Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2019 (Matthew 2:1-12), “The Gift to the Magi”

“The Journey of the Magi” (1894), by James Tissot (1836-1902), Minneapolis Museum of Art

Originally Preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Epiphany is here!  Do you know what that means?  Not only does it mean that we’re now in a new season of the church year, it means that we can finally acknowledge the arrival of the Three Wise Men who have been hanging out in the background of our Nativity scenes for the last few weeks.  We no longer have to pretend that they aren’t actually there yet. Now Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar can give the Baby Jesus their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, pay him homage, and leave without telling Herod that they’ve found the King of the Jews.  And after today, they’re gone from the Gospel narrative, almost as swiftly as they came, returning to parts unknown.

NARA Poster featuring the Magi (1941-1945), Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. Bureau of Special Services (National Archives)

We make a lot out of the visit of the Magi, as short and as quick as it is.  We get our tradition of giving one-another gifts at Christmas from our remembrance of their bringing gifts to the infant Christ.  We have stories and songs inspired by them and their example— think of O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Journey of the Magi,” or John Henry Hopkins’ carol, “We Three Kings (of Orient Are).”  And some of the images associated with Epiphany have bled into what are ostensibly Christmas hymns and carols. The one that comes to my mind is the beautiful and contemplative (and far more English than Judaean!) poem by the nineteenth century Italian-English poet, Christina Rossetti, which has become a staple of Lessons and Carols services: that poem titled, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

If you know the poem, you know that the poem is largely a description of the setting in which the Christ child is born.  Rossetti describes the weather, the stable, the animals, the baby Jesus at his mother’s breast, the immensity of the miracle of his incarnation.  But the final verse is interesting, because Rossetti touches upon an all too human impulse in what she writes. She says,

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my Part;
Yet what can I give Him: give my heart.

Christina Rossetti, “In the Bleak Midwinter” (1872)

Rossetti’s persona in this poem, moved by the whole scene, wants to do something for the infant Jesus.  She wants to give him something, anything, and she cites the Magi: “If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part.”  But what this poem gets wrong, which the Biblical Magi and many of us get wrong as well, is that Jesus is not the sort of king we do something for.  Instead, he is a King who does something— everything— for us.

But first, who were the Magi, the “Wise Men?”  Nobody knows who they were or where they came from.  We don’t even know their names— the names we traditionally associate with them, Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar, all come from a sixth century Greek work that was translated into Latin and titled The Latin Excerpts of the Barbarians.  We often think they might be Persian because the “magi” existed as a specific class of priests among the adherents of Zoroastrianism according to Greek writers.  Among the Greeks, the Magi had come to be seen as something like sorcerers or magicians by the time of Jesus’ birth, but these ones seem to have been skilled in astrology, hence why we tend to call them the “wise men.”  We also don’t know how many of them there were, but tradition often numbers them as three, and they may not have necessarily been Persian. One Armenian tradition holds that each of the Magi came from a different place, one from Persia, one from Arabia, and one from India.  If you’ve read Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, you might remember that the opening of the novel begins with the meeting of the Magi, but for Wallace, they’re an Arab, a Hindustani, and a Greek.  An 8th-Century Syriac text titled “The Revelation of the Magi,” which purports to have been written by them and may actually date to the second century (it is hard to say), says that there were twelve of them and that they came from a far-off land called Shir, which some scholars believe may actually be in modern-day China.  But in any respect, we don’t really know anything about them, apart from the fact that they show up in Jerusalem looking for the newborn King of the Jews and tip off Herod to a potential threat to his bloody regime.

“Die heiligen drei Könige,” Piotr Stachiewicz (1858-1938), in Die Kunst für alle: Malerei, Plastik, Graphik, Architektur 24 (1908-1909), Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg.

The gifts brought by the Magi also seem strange to us.  Who brings gold and incense to a baby? Probably better to bring Jesus and his family a smoked ham like the Herdman boys do in Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever— aside from their being observant Jews, at least the family can eat it.  But in antiquity, gold, frankincense, and myrrh were truly kingly gifts. Gold is obvious— it was the base for the ancient economy and of great value for both its monetary use as well as its ability to be fashioned into jewelry and costly items.  Frankincense, the hardened resin of the Boswellia tree, was burned as a high-quality incense and was sourced from the Arabian Peninsula and the horn of Africa.  It had to come a long way and at high cost to wherever the Magi were when they started. And myrrh, another tree resin from Arabia and East Africa, was used as a perfume, medicine, and incense.  It, too, had to be imported from afar. These resins would have been extremely valuable, perhaps more valuable than the gold that accompanied them. They were at least as valuable as the vial of perfumed ointment made from pure spikenard that Judas gripes about possibly selling for 300 denarii in John 12:3, which in modern dollars would roughly have been worth $1,100.  So these weren’t trinkets. These gifts were serious tribute.

And why did they give this baby these gifts?  The Magi were mistaken about who Jesus was. They thought that the King of the Jews was just like any other earthly ruler, and so they gave him the gifts that one would present to an earthly king.  God seems to have pointed these Gentile mystics toward his Son, but they didn’t have the whole picture regarding Jesus, and so they brought him costly gifts that any king would consider appropriate and “fell down and worshiped him.”  Actually, there, it’s more accurate to say that they prostrated themselves before him, just as they would have done before any number of Eastern kings, submitting themselves to him as to one who had dominion over them. It’s not unlike a dog behaving submissively before an alpha or its master— after all, that’s what the word used here to mean “worship,” proskuneo, originally meant to the Greeks: “to play the dog.”  To these Magi, Jesus was as powerful as the king of Persia, and they were his servants.  They did not see this infant as God-in-the-flesh; to them he is not the Messiah who will redeem the world, but rather one to whom they must show obeisance and give tribute to in this earthly realm.  Earthly kings demand tribute, and thinking Jesus the same, the Magi give it to him.

So the Magi seem to have believed that Jesus, as a king, required tribute or gifts, that they had to give him something.  Even though we know more than they did— Jesus isn’t just a king, he’s our God and Savior who died to take away our sins and redeem us so that we can live with him forever— we often find ourselves wanting to do something for Jesus or to give Jesus something.  Have you ever been told that you need to do something for Jesus? That in order for the church to grow or for your own life to be transformed by the work of Christ you need to do something big for him? Or, like the speaker in Rossetti’s poem, that you could give Jesus your heart in order to satisfy some urging or requirement or to do something for him?  Or even moreso, that in order to receive the benefits of Christ that you need to give him your heart? Or ask him into your heart?

You’ve probably heard it suggested that some people, in the act of converting, should recite the Sinner’s Prayer, in which someone, of his or her own volition, declares faith in Christ and, in Billy Graham’s version of the prayer, invites Christ to come into his or her heart and life.  The problem with this suggestion is that the theology behind it does not acknowledge the fact that our wills cannot choose to give Jesus anything, especially not our hearts or lives. By our being sinners, our wills are bound toward sin and we neither can nor wish to, of our own accord, look to Christ or trust in him.  Our hearts, full of sinful urges and desires and inclinations, are like the bits of trash and plastic you see along the road outside here along 123 and the parkway. In and of themselves, they’re not worth anything, and they’re not at all useful. They merit nothing good, and really ought to be in the scrap heap. Our sinful hearts are certainly not worthy gifts of any kind.

The sainted Bishop of Gothenburg, Sweden, Bo Giertz, writes about this in his novel, The Hammer of God, in which Fridfeldt, a young pastor who has come to believe that only a true believer gives his heart to Christ, is confronted with alternative ideas when speaking to an elderly curate:

“But don’t you know, sir, what it means to be a believer?” [said Fridfeldt.]
“That is a word which can stand for things that differ greatly, my boy. I ask only what it is that you believe in.”
“In Jesus, of course,” answered Fridfeldt, raising his voice. “I mean—I mean that I have given him my heart.”
The older man’s face became suddenly as solemn as the grave. “Do you consider that something to give him?”
By this time, Fridfeldt was almost in tears. “But sir, if you do not give your heart to Jesus, you cannot be saved.”
“You are right, my boy. And it is just as true that, if you think you are saved because you give Jesus your heart, you will not be saved.  You see, my boy,” he continued reassuringly, as he continued to look at the young pastor’s face, in which uncertainty and resentment were shown in a struggle for the upper hand, “it is one thing to choose Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior, to give him one’s heart and commit oneself to him, and that he now accepts one into his little flock; it is a very different thing to believe on him as a Redeemer of sinners, of whom one is chief. One does not choose a Redeemer for oneself, you understand, nor give one’s heart to him. The heart is a rusty old can on a junk heap. A fine birthday gift, indeed! But a wonderful Lord passes by, and has mercy on the wretched tin can, sticks his walking cane through it, and rescues it from the junk pile and takes it home with him. That is how it is.”

Giertz, Bo, Hammer of God, Augsburg Fortress: Kindle Edition: 146-147
Bishop Bo Giertz of Gothenburg, (Carl-Henrik Martling (red.): Till Bo Giertz 31 augusti 1965, Uppsala 1965.)

“A wonderful Lord passes by, and has mercy on the wretched tin can…and rescues it from the junk pile and takes it home with him.”  Our hearts are just like that rusty old can that really ought to be in a landfill, but Christ takes mercy on us and takes us for his own— without our asking.  And in doing this, he gives us a gift far surpassing any of the gifts that he received from the Magi, and certainly far better than anything we can give him. Christ freely gives us himself.  Himself! He comes among us, lives and preaches and heals, and dies for us so that we might be freed from the bondage of sin, death, and hell.  He does this so that we can live with him in perfect harmony without that  sin which divides us from him. He does this so that we can live as God created us to live, and he does it out of love, for us.  We do not deserve this act of love, but Jesus doesn’t care.  He overlooks our undeservingness. His gift of himself on the cross is for everyone, for Jews and Gentiles alike— yes, even those Magi who brought him gifts and mistook him for an earthly monarch.  Christ’s free gift of himself and the faith to trust that he has saved us by his work is for all of us. We cannot believe this for ourselves; we cannot believe it of our own effort or choose it. But our ability to trust that Jesus Christ is our Lord, and our ability to come to him, is a gift from Christ through his work and from the Holy Spirit whom he has given to us as our helper and comforter.  His gift of life and salvation doesn’t need or require anything from us. Instead, Christ gives to us freely and points us to use our gifts, not for him, but to help our neighbors. And that indeed is the greatest gift of all.

So this Epiphany, do not think that you too, like the Magi in Rossetti’s poem, should “do your part” and do something for Jesus.  You cannot. Instead, take comfort that any gift you might bring to him pales in comparison to the gift that he has given us in himself, that undeserved gift of life and salvation that comes in his blood.  And take comfort and joy in the fact that he gives that gift to you and everyone else. The Magi may even have received it, too. Remember that Syriac text called “The Revelation of the Magi” I mentioned earlier?  While it is likely fictional and contains many fantastical elements, the story ends with the Magi, back in their homeland, being baptized by the Apostle Thomas, bringing them fully into Christ’s promise of salvation.  How much greater it is to know that this potential gift to the Magi is truly and actually yours, today, and forevermore! Amen!

May the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.