Re-reading this oh so familiar passage from Matthew’s rendition of the Christmas story brought to mind some interesting tidbits of historical and traditional interest upon which messages have been preached now for a couple of thousand years: there’s the king of the Jews thing; the question of who were these ‘wise men’ and from where had they really come; the really nasty character of Herod; and of course questions about the star. I got a great laugh when I read how overwhelmed with joy the wise men were when the star finally stopped. I guess I’ve been on trips like that. But what grabbed my attention this time was that before the wise men offered their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh first it says they opened their treasure chests. Maybe I’ve seen too many stage coach robberies in all the western movies I watched. If these men were traveling like the text suggests I can’t help but imagine that what held such precious cargo were more like strong boxes than treasure chests. I connect treasure chests to pirate loot. Strong boxes aren’t supposed to open easily, matter of fact you’d want it to not open in the event it hit the ground or was stolen. But what ever, it got me thinking about whether my heart was more like a treasure chest or a strong box. It seemed to be a matter of how reluctant I might be to share with Christ or with others that which is most precious to me.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “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.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They 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.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then 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.”
9When 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. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On 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. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. Matthew 2:1-12
Re-reading this oh so familiar passage from Matthew’s rendition of the Christmas story brought to mind some interesting tidbits of historical and traditional interest upon which messages have been preached now for a couple of thousand years: there’s the king of the Jews thing; the question of who were these ‘wise men’ and from where had they really come, the really nasty character of Herod, of course questions about the star. I got a great laugh when I read how overwhelmed with joy the wise men were when the star finally stopped. I guess I’ve been on trips like that. But what grabbed my attention this time was that before the wise men offered their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh first it says they opened their treasure chests. Maybe I’ve seen too many stage coach robberies in all the western movies I watched. If these men were traveling like the text suggests I can’t help but imagine that what held such precious cargo were more like strong boxes than treasure chests. I connect treasure chests to pirate loot. Strong boxes aren’t supposed to open easily, matter of fact you’d want it to not open in the event it hit the ground or was stolen. But what ever, it got me thinking about whether my heart was more like a treasure chest or a strong box. It seemed to be a matter of how reluctant I might be to share with Christ or with others that which is most precious to me.
In Ephesians 4 Paul quotes Psalm 68 and tells his readers that Christ, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” So, to relieve us of the notion that we don’t have gifts to share, I want you to know that, Yes, in fact you do, all of us do. We are pretty complex people and not everything about us is a gift for others. But God has given each of us gifts to share.
How do know what is a gift and what isn’t? We were in some stores during the most recent silly season and under their professionally decorated trees were beautifully wrapped packages– but none were gifts. By the same token, we received a box delivered by Fedex on which someone had drawn a heart and scribbled the words “I love you” with a marker pen. It was a gift.
The Christmas cactus that lives in my office has just recently dropped its blossoms. Last Easter and around Thanksgiving time it was loaded. It is a little container of surprise. It is a true delight because it presents me these little gifts at times when it just isn’t supposed to. It is a matter of grace. Of course, from an intellectual point of view such blossoms are predictable given the plants location and, of course my diligence in giving it the water it needs in this dry climate. And what I know of me, unless my thinking processes get involved I can miss the gift entirely. The way I know that I’ve recognized a gift is that I feel gratitude.
Recently on the Dr. Oz television program a man who has traveled around the world discovering medicinal plants spoke at length about one particularly helpful fruit from Hawaii. But what I found most fascinating was his ability to recognize the extent to which we are truly gifted by nature with medicinal plants when we become aware of their existence. We have to recognize a gift as a gift and only our intellect can do that for us. For some of us that may be harder than for others. Maybe we are just too preoccupied or too lazy to recognize a gift. That’s especially true for people who take things for granted. I hate to tell you this but you’ve got to own some intellectual sharpness in order to recognize a gift and know gratitude.
Of course the opposite can be just as true. There are some rather clever people who because they rely so heavily on their intellect they have a hard time with gratitude. Those are the people who need hard proof that a gift is a really a gift. There is always that possibility that what looks like a gift is really a trap, bait, even a bribe. Who can prove that there are no strings attached to something someone offers and calls it a gift? Doesn’t your heart long for the surprise that a gift is truly a free gift? But our intellect balks at surprise, it wants to explain it, wants to explain it away. So, our intellect, while necessary can get in the way. Our intellect needs to be alert enough to look through the outward coverings, the wrappings and see things to their core. Yet our intellect must be humble enough to know its limits. The gift character of everything can be recognized but it can’t be proven-at least not by intellect alone.
That’s where our will has to become engaged. Our intellect can recognize the gift but is unable to acknowledge it. Our will has to acknowledge what our intellect has recognized.
If we haven’t made it, or earned it, much less deserve it – we may have difficulty acknowledging what is simply a given. In Open Range, Sue Barlow, the Doctor’s sister, presents Charlie Postelwaite her locket for good luck. He tries to refuse it but insisting she says to him – “you can’t refuse, it is a gift.”
Everyone here recognizes what kind of weather we have today. Now our weather, whether we like it or not is a given. No amount of complaining will change it. W. H. Auden wrote: “ …weather / is what nasty people are / nasty about, and the nice / show a common joy in observing.” Both the nasty and the nice are in agreement about the weather but from there on they part company. What is it that makes the nice ones joyful? Well, they are like children opening presents. The nasty ones won’t acknowledge it as a gift. Why is it so difficult to acknowledge a gift as a gift? Well, for one thing I have to admit my dependence on the giver. Something within us bristles at the thought of being dependent. Yet a gift is simply something we can not give to ourselves – well not as a gift anyway. It may be an indulgence. I can go out and treat myself, and I can actually be grateful for the good time, but can I be grateful later for having treated myself so well?
Instead of saying ‘Thank you’ when he received a favor from someone, my father used to say ‘much obliged’’. High powered scholars tell me that it is a phrase used by poor southerners. I tend to think it’s has all the class of P. G. Wodehouse’s hero Jeeves, the butler. But it makes the point, doesn’t it. To receive a gift creates obligation. That is something few of us want to own. We prefer to be self-sufficient. Yes, growing up means learning to help ourselves but the other side is that growing up also requires that we learn to accept help when we need it. We fear being dependent but thinking that we are somehow independent is an illusion. Independence cuts us off from others. Mere dependence is slavery. Neither will do. What makes something a gift is precisely that it is given. You can’t avoid the dependency. That’s one of the reasons we give gifts, they unite the giver and the receiver. The bond is gratefulness. It is also an interdependence. It is mutual. It is circular. Gifts require a giver and a recipient to complete the circle. But it isn’t complete until the giver of the gift becomes the receiver: the recipient of thanks. Actually, when we give thanks we give the greater gift, greater than we have received. In giving a gift we give what we can spare. In giving thanks we give ourselves. This is a wonderful kinda’ dance we play, giving and receiving and as I said to start with we all have gifts, gifts that we keep locked up in our strong boxes that need to be shared.
It’s only fair to warn you that one of the real dangers in this gift business is that if we are too quick to recognize and then acknowledge a gift we can get hurt. It’s like this, let’s say you notice that someone smiled at you and you return the smile and then something doesn’t seem right. You turn around and discover that the smile was not meant for you at all, it was meant for that person behind you. For a moment it’s embarrassing. Can you imagine someone who has repeatedly acknowledged gifts that turned out to be either no gift at all or gifts meant for someone else. We’ve got the dependency and the self sufficiency thing under control, but all of a sudden we are faced with a new realization that we are never more vulnerable than when we respond from our heart.
Emma Thompson illustrated this so well when she played the role of Karen in the 2003 comedy Love Actually. The movie follows the lives of eight very different couples in dealing with their love lives all set during a frantic month before Christmas in London. Karen’s straying husband purchased a piece jewelry as a Christmas present for the new object of his affection. Before Christmas Karen finds the package and thinking it is for her opens it and is delighted. When the family shares Christmas gifts she opens a package similar in size to what she had opened before but instead of the piece of jewelry she finds a DVD. Because of Emma Thompson’s acting ability you’re made to feel the power of the slight and understand the depths of the alienation her character would have felt when in just good English fashion she does more than just keep a stiff upper lip. The point it made for me is that not all gifts that are given aren’t meant for us. And if that is our experience we create scar tissue around our heart to protect us from the pain. And that scar tissue can destroy our willingness to give and receive. You see, beyond our ability to recognize a gift and our willingness to acknowledge it you’ve got to understand that your emotions can’t help but be involved.
If our feelings get too scared or jaded it restricts our being able to fully engage in this great giving and receiving thing, we may need to find some place to start. So how about this? Yes – God has given gifts to his people – that’s you and me. And as we come to recognize our giftedness, it calls us to acknowledge the fact – that’s gratitude, being grateful. But what do we do with it? Well, we look around and find ways to give away the very gifts God has given us. And in the process we will find those people who have been hurt by being slighted, people who have grown suspicious and can’t trust that a gift is really a gift.
The circle needs to be complete. It starts as we recognize and acknowledge God’s gifts and say to God, much obliged –‘cause we really are. And God offers us opportunities to discharge our obligation of gratitude by opening up our strong boxes where we’ve carefully kept our treasured gifts and giving them to others, in God’s name. Then they in turn say to God, much obliged, and such grace changes the world.