The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, January 4, 2009.  The text for this week’s message is Matthew 2:1-12.
Today we remember the Epiphany.  This is the time in the Christian year when we celebrate the magi coming from the East to visit the Holy child.  But how well do we really know this story?  I’m sure some started listening to the Scripture today and your minds drifted off to the manger scene with the three wise men wearing robes and holding boxes, and that’s fine.  Maybe your mind drifted back to today’s opening hymn.  Again, I’m not saying that it is good or bad.  It’s a simple fact.  We hear the familiar and we check out mentally, assuming that we have heard the story before.  This is one of those stories where checking out and drifting off is very likely.  It’s one of those texts that we hear year after year.  However, once in a great while, we can hear a story again, for what seems like the first time.
I want to do things a little different than normal this morning.  I do want to share some key points of the text with you, but then I want to go in a slightly different direction than usual.  I’m not going to tell you what it is, though, I want to keep you on the edge of your seats this morning.  But, first, what can we pull out of the gospel reading this morning?  To begin with, I want you to notice three things.  
First, we traditionally include three kings in the nativity scene, but the reality is, they weren’t there.  I remember in the library at seminary, they had a nativity scene set up on the desk.  Now, this is a long desk, probably 20-30 feet long.  On the left hand side was the manger scene, and way on the right were the wise men.  As it got closer to January 6th, which is officially Epiphany, the wise men got closer to the manger scene.  Perhaps it is one of those things that only seminary people laugh at, but I certainly got a kick out of it.  
Second, nowhere in the text does it say that these were kings.  The Greek word is magoi, which was used to refer to people who pursued a variety of practices, including astrology, dream interpretation, study of sacred writings, the pursuit of wisdom and magic.  These were not necessarily kings, but they certainly were wealthy people with lots of time on their hands.
Third, the text does not specifically say that there were three of them.  We operate on the assumption that there were three because there were three gifts, but Matthew does not say exactly how many wise men made the journey.
The story begins with some strangers coming to Jerusalem, asking where is the one who has been born the King of the Jews.  In verse 2, the wise men reference a star that rose in the sky.  This is most likely referencing a prophecy that Balaam spoke in Numbers 24:17.  Balaam was a pagan prophet from Moab, and he was summed to curse Israel.  However, inspite of his best efforts, Balaam could never curse Israel, but continued to bless them instead.  And in Numbers 24:17, he says, “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.”  This prophecy was understood by the Jews to point to a messianic deliverer.  As ones who studied sacred writings and watched the skies at night, the wise men knew that something significant was happening, and they travel to Judea seeking it out.
When we first encounter these travelers, they are in Jerusalem, asking where it is that they might find the one who was born to be the king of the Jews.  Now, I seriously doubt that they are walking around the streets of Jerusalem simply asking anyone they come across.  They most likely go straight to King Herod or to the Temple.  In either case, they end up before Herod, asking where they might find the one who was born to be the king of the Jews. 
Now, just a heads up, Herod is not exactly the kind of person that would be excited to hear the news that the king of the Jews was just born – after all, he was the king.  The wise men’s question would have brought to Herod’s attention one that would be a threat to his throne.  Herod was not known for handling threats to his throne very well.  He murdered his own wife, several sons and other various relatives to protect his power.  So, it is no surprise that, after realizing that the wise men weren’t coming back, he ended up slaughtering a bunch of little boys in Bethlehem, as Matthew writes in verse 16 of this chapter.  After learning of the prophecy written in Micah 5:2, the wise men head towards Bethlehem and follow the star to the place where the child was.
When they arrive in Bethlehem, Matthew writes that they followed the star to the house where they saw Mary and the child.  It is important to note here that it is a house, and not the manger.  Again, they weren’t there for the birth, but they did arrive sometime afterwards.  Given the Greek word (paidion) that is used in verse 11, they arrived no later than two years after his birth.  This is also seen by the fact that Herod slaughtered the male children who were two years old or younger.  They come bearing gifts that doubtlessly helped Mary, Joseph and Jesus to flee the area after being warned of Herod’s plan to kill the male children in Bethlehem.  And this is where we have our slight departure.
When I was in seminary, I took an Intro to the New Testament class my first semester.  To be honest, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot out of this class.  I had heard that the professor was great, but I was just 3 months removed from receiving my B.A. in Religion with a minor in Biblical Studies.  I had a feeling that I could pass this class with relatively little work.  In reality, that was true, I didn’t have to stress out about the work as much as some of the other people in my class did; however, to say that I didn’t get anything out of the class is way off base.  The professor started each class with devotions, and I could tell that this was a man who spent quality time with God on a daily basis.  I have a couple of his books and am still amazed at the depth of his writing.  Towards the end of the semester, which was into December, he shared with us a book during the devotion times. 
A couple years later, I had him for a class on Philippians, and he used that same book for devotions at the end of the semester.  That year, I asked Katie to see if she could find it for me for Christmas.  I had heard that it was out of print and difficult to find, but, sure enough, that Christmas, she found it.  It was called The Secret of the Gifts by Paul Flucke.  I gave serious thought this week to just reading the book to you because it really is that good; however, I couldn’t quite do it, but I do want to share with you the general storyline of the book.
The book begins by letting us know that this is the story of the magi that wasn’t told because it is the story that wasn’t seen by the world.  We all know that they came bearing gifts for the child, but what we don’t know is what happened when they brought their gifts before the Christ child.  The names of the three wise men were Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar.
Gaspar, a wealthy man, is the first to enter the dwelling.  When he gets to the door, he is startled to find before him the angel Gabriel, who asks him what gift he brings to the baby.  Gaspar proudly holds up a box that is heavy with bars of gold.  Gabriel tells him that he must bring a gift that is the very essence of his self, something that is precious to his soul.  Gaspar assures Gabriel that is exactly what he brought.  When Gaspar goes to lay his gold before the baby, he is startled to find a hammer in his hand.
Gabriel says to him, “What you hold in your hands is the hammer of your greed.  You have used it to pound wealth from those who labor so that you may live in luxury.  You have used it to build a mansion for yourself while others dwell in hovels.  You have raised it against friends and made them into enemies – and against enemies to destroy them.”  Gaspar realizes the truth in Gabriel’s words and, dejected, turns to leave.  However, Gabriel insists that he still give his gift to the baby because he has carried it for far too long.  However, Gaspar believes that it is too dangerous to give to a baby. Nevertheless, Gabriel urges him to leave that worry to heaven, and Gaspar lays the hammer before the child.  When he leaves the tent, for the first time in a long time, Gaspar is able to raise his hands in praise.
The next to enter was Melchior, a scholar.  He too was greeted by Gabriel, who asks what gift he brings.  Melchior has a silver flask of frankincense and assures Gabriel that the gift he brings is also precious to his soul.  When he enters in, as he goes to pull out the silver flask of frankincense, he is horrified to find a clay vessel full of vinegar.  As Gaspar before him, Melchior is upset to find out the change in the gift.  
And Gabriel says to him, “You bring the bitterness of your heart, the soured wine of a life turned grim with jealousy and hate.  You have carried within you too long the memory of old hurts.  You have hoarded your resentments and breathed on sparks of anger until they have become as embers smoldering within you.  You have sought for knowledge.  But you have filled your life with poison.”  Melchior also finds truth in the messenger’s words, and cannot bring himself to leave the gift before the child.  Gabriel tells him also to leave that worry to heaven, that this is the only place for him to leave the bitterness of the vinegar.  Melchior relents and as he leaves, he sees the world with his eyes clearer than ever before.
The final man to come visit the baby was Balthasar, a great military commander.  He carries with him a very ornate box bound in brass and filled with myrrh.  Gabriel greets him and tells him that he must bring the essence of himself to lay before the child.  Like the two before him, Balthasar claims that he has.  As he kneels before the child and raises his eyes, his gift has turned into a spear.  Balthasar is not as accomodating to Gabriel as the other two were.  He insists that he needs his spear in order to conquer the enemies that will surely come.  He even insists that he must raise an army as soon as he arrives home to defend his home against the enemy. 
Balthasar insists that leaving the spear behind is not an option because his people cannot afford for him to give it up.  In response, Gabriel asks him if he can afford to keep it.  It is a risk to leave behind the weapons of war; however, taking it with him will lead to the certainty of more.  Like the two before him, Balthasar is hesitant to leave his gift for the child.  But once again, Gabriel insists that he allow heaven to worry about it.  When Balthasar leaves, he is truly able to embrace Gaspar and Melchior as brothers.
The story concludes by speaking about the gifts.  Perhaps you were wondering what happened to those.  “Well,” the author writes, “there is another story about them and how they were seen once more, years later, in fact, on a lonely hill outside of Jerusalem.  But do not worry.  That is a burden heaven took upon itself, as only heaven can.  And will, even to this very day.”
Now, of course, this is a fictional account of what happened when the wise men came to visit, but it certainly makes us think, doesn’t it?  What we bring before the king has to be the essence of what we are.  Do we have a hammer, vinegar, or a spear, or do we have something else?  I want to challenge you to spend some time thinking about this story this week.  What gifts do we bring before the Christ child, and how do they reveal who we are in the deepest recesses of our soul?  Even though the story of Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar is fictional, I cannot help but think of this story when I read about the wise men who came to visit the child.  These were men who did not know the Lord, but they came bearing gifts of great value.  What do you have to lay down before the Lord?