St Jude's Brixton, 7 January 2001
Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh
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.
2. Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh
I thought, though, that since we are looking at the Epiphany this morning, we might look a little more closely at the gold, frankincense and myrrh. Here we are! This ring is gold - actually, it's my wedding ring, but it doesn't fit me any more. Still, you know what gold is like, so I needn't pass it around.
This, however, is frankincense, the paler granules; and the reddish ones are myrrh. For all they were incredibly valuable in Jesus' time, you can actually buy them in Brixton very easily and very cheaply - this little lot cost me less than 50p! They are both tree resins - the tree exudes its sap from cracks in the bark, and it hardens into what you see here. In Bible times, they didn't realise they could actually cut into the tree to collect what appeared; they waited for cracks to form naturally, and one source says they used to collect the myrrh that had stuck in the beard of browsing goats! No wonder it was incredibly rich and rare! Both frankincense and myrrh come from the same family of trees, but they have different properties.
The granules can be burnt as incense, I believe, although I'm not sure how it is done. Frankincense is certainly still used as such today, and is the basis of most church incense, if you go to the type of church where they burn incense as part of their worship. But they are really more useful if made into liquids or pastes, either by dissolving them in alcohol, which is called a tincture, or by steam distillation of the essential oil. I use them in the latter form - here - and I'll put some on cotton buds so you can smell them.
This is frankincense, on the [colour] cotton bud; and myrrh on the [other colour]. Pass them round and smell them.
Frankincense, or Olibanum, as it is sometimes called, is very good for your skin, especially if you're getting older. You can mix a drop or two of the essential oil into a cream or oil and massage into your face at night - Neal's Yard do a rather nice frankincense cream, which tests found was better than some of the more expensive anti-wrinkle creams! But it's also very calming and relaxing - that's why it makes such a good incense, as it helps you get into the right frame of mind to meditate or worship. It is also good for women's problems, and is one of the very few oils that can safely be used in pregnancy. So Mary would have valued the resin as an addition to her medicine chest.
But when she got the myrrh, she would have jumped up and down and screeched for joy, I shouldn't wonder, as myrrh was about the most useful thing a person could have in their medicine chest in those days. For a start, it is incredibly healing - the tiniest amount will help heal a cut, or weepy eczema, or athletes' foot, or those deep cracks you sometimes get in your feet in the middle of winter. And it's brilliant for toothache or mouth ulcers, too - you can buy tincture of myrrh in chemists' shops for that purpose to this day, and it's an ingredient in many commercial toothpastes. So you see, even a small amount of myrrh would have been incredibly valuable to the family's medicine chest.
3. So What?
But, fascinating as this is, what does it say to us today? We may or may not use frankincense and myrrh in our daily health-care - although given that frankincense is used in face-creams and myrrh in toothpaste, we may well do even if we don't realise it - but what has this to do with what we are here for, which, when all is said and done, is to worship God? Like you, I'm not part of a tradition which burns incense in its worship, and if the truth be known, I don't find that it really does help me to worship! But far be it from me to knock those who do find it helpful.
But I think the gifts are about giving to Jesus. You see, 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. The three 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 what do we, today, give to Jesus? All of us here must think in those terms, at least sometimes, or we wouldn't be here. We talk of giving our hearts to Jesus, don't we? And we know we give him our time - we are here this morning, for a start - and perhaps our money, even if we don't tithe. But, you know, I think Jesus demands more of us than that. We talk of giving him our hearts, but what do we actually mean by that?
I think that it's more than about giving any part of ourselves, whether our hearts, our minds, our bodies, our time, our money, or whatever. It's about giving all of ourselves. And that is far more difficult. We are apt to think that once we have tithed, or whatever way we organise our giving, what is left over belongs to us for our own use. We are apt to think that once we have been to Church, and perhaps spent a little time each day in prayer or meditation, then the rest of the week is our own. And so on. But if we really meant it when we asked Jesus to be Lord of our lives, is that really so? Doesn't all our life belong to Jesus - all our time, twenty-four seven, as they say, all our money, all our lives belong to him?
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.
So, at the start of another year, and the end of another Christmas, let's resolve to try, this year, to become, more and more, Jesus' people. Both because he is worth it, and because it's worth doing. It takes practice - at first we can only manage for minutes at a time, if that - and we get it wrong sometimes. But when we get it wrong, we just start again, and this time, it's a little easier. And so on.
So let's sing number 261, "I want to walk with Jesus Christ", and let's sing it as a prayer.
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