Sermon: Gift Giving

A Sermon Preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison for Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, 3rd January 2021

Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

‘Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts …’ (2:11)

Well, gift-giving was a bit different in our household this Christmas. Instead of a rush around the shops everything was purchased online. Then, on Christmas Day itself, once the Christmas morning service at church was out of the way, the presents were unwrapped in a Zoom meeting, with participants located in North Shields, Northern Ireland, and Scotland.

Of course, if we didn’t have the Gospel of Matthew, we wouldn’t have the practice of giving gifts at Christmas. Only Matthew tells us about the visit of the magi – a cross between astronomers and astrologers – and their treasure chests which contained ‘gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.’ (2:11) Just imagine the impact of that on the country’s economy each December if they had left their treasure chests behind.

The magi, it seems, arrived some time after the shepherds. Their gifts were presented, not to a baby in a stable manger, but when, ‘upon entering the house they saw the child [Jesus] with Mary his mother.’ (2:11) And this occasion is the origin of our contemporary Christmas gift giving practices.

That said, there’s a significant difference between our practice of giving gifts to each other, perhaps with the hope that we’ll receives presents in return, and giving a gift or gifts to God, who was incarnate here on earth in the person of Jesus Christ.

That’s the approach in several sermons I have heard across the years: give gifts in your life to God, just as once the magi once gave gifts to Jesus. And if you wish, you can draw upon traditional interpretations of the significance of the three gifts that the (unnumbered) magi presented to Jesus:

Born a king on Bethlehem plain,
gold I bring to crown him again.

Frankincense for Jesus have I,
God on earth yet priest on high.

Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume
Tells of his death and Calvary’s gloom.[1]

In general, that seems like a good approach to me, one that’s worth pondering in any year and at any time of the year.

It’s not that specific message I want to share with you today, though. Instead, before we get around to deciding which gifts to give to God – whatever that means in practice – let’s concentrate on what comes before that. What comes before deciding what to give to God is to realise that ours are gifts are always given in return. We don’t initiate the gift exchange.

I suppose that’s one of the reasons that I like this story of the wise men, coming from the East, carrying their gifts along with them, but only arriving some time after the birth has taken place. (Given that Herod arranged a massacre of children aged under two years, that might give us a hint about how long it took before the magi turned up in Bethlehem.) God’s gift of God’s self, Jesus Christ had already been given, long before the magi dipped their hands into their treasure chests in return.

That’s a reminder of our utter dependence upon God in life and for life. It’s God who takes the first step, initiates the process, hands over the first gift. Only then can we respond in an appropriate way. The world’s salvation, including our own lives and destinies, is not in our own hands. That might sound a little negative on first hearing, but actually it’s very good news indeed. It means that the future of the world, and the future of my life and yours, does not rest upon my or your shoulders. It rests upon God’s shoulders, upon the shoulders of Jesus Christ.

That makes a difference to what I am ready to give to God. This requires more than a quick search through a spiritual version of  Amazon Online for something that’ll do for God in 2021. Instead, first I’m pressed to consider the gift that God has given to me through Jesus Christ; to ponder all that that means for every aspect of my life and the life of the world. Before I thought of God, God had thought of me, and loved me, and expressed that love with a total giving of God’s self, without worry about the cost. So, in the light of that gift, what’s the appropriate gift for me to give in return?

Three Slow Visitors

When Christmas is over
And New year is past,
We three slow visitors arrive at last.

Too late for the angels
We wonder and long
For the piercing white beauty of feathery song.

We wandered the wastes
Where the wind and the sand
Whispered and shifted and remade the land.

And now by the Maker
Of all things we stand
Mysterious gifts in our trembling hands.

The gold and the incense
Are all fine and good
And the myrrh has its meaning – all understood.

But here – at our mercy
Lies God – and we shiver
Just what is the gift here? And who is the giver?

Jan Dean © Macmillan, 2003.

[1] We Three Kings of Orient Are – words and music by John H. Hopkins (1820-1891)

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