Grace Presbyterian Church

A Warm and Welcoming Church

Sermon: Gifts

Grace Presbyterian Church

January 6, 2018, Epiphany B

Matthew 2:1-12

Gifts

Hail the blest morn! See the great Mediator

Down from the regions of glory descend!

Shepherds, go worship the babe in the manger!

Lo! for his guard the bright angels attend.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,

Dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid;

Star in the East, the horizon adorning,

Guide where our infant Redeemer was laid.

 

We know what to do with Christmas. From ginormous choral and orchestral productions to awwww-inducing pageants with children as shepherds, children as sheep, children as pretty much everything to quieter services with carols and candlelight, we know what to do with Christmas, or at least we have a lot experience with doing things with Christmas.

Epiphany, though, is a harder challenge, especially for us Protestants.

Part of the challenge is that, particularly in Protestant and especially in more specifically evangelical traditions, the event commemorated in Epiphany – the visit of the magi, or wise men – has already gotten conflated into our Christmas observance, despite their complete absence from Luke’s Nativity that we read on Christmas Eve. Still they show up – children as magi, or their own special number in the choir’s cantata – on Christmas, so that when Epiphany comes around most people are thinking “didn’t we already do that?”

Thus Epiphany tends to pass little-mentioned. The twelve-day orbit of Christmas collapses into a single exhausted day, or half-day even, and all that remains is greenery in the sanctuary, with one more Sunday sermon with carols programmed by a stubborn pastor. What we awaited with so much buildup fizzles away.

Cold on the cradle the dewdrops are shining,

Low lies his bed with the beasts of the stall;

Angels adore him, in slumber reclining,

Wise men and shepherds before him do fall.

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,

Dawn on our darkness and lend us thine aid;

Star in the East, the horizon adorning,

Guide where our infant Redeemer was laid!

 

This isn’t true everywhere, of course. In many countries of Central and South America, the occasion is marked with great celebration and festivity, both liturgical and otherwise. Beyond the religious observance, “Three Kings Day” is an occasion for its own folk custom. The night before, children leave their shoes at the door, along with water and grass or hay for the three kings’ camels; the next morning, those children awaken to find a present, in gratitude for their provision for the camels, I guess. The day is also marked with a special “Three Kings’ Cake” or Epiphany cake (which is really good), and the final removal of all Christmas decorations.

This may sound cute but remote to us, but maybe not as distant as we think. Nowadays a family that is planning a stay at a resort down at Disney World can, with a little advance planning, ensure that their children can leave their shoes or shoe boxes by the door with the appropriate gifts for the three kings, and find a present waiting the next morning.[1]

Now I’m not sure what would happen if this folk tradition went worldwide, but it might just be that we could learn something from our Central and South American neighbors on this one. Three Kings Day, or Epiphany, does have something to teach us about gifts and giving, perhaps a different lesson than our commercialized Christmas does.

We end up with a lot of confusion about these magi. Even the notion of there being three of them is a confusion linked to the mention of three gifts – Matthew doesn’t tell us how many there were, much less assign them names like Caspar, Melchior, or Balthazar. Furthermore, the terms “wise men” or “magi” are easily misinterpreted, and “kings” just doesn’t have any foundation at all in scripture. Most likely they were scholars, specialists in watching stars and reading signs in them (today we’d call them astrologers, and they wouldn’t be reputable).

Of course, the main thing we do remember rightly about those magi is their gifts. We learn to pronounce odd words like “frankincense” and “myrrh,” we make up songs to help us remember them (like the hymn we’ll be singing after this sermon), we make sure those children in the pageant have the appropriate containers to represent those gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Christian tradition has also over the years spent quite a bit of energy trying to comprehend or explain those gifts. One popular meme on social media makes clear that, if the wise men had been wise women, they’d have been sure to bring more practical gifts. In a more serious vein, much scholarly ink has been spilled to explain why those particular gifts were chosen. Carefully studying Jewish tradition and custom, these diligent students decided that gold was a symbol of the kingly attributes of this newborn Messiah, frankincense of his divinity, and myrrh (commonly used in burial practices of the region) of his suffering and death.

It all sounds good, but of course these magi weren’t Jewish. These travelers probably came from Persia (Iran today), so they weren’t likely to be thinking in those terms. Gold has a pretty strong track record of being precious across many cultures, and in some Eastern reaches of the biblical world at that time frankincense and myrrh were regarded as having medicinal properties. Most likely, these were simply the most precious gifts these travelers could give.

And of course, it matters that these magi were Gentiles – from outside the orbit of Judaism. All of the principals of Luke’s story were Jewish – even if the shepherds were at the very bottom rung of Jewish society. Here, though, Matthew brings in these outsiders as his principal visitors to the child; outsiders, like us (who would, of course, count as Gentiles in the context of this story). More than anybody else attached to the Christmas stories in scripture, these magi represent us.

And what they brought were the most precious gifts they could bring.

Our tradition and popular culture have actually caught on to this at times. Recall the carol “In the Bleak Midwinter,” in which the singer finally resoves that “what I have I give him, give my heart.” Or one might think of the somewhat more secular carol “The Little Drummer Boy,” in which bereft of gold or any similarly precious gem, finally gives the one gift that was really his to give; he plays his drum for him (pa-rum-pum-pum-pummmm…) he plays his best for him.

There are other parts of the story. The travelers’ inept approach to Herod and his resulting raging paranoia (this is what happens when scholars try to do diplomacy, I guess) are a story unto themselves, and the conclusion of verse 12 only hints at the horror to come. But perhaps what we most need to be challenged by here today is the question of what exactly do we give?

The adult Jesus will one day tell his interrogators to “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). We live in a time when an awful lot of folks are doing the opposite. What exactly do we give?

Ultimately the only gift that really matters, the only gift that makes even a little sense to give to this Messiah, is us. Wholly, completely, fully devoted lives that respond to God’s call on us, without reservation or rejection. Whatever it is in the strange formula that makes me, me, and makes you, you; whatever our particular quirks and eccentricities, our oddities and strangeness; this is the gift we give, really the only gift we have to give.

Kneeling, the magi gave what they thought were their most precious gifts. In his poem “Journey of the Magi,” T.S. Eliot wondered if they came to regret that:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This; were we led all that way for

Birth or death? There was a birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.[2]

What do we lose when we don’t give ourselves? What dies in us? What hope, what joy, what meaning and fulfillment are snatched from our lives when we withhold ourselves from God-with-us, who stops at nothing to bring us to God?

Sing it whatever way you want to – what I have I give him, give him my heart! – or sing it another way, as long as you do it:

Say, shall we yield him in costly devotion,

Odours of Edom and offerings divine,

Gems from the mountain and pearls from the ocean,

Myrrh from the forest and gold from the mine?

Vainly we offer each ample oblation,

Vainly with gold would his favor secure;

Richer by far is the heart’s adoration,

Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.[3]

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #152, “What Star Is This, With Beams So Bright”; #149, “All Hail to God’s Anointed”; #151, “We Three Kings of Orient Are”; #150, “As With Gladness Men of Old”

 

[1] Source: https://disneyparks.disney.go.com/blog/2018/01/disneyfamilia-celebra-three-kings-day-while-on-vacation/?CMP=SOC-DPFY17Q4wo1228170103180017C

[2] From Collected Poems 1909-1962 (Faber, 1974).

[3] Words originally by Reginald Heber, altered in traditional handing down; tune from an old Kentucky song as rendered by the Waverly Consort from the album A Waverly Consort Christmas (Veritas D 108831).

 

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