The Epiphany of Our Lord
January 6, 2016
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
Some 600 years before the birth of Christ, the Israelites were under Babylonian captivity. But just as Joseph had risen in the ranks of Egypt by interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, so also did Daniel rise in the Babylonian kingdom by interpreting King Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams.
The book of Daniel records it like this: Then King Nebuchadnezzar bowed down on the ground and worshiped Daniel and told men to offer him food offerings and incense. The king told Daniel, “It is certain your God is God of gods, the Lord of kings, who can tell secrets because you could tell this secret.” Then the king promoted Daniel, gave him many great gifts, and made him governor of the whole province of Babylon and chief manager of all the advisers in Babylon. (Dan 2:46-48 AAT).
As a faithful prophet of God, Daniel without a doubt would have given the wise men of Babylon the Torah and taught them of the one true God. As the years progressed, that same teaching would have been passed down, so that when the descendents of the wise men saw the star in the East, they knew that God was acting on the promises He had made from the foundations of the world.
So the magi came with gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These gifts are not accidental; they brought them each for very specific purpose.
The Gifts of the Magi Reveal Christ to Us
The first gift of the magi for Jesus teaches us of His kingly nature. Gold is a royal gift that shows wealth and power. The fact that the magi bring Jesus gold reveals their belief about who the true king of Israel was. Remember that before they had found Jesus, they first went to see King Herod. But they had no gift of gold for him.
It was no mistake that these Babylonian wise men identified Jesus as a king. Centuries before their journey to the manger, the magi’s predecessors had heard Daniel’s prophecies, which foretold that God would establish His reign during the Roman Empire, the fourth empire from the Babylonian Empire (Dan. 2:40-45). As Daniel prophesied, In the visions during the night I saw One coming with the clouds of the heavens like the Son of Man, and He came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And He was given glory, power to rule, and a kingdom, so that all peoples, nations, and those of every language should serve Him. His authority is everlasting and will not pass away, and His kingdom is one that will not be destroyed (Dan. 7:13-14 AAT).
The magi now knelt before the fulfillment of this prophecy—the infant Jesus is like a son of man, but much more. He is the Son of the Father, the Ancient of Days; He is the Seed of the Woman, born to crush the dragon’s head. Son of God; Son of Man.
The gold brought by the magi teaches us something else about Jesus as well. This gift was a practical gift, in that it could be used to provide for Jesus’ bodily needs. For our Lord, though He is a king, was not born into a king’s house. He gave up His kingly rights in order to take His place in our poverty. He who can claim all of the world’s gold as His own creation places Himself at the mercy of the charity of a stranger.
With their gift of gold, the magi also bring frankincense. Incense was an ingredient in the grain offerings of the Israelites added as a pleasing aroma to God. Incense is also the tool of prayer. David writes in Psalm 141 (vv 1-2), I call You, O LORD; hurry to help me. Listen to me when I call You. May my prayer be set as incense before You, and the raising of my hands as an evening sacrifice.
It’s a shame that we don’t use incense much anymore in the Church. In addition to the fact that it was all over the place in biblical worship and the rich ceremonial and theological image of smoke rising up to heaven, I recently read that a medical journal reported that the compounds found in frankincense help to alleviate anxiety and depression.
The frankincense brought by the magi was certainly a practical gift—in that it could be used by the Holy Family in prayer—but it was also a confession of who this baby boy is.
Jesus is the priestly intercessor between God and man. Just as the priest entered the tabernacle and temple to offer petitions on behalf of the people, so also Jesus prays to the Father on our behalf. He is the perfect intercessor between God and man because He is God and man. There is no bridge over the chasm that separates sinful man from holy God except for God enfleshed in Jesus Christ.
What’s more, not only does He offer intercession, but He offers Himself as the sacrifice. His suffering and death is the only offering that can completely satisfy God’s justice. And He gives it on our behalf.
The third gift from the magi is the gift of myrrh. Myrrh is a perfume that was widely used in preparing a body for burial. It was expensive in ancient times—worth its weight in gold.
This last gift from the magi is a strange gift to celebrate a birth, to celebrate new life. But this gift confessed that Jesus was born in order to die. The baby boy would trade the wood of the manger for the wood of the cross. This myrrh given by the wise men to Jesus may well have been the same burial spices carried by the women to Jesus’ tomb on the third day after His crucifixion. They came to prepare a dead body, but they found an empty tomb. For Christ is risen. This infant would need no myrrh to mask the odor of death, for His body did not see decay before He rose again.
Myrrh is not only used for embalming dead bodies, but also a balm for injured bodies. Likewise, Jesus, by the power of His resurrection, is balm for our sin-wounded bodies. When Jesus is applied to us through His holy Word, He turns our sickness in health, our death into life.
The magi from the East confess the Christ not only with their worship, but also with their gifts. God grant the Christ child is continually revealed to us to be our King, our Intercessor, and our Atoning Sacrifice.
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard
Featured image by Flickr user Nick Thompson.