December 20, 2020
“We three kings of Orient are; bearing gifts we traverse afar.” At the very thought of these wise men I barely stifle a chuckle. My mind rushes to the four or five years in a row that my two best friends and I dressed up as the magi for the annual children’s Christmas Eve service at our church. We donned bright colorful robes that looked like they were older than we were, and gold spray painted hats made from an upturned basket and what seemed like old chair cushions. We were known as the “Three Wise Guys” and would walk down the center aisle of the sanctuary to present our extravagant gifts to the baby Jesus. In reality these gifts weren’t so extravagant – a couple gold cans and a tin box with marbles in it. But from a distance they looked extravagant and thus served their purpose for the children’s play. Compared to the rest of the cast, we looked pretty out of place. I’m sure the first Magi who visited Jesus also felt out of place as they traversed from afar, bearing gifts of lavish extravagance and wealth.
Matthew tells us the magi came from “the East” (2:1), perhaps Persia or Arabia. They certainly were not kings, and the Bible does not tell us that they were wise. Following a star does seem rather foolish, but as Pastor James Howell writes, “I can only hope to be one more fool traipsing off after the Light of the world.”
A Libra, and Pisces and a Taurus, gazing at their star charts, found Jesus, while Herod’s scholars missed the Messiah entirely! How sobering. How often have I missed Jesus in the pages of scripture or in the unfolding of my life? I know quite a few Bible facts and like to think I have my theology in order, but am I personally acquainted with the real Jesus who was born in a manger in Bethlehem?
I’m not quite sure when in history the magi picked up the title of “wise”. Much of what they do seems rather foolish to me. They leave home to follow a star to God-knows-where. They follow the star to Bethlehem, some unheard-of backwater town, and upon seeing a child, they don’t even skip a beat. They bow down and begin worshipping him. No questions asked. No wondering if they really showed up at the right place or whether this child born in relative poverty could be the King of Kings. What seems even more foolish are the gifts they give him—gold and myrrh and frankincense. What in the world is a baby supposed to do with frankincense? But the “wise” men don’t care. They give their most precious gifts away.
During the holiday season I slip most easily into the role the magi played. I bear gifts. I traverse afar. The magi popped in with their gifts and then departed. They didn’t stay close to the Lord Jesus like Mary and Joseph. I wonder if I also do the same thing and keep my distance. I mean, I give Jesus a few gifts, I pay my offering, give some money to charities I care about, I say some prayers, read about the magi—and then go on my way.
Each year my dislike for the commercialism and consumerism that surrounds Christmas bothers me more and more. Maybe I could blame for magi for jumpstarting this trend of gift-giving at Christmas time. I don’t recall reading Jesus’ command, “Because it’s my birthday, thou shalt shop for one another.” Yet, while I fume about the rampant consumerism of the season, I find myself falling in line and doing what everyone else does. Maybe the magi can teach us something about giving during this time of year. The magi brought gifts of immense value; they brought what was precious to them. They parted with what they adored to adore the Lord. We are not always so wise in our giving. I traverse not so far at all when I shop online. It’s more convenient for me that way. When I’m not sure what to get someone, or rather, when I don’t want to take the time to put much thought into it, I’ll load up a gift card with some money and call it good. The bane of gift cards is that they are more convenient for both the giver and the recipient of the gift. “They should be able to get what they want,” we say. Convenience was not a priority for the magi. So why has it become our guiding light?
I think back to the times I have gone to a considerable amount of trouble to get just the right gift, or that I made something with my hands. Our first Christmas as a couple, I poured hours into creating a scrapbook for Meghan, in which I documented our first year together with pictures and receipts I had kept from every date we went on. This gift probably wasn’t on her Amazon wish list, but it was more meaningful to both of us than anything I could have bought with my credit card.
This year I received an early Christmas gift from my grandma in the mail. She told me I could open it early, so I did. What I found underneath the wrapping paper wasn’t anything I had on my wish list or had remotely thought to put on my wish list. But it was infinitely more meaningful. Within the wrapping paper was a binder with a written history of my great grandfather who came to America from Scotland. It’s full of family trees and a copy of every Christmas letter my grandma has written in the last thirty years. The amount of work she had to have put into compiling this binder of family history is hard to imagine. Now, it wasn’t the new book or the Colorado Avalanche paraphernalia that I had wanted, but I could feel the love that was communicated through the precious time and thought she had put into such a significant gift. It may one day collect dust on my shelf, much like Jesus’ frankincense may have, but the extravagant love poured into such a precious gift won’t ever get dusty or forgotten.
This is the way God gives. God isn’t Santa Claus, feverishly checking our lists and sending out angels to give us what we ask for. I recently heard the story of a small boy who was writing a letter to God about the Christmas presents he badly wanted. “I’ve been good for six months now.” he wrote. But after a moment’s reflection he crossed out “six months” and wrote “three months.” After a pause that was crossed out and he put “two weeks.” There was another pause and that was crossed out too. He got up from the table and went over to the nativity scene that had the figures of Mary and Joseph. He picked up the figure of Mary, wrapped it gently in a cloth, and put it in a drawer in his room. He then went back to his writing and started again: “Dear God, if ever you want to see your mother again!”
Thank goodness Jesus isn’t Santa Claus! Because whether we were naughty or nice this year, God gives us his most precious gift. It may not be what’s on our Amazon lists; God gives us much that is far better than our deepest desiring. “God gives God’s own self. Nobody asked for a baby born in a cow stall. But that is what God wanted to give. God knew that alone would express the depths of love we need.” (James Howell).
God’s generous spirit of extravagant love is made manifest not just in the birth of our savior, but also in his life, teachings and death. As the spiritual mystic Cynthia Bourgeault writes, Jesus’ life is peculiarly marked by the fact that he gave away everything he had and was. “John the Baptist’s disciples were horrified because he banqueted, drank, and danced. The Pharisees were horrified because he healed on the Sabbath and kept company with women and disreputables, people known to be impure. . . .
What seemed disconcerting to nearly everybody was the messy, freewheeling largeness of his spirit. Abundance and a generosity bordering on extravagant seemed to be the signatures of both his teaching and his personal style. . . . When he feeds the multitudes at the Sea of Galilee, there is not merely enough to go around; the leftovers fill twelve baskets [John 6:13]. When a woman anoints him with expensive ointment and the disciples grumble about the waste, he affirms, “Truly, I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” (Matthew 26:13). [Jesus] seems not to count the cost; in fact, he specifically forbids counting the cost. “Do not store up treasures on earth,” he teaches; do not strive or be afraid— “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). All will come of its own accord in good time and with abundant fullness, so long as one does not attempt to hoard or cling.
It is a path Jesus himself walked to the very end. In the garden of Gethsemane, with his betrayers and accusers massing at the gates, he struggled and anguished but remained true to his course. Do not hoard, do not cling—not even to life itself. Let it go, let it be— “Not my will but yours be done, O Lord. Into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Jesus reveals a God who gives everything away for us! Is this wise? Not as the world defines wisdom. As the Apostle Paul writes, we cannot understand through worldly wisdom this God revealed to us in Jesus (1 Cor. 1:18-31). By our worldly standards, God is foolish to waste such a generous gift on people as undeserving as we are. And yet, it is only through such foolish giving and extravagant generosity that we begin to understand the depths of God’s love for us. It is a love that would do anything and give up everything to get to us. Just as the magi give what was most precious to them, our God gives his most precious son for us. Love gambles away every good gift, if only to make itself known to the one who is loved. God gave up everything to let you know how loved you are. As God’s beloved, I pray that we may be foolish enough to gamble away every good gift God has bestowed upon us, if only so that the world may know how much God loves it. Amen.
“Love gambles away every gift God bestows.” – Rumi, Sufi mystic