You’ve probably heard the witticism that goes: “If the three wise men had been three wise women, they would have asked for direction, arrived in time to help deliver the baby, brought diapers, a teething ring and a casserole.”
However, these were wise men and they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. What made the givers wise was that these were gifts meant to be used in the future.
Gold was a gift commonly given to a king, upon coronation. We don’t know whether Mary and Joseph put the gold away in a hope chest for Jesus’ future or if they needed it to buy their safety through Egypt. Gold indicates the esteem of the giver, because it is rare and has been purified in the refiner’s fire.
Frankincense was used in worship to fill the temple with a fragrance meant to cleanse. Worship at the time, including Jewish worship, was a smelly undertaking – the place filled with hard working people, animals before and after slaughter and the smoke of sacrifice. Frankincense sweetened the labor of worship making it pleasing to God and to people.
Myrrh was most often used as an embalming oil, to preserve a dead body. Probably a disconcerting gift for a new parent to receive. Mary might have been tempted to regift that one fairly quickly. When Jesus really needed myrrh about 33 years later, it was three other wise women who provided it. Mary Magdalen, Joann and Mary the mother of James, according to the gospel of Luke, came with the oils and spices, needed to take care for the executed body of Jesus.
The wise men brought gifts that point to the future of the baby beneath the star. And, they took away gifts for the future, also. The wise men came from Babylon, another culture, having worshipped other gods than Israel’s and they go back to their homes by a different way – changed – filled with knowledge for all people.
To people who aren’t expecting anything of much value to come of their lives, the wise men bring a future gift, more precious than gold, refined in the fires of trial until it is pure. They bring understanding that the Divinity who has created this world is not only in this world but inhabits human flesh. It is a gift for the future, when all people will live as beloved children of God and offer the same dignity and love to others.
To people who live in the stink of human effort and carnage, who know no other way than killing for power, revenge or even worship, the wise men bring a fragrant gift, the sweet, strong spirit of peace on earth good will to all. It is a gift for the future, when all people shall know justice and mercy.
To people who expect death and expect it to be a fearful thing, the wisemen bring the gift of transformation. They have seen a king in a manger. They have seen a child who is divine. They have seen humbleness be powerful. They have witnessed sacrifice lead to joy. One day they will believe that the tomb cannot contain the one they have worshipped. They bring a gift for the future, when all people will hear that losing one’s life is the way to gain it.
The wise men point to the future of a little child and the people he was born to, one Mary and Joseph could never imagine.
It is the beginning of 2016. To be honest, we all face a future we cannot fully imagine. Anything could happen this year. Some of here might fall in love with someone you haven’t met yet. You – or someone you love – might get a new job or an unexpected opportunity. Any of us could come down with an illness that threatens our lives. Accidents will happen. Who knows what will happen?
What is certain, is that God, through the birth of Jesus, is providing you with gifts for the future. When you come to worship, when you pray, when you just know the truth about the life and teachings about Jesus you receive gifts that you may not need right now. They are gifts for your future.
There are stories of scripture that we read, and we think, “Well, why did they even bother to put that in the bible? It doesn’t make any sense. It is too barbaric or too sentimental.” And then one day, we need a way to cry our lament or to weep away our grief, and it is there in that passage we have tucked away in our memory. And we receive a connection to people who have come before us and those who will come after us and a God who cares for all of us.
Have you ever had a hymn that just about drove you crazy? The melody is all wrong. The theology didn’t make sense. It’s was so repetitive. Don’t be surprised if one day it just calls you to the place you need to be. My friend Cindy rolled her eyes every time a church sang Kum ba Ya. “It’s all campfires and hugs,” she would say. When she was in the hospital the last month of her life, a bunch of us were telling her about her quirks, and to make her laugh, we starting to sing Kum ba Ya. And after awhile, no one was laughing. Some one’s singing, crying, praying Lord we sang. And the Lord came by there.
There are teachings of Jesus that rub each of us the wrong way most days. “Why is Jesus getting all up in our business and talking about money – always talking about money? What does Jesus know about worry? He didn’t have three children to send to college. He didn’t have a mortgage. He didn’t know the demands of modern life. And then one day, the children are gone, the mortgage is paid off, it’s time to down size and you realize that life isn’t a demand, it is a gift and Jesus was offering it to you all along.
This is my prayer for us this New Year. That we receive from Jesus gifts we don’t know we need yet and that we will – as wise people before us – take a different road – laden as we are with gifts for the future of all people.