There are many phrases that we identify with Christmas. See if you remember them
"And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, goodwill to all." (From the Gospel According to Luke)
"We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him."
(From the Gospel According to Matthew)
"Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings."
(From "It’s a Wonderful Life")
"God bless us, everyone."
(From A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens)
"Now, Dasher, now, Dancer, now Prancer, and Vixen! On Comet, on Cupid, on Donder and Blitzen!"
(From "Twas the Night Before Christmas" by Clement Moore)
"All I want for Christmas is a real good tan."
(From a song by country artist, Kenny Chesney.)
And then there is this classic line: "You’ll shoot your eye out."
(From "A Christmas Story")
Many of you associate Christmas as much with that warning as you do with "When what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer." You’ll either have your eyes wondering or shot out on Christmas. In the 1983 holiday movie, "A Christmas Story," Ralphie is asked by his Mom what he wants for Christmas. It is a no-brainer. He wants a Red Ryder 200 shot Range Model Air Rifle with a compass in the stock. When he tells her, she says, "No, you’ll shoot your eye out." When he has to write a theme for his teacher, Miss Shields, on what he wants for Christmas. She gives him a C+ and writes on the bottom of his paper, "You’ll shoot your eye out." Freaked out by the department store Santa, Ralphie initially says he wants a football, but comes to his senses in time to tell Santa that he wants the Red Ryder rifle, to which even Santa replies, "You’ll shoot your eye out."
The movie is a delightfully funny look at Christmas in the late 1940’s and the joys of giving and receiving. While merchants have capitalized on our desire to give, and have very effectively left the Magi and their strange gifts behind, the fact remains that Christmas is a time of giving and receiving that has nothing to do with Best Buy, Harry and David, Pier One, or Target. It is about God giving the gift of his Son, the Magi giving the gifts of that Son’s destiny, and us giving the gifts of our hearts to that Son by giving to others. And in that giving there is a miracle of meaning that transcends anything we might receive. Even a Red Ryder rifle.
Today I want us to think about four miracles inherent in giving as we see them in the story of the Magi and apply them to ourselves.
- The miracle in knowing.
- The miracle in going.
- The miracle in bestowing.
- The miracle in growing.
The wise men who came from the east were not kings, but Persian priests whose predictions of earthly events were based on astrological observations. Tradition says that often their predictions actually destabilized regimes and rulers. Three gifts are mentioned in Matthew but not the number of Magi. Perhaps only two. Perhaps as many as a dozen. If they didn’t "go-in-together" for their presents, and each one brought one, there would have been three. Tradition from the 6th century, not scripture, preserves that number, and even gives them names: Caspar, Balthazar, and Melchior.
The first aspect of this miracle was in their knowing. Knowing where to look in the night sky alerted them to the birth of a king in Judea. The movements which they saw in the sky would have been unnoticed by others. It was certainly no police helicopter searchlight shining down on Bethlehem like our Christmas cards depict. Whatever sign they saw in the sky would have been as the result of knowing how and where to look.
When I was in college I took what I thought would be a blow-off course pass/fail in the last semester of my senior year: Astronomy 101. The biggest draw for that class was that it met at night and half of it was spent in the planetarium on reclining seats, where you could sleep! I found out that even taking it pass/fail did not make the course a cake-walk. One of the things we had to do was make a "sky chart." Each night we had to go out and plot stars, and over the course of the term we saw the stars move. Actually it was the combination of the earth’s revolution around the sun, its rotation on its tilting axis, and our location in Atlanta, Georgia that determined all of that. But had I not been a "star-gazer" for those several months, I never would have taken note of anything different in the night sky.
Apparently these ancient priest/astrologers saw something that made them certain major changes were coming not just to Judea, but to the world. They knew something of monumental cosmic significance was happening. They also knew that they should be honoring the birth of a holy child with gifts. Knowing what to give was key to the story and has endured 2000 years of re-telling.
One of my strong spiritual gifts is the gift of giving. I love to give. I would rather give than receive any time. And one of the things I love about giving is selecting the right thing for the right person. This year, since we had such a wonderful time on our renewal leave, Kim and I have decided not to exchange gifts. We are claiming our time together 24/7 for a month the greatest gift we could imagine, but...it is driving me crazy! I want so much to be picking out some perfect and special gift for her.
The Magi knew what to give: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Again, tradition has preserved the memory of who gave what and why.
Melchior brought gold, the world’s most precious metal, a gift for a king. Balthazar brought frankincense, a costly worship fragrance, a gift for a high priest. Caspar brought myrrh, used in making medicines and for anointing the dead, a gift for a healer, and one who would die. There was a miracle in their knowing where to look and what to give. There was a miracle in the knowing.
The second miracle was the miracle in the going. They were so certain of the meaning of these things which no one else apparently understood, that they went to Jerusalem, expecting the child to be found in the royal palace of King Herod. Apparently it was two years from the time they first began to note the changes in the sky until they arrived in Judea. (We know this because of the ages of the children that were later killed by Herod’s soldiers: all the little boys two years old and younger.) Who would undertake such a long and complicated path for something like this? Not many! In fact, we can’t even get people to come to St. Luke’s when they are 2 minutes away, let alone 2 years!
What we never think about in this story are the sacrifices and other costs the wise men undertook to travel such a great distance. Perhaps they came on foot. Despite the fact that on our dining room side board we have three wise men each riding a different animal: one on a horse, one on a camel, and one on an elephant, there is nothing in the story according to Matthew that indicates any mode of travel. If they did indeed come to Bethlehem on camels, in their time it would have been like riding in (or in this case, on) a Mercedes. Bottom line, these star-struck travelers invested a whole lot in their desire to personalize their gifts by going to Jesus directly.
The third miracle was the miracle in the bestowing. When they entered the house where Mary and Joseph were staying, they knelt down and acknowledged the baby’s claim on their lives, then presented their gifts. I love the bestowing aspect of gift giving. I am one of those guys who hides presents, like jewelry on the Christmas tree. I put boxes inside of boxes, inside of boxes to disguise the actual size of the gift. I like to wrap and line up the patterns on the paper, making sure a reindeer’s antlers match up on the seam. (Sad, huh?) You won’t find me throwing something into a gift bag and stuffing tissue on the top. If I do use a gift bag, the package will still be wrapped.
The enduring scene we have in our minds regarding the wise men at the manger is one where they are on their knees bowing before the baby. It is the image of bestowal. One of my favorite moments in the Christmas choir concert each year is the living nativity, most notable the entrance of the final king. You know the one. He wears the red cape with the gold trim. For as many years as I can remember Rodger Wunderlich has had that part, and as I have told him many times, the way he bestows his gift; the way he throws his right arm out and bows says all I need to know about the kingship, the rule, the royalty and the rights that baby has to my heart.
And finally there was the miracle in the growing. It is said that after discovering and honoring the Savior, the Magi returned to their homes, surrendered their high positions, gave their property to the poor, and went to spread the Gospel. The apostle St. Thomas is said to have baptized them forty years later in India, ordaining them as priests. They gave their gifts, but because of the knowing, the going, and the bestowing, they were growing in their understanding of God’s amazing gift of his son. They received the Lord’s gift of eternal life because they wanted to give gifts to him.
Tradition says that today the bones of the wise men are interred in the huge Gothic Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, often referred to as the Church of the Three Kings.
So what does this have to do with us? The same sense of the miraculous is still here when we seek to know, go, bestow, and grow as seekers in our own right.
We must know where to find him, and what gifts to offer. We must make the commitment to go where he is, even if he seems to be in the most unlikely place. We must bestow our gifts with joy, not reluctance. And we must be willing to grow in our faith.
Let me tell you how I have seen these four things at work in teenagers in our church family. The Sunday morning "drop-in" senior high Sunday School class began a couple of outreach. The girls in the class are taking primary responsibility for collecting lovingly used prom dresses for disadvantaged girls. The guys started the "Blanket Brigade," and along with several of the girls in the class started to try to collect 200 blankets for the residents at the Homeless Shelter. As of yesterday the blanket total was a mere 500 MORE than that. 700 blankets for homeless people. So many blankets came from you, from neighbors, from Disney, the Renaissance Hotel, and the Peabody. 72 new blankets are going to the children at our UM Children’s Home, 100 to West Orange Christian Service Center, some to Shepherd’s Hope, and 400 to the Coalition for the Homeless.
Our kids experienced the miracle that comes when you seek to know people and what their needs are. You can read it in a book, but you can’t feel it. They knew the homeless on our streets and near the shelter needed blankets even in Florida! Then, secondly, they went to them to deliver them. (Going) Kyanne Miller, their teacher wrote to me, "When we dropped off the blankets on Saturday, I overheard one of the men helping us unload say, ‘Ain’t nobody gonna be cold in here no more!’ I wanted to smile and cry at the same time..."
It was not only the going, but the sensitive bestowing that spoke to that man. Was there any growth for our students who were involved in this blanketing the town with blankets? You bet there was. And it all came about because they simply wanted to give.
So this year, remember that there are wonderful, miraculous blessings that come through the intent to know what someone needs. There are miraculous blessings in going to someone and bestowing gifts as if it were the highest honor accorded to you. (And perhaps in a way it is!) Jesus said, "If you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me. The growth that will come to you as a disciple because of your giving will amaze you.
Ralphie was challenged by his Mother and even Santa not knowing what he wanted for Christmas: that Red Ryder BB rifle. You’ll have to watch the movie to find out how it ends. But the final scene shows Ralphie dead to the world asleep, with the biggest smile on his face. Ralphie was on the receiving end that year, but I wonder what he learned about the miracle of giving. What will we learn?