And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. (Matthew 2:11 ESV)
If you were going to tell the story of Jesus, where do you begin?
You might want to start at his birth or maybe a bit before that – with his parents. Perhaps you’re interested not so much in a biography but an account of the ‘inside Jesus’. Or you mightn’t be interested in his childhood at all but only when he started working. All these starts are possible – in fact you can read versions of them in Matthew, Mark, and Luke – and if you want an ultimate beginning – before time even begins then you should read the Gospel of John. Today’s Festival – the Epiphany of Jesus – the manifestation or theophany is the Early Church’s attempt at reminding and teaching people that God has appeared on Earth in Jesus. This festival is earlier than Christmas – and is an attempt at beginning the story on Earth that ends at the crucifixion but doesn’t end with the resurrection!
At its bluntest, the Epiphany is Christians telling each other and the world that Jesus is the world’s King, that Jesus is more than a king – he is a priest and a sacrifice as well – and also that all would-be kings, dictators, and control freaks will be thwarted. This is the story of the Magi – those astrologerlike students of the stars – who come and put Herod and the Jerusalem elite in a tizz by requesting to see the newly born King of Israel, ie. they went to Jerusalem, to the palace and asked the King about his baby son. Whoops! And if one thing destabilises a monarchy is the announcement of the next dynasty on your doorstep! Well, not exactly doorstep – a few miles away – in Bethlehem to be precise – in a house – we are long past putting Jesus to sleep in a manger – and with great joy the Magi finally find Jesus and they come in and they offer gifts and bow down and worship – and we have the final gobsmack that it is Gentiles worshipping the toddler, confirming the claim that Jesus is King over everyone.
But it is a strange claim because Jesus isn’t found in palace with an entourage of nannies and gold, silver, and bronze spoons all over the place. No. He is nondescript – he is not easily found – and his circumstances seem ordinary to say the least.
We don’t know how many Magi there were. The Bible never says and we tend to say ‘3’ because we sing ‘We three kings’ and also possibly because there were three gifts. There was gold which everyone wants because it is currency but it is also associated with a group of people whom one expects to have gold all around them – royalty. So for both symbolic and utilitarian reasons, gold and kings are associated with each other. The trouble with this king even now but definitely when he is at his coronation – sorry, crucifixion – is that no-one is envious of his throne and crown. No gold to be seen!
Frankincense is usually a white resin or gum from a tree and it is used as an incense. Incense is associated with many things in today’s world but back in Old Testament times frankincense was definitely associated with worshipping God, prayers, and priests. The priest represented God to the people and the people to God – he was the go-between so that the people could be blessed and live safely with God. The incense smoke could be seen in the shafts of sunlight – ascending – prayer like around the priest – and in fact Christians say that Jesus is our great high priest who prayed for – and still prays for – people and offered the perfect sacrifice to God. Himself.
And this brings us to the third gift – myrrh – which is a surprising gift to give at the beginning of life. We don’t know how Mary and Joseph reacted – and as Jesus was a toddler he may have been more interested in the wrapping paper – but myrrh was often a fragrant oil used for anointing – and it was
often used to anoint the dead. This gift was saying that this little one would die. Not the inevitable consequence of the end of life, hopefully at an old age but rather scandalously, this child has come to die. And Christians say that is why Jesus came – as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world; as the perfect sacrifice so that we could live with God now and always.
The presents tell us who Jesus is – King, Priest, and Lamb.
They also are sensory – especially the sense of smell. We are one of the few generations with our clean streets, antiseptic rooms, closed drains, good plumbing, and refrigerated kitchens that generally don’t have to deal with ‘bad air’. We can use air fresheners as much as we like. But that is not the case in all of the world today and for the majority of people in the past. I’m not sure we can imagine the smells. And even worship in the ancient world with its animal sacrifices had a smell about it – with fire and blood and guts all around – and the big counter to the bad smells was the sweet smells of clean water and incense.
What is left of these past ‘smelly conditions’ for most of us in England are phrases such as ‘This stinks’ often said when things are rotten, sour, putrid, bad. Life like that isn’t good.
One of the reasons for incense in the history of worship and this includes the Christian Church is the sensory message it gives which envelopes the whole person – which goes into us as we breathe – and can transport us to other places and memories. And whether we have actual incense or not, today’s gifts to Jesus remind us of his gifts of himself to us – particularly as Priest and Lamb – for he is the One – the only One – who best addresses whatever it is that causes us to say, ‘This stinks!’.
The idea of fragrance – subtle, present, enhancing – is used by the Apostle Paul to talk about the Christian life and ministry. To the Corinthians in this second letter, Paul wrote: But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. (2 Corinthians 2:14–17 ESV)
Paul was saying that we smell fragrant with life – not stinking with death – to God and in the world. And this life is grounded in sharing God’s Word which is always focused on, centred on, and built on Jesus Christ.
To the Ephesians, he wrote: Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1,2 ESV)
Here love and sacrifice are fragrant to God and imitate Christ. In a world of sin and insecurity, one grabs for oneself and this produces conflict, survival of the fittest, decay and death. The followers of this new King, the Christ, more than that, the Lord have learnt that as one gives of oneself – grounded in Christ’s love – and not out of our neurosis or self centredness – life is sweet. Sweet isn’t ‘easy street’ but secure in God’s love because Jesus has already overcome the world.
The Festival of The Epiphany is a largely forgotten one without the help of a public holiday but it’s message – fragrant like – wafts to us and reminds us in the story of the Magi that only in Jesus is there hope and life. This message is lived out in ordinariness, everyday, non-palace settings, even hostility – which is both Jesus’ context and very often ours. Today we see in Jesus – in other places we may also smell the incense – that he is not an ordinary toddler – but God here for us as one of us to deal with all of whatever makes life stink. He calls us to follow him and to be fragrant!
- Matthew 2:11