Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
December 24, 2014 – Christmas Eve
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin
Gifts for the Christ
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David), to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, who was great with child. And so it was that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign to you: you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” And it came to pass, as the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing which has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told to them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered about those things which the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, just as they had been foretold to them.
Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11
Now, behold, wise men from the east went to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him.” … They departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over the place where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they entered the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him. And they opened their treasures and presented to him gifts: gold, and frankincense and myrrh.
Merry Christmas! … In order for this sermon to work, I need to know something about you. May I do a quick survey? How many here are either receiving or giving at least one Christmas present this year? … Of course you are! It’s a tradition that God started when he gave us the gift of his son Jesus on that very first Christmas. And people have been giving gifts at Christmastime ever since.
The three wise men, mentioned in our Matthew passage, were the very first ones—besides God, of course—to give gifts at Christmastime. But why did they do it? Why did they come? What drew these men from their home country to travel on camels across hundreds of miles of desert?
What drew them? It was a star—a star of hope—because these three wise men were star-watchers! The Greek word for “wise men” in this passage is magi. The magi were astrologers; some believe they were priests in the Zoroastrian religion. Astrologers watch the stars; they know their movements; they know the legends attached to each of the heavenly lights. And when the stars aligned in certain ways, these wise men believed that certain legends—certain prophecies—were about to be fulfilled.
These wise men saw a new star in their eastern sky, and they knew, from legend, that somewhere to the west of them, another “star” had been born. These wise men—non-Jewish priests from somewhere near modern-day Iran—had apparently heard a Jewish legend of a leader who would be born under a particular star. They saw the star when it rose in their eastern sky, and they followed it. They followed it all the way to Jerusalem, and then to Bethlehem, where they found the newborn “star”—the baby Jesus, lying away in a manger, and they knew this child was destined for something great.
Something great—but what? Let me paint a slightly different picture for you than the way we normally read this passage. What if those three wise men—wise as they were—couldn’t agree on what kind of greatness this baby’s future held? What if each of them had his own private pack for the babe, certain that he drawn the only correct conclusion from the stars? And what if they argued all the way to Bethlehem about it?
One wise man brought gold. Gold was a gift symbolic of royalty. This wise man saw Jesus as a king—the long-awaited king who he believed would restore Israel to its former state of peace and prosperity.
Another wise man brought frankincense. Frankincense—literally, “pure incense”—was a gift symbolic of deity; this gift said this wise man saw Jesus as God. So this wise man stuffed his pack full of that precious aromatic herb that was used in the Temple, in the worship of the God of Israel.
The third wise man looked farther into the future and packed myrrh. Myrrh was used as an antiseptic and an analgesic—a numbing agent, a pain killer. It was also used in embalming. The gospels tell us that when Jesus hung on the cross, he was offered myrrh on a sponge as an act of mercy, to numb his pain, lessen his suffering. This wise man’s gift essentially foretold, at the baby’s birth, the fact that he would one day suffer in death, and that the death would be a significant one.
And what if the wise men traveled together on this unexpected faith journey, debating about who this child really was, who he was to be, and why he had been sent into the world? They may or may not have come to an agreement by the time they reached the stable door—they may not have settled the question, once and for all, of “What child is this?” But would it be okay if they didn’t? Is there just one way, once and for all, to know Jesus? Can one person know him as king, one as God, one as suffering servant? Maybe later on their faith journey—maybe on their way home—one convinced the others to see it his way. Or maybe not. But they still brought their gifts.
What gifts do we bring to the Christ child? That depends on how we regard him. “What child is this?” At least one of the magi was convinced that Jesus was a king; so he made sure to bring him gold. At least one of the magi regarded him as God; he brought the frankincense for worship. And another somehow had a foreboding sense that this baby would grow up and make the ultimate sacrifice for all of humanity. Hoping to reach far into the future and somehow ease the pain of that suffering one, this wise man brought myrrh.
What gifts do we bring to the Christ child? That depends on how we regard him. And we are all wise men in our own way … aren’t we?
“What child is this?” Is he, to you, more of a friend? That’s okay. What gift will you bring? A faithful heart, a relationship of trust. … A wonderful gift.
“What child is this?” Is he, to you, more of a sibling, a brother? That’s okay too. What gift will you bring? A love that lasts a lifetime, a love that would in fact give its life for the other. … Another wonderful gift.
“What child is this?” Is he, to you, more of a teacher? What will be your gift? A teachable spirit, an inquisitive nature, an attitude that lives by what is learned. … Yet another wonderful gift.
“What child is this?” Is he, to you, more of a provider? What will be your gift? Faithful stewardship, careful use, and generous sharing of the earthly blessings God so richly provides. Still another wonderful gift.
These are all worthy gifts because they are honest gifts. They flow from our hearts; they are symbolic of how we know Jesus today. We may not offer the same gifts every Christmas, because our perception of who Jesus is will continue to grow. But regardless, these are all gifts for the Christ, and Jesus accepts them as if they were all gold, frankincense and myrrh. All of our gifts are worthy to be placed on the altar of our journey of faith, offered up to that little baby, who was born away in a manger on that silent night, holy night, so long ago.
Gifts for the Christ. What will you bring? Amen.