St. Andrew’s, West Kilburn, Sunday 3rd Jan 2016
Every year in December, primary children from the Muslim school across the road come to visit to hear about Christmas from a Christian. So I tell them the story and then they ask questions. What they always want to know is Why do you give and get presents at Christmas? They usually bring hand made cards, and inside the greeting is very often I hope you get awesome presents. For them, it seems, giving and getting presents is what Christmas is all about for Christians.
Well, they are both right and wrong. I tell them about Epiphany and the gold, frankincense and Myrrh; and I tell them about Saint Nicholas and his generous gifts that lifted a poor family who were his neighbours into a life that was liveable. And I say that we give gifts because God gave everything for us, and we want to give back, to God and to others, and our mutual exchange of presents is one way of expressing that. I think they continue to believe that mutual gifts at Christmas are the whole of the story. I’m not sure they quite ‘get’ it. I’m not sure we always ‘get’ it.
So, what’s the significance, for us, of the gold and the frankincense and the myrrh?
Why did the magi bring these expensive gifts? He wasn’t going to be their king, was he? Maybe it was out of care for the future of the world, as truly wise men; they recognised that the birth of Jesus was a turning point for the world and that this has huge significance for everyone who lives on earth.
Yes, that’s true. AND for the people who first heard and read Matthew’s gospel that really meant something. They were Jews who were of the tiny minority of Jews who accepted Jesus, and Gentiles who had heard of the new faith and flocked to join the church. For the Jews, Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah; for the Gentiles they suddenly found that the door had been opened to them to be part of the Kingdom of god, the one God, the living, loving God – and without having to subscribe to the rigours of the full Jewish Law. They got the best of Judaism, without the dry and difficult bits. It was like winning a spiritual lottery! That’s what Paul is talking about – this grace was given to me; to preach to the Gentiles the BOUNDLESS RICHES of Christ. This demanded a huge amount of grace and generosity on the part of Jewish believers. It must have seemed like cheap grace. But the grace of God is never just cheap – it’s completely free! And it was there for the Magi and for Jesus’ first believers. And it is there for us. Come, taste and see. Come, slake your thirst with living water. Come, be transformed.
If we are able to open ourselves to receive God’s gift of grace, then our natural response is thankfulness. So what he Magi do, in bringing these precious gifts, is to symbolise the gratitude and self-offering that wells up in us when we are at the receiving end of God’s generosity – and our giving and receiving of gifts to each other at Christmas is a pale reflection of that receiving from and giving to God. It’s never about greed; it’s always about grace.
But it goes deeper than that. Christmas is the beginning of the story of Jesus’ life on earth, that appears to end on Good Friday but that continues, after the resurrection, through the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ first believers and in us and in those who will come after until; God’s plan is entirely completed and we live for ever in the full light of God’s face.
God gave Godself, at Christmas, as a tiny baby, born away from home to a poor unmarried couple, forced to flee, unwelcomed except by rough shepherds and those strange foreigners we celebrate today. But what really changed things came later, when he gave himself up to agonising death – and so, mysteriously, opened up the gift of life for us. God’s self-giving COST!
When we sing the Epiphany carol We Three Kings we remember that later part of the story. Gold for a king; a rejected king. Incense for holiness; a holiness that was not recognised. Myrrh for death; death embraced by Jesus, for us. God gave EVERYTHING for God’s world. And the gifts of the Magi catch something of the beauty and majesty and wonder of that sacrifice.
Epiphany calls us to respond the way God gives EVERYTHING to us by giving EVERYTHING to God. Maybe that’s not so bad, once we have grasped God’s beauty. Human beings seem to be hard-wired to live for something greater than themselves. We are not truly happy until we give ourselves in service to God. St Augustine’s prayer actually arises from our own needs:
‘Lord, you are great, and greatly to be praised.
Awaken us to delight in your praises,
for you made us for yourself,
and our hearts are restless
till they find their rest in you.’
A time of gifts. Good! And we can go further and let that grow into a life of giving. That means that we embrace the experiences that the gifts of the magi prefigure: rejection by others of the power of God in our lives and in the world; rejection of the holiness of God in our lives; the pain, the cost, of discipleship in whatever way that comes to us; the death of self, the death of the body. It’s a limited, mean thank you that we give to God if we don’t set ourselves to thank God for these painful experiences, too, and to see how God’s life breaks through them and lights us up, and lights up our world.
A time of gifts. Let your gratitude to others for those chocolates and socks and bath salts be real, and reflect your thanks to God; let your generosity in giving be real. And let your gratitude sink deeper as you understand in your bones the magnitude of what God has given us; and let your giving to God cost you more and more until you have given everything you have and are – and a little bit more that you didn’t even know you were capable of.
Revd. Maggie Hindley