Sermon by Rev. Tim Woodard
January 4, 2015
Matthew 2: 1-12
“What Have You Offered?”
Hear now these ancient and holy words from the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 2, verses 1 through 12.
1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ” 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Having heard these words, let us now allow God to open our hearts and to open our minds, thus allowing us to gain a deeper and more meaningful understanding of these ancient and holy words.
At Christmas, children, grandchildren and children in general are seen to be consumed with what gifts they will receive; and a lot of teens, young adults and older adults are seen in this light as well. This is a sad reference to the commercialization of the Christmas story, thus tainting and blemishing the beautiful traditions surrounding the birth of the Christ Child. You and I know better than this. We know the sacred purpose in gift giving is symbolic of the gift of love; love which we have received from our God. The primary reason so many of us give gifts during this annual celebration is ‘out of love’; love for the one to whom we give, love for the sake of kindness, goodness and yes even compassion and mercy. Sometimes we give anonymously, but most often we do not. And yes, being human – as we are – we love to see the response the receiver of the gift experiences, especially the young ones. And there is nothing wrong with giving in this spirit. And there is nothing wrong with our children’s excitement and joy over receiving gifts.
As the tradition of Christmas, the birth narrative continues forward, beyond the nativity and the initial birth of the baby Jesus in a manger bed, we move into the time after his birth. It is easy to get confused over the sequence of events, but don’t all stories of new babies get told out of sequence? Seriously, when I think of the birth of one of our grandsons, the location of his birth has gotten blurred with the near death experience in his first year of life; thus his parents and grandparents lift up this story first when reflecting on his journey of life. In like fashion the granddaughter – now in college – who led us in the call to worship on Christmas Eve, I can still see her, as a toddler, walking for the first time in the park, and frankly, the location of her birth is of less importance. I am certain that when you reflect on this, you will fully grasp that the start of our lives is only a reference point; it is the journey and the actions we take along the way that are lifted up as worthy of remembering most.
Last week we read about the baby Jesus, his mother Mary and Joseph at the temple in Jerusalem, eight days after he was born. This week we read about the Wise men from the East possibly Persia searching for the new born king. They, like the shepherds followed a new star to the stable in Bethlehem. There they find Jesus and offer up priceless gifts: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. Gifts surely meant for a king it is said. Yes, a gift of gold is befitting a king and it was believed there was to be a new king born in that time period. Surely, this is why old King Herod was so concerned and nervous about the baby’s birth. Now Frankincense is a gift meant for a priest. This sweet perfume was often used by the priests in the temple sacrifices. The gift of Myrrh is not a gift for a new child, it is a gift for one who is to die; it is believed that it was used to embalm the bodies of the dead. Were these gifts meant to simply be symbolic of whom this new born child was to become? Either way, it is hard not to see and lift up their symbolic references.
Unquestionably, today’s scripture reading about the wise men, often referred to as the three kings who traveled afar, has become part of the traditions that Christianity lifts up as symbolic of the birth of the Christ Child, the new Born King. And what a beautiful tradition it is at that! Traditions are good and from them we can glean as much as we want and need, or we can simply acknowledge them and move on. But, like the birth of the matriarch or the patriarch of a family or a church, the details of how they came to be are less important than who they are and what they stand for within the social system they are a part of! The tradition of the gifts that the ‘Wise Men’ bring helps us lift up and remember the fullness of the gift that Jesus represents.
As we move into the lessons and our understandings of the teachings contained in the gospels, over the coming weeks, it will be good if we embrace the fullness of these gifts that are put before us today. Starting with the gift fit for a king: gold. There are many historical documents to confirm that there was a belief, that there was to be, a new king born at the time of Jesus’ birth. Our traditions cause us to believe that Jesus was that king. The gift of Frankincense, a perfume for a priestly sacrifice, and here again we see our traditions pointing to Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice for our sinfulness. The gift of Myrrh ‘burial oil’ used for the dead. Our traditions tell us that Jesus died a human death. Yes, the gifts from the Wise men were and are ‘symbolic’ of whom we have come to believe Jesus was and is, in his relationship to us and our mystical and heavenly God, the God of our ancestors.
Here we are in the Twenty-First Century and we are trying to grapple with our all too human realities and we are trying to live our lives with integrity, and yes, we are striving to pass on to those who come after us an understanding of what we hold sacred; what we hold as truths. As we look to our traditional narrative, surrounding the three wise men and their symbolic gifts, we need to consider what gifts we offer up. That’s right: what gifts have you, what gifts have we brought and are willing to give? If we are truly believers in the God of Love, the God of our ancestors, than we ought to be willing to offer up a gift or two! The traditions of this church, the church in which we come to worship in each week, these traditions ought to help us understand what gifts are needed to do and accomplish all that we say we believe in!
So let us see what gifts we can offer from where we are today; let us talk more directly about what we, what you and I have offered! And more importantly what we can offer!
No, I am not going to go through the story of Scrooge as portrayed in “The Christmas Carol.” But, we shall perhaps talk about Christmas past, and Christmas future. Oh yes, most certainly, I am going to lay out for us some of the present realities that we are all a part of here in this faith community. Let’s start with the basics: We are a part of a church that firmly believes: “We are a Christ-centered church, open to all people”. Further we believe: “In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord.” As such we also believe: “God calls us into the church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be servants in the service of the whole human family, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil.” You can read the fuller version of our “United Church of Christ Statement of Faith” by simply checking our website and clicking on ‘Learn what we believe’ or turn to number 885 in your hymnals. So, as we acknowledge the words of our belief, as written in our Statement of faith, the question I put before us this morning is: What have we offered or what have we given back, and what are we willing to offer, in order to help insure that our understanding of God will be pasted on to those whom come after us?
I could easily Segway into a talk about financial Stewardship at this point, but I believe we all understand the basics and without proper funding from you our members and friends, we will not be able to fully support and continue the ministries that we believe so passionately in. However, it is vital that we lift up the fundamental truth about a church. You see, without our combined gifts this church would cease to exist. The next tenants of this building would buy it at current market value and create something new. The local community would soon forget we were ever here. That’s the harsh truth.
I have been with you fourteen months now, and I know that no one here is ready to turn neither this building, nor this church over to ‘someone else!’ What I have experienced over this time is just exactly the opposite! I have risked insulting you to state the obvious! Just like the traditions of the early Christians, the tradition of the gifts from the three wise men from the east, they preserved what was sacred from one generation and passed it on to the next; so shall we! Together, we are offering up gifts of time, talent and yes, treasure to do exactly that! I am proud to be serving this church at this moment in history! From the mouths of children have come the fundamentals of our faith. “Christmas is about love!”
On Christmas Eve I counted twenty voices singing to us from our choir. Last Sunday, I heard both traditional hymnody and contemporary praise music… reaching out to all elements of our faith community! I saw members volunteering to do numerous things to make our celebration of Christmas so very special this year! Donations to support local charities and our donations to our Shepherds fund have touched the lives of those going through tough times. Together, we are making the effort to live up to our traditions while honoring contemporary and current needs of those around us! Together, we are making a real difference in this community! Continue to be the voice speaking out for the marginalized, the hungry the thirsty the needy! Never let go of the truths that have been learned; especially the truth that all people are welcomed to be a part of this “The Riviera United Church of Christ!”
That is what the tradition of the three wise men has been doing for Centuries! The offering of gifts is a wonderful tradition. Our Children learn at an early age, that something special is happening. As adults they will have the opportunity to more fully explore this ‘Love’ that flows from God which we celebrate ever year!