Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Somehow, I got into the habit of asking people what they received for Christmas gifts. Perhaps it’s just an easy conversation starter, or a convenient way to talk about the gifts that I received. Whatever the reason, I continued my post-Christmas questioning this past Wednesday evening at FirstLight, which is our confirmation program. The 8th and 9th graders in that room were more than willing to admit that what they received this Christmas was not always what they wanted. Snowboards and video games were hot; shirts and sweaters from Herbergers were not! But all things considered, they were appreciative of the gifts that they received from their families.
Then I turned my well-worn question in a different direction: I asked them “What did you give this year for Christmas?” For a moment, there was silence. Some of the students didn’t even know what they gave, because their parents took care of that for them. But others struggled to adequately describe what they gave to their moms and dads, and sisters and brothers, and why they gave it.
I am reminded of something that Tony Campolo once said regarding this curious tradition of exchanging gifts at Christmas. Said Campolo:
“In America, the difficulty is not
‘Where will I find the money to buy gifts for the ones I love?’
but rather ‘What do you buy for someone
who already has everything they need?’”
And it’s true, is it not? In a nation where many of us already live in want of nothing…but in a nation that has more shopping malls than high schools, Christmas presents a strange sort of dilemma to us every year.
So I was amazed when those junior high people began to describe the gifts that they had given. One fellow said “I gave my brother respect.” Hmmmm, priceless. Another said that he had broken his father’s coffee pot while doing the dishes recently, so he gave his dad a replacement. And one of our group leaders said that, in recent years, her dad realized that his kids didn’t need material things, so every year, he gives his children time. A whole day together, whatever they want to do. This year, at the age of 75, he took his adult daughter and her children to the Science Museum and simply enjoyed the day with them. Couldn’t that dad have bought his own coffee pot? Couldn’t that daughter have taken her kids…or sent her kids…to the Science Museum? Of course, but that’s not the point. In celebration of Christmas, the givers gave the most precious gift they could: they gave a piece of themselves.
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Today in our gospel lesson, we find the origin for this ritual of gift-giving that we observe at Christmas. Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus are still in Bethlehem, presumably still in the rustic manger where the Baby was born. Without advance warning, there arrived wisemen from the east. In truth, they were astronomers who spent their lives watching the movements of the stars, and then interpreting what the movements meant. Something in the western sky told them that the Savior had been born in Bethlehem, so they traveled many miles to see him. And not just see him, but worship him.
Tradition tells us that there were three wisemen, but we don’t know that for sure. Maybe there were two, maybe there were fourteen; scripture doesn’t say. What scripture does say is that they brought three gifts with them to Bethlehem: gold, frankincense and myrrh. I love the way the bible describes it:
“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.”
Have you ever thought about those gifts that the wisemen gave? Ever wondered about their significance? The first gift, gold, was not nearly as rare as it is today, nor as valuable. Tons of it was used in building the temple in Jerusalem, and though it was not found in the area of Palestine, where Jesus was born, it was abundant nearly everywhere else. The most significant feature of gold is that it was beautiful. It’s most common use was not for coins but for ornaments and jewelry. Thus, the first gift that was offered to the Son of God was given because it was beautiful.
The second gift, frankincense, was a sort of perfume. When it was burned especially, it emitted a sweet, sweet smell. In those days, it was often used whenever a lamb was being sacrificed in the sanctuary. Ironic, that the second gift offered to Jesus had to do with death and forgiveness of sins through the sacrifice of a living thing.
Finally, myrrh was offered. Like frankincense, myrrh was another fragrance, usually found in the form of oil or a gum-like substance. It was traditionally used for embalming a body for burial, or, after being mixed with wine, it was used to medicate those who were being crucified. It’s fascinating to note that Jesus was given myrrh when he was born and when he died, but when he died on the cross, he refused the mixture of wine and myrrh that would dampen his pain.
I don’t know about you, but if I am Mary and Joseph, I am just a bit mystified at the fact that, at my child’s birth, total strangers keep appearing. First, it’s shepherds; we talked about them on Christmas Eve. They were perhaps among the least educated and least sophisticated people in Palestine. Then it was astronomers, who had to be among the most educated and most sophisticated people found anywhere! And the astronomers bring their child three gifts. They don’t bring Pampers, a rattle and a mobile for the baby’s crib. No, they bring jewelry, perfume, and embalming spices for his death. I don’t know about you, but I would have been confused.
Perhaps the wisemen knew something that Mary and Joseph did not know, and that you and I only discover after the fact. That this child would grow up unconcerned with the beauty, wealth and power that consumes most other people in this world. That he, himself, would become the fresh fragrance in the temple that the religious leaders would despise. Perhaps somehow, the wisemen knew that though he was the son of God, women would one day prepare myrrh and other spices to embalm his limp body. It is not mere coincidence that the wisemen brought these specific gifts to Jesus.
But looking at the gospel text closely, there is a subtle phrase that almost goes unnoticed, and yet it is essential in understanding the wisemen’s visit to Jesus. And the phrase is this:
“…they saw the child…
and they knelt down and paid him homage.
(That’s a word that means reverence, respect and honor.)
Then, opening their treasure chests,
they offered him gifts….”
They opened their treasure chests. They gave to Jesus what they perceived as valuable. It didn’t have to be gold, frankincense and myrrh; it could have been diamonds, or silk, or their charts of the constellations. So moved were they at witnessing the birth of the Son of God, they opened up their treasure chests and offered him the most valued possessions that they had with them. The gifts they gave didn’t say as much about Jesus as it did about them: they were in awe! They knew they were in the presence of God, and to pay homage to him, they opened up their treasure chests and offered him everything they owned.
It sort of begs the question, doesn’t it? I mean, we’re in the presence of God right now, in this sanctuary, and this story begs the question, what will we offer him? (The Stewardship Committee thinks this would be a good time to go in for the kill! Have the people empty their purses and pockets, just like the wisemen did!) But it’s not about gold. It’s not even about dimes and dollars. It’s about opening up our treasure chests and offering to Jesus whatever we have locked away in there. So, what’s in your treasure chest today? Your money? Your time? Your pride? A grudge, perhaps, from something someone did long ago? A sin that you have been unwilling to let go of? A hardened heart that you’re unwilling to give to anyone?
You see, the wisemen did more than open their treasure chests. What they did was open their hearts to Jesus as they gave him a piece of themselves. Jesus didn’t need gold, frankincense and myrrh; what’s a little baby going to do with those things? And he doesn’t need anything we could give him today. Our gifts to God say something about us. They say that we honor and worship him…or not. They say that we trust him with our hearts…or not. They say that we believe in him for salvation.
Wouldn’t this be a good day to open your heart to God? Isn’t now precisely the right time to offer yourself to Jesus Christ as a follower, as a disciple, and as a friend? Sitting there, following this sermon, or coming forward to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, you can do just that. “Lord Jesus, my Christmas gift to you…is me.” That’s the confession. That’s the prayer. And the Lord ask nothing more of you than that. Thanks be to God. Amen.
— Copyright 2002, Steven Molin. Used by permission.