All He Got For Christmas
"From all I want for Christmas is my two front teeth" to "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" pre-Christmas is about all you want. Post-Christmas is about what you got. Well, what Jesus got has everything to do with what we get.
All He got is gold fit for a king. Tribute was paid to the monarch who reigned over you. It could be extracted from a nation, a city-state, or an individual by force or threat of force, or as in the case of the Magi, given willingly. Called by a star to the One born king of the Jew they were led to Jerusalem. The news of a king of the Jews drew the Magi but it caused Herod to be troubled and all Jerusalem was troubled because of him. Herod was old, unpredictable, violent, vicious, and crazy. On Holy Innocents, later this month, we see just how crazy, vicious and violent.
Though we sing "We Three Kings", we know the Magi were not that. Modern commentators tend to see them as representatives of the best of the Gentile world, the spiritual elite; early church fathers saw them as agents of sinister forces. Being led to follow a star that behaved as no other star did, showed that the power of astrology was broken (Davies & Allison, I, 228ff). While not kings themselves they do fulfill roles assigned to kings in prophesies like our OT reading, and they did serve in the courts of kings (Gibbs, Mt. 1:1-11:1, 123-5). And that's the point. These Magi, how many there were Scripture doesn't say, came from the courts of kings, to the court of king Herod, so they knew royalty and the power and riches of kings well. Yet they recognize Jesus as their king in the humble dwelling of a carpenter. They willingly pay their tribute of gold to Him, and they recognized that His kingship is beyond this world because they returned to their own country, yet don't think by so doing they're leaving His kingship.
While we will talk of God ruling, of in God we trust, and being one nation under God, we, like Herod and the Jerusalemites, are troubled by King Jesus. It's one thing to kneel before the great and terrible Oz, but when the man behind the curtain is exposed, with Dorothy and her companions, we get up off our knees. Toto pulling back the curtain is doing what Pilate does to Jesus about 30 years from now: "Behold the Man." And then all see as Tammy sang: "after all he's just a man." Then again maybe not. A baby being king is not beyond human conception or understanding. If we lived in a monarchy, we would know that a newborn could indeed be the heir to the kingdom. He would be addressed as your majesty, milord, your highness. So perhaps we can see how the Man Jesus can get gold fit for a king, but surely we'll stumble at the next gift: Incense fit for God.
Frankincense, or very fine incense, is white resin or gum that is very fragrant when burned and uber-expensive. In 2nd century B.C. one kilo of frankincense was worth 10 kilos of gold (Lutheran Witness, Jan. 1993, 13). Pagan historian Herodotus reported that the Chaldeans (think Babylon), "On the larger altaroffer something like twenty-eight and a half tons of frankincense every year at the festival of Bel" (I, 183, 72). We find it used in the temple (Ex. 30:31); added to all offerings but the sin offering (Lev. 2:1; 3:11), and in Revelation it's added to the prayers of the saints (Rev. 8:3). As we sing in the hymn, "Incense owns a Deity nigh." So, we might be able to get our ahead around kneeling before a Babe born King of the Jews but offering Him incense and worshiping Him as God most high? And can you see that using the incense not only recognized the sweet smell of God's presence but our own stench as sinners?
If you believe Stack Exchange "To stink to high heaven" was first recorded only in 1963, but the concept is found in Shakespeare's Hamlet "'O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven. It hath the primal eldest curse upon it. A brother's murder'" (Act 3, 42). In Vespers we chant, "May my prayer be set before Thee as incense, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice" (Psalm 141:2). This is an indication that on our own, apart from sweet smelling incense and pleasing aroma of cooking meat, we stink before God, but we forget this. That's the dual purpose of using incense in worship. It not only reminds us of the presence of God, but of our own stench as sinners in the nose of God. It's easy to forget this surrounded as we are by fellow sinners. After a 3-day patrol in the fetid swamps of Florida you stank, but your whole squad smelled, so you didn't notice. You only noticed when you had been in the barracks and another 3-day patrol came in. The stench only sticks out amidst the sweet.
The Magi we're led by God to offer incense that only Deity is fit to be offered to a flesh and blood Baby confessing that their own smelliness needs to be covered by God's graciousness. You know we make the same dual confession at this altar. We kneel before the presence of our God who is once more in our space and time, on our altar. The smell of sweet Wine testifies to His bodily presence and reminds us that because of our sin and sinfulness we don't smell sweet to God. Nevertheless, like the Magi, His wrath doesn't break out against us. And why not? It should. What should come forth from this altar where God comes again in Bread and Wine is the judgment that comes forth from the Ark in "Raiders of the Lost Ark". That ghostly apparition that starts out so beautiful and morphs into a face-melting angel of death is what the stink of sin and death that adhere to us since Adam's Fall should bring forth, but that doesn't happen.
The Magi recognized this too, and this makes their gift of myrrh which is fit for a sacrifice fit for Baby Jesus too. This is the most un-babylike present, and the most essential. Myrrh was chiefly used in embalming the dead, so it would be like giving a child a coffin today. Who would do that? One ancient legend of the Magi says the first was young and in youthful idealism sought a king, so he brings gold. The second was middle-aged and had a deep yearning for God, so he bought incense. The third was old with many a sin-stained year, so he looked for a Savior and knew that to save him would take suffering, so he brought soothing myrrh. There are dozens of legends and tales of the Wise Men. Beware of the one about the 4th wise man. It is typical of the type that makes Epiphany about what wise men do for Jesus rather than what Jesus does for them. "We Three Kings" while being wrong about the kings, gets it right about the myrrh: "Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume/ breathes a life of gathering gloom;/ sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,/ sealed in the stone-cold tomb."
Epiphany is the first of 3 times Jesus is offered myrrh. The second time is at the cross when myrrh is mingled with wine as sedative for those to be crucified. Jesus refused it. Having lived the holy life you couldn't, having lived never-ever stinking anything up, having lived as nothing but a blessing to others and as the beloved Son of God, He had to pay the price for our sinning, smelling, and rebelling. That price was suffering and dying not just now but forever. Jesus carried to the cross all the sins of the world. That's a lot of sin and required a lot of suffering, unimaginable in depth, scope, and pain. And He had to suffer every last tear drop, every last bead of sweat, every last drip from the cup of God's wrath. Because if there was even one drop, bead, or drip of suffering left, you and I would have to suffer it for our sins. And that would not only mean pain in life and death in time; it would mean hell in eternity.
So, Jesus refused the myrrh, the second time it was offered. The third time it was offered He did take it. I should say He didn't refuse it. He couldn't. He was stone-cold dead, and myrrh, Scripture tells you, was applied to the cloths He was buried in. This myrrh He only used for 3-days and that's important. That He actually used the myrrh for embalming the dead meant that Jesus did really, completely die for your sins, and so that means when you die it may be a consequence of sin yours or others but there is not one ounce of punishment in your death. Jesus didn't leave any for you. Second, that Jesus only used it for a time, shows you that He rose from the dead, and that means God the Father accepted His sacrifice in your place. The only reason the Man who is God in flesh and blood died was to pay for the sins of all humanity. If there was any left not paid for, Death would have kept Him. There was none. It is finished. Jesus has no need any more of myrrh.
Myrrh breathing "a life of gathering gloom" sounds the first discordant notes in the Christmas story. One of the hardest things parents can go through is giving birth to a child that will certainly die. Now that's true of all sinful mortals, but I'm talking about a child born with a condition with which they can't live and medicine can do nothing about. Those are sad, sad times; they tear the eyes of the parents and shake the heads of bystanders. Yet, Jesus is that Baby. Even as strains of "sleep in heavenly peace" still hang in the air, strains of "stricken, smitten, and afflicted" waft in. But unless we have Jesus as our sacrifice, having Him as our king would justly mean terror for us sinners, and having Him as our God would mean our judgment now and forever.
So, embrace all Jesus got for Christmas. The text is accurate when it lists the gifts. It's not for nothing that myrrh is last. That's the Greek way, which the Holy Spirit uses, to emphasize this is the gift to focus on. And rewording the Rolling Stones, I don't know if we can say or not that Jesus got what He wanted. I suppose from His prayer in Gethsemane we could say no'. but He definitely got what His Father wanted Him to. And I can definitely tell you: though you might not have gotten all you wanted for Christmas, what Jesus got shows Him to be the King, and God, and Sacrifice you need. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Epiphany of our Lord (20200105); Matthew 2: 1-12