A sermon based on Matthew 2: 1-12
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 27, 2020
by Rev. Scott Elliott
There are twelve days of Christmas. Most of us are probably only aware of that because of the song that goes on and on listing gifts for each of those twelve days. Today is the third day of Christmas. And in case you are wondering, in the song the gift for today is three french hens, which is thought to refer to foreign hens (in England “french” was funny shorthand for non-English things). But I also found a suggestion it was originally fat hens, not french hens – which makes more sense to me . . . But enough about the chickens, they run “a fowl” of what I planned to be “talon” you in the sermon this morning.
The lesson we heard is about the Magi who brought gifts to Jesus. The Magi are thought by some scholars to represent Gentiles entering into the Jewish Jesus movement. In the story they comprehend Jesus’ Christ-ness from afar and follow a star to pay homage to him as King of the Jews. When they find Jesus, they provide gifts – and then show courage and kindness while protecting him from Herod.
The story does not tell us the number of Magi involved, but tradition matches their number to the three gifts that are mentioned, gold, frankincense and myrrh. So, we have the three Magi–which tradition also claims were kings and wise men, but the Greek word “Magi” doesn’t mean they were necessarily either. While some Facebook posts point out it’s more likely they were women evidenced by their being wise enough to stop and ask for directions, there are actually serious academic works indicating that Magi consisted of both men and women.
Whatever their gender, the Magi are said to have brought three gifts that were freely given with no strings attached. Which got me to wondering if on the Third Day of Christmas I could name three gifts that Jesus gives like that– gifts for everyone with no strings attached. Here’s how I boiled down the question: What about Jesus’ arrival on Christmas ends up providing gifts for everyone with no strings attached?
Many Christians might list John 3:16 as the go-to-answer, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not parish, but have everlasting life.” But most who quote that verse on a regular basis usually make sure to point out it’s not an outright gift since you have to do something for it. Usually, they argue that you must believe in Jesus as God’s begotten son or go to hell. I have preached before that John 3:16 doesn’t say or mean that non-believers are going to hell. I have also mentioned that the “begotten Son” refers to God’s incarnation throughout the world since the beginning of creation – therefore any belief in God incarnate seems to meet the prerequisite.
But the Magi handed over gifts without a prerequisite, there wasn’t a single “whosoevereth” catch. What I wondered as I wrote this was, does Christmas provide gifts like that– you get them without a whosoever believeth or doeth. I am talking about gifts that are just ours unconditionally– like gold and frankincense and myrrh were given to the baby Jesus with no strings attached.
I can name three such gifts. They are all interlaced but have a distinctness of their own. The first gift is grace. It was not until after the first Easter that this gift was fully unwrapped and named, but it was hinted at by the angels on the first Christmas Eve when they mentioned the good news of great joy for all, and peace on earth good will to all. Despite what we might hear elsewhere, when God incarnate arrived with the birth of Jesus, the idea of salvation for all began its gestation and had its birth which the Apostle Paul named grace. Paul, like many throughout history, had this sense that all humans are born in a deplorable state of being. We still hear this today. People were thought to be wretched, so much so, they were unworthy of God’s love. We still this today. Some argued the first sin in the Garden of Eden corrupted all of humanity throughout history with sin. We still hear that today too.
But Paul and other early church founders argued that from Christmas to good Friday Jesus’ unfolding life and death served to alter ANY wretchedness humanity may have had– Christmas began the righting of any such innate sinfulness. Easter proved it. In other words, if Adam’s sin tainted and condemned us by nature, Jesus’ life and death and resurrection changed that and saves us.
That’s grace. Only most of us probably were taught that grace is only for those who follow John 3:16, but that’s not what Paul seems to have taught. Paul is pretty certain that humans cannot do anything to work grace into their lives, it is a God-given gift. Paul saw grace as a gift that no one has to – or can– do anything to receive. Humans can’t get grace by their own works, including work on faith. Faith is a response to the gift of grace; it is not a prerequisite to getting the gift of grace. Grace is the salvation that arrived as a gift for everyone by way of Jesus’ atonement. (His At-One-Ment with God) Basically whatever Adam was thought to have done to mess it all up, Jesus fixed.
The metaphor I often use to explain grace is, it’s a Christ inflated life raft in the deadly “Sea of Sin” and every single human being has been lifted out of the sea and put aboard the raft and is now and forever saved from drowning in that sin. No human is thought to be wretched anymore. As God told Peter in Acts 10 (28) we are to call no one profane or unclean. This fits with Jesus idea that we are to love everyone and tend to least among us, even enemies and aliens and prisoners. While this no-strings-access-to-grace idea may counter some religious ideas of grace that have developed over the years, it nonetheless gibes with Paul’s idea of grace, as well as Jesus’ teachings. It matches up with the Biblical notion that God is love and loves us unconditionally all the time forever. Notice how that also matches up with God so loving the world!
See no matter what anyone may tell us grace is gift that arrived that first Christmas and it has always been free and unconditional. Which leads us to the second gift. If we are ALL saved no matter what, why behave in that life raft? The answer is because it is the best thing, the right thing, the loving thing to do in response to the grace and salvation. The goodness and love in right behavior brings more of heaven to the raft and its inhabitants, saving them all from a lesser way of being above the unforgiving Sea of Sin. Good behavior is evidence of the unwrapping, gratitude, and use of the gift of grace.
And how do we know what that behavior should look like? Well, there just happens to be a host of free teachings given by the man who once was an infant Magi found and honored. That man, Jesus, gave the world the gift of lessons that have never been copyrighted or trademarked. They have always been public domain and free. The gist of the gift is actually now so embedded in how we live that with or without beliefs much of the world aspires to follow them. You don’t have to go to church or read a Bible to know that good behavior is doing to others what you want done to yourself, that good behavior is loving your neighbor and loving your enemy. Good behavior is tending to the sick, the poor, the stranger and the imprisoned, to anyone thought to be the least among us. Boiled down Jesus’ teachings– Christianity– is about being love in the world. It’s something everyone can do and the means to do it are freely given by Jesus. Gratis.
Finally, the third Christmas gift given to everyone with no strings attached is what I mentioned all during Advent and here again at Christmas! It’s that every year an amazing thing happens with no strings attached. The Christmas season arrives and offers hope and joy and peace and love and it makes the world better – if only at the intensity it should be for a few weeks. You do not have to do anything to experience it. There’s more love in the world because of Christmas.
So, on the first day of Christmas Jesus’ arrival gave to everyone free grace, free lessons on love and more love in the world most freely given this time of year. The trick, of course, is to not put those gifts away anytime soon and for us to add more and more gifts of love each day so that there are not just twelve days of Christmas, but twelve months of it.
May it be so . . . AMEN
1. I was inspired by much of this section on grace by Prof. Paul Laughlin’s book Remedial Christianity, Chapter 6.
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