Tuesday, January 03, 2017
"Three Gifts" Sermon: Matthew 2:1-12
January 1, 2017 Second Reformed Church
When I was a kid, we had a crèche scene on the piano during the Christmas season – there was Mary and Joseph and Jesus, an angel, some animals, several shepherds and sheep, and three kings – one African, one European, and one Asian. By this set, I understood that all the characters arrived in Bethlehem at the manger after Jesus’ birth, and they all rejoiced together in the birth.
As convenient as that set-up is, it does not reflect the truth of the history. As we saw Christmas weekend, when the shepherds arrived, there were a number of other people with Mary and Joseph, and as we see from this morning’s text, the Magi came later, were not kings, there probably were not three of them, and they were not from Africa, Europe, and Asia.
We are considering the Epiphany, this morning. The Epiphany is the name given to the time when the Magi visited Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The word means “revelation,” “manifestation,” and “revealing.” In this context, we are talking about the revealing of Jesus the Son of God and Messiah to the Gentiles – the non-Jews.
So, let us turn to our text:
The first thing we see is: the astrologers understood that the star meant the King of the Jews had been born.
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”’
Notice the historical framework we mentioned last week: Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the reign of King Herod in Israel.
And a certain number of “wise men” – we’re not told how many of them there were, and the word that is used is “Magi,” which is the name that was given to astrologers from Persia – modern day Iraq and Iran – which are east of Israel. These were men who studied the stars and gave advice based on them. And they had seen something extraordinary – something that made them make the long trek by foot and by animal from Iran and Iraq to Jerusalem – the place of the palace of the King of Israel.
The Magi explained that they had been studying this star that appeared in the night and guided them to Jerusalem. They had interpreted that the star was telling them that the King of Israel had been born – and not any mere king, but someone who was a deliverer and worthy of being worshipped as a god.
We know the Magi spoke with individuals in Jerusalem before they had a counsel with King Herod, because, by the time they got to speak with Herod, we’re told that all of Jerusalem was troubled. Remember, they were occupied by the Romans. Any talk of a new king or a deliverer could have caused the Romans to take action against them.
Herod understood who they were looking for – the Savior, the Messiah, the Christ – Herod understood they had astrological proof that the Savior had been born, so Herod called on the chief priests and the scribes to tell him – and the Magi – where the prophets said the Messiah would be born.
And they came back with the answer from the prophet Micah: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2, ESV).
The Christ would be born in Bethlehem.
Second, Satan inspired people to kill Jesus from His earliest days.
“Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.’ After listening to the king, they went on their way.”
From the announcement in the Garden that the day would come when the Son of Eve would conquer the evil one, Satan has been at work, trying to keep the promise of the Savior’s victory from coming to pass.
Even before Jesus’ birth, Satan inspired genocide against the Jews. We need only look to the book of Esther where it looked as though the genocide of the Jews was certain, until Esther, under the power of the Holy Spirit saw the evil one in her day put down.
Herod was a puppet king. He had been placed in power by the Romans, and as long as he did what the Romans wanted, he was allowed to privilege himself through other abuses against the people. He had a cushy job – we might say – and he didn’t want to lose it – not even to the Savior of the world, prophesied by God.
So Herod sent the Magi on their way, telling them to look for the child, and when they had found Him, to report back to Herod where He was, so Herod could go to worship Him. Actually, Herod wanted to kill Him to prevent Jesus from interfering with Herod’s lifestyle of power, wealth, and pleasure.
We see that God told the Magi not to go back to Herod, and when Herod realized they were not going to come back, he ordered the slaughter of every child under the age of two – as we read later:
“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more’” (Matthew 2:16-18, ESV).
Satan inspired Herod to kill Jesus, but God sent the Magi away, and God sent Mary, Joseph, and Jesus into hiding in Egypt until Herod was dead.
Coming back to the history of the Magi’s finding Jesus:
We see, the astrologers worshipped Jesus as God.
“And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.”
The Magi follow the star, and it took them directly to the house where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were living. They were no longer in the manger – they had moved into a house, and Jesus was not a newborn anymore. And when the star showed the Magi where to find Him, they rejoiced and were filled with joy. And when they went into the house and saw Jesus with Mary, they fell down and worshipped Him.
When we worship, we express the worth of something or someone. By the gifts the Magi brought, we understand that the Magi thought Jesus was supremely worthy; they worshipped Jesus as God.
The Magi, who were Gentiles – non-Jews – were the first Gentiles to come to Jesus – as the angel had told the shepherds, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10b-11, ESV).
As God had promised Abraham, and Paul explains, “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Galatians 3:8-9, ESV).
The Gospel of Jesus Christ, God the Son Incarnate, is for every type of person who ever was and will be. There is no type of person excluded from the promise of the Gospel. The Gospel is for the whole world.
And those of us who believe worship this little Baby, Who is the Almighty God.
Finally, the astrologer’s gifts symbolized Jesus as King, Prophet, and Priest.
“Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.”
This is where the idea came from that there were three Magi: they brought three gifts, therefore there were three of them. We don’t know how many of them there were.
We do know that they gave Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This is part of the reason we give gifts to each other on Christmas – in imitation of what the Magi did.
We can guess by the fact that they gave Him gold that these were expensive gifts – given to the Newborn King.
But, what do these gifts symbolize?
Gold is likely the obvious one for us – gold is symbolic of being a king. It is a gift worthy of a king – a gift few but kings could afford.
And so, this first gift symbolizes that Jesus is the King of kings.
When Paul and Silas were being hunted by the Jews, we read, “And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has received them, and they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus’” (Acts 17:6-7, ESV).
There is another King, there is King Jesus, Sovereign over all of Creation. Everything is at His hand, so if we are in need, we can pray and ask Him, and He is able to provide for us in ways we can’t even imagine.
Frankincense we might guess is a type of incense – and it is, a very expensive type of incense that would be used by priests in the worship of God.
And so, this second gift symbolizes that Jesus is our Great High Priest.
The author of Hebrews writes concerning the Incarnation of the Son of God, “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:17-18, ESV).
As our High Priest, Jesus offered Himself up as the Perfect and Holy Sacrifice – the Only Sacrifice that would make us right with God and guarantee us everlasting life with God. And since He did so through His Incarnation, life, death resurrection, and ascension, He can sympathize with us – He understands everything we go through – excepting sin – and helps us as we turn to Him
Myrrh might be the strangest gift to us – it is an embalming ointment. Though Mary might have understood, “And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed’” (Luke 2:34-35, ESV).
Jesus, the Christ, is the final Prophet. He is the Gospel – the Good News that divides the world. Jesus was born to preach and to have a sword pierced through Him, even as His mother endured the pain at His side.
Since God has provided His Son to be the sacrificed Lamb, we are clean and He is making us holy.
May we keep the mystery and the promise of the Magi before us: the Gospel is for all people, and Jesus is our God and King and High Priest and Prophet – our Savior.
Let us pray:
Lord, You have sent us our as ambassadors with Your Gospel, help us to go out with the simple facts of what You did to make us right with the Father. Draw all peoples to You, and may You be glorified in all that we do. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.