This one is a little rough. I have not taken the time to make it more readable. Hope you get the gist of it. Enjoy!
Listen to this sermon HERE.
Text: Matthew 1:18-25
Remember what Christmas morning was like when you were a kid? The excitement and anticipation got us out of bed very early.
I knew I wanted to share a song with you this morning, and when I went looking for a video of it, I stumbled across one that reminded me so much of Christmases when I was younger. As you watch the video, try to listen for the words to the song.
Somewhere in my parent’s attic there is an 8mm movie projector, a screen, and a box of movies a lot like those. Trees decorated with tinsel and those huge Christmas lights. Moms with perfectly coiffed hair because they knew the camera would be rolling. Dads not pictured because they were running the camera. Kids in their footie pajamas tearing through paper, hugging dolls, and climbing on new bicycles.
When I was a kid, my brother Ron – 16 months younger than me – and I shared a room with bunk beds. One of my favorite Christmas memories is how the first one awake would rouse the other one with the anticipation of Christmas morning. We always had to ask to get up – mostly so that my dad could get down the hall and set up the movie camera with the blinding light so he could capture the moment we saw the tree, and all of our gifts.
That plea in the song, “You gotta get up, you gotta get up, you gotta get up! It’s Christmas morning!” is something we could have said all those years ago. We pled for what seemed an eternity for the yes to finally come that we could get up and get started unwrapping.
Christmas is a time for gifts. It is the gifts that got me up at 0-dark-thirty when I was a child, and get your kids up today. The chorus of Rich Mullins’ captures the anticipation of Christmas morning so well:
Did my sister get a baby doll?
Did my brother get his bike?
Did I get that red wagon
the kind that makes you fly?
But then the chorus shifts a little –
Oh I hope there’ll be peace on earth
I know there’s good will toward men
On account of that Baby
born in Bethlehem
The gift of the wagon seems to remind the narrating child of the true gift of Christmas – “that baby born in Bethlehem.”
Gifts of the Wise Men
Whenever children in the church ask me why we get the presents on Christmas Day when it is really Jesus’ birthday, I tell them that it is a way of remembering the gifts that the Wise Men brought to Jesus – and wonder with them if that is why we get presents on our birthdays too. There is something remarkable about those gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.
Several years ago, back when we were doing the 5pm Sunday night service, I prepared a sermon series on the gifts the Wise Men gave to baby Jesus. You see, I only preached three of the four Sundays of Advent, because the 4th one was usually a music event like we had last Sunday night with our choirs. When I thought three, I thought of the gifts.
I was surprised to find that all three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – are found in the same chapter of the Old Testament – Exodus 30. Now this is my own exegetical work, and not something I read from some Bible scholar, so it makes me a little nervous to assert it with confidence. It has become though an important part of my understanding of the Wise Men, and a way of understanding what the story of Jesus’ birth is all about.
In this section of Exodus, the people are being given instructions for the building of the tabernacle – the “tent of meeting,” the dwelling place of God. While they are a nomadic nation it is a tent structure that they are to take with them, and will become the template for the designing and building of the Temple later when they settle in the Promised Land of Jerusalem.
Gold – In verses 1-10 of chapter 30, the people are given instruction for building an altar of incense. This is a block structure that is to be made of acacia wood overladen with GOLD. The instructions then continue to say that the altar of incense is to be placed right in front of the place where the ark of the covenant is to be placed – or in other words, right in front of the throne of God.
Myrrh – Later in the chapter, beginning at verse 22, the people receive the recipe for the anointing oil. The primary ingredient of the anointing oil is myrrh:
Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, two hundred fifty, and two hundred fifty of aromatic cane, and five hundred of cassia—measured by the sanctuary shekel—and a hin of olive oil; and you shall make of these a sacred anointing oil blended as by the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil. With it you shall anoint the tent of meeting and the ark of the covenant, and the table and all its utensils, and the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense, and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the basin with its stand; you shall consecrate them, so that they may be most holy; whatever touches them will become holy. You shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, in order that they may serve me as priests. (Ex 30:23-30)
Frankincense – Skip down a little farther, to verse 34, and you come across the third gift of the Wise Men.
Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (an equal part of each), and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy; and you shall beat some of it into powder, and put part of it before the covenant in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you; it shall be for you most holy. (Ex 30:34-36)
Matthew being a good Jewish writer and presumably writing to a Jewish community, he and his first readers may have been able to call all of this to mind in the few moments it takes him to name the gifts that the Wise Men brought.
Gold used to craft the altar of incense at the doorway to the Holy of Holies, the place where the veil is thinnest and God is most present on earth. Frankincense, the primary ingredient of the incense to be burned on that altar, a sign of the place where God meets with Moses. Myrrh, the primary ingredient of the oil used to anoint the holy things and people of God. All three of these are symbols of God’s willingness to meet with his people as they wandered the wilderness with Moses, and when they settled down in Jerusalem at the Temple.
Not to mention that the words Messiah in Hebrew and Christ in Greek, simply translate to “anointed one” in English. Read through this lens, these gifts symbolize who Jesus is – the presence of God with his people and the messiah.
And note who gives them. A group of outsiders – from another country, another religion. This is a foreshadowing of the faith that we now all know. That Jesus is not just a messiah for the Hebrew people, but he is the very presence of God come to all of his people. The promise to Abraham that he is being blessed to be a blessing is coming to its fulfillment in this moment. All through gifts.
Jesus the gift of God
There is one more gift to talk about here, and that is the gift of the baby in the manger. I have yet to find an effective way to communicate the wonder of the incarnation at this moment. God coming to us in a baby.
When we think babies, we often focus on the cuteness,, but think about what else you know about babies and childbirth. Childbirth is messy and painful. Babies are completely dependent on their parents for food, drink, and clean diapers. Babies cry loudly to get what they want. Newborns cannot sit up or even hold their heads up on their own.
We often picture Mary and Joseph just staring at baby Jesus and cuddling him in their arms. But they had many other, far less fun and glamorous tasks to do as well. Do you have good picture in your mind now of a real baby? Good.
Now think about this: that baby is God in the flesh. We are told that one of his titles is Emmanuel, which translated from Hebrew means “God with us.” God – the all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere-at-once, has-got-the-whole-world-in-his-hands creator of the universe – is the one lying that manger. Cold, vulnerable, helpless, fully dependent on his “parents.” This baby like any other, is also a baby unlike any other.
One of my favorite authors, Donald Miller who wrote Blue Like Jazz, posted a blog the other day that expresses a similar thought. The post is called “Changing God’s Diaper”:
I can’t think of a better way for God to enter the world then as an infant. He became one of His creation, for the sake of His creation. For a period in world history [humans] changed the diapers of God. He nursed at his creation’s breast. How disarming of Him. What a fantastic way to build a bridge between an infinite God and finite [humanity]. He depended on us for food and shelter and even life. He gave up power and control in an effort to love and rescue. Merry Christmas indeed (Miller “Changing God’s Diaper”).
This baby is not a gift from God – we often say that about babies. This baby is the gift of God. God in the flesh. It is hard to comprehend how incredible that is. And the gifts the Wise Men bring remind us that this is the gift of God’s presence freely given to all people. Remarkable.
We often forget that. Sometimes we think we need to find, or even make, our way to God. Sometimes we feel like we need to do certain things in order to please God. The Christmas story tells us though that God comes to us instead. The God we know in Jesus doesn’t wait for us to get our act together, but comes into the messes – like the mess childbirth in a stable. We don’t worship a God who demands obedience from us while he sits on high. Instead we know that God came to us, and still comes to us, to invite us into a relationship with him.
And he was willing to come as a baby to make that happen.
As you enjoy your gifts today, as you eat your Christmas meal and celebrate with family and friends – may you be reminded that today is a day we celebrate that God is with us.
Miller, Donald. Donald Miller’s Blog. “Changing God’s Diaper.” December 23, 2011. Link: http://donmilleris.com/2011/12/23/changing-gods-diaper/ accessed December 24, 2011
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at http://bible.oremus.org.