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The Magi

Gift-giving day is over for another year. What was the best gift you gave this Christmas? I come from a long line of practical gift-givers. I might have looked geeky going back to school in my new hunter-orange parka-a present I received from a family member-but I was assured warmth even down to 78 degrees below zero, which incidentally, we never reached that year in Minnesota. So I've been shaped by practical giving and now carry on that tradition. I give gifts, that reduce weight, clean carpets and clean cars; gifts that broaden the mind, and make life neater and more organized. If you had been on my Christmas list this season, you might have received Webster's Tenth or Consensus-Based Management or Windows for Dummies.

And isn’t it true that we usually give gifts that we would ourselves like to receive? On the receiving end of things I prefer “safe” gifts-ones that know my size, color preference, desired fabric-100% cotton. When it comes to calendars, I don't ask for those Ansel Adams calendars with photographs of breathtaking mountain scenes or those cat or dog calendars. No, Mr. Practical here gets those word-a day calendars. In Latin.

Three years ago, someone in my congregation, knowing my bent for sensible gifts, bought me Beano-now there's a practical gift; it cuts down on the escape of gas which comes from eating too many beans. Now that’s a real practical gift.

Yet several Christmases ago, a very strange and un-practical gift came from Montana: a plaster of Paris Indian boy with a feather in his hat. And to top it all off, prophetic words were scrawled near his moccasin: “My people, my people, here it is, I hand it to you, the earth, the earth.” What? Paper weight? Door stop?

Ever gotten that kind of gift? A gift that you're not quite sure what to do with? Does it look better on the bookshelf or in the attic? Still, gifts like these reflect the spontaneous, unpredictable giving that makes for joyful surprises. Sometimes the most practical gifts are not always the best gifts to give. I've learned that from 20 years of marriage. What woman here truly enjoys getting a brand new multi-purpose mop or one of those “Lose Weight in Twenty Days” kinds of books? Or still yet more lingerie to be added to last year's?

In the movie, Father of the Bride, a young groom-to-be gives his fiancÚ a supremely practical gift. A blender. Her response: she runs up to her room, slams the door, and bursts into tears. She even calls their wedding off. Why? Part of the answer may lie in her desire to receive an unpredictable, spontaneous gift that stems from a romantic, carefree heart of love instead of a sensible, useful gift. Those “My people, my people” kind of gifts instead of the practical, predictable presents.

So this morning we come to the magi who show up from the East bearing gifts for the Child-King, Jesus. Because of these magi who appear in Matthew's gospel, the whole tradition of gift-giving got its start. Goes all the way back to these magi and their gifts for baby Jesus. Matthew says that, after their long journey from the East, when they at last arrived Bethlehem, led by a star, and “They went into the house, and when they saw the child with his mother Mary, they knelt down and worshiped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him” (Matthew 2:11).

Did you notice the presents that these magi brought baby Jesus? Pretty strange gifts aren't they? Especially for a baby. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Some think that these three gifts were the three ingredients that the magi used in their secret incantations. That's where we get the word “magician” from-the magi. These magi dabbled in the secret arts of magic and alchemy. So what did it mean when they gave these three items to the Christ child? Maybe they were demonstrating that they were no longer pagan dabblers in black magic; maybe they were the first to make a turn around by bowing before the true God and giving him the symbols of their old life.

Could be.

But others have suggested that the gifts are symbols that foreshadow the kind of life that this little baby will grow up to live. In a sense, these three gifts do give us a thumbnail sketch of the life of Christ. Gold, for instance, was the symbol of royalty. Jesus would be called a king. But what about the frankincense and myrrh? Well, those two items were used to embalm the dead. They were perfumes to dress up a corpse. Thus, frankincense and myrrh might foreshadow the dark finale that this little baby would grow up to suffer.

However you understand the magi's gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, it still seems to me odd gifts to give a baby. Okay, so anyone can use a little gold here and there, but otherwise we have some pretty useless gifts here. Not the practical kind of presents that I would have given. Instead, it looks to me as if baby Jesus is receiving some of those “My children, my children,” kinds of presents. A more thoughtful, practical gift might have been food, clothing, or tickets out of town to escape Herod. Give the kid some diapers, a US savings bond, a blue blanket maybe. But not a two-ounce nugget and two bottles of perfume. What silly, pointless, useless gifts the magi laid before this poor baby!

So what do we give God? Mostly practical things, I suspect. Tithes, and offerings, carefully crafted prayers like “Everlasting God the radiance of faithful people,” which we prayed this morning. We give God some of our voice during the hymns. A smile or two. Show up and give God an hour and fifteen minutes of our time on Sunday mornings. Those are all practical gifts, the expected gifts that have the right size, color, design, and fabric. Do we need to give such gifts? Absolutely. More now than ever--if you've taken a look at the most church’s budgets. Without the usual, sensible gifts like tithes and offerings we would never pay the light bills, the staff or pastoral salaries, never launch a mission, never pull off an evangelism outreach or offer kindness to homeless folks.

But don't go to the magi to find out how to offer God those kinds of gifts; instead, go to the magi to discover how to offer God seemingly useless, unpredictable, spontaneous, give-what-you-have kinds of presents. Gifts that erupt from the heart. Give God something of yourself. That's what the magi tell us. Might be something that shouts, “My children, my children,” or it might say “No, I've never been in a small group before, but I want to begin.” “I've never really attended this Sunday School class, but helping our children is one thing that I can do.” “I'm retired-have served in this church faithfully for many years; I don't have much to give you, God, but I'll give what I can-I’ll give myself to help this congregation grow and thrive.”

That's what an 89-year old member said to me after a worship service several years ago. She came to me after service and wanted to know where to sign up to teach children. “Think they will need me, pastor? “ she asked. “I've taught children for many years; I'm a little rusty but if they need help, I'm willing.” So the Sunday school teachers have moved over, and now Holy Helen helps shares the gospel with our children. Not really a gift I would have predicted. But I thank God for Helen's gift of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

“The only true gift,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “is a portion of yourself.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an interesting story several seasons ago about the homeless shelters. Seems all the soup kitchens are overcrowded at Christmas, but not with the homeless and impoverished. No, they're overcrowded and have even had to turn away, church groups who wanted to lend a helping hand during the Christmas season. The article went on to say that those same kitchens work at times with a skeleton crew much of the rest of the year for lack of just one church group coming to help them. That's what I'm saying. Offering God gifts that come from spontaneity , from gratitude, not from warm feelings and holiday seasons. To all of the wonderful gifts that we offer God each Sunday-our worship, our voice, and the words of our liturgy; to all of our prayers and the check we drop in the plate-add one more thing: yourselves. God gave us what God had. In this baby in the manger, we are bold to say that we have seen the fullness of God. God has finally given himself.

I was amazed in one Christmas pageant that our children presented. Little three and four foot magi and princesses paraded down the aisle, bearing gifts of beads, perfume, and gold cardboard boxes. And the youth did an outstanding job of plunking, whacking, and wheezing through strange magi-type instruments. But for those who looked past the script-some real gold, frankincense, and myrrh was being offered. While all of us adults were all droning on in We Three Kings of Orient Are, with predictable, polite meter, something broke loose up before the altar. Right in the middle of the third verse, little Jordy cut loose with a dance; little Jordy whirled around laughing and full of exhilaration. That wasn't scheduled in the bulletin-I checked. Totally spontaneous and freely offered.

From oldest to youngest, we are the magi invited to worship God, to give gifts that break beyond the accustomed, predictable gifts into spontaneous, wonderfully authentic and joyful worship. Amen.