January 6, 2018, The Sunday of Epiphany
“The great gift exchange” that’s what I like to call the Christian celebration of Epiphany. The day of Epiphany is set aside by Christians as the day we traditionally assign to the arrival of the wisemen at the manger of Christ. How many of you exchanged gifts just 12 days ago? Thank the wisemen for that ongoing great tradition. No wisemen, perhaps no gift exchange, so yeah it may seem odd to stretch Christmas into the new year but as Christians it helps draw us back to the reason for the season and the meaning of the gift giving.
So often we do things just because we’re supposed to, sometimes its nice to know why. I remember performing a young couple’s wedding who eventually joined the church. They weren’t especially church going folk before I met them. They had been raised in the church initially but when their parents got divorced that was it. Getting married at church was just something they thought they should do, keep the tradition. But as we talked about their wedding, we discussed what it meant to have a long-term loving relationship. How many things war against it, and how they wanted their marriage to have a better ending than their respective parents first marriages.
We ended up digging into what a loving relationship entails: not just star-crossed lovers but sincere forgivers, commitment beyond convenience, serving and sacrificing over self-centeredness. I asked where in our society can you get a consistent message like that to help build up your marriage? You know what the computer programmers say “GIGO” – Good things In Good things Out, Garbage In Garbage Out. Music, media, sports?
The answer they came to was church. A place where we consistently hear about God’s unconditionally love for us. We’re reminded in the brief order of confession and the sharing of communion of a sacrificial love that forgives time and again. A love that can serve others and still value self.
After the wedding they surprised me and started attending church regularly. I was thrilled when they asked me to baptize their first child and then soon after their second child. As we were coming up to Christmas I said, “My gosh with the kids getting older you’ll hardly be able to fit all the gifts just for the kids under the tree.” Their response kind of floored me. “Oh, it won’t be that hard really. We only allow ourselves to buy each kid three gifts each.” I asked, “Really?!” I knew they had means: he’d been promoted, and she’d been able to keep her career on track despite the pregnancies. They responded “Yes, if Jesus did fine with three gifts our kids can too.”
While there is a lot to be said for following the tradition of the wisemen’s three gifts literally: perhaps folks would avoid going into debt? perhaps the madness and stress of gift giving for children would be lessened? The fact is whether or not you follow the three gift rule- if you exchange gifts at Christmas whether you admit it or not you’re following in the footsteps of the wisemen. So why not take a moment after the Christmas mayhem has tempered off and a new year has begun to take a look at the footsteps we follow in?
First off, they followed a star. Most people scoff at such silliness- star gazing hah! Horoscopes and other such hokum. Yet don’t we still talk about encouraging kids to” shoot for the stars?!”…Disney’s theme of “When you wish upon a star” still inspires, still catches the imagination and touches the heart strings. Historians agree the wisemen weren’t simply scatterbrained stoners doing their wigged out thing but more seriously they were the scientists of their day. If anyone of you ever had to navigate your direction based on the night sky, you’d soon learn how serious and scientific you need to be.
So yes, they are serious, skilled, and scientific but they are also dreamers and hopers. I think that’s an important thing to remember as we celebrate their day so close to the opening of a new year. To follow in the wisemen’s steps, to be part of God’s plan of salvation this year, to discover God active in your world in 2019- you and I need to utilize our God given gifts without burying our heart’s desire for God. God didn’t ask these ancient sages to forgo their knowledge, or skip their skills to be part of his plan. No, God encouraged them to utilize that knowledge of stars and prophecies that they’d acquired, to apply the skills they’d developed in navigation and travel along with the motivation of their hearts to find a king of peace, and a savior of nations. In being willing to combine these gifts of heart and mind, knowledge and intuition, science and spirit these wisemen participated in the greatest story ever told.
We can look back twelve days ago to their ongoing tradition of gift giving and think man that’s great I’d like to have that kind of impact this year. This year it would be great to combine my God given gifts with my heart’s desire for God and glimpse God active in the world.
Yet it’s great to receive a gift but truth be told now twelve days later we’re not so much in the throws of receiving a gift but exchanging the gifts we’ve gotten. The wisemen also started that tradition- they exchanged gifts. Giving Gold and receiving Grace. Giving Frankincense and receiving Forgiveness. Giving myrrh and receiving mercy. While Jesus’ poor family certainly treasured and benefited from these gifts, who got the better deal?
Are we willing to go to God for the great gift exchange? I’ll give you these wonderful parts of my life… God gives eternal life. I’ll give you my securities and stocks… God gives serenity. I’ll give you my science and my skills…God gives a spirit that is strong and still. Can we out give God?! What if our gifts aren’t great? What if our life is just a "hot mess…" God can give us redemption and relief? What if our life is filled with filth and falsehood… God can give us forgiveness that cleanses and truth that frees.
It’s the day of the wisemen. I could speculate for days on what the star was and how it guided and where it stood above that manger bed of Bethlehem but I’d rather encourage us to follow in the footsteps of the wisemen this year. I'd rather encourage us to try to combine our God given gifts with our heart’s desire for God. Then we may be led by God throughout this upcoming year in his light and truth and love all year through.
I could talk for hours on the wonderful meaning of each gift (Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh) and how that fit Jesus our King, Priest, and Savior. But today I just want us to think about the great gift exchange God invites us to. In just moments we’ll be invited to this rail to bow in adoration of the new born king and exchange our rags for his righteousness.
I love the lyrics of a not well-known Christmas carol, one that I’ve become especially fond of. The carol is “In the Bleak Midwinter” and it finishes with this verse
“What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; If I were a wise man, I would do my part; Yet what I can I give him: give my heart.” January 6, 2019! Its Epiphany, the great gift exchange!! Come to the altar bring your gifts and present them to the Lord and remember to take his gifts home with you to enjoy today and all year through. Amen.