Think back to your childhood at Christmas and recall the most memorable gift you’ve ever received. Recall the joy and amazement you felt. What comes to mind for you? When I think about my most memorable childhood Christmas gift, I think I’d have to say it was a go-kart my parents got my brother and me when we were about 8 or 9. I’ll never forget, our parents telling us we had one last present in the garage. We walked in with our eyes closed and opened them to see our brand-new go-kart! It was a two-seater so there was room for both of us. Which made it even better that we could share in each other’s excitement. My parents told us they’d needed to hide it in our neighbor’s garage for a week before Christmas, which added to the specialness of it. As we admired our new ride, we imagined ourselves cruising the neighborhood and anticipated all the adventures we would soon have.
Now of course Christmas isn’t just about getting presents, and our culture can certainly get carried away with all the gift giving and shopping. But in spite of all the materialism and shallowness that can accompany gift giving, there is still something special about giving and receiving gifts at Christmastime. Sharing presents with our loved ones. Making children surprised and overjoyed. And sharing gifts with those in need, whether locally or across the world. It’s a special time of year where we’re encouraged to be grateful for our blessings and are reminded of the goodness that exists in the world.
The theme of gift giving actually comes from what we celebrate today, the day of Epiphany. The day that tradition marks the coming of Wise Men, or Magi, who visited baby Jesus. The Bible doesn’t say exactly when they arrived, but tradition celebrates their arrival 13 days after Christmas on January 6th. The day is called Epiphany because “epiphany” means revealing or manifestation. And the day of Epiphany is about God’s revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. Gentiles is the Hebrew word for nations, so it basically means all the peoples of the world who weren’t Jewish. God’s revelation of Christ to the world at large begins with the coming of the Wise Men from the east at Epiphany.
The Magi or “wise men” were religious leaders from Persia. Most scholars say they were priest astrologers of the Zoroastrian religion. Often, they were royal advisers who interpreted dreams and used astrology and other methods to guide their king. Using the stars or any method to try to tell the future was forbidden in ancient Judaism. But it was encouraged in Persian religion. Which explains why the Magi would have understood the stars aligning a certain way to mean a certain thing, while Jewish people like Mary and Joseph, and even Herod and his advisers had no idea about it. The fact that a practice like astrology—which was forbidden for the Hebrew people in the Old Testament—is now being used as a way to connect foreign people with the birth of the Messiah, is an important message for us about how God works to connect all humanity with the Child born in Bethlehem.
In addition to Epiphany being the day God reveals the good news of Jesus’ birth to the Gentiles, it’s also important because of what these Gentiles do for Jesus. The Magi from the east present Jesus’ parents with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. What the Magi give to Jesus foreshadows his life and signify his roles. The gifts represent his role as prophet, priest, and king. The gold symbolizes his kingly role. Frankincense represents his priestly or divine role. And myrrh was a strange gift to give a child because it was used for anointing bodies before burial. It represents Jesus’ role as prophet and foretells his crucifixion and sacrificial role. And the fact that they present these gifts to Jesus is the reason we developed the tradition of gift giving in the first place.
And so, when we reflect on gift-giving and the most memorable gifts we’ve been given, the day of Epiphany calls us to ask: what gift do we present to Jesus? What do we resolve, perhaps as a New Years Resolution, to present to God? What gift can we offer the Savior of the world?
There are many ways we can answer that. We can give God our own time, talent, and treasure. We may not have literal gold, but we can support the ministry of the church or other non-profits with our financial resources. And we can give our time and energy to support different ministries in our congregation. We can live out our faith by telling others how much Christ has changed our lives. Or we can live it out by advocating for justice and peace at home and abroad, following God’s call to live lives of service for our neighbors. We can dedicate ourselves to spiritual practices and intentionally spend time with God in silence and prayer. Maybe make a New Year’s resolution to read the Bible or a spiritual devotion every day or to practice meditation or centering prayer.
All of these are gifts we can offer to God. But they are all reflections of one thing that we can offer, and that is the gift of ourselves. Let us present our very self as a gift to God, to be used for God’s purposes. Without presenting that gift first, everything else I mentioned will just be things we do to gratify our ego. But when we surrender to God’s will and offer our lives to God, and follow wherever that leads, then whatever we offer Jesus will be as valuable as gold, frankincense, and myrrh combined.
And then the gifts we offer become less about what we’re doing, and more about what God’s doing through us. When we devote our whole self to God, God will turn us around and make us a gift to the world. Then our lives become a manifestation of God’s gifts to the world. Just like the epiphany to the Gentiles long ago, our lives become a revelation of how God is active in the cosmos.
Both as individuals and together as the church, let us be a revelation to the world of God’s love and the good news of Jesus Christ. Like the star in the sky that led the Magi to baby Jesus, may the light of Christ shine through us so that it guides others to God. When we present our very selves as a gift to God, when we make that our resolution this year, then all the rest will fall into place.
And any gift we offer to God, we do so not because we’re seeking a reward—it’s not a gift then! We offer this gift out of love and in response to God’s love for us. Because we have first been given the greatest gift of all. Jesus Christ born for us. The greatest gift in history. God incarnate. God with us. Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Thanks be to God for the greatest gift of all!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian, 1/7/2024