Theme: When does a lot become too much? We need to ask whether our celebration of Christmas can possibly stand in the way of connecting with the reason that we celebrate. It’s appropriate at a time like this to think about what we have really been offering to God, and have other things in our lives been interrupting that and standing in the way. It’s a good thing to ask the question, God how can I give you more?
This is a familiar passage to many of us. If it’s not a familiar passage to you then it’s a familiar picture because you have seen it on some kind of Christmas decoration or whatever, but I am going to read, what we have assigned is just a few verses, but I am going to read the 2nd chapter of Matthew, the 1st through the 12th verse. I am going to read it all and maybe the folks upstairs will be able to catch up with me and change their preparations and actually get all the verses. If not, just listen carefully and look at your Bibles in front of you. But I am going to read the first 12 verses of the 2nd chapter of the Book of Matthew.
“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 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 make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I 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 worshipped 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.”
Let’s pray for a moment. Lord, we thank you for this your word. We thank you for worship, for songs that lead us in thinking about the things you have done in this world and in our hearts. We are thankful for your scripture and for this time to think about it together and we pray that you use it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
This is a habit I have and it’s gotten a little better in the recent past. Sometimes on the holiday, you know on holidays you often have a big meal. So,on Thanksgiving and Christmas in particular I sit down to some magnificent meal somewhere, and I start eating and I eat and I ea, and then it gets painful, and I still eat, and so many of my memories of these major holidays involves pain towards the end of the day because I am overfull. I sense a lot of empathy in this crowd here. There is a lot of experience here. And sometimes I have done such a bad job of it that I am sick the next day as well. Food is a wonderful thing. Good food is a great blessing, but we can overdo it. Except for Joe, we can overdo it. So, good things can sometimes end up being too much.
We have just finished the big Christmas rush and for a lot of us in this room, I think there is too much going on probably for Christmas. Just think about some of the things that we have experienced over the last few weeks. You know we are invited to one party the whole rest of the year, okay? And then in the Christmas season we get five invitations in three weeks and we have to even say no to people and we are still out every night. We’ve got school of debts. You know there are the special concerts and there are the plays and things like that that are going on. We go into our houses right now and there is probably 140,000 calories of cookies and cakes sitting right now, either that or we have eaten half of them since we had a whole day to do it and that doesn’t even involve the shopping. Think of the hassle of shopping across the last few weeks. I went to Best Buy about three or four days ago. That was an experience. I mean the entire parking lot was crowded with cars. There didn’t seem to be any spaces open and you know, I saw some of you there. I mean we were crowding this place. It was crazy. I go to the mall four or five times a year and you know here I am at the worse time showing up.
So our weeks have been filled with these sorts of things and sometimes we have gotten frantic and then the church adds to it. We’ve got our own programs going. These people who lead us in worship are doing extra rehearsals and things like that. Everything accelerates; gets busier and then there are the presents. You know some of us really need to cut the bottom branches off the tree to make room for the pile of presents that are going up underneath it. You know celebration is a wonderful thing, but sometimes we do too much, we eat too much and we receive too much in our celebration. Now, the main reason I guess we give gifts is because during Christmas, because God in Christmas gives us an incredible gift. And that gift can’t be too much because it’s God giving it and so he gives himself, he gives his only begotten Son. God becomes a human to live, to die, to sacrifice himself on our behalf so that we can live an entirely new life and have a relationship with a God who created us forever. That can’t be the too much part. And that’s part of why we give gifts, just because that gift from God. But part of the reason we give gifts is also because in Jesus’ own life there came that moment that these Magi came and gave Jesus gifts. And s, to a certain extent, we are venturing into that whole celebration that they began.
I would like to think for a few minutes about these Magi. In Christian tradition, in older translations of the Bible they are often called the wise men. In our Western tradition we sometimes envision them as kings. Well, eliminate that image of them being king. They are not kings. They are wise men. The word that is used is Magi and what that means is a specific kind of wise man, and that was the sort of people who hung around the court of the king in these Gentile societies, these non-Jewish countries and they actually look to the stars and look to various omens for divine guidance. So they are court astrologers. So, they are actually doing something that Jews and Christians aren’t allowed to do, which is to look to the stars for guidance. And yet, God somehow envelops even this into the Christmas story. And so here are these people and they are looking at the skies and they are seeing, you know they didn’t know they were planets and stars and all of that, but they see that some move and some don’t and they see that certain things are coming together, and they had all their calculations, and their books and all, and they realized that something major was going to happen in Judea. That a great ruler was going to be born. And so they convinced each other of this and finally decided that they would actually go and look for this person because this was a major Portex in the sky. So they start looking and there are all kinds of interesting things that happen in their journey to find this great leader.
They meet with Herod. They come into Jerusalem and cause a stir. They find out things from the Jewish scriptures to focus on this more carefully, and then finally the sign appears again in the sky and the star is there and actually guides them to the place. It’s an amazing story, but what I would like to focus in on are the gifts that they bring to Jesus. Now, we don’t know how many wise men there were; how many Magi there were. The earliest Christian tradition talks about there being 12 of them and that’s natural because you know it’s easy for Christians and Jews to think of 12, if you don’t know the number, 12 is a good one because there is 12 disciples, 12 tribes of Israel, you know it’s a handy number. Smaller than 40, but bigger than 1 or 3. Our current tradition talks about it being three because there is three gifts given. We really don’t know how many. The likelihood is that it is a larger number than a smaller number because chances are they would go as a group for safety and because they are part of a large network of professional people, a port astrologist, who came to this agreement. So, some kind of group, maybe as few as three, maybe it was as many at 20 and all of their retainers and camels and whatever they need for travel come and find Jesus. And so, they crowd in and they are bringing gifts. Now,if they really believe that a royal person was being born this is entirely natural because in most Middle Eastern cultures, you would not go before a royal person without a gift. And so these gifts that they bring have meaning to them and the Christian church has looked back on these gifts over the years and have seen symbolic meaning in these gifts.
So, the first gift they bring is something that they would have brought because this person was a king. Gold. You would never go to an audience before a king without a gift and gold was always a safe gift because it was appropriate for kings. And so they come and bring gold because they are having an audience before this royal person. They didn’t expect to find him in whatever circumstances they found them in in Bethlehem. But, they still believe that this is the guy and so they come and no matter what the humble circumstances, they bring this gift of gold. A gift for a king. Jesus is a king and the church has seen this symbolism in that gift. The second gift was the gift of frankincense. And that was a kind of incense that was used in religious ritual and at times of sacrifice and so in this gift we see the symbolism of Jesus being a priest, that he somehow is going to be a mediator, an intercessor, a person who is going to stand between humanity and God and somehow make things right and offer pleasing sacrifices to God and envelope us in that so that we can offer sacrifices to God that are pleasing. And so we see that in this gift of frankincense. The third gift was myrrh and it had many uses but this perfume was also used to prepare people for burial. And so one of the symbols that the church has always seen in this gift is that Jesus was not only the one who was offering sacrifices to God, but myrrh shows us that Jesus was the sacrifice, that his death was part of the significance of what God was doing, that he is a sacrifice that as priests he offers up to God. Gold, frankincense and myrrh, all of them have deep symbolic meaning to the church because we have had years and years and years to think about it. Mary and Joseph had about two minutes.
Now, I don’t think that these non-Jewish people would have had all of the symbols in mind when they offered these gifts. Maybe some of them, particularly frankincense and gold, they might have seen some significance there. But chances are the main reason they are giving them is because they are valuable gifts. And for Mary and Joseph as they are watching these guys come in with these wonderful riches, their main impression too had to be my goodness, look at the incredible wealth that is being thrown at us right now. Now, what I find fascinating is here is this gift that is years and years and years of what Joseph could have made in his livelihood and we don’t hear about this gift again. I thought about that and others have, and one thing is mentioned that gives us a clue about what possibly went on. Immediately following this event, Joseph and Mary with no preparation whatsoever have to leave their country and become exiles for a period of time in Egypt, to get away from the persecution of Herod. Perhaps this was God’s provision to them for this period of months or years that they become refugees and they all of sudden with no livelihood have to provide for housing, have to provide for clothes, have to provide for food during this transition. We don’t know for sure, but that’s one possibility because we see God doing that again and again in history, where you get something that seems like it is too much for a moment, but it turns out that God knows something is coming up and that you are going to need this. We don’t even know what they faced. They might have had to pay off bandits to keep Jesus safe. We don’t know. They received this gift and it’s because of this gift, these gifts that were given to Jesus that in part we give gifts to one another. But there is a big difference between what the Magi give, the way they give and the way we do.
The big difference is the Magi are giving their gifts to Jesus and we give our gifts to one another. Now believe me, there is nothing wrong with giving gifts to each other. It’s a great thing. It’s a great way to celebrate God’s giving gifts to us. It’s a wonderful thing. I don’t want us to stop. I like my new Christmas sweater that I am wearing today. I even like my iPod more. Thousands of songs. I mean, I like it okay? But there is that difference and I think sometimes we have to at a time like this have to reflect on at least a question of whether our focus on giving to each other has eclipsed the bigger responsibility and joy of offering ourselves to God. It’s a fair question. After a week of what we have just been through or a month, we’ve got to reflect on something like that. So, we go home right now to homes that are crowded with cookies and cakes, with toys and ties and Christmas trees and electrical devices of every possible imagination and when we go back to that we have to ask a question, how much, when does how much become too much? We need to think about that. We need to ask whether our celebration can possibly stand in the way of connecting with the reason that we celebrate. We are in this period of time where we are between Christmas and we are in those two weeks that the church calls the Christmas season that follows Christmas, that’s why we are going to go one more week with this series and that will bring us into the New Year. And so it’s appropriate at a time like this to think about these sorts of issues, about what we have really been offering to God, and have other things in our lives been interrupting that and standing in the way. So, as we have just given so much to each other, I think it’s a good thing to ask the question, God how can I give you more? It’s a great way to start a New Year.
Now, I have this habit that when I study the Bible I have several, I have two notebooks. I have one notebook for the sermon sort of observations and all and I catalog that carefully so that I can find it again and I have another journal for just what God is doing in my life. I keep both of those journals in my Bible, close to a place where I sit down and have my quiet time. But, one of my problems is, if I just sit down and read and pray I am going to fall asleep. Okay? I will have a 10 or 15 minute quiet time and then I will have a very quiet time. So one of my habits is whenever possible I get up and go take a walk. I might walk up and down the house or take a walk in the neighborhood. And particularly around Christmas, not this year, but whenever possible I try to take some extra time to do some reflection and I can remember one time a number of years ago when I was reflecting on this very passage and I was thinking about this situation where all of these Magi come before this child that they believe to be the king and they bow down and give him honor, and I am there and I ask God, “what am I to give you?” Now this is not an original thought. It’s in all kinds of hymns and Christmas music, this issue of what is appropriate for us to give the king. And so I was thinking about this and the answer wasn’t material at all. The answer had to do with me making a fresh commitment to follow this king, to obey him, to give to him sort of a right to power in my life. I had a scepter of sorts, of power in my life and I was to give it to him because he was the one who should rightfully hold that symbol of power for my life. And so, my gift that year was offering myself afresh to him as Lord. No matter what it cost, no matter where it took me, with eyes wide open and in worship to give myself again to him. But that was years ago and so here I am in a New Year, this one was a lot busier. Believe me, I didn’t have any quiet moments this Christmas either, not with a wedding on top of everything else. But, that need is still there for me to find that time and again to come together with those Magi and think again, what is it God that this year, at this time, with who I am now, I am to offer to you? And so, we have a little quiet week between Christmas and New Years, it might not be that quiet for you, but it might be quieter than the last few weeks have been. During that time I need to ask a question, Lord what I am to give now? And I think it’s a good question for you to ask what should you give to the Lord at this time in your life as you face a new year. So now that the rush has backed off a little bit, let’s take a few quiet minutes to ask God just that question, Lord what should I give to you?
Let’s pray. God, we are in all kinds of places of life and each step of life, each change that comes, there are new things for us to wrestle with, new things for us to offer to you, new things that we hold back from you because we are afraid that if we turn ourselves over to you, that it just won’t be as good because we hold on ourselves. God our capacity for selfishness sometimes seems to be amazing. And so with all this brokenness and struggle, we come before you at the start of a new year and we bring our personal issues before you and pray that you help each of us make a fresh commitment to you. Lord, at the same time I hold this whole congregation before you as we face a new year. God help us as a congregation make fresh commitments to you. Help us to know how to offer ourselves in new ways to you and your service. We pray for this nation as it faces another year with all the responsibilities, all the decisions that have been made, all of the mistakes we could potentially make or have made already. God with all of this brokenness and confusion, and yet with all of this incredible power that we yield in this world, we pray that next year you might show us how we can offer this better to you. We pray for wisdom for those who lead us. Accept a policy for our nation. We pray for its impact on the people who serve in our military. God we pray for next year that we might offer things to you that pursue justice and righteousness in this world and not things that just enforce our will on other people. God give us the wisdom because sometimes it is impossible to know what the right path is. And Lord we pray with all the interplay of Moslem and Hindu and Christian and secular worlds colliding in all kinds of ways in this world, we pray for the day that you bring peace on this earth and we pray particularly that we the church now might be instruments of your peace for we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.