The Message, January 8, 2023: "Gifting and Re-Gifting," Matthew 2:1-12

The Message, January 8, 2023: "Gifting and Re-Gifting," Matthew 2:1-12

Author: Rev. Scott W. Cousineau
January 10, 2023


“Gifting and Re-Gifting”
A Message by Rev. Scott W. Cousineau
Matthew 2:1-12

            Have you moved on from Christmas? Have you taken down all of your decorations and put them away?

            It may come as no surprise to you that the retail stores have already moved on from Christmas. All of the remaining Christmas merchandise has been placed on the “Clearance” racks to make room for all of the Valentine’s Day paraphernalia. Some stores even have their Easter items on display! Easter is not until April 9!

            Even the crafters of the lectionary … the three-year cycle of scripture readings that delineate the calendar year for the church … have moved on from Christmas. This Sunday is designated as “The Baptism of Christ” Sunday.

            But we are not going to move on from Christmas just yet. I know that some of you had to delay your family Christmas celebrations due to COVID, RSV, the flu, severe storms, travel cancellations, and power outages. As you can see, we have not put away our Christmas decorations yet. Despite what the framers of the lectionary say, we are going to celebrate Epiphany today. Epiphany was actually Friday, but I did not think that many of you would attend an Epiphany service on Friday morning. So … it is still Christmas at 12 Beach Street in Saco, Maine.

            I know that we cannot follow the human life of Jesus Christ day by day, week by week, and year by year. If we did, we would not get to his baptism for thirty years! Obviously, that is unrealistic. But I do not want to move on from the Nativity story just yet. There is so much richness and meaning in the story we cannot truly experience it in just one Christmas pageant. I have considered creating a separate Epiphany pageant … I even considered staging one this morning. Perhaps that is something that we can look forward to next year.

            So, there will not be a procession of people wearing the fancy magi costumes escorted by our wonderful camel this morning. No one is going to get to carry the gifts forward to present to the Christ Child. Again … start thinking about next year. However, we will linger in the little town of Bethlehem for just a few moments.

            We love these twelve verses from Matthew’s Gospel. They conjure up so many dramatic … perhaps even magical … images in our hearts and minds. Sit for a moment and let the story open up for you.

            Perhaps we see a marketplace or a compound in some exotic faraway land. We see people dressed in colorful robes staring at the sky and opening their hand-drawn star charts. We see some of them discussing what they were seeing … an unusual light in the heavens in the western sky.

            They have studied the movement of the stars and the planets for generations but have never seen anything like this before. They believe that signs in the heavens reflect activity here on earth. They have travelled to foreign countries in the past. They have visited the courts of kings and queens. Something tells them that this is an extraordinary event.

            They eliminate the naturally occurring phenomena. Nothing can account for what they were seeing. This is an event that must be pursued. That heavenly light had to be explored. They decided to follow it.

            Of course, not much of what I just said is contained in those twelve verses from Matthew. In fact, most of what we imagine when we consider this story comes from our own dreams of what happened. Most of this comes from poems, and stories, movies and pageants that has been applied to this brief story from Matthew.

            The reality is that we do not know much at all about what occurred. Throughout the centuries people have tried to fill in the blanks. Experts have tried to explain the story. They have felt the need to prove the story, or disprove it, depending upon one’s motivation. Humans have this very human need to understand everything. We need to figure it out. We need hard data.

            There has been speculation about the magi. Who were they? How many were there? Where did they come from? What gifts did they really carry?

            They were Persian astrologers. They were Zoroastrian priests. They Medes that instructed royalty in philosophy, medicine and natural science. They were Babylonian teachers. They were magicians or sorcerers.

            They were from Iran. They were from Iraq. They were from Saudi Arabia. They were descendants of Ham, Shem and Japheth … the sons of Noah.

            They could have arrived in Bethlehem after a thirty day walk, or a sixty day walk, depending upon which country they were from and taking into consideration walking twelve hours per day.

            And what about the star that they followed? What was it?

            Was it Halley’s Comet? No, that was about ten years earlier. Was it a convergence of Jupiter and Saturn? Was it a convergence of stars? Experts have scoured the star charts trying desperately to find what naturally occurring event could explain what they magi followed to Bethlehem.

            One commentary that I read actually said that it could not really have been a star that settled over the house in Bethlehem because the house would have been incinerated! Yes … some educated person really said that … and wrote it in a book!

            All of this misses the point. God cannot be limited by human constructs. God is beyond. God is extraordinary. God is not confined to the laws and patterns of that which we know and understand.

            We should allow ourselves to approach the story with an open and uncritical mind. We should approach it with hearts wide open and simply allow ourselves to make the journey with the magi … whoever they were, wherever they were from, however many there may have been. Because the reality is that none of that matters.

            We should simply allow ourselves to live in the wonder.

            Matthew did not include it because it did not matter. It did not matter if there were three or twelve. (Early traditions said that there were twelve magi.) It does not matter if they all came from the same far-off land, or if they came from twelve different kingdoms. It does not matter if they were men or women, of if their names were Caspar, Melchior, or Balthasar.

            What DOES matter is that God placed a heavenly beacon in the skies to let the world know that something wonderful was happening. A group of learned and observant individuals studied the heavens and saw that something extraordinary was occurring. That something extraordinary told them that a miraculous event … a significant event in the history of the world … was going to happen. And they decided to follow it wherever it led them.

            It was significant and extraordinary enough that they were willing to travel thirty days, or sixty days, or however many days it took to arrive at that unknown destination. They associated the birth of a new ruler with astral phenomena, and clearly whatever sign or light, or star that they witnessed told them that it was a beacon to be followed.

            That star … that light … that angel … that divine sign led them to the court of King Herod who summoned his scribes and chief priests. They were familiar with the words of the prophet Micah. They would have been familiar with the tradition that related the hope for a Messiah to a “Star out of Jacob.” (Numbers 24:7) And they directed those magi to a little town just six miles south of Jerusalem. Bethlehem, the City of David.

            This story that we have treasured and adored, this story that we have adorned with exotic details, this story that we tell with child actors and colorful costumes warms our hearts. We overlook that this story was actually political dynamite!

            This story introduces us to the House of Herod. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that he is an unpopular king, hated by many of his own people, and insanely jealous and threatened by anyone who might dislodge him from the throne. A throne that he acquired with a military conquest of his own people supported by the Roman emperor.

            This story sets up the dynamic that will be witnessed throughout the life of Jesus Christ. It sets up the tension between the illegitimate kingship of Herod and his sons, and the reign of the one true king. It sets up the tension between those who sat upon an unsteady earthly throne and One who would ascend to a heavenly throne.

            But we will get to that as we watch Jesus begin his ministry. Let us get back to the wonder.

            As we linger a little longer … as we wander in the wonder … we can spend a few moments considering the gifts that the magi brought. Matthew tells us that they were gold, frankincense and myrrh. It should come as no surprise to you that the theological meanings that have become associated with the three gifts have been applied aver the generations.
            Gold … the proper gift for a king.
            Frankincense … a fragrant oil used by priests during worship.
            Myrrh … an ointment used in the embalming process.

            All of this accurate and true … but not necessarily the motivation for the gifts given by the magi. More likely, they were all fine and expensive gifts befitting one who was born to be a great leader. Gold, frankincense and myrrh … gifts of great value presented to one whose coming was foretold in the stars.

            In this extraordinary year that we find ourselves, there are those who are still in the gathering and gift-giving phase of their Christmas celebrations. There are others whose gifts have been opened and put away, and others that have already exchanged those gifts that were not the correct size, or color, or style. And then may be those who have practiced or are currently practicing that gift-giving known as RE-gifting.

            Now … how many of you have re-gifted gifts that you received? Do not be shy. I will not tell anyone. Do not worry … the cameras are not focused upon you.

            There are mixed feelings about re-gifting. Some people think that it is a terrible practice. Someone went to great lengths to select just the perfect gift and you just give it away.

            Not necessarily. Perhaps it IS the perfect gift, but you already have one, so you decide to share the other with someone else. Perhaps you love the gift that you received, but you know someone that is truly in need of it. For example, there was a youth in one of my previous churches that gave some of her Christmas gifts to children in her neighborhood that did not receive any gifts at all.

            There are some gifts that are better when they are shared. After all, that is the true message of Christmas. The greatest gift ever given is a gift that is meant to be shared. The gift of love born in Bethlehem that night so long ago, is a gift that we receive every day, and it is a gift that we should re-gift. It is a gift that we are called to share.

            The story of the magi is not one that should be confined to a Christmas pageant or a couple of carols on Epiphany. It is a story that we should ponder and consider every day.
            Are we moved to follow the star … the beacon of heavenly light?
            Are we willing to follow it to the place to which God leads us?
            Are we willing to offer gifts of great value to the holy Child of Bethlehem?
            Are we willing to share the gifts that we have received?


Congregational Church