1 “Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
2 See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
3 Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 “Lift up your eyes and look about you:
All assemble and come to you;
your sons come from afar,
and your daughters are carried on the hip.
5 Then you will look and be radiant,
your heart will throb and swell with joy;
the wealth on the seas will be brought to you,
to you the riches of the nations will come.
6 Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.
PSALTER Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, NCV
1 God, give the king your good judgment
and the king’s son your goodness.
2 Help him judge your people fairly
and decide what is right for the poor.
3 Let there be peace on the mountains
and goodness on the hills for the people.
4 Help him be fair to the poor and save the needy
and punish those who hurt them.
5 May they respect you as long as the sun shines
and as long as the moon glows.
6 Let him be like rain on the grass,
like showers that water the earth.
7 Let goodness be plentiful while he lives.
Let peace continue as long as there is a moon.
10 Let the kings of Tarshish and the faraway lands bring him gifts.
Let the kings of Sheba and Seba bring their presents to him.
11 Let all kings bow down to him
and all nations serve him.
12 He will help the poor when they cry out
and will save the needy when no one else will help.
13 He will be kind to the weak and poor, and he will save their lives.
14 He will save them from cruel people who try to hurt them,
because their lives are precious to him.
GOSPEL READING Matthew 2:1-12, CEB
2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. 2 They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”
3 When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. 4 He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:
6 You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
because from you will come one who governs,
who will shepherd my people Israel.”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” 9 When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. 11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.
Among the many themes associated with this Epiphany gospel story of the magi’s visit to Jesus there is a focus on the gifts they brought. They represent Jesus as Priest and King and God and even foreshadow his death. I’ve preached on these in a previous year. A common Sunday School question for this story is to ask, “What would you bring Baby Jesus?” A roomful of children will give answers ranging from diapers and blankets to food and toys. I mean, think about what you take to a baby shower. The fourth verse of Christina Rosetti’s Christmas Carol poem, we know as In The Bleak Midwinter answers the question this way:
What can I give Him, Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him? Give my heart.
I remember a joke about what wise women would have brought. It included diapers and a casserole, but I can’t remember the third. I looked for it online and stumbled onto some very interesting blogs and sermons on the topic of what we bring to Jesus.
One of these chose three wise women whose stories are intertwined with Jesus’ birth narrative. Elizabeth, it said, brought the gift of godliness. She was part of a priestly family, and her husband, an active priest at the Temple. She accepted the gift of bearing a child in her old age who would be the forerunner of Jesus, and recognized the Messiah when her child, John, leaped in the womb as Mary approached, pregnant with Jesus. Elizabeth lived in tune with God’s spirit and was both a comfort and example to her kinswoman. Mary brought faith, and from another source I would add obedience. She accepted the assignment God gave her, to bear God’s Son out of wedlock, susceptible to misunderstanding and even punishment, risking her betrothal to Joseph. She remained faithful through all the hardships and trials to come when Jesus’ ministry was also misunderstood by the powers that be. Anna, the prophetess whose story you may not know as well, gave the gift of mission it said, but I would add patience and faithfulness to her story. She waited for years, a widow living in the Temple, in the hope of seeing Messiah with her own eyes. Like Simeon, she greeted the child when his parents brought him as an infant for the appropriate offerings and rituals. Then she became an early evangelist telling everyone about Jesus.
I prepared on my worship retreat this week the topics and scriptures and hymns for the next several weeks after Baptism of the Lord which is next Sunday. I’ve been asked to preach on women from Jesus’ life and ministry. In this preparation I’d already been thinking about Mother Mary and her gift of obedience. Mary Magdalene, I would say, also brings a gift of faith and a passionate desire to follow, to learn, to serve. She brings loyalty as she stands with Jesus’ mother before the cross and as she goes early Sunday morning to the tomb. She is another evangelist carrying the message of the resurrection to the dumbfounded disciples. Martha brings a labor of love, even if she can’t always get past her own to do list. Her sister, Mary of Bethany brings a sweet craving to hear every word Jesus has to say. The Canaanite woman brings faith and hope and spunk, not taking no for an answer, but with humor seeking what she needs, believing that Jesus will respond. The Samaritan woman brings her curiosity, her honesty, her need, and in the end, she too becomes an evangelist telling others about Jesus. The sinful woman brings more than her alabaster jar of nard, though that is a very precious gift, right up there with gold, frankincense and myrrh. She brings her gratitude and adoration with a humble servant heart.
We are getting to some serious gifts now. So yesterday I asked the Mary Marthas what gift they would like to give Jesus in 2019 and what gift they would like to receive from Jesus this year. In many cases the answer was the same in both directions. That makes sense in that we can only return to Christ what we have already received. John 1:16, GNT reads, “Out of the fullness of his grace he has blessed us all, giving us one blessing after another.” God has given us so much through Christ. God sent Jesus into our world to bring God’s love, to give us Salvation. Jesus was promised as a Wonderful Counselor and Prince of Peace. He came to be our Shepherd, to gather the lost, to care for our needs, to head us in the right direction. As we talked about what we would like to receive from Jesus this year, we acknowledged those blessings and asked for a deeper awareness of them. God’s blessings always surround us, but we don’t always recognize them. We asked for happiness and health, for wisdom and guidance, for confidence and courage and strength. We asked for peace and serenity, for love and hope and even humor. Sometimes we need openness to what Jesus has for us, and sometimes we need to be told NO to what we think we want. Somedays we would like to have more time.
There is so much we want and need from Jesus. By the same token there is much we want to give. We want to give the gift of our time to Christ in devotion, in service, in listening, in caring. We want to be happy and serene giving these positive attitudes back to Jesus as a gift, rather than bombarding him with our complaints and frustrations. We want to live in a spirit of hope rather than pessimism. We want the humor we receive to be a gift in return, to share laughter, to be the one who raises the spirits of others. We want to share the wisdom and guidance we receive and to share God’s love. We want to be open to God’s Spirit and more tolerant of others. We want to give kindness and service and say YES when Jesus asks some task or sacrifice of us. We want to give our thanks and our praise and our worship to honor Christ. We want to be a blessing, because we are so blessed!
If you look again at the Psalter we shared today, it expresses what people may ask of God in a corporate sense. There are prayers for the king and for the prince, which we could easily translate to praying for the government in any era or nation. Don’t we also ask God to give those in office wisdom and good judgement to rule fairly, so that people can enjoy peace? Goodness from those in power means good things for the people and especially protection and help for those who need it. Both this Psalm and Isaiah 60 from our Opening Sentences refer to gifts being brought to the king. Christians see these as foreshadowing what the wise men bring to baby Jesus. That’s why they are part of the lectionary for Epiphany. I think the most important thing they bring in these Old Testament passages and what the magi bring in Matthew are not the expensive gifts of gold and incense, but the gift of worship, of respect, of recognizing a higher authority over all humankind. One preacher noted that the magi traveled 1000 miles, taking up to two years by camel caravan to bring those gifts, while Herod and his advisors wouldn’t go 6 miles to see for themselves. One of the most important things we bring to God, through and beyond all other gifts is that respect, that honor and worship that God deserves above all others.
I invite you to consider for yourselves as you move into this new year, what God has given to you already and what specifically you need to ask from God for this year, for this season of your life. It may be related to your health or your relationships, your areas of service or your attitudes. Jesus told his disciples, “Ask and you shall receive.” (Matthew 7:7) I’ve heard Christian leaders remind us that God has much more to give than we think to ask. Take time to reflect and pray about this. I’d also encourage you to write it down somewhere and look back at the end of the year to see where and how the gifts have come. But also ask yourself what gift you can bring to Christ. Is there a change of heart or behavior needed? Is there someone you can reach out to help? Is there time you can spend in worship and prayer? Is there someone with whom you can share your faith, invite to church, offer to pray? What gift of yourself and your life can you bring to Jesus? You might jot this down too, and next January look back and reflect on where the journey has taken you and what you have learned along the way. Don’t belittle your gift or say it’s unworthy. The wise men brought what they were able. The women gave of themselves in other ways. We each have different gifts to share, but those gifts in God’s eyes are of equal value and worth if they come from honest intentions and a willing spirit.
Make 2019 a year of giving from the heart and acknowledging with thanksgiving what you receive. Make it a year of worship and service, thanksgiving and sharing, inspiration and devotion. May this be a year you know you are blessed and you in turn become a blessing as you exchange gifts with our Lord.