Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Gifts of the King

(A sermon based on Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12 & Matthew 2:1-12 for Epiphany).

In many a Christmas pageant, men dressed in bathrobes and plastic crowns have come down the church aisle bearing objects meant to represent the gold, frankincense, and myrrh that the Magi delivered to the Holy Family. It’s usually quite a sight to behold.

When I was a child I was captivated by the irony (although I didn’t know that’s what it was) of blue collar mill workers from the South pretending to be Wise Men from the East. I couldn’t help but stare.

Let’s stare again. When we look at our basic Epiphany text—the one about the Wise Men coming from the East to find the newborn King of Israel—we tend to focus our attention on the Wise Men themselves (Who were they exactly? Astronomers, maybe? And where were they from? Arabia, perhaps, or maybe Babylon?) and on the gifts that they brought to the infant (How much were they worth? What did they symbolize? The answer to the first question is “We can’t know” and to the second “Perhaps nothing”).

Then we sometimes ask ourselves a question that goes something like this: What gift should I bring to Jesus? It’s a good time to think about that, given that we are now almost two weeks removed from having to think about the gifts we are going to give each other.

As obvious as it should be, perhaps the first thing we should point out in response to the question “What should we give Jesus?” is that we can’t give to someone about whom we don’t know. With that in mind, perhaps you will see what I mean when I say that the Epiphany story is first and foremost, then, about God, because we know about God only because God chooses to reveal God’s self to us. Without God there is no story.

The Wise Men arrived in Jerusalem one day looking for the new King of Israel because it stood to reason that one would look for the new King in the capital city. The reason they were there, though, was because they had seen a star that signaled the birth of the child; that star would eventually lead them right to the place where Jesus could be found. They knew about the birth of the child, in other words, because God wanted them to know about it; they knew about the birth of the child because God revealed it to them.

Why did God reveal the birth of Jesus to people who were, from the Israelite standpoint, foreigners? It was because God’s King belonged to all of God’s people, not just to those who happened to live in Israel.

Psalm 72 is a royal psalm; its original intent was to ask God’s blessings on the king of Israel, whoever that might be at the time. While the psalm envisioned a king of Israel, it envisioned that king ruling over the whole world. See, for instance, this line: “May all nations be blessed in him; may they pronounce him happy” (v. 17b). No king of Israel ever lived up to the ideal expressed in the psalm; when the one was born who would live up to it, then, God made it clear that the king had been born for the benefit of all the world, not just one small part of it.

Because they had been given the gift of knowing that Jesus had been born, the Wise Men offered their gifts to Jesus. They responded out of gratitude for the grace that had been shown to them by God. Grace led to grace. Love led to love. Giving led to giving.

We don’t know what happened to the Wise Men after they returned home. I would think that we can safely assume that, having been led so well by God, they continued to seek and to follow God’s guidance and that, having been inspired by the gift of God to give gifts themselves, they kept on giving.

We do know about the Apostle Paul, though; we know that once it got him, he got it. Whereas the Wise Men were quintessential outsiders—foreign practitioners of a foreign religion—Paul was the quintessential insider—a Jewish rabbi of the strictest and most respectable sort. But God in God’s grace got hold of Paul and revealed to him the same great truth that God had revealed to the Wise Men—that Jesus had come to establish God’s kingdom in which Jews and Gentiles—in other words, all people—would worship, love, and serve together.

And once Paul got it, he had to give it away. The gracious good news he had received about the boundless love and grace of God caused him to want to share it with everyone. And it is the best news of all—there is no one whom God does not love; there is no one whom God will not forgive; there is no one for whom the gifts of God’s Son and God’s grace are not intended.

So before we think about the gifts we can give to or for the King, let’s think about the gift of the King—God gave us Jesus so that we could know who God is, how God is, and how we as God’s people are to be. We can sum it all up in the words “love” and “grace” and we can define such love and grace as sacrificial, giving, and interested in helping the weakest, poorest, and most marginalized among us.

We want our giving to be appropriate in light of what God has in Christ given us. And the King of whom Scripture teaches us judges “people with righteousness” and the “poor with justice” (Psalm 72:2), defends “the cause of the poor of the people,” gives “deliverance to the needy,” and crushes the oppressor (Psalm 72:4). “He delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy” (Psalm 72:12-13).

That’s the way our King rules. That’s the way we who are his people will serve and give.

In a Christmas episode of the television series M*A*S*H, the doctors and nurses and other personnel are pooling their care packages from home to try to give the children from a nearby orphanage a Christmas party. All the Boston blue blood Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester III will contribute, though, is a can of smoked oysters, even though he has recently received several packages from home marked “Perishable.” As it turns out, Charles had received several boxes of expensive chocolates which he, in line with a family tradition of anonymously leaving such a gift at the door of a needy family, left at the door of the orphanage. Caught in the act by the orphanage’s director, Charles explains the tradition; the director thanks him and promises to keep the act anonymous.

At the orphans’ Christmas party, Charles spots a soldier eating one of his expensive chocolates. When he asks where it came from, he is told that the soldier got it on the black market. Charles asks one of the children if she had gotten such a chocolate and when she says “No,” Charles, enraged, confronts the orphanage director, who tells him that the money he got for the candy on the black market enabled him to buy enough rice and cabbage for the children to feed them for a month.

“It is improper,” Charles responds, “to give dessert to a child who’s had no meal.”

It’s not about dessert. It’s about basic nutrition.

It’s not about expensive sodas and energy drinks. It’s about clean drinking water.

It’s not about food stamps. It’s about social and economic and political structures that make the richest richer and that keep the poorest poor.

And in the church, it’s not about providing more and more dessert to those of us whose basic spiritual and physical needs are more than met. It’s about offering basic sustenance—food to the hungry, hope to the despairing, grace to the rejected—to people in need. Really, how much more dessert do we need here in the church when people are starving, both spiritually and physically, all around us…

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