The Gift of Frankincense
The Three Gifts, prt. 2
Wildwind Community Church
December 6, 2008
Matthew 2:11 (NRSV)
11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Last week we talked about how gold is a gift for a king. Frankincense (which is just incense) primarily was a gift for a priest.
When you hear the word “priest,” do you instantly think, “Catholic?” If so, we need to correct that tonight. So I want to start by just talking to you for a moment about the word priest because if we don’t understand that word we’re going to miss not only what I’m saying in this sermon, but one of the main aspects of the character of Jesus Christ.
So let’s start with what a priest actually is. First I’ll give you a definition out of the dictionary, then I think I’ll probably need to explain the definition a little, then we can move on with the rest of the message tonight!
Merriam Webster’s dictionary says a priest is a person authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion especially as a mediatory agent between humans and God. A mediatory agent. What’s that? Have you ever had a disagreement with somebody that was so significant that you couldn’t see your way through it and had to bring in an objective third party? This happens between children all the time, right? As much as we parents want to teach our kids to resolve their own problems, there are times when it’s too messy and we have to step in and help them iron it out. We serve as a mediator – one who helps to connect our children to each other and work out an agreement. Sometimes if someone is suing somebody, both sides might agree to mediation – an out-of-court thing where a third party comes in and helps both sides to work out an agreement. Marriage counselors are always mediating when they are working with couples – trying to help them see through the mess they are in and make their way back to each other. Mediators are always people in the middle, trying to connect two or more parties to one another.
So a priest is a mediator – someone who tries to connect two parties to each other – one party is God, and the other party is humanity! In Judaism, you go to the temple but cannot offer sacrifice or penitence for yourself; it is done through a priest. This is a person who has observed special rituals involving purity and holiness of life, perhaps physical washing in certain ways, and is therefore able to serve as a pure vessel through which other people can approach God.
Catholicism holds a similar idea about its priests. This snippet from WikiAnswers.com seems like a great explanation of the role of a Catholic priest.
The priest’s primary role is to sanctify himself and others through the correct execution of his duties. By his consecration he truly acts in the Person of Christ when dispensing the sacraments for he participates directly in Christ’s priesthood
So it is that in Catholicism, you confess your sins to a priest. A priest daily performs the Mass, which is essentially what we would call “communion.” The Catholics do state that Christ is the only true mediator between God and man, and they are correct, but in Catholicism, the priest is acting in the person of Christ when performing his duties, perhaps like an ambassador of a country acts in the person of the President of that country. Condolleezza Rice doesn’t get to go to another country and deliver her message. She delivers George Bush’s message. A priest doesn’t declare his message, he declares the message of Jesus.
Now in Protestantism, which is us – we are not Catholic, but Protestant pastors are called pastors and not priests. This is because we believe that since Christ is the mediator between God and man, since Jesus is the one who can connect us to God, no human mediator is needed. But this is not because we think church is all about what happens between you and God in the privacy of your own room, in your own head and heart. I don’t want you to make the mistake of thinking that we don’t use priests because we don’t believe confession is necessary.
Confession is essential! Confession is something a lot more of us ought to be doing. Our small groups need to offer opportunities for members to confess to one another. It is required of us as believers. Jesus is the mediator between us and God. We share that belief in common with the Catholics, and it is a scriptural belief. However, Protestants focus on this passage of scripture:
1 Pe 2:9-10 (The Message)
9But you are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference he made for you— 10from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted.
Protestants do not have priests because we believe that this passage tells us that we are all priests – not each of us individually, but the entire church together! What this means is that confession of sin should be done not necessarily to a priest, but to the church community –a Sunday school class, a small group, perhaps sometimes even to the entire church! You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood – you – as the body of Christ – are called to do the work of priests, which is the work of showing who God is – the work of bringing others to know him – the work of bearing witness to his presence in the world! That’s what a priest does, and this passage says that job belongs to YOU. Please let me keep saying again and again that this does not mean individual you, in isolation from everyone else, you following God and serving him on your own and wandering off and doing your own thing. It means you as part of the entire body. Priesthood, as the scripture says, is a high calling. Pretty impressive, huh? But there’s a balance that has to be there, and the Apostle Paul shows us that balance.
1 Co 12:19 (The Message)
19But I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blown up into self-importance. For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are a part of. An enormous eye or a gigantic hand wouldn’t be a body, but a monster.
We are priests together, as we walk in step in the unity of the Body of Christ. We do not accept that people can have a meaningful connection to God outside of the context of the church. Now increasingly more and more people these days are leaving the church and starting house churches (which are just small groups) and other experimental things, and I’m not arguing that these cannot be churches. All I’m saying is that we only function as priests – we only show who God is – when we join together and do the hard work of loving each other, being faithful to one another, holding one another accountable, offering grace to each other. That is the work of the priesthood.
Protestant pastors are not called priests because we are seen simply as those who have received a special calling to train and equip you – the other priests! So Biblically speaking I am a priest to the same extent that you are a priest. It’s hard enough for you as a congregation to remember that you are called to be priests without having one person that you specifically refer to as “the priest!” So the leaders of Protestant churches are called “pastors,” and the word pastor literally means “shepherd.” Shepherds are leaders, guides, and those responsible for the health, unity, and well-being of the flock – all of whom are priests!
Have I made clear what a priest is and does? Have I made clear to you why Protestants don’t refer to their leaders as priests? And have I made clear who the priests actually are?
Who are the priests in this room? YOU ARE.
Okay, now we come to Jesus and his role as a priest. Let’s see what scripture says about that. I want you to think, now, about frankincense being given to Jesus by the wise men. And I want you to think about incense being burned by the priests in the Jewish temple, and burned by the priests in Catholic churches. Remember, that’s the backdrop for this discussion of Jesus as a priest.
1 Ti 2:4-6 (The Message)
4He wants not only us but everyone saved, you know, everyone to get to know the truth we’ve learned: 5that there’s one God and only one, and one Priest-Mediator between God and us—Jesus, 6who offered himself in exchange for everyone held captive by sin…
The Catholic Church focuses on one priest who “stands in” for Jesus on earth. The Protestant church focuses on the church itself as Christ’s body. But ultimately the priest – the true mediator between God and us – is Jesus. Both Protestants and Catholics affirm that in the final analysis there is only one God, and only one Priest-Mediator between God and us and that’s Jesus.
Let’s look closer at the priesthood of Jesus, and let’s keep that word “mediator” right in the front of our minds. Now when is a mediator needed? A mediator is usually brought in after two or more parties have done everything they can think of to settle their dispute, or work out their differences. A mediator is brought in when the two sides can’t even communicate anymore – when the picture looks almost hopeless. In my counseling work I’ve done a ton of mediation – trying to bring together two parties who can’t reach each other. Before they even come to my office, they’ve tried everything they can think of. People never come to counseling (mediation) as a first resort. They always come as a last resort!
And so it was between us and God. If you have your Bible with you (if not, check it out at home), you can read the Old Testament to get an idea of everything God had tried to reach out to us. The Old Testament prophets, especially, bear witness to God reaching out to us again and again, trying over and over and over to make a connection – asking us to love him, asking us to live rightly and allow him to love us, sometimes even getting angry and saying, “Dangit – I’ve had it with you people. Pull it together or I’m going to wipe you out.”
Is 54:5-8 (NIV)
5For your Maker is your husband— the LORD Almighty is his name— the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth. 6The LORD will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit— a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God. 7“For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. 8In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,” says the LORD your Redeemer.
Indeed one of the most striking things in the Old Testament prophets is the way God talks to his people. Coaxing them, prodding them, pleading with them to return to him – sometimes using extraordinarily strong language – language that would make many people here tonight blush if I read some of it out loud. Here’s some of the less explicit language:
Is 1:13-17 (The Message)
13“Quit your worship charades. I can’t stand your trivial religious games: Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings— meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more! 14Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them! You’ve worn me out! I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning. 15When you put on your next prayer-performance, I’ll be looking the other way. No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I’ll not be listening. And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody. 16Go home and wash up. Clean up your act. Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings so I don’t have to look at them any longer. Say no to wrong. 17Learn to do good. Work for justice. Help the down-and-out. Stand up for the homeless. Go to bat for the defenseless.
These are words written 700 years before Christ, and yet we still need to hear them today, because as we talk over and over about God’s love, it’s easy for us to overlook the fact that God hates sin. He hates it, and he will not wink at it or entertain it, or smile at it, or tolerate it. He hates it. God is a holy God. God deeply desires to be close to us, but our problem has always been sin. God has over and over again said, “I want to know you and be close to you – but you HAVE to give up your sin.” And what has been the response of men and women to God from the beginning of time? “Yeah God – I’ll return to you. In a little while. When it’s convenient. After I have tried out Asherah and Baal and Dagon and Artemis and Molech. After we have worshipped at the feet of things made of wood and stone, created golden calves to worship, or just forgotten you entirely. We’ll return to you when we’re in huge trouble and there’s an opposing army about to invade us and plow us into the ground – we’ll return to you out of fear, out of self-preservation, out of frustration with the other gods who’ve come to nothing. But we reserve the right to abandon you again at any time. Any time you don’t give us the religious buzz we’re looking for. Any time you don’t help us win the next battle against Assyria or Babylon. Any time you ask us to love you with anything like the devotion with which you love us. Any time you allow something to happen to us that we don’t like. Or just any time we feel like it.”
God through the ages has tried and tried, and we as people have returned to him and left him, returned to him and left him, returned to him and left him. Something had to happen between God and human beings. Something had to happen that could draw our hearts to God. God had to position himself not outside of us trying to force us back to him, but somehow inside of us, helping us desire to do what he would have us do.
Eze 36:25-27 (NIV)
25I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
So a time came when God did exactly this. And that’s what we celebrate at Christmas.
Ga 4:4 (The Message)
4But when the time arrived that was set by God the Father, God sent his Son, born among us of a woman….
Why have I taken time to go through all of this? Because the reason God sent Jesus to the world is because we were in desperate need of a priest – a mediator – someone who could bridge the chasm between us and God, and that chasm always has been and still is – SIN.
And the most awesome thing about God sending Jesus as a mediator-priest is that Jesus is God himself! God could have just forced us to love him from far away, saying, “Don’t make me come down there!” Instead, God chose to come down and live with us – and die at our hands – to provide a way for us to know him – to make a way for him to actually place his Spirit inside of us and help us want to do what he wants us to do.
So in what ways is Jesus a priest? He died for our sins and took care of the debt we owed to God. He made it possible for God to see us as being without the guilt of sin! And just like Jewish priests would offer sacrifices for sin, Jesus offered the permanent and sufficient sacrifice for our sin – himself!
Ro 5:9 (The Message)
9Now that we are set right with God by means of this sacrificial death, the consummate blood sacrifice, there is no longer a question of being at odds with God in any way.
Jesus offered this sacrifice that set us right with God. And scripture says that, having done that, he is even now sitting with God the Father, praying and interceding to God on our behalf!
Ro 8:33-34 (GNT)
33Who will accuse God’s chosen people? God himself declares them not guilty! 34Who, then, will condemn them? Not Christ Jesus, who died, or rather, who was raised to life and is at the right-hand side of God, pleading with him for us!
Have you ever thought about this? Jesus is constantly pleading to God the Father on our behalf! That is a “priestly” duty – he is going to God for you, asking that what moves your heart would move the Father’s heart as well, and putting God’s Spirit in you so that the things that move the heart of God will increasingly move yours too. Jesus has brought God to you in the form of his own body and the sacrifice he made for us, and he is constantly bringing you to God as he sits next to the Father, interceding for you and asking God to have mercy on you.
That is what Jesus, our mediator/priest does for us. The wise men brought Jesus gold because gold is a gift fit for a king. Jesus was a king. They brought him frankincense because incense is a gift for a priest, and he is a priest. And they brought him myrrh, because myrrh is fitting for one who is to die. I’ll talk to you about that next week.
I think there are several responses to tonight’s sermon that could be appropriate. One is to simply be thankful, and to respond in worship. Another response, depending on where you’re at, is to pray with me in a moment and not only thank God for what Jesus has done, but actually ask God to put his Spirit in you, to forgive your sins, and to give you eternal life that starts not after you die but RIGHT NOW! Some people call this becoming a Christian. I don’t like that phrase at all, for a lot of reasons, the main one being that becoming a Christian is something that takes an entire lifetime. I like to call it getting on the way of Jesus, or becoming a follower or student or disciple of Jesus, which can happen in an instant. But it doesn’t matter what you call it – all that matters is that you allow God to put you on the path that, if you keep following it far enough, will eventually lead you right to where God is. Will you pray with me?
Jesus, thank you that as we pray to you, you pray to the Father on our behalf. Thanks for being our priest, our mediator, our redeemer, our Savior, and our Lord. For those here today who want to give their lives to you, I pray these words and ask that you would hear them as they pray them along with me. “God, I know I have been separated from you. I know that like your people in the Bible, I have only looked for a relationship with you when it was convenient for me or would suit my purposes or be to my advantage. God, I want to really know you and live with you forever, in this life and the next. I know my sin has kept me far from you, an d I know you hate it and cannot look on it. I’m sorry for the way I have lived. Jesus, thank you for the sacrifice you made for my sins – the one that is allowing me to pray this prayer right now asking forgiveness. I release my claim on my life, and I will seek to learn to live my life from now on the way you would live my life if you were me. Please send your Holy Spirit to me and teach me what to do. Help me take my place in the church as a priest – someone who is helping others find the way to you, as you then lead them to peace with God.
Thank you for everything you have done for me. As I live my life for you, please help me learn to see you, to think like you, talk like you, love like you, and live the way you lived. In the name of Jesus I pray Amen.”
You have response cards coming around to you now. I hope if you decided today that you want to live your life for Jesus – get on the Jesus way you will let us know so we can help you take some growth steps. If you have questions, I hope you’ll ask them and have me email or call you. In any case, please let us know how we can support you.