Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Gifts, givers and the cost

I am hoping to post many of the sermons preached at Ridley Hall this term, so here is the first Thursday Communion sermon, preached by our Director of Pastoral Studies, Ali Walton:

Matthew 2:1-12 The Gifts of the Wise Men


Steve and I had to change our plans for Christmas because of my shoulder injury. We had to cancel our trip to my brother in S Wales because of my shoulder – I wasn’t able to sit in the car that long and it would have been a lot of driving for Steve on his own.

However, that left us with the problem of what we were going to do for presents for them all.

I spoke to my brother on the phone who gave me a list of suggestions of what to get for him, my sister-in-law, nephew and 2 nieces. It took me 40 minutes on Amazon to find and buy everything and I was able to have everything delivered direct to them. It was easy, straightforward, and required very little thought or effort. It was just what we needed at the time.

The story of wise men visiting Jesus and their giving of gifts is a similar story – but these are gifts with hidden costs both to the givers and the recipients.

The Givers

The word that Matthew uses for ‘Wise men’ is the Greek word from which we get ‘Magi’ – those who possess secret wisdom – astronomers/astrologers – two were inseparable in that culture. They were men who gained spiritual insight into world affairs from their observations of planets and stars.

They were prompted by what a ‘star’ they saw in the sky to go on journey to seek out new born king. The ‘star’ was probably a natural phenomenon. Possibly:

  • conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn (that happened 3 times in year 7-6 BC)
  • a comet (Halley’s comet passed over in 12-11 BC)
  • a supernova – an exploding star

Whatever the star was these men associated it with the Jewish expectation of the coming king and so they set off to find this king.

They did the obvious. They went to the capital city of Israel – to Jerusalem and to the King’s palace,  to see King Herod to enquire where the child was who was born king of the Jews.

In doing that they stirred up a hornets nest. Herod was paranoid, with a reputation for cruelty and violence. He was threatened by the thought of a rival king. That made the whole of Jerusalem afraid. They knew he’d already killed his favourite wife and two sons from feeling  threatened. What would he do in response to this new threat?

He couldn’t just send wise men on their way. He needed to know where this child king was so he could remove the threat.

So he pretended to be helpful, using the excuse that he too wanted to pay homage to this king. He gathered together the religious leaders who would know where to seek this long expected Christ. With this we see emerging a strand that runs through so much of Matthew: the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy about the life and death of the Messiah. In this instance the prophecies showed that Bethlehem was the birth place of the child born king of the Jews.

The star continued to lead the wise men to Bethlehem, to the place where Jesus was.

Matthew describes their reaction on seeing Jesus emphatically. He says, literally, ‘they rejoiced with a great joy exceedingly’. The depth of their joy is typical in the context of Messianic fulfilment.

This deep joy prompts the wise men to bow down and pay homage to Jesus. They knelt on the ground, leaning forward with their foreheads touching the ground. The homage that they gave to Jesus was that due to a king.

The wise men themselves may not have recognised Jesus’ divinity but Matthew intends his readers to understand that the wise men worshipped better than they knew. The worship and homage of the wise men was to be a pointer to the worship to be offered by those who grasp not only Jesus’ kingship, but also his divinity.

Then they opened their treasure chests and gave Jesus gifts. Gold, frankincense and myrrh. These gift were very expensive. They had to be wealthy men to give these gifts because they were so valuable. This is probably where idea of them being kings comes from – the value of the gifts.

Matthew doesn’t draw out the significance of the gifts. The wise men were wealthy men who would have travelled with treasure chests to finance their trip. They didn’t have credit cards or foreign exchange bureaus etc from which to draw cash. So they carried assets of universal value in chests so they could liquidise these assets for cash as required to provide finance. We can imagine them rootling around in their chests, looking at what they had and then thinking ‘Ah – that would be good’ and presenting it to Mary and Joseph.

In those ways the gifts of the wise men were perhaps similar to my Amazon shopping for my brother’s family: the gifts were easily to hand, they didn’t take that much prior thought, and  the monetary value of them was negligible to these men.

But there were the hidden costs for these wise men in giving  these gifts to Jesus: costs they would not have anticipated when they first saw the star, realised its significance and started to follow it:

  • the cost (not financial) of the journey itself: the discomfort – heat in the day, cold at night; the difficulties of finding food and water; the  physical dangers of accidents in travelling through rough terrain; the dangers of attack by wild animals; the even greater danger of attack by robbers.
  • there was the cost of their visit to King Herod which they didn’t realise – the potential danger they’d put themselves in by bringing the birth of a rival king to the attention of a paranoid, cruel despot. Fortunately this was averted by God’s warning to them through a dream, not to go back to Herod, but to take a different way home.
  • but then that produced the cost of them having to stay out of Herod’s attention by going a much longer route home.
If they had known about these hidden costs in advance would they still have decided to follow the star? We don’t know. What we do know is that we’re often in similar positions. We commit ourselves to stepping out in faith and doing what we feel God is asking us to do – and once we’re on the way, we discover the cost and sometimes wonder why we ever set out on the journey in the first place. We think that if we’d known what it was going to cost maybe we wouldn’t have set out. It may well be that some of you here tonight think that about preparation for ministry – it’s proving costly in ways you could never have imagined and you wonder why on earth you started out on it.

May be, on the journey home, when the wise men felt like that, they remembered the great joy they had experienced on seeing Jesus and reminded themselves that the hidden costs of the journey were nothing compared to the joy of seeing Jesus.

Perhaps when we too feel like that – that the costs of the journey are too much and are greater than we can bear, we need to look again to Jesus and the joy of being in his presence and worshiping him.

The Recipients

What would Mary and Joseph have made of arrival of the wise men and the gifts they gave? They understood more than the wise men, about who Jesus was and why he was special. I think it’s possible that Mary understood even more than Joseph.

We’ve already discovered that Matthew attached no significance to the gifts. It was Origen in the 3rd century who was first to give the significance of the gold as a gift to a king, the frankincense as a reminder of worship and suffering, and the myrrh as a symbol of death, used in embalming dead bodies.

It’s possible that Mary, understanding more of who Jesus was and what he would do – realised the significance of these gifts for Jesus, and the suffering for him that these gifts indicated. They were quite possibly not the gifts that she would have chosen for her precious son.

The very presence of the wise men created an even greater cost. It was their visit to Herod and the revealing to him of presence of the one born to be king of the Jews that triggered his plot to kill all the children under the age of 2 in Bethlehem.

It was bad enough for Mary, a young mother in a strange place without her family – but now she has to escape as a refugee into a completely foreign and unknown country.

Maybe the gifts of the wise men financed Mary a nd Joseph’s escape to Egypt with Jesus, and their survival there but given the choice of receiving the wise men’s visit and their gifts and thereby having to flee to Egypt, or not having the wise men visit, not receiving their gifts, but at least being able to stay in her own country, maybe Mary would rather not have received them.

But at the same time, holding the Christ child, keeping him safe, remembering what the Lord told her about him, nothing could take those things away. Luke tells us that she treasured all these things in her heart.

This is clearly speculation, but knowing what we do of human nature, it makes sense.

Maybe there are times when we feel the same. We’re grateful for the gift of God’s love and grace in Jesus, but sometimes the cost of that gift, in the sacrifices we have to make, the discipline and self-control we have to exercise to live as God wants us to, what we deem to be our rights that we have to surrender, sometimes even the cost and burden of exercising the gifts for ministry that God has given us (I remember all those Saturdays of sermon preparation when I’ve said ‘Lord, I just can’t do this’, or those unjustified criticisms when I’ve said “Lord – that’s just not fair’).

But at those times we hold on to how great a gift to us is the love of God in Jesus, and we allow that to strengthen and encourage us.


The story of the wise men journeying to find Jesus, the new born king of the Jews and giving him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh involves a giving of gifts with joys for both the givers and receivers, but more importantly, huge costs for both givers and receivers.

We know the gift that we receive in Jesus of his love and reconciliation with our heavenly father.

Just as he gave himself as a gift for us, we so give ourselves as a gift for him. We know that giving ourselves to him will bring joy – but we know too that it will have a cost for us.

At the start of this new year, as we think again about the joys and costs in the giving and receiving of the gifts of the wise men, we’re going to pause and think and pray as we give ourselves again to Christ for this year.

Look at the copies you have of the Methodist covenant prayer. This is a costly prayer.

In silence, read it and think about it. Think about the hidden costs as well as the obvious ones. After a short silence I’ll lead us in praying it out loud. Please join me if you want to make a gift of yourself to Jesus for this year, whatever the hidden costs might be. If it feels like too hard a prayer to pray then pray quietly for strength for yourself for whatever this year will bring. The words will be on the screen or you can use the copy you have in front of you. Then take it away and put it up somewhere you can see it every day to remind you and encourage you to keep going on the journey. 

The Methodist Covenant Prayer

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,
exalted for you or brought low for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
 to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.

1 comment:

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