A Prayer for Christmas: Perseverance Of The Wise Men
I suppose that we all get sucked into the frantic rush that is Christmas.
I heard about a woman who, just before Christmas, went rushing out to the store because it suddenly dawned on her that she had forgotten to send any Christmas cards. She bought the first box of cards she saw. There were 50 in the box. They were perfect: bright red, gold trim, “Merry Christmas” written in bold letters, and down at the bottom a space for signing your name. She hurriedly signed them, addressed them—it turned out that she used 49 of them—and then she dropped them into the mail. A couple of days later, on Christmas Eve, as she was cleaning up the house, she came across the one card she had left. She picked it up and said, “I wonder what the message was on the inside. I was in such a hurry, I never even looked.” She opened it and here is what she read: “This card is just to say a little gift is on the way.” She collapsed in a chair, realizing that 49 of her closest friends were now looking for a gift that would never come.
Christmas is, of course, a time for giving gifts. It all began with those wondrous mystical figures the Bible refers to as “the Wise Men from the East.” I must say that I am always amazed at the nuttiness this season of the year seems to call forth from some who claim to be ministers of the Gospel. Did you see in yesterday’s paper that Keith Sutton, Bishop of Lichfield in England, says that, “…far from being lovable characters, the three wise men who came with gifts for the Christ child were part of an assassination plot by King Herod.” How absurd! Little wonder, in light of that kind of nuttiness, that far too often these days the Church is being driven to the sidelines in life. I don’t buy that stuff for a moment, so let me tell you how I view these Wise Men. We can logically assume that they came from Persia, present day Iran, and that would have meant that they had to endure a long hazardous journey across miles and miles of trackless desert waste to make their way to Bethlehem. If you read the Bible carefully, you begin to see that the Wise Men did not arrive until after Jesus’ presentation in the Temple, 40 days after His birth. That helps to underscore the perseverance of the Wise Men. They made that long, challenging journey, and they refused to be stopped by the wicked conniving of King Herod. They were determined, at all costs, to see this special Child for themselves, and they brought gifts for the Child—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—and they would not stop until those gifts had been given. I’ve been thinking about those gifts. There is no written record of the subsequent history of the gifts, but as I have pondered the nature and the meaning of each gift, I have come to my own idea of what happened to each of them. Let me show you what I mean…
Gold was the most valuable commodity in the world at that time. It was the symbol of royalty. With this gift, the Wise Men were designating Jesus as “King.” King forever.
Do you realize that the visit of the Wise Men was the last of the good times for Mary and Joseph that first Christmas? After that, everything deteriorated badly. Jealous King Herod launched his massive “search and destroy” mission. It was then that an angel warned Joseph to escape to Egypt with Mary and the Child. Joseph bolted into action, gathering his family and their meager belongings, then took them on their own long, hazardous journey, this time to the land of the Pharaohs. Now, they were refugees without any means of support. That’s why I have come to believe that the Wise Men’s gold became a God-sent gift. I believe that treasure, offered to the infant Jesus as an emblem of His kingship, wound up being used by Joseph and Mary to ensure a safe start in life for this Child who was destined to transform the life of all humankind.
Of course, later on Jesus would have some hard things to say about wealth. There are those who interpret His teachings as a call to His followers to repudiate material possessions. But that is not what Jesus was saying. Jesus, whose very life was preserved by gold from wealthy Persians and whose ministry was underwritten by a coterie of wealthy, committed women, understood that the problem was not with the wealth, but with its abuse. It was the misery fostered by selfish greed. It was the injustice practiced by those with economic power against their fellow human beings. It was the tendency to exalt material values over spiritual values. Those were the things that called forth the denunciation from Jesus.
There was no such greed in those prosperous, affluent Wise Men from the East. They saw Jesus as King—King forever—and, therefore, they willingly, happily, generously gave to Him the best that they could give. We can do the same. Gold symbolizes royalty. When we come to Christ with our gold, we are acknowledging the right of Christ to rule our lives. Like the Wise Men of old, we declare Him to be King—King forever!
Frankincense was the liquefied sap of the beautiful Frankincense tree. The sap was then solidified into amber-colored lumps which, when warmed, gave off a lovely fragrance. It was used to purify the atmosphere of the temple and thus it became the symbol for divinity. With this gift, the Wise Men were designating Jesus as “Lord”—Lord of all lords.
The years sped past. With the help of the Wise Men’s gold, the little family lived quietly in Egypt until it was safe for them to return to their home in Nazareth. Soon, life for them returned to familiar patterns. The Boy Jesus, we are told, “grew in wisdom, in stature, and in favor with God and others.” Youth soon gave way to the responsibilities of adulthood, and Jesus took his place at His earthly father’s workbench, apparently to support his now-widowed mother and the other children in the family. Then there came the day when Jesus, their own Jesus, was to lead the weekly worship service at the synagogue. I now believe that at that point, Mary went to the place where the family’s choicest treasures were kept and took out the precious box of frankincense given to her Son years before by the Wise Men. I believe she used it lavishly in the synagogue to fill that place with a fragrant scent purifying it for worship, preparing it to hear the word of God from the lips of her Son. And, it was there that Jesus first delivered the message that He was, in fact, the Son of God—God come to Earth in human flesh. The Bible says that the people were so stunned by what they regarded as His outrageous claims, that they turned on Him and actually tried to kill Him.
It didn’t stop Him. You can’t stop God. There was no beauty in the worship that Sabbath Day in Nazareth, but the fragrance of the frankincense associated with His appearance went forth to permeate the whole world. His neighbors repudiated Him, but multitudes without number have since proclaimed Him Lord. He claimed to be what the Wise Men knew Him to be, the Son of God, and wherever people have opened their minds and hearts to His message, the fragrance of His Spirit has transformed their lives. When the Wise Men saw Him, Matthew tells us, they knelt down and paid Him homage. You see, God in His grace had opened their eyes to something so many people never see—that Jesus was God in human form. And, I take it from their response that the lives of those Wise Men were transformed by the experience.
The Wise Men brought the gift of frankincense. We can do the same. Frankincense symbolizes divinity. Like the Wise Men of old, we can kneel down and worship Jesus Christ as Lord. You see, when we own Him as Lord, then our own lives are changed and transformed. He is Lord—Lord of all lords!
Myrrh came from a shrub-like little tree and, like the frankincense, it was collected from the sap of the tree. It was the main ingredient in many perfumes of the day, and it was used both as a painkiller and as an anointing substance for the bodies of the dead. Myrrh, then, became the symbol for sacrifice. With this gift, the Wise Men were designating Jesus as “Savior”—sacrificial Savior of the world.
I think Mary, in her own heart somehow understood what most people miss—that Jesus Christ was born to die. I think Mary took that urn of myrrh and stored it away, knowing—though thinking about it was like a dagger to her heart—knowing that one day she would need it for her Son. And I think that when she joined Jesus for that last trip to Jerusalem, she packed it with her things, her mother’s intuition telling her that His time had come. And I think that on that Sunday morning after the crucifixion, she took that urn of myrrh and, with her friends, hurried off to the tomb to prepare her Son for final rest- only there to be greeted by the thunderous announcement, “He is not here. He is risen.” So, you see, it is my belief that the myrrh wound up being the only gift of the Wise Men, which was never used.
Here then is the side of the Christmas story not often told. Those soft baby hands, fashioned by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb, were made so that nails might be driven through them. Those tiny feet, so pink and completely unable to walk, would one day climb a God-forsaken hill to be nailed to a cross. That sweet infant’s head, with sparkling eyes and easy smile, was formed so that one day a crown of thorns might be forced upon it. That tender little body, so warm and soft and wrapped in swaddling clothes, would one day be ripped open by a spear. Jesus was born to die. Yet, His death was in no sense a tragedy, for out of His sacrificial death and subsequent resurrection, there came the salvation of your soul and mine.
The Wise Men brought the gift of myrrh. It was the symbol of sacrifice and salvation. When we then come to Christ as the Wise Men came to Him, we are saying to Him, “Lord Jesus, You took my sin and You died in my place. Now, I ask You to take me as Your own, forever.” Jesus was born to die, because Jesus was born to save. To save you and to save me. He is the sacrificial Savior of the world.
My beloved people, I plead with you to take Jesus Christ into your heart and into your life this Christmas. If you do, then you will come to know Him as I know Him: as King—King forever; as Lord—Lord of all lords; as Savior—our only Savior.