Carissa and I are usually successful at the things we try. We come from families where a lot was expected of us, and we’ve both gotten used to those high expectations. Therefore, when we’re given a challenge, we tend to conquer it. Now, of course, this can lead to conflict in a marriage, when one of us thinks one thing and the other one thinks the other. But… well, those are stories for a different day. See, since we’re both used to succeeding, we usually figure that, when we put our heads together, there’s no way we can fail. Until, that is, this Christmas.
As many of you know, Carissa and I host our family Christmas; both her side and mine come together to laugh, have fun, eat ludicrous numbers of cookies, and play silly board games. It’s a great time. But of course, we eventually get to the present opening. Carissa and I were struck with a crisis of conscience: we just don’t need that much stuff. Yet, here it comes, every Christmas: more stuff. So we started to try to come up with alternatives for our family: drawing names, charitable giving, even the radical idea of no presents. None of it would fly with our families. I don’t know; maybe we’ll get them next year.
One of the reasons we were so struck by the amount of stuff we get is this: I couldn’t tell you all the things I got for Christmas. It was less than two weeks ago, and I wouldn’t be able to say. Isn’t that kind of sad? People go to all this work to find things for you, and in less than two weeks, you can’t remember. In fact, you might even be better at remembering what you’ve given than what you’ve gotten. On the one hand, maybe that means that you’re a good and thoughtful gift-giver; on the other hand, maybe everyone else is as thoughtful as you are, only you just can’t remember because it’s just too hard. If you’re like me, that makes you feel all kinds of guilty, as if you’re somehow a bad person for not remembering what other people gave you.
Well, gifts are at the center of the Epiphany story. Every year, on January 6 (the twelfth day after Christmas – thus, the song about all the birds and the days), the season in the church year changes from Christmas to the season of Epiphany. Epiphany celebrates the magi giving their gifts to Jesus. Now, the first Sunday after Epiphany is traditionally “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday, in which we remember Jesus’ Baptism. Traditionally, in my time here, I’ve alternated which of these passages I preach on, so this year it’s those wisemen – the magi – bringing their gifts to Jesus.
This is a well-known story, right? So let’s start with a couple of pieces of information that you may not know. The name “magi” is related to the word “magician” in English, and based on their star-gazing habits probably means the word we would use in English to describe them would be “astrologers,” rather than wisemen – but that’s speculation, so I prefer “magi.” There is certainly no evidence that they were kings (even though, yes, we will sing the “We Three Kings” song later). “Magi” is the plural form of the word “magus,” which means that there was more than one, but we don’t know how many there were. Traditionally, people say there were three because there are three gifts given in the passage: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. However, nowhere does the passage say how many there were. In fact, they didn’t all have to be men, either. Plurals in the Bible for groups of people take on the masculine if there is a group of men, the feminine if a group of women, but in a mixed-gender group, the plural takes the masculine. So all we know is that there were at least two magi, and at least one was a man, and that they were fortune-tellers, magicians, or astrologers.
The gifts they offer Jesus were also gifts of great significance. The gold represents kingship – obviously. Kings are often adorned with gold. Jesus is the King of all the earth, so of course they gave him gold. But why frankincense and myrrh? Well, these are two naturally-occuring things in nature known for their smells. Myrrh was usually used as a perfume, but was most often used in the ancient world as a brial preparation (to help keep bodies from smelling). Many commentators have noted that this was probably an allusion to the fact that Jesus would one day have to die. Frankincense was (as you may have guessed from the latter part of the word) a type of incense. So it is also associated with smell. Typically, it was burnt with sacrifices – again, noting the fact that Jesus was going to have to sacrifice himself.
But of course, this passage is not just full of interesting historical facts about strange words like “magi” and “myrrh” and “frankincense.” When we read this passage as Christians, we are invited to ask ourselves about our own giving: what do we give to Christ?
As I said at the top of the sermon, it’s often easier to remember what we’ve given than what we’ve received; yet, in one relationship, it seems to go the other way. God has given us so much, and it’s easy to be thankful for those things when we give ourselves a moment to think to do it. We have people who love us, a world that continues on rolling, in spite of our best efforts and our conflicts; most important, we have the very gift of Jesus himself and the promise of eternal life he gives to all of us. But if we ask ourselves what we’ve given? Well, that often takes a little more work.
Of course, we have many opportunities to give. We have the chance to give financially to the church, of course. We all have gifts and talents we can give, too: gifts of art, or music, or friendship, or the ability to speak, or the ability to listen. We all have the gift of time, and we can (and should!) give generously.
In the New Year’s season, people often make resolutions about how this year will differ from the last. Why not consider how your gifts to God can be different in 2018? Perhaps you give already; then the question mes, “how do I give more?” The church will undoubtedly appreciate the ways in which you choose to give to honor God.
Yet, I’m most struck by one thing; the final verse from a hymn we sang last week. It’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” #196 in the hymnal. It’s a slow, almost sad-sounding Christmas song, but it’s one of my favorites. In it, we ask (through the words of the songwriter), “What can I give him (meaning Jesus), poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wiseman, I would do my part. But what I can, I give him: give my heart.”
Brothers and sisters, in 2018, let us embrace what the magi did, and give gifts to Jesus; not just at Christmas, but all year. So find your financial resources, and give. Identify your talents, and give. Find the little moments of time, and give. And where you give already, give more. But most important of all, whether you can give some, or any, or all of those things, you can give your heart. So give it – the whole thing – to Jesus. When you do, all the other giving becomes that much easier, and that much more rewarding! Amen.