Psalm 72: 1-15, Isaiah 60: 1-6, Ephesians 3: 1-12, Matthew 2: 1-12
Today’s story from Matthew’s Gospel, the coming of the magi, is a very familiar one to us all. In fact quite a number of our Christmas cards this year show the three kings either on their journey or at the stable in Bethlehem. We tend to have this picture of three kings, no doubt because three presents are offered, gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These valuable items were standard gifts to honour a king or deity in the ancient world, gold as a precious metal, frankincense as a perfume or incense, and myrrh as anointing oil.
Some scholars believe that these three gifts have special spiritual symbolism, gold representing kingship, frankincense a symbol of Jesus’ priestly role, and myrrh a prefiguring of his death and embalming, an interpretation made popular in our Christmas carol, ‘We Three Kings’. Over the centuries we have even given these magi or kings, names, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar.
To perhaps get a truer meaning of this story, we need to look at the feast day we are celebrating, ‘Epiphany’, and what that word or event actually means. Epiphany, if we look up its meaning, is an appearance or manifestation, a sudden intuitive perception of, or insight into, the reality or essential meaning of something.
Here in our Western Christian culture, it signifies the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles in the persons of the magi. Actually Epiphany originated in the Eastern Church where it celebrates the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. It only came into being in the 4th Century in the Western Church as a celebration; the season of Epiphany extending from now until Ash Wednesday which begins the season of Lent, leading to Easter.
If we were to read the psalm for today, Psalm 72, we would see that it is written:
“The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him;
the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts.
All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him.” (vs.10-11)
We also heard in our reading from Isaiah 60:
“Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (v.3)
“And all from Sheba will come. They shall bring gold and frankincense
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (v.6)
The theme, the connection that runs through all our readings this morning is God’s great self-revelation to the world. In Isaiah, it is God’s light and brightness that comes out of darkness; this is how Isaiah sees God’s revelation.
In the reading, which we have heard, this morning, from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, written by Paul when in prison, the point of God’s Epiphany is that everyone should be drawn to Him. For, as Paul writes it is now through the understanding of the ‘mystery of Christ’ that the Gentiles as well as the Jews, as Christ’s church, can be used to show the world “the wisdom of God” (Ephesians 3:10). Paul, through his own epiphany on the road to Damascus knows that the risen Christ is for all people, all nations. All people can approach God, knowing that they are called, loved and wanted.
So, we return to the magi, the wise men, called by a star in the East, to find the place where the ‘King of the Jews’ had been born. Going first to the palace of King Herod, where they would expect to find a king to be born, but no.
For as we heard from Matthew’s Gospel quoting the words of the prophet Micah (5:2) who had proclaimed, “Bethlehem… out of you will come a ruler, who will be the shepherd of my people Israel” (Matthew 2:6).
So it was, that the magi went from Herod to Bethlehem where they found their king and his mother Mary “and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then opening their treasures-chests they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).
These magi, these wise men, probably started out with other ideas of what they were expecting to find, however, whatever their previous misconceptions, like Paul on the road to Damascus, they recognised Christ when they met him. These magi, whose countries of origin is not known, but possibly Persia, Babylon or Arabia, represented the best wisdom of the Gentile world, its spiritual elite. The central theme of this story is the homage of the Gentiles to God ‘come down to earth’ as a baby boy, for all people; and through his life, death and resurrection the saviour of our world for all time. For all of us gathered here today and for everyday we choose to accept Christ as our guiding light and saviour.