What Gifts Shall We Bring?
One of the favourite images of Christmas is that of the wise men travelling by camel through a star lit night. One star dominates the sky as they arrive on the crest of the hill overlooking Bethlehem. The journey is almost over. It’s been a long trip from a country far away in the east. There have been dangers along the way and now they are at the town of Jesus’ birth. There is just a few hundred meters to go. The wisemen look down from the star in the sky to the building lying below its light. This is where they will find the new-born king of the Jews that they had read about in the Scriptures.
This picture of the wisemen is a very popular one on Christmas Cards, and in our nativity scenes and Christmas plays, we place the wisemen around the manger with the shepherds who have come to the stable to see the baby boy.
I’m sure most of you are aware of the fact that these wisemen don't really belong in the manger scene. There are a number of indications that suggest that they arrived quite some time after Jesus’ birth in a stable. Jesus is no longer referred to as a baby and the wisemen found the family in a house. Some have suggested that Jesus may have been 1-2 years old because Herod ordered the slaughter of all boys under 2. Don’t get me wrong I don't have a problem with them being there with the shepherds in the stable. All we're doing is narrowing the actual timespan of events and incorporating Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the shepherds and wisemen into one scene.
I'm glad that the story of the wisemen is told apart from actual celebration of Christmas when we focus on Jesus’ birth, the choir of angels and the shepherds. The arrival of the wisemen has been traditionally part of Epiphany, which is celebrated on 6th January, the 12th day of Christmas. There are a lot of things that we don’t know about these wisemen – like how many there were, what their names were, where they came from exactly, and how far they travelled following the star.
We do know they studied the stars and were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures but Matthew doesn’t give us too many other details. (Matthew 2:10,11)
One of the facts that Matthew does give us is that the wisemen came with special gifts for the new-born king. The gospel writer tells us, "They went into the house, and when they saw the child with his mother Mary, they knelt down and worshiped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him."
Gold, frankincense and myrrh – what strange gifts for a new-born child. A women commenting on these gifts suggested that these men weren’t all that wise after all. If the eastern visitors had been wise women the baby Jesus would have received sensible gifts – baby food, nappies and clothes to replace the swaddling clothes, bunny rugs and even a proper baby’s crib – not a useless lump of gold and two bottles of perfume.
Gold, frankincense and myrrh. Some speculate that these gifts were the principal items used in the wizardry and magic that wisemen from the east dabbled in. So, in giving the Christ-child gold, frankincense and myrrh, they were handing over their tools of trade. They were demonstrating that they were no longer pagan dabblers in magic. They were letting go of the past because they had found a new guiding star – the Christ child.
Others have reasoned that these gifts are symbols of who this baby was.
Gold is a gift for a king. It represents power and wealth. This child Jesus is royal and kingly. Frankincense because this baby is God come to earth.
Myrrh was used in embalming the dead. It indicated this child’s humanity and foreshadowed his suffering and death as Saviour of the world.
These have been popular interpretations of the gifts that the wise men brought, but Matthew doesn’t give us any explanation why they brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. Matthew simply gives us the facts. "They knelt down and worshiped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him."
To us these might seem rather useless gifts but what do you give this child who is the all-powerful God who controls the stars to such an extent that a particularly bright star travels westward and stops over the place where Jesus and his parents were living?
When the Lord of the universe reaches down from heaven and touches the earth, condescends in love to come to us, in the flesh, as one of us, a baby come to do battle with Herod and all evil in this world, what do you give?
When we consider the greatness of the gift we have been given in Christ - the wonder and majesty of it all - what can we give in return? My little offering, my tithe, my yearly pledge seems so puny and pointless.
Even the wisemen with their precious gifts must have realised that their expensive presents were hardly adequate for the child in the manger, the God who has become a human and now rests in his mother’s arms. Maybe that’s just the point.
We, like the wisemen, are simply blown away by the awesomeness of God’s love that led him becoming flesh in a little child. We fall to our knees, and fumble in our purses for a gift worthy of such a gift. What have we to give? God's gift to us is just too great, too wondrous for us to find a gift worthy of return.
What can we give in return? All we can do is, like those men from the east, thrust forward our ever so humble presents yet at the same time the best we can offer: a bag of gold, the fragrant gum resins of frankincense and myrrh.
Maybe that's always the way it is with our gifts to God. All the gifts that we offer in worship - our praise, our music and singing, the words of our liturgy, our bowing and kneeling, the words we mutter in prayer, the church building - the bricks, the glass, the steel and timber, the money we drop on the offering plate just gold, frankincense, and myrrh - small gifts in comparison to God’s goodness and love toward us. All we can do is to offer God the best of what we have at the moment.
This reminds me of that time later, when the babe grew into adulthood, and a woman comes in and extravagantly wastes a whole bottle of expensive perfume all over Jesus. The disciples cry, "What a waste!" But Jesus says, "Let her alone. She has done a beautiful thing, anointing me for my burial."
Jesus is about to make a really extravagant gift on the cross, and so accepts the woman's extravagant gift. The woman expressed her love for Jesus in an unreserved and unrestrained way. What the woman did was wasteful – there can be no doubt about that. Like the wise men she gave the best of what she had. They were in the presence of God who had chosen to reveal himself in a child and they opened their boxes and emptied them, they gave over everything they had.
The story is told of an old professor who visited a past student of his whose first child had been born recently. He presented the parents with a gift for the baby, a book, all wrapped in fine paper, tied with a bow. Imagine their surprise and bewilderment when, upon unwrapping the gift, they discovered that it was a book, a very old, leather-bound copy of Shakespeare's plays.
They thought, what a strange gift for a baby! How odd. An old book, written in archaic language, given to a baby who will not be able to read it for many years to come.
And then they realised: the gift was not the book; the gift was the giver. The old professor had given himself. He had given the child that thing most precious to himself - his own love of language, his admiration for Shakespeare. His gift was an expression of his deepest joy at the birth of the child, his hope for the future of this new human being.
The best gifts that we can offer the Christ-child are the gifts of ourselves. In actual fact, the gold, frankincense and myrrh of the wisemen are trivial and quite useless for the God of all creation, and the saviour of all people. He has all the gold, frankincense and myrrh he ever needs. After all, he is the creator and owner of all these gifts. But as useless as these gifts are for God, they are a sign of the way the wisemen gave of themselves. We are told, "They went into the house, and when they saw the child with his mother Mary, they knelt down and worshipped". Here are these men, learned, wealthy, wizards of the east, non-Jews and probably pagans, kneeling at the tiny toddler’s feet of the true God. Even as they paid homage, they would have realised that even the gift of themselves is something far too small for this king of kings.
What we give to our Lord may seem so trivial and modest and poor, but if they are representative of the giving of ourselves to God, this is our most important gift. Even then this is still so small in comparison to what God has given us, nevertheless this is the best we can give.
A couple of days ago we celebrated the beginning of a new year. As the old year ends and a new year begins many people reassess where life is taking them, and they make a new year’s resolution or a promise to themselves that things will be different in the coming year. This may take the form of looking for a new job, seeking to improve relationships, determining to take a new direction.
Having heard about the gifts of the wisemen, I reckon this would be a good time to take another look at our response to the God who was born in a bed of hay just for us. I’m not just talking about money and what we give on the offering plate. I'm asking, how well have we given ourselves to God in response to his wonderful gift to us?
How readily and regularly have we spent time with God in worship, in prayer, in reading his Word? How readily and regularly have we given of ourselves and our time to someone who needs love and compassion? How readily have we shown that this king rules in our lives by letting him make a difference when we are confused or lonely or devastated by what life throws up? How well have we used our gifts to do our work honestly and well? How readily have we given God, not second best, not what’s simply ‘good enough’, but the best of what we have to offer?
The wisemen went home by another road, we too can walk a different road this year, a road where we can make the king of kings the living, active centre of everything we are and do. The challenge in front of each of us is to make each breathing moment a gift worth giving to the King.
God gave himself to us because he loves us. May his love be reflected in our lives as we worship him with all that we have. That’s our gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The Jesus I Never Knew - Philip Yancey
Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life's Biggest Questions - Timothy Keller
Vince Gerhardy Blog
Epiphany and Other Reflections - Agana-Nsiire Agana
Epiphanies of The Ordinary - Charlie Cleverly
Christ Empowered Living - Selwyn Hughes