The Gift Exchange

Sermon preached for the Sunday of Epiphany at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.

Matthew 2:1-12

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem.  They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs,
who will shepherd my people Israel.

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.

***

Have you ever brought someone the wrong gift?

Maybe it looked okay in the store. Or maybe you didn’t really research all that closely when you bought it online. Or maybe you showed up at the party and realized your host didn’t drink, and you’re standing there with your bottle of wine, or that your friend hates plaid, and you just bought him a lumberjack shirt.

Even with the best intentions, gift-giving is a bit of a gamble. Will the person like it? Will it work with their lives, their tastes, their needs?

Even with all parties doing their best to be gracious, it is a supremely awkward thing to give the wrong gift. There is usually a moment of discomfort, even as the giftee—in the gentlest scenarios—musters up the courage to be enthusiastic. You feel it, that moment.

I wonder if the magi felt it too. That awkward moment when they showed up to a working-class home carrying three heavy, fragile, expensive gifts.

It wasn’t their fault. The magi had followed a star, and it stands to reason only the most important newborns get their own stars. They were looking for a king. They’d already looked in the obvious place—Herod’s palace—where their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh would have fit right into the royal nursery. But instead they were redirected, to the backwater town of Bethlehem, to an average house, and a harried mom and dad chasing after a toddler messiah.

I think it must have been awkward, handing Mary more gold than anyone she knew had ever seen, passing a container of fragrant myrrh over to Joseph, his hands covered in sawdust from the day’s work. Such out-of-place gifts in their humble life.

I imagine Mary and Joseph were gracious about it. They seem the type. But I wonder, more, if they weren’t feeling a bit awkward, a bit self-conscious themselves. After all, these exotic strangers had come looking for a king, and all they had to offer was a toddler, who, if I know toddlers, was not particularly glamorous or refined at all.

Because God too, had given God’s people what many of them must have seen as the wrong gift. They were supposed to get a warrior. They were supposed to get a ruler. They were supposed to get a rebel leader. And instead they got a baby, born in poverty, taking the slow road to adulthood with all the other Jewish kids.

The magi, to their credit, don’t seem disappointed. They knelt before Mary and Jesus and were, the Bible says, “overwhelmed with joy.” God’s gift of salvation may have been packaged strangely to their eyes, wrapped up in a tiny fragile body, but they recognized it all the same.

It might not have been the gift anyone asked for, but it was the gift they needed most.

And I wonder if Mary and Joseph didn’t come to feel the same way about the gifts the magi gave them. The Bible never says what Mary and Joseph did with the gifts—whether they sold them off to fund their escape to Egypt when King Herod’s troops came to their doors, or whether they saved them as reminders of just how extraordinary their little boy was—how holy he was. Myrrh and frankincense both had their place in the temple worship, as did decorations of gold. I wonder if each time Joseph and Mary visited Jerusalem, if the sights and smells reminded them that their growing boy was indeed the holiest of holies—God incarnate on this earth.

Traditions have grown up around the three gifts the magi brought. You’ll hear it when we sing We Three Kings—gold for royalty, frankincense for priestly holiness, myrrh for death. King and God and Sacrifice, as the songwriter put it. Three gifts to foretell who this toddler would be as he grew.

So maybe the gifts at this unlikely party, of two poor Jewish parents and several wealthy Eastern travelers, were just right after all. And even more, there was the gift no one bought, and no one sent, but that showed up anyway: spiritual gifts that can’t be wrapped in paper. Gifts that God brought out of the little group gathered in that house.

For the magi, joy: the gift of recognizing something incredible and taking absurd, freeing happiness in it. For Mary and Joseph, amazement: amazement that three wealthy foreigners would seek them out, would notice them, would honor their child. For Jesus, a foundational story. I have to think his parents told him about that day, a day three gentiles came to worship him, a day three strangers came to bask in his presence. I wonder, later, if that story helped Jesus be bold when it came time for him to start ministering to the gentiles in his own land. When it came time for him to die, not just for his own people, but for all who would love him.

There is the gift God gives to us: Jesus Christ, the light of the world and savior of the nations.

There are the gifts we bring to God: time and energy, money and prayer, action and rest.

And there are the gifts God brings out in us: gifts of love and joy, peace and perseverance, community and compassion.

About a decade ago now, Presbyterian pastor Rev. Marci Glass came up with the idea of something she called “star words.” She gave each member of her congregation a star with a word written on it, a word to guide them through the new year just as the star guided the magi. The words range from comforting to challenging, and the selection is random, to let the holy spirit be at work.

The idea has spread to many congregations, and for the last few years I’ve asked friends to draw star words for me. This past year, 2018, my word has been dare. I am not, as a rule, a daring person. I tend toward cautiousness, calculation. But I put that word up on my office bulletin board, and when I have been too hesitant, too fearful, too reluctant this year to trust God and what God might be asking of me, I have only needed to look up. There have been choices I have made this year that were certainly daring, as far as my own comfort level goes. And in every one, I have felt the work of the spirit in me, guiding me on.

Each of the two baskets on the little tables in front of you has a star word. No two are the same. After you receive the bread and cup at communion, you are invited to take a star word. Notice I said take, not choose—let the Holy Spirit work through the word you happen to pick up. As you ponder the word you receive, ask yourself these questions: what gift might the spirit want to bring out of you this year? What comfort might the word have to offer? What challenge? How might it inspire, confront, transform you?

I encourage you to keep the star somewhere visible, whether that’s on your bathroom mirror, your car visor, or cut out and stuck in your wallet. Somewhere where you can be reminded of God’s guiding light through all the ups and downs this year will inevitably bring.

The word may feel awkward at first. Some of our younger wise ones may have to look theirs up in the dictionary. Your word may feel like it doesn’t fit you, or you don’t fit it. But like the magi, like Mary and Joseph, like the people of Israel, sit with it a while. See if it might just be the gift you need.

God’s gifts in our lives are many and varied, some as tangible as a brick of gold, some as ethereal as a surge of joy. And some we might miss entirely, if we don’t know to look for them. So in 2019, follow the magi, and look. Look, find, and go home another way.

And let the Spirit guide you.

Amen.

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