It Always Comes in Threes

Heritage Presbyterian Church

1st Sunday of Christmas
Sunday, January 1, 2023

Scripture: Matthew 2: 1-23

The title of today’s sermon was supposedly coined back in 1977 when three famous entertainers died within 6 weeks of each other.  Each was considered a king in his own specific field of entertainment.  The three men were Groucho Marx, Bing Crosby, and Elvis Presley.  As I said those three names, it was interesting to watch your reactions!  And according to all the sources I could find, that was the beginning of the phrase, “It always comes in threes.”

As time has gone by, it seems that we humans struggle constantly to put patterns to events in history to try to give ourselves some sort of a sense of control or understanding.

We struggle to accept it when unusual or quirky things occur, so we add patterns to them to give ourselves the false satisfaction that we have figured it all out.

This has been done to Scripture for centuries with odd and sometimes even tragic results.  It’s been done with the DaVinci Code, the Bible code, and just about anyone who claims to understand the Book of Revelation – and then has a chart or a graph or a table or a gigantic math calculation to prove the point! 

Patterns…we just love patterns!  They give us control.  They give us power.  They give us…understanding.

So, when three very important men suddenly appear in the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, it is tempting to apply the pattern of three.

Luke, the storyteller of the four Gospel writers, has almost no pattern at all in his Christmas story of the birth in Bethlehem.  So, we just get to listen to the story and enjoy it.  But Matthew, the tax collector, the “numbers guy” …let’s see what he does.

First of all, Matthew puts more emphasis on Joseph in his story.

  1. His family tree leads to Joseph.
  2. Angels appeared to Joseph in dreams to give him much needed advice.
  3. Joseph protected Mary from public shame as well as from Herod’s soldiers.

Next, Matthew has these three men from the East as witnesses instead of a bunch of shepherds like Luke chose.  Remembering that Matthew wrote his Gospel to a largely Jewish audience…

  1. Magi from the East would have impressed a Jewish audience.
  2. Shepherds would not have been believed by a Jewish audience.
  3. Magi “rattled” all of Jerusalem with their bold announcement – much to delight a Jewish audience!

All three of these men brought their best gifts:

  1. Caspar brought gold because Jesus was a king.
  2. Melchior brought frankincense because Jesus was a High Priest.
  3. Balthazar brought myrrh because it represented Jesus’ eventual death.

(And by the way…nothing in Matthew’s Gospel specifies that it was THREE magi who visited Jesus…it only says, “Magi from the east came to Jerusalem.”  Go ahead and check it.)

Yet the experts tell us NOT to read any symbolism into these three gifts; gold and expensive, fragrant resins used in worship, perfume, and embalming would be appropriate gifts for a king – especially if they were brought from the East!

Furthermore, when considering the journey that the Magi traveled from the East:

  1. It was against common sense to journey this far just to see a child; practical people would condemn it!  So, there must have been something unusual to make them go so far.
  2. Their journey is blocked by nature’s barriers – deserts, heat, distance, and by the influence of Herod himself.
  3. The journey leads to a fuller life for those who ventured.

Do you honestly think these three Magi just…returned to their country by another route…and that’s all?

For the astronomers in the crowd, we have an unusual star.  Was it a comet?  Was it a meteor?  Was it an alignment of Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter which occurred three times in 7 B.C.?  Or was it something else?  According to late Jewish stories, the appearance of an unusual star announced the birth of:

  1. Isaac
  2. Moses
  3. So why not a star that announced the birth of Jesus?

Then, Matthew uses King Herod as the authority instead of Caesar Augustus.

  1. This reveals Herod’s wickedness, which was well known to the Jewish audience.  He was appointed “king of the Jews” by the Romans way back in 40 B.C.
  2. Caesar Augustus controlled most of the known world for more than 30 years – well known to the Gentile audience Luke wrote to.
  3. If Herod could order the slaughter of every male child under the age of 2 without the Romans lifting a finger to stop him, that would reveal his “collusion” with the Roman authorities.

Speaking of King Herod, let’s compare his life to that of Jesus:

  1. Herod had earthly power; Jesus had heavenly power.
  2. Herod had a magnificent palace and rebuilt the Temple; Jesus was born in a stable and was laid in a feeding trough.
  3. Herod seemed to have all Jerusalem with him; Jesus had almost no one.

But if we are going to insist on this pattern of three being applied to the story of the Magi, then let’s also notice that all Christians who hear this account of the birth of Jesus through the eyes of the Magi know this:

  1. People have been brought from far and by many ways to worship Christ.
  2. A new sense of wonder exists because the world has been redeemed through his birth.
  3. Even nature itself could not be unmoved in the presence of such a wonderful event. 

And what lesson is there for each of us today?  Perhaps we need look no further than the example of the three wise men.  

These three men who appeared came to do three things:

  1. Not to see – but to worship.  Do we try too hard to “see Christ” and not to just worship Him?
  2. Not to talk – but to bow down.  Do we just talk about being Christians or do we submit ourselves and bow down to Him?
  3. Not to build themselves up – but to bring presents worthy of a king.  Are we trying to become better Christians so that others will see, or is our true gift to Jesus our lives lived to fullest serving our true King?

In conclusion, I have only three things to say:

  1. Amen.
  2. Alleluia.
  3. Praise God!