Monday, December 21, 2015

A Lesson in Gift Giving

Matthew 2: 1 - 12

      After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written:" 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.' " Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him." After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Opening Prayer

Come, Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove; descending on us, reveal your love. Word of God and inward light, wake our spirits; clear our sight. Surround us now with all your glory; speak through me that sacred story. Take my lips and make them bold. Take hearts and minds and make them whole. Stir in us that sacred flame; then send us forth to spread your name. Amen.

We all love getting gifts. The gifts I love getting most are handmade gifts. They are just a bit more personal than something bought in a store or a gift card given. My most treasured gift is this blanket. The friend who made this is an artist. Knowing her makes me appreciate the statement, ‘starving artist’. For most artists there is not a lot of money. What makes this gift mean so much to me is it comes with the label of sacrifice. She sacrificed time, materials and money to make me this gift and never expected anything in return. Knowing the sacrifice that people make to give the many handmade gifts I have received over the years makes them all that more precious and greatly appreciated. We can look to the Wise men and find that they sacrificed too. I want us to look at the gifts they brought the Christ child, and learn what is required of us when we give gifts. We will then consider how great a sacrifice we the church are called to make, not just at Christmas, but year round.

The first gift mentioned in scripture is Gold. Gold is a gift for a king.  By this gift we know that Jesus is our King. His kingship is different though. Jesus is to reign by love, not by force and to rule not from a throne but from a cross. When we bring any gift to Jesus we must submit to Jesus before we can be friends with Jesus. In the same vain Ephesians 5:21 says we are to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. What does that type of submission look like? In John 13 we find Jesus having his last meal with the disciples before he is to be crucified. What he does is give us an example of submission and being a servant to others. Here we have a basin and pitcher. 

This is to remind us of two things. First, the time Jesus washed his disciples feet and secondly that we are called to do likewise, to wash each other’s feet. Let me ask the first of three questions that we will revisit later. How can we submit to one another when we are filled with hate, fear or indifference towards others?

The second gift mentioned in scripture is  Frankincense. Frankincense is a gift for a Priest.  By this gift we know that Jesus is our Priest of all priests. In the Latin priest means bridge builder. Jesus is a bridge Builder between us and God. As Christians our gifts to each other should shine a light on Jesus as our bridge builder. To do this we must resist fear of others and love everyone so Jesus can continue to be the bridge between us and God.  This Advent wreath reminds us that within every believer there is a light, a light that comes only from God. 

By loving our neighbor we shine a lite on Jesus for others to see. So how do we know we are to love each other? Ephesians 4:32 says to be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. In John 15:12 Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. And finally in Luke 6:31 we read, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." The 2nd question I have for you is, How can we give gifts of love when we shut our doors to the stranger or when we call for the death of our enemies?

The third and final gift was Myrrh. Myrrh is what is placed on a deceased body before it is buried. By this gift we learn that Jesus is to die. Think about that for a moment. Jesus was born into this world to die for every one of us. He was born to die, and the wise men knew this. We as a Christians may not be at risk of dying in  America for our faith but we are called to take up our cross daily, to be in the world and not of it. But most importantly, as followers of Christ we are not to live a life of violence and seek to inflict pain on anyone, especially if it ends in taking a life. This Cross reminds us of Jesus Sacrifice.

Jesus could have avoided the cross, he could have rose up like a mighty warrior and defeated the Roman Empire, but he died on the cross. We are called to nothing less. So when you are called to lay down your life for another but you chose to arm yourself and defend yourself from a perceived enemy, you are not living according to the teachings of Christ. My final question. How can we remember and honor Christ’s death if we are armed and ready to kill?

 Can we submit to one another when we have hate and fear in us towards others? Or can we love our neighbor if we tell them there is no room for them when they are in need? And finally, can we honor Christ’s death when we seek to end the lives of others? The answer is a simple but resounding No! So what have we learned about sacrifice by looking at these three gifts? Sacrifice involves submission, love, and honor. Yet in our current climate the media tells us to hate and fear those who are different, whether it is by race, gender, economic status, religious background or nationality. At no other time in my relatively short life have I encountered a time that to live by the teachings of Jesus is so completely counter to the culture I live in. With this awareness comes the fear of boldly proclaiming the gospel for fear of reprisal from another of a different political persuasion. But then I remember what the angels said, and throughout the bible, I am told to ‘Do Not Fear.’ To believe in Jesus and have him live in your heart is to reject fear and throw off the chains of hate. As Actor Mandy Patinkin says, ”fear is poison of our lives”. When we hold onto fear our faith is weakened and there is no room for Jesus. With no room for Jesus we are unable to experience the peace that passes all understanding. The wise men had reason to fear while on their journey. Herod was clear that they were to inform him of where the baby Jesus was. But as they traveled an angel spoke to them in a dream telling them not to go back the way they came. The angel was warning the wise men that Herod was planning to kill this newly born child. No doubt as they worshipped their king that their fear disappeared but I imagine that as they left and went a different way the fear came back. The Wise men took great risk by not returning to Herod but for God’s will to be made known on earth they had to ignore the order of their political leader, Herod. As Christians, we too may have to ignore the message of elected officials if it is counter to the teachings of Jesus. What is that message? Jesus came to fill us with Joy and he teaches us to this day to love our neighbor and our enemy. To feed the hungry, house the homeless, heal the sick, welcome the foreigner. We live in a diverse country, and that is wonderful, but I still hear messages of banning, deporting and even kill them before they kill us.  Church, we are at a crossroads and we have a choice to make. It is a choice between nationalism and God. It is the choice to let go of fear or hold onto hate. It is a choice to let Jesus’ birth fill us with Joy and Peace. To love unconditionally, to extend hands, to open doors and borders. It is a choice to show the world that we believe in the RADICAL gospel of Jesus Christ. A man who died for us and did the impossible by rising from the dead. The impossible of this world is possible with God. I believe the hour has come for us to boldly embrace the call Jesus presents before us now.  For truly, as Jesus himself said, “The harvest is ripe but the workers are few.” Mary welcomed Jesus into her womb to birth him into world. Will we welcome Jesus this Christmas into our lives? Will we do as Mary did? Will we give our Savior the chance to transform not only our own personal lives but our country and our world? If we are to do this we must submit to one another. We must love without condition and we must honor EVERY life. I would have said this may not be possible in 2001 when we were attacked by terrorists, and I was filled with fear. But today, I do believe. I believe the impossible is possible, I believe that the God that raised Jesus from the dead can raise us out of our fear. In the words of  Austin Channing Brown -

“I believe in the death of injustice, in the life of hope, grace, mercy, and love…. I believe there can be healing where there is violence. I believe reconciliation is possible- hearts can be moved, minds can be changed, politics broken.   - Austin Channing Brown with The Impossible

 I also believe in a new way of thinking: May this become our new prayer: May all beings be happy. May all beings be free from suffering. May my thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute to the happiness and free for all beings.  Can you live so that all are happy? Can you chose your thoughts, words and actions in a way that they promote freedom and happiness for all? This is what Christ is asking us for. This is the gift we need to give him.