Summary: We tie gift-giving to our own self-acceptance. Appropriate gifts to Christ announce that indeed we are acceptable to Him.
Takoma Park Baptist Church, Washington, DC, December 24, 1987 (Christmas Eve)
Out there right now, running around with a harried look, and practically waving fistfuls of dollars in their hands, there are those folks who for one reason or another have a hard time with gift giving. They have waited until the last minute, and maybe beyond the last minute, knowing that custom and expectation meant they had to go get a gift for somebody, but just couldn't gear up for it. Just couldn't seem to get to it. Did not know what to get, didn't quite have in mind where or how to do it. Gift-giving for some people is not easy.
And you see a part of it is that we are not sure how our gifts are going to be received. I believe that we see our gifts as extensions of ourselves, and so, love me, love my gift. If you accept what I give you and like it, well, them, you accept me and like me. But if you open that package and you gulp a couple of times and hold that sweater up and say, “Uh, well, that's interesting," well, that's hard to take. We have a hard time giving gifts because we are never quite sure how they are going to be received, and we take the way our gifts are received as a clue about how we ourselves are received.
I well remember my father's annual anxiety about what to give to my mother. Now he didn't put it off to the last minute; he couldn't because he was a postal worker and he was being Santa's feet and legs right up to the last minute. But he always wanted to give my mother one really nice gift, one really special gift at Christmas. And he built up all sorts of hopes about how she would accept it. And so on Christmas morning we would distribute gifts around, but he would always pick out that certain one with great fanfare. He would shush the rest of us, and then would present it to her and make the rest of us watch while she opened it. And his face said, "I wonder, I hope, I don't know … what if?" Now you would have to know my mother to understand what always happened next; my mother is not a demonstrative person. I mean, you set off fireworks and she says, "Oh". You announce the Second Coming and she says, "Uh-huh.” And so here comes, each year, the biggie, the special gift. And the response is "Mmh," "Well," and sometimes, "What is it?" or "Do I need this?" If it was an appliance, maybe, "I probably will never learn to work this thing."
The truth is that my father set himself up every year to get a little disappointed. He felt less than accepted. His gift was accepted, sort of; and thus he was accepted, sort of. That’s the way we are, and it makes gift-giving a little trying, a little awkward. And many of you feel the same way, I suspect. I have noticed that on occasion when I leave my desk for a few minutes and come back in the office, something has magically appeared there. You could have handed it to me in person, but somehow we feel awkward about giving gifts. I suspect it is because we are never sure how they will be accepted.
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the King, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is he whose been born King of the Jews, for we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.’” To worship and to bring gifts … do you wonder how they felt about their gifts? Do you have any curiosity as to whether they were unsure whether their treasures would be accepted?
Well, of course, the child was too young to respond in any particular way, but may I suggest to you that the atmosphere of joy that surrounds the giving of these gifts tells us that the wise mea three felt them to be accepted? May I at least guess that they felt satisfaction and acceptance when they opened their treasures before him? The reason I can do this is that you and I can see that the gifts they brought were appropriate gifts; the offerings they made were appropriate offerings, because they expressed a true understanding of who the Christ child is. The wise men found acceptance of their gifts and of themselves because their gifts reveal their knowledge of the Christ child.
One of them, for instance, brought frankincense. Frankincense is a sweet-smelling substance, burned often in places of worship, even today, to suggest the presence of God. The odor of incense assaults the senses to remind us of God who is invisible but who is nonetheless all around us, inescapable, powerful, present. And so the wise man who brings incense is suggesting that this one brings with him the very presence of God, he speaks for God. He is prophet. He is word of God in human flesh. He is a prophet, a spokesman for God.