…what can I give?
January 6, 2019
Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem 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.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘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.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 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.” 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. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 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. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
To start with this morning, and to set the stage perhaps for a better understanding of our role as individuals in the story of our faith, I think at the outset is may be necessary to talk for a minute about the actual account regarding what we commonly refer to as the tale of the ‘Three Wise Men’. I think we may need to separate for a moment that which we actually do know from the biblical record, and that which has become assumed over the centuries regarding this account of Magi coming to see Jesus and Mary at some point early on in the young boy’s life.
And I say that solely because I think there may be a danger that if we fix the story too firmly in legend, complete with later embellishments to it, that it may become something we ourselves can no longer aspire to imitate. Making it too ‘magical’ or too perfect in terms of how we understand our own faith story may move it ever so slightly, but sufficiently out of reach for us as everyday work-a-day people.
To start with, we really do not know much about these travelers who came from the East over to Jerusalem looking for the child Jesus. We do know they were from Persia, we do know they we adherents of the Zoroastrian faith, and we do know there were three gifts mentioned, but not necessarily only three individuals who came to offer them. We do know they were following what they believed was a star sign from the heavens and we do know they were scholars who researched and learned in Jerusalem from the ancient writings of the Prophet Micah that a Savior-King was supposed to be born to the Hebrews in a small town in Judea named Bethlehem. And we do know that they were warned in a dream not to go back and inform Herod as to the whereabouts of the child once they found him, but rather to return to their own homeland by another way.
And we do know, as a result of this reading that God can use all things human to further the divine will, that whatever we bring or surrender, whatever our point of contact is with the divine, God can use it. For there is in fact no ‘heavenly checklist’ of characteristics or even beliefs that make any single human being somehow qualified to receive God’s love, attention, or ‘divine stamp of approval’. And that is because there truly is one God who is the Creator of every human being, period!
Every person ever born is a child of God, and every person ever born is among those who the Gospel of John tells us in Chapter 3 is one whom God sent Jesus to rekindle relationship with. John writes that, ‘God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him’. Since the very beginning of time God has sought to reveal the loving nature of Godself to the Creation, and over the eons we as a human race have alternately understood that revelation…as well as not.
Which I would hold is a point that is made quite clear in our reading today. Let me explain. Now if I were to stand up here and open up the daily paper each Sunday in order to read each one of you your daily horoscope reading and then simply say ‘amen’ and sit down, you would probably feel like I was not leading you any closer to God. In fact, you may feel it was time to begin to look for another pastor!
However, that is not all that different than what the Magi or scholars in our reading actually devoted their lives to. You see, as one of the oldest faith systems and arguably the first to hold that there was only one God, and as one of the faiths already in existence in the time of Abraham, and as a faith that sought after joy and peace, and…as a faith that has been put forth as having had an influence on the formation of Judaism and therefore upon our own faith understanding…these scholars, these wise individuals…were actually dedicated students of the stars.
Followers of the Zoroastrian faith searched for God by studying the heavens, by looking skyward and by seeking to interpret what they saw there as indicators of what God might be trying to teach them. So, reading through modern day horoscope readings and understandings of the Zodiac signs might have been quite interesting to them.
All of which I tell you in order to remind you that on this first Sunday of a brand-new year, on this, a day when each of us can look forward to putting last year behind us and starting anew, that no matter who you are, God is interested in securing everyone’s help in order to make this world a better and more holy place. No matter what you may currently believe or not believe, no matter if you are a rank sinner and murderer as was King David or a thief who stole his brother’s birthright and inheritance as was Jacob…no matter if you look to the stars for guidance or instead to ‘Mother Earth’ herself…God can still use you in helping to usher in a new dawn of justice, peace, and goodness, a new day of grace and abundant prosperity for all.
For you see, God is not limited by the limits we put on ourselves or upon others, God is interested in us not only in spite of, but also because of whoever we have become over the course of our lives. At this very moment, sitting here today, everything we have ever been or done, good or not so good makes up the substance of who we are, it is the meat upon the bones of our individual and unique story. And no matter what that story looks like, no matter how we see ourselves, each one of us is of great potential use to our God in bringing about the fulfilment of God’s will.
Our own individual story has a part to play in helping to heal others, in assisting others, in somehow lovingly shining a ray of hope into darkened corners of the lives of others who may be going through struggles we have already passed through. No matter if we feel particularly holy or not, no matter how well developed or brand-new our faith in God may be, we still have something to offer, something that can play a vital role for someone somewhere in helping them experience the overwhelming love that is our God.
So, the question then is not, ‘Am I worthy enough or faithful enough to satisfy God today’, but rather, ‘As one of God’s children born into this world, and in order to allow my story to make a difference, what do I have to give, what is the gift I bring to offer to this child in the manger? What am I willing to give from the treasure that is me in order to further God’s plans for a new and better day for all of God’s children? What can I bring?
What does each one of us here have to offer to a God who seeks a relationship with us that is characterized first by unconditional and unfailing love from God towards us, and secondly by a desire on God’s part for us to be humble and honest as well as just and loving in our service towards others? What does a God who has such a heart for the poor and downtrodden need from what we might possibly have to give?
Being humble in the sight of the Lord is not really all that complicated…but it is not necessarily easy either. For being humble in the eyes of the Lord requires that we seek to see ourselves as though through the eyes of God. When we honestly look at the lives we live, and the lives we have lived up until now, I imagine that there is no one who does not have some regrets…maybe even large regrets concerning things they have done or not done, said or not said, thought of or not thought of. After all, living a life that is free from failings, that is not filled with instances of ‘missing the mark’, which is what the Hebrew word for ‘sin’ actually means, is out of reach for everyone I have ever met with myself as no exception. For so often we listen not to the Spirit of our God within, but rather to the lesser angels within all of us of selfishness, greed, anger, vanity, envy, or pettiness.
True humility in the soul of a human requires that person to rightly judge themselves as unworthy and far from perfect in the eyes of our Lord. But it must also include a firm knowledge that God never expected us to be anything other than human. God never asked us to be perfect, rather only willing to be slowly and surely made over into a closer, nearer reflection of the image of Jesus, that image of God’s love on earth. So true humility coming from an honest and sober understanding of who we are in the eyes of God is something each of us can bring to the manger.
True humility therefore also touches on the notion of forgiving and receiving forgiveness. As we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to forgive us just as we extend forgiveness to others who may have done wrong to us or to others. So, the willingness to accept the forgiveness offered to each one of us each and every time we miss the mark, by our Lord as well as by those who love as God does, as well as a determination to offer that same level of forgiveness to others, is something else we can bring and lay down at the foot of the manger. In faithfully extending forgiveness in the name of our Lord to others we are thereby offering them the same liberation that is ever offered to us.
And finally, in this season of giving we must remember that all of this grace and forgiveness, all of the love and compassion that has been offered to each one of us was given as a free gift. We must remember that none of us deserves the level of love that is offered to us each and every moment of every day by our God. And we would do well also to reflect on just how incredible it is that our God feels that each one of us not only can make a difference, but can actually play a critical role in bringing about a new day of peace, joy, justice and love for all humankind. So, a thankful heart overflowing with gratitude would also be a very appropriate gift to bring into that stable and offer to our Lord of love.
So, as we look forward to a New Year together, as we seek to continue to follow in all the ways our God seeks to lead us, as we faithfully gather and share all the goodness of this our gift of ‘family’ let us all look to the manger, going there to offer our gifts of true humility, a ready and forgiving spirit, and a heart overflowing with gratitude for all that God has done and continues to do as we strive together to live into the call to love one another as God first loved us.
…amen and happy New Year!