CHRISTMAS PRESENCE - MYRRH
by Pastor Mike Fortune
December 18, 2010
Myrrh reminds us that...
- Jesus’ birth prefigured his death [Matthew 2:11; John 19:39]
- Good Shepherds understand this [John 10:11; Ezekiel 34:11-17; Luke 2:12]
- Eventually, the bad ones do too [Matthew 2:5-6; John 11:50]
These past few weeks, during the liturgical church season of Advent, we have been taking a closer look at the events leading up to the birth of Jesus. Specifically, we’ve been reading and re-reading Matthew 2 and the fascinating journey it describes as the wise men made their way to Jerusalem and eventually Bethlehem. Our goal in this series, as our video clip humorously hinted, is to diligently seek Jesus’ presence in our lives as those wise men did. To help us do so, today we’re focusing on the third of the precious gifts they brought and gave to Jesus—myrrh—and what that gift might mean for us today.
Myrrh is an aromatic resinous gum from some small trees native to Arabia and Eastern Africa. It was bitter and slightly pungent in taste. According to Richard J. Barnett in an article entitled “Royal Gifts of the Magi” from the Adventist Review [December 25, 1986 p.19], myrrh was also valued by the ancients for ointments and perfumes as well as incense. It was the Windex of medicines back then. Got an ear, nose, or throat issue? Spray some myrrh on that. Kind of like that bride’s father in that movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Remember that guy who was always spraying Windex on his families’ various ills? Got some indigestion but no Pepto Bismol? Swallow some myrrh for that. Hupa! There you go! Romans took it internally for fever and externally to reduce inflammation and induce healing.
Oil of myrrh was also applied as a cosmetic. Esther 2:12 says that the king’s carefully selected maidens used it for six months for purification and to be made more desirable candidates for queen. Mark 15:23 reveals it could be mixed with wine as a pain killer. And the Jews apparently picked up some pointers from the Egyptians in using myrrh as an ingredient in the preparation of a body for entombment for it was used for mummification in Egypt. Which is why point number one this week is myrrh reminds us that Jesus’ birth prefigures his death. But let’s back up and begin in Matthew 2:1.
Matthew 2:1-12 says, “1Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men* from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, 2"Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose,* and we have come to worship him." 3King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. 4He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, "Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?" 5"In Bethlehem in Judea," they said, "for this is what the prophet wrote: 6'And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are not least among the ruling cities of Judah, for a ruler will come from you who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.'" 7Then Herod called for a private meeting with the wise men, and he learned from them the time when the star first appeared. 8Then he told them, "Go to Bethlehem and search carefully for the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me so that I can go and worship him, too!" 9After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! 11They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12When it was time to leave, they returned to their own country by another route, for God had warned them in a dream not to return to Herod.”
We’ve noticed before that Jesus’ life literally begins and ends in an upper room. The Greek word for “inn” is kataluma in Luke 2 while the same word for “inn” is translated “upper room” in Luke 22. But in another article entitled “The Child and the Manger” [Adventist Review, December 28, 2000], the writer [Angel Manuel Rodriguez] points out another way Jesus’ birth prefigures his death. Jesus’ life also begins and ends in stone. That is because Jesus was laid in a manger [Gr.”phatne”]. Which in Jesus’ day were rectangular boxes hewn out of limestone or cut from the natural stone of the cave used as a stall. Archaeologists have found them in the ancient city Lachish and in another city I actually visited earlier this year called Megiddo. These 1st century stone feeding troughs are about 3 feet long, 18 inches wide, and 2 feed deep. And when Jesus was born, Luke 2:7 says Mary wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger. So basically, when Jesus was born, he was laid inside stone.
Which is exactly what Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea did years later with Jesus’ body if we read John 19. So turn with me there to read verse 39. John 19:39 says, “With him came Nicodemus, the man who had come to Jesus at night. He brought about seventy-five pounds of perfumed ointment made from myrrh and aloes.” If you keep reading, it says Jesus was again wrapped in swaddling clothes or “long sheets of linen cloth” [John 19:40] since he was an adult now [and is another way his birth prefigures his death], and following the Jewish burial custom, they wrapped Jesus’ body with the myrrh and aloe and placed His body in a new tomb.
Luke’s account is even more specific. Luke 23:53 says Joseph took the body down from the cross and wrapped it in a long sheet of linen cloth and laid it in a new tomb that had been carved out of rock. Point number one: Myrrh reminds us that Jesus’ birth prefigures his death. His life begins and ends in an upper room. And his life begins and ends in stone. Jesus was born to die. And good shepherds understand this. Which is point number two. We know this is true because Jesus himself said in John 10:1 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep.”
The Good Shepherd would lay down in front of the gate of the sheep fold and anyone trying to steal his sheep would have to get by his dead body first. That’s the picture Jesus is painting. And it was a familiar one to them. For it was a metaphor that the prophet Ezekiel used before. Turn in your Bibles to Ezekiel 34.
Ezekiel 34:11-17 says, “11For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search and find my sheep. 12I will be like a shepherd looking for his scattered flock. I will find my sheep and rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on that dark and cloudy day. 13I will bring them back home to their own land of Israel from among the peoples and nations. I will feed them on the mountains of Israel and by the rivers and in all the places where people live. 14Yes, I will give them good pastureland on the high hills of Israel. There they will lie down in pleasant places and feed in the lush pastures of the hills. 15I myself will tend my sheep and give them a place to lie down in peace, says the Sovereign LORD. 16I will search for my lost ones who strayed away, and I will bring them safely home again. I will bandage the injured and strengthen the weak. But I will destroy those who are fat and powerful. I will feed them, yes—feed them justice! 17And as for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says to his people: I will judge between one animal of the flock and another, separating the sheep from the goats.”
Can you hear in this passage the allusions to Jesus being the Good Shepherd in John 10? When Jesus told them that He was their Good Shepherd, he was simultaneously reminding them, “I will not give up on you! I will always come looking for you! Even if you stray away. And when I find you, no one will snatch you out of my hand. Even if you rebelliously choose to get or stay lost, I still love you like crazy! Other shepherds will give up on you. But I won’t!
Ezekiel 34:1-10 describes some of those other shepherds in a scathing rebuke. Ezekiel says “You drink the milk, wear the wool, and butcher the best animals, but you let your flocks starve. You have not taken care of the weak. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost. Therefore, you shepherds, I now consider these shepherds my enemies and I will hold them responsible for what has happened to my flock.”
Good shepherds love the lost and are willing to make sacrifices to save them. But bad shepherds love themselves more. They are content to simply have their stuff. The milk and wool and meat. And God is saying even if no one else can tell, I can tell the difference between these two! I love the least and the last and the lost more than my life! And newsflash! I am holding you responsible if you don’t love them the same way!
These two concepts of sacrificial love and responsibility are the same things Jesus refers to in John 10 when he says I am like the Good Shepherd willing to lay down my life for my sheep. It’s what Jesus meant when in John 13:1 it says that “Jesus knew his hour had come to leave this world. He had loved his disciples [including Judas!] during his ministry on earth, and now he loved them to the very end.”
Ezekiel contrasts the bad shepherds with the good one and wraps up his contrast with this sobering verse in Ezekiel 34:17 that says the Good Shepherd “Will judge between one animal of the flock and another, separating the sheep from the goats.” That’s why Matthew 25:32 says one day “All nations will be gathered in his [Jesus’] presence, and he will separate the sheep from the goats. 33He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.”
But in Matthew 25:37, the righteous ones will say, “37‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? 39When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’” “41Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones...42For I was hungry and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. 43I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’” “44Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’ 45And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’”
Myrrh reminds us that Jesus’ birth prefigured his death [Matthew 2:11; John 19:39]. Point number one. Good shepherds understand this. Point number two. That’s why they’re willing to lay down their lives and sacrifice their stuff to search and save the lives of those with less. To paraphrase Spiderman, “With much love, comes great responsibility.” But that is really a paraphrase of Jesus’ words found in Luke 12:48 NKJV, “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required.”
I am thrilled to be able to share with you my church family that during the last couple weeks, we have collected enough money to purchase 26 goats for families in the Philippines. I commend you! Way to go! I am so proud of you! By the way, we’ll be collecting goat money again today and next week, Christmas Day, in case you haven’t had the chance to give yet. Or in case you’re compelled to give even more! The wise men gave gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We’re giving goats to families in the Philippines! To help them get out of poverty! Wouldn’t it be cool if we could help 50 families do so?
Good Shepherds understand that love without sacrifice is not love. That it has to hurt a little to love like Jesus. That it always costs something to love like Jesus. I was talking to some grieving and hurting people this week mourning the loss of Hattie Smith—Joyce Jenkins’ mother who died. She was 99 years old. She lived a long life in faithful service to God and her six children who loved her very much. Four of whom were able to be there for her funeral. And although they were saddened by her loss, it didn’t seem to me that they were having any difficulty at all talking about her mom. Stories spilled forth at the funeral home and during lunch here at our church afterward.
Big thanks and WTG by the way to Marilynn and Fern and Edith and Craig for organizing the funeral meal. Going to Gordon’s and buying the food and cooking the food and setting the tables takes a few hours whenever someone dies, but the impact that love and hospitality makes on the lives of those hurting lasts forever. But guess what church, these four people have been doing this for quite a while. Barb Duvwe does too. And Shirley Smith and probably others I’ve missed. But I’m sure they could use some help sometimes! Some new volunteers. Some minute men and women who often with just a days notice can re-arrange their lives for a few hours to comfort and serve the grieving. Would you be willing to serve on the funeral dinner team whenever that time comes? Please see me afterward if you are. Because they could use your help.
Anyway, during that meal this week, Rosemary, one the daughters told me to say that “Everyone thinks they have the greatest mom in the world. Tell them we know we did.” How? Because she showed us that love for nearly 100 years.
But the coolest thing about sacrificial love is that even strangers can recognize it because true sacrificial love is always expressed in action. And one person from that funeral dinner who was there to be with the family was so impressed with how our church was showing true love in action this Christmas with the meal and the goats I ended up talking about during it, that this person wrote us a check for $140 right after lunch—enough for us to buy 2 more goats! PTL! That’s always how you know if people really understand the Good Shepherd’s love. Because if they do, they’re willing to lay down their lives [or at least part of their livelihoods] to love in the same way.
We know the lowly shepherds in Jesus’ day were willing to do so. Because the angels in Luke 2:12 told them, “You will recognize him by this sign: You will find the baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” So they went to worship Him and verse 20 adds, “The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them.”
But good shepherds aren’t the only ones who recognize that Jesus’ birth prefigures his death. Ironically, even the bad shepherds who at first ignored Jesus’ birth eventually did too. When Herod asked his wise men where the king of the Jews would be born, they correctly answered in Matthew 2:5-6 “‘5In Bethlehem in Judea," they said, "for this is what the prophet wrote: 6'And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are not least among the ruling cities of Judah, for a ruler will come from you, who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.'"
They knew where the Good Shepherd would be born. They just didn’t care to show it. Verse 3 says Herod and everyone in Jerusalem was “deeply disturbed” by the arrival of the wise men from the east, but Scripture doesn’t record that any of them actually did anything about it! Instead, it took Gentile descendants of Abraham’s rejected son Ishmael probably traveling 1k or more miles for up to two years to sacrificially give of their time and treasure gifts worthy of a king. Those foreign wise men who worked at an occupation scorned by the religious elite were also good shepherds in Jesus’ day [for more on the wise men, read David Jarnes’ article “Who Were the Magi?” in the December 2000 edition of Signs of the Times]. The birth of Christianity owes it origins to those who were not Christian—but God was reaching out to them too.
Eventually, these same leading priests and teachers of religious law—or their descendants—went from ignoring Jesus to calling for his death. Caiaphas, who was high priest when Jesus resurrected Lazarus from the dead, said in John 11:50 “You don't realize that it's better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.” John 11:53 adds, “So from that time on, the Jewish leaders began to plot Jesus’ death.”
So myrrh reminds us that...Jesus’ birth prefigured his death [Matthew 2:11; John 19:39]. Good Shepherds understand this [John 10:11; Ezekiel 34:11-17; Luke 2:12]. And eventually, the bad ones do too [Matthew 2:5-6; John 11:50]. I’m grateful this church is full of good shepherds. Who recognize that Jesus was born to die. So that the least and the last and the lost might be found. Thank you for giving the presence of Jesus this Christmas till it hurts. At this time, we’ll be collecting the special offering for even more goats galore!
PS - After this sermon, we collected a special offering and now we have enough money to buy 39 goats with one more week to go PTL!!!