~ Isaiah 60:1-6/Matthew 2:1-12 ~
Of all the ancient archeological sites in the Middle East, none is probably more spectacular and stunning than Petra, located in Jordan. You walk for ½ mile through a very narrow canyon only a few feet wide, before it opens up to reveal Al-Khaznah, The Treasury, an ornate façade carved out of sandstone. For reference, it was featured prominently in one of the Indian Jones movies.
But that is not all there is to Petra. It was a large city in the ancient world, mostly carved out of the red sandstone, including a 1000-seat amphitheater. Who built this incredible architectural wonder? Well, they were called the Nabataeans. Before they built Petra, they were wandering nomadic Arabs. But they loosely controlled the trading network, which centered on strings of oases that they controlled, on the boarderland between Arabia and Syria. And from that they prospered mightily. Because, in time, they controlled the trade of two of the most valuable commodities in the ancient world: frankincense and myrrh.
Frankincense, which literally means “high-quality incense,” is an aromatic resin drawn from hardy, desert trees that grew in the southern Arabian Pennisula. Myrrh, likewise, was a resin, extracted from a desert tree that was used for incense, perfume and medicine. In fact, both were thought to be healing balms. It turns out that when burned frankincense and myrrh give off a highly favorable aromatic incense which was most desirable in the ancient world. Thus, it could be said, that frankincense and myrrh were as valuable as gold.
So, when the magi show up at Jesus’ manger bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh they weren’t just token gifts. It wasn’t, like, here’s some gold (nice) and some scented candles and fragrant soap. No. These were precious gifts, all!
Isaiah 60, which Carol read for us, is the Old Testament text for this Epiphany Sunday every year. It does, indeed, seem to pre-figure the story of the magi with its epiphany motifs. But it has its own history, its own purpose.
Jerusalem lay in ruins. The Babylonians had conquered the city in 598 B.C., taking many Israelites back to Babylon as captives. It was known as the Babylonian Captivity. Seventy years later, after the Persians conquered Babylon, the Israelites were allowed to return to their home land. They found a city that was a pile of rubble and they were most discouraged. The writers of this portion of Isaiah so wanted to find a way to encourage the people by speaking of the future grandeur of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is the subject of the prophecy. “Arise, shine; for your light,” Jerusalem, “has come.” “God’s glory will appear over” Jerusalem. You, Jerusalem, shall be radiant. The nations shall come to you, Jerusalem, with camels laden with goods, and they shall bring gold and frankincense. And God will be praised.
It would appear that Matthew found this language to be quite compelling for his telling of Jesus’ birth. He borrowed heavily, you might say. So, here come the magi following a star (not just any astronomical star – this one moved!) as the metaphor for the light that Jesus represents. Again, echoing Isaiah, the magi come from the nations – they are gentiles. For even though, in Matthew’s telling, Jesus is King of the Jews, he is the messiah for all peoples. And they come bearing precious gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh to honor this king who is born a babe in humble settings. They pay him homage!
Evidently, every Christmas season there is this thing to try to avoid certain Christmas songs. People actually work at not finding themselves in a situation where they might hear the chosen song to avoid. This year, apparently, it was “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” A radio station here in the city refused to play it and the whole thing got quite a bit of press. In light of the “MeToo” movement there were legitimate concerns about the lyrics. But I digress…
In past years the chosen Christmas song to avoid was “The Little Drummer Boy.” You might be asking, that’s a nice song. What’s offensive about that? Here’s the scoop. Here’s a boy who is invited to a party, “a new born king to see,” to bring our finest gifts, “to lay before the king, so to honor him.” Of course, after every line is the incessant “pa rum pum pum pum.” But of course he doesn’t have a fine gift to bring. All he has is his drum, which he plays, over and over and over. Those who disparage the song claim that the baby didn’t really smile at the little drummer boy for his playing, as the lyrics say – he cried, loudly, at the obnoxious, overbearing “pa rum pum pum pum’s.”
Probably not a fair assessment. There is another Christmas carol that includes a poignant line about bringing a gift. It appears in a carol that doesn’t start off very positively.
In the bleak midwinter,
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter,
The middle verses speak of how Jesus Christ was born in this bleak midwinter and angels gathered in the midnight air. And then the last verse:
What can I offer,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd,
I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise one,
I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.
When it is all said and done, that is what this entire Christmas season is all about. We celebrate the Christ child born in a manger, with shepherds abiding in the field by night and magi following a star to find the babe to pay him homage, bringing precious gifts. Give him my heart. That is the precious gift we bring. This is not just some sentimental notion. It is what being a Christian is all about. We give him our heart and follow him. Amen.