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The Gifting

Matthew 2:1-12
Lauren J. McFeaters
January 6, 2019
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In some ways it’s not fair for them, to arrive early, on Christmas Eve. The Wise Men travel farther than anyone, so that as they arrive on the scene, like every pageant that ever was, they float down the aisle, walking like brides with that step and a half, step and a half, swathed in vividly embossed robes and carrying in outstretched hands, gifts for the baby Jesus; gifts in glass bottles that had once contained aftershave and perfume.

 

We’ve been awaiting them. The tableau is set. Christmas is complete. Bethlehem can rest. Final pause, long beat, and cut! That’s a wrap!

 

But just when the wise men have been reduced to pointy hats and empty bottles of Old Spice and Chantilly; just when the church is ready to pack up the candles and the Advent Wreath, we receive a final Christmas Card from the Gospel of Matthew.

 

The “Wise Men” have remained beloved and revered on the Christmas stage of congregations around the world. So when we receive Matthew’s Christmas Card, we do not see three mysterious star-gazers, but “Wise Men,” pounding on the door of our church, demanding to see us. This Christmas Card sings out, that rather than being the glittering end of the show; the conclusion to our holy days, they arrive to turn our awe into a staggering joy.

 

So who are these Wise Men? Magi is the Greek word used in Jesus’ time to identify Babylonian and Zoroastrian astrologers. And only in Matthew’s Gospel do these stargazers play a role. We know them as traveling ambassadors, literate political figures, emissaries from the courts of the East. [i]

 

But it is oral tradition, and not scripture that has given them the title of Kings. Oral tradition, and not scripture has chosen their number as three. Oral tradition, and not scripture has given them names and kingdoms: Balthasar from Arabia, Caspar from India, and Melchior from Persia.

 

We don’t even know that they were men. Because, come on, you know the joke “Three Wise Women would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, swept the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts.”

 

Whatever their number or identity, most important to our Gospel lesson is that the Wise Ones are Gentiles. The very first seekers to find Jesus are those outside of the covenant; from countries across the border and outside the Empire. All people will see it together. And his name is Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

 

Yet for all their wisdom, they’re not mind readers. They possess no special knowledge that allows them to travel directly to Bethlehem. And they’re naive. Dealing with stars and charts, their eyes on the world above them, they’ve not understood the likes of Herod.[ii]

 

In his poem, “Journey of the Magi,” T.S. Eliot paints for us a picture of the Wise Men, very unlike the ones we’ve come to know through our pageants and nativities. Eliot writes this in the voice of a Wise Man:

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of year for a journey,

and such a long journey:

the ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

 

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 Birth, certainly, we had evidence and no doubt.

I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different…. [iii]

 

I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different….

 

Eliot has it right. There is perhaps no other biblical narrative that sets before us both the joys of birth and the terrors of death; the delights of a new hope and the despair of the crucifixion to come.

“Birth or Death? I had seen birth and death

but had thought they were different.”

 

A harsh reality for the Christmas season when what we want most is to surround ourselves with family and friends, to keep our children safe; to keep our loved ones healthy, to keep that crèche up, at least one more week.

 

But there it is. If we pay attention and look closely, there it is. God’s Gifting. Tucked into countess nativities and pageants; right there, laid before us, as the Magi stretch out their gifts, lies the true gift himself: our King, our Priest, our Salvation.

 

And like it or not, Christmas or not, he heads, even now, to Calvary. Due north, up the road, and over the hill.

 

It’s a sobering message, this Epiphany. There’s no respite for the Christian. There never is.

  • Always a foretaste of his passion;
  • Always his sacrifice for us at the center of our belief;
  • Always our recognition that the Christian life is not birthed in sweet gentleness.
  • It’s exhilarating and stirring, Yes.
  • Sweet and mild, No.

 

And then I look at this table.

And sometimes I don’t know what to say. Because sometimes it’s too much. Too much Taste. Too much Meaning. Too much Goodness. Too much Truth. Too much Love. God’s Gifting spread out before us. The body broken. The blood poured out.

 

But here’s the thing. Here’s the Truth of it; the Taste of it; the Love of it; the Sacrament of it:

In the face of death,

and all the dark nights of our souls.

In the face of any Herod the world can produce; [iv]

We belong,

not to ourselves,

but to the Gift.

 

In the face of death,

and all the dark nights of our souls.

In the face of any Herod the world can produce;

We belong,

not to ourselves,

but to the Gift.

 ENDNOTES

[i] The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, 10NT.

[ii] John Indermark. Setting the Christmas Stage: Readings for the Advent Season. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2001, 68-70.

[iii] T. S. Eliot. The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1971, 68-69.

[iv] Inspired and adapted from a poem by Ann Weems, “The Christmas Spirit,” in Kneeling in Bethlehem. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1987, 51.