The Gifts of Christmas
I was looking at Facebook a few days ago and I came across a funny meme. It was a cartoon depiction of the nativity scene. There was the baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and there were three people bearing gifts. The caption at the bottom read: “After the three wise men left, the three wiser women arrived.” Each of the wise women announced their gift as they gave it. It wasn’t gold, frankincense, myrrh, but fresh dippers, casseroles for the week, and wine.
That’s certainly more practical. I like practical gifts. This year I asked for socks for Christmas. I hope I get some, because I really want some, and I’ve been particularly good this year.
A child once wrote Santa a letter that read: “Dear Santa, There are three little boys who live at our house. There’s Jeffrey, who’s two, and David, who’s four, and there’s Norman, who’s seven. Jeffrey is good some of the time, David is good most of the time, and Norman is good all of the time. I am Norman.”
I feel just like Norman—most of the time. But periodically I have lucid moments when I see myself and am forced to confess that I’m better than I was, but I’m still not all that good. I “fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23), which means I don’t reflect the image of God as I’m supposed to. I was created to be a mirror that reflects the bedazzling wonder and holiness of God, but I need a dust rag and some Windex.
That’s the truth of the matter. And so… thank God for Christmas! Last week we heard the angel tell Jospeh: “Mary will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Thank God for Jesus!
If you have your Bibles, please turn to Matthew 2, we’re going to finish our Christmas Story series, by considering the story of the wise men who visited Jesus when he was a wee laddie.
Matthew 2:1–12, ESV
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:
“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
The Truth Sought
I want to draw your attention to the beginning of our passage:
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men —those are the Magi— from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matt 2:).
If you were King Herod and some folks knocked on your door asking for the King, what would you do? “I’m the King; what you talk’n about, Wills?” Herod was nervous over his throne.
But the wise men, the Magi, which means ancient astronomer, are standing there. These blokes aren’t astrologists; they don’t think the stars tell anything about personality traits or fortunes. Rather, they’re astronomers, the educated philosophers from Babylon, modern Iraq, and they understand that God placed the stars in the sky to tell the times and seasons.
They’ve noticed a massive convergence, a great alignment of stars or planets, and realize that a very important time had come. So they started their 300 miles long walk with a caravan of servants and animals. A long walk with lots of stuff to ensure survival; they were probably gone from home for the better part of a year.
And when they arrived in Jerusalem they have a simple question: “Where is he? We’ve seen the astronomical alignment, which burns in the night sky as one big notable star, so where is the one of whom the prophecies foretold? We’ve seen the sign; it’s right time. We’ve come to worship.”
Think about that… They’ve traveled some 300 miles to worship. Sometimes we have difficulty making 3 miles to the worship service. Why do you imagine that is?
I’ve been thinking about it and I think it’s because we’re already worshiping. See… the word “worship” comes from the old English word “Worth-ship”, meaning to “give something its worth.” To honor something; to declare it’s worth.
We worship with our words and voices, but we also worship with our activities, the things that we allow to control our time, our agenda, our calendar, and thereby our minds. Do you want to know what has control over you? Think for a moment about what fills your schedule. Then think about all the thoughts you have, include even the awful thoughts you have that you “cannot even say … out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish” (Anne Lamott). Then, look beneath them, and ask this question: “What do they suggest that my focus is on, what am I really concerned with?”
When you say, “‘This’—whatever it is—is worthy of reorder my life around: my agenda, my calendar, my finances, my words, my thoughts, my actions.” That thing you’ve identified, that thing is what you’re worshiping.
The wise men had their lives reordered. They put aside their plans for the week, for the season, for the year. They traveled through heat and cold, through land filled with bandits. They were willing to pay the price of finding Jesus. Why? Because he was worth it. This king was worthy of having their lives reordered for.
Why … Why allow your life to be reordered for Jesus? I’m not sure if they grasped it or not, but sometimes we’re gasped by things. Sometimes we know things subconsciously. We aren’t even aware that we know, but something is just right, and holy, and true. Somehow, even if they didn’t know, they knew, they know that this one who was born was God with us: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (Matt 1:23).
The Magi gave Jesus that place of importance because he was truth—the truth about us and the truth about God. Winston Churchill said, “People occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened.” May the Lord keep us from hurrying off.
The Thrill Caught
When I was living in the Philippines as a missionary I encountered some strange things. At least they were strange for me. One night I got up from bed and walked to the kitchen to get something to drink and I suddenly turned on the light. What I saw shocked me, made me scream, and run from the room. The light revealed about a dozen small lizards as big as your hand who were scurrying for cover. I marched back in a few minutes later looking like Dan Aykroyd in The Great Outdoors, ready to exterminate those creatures.
King Herod’s reaction was similar when the Magi showed up. He was disturbed. In fact, he was so disturbed he assembled a party to help him get the idea of another kind out of everyone’s head: “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born” (Matt 2:3–4).
I want you to understand that King Herod was a cleaver, crafty, and cruel man. He was also half Jewish. He didn’t have a royal lineage, but descended from slaves. And so he was never approved of. But he was a shrewd politician who had stolen the throne of Israel. The guy was a paranoid neurotic. He killed his own mother, several of his sons, and his son-in-law because he thought they were a threat to his throne. That’s Herod the Great.
Herod is enthralled with Jesus. He’s preoccupied with Jesus. He wants to find Jesus… not to worship him, but to exterminate him. Jesus is just another lizard on the wall to Herod.
And, ya know, Jesus is often a treat to us too…
Ever been knocked over with stress? Ever been overcome by anxiety? Ever had your mind race so that you couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, couldn’t carry on a calm conversation?
In one of the Charlie Brown comic strips Linus and Charlie Brown are talking together. Linus says, “I don’t like to face problems head on. I think the best way to solve problems is to avoid them. In fact, this is a distinct philosophy of mine. No problem is so big or complicated that it can’t be run away from!”
Ever thought like Linus? Not to many problems are solved that way, are they? No… they still bother us. Some of us don’t like that feeling, so we vow to get control of the situation and everyone around us feels that, don’t they?
Many of problems in your life can be traced to the root issue: You want to be king over your own life. What this means is that you want to worship yourself. But there’s only one king, and he alone claims your worship.
Herod didn’t want to give up power, so he gathered more intelligence from the Magi, then sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him” (Matt 2:8). Yeah, no… not worship—Herod want’s to wipe Jesus out, infanticide. In fact, Herod ordered the killing of every child under the age of two.
But look at what the Magi did… “After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him” (Matt 2:9–11).
These guys wanted a king. They were thrilled with Jesus. None of the other scribes and priests wanted to go find the new born king. The scribes and priests were full of religion… they knew the scriptures; they knew the facts; they knew the plan of salvation, but they didn’t know the man of salvation—they didn’t know Jesus, they didn’t want to. Without Jesus no one ever is taken up with the music and melody of salvation.
Wise men are thrilled with Jesus. When they get a glimpse of him they rejoice “exceedingly with great joy” (Matt 2:10).
Has that ever happened to you?
There was a tradition in my home growing up. When we’d go off to bed on Christmas Eve, Santa would come and eat the cookies and drink the milk that we left for him, and he’d leave an unwrapped present in the middle of room for my brothers and I. When we got up on Christmas morning, we’d race to tree. From our family room came a sound of joy that could be heard down the block. Leaping and dancing and shouting. What our eyes saw, filled our hearts with song so loud that a deep echo could be heard: “It’s 6 o’clock in the morning—go back to bed! No one is coming out of their room until 8!” my father said.
There are 330 prophecies in the Old Testament about the Messiah, the Christ. The odds of all of them coming true is 1 in a septillion. That’s one with twenty-one zeros after it. And the Magi have found the one. They were thrilled. They sang and shouted and no one told them to go back to bed and wait until 8.
The Gifts Brought
I imagine them being so thrilled that they looked into their saddlebags and pulled out the most precious things they could find, something that would be a sacrifice to part with, and they offer those things to King Jesus with joy.
Ya know, sometimes we give things to people and we’re really rather proud of ourselves: “I have what you need. I’m going to give it to you, and you’re gonna thank me. Then I’ll smile and feel valuable.” It’s like a little kid at a birthday party who asks ten times, “Did you like my gift, did you really like my gift?” What’s that kid after? He’s confused. He’s gone to a party thinking he’s there to get something.
Meeting Jesus makes exterminates the confusion. You don’t have anything he needs. You don’t have anything that will indebt him to you. When you meet Jesus you meet him with all of your sins hanging out like an untucked shirt. The woman who was caught in adultery met him like that. And so did Peter the denier, and Paul the persecutor. When you really meet Jesus you realize that he loves you as you are, but he loves you too much to leave you that way. By the way, that alone will make you feel valuable.
And that’s when you stop trying to wow him with your gift. All you can give is worship. All you can do is to declare his worth to you.
Over the years a lot of ink has been spilt trying to parse what the meaning of the Magi’s gifts. Here is what I think is the most insightful: Gold is a kingly gift, signifying wealth and rulership. Frankincense, is a priestly gift. It was used for burning and anointing in the temple. And myrrh is just a really odd gift for a new born. You should give it to your great-grandma because its a spice used for embalming. But maybe it was signifying that Jesus was born to suffer and die so he could be the king of your heart.
All of these gifts were useful to long-haul travelers. It would have been a sacrifice to part with them.
As you prepare your homes for Christmas this year, prepare your hearts too. You do that by remembering why Jesus came, and offering him your gifts of worship. Think along the lines of Magi’s gifts:
Begin with your myrrh … your death: “Lord Jesus, I fall short of your glory; yet you bore the consequences for me. I trust you. Accept me now as your child.”
Come with your frankincense … “Lord, there’s no good in me that’s not mixed with evil, but you have washed me clean. Accept now the intentions of my heart and the works of my hands. May they be as incense, a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to you.”
And finally give your gold… “Lord Jesus, I’m yours. You’re my master and God. Direct my life, lead me in days before me. Transform me into your image, for your honor, and to the praise of your glory alone.”