What Happens When We Stop Opening Presents and Listen
Based on Matthew 2:1-12 & Romans 12: 3-8
Given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 1, 2023
by Rev. Scott Elliott
The last time I saw most of you it was the Sunday before Christmas. Two weeks ago! While it’s still Christmas season, it’s also true that Santa’s come and gone and presents are out from under the Christmas tree and unwrapped.
Back in the day when we had a house full of young children, there were lots of presents under the tree and a ton of excitement and wrapping paper to deal with Christmas morning. Like most children, even before Christmas Day our little ones loved to see the pile of presents build up under the tree. They loved to look them over and dream about their contents. We had rule that presents under the tree could only be examined if the paper, tape and ribbons remained in place and unbroken. That rule had to be amended when we discovered the kids slipping a dental mirror between tape and ribbons and with a flashlight reading the packaging sent by unsuspecting relatives who had not yet learned to disguise presents in other boxes as Nancy and I long ago learned to do. I might add we learned to do that before we had children.
I do not blame the kids for their clever detective ploys, as part of our Christmas tradition involves the pleasure of seeing and feeling a wrapped gift and guessing and wondering what it might be. The anticipation of Christmas presents is a part of the season’s magic. The excitement and receipt of presents serves as a re-enactment of our excitement and receipt of God’s gift of Jesus. It also reenacts the gift giving in our lesson. One of the things that makes Christmas so wonderful is that you can feel and experience love through all the wondrous acts we do at Christmas, including giving gifts. As an anonymous seven-year-old put it “Love is what’s in the room at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.” 1
For most adults, it’s not the receipt of presents so much as it is the magic of experiencing others receiving joy and love through our gifts. What we put under the tree brings magic and happiness because thoughtful presents act like “vehicles of love.”2 In other words, gifts are very real, very visible signs of love. The tangible acts of giving and receiving gifts make love visible, and in the process transform the participants who experience it.
The Christmas story is about God’s gift to us of Jesus. And we can see throughout the Gospel how those who receive and accept the gift of Jesus as Christ are transformed; from Mary’s soul magnifying the Lord and rejoicing in the blessing of conceiving Christ to Paul’s amazing transformation from persecutor to proclaimer of Christ, the gift of Christ always changes, those who choose to receive it. Even the Wise Ones– the first gentiles in Matthew’s birth story to encounter Jesus– are transformed from willing to be compliant with the earthly King Herod, to tricking Herod by instead being compliant to God.
In fact, if we think about it, all of the humans in our lesson who personally experienced the presence of Jesus end up honoring, nurturing and protecting Jesus. The Wise Ones give the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh and silence on Jesus’ whereabouts. Mary and Joseph, give gifts of nurture and safekeeping. Each human who experienced Jesus’ presence act lovingly and protect him.
This morning I’m calling the magi “the Wise Ones” because even though most translations refer to the magi as “Wise Men,” the magi may have included both men and women. 3 And I think the term “Wise Ones” honors the original meaning of “magi” as learned ones from the east, 4 as well as both the men and women who first paid homage to Jesus, and the millions who have paid homage to him since. Have you ever noticed that the story of the Wise Ones doesn’t just focus on God’s gift of Christ to us, but includes gifts that others bring to Jesus? Humans exchange gifts with God incarnate, and all of them travel a long way just to do it.
The gold, frankincense and myrrh are three presents my kids would’ve been very disappointed to discover with their dental mirrors – the treasure boxes would have gone over much better. What can young children, including Jesus do with gold, frankincense and myrrh? If we think of them as gifts for a child, the answer is not much. But we should really consider instead how all of the Wise One’s gifts were used by God and what might they mean to us today. Gold, frankincense and myrrh are gifts for royalty. (5) Jesus, the vulnerable peasant baby is treated equal with kings in the story.
Gold is an obvious asset, it’s like gifts of money we give to relatives in an envelope, or like the money we put in the offering plate. Understanding frankincense and myrrh requires a little bit more background information: both frankincense and myrrh (like gold) are not native to Palestine, they are aromatic tree resins that were used in Jesus’ day for religious and healing purposes.6 The Wise Ones are so wise that even before Jesus has lived, died and risen they understood and experienced him to be the King of the Jews and they brought gifts befitting such a King.
But the Wise Ones give Jesus another gift that we usually don’t think about. The Wise Ones seek Jesus out and when they find him the very first thing that they do is give him the gift of homage, they praise and worship Jesus in His house. We are here this very morning doing the very same thing! Like the Wise Ones, we are gathered in Jesus’ house offering homage and the gift of praise and worship– and each week we come here we give that gift.
After paying homage, the Wise Ones open those famous treasure chests and give their gifts to Jesus– gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold is money, and isn’t that a gift that we also give to Jesus? And what a great gift! Without money a family– or a faith community like this church– cannot survive. Mary and Joseph needed money to feed and raise Jesus, to take him to Egypt. The church, this Body of Christ, needs money as well; to pay its bills, hire its workers, pay for building upkeep, pay to print bulletins and help support our many missions and ministries. Money (gold) is a gift that the church as the Body of Christ must have to survive. But, the monies we leave in the offering plate are not payment of a bill or a debt, they are gifts given out of love to the Body of Christ, gifts of joy, gifts of homage. Like the Wise Ones, the gold we offer to Jesus follows our heartfelt worship, and like our Christmas presents to love ones it should be a gift of love, given with good cheer.
Gold, of course, is not the only gift we give with good cheer to the Body of Christ. In fact, it is only one of the variety of kinds of gifts Paul notes that church members can bring to Christ. Here’s Paul’s list from Romans 12:
“We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness (Rom 12:6-8).”
Gold is not the only gift that the Wise Ones offer Jesus, they worship him and give him frankincense and myrrh, those exotic fragrant resins used for religious and healing purposes. Isn’t it interesting that the life Jesus led after getting those gifts was all about religion and healing? And isn’t it interesting that the gifts Paul lists are also for religious and healing purposes? From ministry to teaching to exhortation (that is, advice); to money; to leadership; to providing compassion each are used in the church for religion (they bring us closer to God) or healing (they bring us closer to health). In the same way all of the gifts that we give to the church do these very same things. Our gifts to the Body of Christ are holy and healing things; from taking care of this building; to watching the children; to singing; to teaching; to visiting the sick; to helping the poor; to preaching; to leadership; to administration; to even our gifts of gold, each of these is used by The Body of Christ in the world today for religious and healing purposes.
When we give to the Body of Christ, to the church, we are like the Wise Ones, indeed we are wise to do so, such giving can transform lives through “our alerting people to the universal reign of God” by way of our support.7 We can even see this happening in the lesson that Mearle read so well. After Jesus receives the gifts, God responds by alerting the Wise Ones in a dream not to return to Herod, and the Wise Ones are empowered not only with a direct message from God, but also the courage and wherewithal to heed the warning in an act of civil disobedience to the Roman stooge Herod, the power elites’ earthly imposed King of the Jews. The Wise Ones give the gift of action over and against the oppressive Roman Empire that wanted to kill the infant Jesus, and this gift is truly a gift of life, and it alerts us to the consequences of God’s Reign, where the ripple effect of human action can save the oppressed, who in turn can become the Savior for many more. And it allows other humans in the story to give gifts as well. Once the Wise Ones provide their gift of civil disobedience and leave, God appears to Joseph, and together he and Mary further protect Jesus by fleeing to Egypt.
The Bible Christmas stories are about gifts. God’s gift of Jesus Christ to the world to be sure, but also about humanity’s gifts to Christ and the power that evolves out of them. The Wise Ones give him worship, gold, frankincense and myrrh to help in religious and healing practices. Then the Wise Ones, transformed, are empowered to give the gift of civil disobedience saving the Savior’s life. And Joseph and Mary in their turn give Jesus the gift of birth, nurture and safekeeping. This series of gift giving and receiving is so powerful, it still moves us two thousand years after the first telling. Why? Because the Christmas story at its heart is all about the gift of love. Love for Christ in his vulnerability as a child of God. Love for Christ – God incarnate on earth, including Christ in others. And of course, it’s about God’s love for us.
All of the characters who know Christ act as we would hope to act. They worship Christ, protect him and give him gifts, they act out of love. Today we do this too, indeed we are called to do it for the church, for the very Body of Christ. We give to Christ through all of our gifts to the church, and we too act out of love. Our gifts from God are centered in love. Our gifts to God are also centered in love. Christmas is ultimately about the gift of love. Love for humanity. Love by God for humanity. Love by humanity for God. Love by humanity for humanity. It is very true then that “Love is what’s in the room at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.” AMEN.
* Based in part on a sermon I wrote in 2006, and revised in 2008.
1. This from one of those e-mail “forwards” about what children are supposed to have said about love. The e-mail did not have a listed author and credited this particular quote to “Bobby.”
2. White, James, Introduction to Christian Worship, Nashville: Abingdon Press (2000), 199.
3. Harper, Jennifer, The Washington Times, “A ‘Magi’ Makeover for Three Wise Men,” Nov. 2, 2004 article located on line at www.washtimes.com/national/20040211-121228-7836r.htm.
6. The New Interpreters Bible, Vol VIII, Nashville: Abingdon Press, (1995), 143.
7.Bosch, David, Believing in the Future: Toward a Missiology of Western Culture, Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, (1995), 33.