Rev. Sarah Buteux
January 6, 2019
Matthew 2:1-12 Epiphany 1, Year C
Do you all know what “go to gifts” are? If you’re the one who buys gifts in your household, you probably do. Not to be confused with “safety gifts,” which are the completely generic gifts you keep stashed away in case of emergencies – like uncle Phil showing up unannounced for Christmas dinner – “Go to gifts,” are kind of like the hacks of the gift giving world. They’re the gifts that take the stress out of gift giving during major life events because they are so perfectly suited to the occasion.
Popular “go to gifts” are things like a copy of Dr. Suess’, “All the Places You’ll Go,” for the recent graduate or pots and pans for newly weds, a plant for the couple who just bought a new house, or really nice chocolates from that little counter in Thornes… across from the coffee place – you all know the one I mean? – for pastors… at anytime.
“Go to gifts” are no brainer gifts that are universally appreciated because they are universally appropriate.
Go to baby shower gifts – in case you’re wondering – include things like diapers, wipes, diaper genies, diaper pads, more diapers and anything cute you want to attach to the outside of a giant package of diapers. Because the one thing we know new parents will need no matter what are more diapers. That or money… so they can afford even bigger diapers when the time comes.
So I imagine that when the first of the magi knelt before Jesus and offered him gold, Mary and Joseph were really appreciative. This belated baby shower we read about in Matthew may have happened two thousand years ago but, as far as I know, gold in some shape or form has always made it on to the top 10 list of “go to gifts” for pretty much any occasion.
Babies may be small, but they’re really expensive….because, you know, diapers. Gold may be a gift fit for a king, but it’s also a gift anyone at anytime can use, so I’d say it’s still really the “go to gift” par excellence. Well done, Magi #1.
Frankincense, on the other hand, hasn’t really retained its appeal. I looked on Pinterest, Real Simple, and parenting.com, and no one was listing frankincense as that special resin every growing child needs. And yet, my guess is that Mary and Joseph would have been pleasantly surprised by this gift as well, because frankincense would have symbolized that Jesus was holy in some way.
Frankincense was a costly type of incense burned during prayer, and the fact that strangers from the East had traveled hundreds of miles to present such a rare and precious gift would have been a huge affirmation for Mary and Joseph. An affirmation that those angels who had visited them both during her pregnancy were real. Because – you know – after all those months of 3 am feedings, the rigors of teething, and the endless hell that is new baby laundry, they might have begun to wonder. It would have been comforting to know that this baby was in fact so special that those with an eye for such things were taking notice.
So I think it’s safe to say that the magi bearing gold and frankincense were totally on point in the gift giving department. But that wise one who decided to bring myrrh? Mmmm….I don’t know. Maybe not so much. Myrrh, even back then, would have been a highly unusual present to give a baby.
Although myrrh too was a gift of great value, it was most often used as an embalming oil. As far as I know, myrrh was a gift you might give a family toward the end of someone’s life, not one you’d give at the very beginning. I mean it’s one thing to show up with precious gifts for a new baby that can be put toward, say, their college fund. It’s a whole other thing to help pay up front for their funeral.
In my experience, you want to strike the right tone in your gift giving, engender certain kinds of feelings appropriate to the occasion, and myrrh for a baby is pretty grim when you think about it.
And yet that foreshadowing of Jesus’ death, that pervasive sense that this child’s story – for all it’s joy and wonder – is not going to end well, is laced throughout the tellings of Jesus’ birth in scripture.
Think of that scene in the temple when Jesus is presented to Simeon. The prophet’s words as he holds the new baby are more of a warning than a blessing. He speaks of people rising and falling in Israel and of Jesus revealing the deepest thoughts of people’s hearts before telling Mary that, thanks to this baby, a sword will pierce her own heart as well. I shiver every time I read that passage in Luke.
We know that the powers that be – men like Herod – are not only aware of Jesus, but will stop at nothing to destroy him. And we know just how small and weak Jesus’ own people are at this point in history…not just Mary and Joseph, but the Jewish people as a whole.
The sense of doom is so pervasive, it even shows up in some of our Christmas carols. (You heard one just now…)
I wonder, as I wander, out under the sky,
why Jesus the savior did come forth to die?
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight
Glorious now, behold him arise, King and God and sacrifice.
It would seem that this baby was born to die – as all babies are if you think about. My point is that with most babies, we try not to.
However, that’s not the case with Jesus, is it? At least not in the church.
As Christians, historically, we’ve tended to focus so much on Jesus’ death- focus so much on the cross – that you could be forgiven for thinking that’s the only reason he was born. And although there is something undeniably moving and deeply significant about that part of the story, there is also a danger if that part of the story becomes the whole story.
Because when we focus the bulk of our attention on how Jesus left this world, we miss the full import of the fact that he loved it enough to come into it in the first place. We can become so focused on Jesus’ death that we forget about his life. And that focus can skew our understanding of just how precious this world and this life truly are, not just to us but to God.
As some of you know, I grew up deeply embedded in this kind of thinking. I was raised with the understanding that Jesus loved me so much that he died to save me – save me from this wretched world so full of fear and violence, sin and death. And I still believe that’s true. One need look no further than the presence of Herod in this story, to understand just how awful the world can be and how much we all need saving.
But I also think that our intense focus on the salvific power of Jesus’ death, limited my ability to fully understand the gospel. For me, growing up, the gospel became the story of God rescuing people like me from this life and this world, a story – when taken to its logical conclusion – that led me to believe that God had given up on this life and this world. The lucky ones willing to believe in Jesus could still get out, but the rest of the earth and her people were destined for destruction. And when I dared to question whether that was really good news – because honestly it’s as grim as myrrh at a baby shower when you think about – I was told that it was really ok because destruction was exactly what such an evil place full of such evil people deserved.
As a side note: if you ever wonder why so many Christians care so little for the environment or even the welfare of others, I think it has a lot to do with their sense that God gave up on the world a long time ago and it’s only a matter of time before God scraps this whole thing anyway.
But if all Christians could widen their lens a little and see salvation in the full context of Jesus’ life from the manger to the grave, they might see a gospel that is more beautiful and hopeful and life giving than they ever imagined.
Because this world they are so ready to give up on, this world so full of sin and fear and death and violence, this world still so full of men like Herod, is precisely the world Jesus chose to be born into in the first place. This world, even and in spite of all its flaws, was, and is, and will always be, a world God loves.
Life as we know it, even in all its pain and suffering, frustrations and limitations, is precisely the life God was willing to take on when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
I admit that the full significance of the incarnation – of God taking on human flesh – is all a bit subtle and slippery. But I believe there is a bigger, better, way to tell the story wherein we see Jesus – our Emmanuel – as a testament not just to how much God loves humanity, but how much God loves what it is to be human. A way to tell the story where we wonder in awe at just how fully God trusts in the power and potential of a single human life lived well upon this earth.
Think about it: if God truly became one of us, then maybe God has not given up on the world or come to rescue us from it, but came all those years ago to work alongside us – as one of us – to redeem it. I think we can tell the story in such a way that God is faithful to all of creation, not just a select few or even humanity in general, but faithful to all the earth and her creatures. I believe that in the incarnation, God came among us in order to invite us to save all this together.
Liz Minelli puts it this way:
The incarnation, I believe, is the greatest act of love God has bestowed upon us. Jesus body and blood and breathe and life are a declaration … Jesus shows us that it is good to be human.
And for me, that’s what Christmas is all about. Redeeming the goodness in and of each other. Believing for it, looking for it, and finding it. Not in the grand and ostentatious and even miraculous, but in the ordinary, every day, messy, dirty, complicated, beautiful wonder of our lives. Like in a woman giving birth…That’s where God is. In the depth of our humanity. Witnessing to us that we are already redeemed, we are already loved.
She goes on to point out that when Jesus refers to himself throughout the gospels he doesn’t call himself the “son of God” but the “son of man.” I’ve always wondered about that myself.
Well, it turns out that, “in ancient Hebrew, the translation is closer to ‘The human one.’” “Jesus, “ she says, “emphasized his humanity at every turn.”
Just let that sink in for a moment.
Jesus, emphasized his humanity at every turn.
When I do, I can’t help but wonder if Jesus came to die – not because he had to die on the cross to save humanity – but simply because death is the price we all must pay when we become human.
And part of the love and beauty and wonder of this story – the good news, if you will – is that Jesus came anyway because he thought death a price worth paying. Jesus came anyway, because he thought that life on this earth – as flawed and fragile and full of suffering as it can be – is still worth living.
So perhaps as we wander we can wonder, not just why Jesus the savior did come forth to die. We can wonder at the fact that he came to live, and in so doing not just offer us life in heaven, someday, up there, but the life of heaven, right now, right here. “I have come,” he said, “that you might have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
What an amazing gift.
May we use it well. Amen.