By Res Spears
Message delivered December 23, 2018 at Liberty Spring Christian Church
Scientists tell us that the sense of smell may be the sense with the most direct connection to memories.
Perhaps there is some smell that brings back a rush of memories of your childhood. Cookies baking in the oven. Playdough. Vicks Vapo-Rub perhaps.
For me, it’s the smell of a campfire. We used to go camping a lot when I was growing up, and the smell of a campfire brings back memories of those good times, and it always reminds me of my father.
I bring this up this morning, because some of you who have a particularly well-developed sense of smell will have noticed something unusual in the air inside this sanctuary this morning.
I doubt that any of you have any memories associated with this smell, though, as most of you have probably never smelled it before.
What you’re smelling here this morning is frankincense and myrrh. Connie Schubert helped me put this together as a sermon illustration — or, perhaps, smell-ustration — for today’s message.
We don’t have much interaction in the Western world with frankincense and myrrh, but they were both very important within the context of the ancient near east, and in fact, they continue to be important there today.
As we read this morning about the gifts brought to the young Jesus by the wise men from the East, and as we prepare for a different kind of communion than everyone has been used to receiving in recent months, I want you to pay attention to this smell.
I want you to form some connections that maybe will be easier to make with the additional sensory input that you’re receiving today.
Turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew, Chapter 2, and let’s read this familiar account.
1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,Matthew 2:1-12
2 “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”
3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
4 Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah;
For out of you shall come forth a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.’ ”
7 Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared.
8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.”
9 After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.
11 After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
12 And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.
There is much to study in Matthew’s account of the visit by the magi, and we cannot possibly cover it all today.
But, calling on my newspaper experience, I want to start by answering the 5 W’s — who, what, when, where and why. Once we have done so, I hope the communion we will receive will become more meaningful to you than it ever has been before.
First, the “who.” Who are the major characters we see here?
First, of course, there is Jesus, “He who has been born King of the Jews.”
The Old Testament prophets had foreseen through the Holy Spirit that a King would be born from David’s royal line.
One prophecy of particular interest is that of Balaam, the prophet who had been hired by Balak, the king of Moab, to curse the people of Israel as they were on their way to the Promised Land after God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt.
“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, A scepter shall rise from Israel, And shall crush through the forehead of Moab, And tear down all the sons of Sheth.Number 24:17
Try as he might, Balaam had been unable to utter curses against the Jews; instead, speaking only the words God had allowed him to speak, he had proclaimed blessings on them, and he had made a great prophecy that was to be fulfilled with the birth of Christ.
It is likely that the star mentioned here is the one the wise men followed from the East.
And that brings us to the second “Who” in this passage: the magi.
The magi were a caste of wise men specializing in astronomy, astrology and the natural sciences. Biblical scholars believe these magi were from Persia. That’s important, because if they were, they would have been in a great position to have learned of the prophecies about Jesus from the Jews who were living there after having been taken there in exile when Jerusalem was conquered in 586 B.C.
In fact, it’s likely they would have had access to all of the writings and teachings of Daniel, who had risen to great heights within the nation of Babylonia before it was defeated by the Persian king Cyrus in 539 BC.
And Daniel’s prophecies would have had them thinking that this was the time for that prophesied King to come onto the scene.
One other “Who” is important in this story, and that is Herod, Rome’s puppet king, who ruled in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth.
Herod was a terrible person, and he was terrified that someone would try to take his throne. That is why, in verse 16 of this chapter, we see him commit one of the foulest acts we see in Scripture.
Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi.Matthew 2:16
This information will become important as we set about to answer the “When” question in a bit.
But first, we come to the “What” question.
What were the magi doing?
Well, they were following a star, the star they had come to believe would lead them to the fulfillment of the prophecies they had been studying. God had literally moved heaven to reveal His Son.
What did they find?
They found a child. The Greek word here can mean a child from infancy up to seven years of age, so we should be careful making assumptions based on the use of the word “child.” However, I believe there’s a reason we do not see any of the major translations use the word “baby,” which we see in Luke’s account.
“This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”Luke 2:12
We’ll come back to this point, as well, when we look at the “When” question.
But the magi had come looking for a king. Given that fact, it’s almost astonishing the way they reacted when they saw Jesus.
After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.Matthew 2:11
These wise men came looking for a king, and they found a child. And yet, they did not hesitate to worship Him. In fact, these are the first Gentiles to worship Jesus. His ministry was, from his very birth, one for both Jews and Gentiles — “For God so loved the world that he sent His only begotten Son….”
We’ll come back to the gifts when we look at the “Why” question.
For now, let’s try to understand “When.”
Nearly every nativity scene we see includes Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds and wise men.
But it seems unlikely the wise men were in Bethlehem at the same time the shepherds came to see the baby Jesus in the manger.
There are a few reasons we can come to this conclusion:
First, in Verse 11, we see that the magi found Jesus in a “house,” not in a manger in a stable.
Second, as we saw earlier, Herod, going on the information he had been given by the wise men, had all the male children two years old and younger murdered. Therefore, he had some reason to think that the child could have been as old as two.
And third, we see in Luke 2:24 that Mary and Joseph offered the sacrifice of the poor — “two turtledoves or pigeons” — when they brought Jesus to the temple to present Jesus to the Lord as the Mosaic law required of firstborn sons. If they had been given gold, frankincense and myrrh before that trip to the temple, it is not likely they would have given the sacrifice required of poor people.
As an aside, since Herod is known to have died in 4 BC, it is likely that Jesus’ birth would have taken place in 4, 5 or 6 BC.
Now, to the “where” question.
We have already seen that the magi visited Jesus in a house. This house was in Bethlehem, a fact confirmed in Verses 4 and 5 by the chief priests and scribes in Jerusalem, just five miles away.
This is important, because we see here a group of Gentiles — not necessarily three — who are putting more faith in God’s Word than the priests who had been called to teach it.
Note that there’s no evidence that any of those religious leaders had made any similar visit to worship their new king. In fact, they were eagerly serving Herod, the pretender to the throne that rightfully belonged to Jesus.
We can wonder why the religious leaders were not moved the same way the astrologers from the east were moved.
Perhaps they were so caught up in the politics of their day that they were looking for a political savior. We should ever be careful that we do not fall into the same temptation.
So we know that Jesus was found in a house and that house was in Bethlehem.
“Bethlehem” means “house of bread” in Hebrew. And as we prepare to take communion in a few minutes, you will recall that Jesus called Himself the “Bread of Life” and told His disciples that the bread they broke during their last Passover meal with Him was his body.
So it is fitting that our Christ, the true Bread of Life, would have been born there. And the wise men followed a light to find the Light of the World.
And now, finally, we move to the “Why” question. And the particular “Why” that we shall ask will connect us directly to the communion in which we shall partake.
Why did the wise men bring the gifts they brought?
The first gift, gold, is easy to explain. Gold symbolized royalty. That is what the wise men were expecting to find, and that is exactly what they found, even in the person of a young child.
Frankincense is a balsamic gum from a plant native to southern Arabia. The gum hardens into a natural resin that is considered to be the finest burning incense in the world.
It was also used in cosmetics, perfumes and medicines, and it is still used in those ways today.
In the Old Testament, frankincense was used primarily for worship. It was burned with the grain and bread offerings in the temple, giving us another connection to Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life, who sacrificed Himself for our sins.
Myrrh is another balsamic gum from a plant native to Arabia. It can be used in its liquid state as an oil or hardened into a resin for incense.
Like frankincense, myrrh had medicinal properties, and is still used that way today. It was also used in perfumes, and you’ll see it prominently used that way in the Song of Solomon, where both Solomon and the bride are described as being scented with it.
In the Old Testament, myrrh was used for worship, as well. It was one of the ingredients in the anointing oil used at the tabernacle to consecrate both the tent, its furnishings and the priests.
Now, because Jesus was born of a virgin — remember that Joseph had no part in His conception — there was no stain of original sin in Him.
Therefore, it was not necessary that He be consecrated in the sense of being cleansed. However, there is something to be said for the idea that the myrrh was a symbol of His having been set apart — His already being holy — for His service to God.
One other use for myrrh is even more significant in the context of our communion today. Traditionally, myrrh was one of the spices used to prepare bodies for their burial. We see this after the death of Jesus in the book of John.
Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.John 19:39-40
Even at his birth, even when he was still a child, the work of Jesus Christ was always looking ahead to the cross.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.Philippians 2:7-8 (NLT)
When the shepherds found Jesus in the stable, I wonder if they could see the cross there in the manger with Him. When the magi followed that star to a house in Bethlehem, I wonder if they could see the cross illuminated in its light.
Perhaps it is too much to expect that they could. After all, they were on the other side of that great day, when Jesus laid down His life, when He bore the punishment for the sins of the world so that we who follow Him could be free.
But as we look into this manger today — as we prepare to partake of the bread that represents His body, broken for us, and the juice that represents his blood shed for our transgressions — I wonder how we can see anything but the cross.
The wise men brought this very special Child very special gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They were gifts fit to honor a King. And this King would give us His own gift — eternal life for those who would believe, repent of their sins and accept His sacrifice on their behalf.
We have nothing to give Him but ourselves. And that is all He asks.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, we are going to take part in communion today differently than we normally do it.
As you can see, the elements have been placed inside and beside the manger. I wanted a visual reminder that the cross was present in that first place where Jesus lay His head.
So in a moment, we’re going to sing “What Child is This,” and then, as Lauren continues to play, I would like you to file up to the front, by rows, break off a piece of the bread and get one of the cups of juice and then go back to your seats and prayerfully consider the price of your salvation. Then I will read a short passage of Scripture and pray before we partake of the elements.
If you need help coming to the front, or if you would like one of the deacons to bring the elements to you, please let them know as they come to your row.
Now each of you broke off a piece of the bread. This should be a reminder to us that each of us bears the responsibility for Jesus Christ’s broken body.
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”1 Corinthians 11:23-24
Just as we, because of our sins, were responsible for Jesus’ broken body, we are also responsible for the blood that he shed. But there was power in His blood — the power to cover the sins of those who follow Him.
In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”1 Corinthians 11:25
Part of the purpose of communion is for us to look back and remember what Jesus did for us in His sacrificial death. But He is not dead. He rose from the grave on the third day, and He ascended to heaven, where He has promised that He is preparing a place for those who follow Him.
And for that reason, we can joyfully partake of communion.
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.1 Corinthians 11:26