During the week, Nancy Prince works as one of our front desk volunteers and just before Christmas she asked me a wonderful question: “Lauren, what do you see in yourself that is a gift from your father?” Oh my. What an amazing question. My father died almost 40 years ago, and Nancy gave me a gift.
Nancy and I have known one another for many years. Before I came to Nassau over 20 years ago, I was an associate pastor at the Ewing Presbyterian Church, David Prince was the Senior Pastor, and Nancy and I became fast friends – we all did.
During this past week, I’ve thought a lot about this question. Nancy wanted to know more about my father and more about me. She was not asking about material gifts once given, but gifts of character and personhood that last beyond a lifetime.
I answered her that the gifts I see in myself, the gifts from my father are:
- a strong commitment to the positive,
- a dedication to a life of faith,
- a humility to learn from my mistakes,
- and most of all, the gift of laughter.
Gifts to remember. Gifts enjoyed for a lifetime. Gifts to pass on.
What are the gifts you remember; enjoyed for a lifetime; and passed on?
Matthew is the Gospel of Gifts.
And we’ve met the first carriers of Gospel Gifts: our Wise Men.
We see them here in Kate Cosgrove’s contemporary painting, “Nativity Three.” [ii] There’s a full-sweep of the Christmas and Epiphany story. We see a quiet, moon-lit Bethlehem. There’s a stable with Mary and Joseph smiling at the baby. There’s cow wondering where he’s supposed to eat, since a baby has taken his feeding trough.
We see shepherds and an abundance of sheep. We see Gabriel offering good news:
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, which is Christ the Lord.
And we see the wise men edging into the story. The tableau is complete. Christmas is here. Bethlehem can rest. Final pause, long beat, and cut! Amen and Goodbye.
But not so fast. Just when we’re ready to pack up the ribbon and ornaments, candles and wreaths, and before the Wise Men are wrapped in tissue paper, relegated to the bottom of a cardboard box, Matthew tucks in one more story, one more gift, for the 12th Day of Christmas. Let’s un-pack this package.
Who are these Wise Men who wander into Bethlehem? Magi is the Greek word used to identify Babylonian and Zoroastrian astrologers. And only in Matthew’s Gospel do these stargazers play a role. We know them as traveling envoys, literate political figures, emissaries from the courts of the East, three Kings.[iii] But in so much we are mistaken.
Scripture never calls them Kings. Scripture doesn’t say there are Three. It’s not from scripture, but only from oral tradition, that we associate their names and countries: Balthasar from Arabia, Caspar from India, and Melchior from Persia. We don’t even know that they were all men.
Yet for all their wisdom, they’re not mind readers. They possess no special knowledge that allows them to travel directly to Bethlehem. Dealing with stars and charts, their eyes on the world above them, they’ve not understood the likes of Herod. [iv]
And yet, God chooses to reveal Jesus, not through believers, but through Seekers; Gentile Magi; traveling desert ambassadors; Stargazers from Parthia, Armenia, and regions east of Judea. Emissaries, sent to greet new Kings and to offer gifts.[v]
And they were overwhelmed with joy…
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.
Gold – a gift for a King, precious and costly.
Frankincense – a gift for a priest to use in the temple;
so sweet-smelling it provides a sense of mystery and holiness.
Myrrh – a gift for one who is to die, a burial spice,
a fragrance used to embalm.
And there it is. God’s gift, tucked into countess nativities and pageants. Right there, laid before us, as the Magi stretch out their hands, lies the Gospel Gift himself: our Prince of Peace, our Priest, our Salvation. The Gift we remember. The Gift enjoyed for our lifetime and beyond. The Gift we pass on.
And like it or not, Christmas or not, that Gift, our Jesus, takes our hand, and won’t let us stay at the stable. He leads us into a very grown-up world where:
- Faith is tested,
- Injustice must be faced down,
- Sorrow is a companion,
- And illness is everywhere.
And so we follow. Due north, up the road, over the hill to where he demands our trust, our truthfulness, and our devotion.
It’s a sobering message, this Epiphany. There’s no respite for the Christian. There never is. There never will be. Because the Christian life is not birthed in sweet gentleness.
It’s breathtaking and stirring – Yes. Absolutely.
Sweet and mild – No. Never.
And then I look at this table. And I don’t know what to say.
Because sometimes it’s too much.
Too much Gift with too much responsibility.
Too much Taste. Too much Goodness.
Too much Truth. Too much Love.
God’s Gift spread out before us.
The body broken. The blood poured out.
But here’s the thing.
Here’s the Gift of it. The Taste of it.
The Goodness of it. The Truth of it.
The Love and Sacrament of it:
In the face of this baby.
In the face of road to Calvary.
In all the dark nights of our souls;
in the face of any Herod the world can produce; [vi]
we belong, not to ourselves, but to The Gift.
[i] Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV): In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men* from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,* and have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah* was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd* my people Israel.” Then7 Herod secretly called for the wise men* and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,* until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped,* they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On 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. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
[ii] Kate Cosgrove. Nativity Three. Mixed media on paper, 10 x 8 inches. Private collection. 2014, katecosgrove.com.
[iii] The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, 10NT.
[iv] John Indermark. Setting the Christmas Stage: Readings for the Advent Season. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2001, 68-70.
[v] The New Oxford Annotated Bible.
[vi] Inspired and adapted from a poem by Ann Weems, “The Christmas Spirit.” Kneeling in Bethlehem. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1987, 51.
This sermon references “Nativity Three” by Kate Cosgrove.