
Let us dedicate our lives like the wise ones: who although we never hear from them again, their story never ceases to touch us: to follow the star beams to Jesus no matter how long it takes. To bring forth our gold, all our devotions and prayers and words, to dedication our lives, with all its sorrows and joys to God. Our gold, our frankincense and our myrrh – original gifts from that original journey – a journey that now has become ours to continue this year.