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Christmas in the Carols: We Three Kings Of Orient Are

Matthew 2:1-12

An aura of deep ministry surrounds the story of the Wise Men. They have both fascinated and baffled Bible students for centuries. Precisely who they were, we do not know. From whence they came, we can only hazard a guess. How they were motivated to follow a star, we can but speculate. How many of them there were, we are not told. They seemed to materialize quite suddenly out of nowhere. Then, having paid their homage to the newborn King, just as suddenly they vanished into the mists of history.

You are no doubt aware that legend has had a field day toying with their origin, their number, their names, their personalities and their purpose. Tradition says that there were three in number, that their names were Casper, Melchior and Balthasar; that years later they were baptized by Thomas the disciple as he took the Gospel to the Orient; that after their death they were buried first in Constantinople, then later moved to the Cologne Cathedral in Germany; and that their tombs can be viewed in that cathedral today. Frankly, I suspect that most of that is the stuff of legend. It may be part of our tradition, but it is not part of our Bible.

Even that great old Christmas carol, “We Three Kings Of Orient Are,” may be wrong on several counts. John Hopkins, who wrote the carol in 1857, failed to remember that the Bible nowhere tells us how many Wise Men there were, and the Bible nowhere refers to them as “kings.” However, I want us to remember that the greatness of this carol rests in the fact that it focuses not so much upon the Magi, but upon the gifts they brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. That, of course, is not legend—that’s in the Bible. Furthermore, those gifts were more than just gifts—they were symbols of who Jesus was, is, and always will be. That truth is beautifully told in the carol, as we shall see, in a moment, after we have prayed…

I suppose 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 not sent any Christmas cards. She bought the first fifty cards she saw. They were perfect. Bright red, gold trim, the words “Merry Christmas” in large letters, and down at the bottom a white space for signing the name. She hurriedly signed them in the white box, addressed them, all forty-nine, and dropped them in the mail. A couple of days later, on Christmas Eve, as she was cleaning up the house, she came across the one card that she had left. She picked it up and said: “I wonder what the message is on the inside. I was in such a hurry, I never even looked.” She opened it and this is what she read: “This card is just to say a little gift is on the way.” She collapsed in a chair realizing that forty-nine of her friends were now looking for a gift that would never arrive.

Christmas, of course, is a time for giving gifts. It all began with those “Wise Men from the East” of whom it is written in Matthew: “They saw the child with Mary, his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh.” I have been thinking about that verse and those gifts—and while there is no written record of the subsequent history of those gifts, I’d like to tell you what I think happened to them. You see, I think those gifts point to the One to whom they were given.

The first gift the Wise Men brought was gold.

Gold is the symbol for royalty. With this gift, the Wise Men were designating Jesus as “King.” In the carol we sing:

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
Gold I bring to crown Him again
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.

The visit of the Wise Men was the last of the good times for Joseph and Mary that first Christmas. From that point on life for them deteriorated badly. Jealous King Herod launched a massive military search for this Child whom the Wise Men had labeled a “King.” It was at that point that an angel of the Lord warned Joseph in a dream to take Mary and their child to Egypt in order to escape the cruelty of Herod. Joseph bolted into action. That same night, he gathered his young family and his meager belongings and set out on the long and hazardous journey to the land of the Pharaohs.

Not being a wealthy man, it is probable that Joseph’s resources had already been strained by the enforced journey to Bethlehem to comply with the census order. Now they had become refugees, and in such a precarious predicament the gold of the Magi became in reality a God-sent gift. The treasure offered to the child as an emblem of His Kingship would be used to insure a safe start in life to One who was destined to transform the life of all humankind.

Of course, later on Jesus would have some hard things to say about wealth. In fact, there are those who interpret His teachings as calling His followers to repudiate material possessions. That is not what Jesus was saying. Jesus, whose very life had been preserved by a gift of gold from wealthy people, understood that the problem was not with the wealth, but with its abuse. It was the miserly spirit caused by selfish greed; it was the injustice so often practiced by those with economic power over their fellows; it was the supremacy of material over spiritual values—those were the things which called forth the denunciation of Jesus.

Do you remember the name J. Paul Getty? He was one of the world’s richest men. He created a vast empire and once observed: “The meek shall inherit the earth, but not the mineral rights, those are mine.” His greed led him to alienate those closest to him. When his 12-year-old son, Timmy, lay dying of a brain tumor, he refused to visit him. Ultimately he died alone and miserable, and with all his wealth, he failed to pay the funeral expenses at the church where the service was held. When I think of J. Paul Getty, I think of what Plato said: “Poverty consists not in the decrease of one’s possessions, but in the increase of one’s greed.”

There was no such greed in those prosperous Magi from the east. They saw Jesus as King, King forever, and therefore they gave to Him the best that they could give. We can do the same. I know it is often said that we can bring nothing to Christ. But I think we can bring the same gifts the Wise Men brought. So come with your gold. Gold symbolizes royalty. When you come to Christ with your gold, you are acknowledging the right of Christ to rule your life. You are like those Wise Men of old, declaring Him to be “King forever, ceasing never, over us all to reign.”

The second gift the Wise Men brought was frankincense.

Frankincense is the symbol for divinity. It was an expensive fragrance which in Old Testament times, was sprinkled on the offerings in the Temple to purify them and to make them worthy of God. With this gift, then the Wise Men were designating Jesus as “The Son of God.” In the carol we sing:

Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, all men raising,
Worship Him, God on high.

The years sped past. With the help of the golden treasure, the little family lived quietly in Egypt until at last it was safe for them to return to their home in Nazareth. Soon life for them had returned to familiar patterns. Of course, the dreams and the promises of that night in Bethlehem were not forgotten, and under the careful guidance of Mary and Joseph, the boy Jesus “grew in wisdom and 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 father’s workbench to support His widowed mother and the younger children in the family. Then one day excitement gripped that family, for Jesus, their own Jesus, was to lead the weekly worship service in the synagogue.

As an act of devotion, Mary went to the chest where the family’s choicest treasures were kept, and from that place she took the precious box of frankincense which had been given to her Son at His birth. She used it lavishly, filling the synagogue with the fragrant odors of Oriental spice, preparing that place for the worship of God. And there, in His hometown synagogue, Jesus first delivered the message that He was the Son of God—God come to earth in human flesh. The people in the synagogue were so stunned by His claims that a tumult broke out and they turned on Jesus.

It didn’t stop Him. You can’t stop God. There was no beauty in the worship of that Sabbath day in Nazareth, but the fragrance of the frankincense that was associated with His appearance went forth to permeate the whole world. His neighbors repudiated Him, but multitudes without number have 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 fell down and worshipped Him. God in His grace opened their eyes to something many people never see—that Jesus was God in human form—and I take it from their response that their lives were transformed.

The same thing can happen when we come to worship here. Some time back I came across a wonderful little clipping called “Safety Tips.” Here they are:

  1. Do not ride in a car—they cause 20 percent of fatal accidents.
  2. Do not stay home—17 percent of all accidents happen there.
  3. Do not walk along the street—15 percent of accidents happen to pedestrians.
  4. Do not travel by air, rail or water—16 percent of all accidents happen there.
  5. But only .001 percent of all accidents happen in church.

So it’s good to come to church because it’s a safe place, but it’s better to come to church to experience a first-hand, personal encounter with God’s Son, Jesus Christ. It has happened to me in a hymn or an anthem. I will be sitting here in the pulpit listening to the choir, and some particular turn of phrase, some look on a choir member’s face, some riveting chord on the organ will open a whole in my consciousness a mile wide and the Spirit of Jesus Christ will come flooding in stabbing my soul with joy, filling my eyes with tears, and I will know that I am worshipping God. And if it happens to me, it can happen to you. So, like the Wise Men of old, come with your frankincense. It symbolizes divinity. And, like the Wise Men of old, fall down and worship the God who has come to us in Jesus Christ. “Prayer and praising all men raising; worship Him God on high.”

The third gift the Wise Men brought was myrrh.

Myrrh is the symbol for suffering. It was a substance used for deadening pain and for embalming the dead. With this gift, the Wise Men were pointing toward the sacrificial death of Jesus and they were designating Him as “Savior of the world.” In the carol we sing:

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume;
Breathes a life of gathering gloom,
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in a stone cold tomb.

I think that Mary understood what most people miss—that Jesus Christ was born to die. I think she tucked that urn of myrrh away, knowing—though thinking of it was like a stab to her heart—knowing that one day she would have to use it to prepare her Son for burial. And I think that when she joined Jesus for that last trip to Jerusalem, she packed it with her things, suspecting that His time had come. And I think on that Sunday morning, after His crucifixion, Mary took that urn of myrrh, and with her friends, hurried through the early dawn to the garden tomb, ready to prepare her Son for final rest—only there to be greeted by the thunderous announcement: “He is not here. He is risen.” And as a result, the myrrh was the only gift of the Wise Men which was never used.

My friends, here is a side of the Christmas story not often told. Those soft little hands, fashioned by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb, were made so that nails might be driven through them. Those baby feet, pink and unable to walk, would one day climb an awful 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 death and subsequent resurrection, there came the salvation of your soul and mine. So, like the Wise Men of old, come with your myrrh. It symbolizes suffering and salvation. When you come to Christ with your myrrh, you are claiming Him as your Savior. You are saying to Him: “Lord, you took my sin, and died in my place, now I ask you to accept me as your own forever.” You see, not only was He born to die, He was also born to save.

Well…

One of my friends here at the church is wearing on her dress this Christmas a little button, and on the button are these familiar words: “Wise Men still seek Him.” That’s true you know, those who are wise in this world—truly wise—do still seek Him…

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