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Epiphany - The Gifts

My first Advent sermon began with a piece from the Messiah “Comfort ye O comfort ye my people.” and it seems fitting to conclude our Advent and Christmas meditations also with Handel - we have been listening to “The arrival of the Queen of Sheba” musically depicting the visit she made to King Solomon which we can read about in the book of Kings. (1Ki 10:1-13)

“She came to Jerusalem with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices and very much gold and precious stones.” Handel’s music allows us to picture the pomp and splendour of all these things as they process before us, the richness and opulence of the trains of dromedaries and their contents beautifully imagined. The territory of Sheba grew the best aromatics in the world. Frankincense is a white resin obtained from trees that grew in abundance on the mountainous coasts of the Arabian peninsular and in East Africa. To harvest Frankincense an incision is made in the trunk of the tree below which the bark is peeled off. The milk like juice that exudes is hardened by the exposure and after some moths becomes clear globules that can be collected. [Incidentally in another life I used to purchase a tree rosin from China and it is collected in this same way today] Frankincense was burned as a pungent aromatic incense and in particular it constituted a one fourth part of the recipe for the incense to be burnt in the sanctuary of the temple. It burnt with a bright white flame and a balsamic like odour.

Myrrh harvested from bushes again found in East Africa (the steppes of modern Somalia) and Sheba was another aromatic in great demand for use in costly cosmetics, perfumes and medicines and used by the Egyptians for embalming. Its name derives form the Arabic for “bitter.” In this case the bark of the bush splits naturally forming a duct for the resin to flow down the bush where again it hardens and can be collected.

Gold the only naturally occurring precious metal on earth has long been associated with Royalty.

So we see that all three of these gifts, the precious gold, the rare incense and the costly cosmetic and embalming resin are gifts fit for a king. Matthew is telling us clearly that the little baby, born in a stable, sharing his place with the ox and the ass, the straw and the manger, born to a poor virgin who is living in a country that itself has lost its freedom was more than an object of wonder to shepherds. These wise men must have been wealthy for the gifts were valuable, the tradition of a king or queen bringing such gifts to honour a king was well attested. In the 3rd century BC seven hundred years after the Queen of Sheba there is an account of a tribute brought to the Assyrian Emperor from surrounding rulers:

“Ten minas of gold, 1000 gems, 50 camels 1000 bags of aromatics of all kinds.”

Matthew’s sense than is that Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh were then royally offered and that they were from the east (The Frankincense and Myrrh as I have explained came from there). And so our celebration this morning of the Epiphany, is a celebration of the modern meaning of the word which is a sudden revelation or insight and that insight is that Jesus had not come simply or only for the Jews, even if he started with them.

We may not be sure who the men were who came from the east, or where they were precisely from, when exactly they came or where they went back to but we can see and feel and fully understand Matthew’s meaning he intended us his readers to unmistakably see that

* Jesus was king of kings, of all nations
*  That as he will be revealed to be the Son of God that he came to bring salvation to us all
*  And as the strange visitors from the east show us that he deserves our honour and our praise and our gifts.


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