Gifts to God

This is the sermon planned for January 6, 2014.  The scripture reference is Matthew 2:1-12.  Unfortunately the snow, blowing winds, and extreme cold, services had to be canceled for the best of the members.  Therefore, this sermon is available through WordPress only.  Hopefully everybody is safe and comfortable in their homes this January Sunday.

Okay, the tree is down, the gift wrap is gone, returns and exchanges are done, and the last cookie sits untouched.  Christmas is over, right?  Or is it?

Monday, January 6, 2014, is the first Christian holiday in the calendar year. Epiphany represents the journey and the gifts of the Magi, the Wise Men.  The Magi’s story is read as part of the entire Christmas story, but the story is not necessarily chronological.  One major key to the story lies in the gifts:  gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The story of the three kings is filled with mystery.  No one really knows when they arrived in Bethlehem because other pieces of the story can indicate that they traveled thousands of miles, that they could have not arrived until almost two years later, and they may not have originated from the same location.

Tradition says they were men of high position from Parthia, near the site of ancient Babylon.  How did they know that the star represented the Messiah?  (1) They could have been Jews who remained in Babylon after the Exile and knew the Old Testament predictions of the Messiah’s coming.  (2) They may have been eastern astrologers who studied ancient manuscripts from around the world.  Because of the Jewish exile centuries earlier, they would have had copies of the Old Testament in their land.  (3) They may have had a special message from God directing them to the Messiah.  Some scholars say these wise men were each from a different land, representing the entire world bowing before Jesus.  These men from far-away lands recognized Jesus as the Messiah when most of God’s chosen people in Israel did not.  Matthew pictures Jesus as the King over the whole world, not just Judea.  [Chronological Bible:  p1283]

Yet, the story of the wise men culminates in the gifts.

Remember that the gospel of Matthew is the only one that includes the story of the wise men.  The entire story is only 12 verses long, and it references the prophecy of Micah, not Isaiah.

The Lord says,

“Bethlehem, you might not be
an important town in the nation of Judah.
But out of you will come
a ruler over Israel for me.
His family line goes back
to the early years of your nation.
It goes all the way back
to days of long ago.”
Bethlehem was also called Ephrathah.

Add to this reference, keep in mind the book of Matthew was written to convince the Jewish people to accept Jesus as the savior that they had expected.

Sometimes the message of Christmas is lost in the ribbon and the gift wrap that gets wadded up and tossed away.  By the time Advent is over and Christmas decorations are put away for another year, the story of the three wise men is tossed off to the side, too.

Yet, the story includes a list of three gifts that causes one to wonder at the choices:  gold, frankincense and myrrh.  These are three gifts that may not mean a great deal to us today, 2014, but these three choices were clearly chosen with great care.

Gold might still be valued as the most precious mineral on the earth even today.  Gold’s value is a foundation for the global economy and is sought by almost everybody.  Just turn on the TV and you can find shows featuring the search for gold in the Yukon, the Amazon jungles, the freezing waters of the Bearing Sea, and even the historical shows about the gold rushes of the past.  Gold never loses value.

Symbolically, gold is for royalty.  Studying literature, the symbolism of gold usually connects to themes about kings and queens, about hidden royalty, and about lasting qualities or durability.  Gold is a gift for a king, and in the story of the wise men, gold represents the acknowledgement that Jesus is king of the Jews.

Now frankincense is an unknown element to us today.  We do not connect it with a specific quality or a purpose like the ancient citizens of the world did.  Frankincense was typically burned as incense in the temples, a way to lift prayers to God.  For the Jewish people, the expensive incense immediately connected Jesus to God.  The gift was chosen to signify that Jesus was indeed God.

Finally, the gift of myrrh provided a third purpose.  Myrrh was the perfume, the spice, used upon death to prepare bodies for burial.  By contemporary standards, this gift would seem inappropriate for a gift upon the birth of a child; yet, myrrh was so expensive it was valued and protected.  Symbolically, myrrh was the ultimate gift signifying the human quality of Jesus.  Myrrh completed the gift list for Jesus—a king, God, and man.

As Advent approached, the gift giving frenzy overpowered the significance of the Christian season.  Gift giving is a tradition that we humans have adopted to honor those in our lives.  We spend hours and dollars trying to make sure we have just the right gifts for our family and friends.  Do or did we consider the significance of the gift or did we simply take a wish list and check it off.

Surely the Magi did not have a wish list to use; instead they made decisions based on the qualities they knew Jesus was to posses.  He was to fulfill the prophecy of a king of the Jews.  Jesus was born as a human, yet he was God.  The Magi’s gifts were chosen with a purpose so that others may learn who Jesus was.

Matthew is the only gospel with the story of the three kings, and the reason it is included is to convince the Israelites that Jesus was the king of the Jews.  The Israelites were living a difficult life and Herod was someone they feared.  They anticipated a king who would militarily and politically lead them.  The arrival of a baby did not seem to be the answer.  Yet, the story of the wise men arriving with the gifts answered the arguments for some followers.

The Magi’s story may not be included in the other three gospels as it was not necessary for the intended readers.  The Jewish people needed all the proof they could get.  The story is a gift for us too, as we continue searching for answers.

The gifts the wise men gave Jesus give us the answers, too.  Jesus is God, Jesus was a man, and Jesus served as a king in that he was able to change the Old Law to a New Law, one that simplifies life and overrides all other human law providing us the ultimate gift of eternal life.

Have we accepted and unwrapped the gift?

Have we used and shared the gift?

Do we work to provide the gift of Jesus to others?

As we close our service today, our responsibility is to continue giving the gift of faith to others.  The Christmas season is over, but giving is never over.

Whether the wise men showed up 12 days after Jesus’ birth or whether it took them two years to reach Bethlehem, their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh are gifts that answered the question of who Jesus was for the Israelites, and for us, the gifts remind us the value of giving our best to God.

In order to continue giving to God, we are committed to giving our best in Christian love.  We give to our families, we give to our friends, and we give to our community.  Sometimes the gift is of service and sometimes it is our gold.

The wise men followed God using a star to guide them.  We have their story and many others to guide us toward God.  God’s gifts to us are priceless and unending.  Now our responsibility is to give ourselves to God.  Consider this:

After finding Jesus and worshiping him, the wise men were warned by God not to return through Jerusalem as they had intended.  Finding Jesus may mean that your life must take a different direction, one that is responsive and obedient to God’s Word.  In what ways has Jesus affected

the direction of your life?  [Chronological Bible: p. 1285]

Your answer is a clue to how well you have given your gifts to God.

Closing prayer:

Dear Heavenly Father,

The calendar now reads 2014 and we return to routines

filled with alarm clocks ringing and chore lists to complete.

Quickly the excitement of Christmas gifts and family gatherings

fade into our memories as we pack away the decorations.

Keep our lives centered and our eyes on the Christmas star

as we take giving gifts to others, to giving gifts to God.

As the winter chills our bodies, let our hearts be warmed

with learning new ways to give as God gives to us.

May we experience the joy of giving, a sense of peace in our hearts

as God gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit

and the promise of eternal life.            –Amen


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