Giving a gift is supposed to be fun thing, an easy thing, and an enjoyable thing, but if you talk to people and catch up people about how their Christmas was – at least in my experience – if you talk about this long enough, you will get to the point where one of you finally share how stressful the season can be and, in particular, how one of the most stressful aspects of the season is shopping and buying gifts.
Every family embodies the stress differently: Some families give gifts to everyone and there is some stress related to making sure everyone’s gifts are equitable. Some families draw names trying to avoid some of that stress. Some people complain because their families are too cheap…Some people – and this is true – complain because their families are too generous…
So different families are different, and people are different, but in the end, the thing that all of our shopping and gift giving has in common is that when we buy a gift for someone we hope they will like it and we can’t be sure they will – we dare to hope for that smile to burst forth on their face that signals their delight…and we experience stress because we don’t know if that will happen.
I wonder if the magi were stressed out as they travel to meet this new king – hoping that the gifts they picked out for him will go over well, but not knowing for sure if they will. I think they may have been, because we get stressed out even when we know the person we’re buying a gift for pretty well.
We often have an idea of who the person we’re giving a gift to is and what they like and don’t like, and yet we still worry – but in the case of the magi, they don’t know this new king they’re going to see, they’ve never met him, they don’t know his family, they’re from a vastly different culture with vastly different expectations…
So, maybe they are feeling the way we feel when we finally tie the bow and write the nametag of the gift we’re giving…maybe they are also feeling hopeful as they follow this star through the dark nights and bright days, on and on, as it takes them further and further West.
We probably have a pretty positive reaction to the figure of a “magi” at this point. Matthew has certainly made them the heroes, but Hebrews who were hearing this story for the first time would’ve thought about them as unclean pagans, people who worshiped wrongly, heretics, and people who looked to the stars for signs rather than the God of Israel. And in that way, their inclusion as the heroes in this story of the Nativity would have been shocking and uncomfortable.
In the Bible’s colorful collection of books with their wild casts of characters, people called “magi” appear only in this one scene.
The word magi can be translated as scholars, astrologers, magicians, or wise men (as it is in the NRSV). They were fortune-tellers, palm-readers, dream-interpreters, pagan priests, Gentiles and not Hebrews who had certain knowledge related to the skies and how to interpret them, the person who picks up the phone when you call the psychic hotline, they authored little books to be sold in the grocery store isle that included horoscopes and advice…
…they could be called many things, but in the end, they were people who followed stars.
The magi come from the Far East, from Persia, following a very bright star – and they’re completely unclear about the situation they’re walking into…they don’t know the right gifts to bring to this new king and, in fact, they don’t even really know where they’re going.
First, they go to Jerusalem, not Bethlehem where the baby is. They probably knew enough to be aware that Jerusalem is the capital city and so they assumed that the new king would be born to the current king – probably assuming that the child they are looking for will be King Herod’s child – because that’s how new kings are usually born!
But when they knock on King Herod’s door asking after the new king they find Herod white as a sheet to hear this news. And so, Herod gets his scholars hard at work to figure out what’s going on and they are the ones that consult the scriptures and send the Magi on to David’s city – to Bethlehem – where the Messiah is to be born.
Herod is interested and not because he wants to worship a new king and hand over his crown, but because he wants to put this child to death and secure his own crown and he will do what he can to try to make this happen and so he sends the magi on with instructions to find the child in Bethlehem and return to him with news…
When the Magi arrive in David’s city and find the child and they kneel before Jesus and find themselves overwhelmed with joy.
They are filled with gladness and great joy and a smile bursts forth on their face that signals their delight, and they are overcome with joy at seeing Jesus with his mother. Somehow, they know that the only correct response to being in this child’s presence is to fall on their knees and bury their faces in the ground.
And they get up and give these three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh…gifts that tell us about who Jesus is.
Gold is for a king… Jesus is not the kind of king the world is familiar with. Not a king like Herod who brings death but a king who brings life…a king who brings God’s love to us which is more valuable than any precious thing we might have or be given or be able to unwrap.
Frankincense for the deity… Jesus is a man but he is not just a man. Jesus is God’s Son and Lord of all creation, and not just Israel. In Jesus the mystery of God is made known. That gentiles have been invited into the covenant with God.
Myrrh for death… already foreshadowing that Jesus is the king who came to die for us…who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life away as a ransom for many.
And, having given their gifts, the magi get up and go home by a new road.
The story of Epiphany is OUR story. It is our name. It is who we are. We are people who were far off but have been brought close to God. We are the ones who have received the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and the ones through whom the wisdom of God has been made known, because even our rich variety are one people.
Like the magi, we are included in God’s family through God’s gracious initiative. We have heard the gospel of God’s love and have been invited to fall on our knees and worship and give our gifts.
We might wonder, what gift do you give to your savior? How do we respond to God’s goodness?
This past week I was working in the office at my computer with the door open. Bruce Garringer came in and I stopped working and we were talking and he just happened to mention he was hanging out and waiting for someone to come in and sign a check. They had written a check to the Brighten our Light campaign but they had forgotten to sign it.
We talked a little more and then we heard the door to the main office open and he excused himself from our conversation and walked down the hall. I heard a woman’s voice, I don’t know who it was, but she said, “I can’t believe I forgot to sign the bottom of the check, I’m just not used to writing such big checks and I think it got me a little shaky.”
Everything we have been given belongs to God and we’re entrusted with it, to be sternwards of it and to use it for his kingdom and his work. That will make you a little shaky.
Almost two years ago now our long-range planning team read this story – the Epiphany Story – imagining that from it, we would gain some direction and leading from the Holy Spirit about what God is calling us to do and to be in the world in this time.
We talked about giving our treasure for him, we talked about following him, we talked about worshipping him…this story and the magi being brought from far off into the very presence of Christ, helped us discern “Walk the Journey, Worship the Christ, Witness with Joy.” Because we know we are now on a new and different road because of Christ.
The most powerful part of the conversation around branding and mission statements, and identity came when we were working on the logo of the star.
There were about 10 of us, we respectfully disagreed about the width of the star, about the proportions of the star, if the main use of the logo should be dark on light or light on dark, but what we all agreed on from the beginning, what was never in doubt, was that our star be the cross.
In the end, this is the symbol that signals God’s love for us that burst forth in delight as he reaches out to those who seek him and those who stray and those who are lost and searching.
We are called to follow the cross and live in the light it brings to us and to the whole world. God is with us in the stresses and strains and suffering times of our lives and he will be faithful to his promise to lead us.