The Fourth Gift – A sermon by Doug Schindel, December 31, 2017
At the end of Advent I would think that we are all exhausted from being bombarded with the secular side of the Christmas season - starting with the Black Friday sales, continuing on with “only so many shopping days left until Christmas, and finally the ever so enticing Boxing Day Sale that has now grown into the boxing week sale. All this so we can find the perfect gift for that special someone. And if we look at the post-Christmas sales that someone may be ourselves. I would like to examine a bit of the history of Christmas gift giving, and the specific gifts in our Gospel this morning to see what is MYTH and what is MATTHEW!
We have all heard the story as we have read it in Matthew’s gospel this morning. And I am sure you have heard many sermons that identified the differences between what we have come to accept as Christmas traditions and what Matthew tells us.
Yes, there were visitors from “the east”, but we don’t know exactly where they originated or how many there were. We Three Kings was composed in 1857 by John Henry Hopkins, but has only a base of factual accuracy. Mr. Hopkins chose to add some myth. Matthew identifies wise “MEN”, meaning more than two, but there could have been a dozen. Or more.
Three gifts - check. Wise men arriving along with the shepherds and the angels, maybe not. We read later in Matthew’s gospel that Herod, when he found out he had been outsmarted by the wise men sent out an order that every male child under the age of two be executed. If this order was shortly after the birth, why would he specify two years? The wise men made a long and arduous journey and it may well have taken them almost two years to get there, depending on when the star first rose. We don’t know, but Christmas pageants have all the participants in the stable at once. The important thing to recognize here is not when they arrived, or in what quantity, but the devotion and determination and faith that a small group of Gentile scholars displayed to come and worship and pay homage to a Jewish Messiah.
No matter how many wise men or kings or astrologers or whatever they were, Matthew tells us they brought three gifts. This custom of gift giving at Christmas has grown over the intervening centuries, possibly assisted by St. Nicholas who was a Bishop in the fourth century in what is now known as Turkey. As the story goes he inherited a fortune and was a very kind man. In his town was a poor man with three daughters, so poor that he could not afford a dowry that would attract potential husbands for the girls. Nicholas learned of this and one night he dropped a bag of gold down the chimney of the poor man’s house, where it fell into a stocking that had been hung near the fire to dry. He repeated this for the other two daughters, but was caught in the act by the girl’s father during his third visit. He asked that his secret not be made public, but you can guess what happened. And so the legend grew and the custom of gift giving at Christmas has become solidified in our culture.
What I want to focus on today are the gifts. There were, in fact 4 gifts delivered in this story. Let’s examine them and their significance.
Gold - atomic number 79 on the periodic table of the elements. Conducts electricity, does not tarnish like brass, insoluble in some acids but will dissolve in cyanide which is used in the refining process after the ore extraction. This has led to some huge environmental disasters in abandoned tailings ponds. Gold is comparatively soft, easy to work and has a relatively low melting point which made it ideal for jewelry and other lavish ornaments in the time of Jesus. And therefore it was considered the appropriate gift for a king, even a newborn king. Gold is still considered a generous and enviable gift in any of its many configurations. Possibly the important thing to recognize here is that Gold, as an element does not break down to sub components over time. It has an enduring quality. Maybe this was the attraction for kings and royalty.
Frankincense - The English word frankincense is derived from the Old French expression francencens meaning high-quality incense. The word franc in Old French meant noble or pure. Frankincense has been traded on the Arabian Peninsula, in North Africa, and Somalia for more than 5000 years.
In the Hebrew Bible and Talmud it was one of the consecrated incenses utilized as a component of the services in the Temple in Jerusalem, and can be found in many other scriptures from Exodus to Malachi. And if you care to Google it there is probably far more information than you will need to satisfy your curiosity. Suffice to say it had a long and important history at the time Jesus was born and would have been considered a valuable gift. In Matthew 26 we read the story of Mary the sister of Martha anointing Jesus’ feet and the response of the disciples believing this act of reverence was a waste and the perfume should have been sold “for a large sum” and the money given to the poor.
Myrrh also has a long history in the old Testament. If was used for everything from cures and medicines to fragrances in funeral services. And so myrrh might be considered a sign of what would happen at Jesus’s death as it was also present at his crucifixion and burial. In Mark 15:23 we read And they gave him to drink wine mingled with myrrh: but he received it not. And a little later in John 19:38 we read And after this Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus.39 And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight.
Three very valuable and noteworthy gifts, but what Joseph and Mary would have done with them is left to our imagination. As they were a poor family the gifts may have been sold or traded for food and clothing and other staples far more immediately important to them. The common thread between all these gifts is their temporal value. As the old adage states, you can’t take it with you. Or in the modern vernacular, you don’t see a uhaul trailer being towed by a hearse.
That brings us to the fourth gift in our story.
Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior of the world is God’s gift to us. Every one of us. No one is excluded no matter how undeserving we may be. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11 This gift is foretold much earlier by the prophets. Read Isaiah's words, or if you enjoy good music, go to YouTube, search for Handel's Messiah and listen to the prophecy. Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and name Him Immanuel. God is with us.
There is a phrase used by charitable organization fundraisers that describes the gift they are asking you to give. Money, or possible “financial support” is a more appealing description. They describe it as the gift that keeps on giving. Their way of telling you that by financially supporting an organization like World Vision, one that we are very aware of and involved with, our funds will provide education, for example, education. The people that receive the education will be better equipped to work their way out of poverty, which provides a better life for their children, which does the same for many generations. Truly your gift does continue giving.
I would like to suggest to you that Jesus was “the original” gift that keeps on giving, and giving, and giving. He spent the last years of his short life on this earth spreading the Good News of God’s love, of salvation and of the eternity we will spend with our heavenly Father. And his ultimate gift was that of his life. The gift that paved the way to salvation. But the giving didn’t stop with his crucifixion and resurrection.
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians he speaks of two sets of three gifts from God. Three that are temporal and three that are eternal. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. And then he follows that up with 11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. 13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three. And he finishes the verse with the greatest of these is love. We have all heard many sermons on this passage and many of them focus in on faith and love. We have read today about God’s love for us in sending Jesus to save us. We have also read about the unshakeable and striking example of faith demonstrated by the wise men to travel so far to find the Christ child.
The third gift is the gift of hope, a gift that is so fundamentally and crucially important to our Christian faith. Today is a special day, one that should direct our attention to Hope. It is the last day of the year, or more importantly, the day before the first day of the new calendar year. And every new year brings, for most of us a renewed hope in the coming year. We hope for peace, we hope for an end to hunger, and poverty and homelessness and domestic violence and, and, and. The list goes on.
The word Hope can take two different forms. First, and most common is as a verb. I hope the weather holds for the weekend. I hope I get the new position I applied for. I hope the Oilers get their season back on track. But hope is also a noun and this is where we can find comfort and solace and peace in the coming year. This is Christian hope. Not wishful thinking as in the verb, but sound, supported and real knowledge being the hope we have in Jesus. We don’t wish, we KNOW that Jesus was born to save us, we KNOW that He died for us and we KNOW that He is coming again to take us home. This is the kind of hope that gives us confidence that the other shortcomings of our current global conflicts and politically motivated unrest will eventually be resolved. What better Christmas gift, or a gift any time of the year could we possibly want or even expect to receive.
I would like to close with by looking at a new year's custom, that being the making of new year's resolutions. Some people vow to lose weight, increase their physical activity, eat better and so on. But if we want some guidance from Jesus on this subject we need look no further than the 25th chapter of Matthew, and read the parable of the sheep and the goats. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 35 for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Our resolutions should be more focused on the Lord’s expectations than what we believe might make us healthy and fit. Caring for the poor and the hungry and the naked and the sick and the incarcerated. Jesus used the word prison, but that may not be restricted to physical institutions. Prison may be the confinement of substance abuse and dependence, mental health issues, and chronic depression. In these simple acts of love and charity, actions directed by Jesus, gifts that endure, we will indeed be caring for Jesus, as He cares for us.
Let our prayer be that we will use the Divine guidance God provides to find opportunities to do Jesus’s bidding, to provide gifts of freedom from the shortages of basic human need, and to inspire in us the determination to follow through with our resolutions as the wise men did in completing their journey so many years ago.