Sunday, January 06, 2013


Matthew 2
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Time for a quiz, mostly to test the choir’s legendary cleverness, but everyone can join in. The question: What is it?

Those who don’t have it, want it, and those who have it, want more.
Wikipedia describes it as “dense, soft, shiny, malleable and ductile.”
A rather famous brand of cinnamon schnapps contains some, and it’s perfectly safe to drink.
Imagine a cube 20 metres by 20 metres by 20 metres, and that is how much has been mined in human history.
The chemical symbol is Au.
It closed at US$1657 an ounce on Friday.

If you are as clever as the choir and answered ‘gold’ you are correct. It is the most sought after substance in history, recorded in many ancient sources, perhaps most famously in Matthew’s Gospel. If you read your email blast this week you will recall that only Matthew mentions the gift of gold, and Magi that brought the gold. There were three items, perhaps the best known birthday gifts of all time, and at some stage in the early church someone decided that there were three gift-givers, although the gospel is silent on this question.

Nevertheless, wise men have followed a rather auspicious star from their homes in the east, a star that they understood to declare the birth of a new king—the King of the Jews. Now, old King Herod was still very much alive, and didn’t take kindly to the idea that a new king was set to be born. The first objection would be that with three sons already set to inherit the throne in some form or another, a baby might complicate things And the second objection would be important semantics: “Born the King of the Jews would indicate Herod’s death (he did die that same year) or a palace coup. If a coup was coming, it was unlikely to be at the hands of a newborn.

Before I go on, though, I want to take a brief look at the man known to history as “Herod the Great.” Now, to achieve the epithet ‘great’ you have to be, well, great. Alexander the Great conquered the known world. Alfred the Great made it possible for me to preach this sermon in English this morning, rather than Danish. Peter the Great created an empire and brought Russia into the modern world. But Herod, what did he do to earn one of history’s highest honours?

Quite a lot, actually. The Western Wall, the place that is synonymous with Jerusalem and Israel, was constructed by Herod, along with the rest of the Second Temple. He built Masada, the famous palace and fortress, along with another one called Herodium, and also Ceasarea Maritima, and lots of waterworks, a very Roman thing to do. He managed to rule for 33 years, and expanded trade and increased prosperity, the very things he promised to do when the Roman Senate gave him the title “King of the Jews.” So you see, he felt he had a pretty good claim on the title and a secure place in the throne: he earned it, in his view, and also in the view of everyone who had a healthy respect for Roman power.

Except the wise men. What were they thinking, getting all dolled up like a Christmas pageant, crossing the border into someone else’s kingdom, and declaring ‘regime change’ without so much as Predator Drone or CIA operatives spreading misinformation? Instead, they marched right up to the palace, made their troublesome and unwelcome suggestions, then headed right out again. Herod might have dismissed them altogether in their presumptuousness and bad timing (Herod being alive and all) but he got mad instead. And now the whole outcome of the story was in danger.

And it gets worse. Remember the three gifts? Gold, frankincense and myrrh? Well let’s just examine these three gifts before we decide on the wisdom or the propriety of these three so-called wise men. First gold: always a great gift idea, and not just to enhance your cinnamon schnapps. Gold has averaged an 18% increased every year for the last dozen, so those wise men are looking wise indeed based on the ever growing spot price of the first gift.

And frankincense? It’s used in aromatherapy, for heaven’s sake, so it has to be good. You remember burning incense, right? I know there are a few hippies here about, many behind me, that burned incense in their tender years as a way to relax and never to mask the smell of other burning substances. What I’m trying to say is that frankincense is both thoughtful and practical. The child was born in a barn, so what better gift than a little aromatherapy.

And myrrh. Let’s ponder the myrrh for a moment. Which wise guy—literally—which wise guy though it would be a good idea to give the baby Jesus a substance used primarily in embalming? Seriously, embalming oil as a baby gift? What were they thinking? Not even gold or aromatherapy could make up for this one. First they offend the king, then they give the worst gift ever. I can’t imagine who things could get worse for these three.

Except it does. When they appeared at the palace with bad news for old Herod, they were actually tipping him off, something that became very real when they had a dream that followed the disturbed sleep that followed that last inappropriate gift. In the dream, they were told that something very bad was about to happen (and maybe they were reminded that it was all their fault) and that they should flee. So flee it is, back home by another way, to ponder all the foolishness accomplished by the ones that history has decided to give the title ‘wise.’

But was it foolishness? Or was there method in their madness, or did they at least have the best intentions? Let’s take a look: First, warning Herod might have been a good move, diplomatically speaking. Herod was a great builder, but also a tyrant, as his near future would demonstrate, and warning him of the coming ‘regime change’ would give him the opportunity to mend his ways, and live in a way that might allow him to sleep more peacefully, even of it was the sleep of eternity.

Next, suggesting that another may lay claim to the title “King of the Jews” may have been religious commentary, entering in a debate that needed to move forward. Herod suggested he was a good Jew, and a good king, something that the religious leaders disputed. By entering the debate, they were throwing their support behind those who believed that Herod was Jewish in name only, and needed to do more than maintain power in Jerusalem to be considered a faithful Jew.

Finally, the biggest gaff of all, giving embalming oil to a baby, seems pretty hard to redeem. It might seem overly dramatic and even inappropriate to suggest that this baby was born to die, even if his death would mean the end of death and the salvation of us all, but it’s true. And the wisdom of God, displayed in the wisdom of the wise men, was best described by St. Paul:

Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6.3-5)

Baptism and death are forever linked in the wisdom of Paul, which is, of course, God’s wisdom, the wisdom that links both sacraments, baptism and communion. Jesus said, “this cup is the new covenant in my blood:” a new covenant that means that “there will be no more death, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but life everlasting.”

Describing this link, and the debt we own as a result, is a task best left to the poets. Paul was a poet-theologian, and framed it well for the others that followed. But the real poetic gift fell on Charles Wesley, who wrote the lines that expressed this connection best, in what may be his very finest hymn (he wrote 8,000):

Mild He lay His glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Maybe their timing wasn’t the best, and they gave too much information to Herod, and they threatened the title he loved so much, and they gave at least one seemingly unhelpful gift. But their hearts were in the right place, since the connection between birth and death and salvation remains: Christ the King, ‘born that we no more may die.’ Amen.


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