Matthew 2:1-12 New International Version (NIV)
2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
Many people have made sure to mention to me today that my alma mater, The Ohio State University, lost their bowl game this past Friday. To the few of you that have not yet mentioned this, I assure you that I am already very aware. But I’m not too down about it, to be honest. I did a little research and punched a few numbers, and it turns out that roughly half of the teams that play in bowl games lose. J
I also know that the Virginia Tech Hokies were among the less fortunate half.
I do a bit of smack talking from the pulpit. I give it out pretty easily but I also know that if I’m going to dish it out, I need to be able to take it in return.
Learning to give and receive well is an important skill to master. And I’m not talking about giving and receiving smack talk, but giving and receiving gifts, help, compliments, and love. We probably all grew up hearing the saying that it is better to give than to receive. I don’t ever remember hearing that taught to me verbally, but I know it was lived out in the lives of my parents. Giving is a wonderful thing and a very important part of what it means to be a Christian. But sometimes I fear that we can be so focused on giving that we don’t know how to receive well.
Today is Epiphany Sunday. An epiphany is a manifestation or an arrival and today we celebrate the manifestation of God in human flesh to the Magi. The actual day designated as Epiphany is celebrated on January 6, which is twelve days after Christmas. So for those of you that adhere strictly to the church calendar and literally follow the lyrics to the old song, today you should be offering your true love eleven pipers piping. Tomorrow we finish things off with twelve drummers drumming.
In all actuality, we do not know much about the Magi. We don’t know when they arrived at Jesus’ side. The whole idea of there being twelve days between Jesus’ birth and Epiphany is based on church tradition, not the Bible. It is likely that they were not there for his birth and it may have been as much as two years after his birth until they finally found him. We often call them kings, but Matthew never gives them this title. Rather, it would seem to be derived from Isaiah’s prophesy. I would guess that we call them “Wise Men” because most of us need talking boxes in our cars to find anything and these men were able to navigate by the stars. And finally, we have no idea how many of them there were. We simply know that they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Often we look at the gifts of the Magi and we talk about how we are called to give to others. I think that is a wonderful message. But I want us to change our perspective a little bit this Epiphany and look at this from the position of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus.
Mary and Joseph knew that their son was not normal. They had received a message from God that this child was God’s own son. But yet Mary and Joseph were really nothing in their culture. They were poor, working-class peasants. Mary gave birth to their first child in a barn, for crying out loud!
But yet these men came to them and offered gifts to their son. And not just any gift. These weren’t blankets and binkies. They brought gifts for a king.
I wonder if it was difficult for Mary and Joseph to accept these gifts. They didn’t know the Magi, but they knew that they were different. They were from a different culture; they were from a different religion. They were from a different class; they seemed to be from a different world all together. But here they were, offering their respect and these gifts to the baby born in a barn.
I talk a lot about giving and how important it is to give of our time, money, and ourselves. Many of you excel at giving. But if you are like me, you may have a difficult time receiving.
I know that sounds a little silly. Who doesn’t want to receive, right? Who doesn’t like that big, fat Christmas bonus or a new computer for Christmas? But sometimes it is extremely difficult to receive a gift from someone that you know can’t afford it. You just want to say, “Hey, I really am doing okay. You don’t have to buy me lunch or that book.” But where is the grace in that? To refuse to accept a gift from another person can be seen as an insult. In accepting a gift from another, you are saying that you value them as a person and their friendship.
Some of you know my father. He is one of those guys that just knows how everything works and he tends to be able to fix just about anything. He is the kind of guy that has old, broken-down vacuum cleaners in his shop so that he can one day make a new hoover craft out of the spare parts.
I don’t remember the exact details, but I remember him sharing a story with us about helping a young family once. This family didn’t have much of anything, especially money. But my dad did something for them and they wanted to show their appreciation. So after he had put in a number of hours working on something, this family realized that my father must be hungry. They wanted to show him hospitality and appreciation, though they could not give him anything close to what he had provided for them. So they offered him a sandwich.
They offered him a mayonnaise sandwich.
No meat, no lettuce, no pickle or tomato. Just two slices of white bread and a smear of mayonnaise.
I don’t come from a family of mayonnaise eaters. I don’t think we even have a jar of the stuff in our refrigerator at home. But this is all that the family could afford to offer my father for his hours of assistance.
So what do you do when someone offers you a mayonnaise sandwich and you don’t even like mayonnaise? Do you ask for a hot pocket or tell them that you will just wait until you get home where you have some real food? No, you eat the sandwich. To do so is an act of grace. You are receiving in grace.
So what is it that keeps us from receiving in grace, other than that old saying that it is better to give than to receive? I’ve got a few ideas to run past you today.
The first reason I find for people having difficulty receiving gifts is one that I think is quite valid. It is the theory of gift-giving reciprocity.
I believe that Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory, says it best:
The entire institution of gift giving make no sense. Let’s say that I go out, and I spend 50 dollars on you, it’s a laborious activity, because I have to imagine what you need, where as you know what you need. Now I could simplify things, just give you the 50 dollars directly, and you could give me 50 dollars on my birthday, and so on, until one of us dies, leaving the other one old and 50 dollars richer. And I ask, is it worth it?
It is funny because it is true. When gift-giving devolves into simply trying to give something to someone else because they first gave you a gift, we miss the point. I can totally understand why someone might refuse a gift if it would then be assumed that they would have to turn around and return the favor.
But I think that our hesitation in receiving gifts has more to it than just not wanting to have to buy someone else a gift. I think that deep down many of us don’t believe we deserve a gift.
I have a lot of difficulty receiving a compliment. Each Sunday I stand by the front door of the church and greet people as they walk out the door. Every now and then one of you will tell me that you liked the sermon. And without fail, I come up with something that I said or did wrong. I say, “Thanks, I just wish I could have been a little clearer here” or “it would have been better if I had a little more time to practice.” I make excuses rather than simply accepting the gift of a compliment.
I am sure that I am not alone. How many of us question the motive of the compliment giver when they say something nice? If someone tells you that they like your hair today, do you immediately assume that they are being snarky because you have a cowlick and resemble Alfalfa from the Little Rascals? If someone compliments your performance do you assume that they are simply being nice or polite? I think many of us reject the gift of a compliment because we simply do not believe we deserve it.
I also think that I have a difficult time receiving grace because I want to prove that I can do things on my own. For instance, I refuse to ask for help. From building projects to watching the children, I don’t like to seek assistance. This is likely because I feel the need to prove myself. I need to be a self-made man to get the respect that I deserve. And right there we find the fallacy. We don’t earn respect or love. It is given to us by virtue of being created in the image of God.
You may be wondering by this point just what any of this has to do with Christianity. I mean, really, this just sounds like a bunch of self-help literature on how to make a better you. But that’s not what we are going for here. Learning to receive is essential for us as we seek to follow Jesus. You see, the very things that are keeping us from receiving gifts, compliments, help, and love from others, may be keeping us from living this life as God would have us live.
We as human beings tend to have a difficult time receiving gifts, help, compliments, and love not only from other people, but also from God. Perhaps you have sensed a calling to do something different, to start a ministry or a different job. But you don’t feel like you have the skills and gifts to make it happen. Will you allow God to equip you for this role? We need to practice receiving in grace.
Are you so down and out on your luck, so convinced that your past mistakes will haunt you forever and that you cannot be forgiven that you refuse to step out of your comfort zone? Let God help and practice receiving in grace.
Do you feel like an outsider, like nobody cares for your or ever will? Know that God already loves you and start receiving in grace.
Today we will practice receiving in grace by joining one another at the Lord’s table. Let us serve one another, practicing not only the giving, but also the receiving.