Summary: What we learn about gifts from the Wise Men who visited Jesus.
The Characters of Christmas: The Wise (?) Men
We come to close our series on The Characters of Christmas today with a look at the most misunderstood, or at least most misinterpreted, cast of characters in the entire Christmas story. Like Buddy the Elf walking around New York City, they just look out of place. I mean, here are what some have called “royalty” making their way to bow down before a baby. Of course, we are speaking today of the wise men. Some have called them kings, but that comes more from tradition than what we actually know of the wise men. It’s appropriate that we should reflect upon the wise men today because this is Epiphany Sunday, the Sunday of the Christian year when we acknowledge the “revealing” of the Christ. Tomorrow is the 12th day of Christmas, and Epiphany is traditionally accepted as the time the “wise men” came to visit baby Jesus.
Someone asked the question: What if they had been wise women instead of wise men? The answer?
• They would have stopped and asked for directions so they would have arrived on time.
• They would have helped deliver the baby.
• They would have taken the time to clean the stable.
• They would have prepared a casserole.
• And, they would have brought cute little outfits for the baby Jesus to wear home.
What we know of the wise men we learn primarily from tradition. Tradition tells us there were three, and legend in the western church give them names: Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar. We really don’t know their names. We don’t know how many there were. We don’t know where they were from, and we don’t know how long the journey took. I guarantee it took more than a night. These wise men mysteriously show up, and just as mysteriously, they’re gone. What we know of them we learn in Matthew’s gospel. I think Matthew’s introduction of this cast of characters to the Christmas story can be instructive as we seek to live faithful lives.
What we do know about the “wise men” is they came bearing gifts. We might not learn much else, but we can learn about the gifts—gold, frankincense and myrrh. Matthew tells us that much, and if Matthew thought it important, perhaps we should, too. It is from this cast of characters that we get our tradition of gift giving at the Christmas season. We’re all about gift-giving.
We all practice gift-giving, and there are different gifts and different ways those gifts are given. First, there’s the gift for a gift, gift. You get me a gift, so I need to get you a gift, too. Christmas cards are the same way. I write an annual letter—we call it The Malone Christmas Annual—that we send in lieu of Christmas cards. I was late getting the letter written this year, and there were a few people who didn’t receive it until Christmas Eve eve, and wouldn’t you know it, a couple of days after Christmas I get a few Christmas cards in my mail box, and they have December 24th postmarked on the envelope. Now, I’m a pretty smart guy, and I think I’ve figured out those folks were sending us a Christmas card because they received our letter. It’s one of those gift for a gift, gift things, and it’s all about keeping score. That’s okay! It fuels the economy, and any politician can tell you, “It’s the economy, stupid!”
Next, there’s the gift for a favor gift. That’s all about spreading around IOU’s. Companies give Christmas bonuses or turkeys or hams. My Thanksgiving turkey came from Brookshire’s this year. My son got it “free” because he spent $400 on other groceries. This is the gift for a favor gift. We expect something in return, just not necessarily a gift. This, too, is about keeping score, and it also fuels the economy.
Then, there is the grace gift. This was the gift the wise men brought to Jesus. The grace gift can’t be repaid because it can’t be earned. The grace gift is a gift of love, like Mom cooking too much on Christmas, or a hand-made card from a child. I find it ironic that the wise men brought gifts to He who was the gift himself. Jesus was God’s grace gift to us that first Christmas, and as cousin Eddie would say on Christmas Vacation concerning the Jelly of the Month Club, “it’s the gift that keeps on giving.” God’s grace gift in His Son, Jesus is a gift of His salvation to all who believe, and he gives himself over and over through His Holy Spirit to all who ask.
The grace gift is distinctive in several ways. First, the cost of a grace gift can’t be measured. The greatest gift can be utterly worthless, but there’s no amount of money in the world that can buy it. You can’t put a price on a grace gift. Our own Galen Husser gave a gift just before the holidays that can’t be measured. He offered his stem cells for a stem cell transplant for a patient in Europe. Galen made at least two trips to San Diego, took time away from his job and some away from the family to offer this gift. He endured some discomfort through the process, but his gift is priceless to the person who received the stem cells. That’s a grace gift. We may measure the cost of the materials that go into the gift, but we can’t measure the love or the sacrifice or the commitment. True enough, the wise men brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and all three could be measured in the physical sense, but what couldn’t be measured was the worship and adoration and glory that lay behind the giving of the gift. Those were the most precious gifts imaginable, and they were the gifts the wise men brought to Jesus.