Monday, January 5, 2015

Gifts of the Wisemen (Matthew 2:1-12) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In this season, when you think of a classic character who is stingy, miserly, parsimonious, cheap who comes to mind?   Scrooge.  Right.  But at Christmas, quite to the contrary, people like Scrooge, in Dicken's story A Christmas Carol are actually the exception rather than the rule.   Generally people are bighearted during this season.  People tend to do more, give more, and help others more during the month of December, than any other time of the year.

Why?  There are more opportunities to give and to help others during this season, there is a spirit of giving and generosity that pervades our culture during this season, and there is a social pressure to give.  You will find articles on the internet which say:  “No time to wait, hurry, time is running out, last minute gift buying.” 

Christmas is about gift giving and so we turn to the story of the Magi.   The Magi said:  “We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.  When they had heard the king, they set out and there ahead of them, went the star that they had seen it its rising.” 

The magi were wise men, astrologers or magicians, most likely from Persia, modern day Iran.  We read in the Old Testament, that the Jews of the day expected a star as a sign of the birth of the Messiah. This was a wide-spread belief in Judaism.  Dr. Paul Maier, in his book In The Fullness of Time writes: “Eastern astrologers, were acquainted with Hebrew beliefs, since there was a large Jewish community living in the East. There is nothing improbable about a group of sages being attracted by some astral event and then trying to investigate it more closely.” 

They came bearing gifts and presented the Christ child with gifts.  Gold, the most precious of metals, a royal gift, signified Jesus' kingship.  Frankincense, was a fragrant gum resin burned as incense and denoted Jesus' future priesthood.  Myrrh was an aromatic orange-colored resin.  Myrrh was expensive and used in perfumes, anointing oil, medicine and embalming. 

When the wise men brought their gifts to Jesus, they didn't come bearing children's toys. They brought gifts that indicated who Jesus truly was—the king of kings, the great high priest, and the lamb of God who would die for the sins of the world.  The fact that years later, Jesus was offered wine mixed with myrrh as a palliative and was also buried with myrrh, clearly denotes this gift's significance.

Gifts.  When is a gift a gift?  When its given with no strings attached.  When its given in love, joy and gratitude.  These are two crucial biblical principles about giving. 

First, when you give a gift, give freely, with no strings, no conditions, rather than giving expecting something in return.  When the wise men came to see Jesus, they knew they weren't going to a "gift exchange."  They brought exquisite gifts, but they didn’t go expecting something in return.  Gift giving isn't deal making.  The Magi came to give, not to receive.

I've known of situations where hard feelings developed in families because someone didn't get back as much as they put in.  They felt cheated and were deeply resentful.   I've seen where people gave a generous gift and then felt the person was somehow beholden/obligated to them.  Gift giving is not a contract.  When it comes to true giving, you can't lose, it's impossible to lose. The goal is to give freely, to give it away with no expectations and let it go.  Why – the underlying biblical principle is grace.

James Hewitt tells a story of a college friend named Paul who received a car from his brother for Christmas.  A kid on the street saw Pauls's new car and said: "Hey mister, is that yours?" Paul said, "Yes, my brother gave it to me for Christmas." The kid was amazed and said, "Your brother gave it to you and it didn't cost you nothing?" He then said, "Boy I wish..." Paul thought he was going to say, "I wish I had a brother like that." But the street kid surprised him. He said, "Boy, I wish I could be a brother like that."  That is the true spirit of giving according to scripture.  
Second, give out of a spirit of love, joy, gratitude, not out of an attitude of obligation or competition.  The gospel of Matthew says: “They saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him.”  Their gifts were an expression of worship, an expression of respect, honor and reverence for the messiah.  The gifts clearly showed that these Magi valued Jesus.

Have you ever received a gift from someone with the impression that the gift was given more out of duty than desire?   If they had really had a choice, they wouldn't have given you anything at all?  Have you ever given a gift with that attitude? That's not giving a gift; it's paying a bill.

I recall at another church where a brother had a falling out with his sister which lasted many years.  They didn't speak at all during the year.  But they did exchange gifts at Christmas.   She said she does it because: "You are pressured to give gifts to members of your family." Obviously, this gift has very little or no meaning and value.  The gift she really needs to give to her brother, and he to her, is the gift initiating communication, and of striving for forgiveness and reconciliation and healing.

If your gift isn't motivated by respect, honor and love for the other person, it doesn't matter what the gift costs.  You will resent giving and the recipient will not be appreciative.  The wise men's gifts were special, not only because they were intrinsically valuable, but because they were given with a heart full of devotion to the Christ-child.

In 1987, real estate agent Oral Lee Brown of Oakland, CA walked into a class of first-graders in a blighted neighborhood and made a promise.  Stay in school and I'll see you through to college.  In 1999, she made good, sending 19 students off to the colleges of their choice.  "When God is with you, no one can stop you," says Mrs. Brown, who was making about $45,000 a year selling working-class homes when she made her promise at Brookfield Elementary.  Mrs. Brown was honored in Washington D.C. with a John Stanford Education Hero award.  It commemorates her 12 years of changing the world, one child at a time.  In 2003, she attended 10 different college graduations. "After my babies walked across that stage," she said, "I was ready for them to lay me down and let me die."

In our culture, we know that we sometimes give gifts with stipulations or to control or to manipulate people into doing what we want them to do.  This isn't giving; it's bribery.  It doesn't value the one who receives the gift; neither does it glorify God.  It has nothing to do with grace.

I believe God called the magi to bring these gifts to Jesus.   These gifts had a purpose.  They revealed the identity of Jesus.  They were gifts appropriate to Jesus as the Messiah, the Savior of the world, Emmanuel, the lamb of God.  These wise men brought valuable gifts to Jesus because they recognized his value and worth as the long awaited Messiah.  When you give, give a gift that celebrates and honors the person. 

Finally, let's remember that gifts that honor another person don’t have to be material in nature.  I know that runs contrary to our consumer culture.  But again biblically its true.  God may be calling you to give a material gift to someone.  That is entirely appropriate.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with giving material gifts as we see in the gifts from the Magi.  But these are not the only kinds of gifts.

God may also be calling you to give a gift that is not material, that is immaterial, but is highly appropriate and timely for this person.  These are also gifts of grace and may in fact be more suitable and needed by someone.  God may be calling you, as you think about persons in your life, to give such a gift.

I close with the bishop's speech in the classic Christmas story, “The Bishop's Wife.”  It's about an empty stocking.   “Tonight I want to tell you the story of an empty stocking.  Once upon a midnight clear there was a Child's cry, a blazing star hung over a stable, and wise men came with birthday gifts.  We haven't forgotten that night down the centuries.  We celebrate it with stars hung on the Christmas tree and the sound of bells and giving of gifts.  Especially with gifts.  All the stockings are filled.  All, that is, except one.  Let us ask ourselves what Jesus would wish for most from us to fill the stocking with – loving kindness, warm hearts, the hand of tolerance, all the shining gifts which make up peace on earth.” 

What would Jesus wish for most from you for certain people?   The gift of your undivided attention, the gift of acceptance, the gift of affection, the gift of communication, the gift of enthusiasm, the gift of encouragement, the gift of creative energy, the gift of forgiveness, the gift of friendship, the gift of tenderness,  the gift of your time, the gift of surprise, the gift of joy, the gift of sharing your faith, the gift of prayer.

This Christmas, listen for God's word about your gift giving.  And though you don't expect or require anything in return, you never know what surprise you might receive in someone's reaction to your gift.  Some unanticipated serendipity may surprise you.  For ultimately we give, because God gave His Son to the world, the greatest gift which has ever be given.   Amen!

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