In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The word we translate “wise men” is Magi. It is related to our word magician. It could mean astrologers, that is, those who believed the stars and planets controlled fate. It could mean sorcerers. It could mean scientists or astronomers. In fact, the lines between scientist and alchemist or sorcerer were blurred in the ancient world. Wise men sounds nicer. But I think the best translation would actually be: scholar.
They were probably Persians from Babylon. The Persians, like the Egyptians, blurred the line between royalty and divinity. This also helps to confuse things.
Whoever these guys were, they saw some astrological sign, an alignment of planets or a star or a meteor shower, and somehow connected it with Israel. They then interpreted it to mean that a new Divine being had been born on earth as king. One possibility is that they had some revelation we don’t, some inspired word from Daniel that predicted these things or even some special revelation given directly to them, like unto Joseph’s dreams.
This all matters for lots of reasons. It has also been covered thoroughly in other places. Tonight I want to consider the gifts the wise men brought. For if they were Persian astrologers who interpreted the stars to mean a new Divine King was to born in Israel then they brought gifts as tribute. And like their worship, they meant that to show their submission. They lived and served at the king’s pleasure.
That is a very reasonable argument given what we know of the Persians. Except for this: the ancient people were casually racist. Persians worshiped their kings. They didn’t worship Pharaoh. They assumed they were superior.
This always cracks me up with the modern take on Native Americans. What do you think they meant by calling themselves “the people?” They were racists. I don’t think you can find a non-racist people in the ancient world. They all assumed they were superior to other people. The Native Americans figured they were closer to the land and therefore to the gods. They were in harmony with the earth. Other tribes and races weren’t. Other tribes and races were inferior. It is simply old-fashioned paganism. We come along and act like this is a profound insight. “Oh, they’re connected to the land!” All the pagans, even the Native Americans, got into fertility stuff. t is not quite so obvious with them because they weren’t agriculturally-based, but it was still about fertility. It was about getting food and the stuff we need for life and trying to fit into the rhythm of life and death.
Of course, Hollywood is moved by this and thinks it is profound. This too is no surprise. Because fallen men have always found this profound. Fallen men are incredibly similar in their desires and fears. It is kind of like when one culture or another brags about drinking massive quantities. I’ve got a little secret for you: The Germans, the Irish, the Poles, the Japanese, the Arabs, the Ethiopians, and the Mexicans are all great drunks. Everyone is. It is a universal problem.
Anyway, Persian astrologers are not going to see divinity in other people’s kings. And they aren’t going to worship a Hebrew or bring Him tribute. They wouldn’t. Besides that, it would be strange indeed for astrology to lead to this sort of coincidence. How many times did Persians show up to worship some kid who wasn’t the Messiah? So let’s dismiss that. The gifts aren’t tribute.
What are they? They could have been something akin to gifts given at a baby shower. In other words, the gifts were given in the name of the Baby Jesus, but they were given to Sts. Mary and Joseph. The expectation was that the parents would use the gifts for the good of the child. In this case, they would have used them to fund their trip to Egypt. If this is the case, then the character of the gifts is probably symbolic of Our Lord’s three-fold office. The gold is in recognition that He is the Creator and Ruler of the Universe. The Frankincense relates to His priestly office, that He hears and answers prayers. And the myrrh somehow reflects His prophetic role. I guess because it is bitter. I’ve never quite got that bit. That is certainly a pious understanding and conforms to the Holy Scripture.
I think, however, that there is a better explanation. These wise men are truly and deeply wise and these gifts are directly related to Our Lord’s burial. If this is the case, then they are most unlike St. Peter whose fallen flesh once caused him to try and deny Our Lord’s death. Immediately upon St. Peter’s God-given confession that Jesus is the Christ, he was told that it is necessary for the Christ to be sacrificed. Then St. Peter, in his weakness, tried to stop the Lord from going to Jerusalem. Our Lord responded by calling St. Peter “Satan.” The only one who rightly wants to keep Jesus from the cross is the devil. We don’t. We need Him to be sacrificed. Because if He isn’t, not only are we damned, but so are our children. St. Peter was wrong. Our Lord was not unduly harsh. To keep Jesus from the cross is an absolutely satanic impulse. The death of Jesus Christ does not make the holy angels or the saints in heaven sad. They love it. They rejoice in it. The know and confess that it is good, that this is God’s will.
So it could well be that armed with the prophecies of Daniel, Moses, and Isaiah, and maybe even some Word we haven’t been given, the wise men recognized Jesus as the Sacrifice and gave St. Mary gifts for His burial. If so, this means they rejoiced in Jesus’ death. He was probably a toddler at this point, running around, laughing. And they bow down and say, “Won’t it be great when you’re tortured and killed?” They are eager for it. Strange, I know. But profoundly true. If this is the case, then their piety moves them to give from themselves for the work of the Church, to aid St. Mary in the burial, not as mourners, but as forgiven penitents. They aren’t paying tribute or giving baby shower gifts. They’re simply responding to the true character and purpose of the Messiah and seeing the need they provide.
If that is the case, it is not only deeply profound and pious, it is also a remarkable example of how charity works in the Church. St. Mary needs to bury Our Lord. There is a prophecy about His being joined in death to the rich. So she needs some cash and some costly spices. They gladly provide it. I don’t think this is that different than seeing that the Church needs a high chair and going and getting one or putting money in the plate so that the church can be heated and the pastor can devote himself to preaching, teaching, and visiting. In other words, I think this is precisely what faith does.
And maybe the wise men weren’t that wise. Maybe they didn’t fully and perfectly understand exactly what they were doing. Maybe it was complicated, and sometimes part of them knew, sometimes they forgot, sometimes they got mad, sometimes they cried, sometimes they were afraid, and sometimes they were just full of joy and thrilled to be a part of it all. Maybe they just knew that Jesus was the Messiah, God in our Flesh anointed by His Father to be Our Savior, and didn’t fully get how painful or terrible it would be. Maybe they simply trusted that God would provide for them through that Messiah so they came to worship Him. And maybe their gifts did more good and showed more things than they consciously knew.
You may not always be fully aware of exactly what is happening in the Service. You may not know what every passage means. You may not always pay attention during the sermon. You might not plan your gifts but just reach into your pocket and pull out a dollar when the plate goes by. You may sometimes doubt, be angry, sad, lonely, lustful, tired, or frustrated. But the Lord provides.
Your mother may not have known what she was doing when she brought you to be baptized. But the Lord knew what He was doing. The One who sent the Messiah, sent the star and prodded the wise men along. He does the same for you – whether you fully recognize it or not.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Pastor David Petersen