Jan9WedAn Epiphany of our Lord Sermon on Matthew 2 January 9, 2019 Pastor Sebastian
Grace be unto you from God our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ.
You may have heard this joke before:
Do you know what would have happened if it had been
Three Wise Women
instead of Three Wise Men to visit Jesus?
Well, they would have asked for directions,
Arrived on time,
Helped deliver the baby,
Cleaned the stable,
Made a casserole,
Brought practical gifts and
There would be Peace On Earth
Gifts and gift-giving are such a big part of the season of Christmas, and it all started with those wise men,
though maybe not quite as wise as some women,
who gave those three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Let’s spend some time this morning reflecting on gifts,
both wanted and unwanted, gifts both human and divine,
and what that means for our journey of faith esp. for the upcoming season of Epiphany.
As we heard in our Gospel text this morning,
wise men from the East come to pay homage to a newborn King.
They enter the house and see the child and Mary,
kneel and bow down in respect and worship.
We may have the song “O come, all ye faithful”
or the final scene from the classic Christmas movie “the little drummer boy” in our minds.
And the magi opened their treasure chests (no wrapping paper here) and offered three gifts.
Now, just to review, what were those somewhat useless gifts those wise guys gave?
Gold is the most mentioned precious metal in the Bible, in Biblical time it was used (much like today) as currency, jewelry, as decoration (esp. in rich and powerful places like the palace or the Temple). Much like today, as it is rare and sought after: it indicated wealth. We don’t know in which shape or form the gold was given, obviously smaller coins would be more practical for the young family, but that’s just speculation.
Frankincense is a resin that is tapped from a rare tree that grows in the Arabian peninsula and Somalia, and it is valuable (records indicated that it was traded all the way back in 6000 BC).
Myrrh is also a resin tapped from a rare tree that grows in the Arabian peninsula: as a form of incense,
it was used in various rituals for medicine, fumigation, and embalming.
So, let’s evaluate: so while gold probably was a good gift for a poor family, it would pose a risk for theft, and if the the coins were too big, it would be difficult to actually use (for a normal family).
Frankincense and myrrh would be largely symbolic gifts, and could have some value when sold, but as the joke says, clean diapers and a casserole would have been better.
Then again, the magi had absolutely no clue what they would encounter when they found the king they were looking for.
They probably assumed this king was rich and didn’t really need presents, but just as we always say “it’s the thought that counts”..
Gifts are an interesting and complex part of society.
We say the expression, even recorded in Acts of the Apostles: it’s “better to give than to receive”, because generosity is much better than greed.
The Bible also mentions (2 Corinthians) “God loves a cheerful giver”, because if you feel you’re getting a gift from someone who doesn’t want to give it in the first place…well then you just want to give it immediately back, right?
One interesting anecdote about Christmas gift-giving involves Martin Luther in the year 1535. The custom at that time was to have all giving of gifts on the Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6th. Old St Nicholas, the Bishop of Myrna in Turkey was known for his generosity especially towards Children.
However the tradition then was that if you were a good child, St. Nicholas would leave you treats, and if not, then a lump of coal or a stick (for a beating) in your shoes overnight. This conditional gift-giving is immortalized in our western consciousness in the song “Santa Claus is coming to town” with the line: “he knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake”..
Martin Luther moved gift-giving in his household from the feast of St. Nick to Christmas Eve instead.
His idea was that this would show that Christmas presents aren’t reward for our good behaviour, but a symbol of God’s present of Jesus.
Or in other words, he wanted gift giving to be free of conditions, not a reward for good behaviour, but just an outright gift, no strings attached.
A true, free gift.
Of course this fits very well into the Lutheran understanding of God’s love and mercy as completely free gifts.
Gift-giving is such a complex social construct.
At Christmas I always am amazed, that presents wrapped with love, and which will take a few minutes to wrap properly, with younger children takes just seconds to unwrap. Rip, rip, and then the present is open.
But prior to that, for older kids or adults, hopefully there is that wonderful feeling of anticipation, and curiosity, as we shake the gift, hold it gently in our hands, imagine in our mind’s eye what it is, examining from the outside.
If it’s soft and squishy, probably it’s going to be clothes. A small box, probably jewelry.
And then sometimes, a surprise. A gift completely unexpected, or maybe the holy grail, an unexpected gift that you actually wanted but didn’t know it.
This shows that the gift-giver knows you better than you even know yourself.
Sometimes though you become disappointed with a gift: when you didn’t get what you wanted, or maybe when you open the last present and you realize there is only a limited supply, not an infinite amount of presents; the rush is over, and you crash down into reality, and the surprising game of opening gifts is over.
And then there are bad presents.
Just like good presents, bad presents give you insight into the gift-giver.
-Some gifts say: I don’t like you the way you are.
For example, a gift certificate for a makeover, or a haircut, or the gift of a different clothes style then you are comfortable with.
-Some gifts seem to have been given no thought.
-Some gifts say: I don’t understand you
-Some gifts can show that the giver doesn’t know us as well as they think (or should), for example, people who give me ties…I don’t wear them (or maybe just a few times a year)
-at least there is the option of re-gifting (unless the re-gift comes all the way back to you, and then that’s just funny..)
-And thank goodness most stores (if you have the gift receipt) will accept a gift exchange…but the hassle of getting to the store in the post-Christmas rush…well that’s headache-producing if you ask me.
-Some gifts make you wonder: what is expected in return?
Is there some ulterior motive at work here?
-Other gifts have the risk of an ever increasing cost, where one party tries to outdo the other party in the next round of giving.
-Then there at the unexpected presents…often the worst kind.
And If the presents are from someone you’re not close to at all, and you scratch your head: what was that about?
You kind of wonder: what do they want?
Is this a Trojan Horse?
One of my favourite gift stories involve my father.
It was around mid-June and an unmarked moving van comes to his door and the delivery guy steps out and says:
I’ve got a recliner chair for you.
My father was baffled and said: “no there must be a mistake, I haven’t ordered one. Please send it back”. The delivery truck rolled off.
Two days later, my father received a phone call from my sister in the US:
“So, how do you like my Father’s Day present of a Laz-y-boy?”
We still laugh about that one.
Whether the gifts are wanted or unwanted, whether they are thoughtful or unthoughtful, conditional or unconditional,
gifts tell something about the giver,
a present is a statement about the present-or.
Whenever you give a gift you are sharing something of yourself.
And this applies to you whether you are a wise woman, a wise man, or even God.
In this particularly long season of Epiphany, we dedicate 8 whole weeks to discovering how the Mystery of the Incarnation was made known, was revealed by the Holy Spirit.
The gifts of the wise men, gold, frankincense and myrrh, whether a good or bad gift, real or symbolic, are the entry point into thinking about how the Gift of God’s grace in Jesus was made known and became apparent to the whole world.
This gift of God in Jesus is a free gift with no strings attached,
it is wrapped with love, not wrapped in gold paper, but in swaddling clothes,
it was a surprise gift, but also something we really needed,
because God knows what we needed even if we didn’t,
we needed a Saviour.
God’s gift is one we can’t ever repay
but we can return God’s gifts with joy, and give him our hearts.
The gift of Jesus is also a difficult gift:
because this gift of Jesus in our lives will prompt us to change,
to increase in love for others and to give gifts just as Jesus himself gave:
health to the sick, sight to the blind, food to the hungry, spiritual food to the desperate, and love to the marginalized .
The nature of the gift gives us much information about the giver.
What’s in the present tells us about who gave the present.
God’s gift of Jesus tells us about who God is.
God is someone who knows us and loves us.
People of God, receive this gift of love in Christ Jesus,
the greatest gift of all time. Amen.