Our Scripture readings this morning present us with a pretty clear message: when God comes to rescue his people, those who recognize him will bring gifts to honour him. We hear this same message repeated from the prophet Isaiah, in the psalm and again in our Gospel lesson. In short: God came into the world and took on our human nature or flesh. He was named Emmanuel, God is with us, by his parents.
These magi, or wisemen have traditionally been understood to be not Jews, but gentiles. This of course is fascinating because it’s precisely what is foretold in Genesis 17 and 18 – that through Abraham’s faith, not his biological offspring – people from all nations would be gathered to God. And we hear this reiterated by Isaiah, “[not just Israel or Judah, but ‘nations shall come to see, to inquire, to worship because they see the truth of God come into the world in this little baby Jesus.”
We know from John’s Gospel that it’s actually not the Jews, God’s own people, who are particularly good at seeing Jesus: “He came to his own people and they did not know him. They rejected him.” These pharisee and saducee like individuals were so arrogant in imagining that God would appear to them only as they expected and desired, that they actually did not see him at all. Instead, they believed him a blasphemer of God. They believed him to be breaking the rules, not doing things in the way they wanted or expected. Doing things and being around people they had cast out. And so in their self righteous arrogance, they didn’t see God in their midst at all. And they executed him instead.
How many of us are so caught up in our own expectations about how God should work in us and others, that we miss what God is actually doing with us, with another person, with people in general, or what he’s doing with this parish, or the larger church?
But the wise men, these gentiles, listen to God’s voice. More importantly, they do what Abraham did: they take a risk not based in seeing the outcome, but merely on God’s word, the risk of faith in God to make good on his promise. So at the word of an angel, like Abraham, they go out to follow God to the very core revelation of who he is: this God who “made himself a little lower than the angels” as Hebrews puts it, took on human flesh, to live and die as one of us so that he could reconcile us to God.
These wise men, like Abraham, reiterated in Isaiah and our Psalm, go to see the light of this Christ child – the very core of who God is – and they bring gifts to honor him. They of course bring gold, frankincense and myrrh. These are certainly concrete gifts that will provide for the family’s needs and they are even gifts that will honor this King of Kings, this Jesus. Yet they bring a far more important gift that is sometimes missed in reading this passage.
Ultimately, the gift they offer is themselves. This is the true gift that God seeks. Throughout the OT we hear again and again that while the tent or temple might need concrete gifts of money and labour in order to continue to provide worship services and to care for people, God needs NONE of these offerings. He doesn’t need money. He doesn’t need animals. He doesn’t need false prayer or false worship; he doesn’t need your piety. Again and again what God desires is that we offer ourselves, our hearts and our minds, our entire lives without any reserve, to him.
When we hear in the gospels that people are given talents or gifts, that are supposed to be returned with interest, God isn’t talking about money. He’s talking about having the humility to stop being a pompous, self righteous, arrogant and condescending jerk, thinking that because you have money or possessions or intellect, or success, that you have any value to him. You are no more worthy to him, in fact, if you set your worth on those things, it’s likely you are of less value to him than the poor man or beggar Lazarus who dies with sores all over his body at an early age. Do not set your mind on the things of this world because if you do, they, along with you, will perish. Instead, offer yourself to God so that he can change you into someone who can attract others to him.
That is: have the humility to set your mind on seeking out where Christ is. Hint: the wise men found Christ in a crappy little manger well outside of the wealthy areas of town. They found Christ with parents who were likely to be condemned or outcast and not at the fancy social club to which all the wealthy Jews belonged. Christ wasn’t at the roast beef dinners well off parishes like to host. In fact, most often, he wasn’t actually in the temple at all. He was usually out in the streets amongst people going about their day to day lives. He cared little, it seems, about outward conformance to certain ways of doing liturgy, or prayer, these of course seemed to change through time. What mattered was that people offer their whole selves to him; not the wealth they had; not just a minuscule hour and a bit of their time per week listening to his word in a worship service.
What Abraham, Isaiah’s, the widow with two coins, what Paul who gives up his status, and John the Baptist and Peter who will give up their lives, and here, what the wise men’s gift offering show us is that God values our willingness to give ourselves fully to him not for our own sakes and not for our own comfort or not so that we can be made righteous. This is not enough. This is to bury the talent you have. It’s like just showing up to church on Sunday for an hour and a bit, or doing some social stuff in the church and then living the other 166 hours a week as if you’re the ultimate king or queen of your life.
To offer yourself to God is to allow God to remake you into a person who can and does draw other people into the church. That means both giving up and taking on things, sometimes, like Peter, to go where you do not wish to go. That is what it is to be a wise follower of Christ. AMEN.