What a very odd story this is, about the wise men coming to Jesus. For a start, you only find it in Matthew's gospel, and not in Luke's. To carry on with, it's quite difficult to reconcile the course of events in Matthew with those in Luke – for instance, Luke seems to think that the family go straight back to Nazareth, stopping off at Jerusalem on the way to present Jesus in the temple, whereas Matthew seems to think they lived in Bethlehem all the time, fled to Egypt to escape Herod's vengeance after the wise men's visit, and only then settled in Nazareth.
I don't suppose it matters much, really, though, because we have also got an incredible amount of tradition mixed up with the stories – the ox and the ass in the stable, for instance; you don't find those in either gospel account. Nor, in the one we have just heard read, were there three wise men! It doesn't say how many there were.
Tradition, of course, has made of them kings; Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. But that's not what the Bible says. And it is only tradition that identifies gold with kingship, frankincense with divinity, or godhead, and myrrh with death.
But seeing as we all have our own mental image of the Nativity stories, it doesn't matter very much. It wouldn't really be a Christmas crib without donkeys and oxen, would it? And it's a lot easier to depict Eastern potentates than Zoroastrian astrologers, or whatever they really were. And if we see gold, frankincense and myrrh as equivalent to kingship, godhead and death – well, why not? It helps us remember a bit Who Jesus is, and anything that does that is always helpful.
I have heard people comment that the wise men might have given more useful gifts, but, in fact, back in the day what they gave would have been very useful. After all, gold is always useful, and when the Holy Family had to flee into Egypt, as Matthew tells us they did, they would have needed gold to help cover their expenses. And although you can get both frankincense and myrrh very cheaply in Brixton these days – Brixton Wholefoods usually has them in their spice jars – back in the day they were very rich and rare. And useful. Frankincense isn't just about saying that Jesus is divine, it's also very calming and soothing, and it helps to heal chest infections and coughs. You can either burn it as incense – and it is an essential component of the incense that some Christians like to burn in worship – or you can buy the essential oil and dilute it to massage yourself with. It's also used in face creams for its anti-ageing properties. Myrrh, too – rarer than rare, back then – is very healing. When I was growing up, there was always a little bottle of tincture of myrrh in the medicine cabinet in case anybody had toothache – tasted vile, but did the trick. It's still a component part of some toothpastes, even today. And I believe it can be used to heal skin irritations, things like that – not the toothpaste, of course, but the essential oil, or a cream containing it! And, as we know, it was used in embalming the dead, and it's seen as symbolic of death.
So you see they would have been useful gifts, as well as symbolic.
But why does it matter? What is it all about?
Partly, of course, it is about giving to Jesus. The kings, or wise men, or whatever they were, brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the one "Born to be King of the Jews", even though they were not themselves Jewish. Three of the most valuable commodities in the ancient world, and not only valuable, but very useful, too. I don't know what we would think of as the three most valuable commodities of today - probably something like platinum and uranium and petrol, which, except for the last, wouldn't be quite so useful! Nor quite so symbolic, either - the tradition of kingship, divinity and death may be only a tradition, not biblical, but it is very powerful.
But then, that's not really what's wanted today, is it? What God wants of us today is – well, basically, nothing less than all of us. Not just our money, not just our time, but our whole selves. And that's scary! Next week, David will be leading you in the Covenant service, when we recommit ourselves to being God's person in the year to come. Again, scary!
Very scary. But the thing is, that's actually only part of the Epiphany. The posh name for it is “The manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles”. The Gentiles. And, when you come to think about it, the Magi couldn't really have been more outsiders if they'd tried with both hands! They were, it is thought, some kind of astrologers, diviners, just exactly the sort of person Jews were forbidden to be. They came from the East, probably from present-day Iraq or Iran, not countries with whom Israel has ever had a peaceful and friendly relationship!
The people to whom God chose to make himself known in the person of the infant Jesus were outsiders. Rank outsiders. Apparently not just the Magi, but also the shepherds whom Luke tells us about were total outsiders, far from the comfortable religious establishment of the day.
And again and again we see this in the New Testament, don't we? It's the outsiders who get special mention, the tax-gatherers, the prostitutes, the quislings, the terrorists, the members of the occupying power. Even after the Ascension, it is still the outsiders who get special mention – Cornelius, for instance, or the Ethiopian treasury official.
What the story of the Epiphany tells us is that we are loved. Loved to the uttermost. No matter who we are, what background we come from, and whether we love God or whether we don't. We are still loved. Don't ever believe the fundamentalist groups who want to tell you that God hates Muslims, or gay people, or whoever – it's simply not true. Even if you were to say “Oh, bother this for a game of soldiers, I'm never going near a church again!” God would still love you. Even if you were to go out and murder a soldier in cold blood, or innocent people on the Tube.
God might hate it that you did that, but God would still love you. God might, or might not, have approved of the way the Magi worshipped him, but he still loved them, and caused their journey and their gifts to be recorded in history.
I don't know if that makes it any easier to give ourselves to God or not. It's difficult, isn't it? And I think sometimes we stress about it unnecessarily. We are always going to get it wrong. That stands to reason. We are, after all, only human, and the whole point of the Incarnation, of Jesus becoming a human being, was so that we could make mistakes and get it wrong and it wouldn't matter too much. After all, salvation was God's idea, not ours.
We sometimes forget that, don't we? We tend to live as though we have to get it right, or we won't be Jesus' people any longer. But that's not so. After all, what are we saved by? What Jesus did for us on the Cross, or by our own faith? I rather think it is what Jesus did for us that saves us!
But then, if we are saved by what Jesus did for us, why bother? Why give expensive and valuable gifts, like gold, and frankincense and myrrh, or even our own selves?
Isn't the answer because Jesus is worth it? Those of us who are parents know something of what it must have cost God to send his only son to earth as a helpless human baby. We may even glimpse, sometimes, something of what Jesus must have lost, limiting himself to a human body. Jesus is definitely worth all we can give to him, and then some!
And, more than that, Jesus makes it worth our while giving to him! Because we are loved, because Jesus loved us enough to give up his whole life for us, then anything we can give is accepted with love, with joy, and is transformed into something greater. Amen.