In an idle moment this week, I googled images of the nativity depicted in a variety of artistic genres. It was a slack week. I found computer generated imagery, an ancient fresco, stain glass from the Cathedral in Chicago, a cross stitch picture and my personal favourite, a model kit known as the ‘knitivity’. Do you see what they’ve done there? Can you guess what was wrong with them? I don’t mean from an aesthetic point of view. I think we can safely assume we’re all on the same page with regards to that. My interest is not so much with the how it’s portrayed but with what these images portray. My issue with these is that it that they represent something that never actually happened.
I’m not talking about the birth of Jesus. I’m not one of those church leaders that rewrite the Christian faith to fit in with the mood of the nation and ‘get down with the kids’! I’m convinced by the wealth of historical data that Jesus’ birth happened as it’s described in the Gospels. Jesus was born. To Mary. In Bethlehem. Having been miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit. And born as the Son of God. With shepherds. And angels. What I don’t believe actually happened is what’s depicted in those pictures I found on Google. You see, the shepherds and the wise men never met. They never visited Jesus at the same time. In Luke’s Gospel we’re told that the shepherds pitched up on the night that Jesus was born. But in Matthew’s Gospel we’re told that the wise men came to visit Jesus in a house some time later. Even though it’s become common practice to collapse these two events into the traditional nativity, it never actually happened. And that’s the problem with lots of the events around Christmas. What happened and what we choose to believe happened are sometimes two very different things. Perhaps never more so with the events captured in the Christmas Carol ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’. Apart from the fact that they weren’t kings, there weren’t three of them and they didn’t come from the orient, it’s right on the money!
So let’s get a few things out of the way. If you’ve got Matthew 2:1-12 to hand, you’ll find it helpful to see where I’m getting my facts from.
Traditionally we describe these visitors as kings. But the Bible calls them Magi. They studied the stars and interpreted ancient writings. From their astrology and their interpretation of literature they were convinced that a birth had taken place that was worth investigating. They had a point! It just so happened that their interpretation about ‘the one born king of the Jews’, was spot on. Traditionally there are three of them. But the Bible doesn’t say how many of them there were. We assume there were three because there were three types of gifts. But when was the last time you went to a party and all the blokes remembered to bring a present? It’s much more likely that there were more than three of them. Tradition has given them names; Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar, which are great names for goldfish. But there’s no evidence whatsoever that these were their real names.
So now we’ve cleared away the inaccurate tradition we can get on with what really happened. During the week I asked our congregation to name the worst present they’d ever received. And the reason I did that is because I want us to consider very briefly the presents that these wise men presented to Jesus. But before we do, it’s worth hearing some of their answers.
- Laura’s Mum was one of six kids and one year they were each given a fire extinguisher.
- One year his family didn’t know what to buy Tom. And so they pretended that he was really into meerkats and bought him meerkat memorabilia including toys, models and calendars. It turns out he wasn’t.
- Ed’s friend was given the Lester Piggott autobiography three years in a row. And as he pointed out, it was a bad choice the first time.
- Claudia was given hand made woollen underwear by her Grandmother. Feel the love!
- Staying with the underwear theme, Phil knew a bloke who was given edible chocolate pants. Only marginally preferable to inedible chocolate pants! I am available for panto.
Matthew tells us that the Magi or wise men opened their treasures and from them brought out gold, frankincense and myrrh. He says nothing at all about the meaning of these three gifts. Obviously there’s been lots of speculation. Down the centuries Christians have suggested that there’s deep symbolism to their choice of gifts. We need to remember that most blokes don’t give a lot of thought to the significance of their gifts when they buy them. But as it turns out two of the gifts are ideally chosen. Gold is a precious metal. It’s usually associated with royalty since it signifies extravagant wealth. Frankincense is a glittery, smelly resin taken from the sap of a tree. It’s usually associated with worship because when it burns it produces a smoky incense that rises up to God in the heavens. There’s something appropriate about those two gifts. After all, by virtue of his birth into Joseph’s family Jesus was born as a descendant of the great King David. Jesus could claim to be the rightful ruler of God’s kingdom. And, by virtue of his birth through a miraculous conception Jesus was born as the divine Son. Jesus could claim to be God in a human body. These two gifts were entirely fitting.
And then there’s myrrh. Myrrh has got to be one of the worst choices ever. I’ve given some pretty inappropriate presents in my time but none of them comes close to the disaster bringing myrrh to Jesus. I’m bad but I’m not as bad as my American friend Bill. He’s consistently played me onside. He’s got an unmatched history of choosing inappropriate gifts for his wife; the vacuum cleaner for Christmas, the kitchen bin for her birthday and the toilet seat for their anniversary was a particular low point. He’s from Texas. But I’ve checked and it’s not normal there either. But none of them comes close to the shocker of choosing myrrh for Jesus. Myrrh was commonly used in the first century as embalming spices. It’s what you put on a dead body so that you can’t smell it as it decays. It covers the foul stench of death. And so giving Jesus myrrh is like going to a kids’ baptism and bringing a coffin. It’s so not what you get a baby boy for Christmas. There was something very wrong about this present.
And yet there was also something very right about it as well. After all, what do you get for a baby whose crowning achievement is going to be his own execution? What else do you give a boy whose life is going to be forever defined by his death? From our perspective it’s just awkward. It’s a really badly judged present. But it’s not like that. It’s brilliant. We often struggle to connect Christmas with Easter. But Christmas and Easter go together like mistletoe and wine, Marks and Spencer or Ant and Dec. The gift of myrrh helps us make the connection. Jesus was born as the Messiah, you can see that in (4). And the Messiah was the character the Old Testament predicted would come to rescue God’s people. The Messiah was always going to be a saviour. A Christian writer has summed it up in these words, ‘If our greatest need had been information, God would have sent an educator. If our greatest need had been pleasure, God would have sent us an entertainer. If our greatest need had been technology, God would have sent us a scientist. If our greatest need had been financial, God would have sent us an economist. But since our greatest need was forgiveness, God sent us a Saviour’. Jesus Christ was born to save us because we need forgiveness. He came to save us from our sins by providing forgiveness through his death. We’ve all made a mess of the life that God has given us. To varying degrees no doubt. And if we’re honest with ourselves we’ll admit that. But none of us has lived life in the way that treats God as God. Not with any consistency. And he’s rightfully angry with us for that. So we desperately need His forgiveness. Which he provides. In his Son. Because He loves us. Of course, Jesus saved us not in his birth, but in his death. But Easter needed Christmas. But he came to die. That was his crowning achievement. From our perspective it looks like a senseless waste of a promising life. But it was his finest moment.
I read a story this week about a private in the British Army, a man called Robert Key. He died in 1944 during the Allied Liberation of France. It had been thought that he had died as a result of messing around with a hand grenade. But historical accounts have recently come to light which tell quite a different story. Eyewitness reports say that he snatched a live grenade from a young boy who had picked it up and was playing with it. Key ran away with it to protect the boy and twenty other school children. He sacrificed Himself so that he could save others. In some small way that illustrates what Jesus Christ accomplished in His death. He saved us by sacrificing himself. It wasn’t the full force of a grenade’s explosion that Jesus removed; it was the full force of His Father’s anger. He did that so that we would never need to face it. So that we could be forgiven.
The gift of myrrh reminds us of that. I don’t imagine for a minute the bloke who gave it had the first idea what he was doing. Like most men he’d probably left his Christmas shopping till the last minute. Myrrh was all that was left in the gift department at John Lewis. It was that or a nativity snow globe. With the shepherds. And the wise men. The gift of myrrh reminds us that we are sinners in need of a Saviour. And that Jesus is the saviour for sinners. The gift of myrrh reminds us of Easter and make sense of the gift of God’s Son at Christmas.