what shall i give him?

 

On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother;
and they knelt down and paid him homage.
Then, opening their treasure chests,
they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Matthew 2:11

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a band of wealthy scholars from the East arrived in Jerusalem, having observed a star that signaled his birth.  They followed that star to Jerusalem and after a brief encounter with the jealous King Herod, they set out toward Bethlehem to find the child.[1]  The star appeared again, leading them along their journey until it hovered over the place where the child lay.  They entered the house; saw the child in the arms of his mother, Mary; and were so overcome with joy that they knelt before him and worship him, offering to him their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The Greek word which is translated in our text as “wise men” is magoi.  It’s the same root from which we get the word “magic.”  These wise men were scholars of the stars, probably from Persia-Babylonia (which is present-day Iraq).  They were astrologers; they may have been magicians; they may have been Zoroastrian priests.  Whoever and whatever they were exactly, we’re not sure.  But they were most definitely outsiders; non-Jews.  They were folks who were not supposed to be alert to the coming of the Jewish Messiah.  And yet there they are: the ones to show up with precious gifts in their hands, ready to worship he who has been born “King of the Jews.”

It has become so commonplace for us in the church to find these magi in the manger that we forget how odd it is for them to be there.  We no longer see what they really are or what they represent.  We’ve become so accustomed to their presence that we don’t even pay attention anymore to how scandalous it is for them to be there at all.

Herod, himself, is surrounded by “chief priests and scribes” – learned scholars who know the scriptures well.  But the ones who show up to worship the Messiah are foreigners and Gentiles – they are not even what some would call ‘true believers.’

Matthew is good at that.  He’s good at shaking things up in his gospel.  You can almost see him chuckle with satisfaction as he records this story – making sure that he tells us earlier in the gospel about the surprising lineage of the Messiah.  He wants to be sure that we know that Jesus’ lineage includes 5 women you just wouldn’t expect to be on the guest list of anyone’s party let alone in the genealogical chart of the Messiah.  Matthew must have really enjoyed making it clear that God’s designs for humanity included unexpected guests that force us to deal with our prejudice and hypocrisy.

The gifts they brought the baby Jesus are famous now: gold, frankincense, myrrh.  But their real gift was that they knew Him.  They followed the signs and found Him and when they did they fell down and worshiped Him.  It’s a lot more than some people did – or still do for that matter.

Whenever I study the Gospel according to Matthew I turn to a commentary written by a guy named Dale Bruner.  He translates one part of this story in a way I’ve never seen before.  He says, that “When they saw this star, they felt the deepest and most profound joy.  And when they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary his mother, they fell down and worshiped him.”

“They felt the deepest and most profound joy.”  It’s a small part of the story really, but what a wonderful notion.  The star that led them to the Christ-Child caused them to feel “the deepest and most profound joy.”  The search for the Manger was joyous.  Led by the light of a star, they followed a path leading to the Christ – and that path gave them the deepest and most profound joy they had ever known in their lives.

It sounds to me like a wonderful description of the spiritual journey.  It sounds like the kind of spiritual journey we all want to be on.

Christina Rossetti was a poet who crafted the words for the hymn, “In the Bleak Mid-Winter.”  One of the lines most beautiful says this:

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd,
I would bring a lamb:
If I were a wise man,
I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him —
Give my heart.”

Like the Magi in this story, we could offer Christ our gifts most rare and precious.  We could follow Him, and recognize Him, and fall down and worship Him.

Or, maybe we could be like the Star instead – shining its bright light right over the place where the Christ-child lay.  Maybe our gift could be just that: to live our lives in such a fashion that we lead others right to the place where Jesus is.  Maybe our job is to live in a way that points to Him; to speak in a way that honors Him; to show others the way to Him.

That, it seems to me, is a treasure far beyond gold – and one we are called to share.

 

[1] Obery Hendricks, “The Politics of Jesus,” Kirkridge Retreat Center Epiphany e-mail, 1/1/10.

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trusting in the Lord

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.”
(Luke 1:68)

When an angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah to tell him that his wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son, Zechariah was skeptical.  Elizabeth was “advanced in years” and until this time she had been unable to conceive a child.  Zechariah didn’t jump for joy when he heard the good news.  He didn’t even buy it right away.  The penalty for this disbelief?  He was struck silent.  Speechless.  Maybe God is trying to tell us something about the value of keeping our mouth shut when we try to steal God’s glory.

By the time Elizabeth had given birth to a healthy son (John the Baptist), Zechariah had come around.  When the next test of faith came he passed with flying colors – and God opened his mouth and loosed his tongue.  The first words out of his mouth were these:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.”

To be redeemed is to know the saving love of God; love that restores broken hearts and broken spirits to wholeness.  To be redeemed is to know that God has made right something that human sinfulness made wrong.  To be redeemed is to know that we are washed clean of sin; the burden we have been carrying has been lifted, and we are able – with Zechariah – to sing the praises of God.

It’s not unusual to feel skeptical about God’s promises.  It’s not abnormal for our trust in God to falter from time to time.  But the Holy One desires to bring us closer and closer to His kingdom and His mercy so he will seek us out.

You never fail us, O God.  You never fail to astonish us, to perplex us, to lead us to wonder, to cause us to trust in You.  Seek us out, when we falter.  Draw us near when we wander.  And open our hearts and our mouths that we might proclaim your glory to those who need to hear.  Amen.

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do not be afraid

And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be a sign for you:  you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
(Luke 2:10-12) 

They were minding their own business when it happened.  They were doing what shepherds do.  They were abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night — making sure no wild animal would invade the flock and do them a harm.  Those shepherds were hardly expecting the veil between the worlds to be torn back that night so a heavenly host could peer down from heaven, bringing them good news of great joy for all people.

The Bible is full of stories of people being caught unawares.  There they are, minding their own business, when all of a sudden God shows up and demands something from them.  Of course the demand is usually preceded by the words, “Do not be afraid.”

Yeah, right.

God does not want us to be afraid.  But the truth is we are a lot of the time.  We’re afraid of the future and its unknowns.  We’re afraid of things we don’t understand and can’t control.  We’re afraid of terrorism and war and the ground shifting beneath our feet.

“Do not be afraid,” God tells us over and over again – usually sung by angels.  And the reason we are not supposed to be afraid?  Because God is with us.  Because God has always been with us.  Because God will never not be with us — and because this is true we know that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God.

Saving God, calm our worries, still our fears, send your angels of mercy to soothe us when we are afraid.  Help us to know, trust, and believe, that if you brought us to it,
you will see us through it.  Amen.

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keep awake

Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.  And what I say to you I say to all: ‘Keep awake.’                 (Mark 13:35-37)

One of my favorite artists is a guy named Brian Andreas.  He has very strange artwork and most of the time it delights me by its peculiarity.  We have one of his wall sculptures in our house.  It’s supposed to be an angel – you can tell by the oddly shaped wire wings — and like all angels, it comes with a message:

Most people don’t know there
are angels whose only job
is to make sure you don’t
get too comfortable,
she said.
They know how
easy it is to
fall asleep
& miss
your
life.

It’s easy to fall asleep and miss our lives.  When life is painful, when the news is filled with what seem to be insurmountable problems, and when our spirits are weary from trying to be hopeful in the midst of it all — it can be tempting to tune out, turn off, fall asleep.  What is harder is to be present, to keep caring, to pay attention, and to watch, wait for, and believe in the signs of God’s appearing in our lives and in our world.

The season of Advent is upon us and it is all about staying awake; keeping watch; waiting for ‘the master of the house [to] come.’  The more I live as an intentional Christian, the more grateful I am for the structure and rhythm of the Church’s calendar.  Advent is the beginning of our year, and our year begins with one task.  It’s not a simple one but our charge is clear: keep awake.

Gracious and loving God, you know how hard it is for us to wait and to keep watch,
so you have given us Mary and her beloved son, Jesus, that we might learn how to be patient — waiting with her and watching for Him: the One who comes to save us.  Amen.

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rest and be thankful

Somewhere in the Highland Mountains of Scotland there sits a stone seat with the inscription, “Rest and be thankful.”  I picture this seat atop some beautiful jagged peak at the end of a long and arduous trail.  What a welcome sight this stone bench must be after a hard journey; what friendly words to read after one has made the long climb up a mountain trail.

I have been to the Highlands.  They are far from the gently rolling wooded hills of Pennsylvania.  They are nothing like the mellowed angle of the Appalachian Mountain range.  The Highlands are rough and craggy, jagged with exposed rock.  Any rest taken atop those mountains would be well earned.

There is nothing quite like reaching the summit after trudging up the face of a mountain.  During a hard hike it can be easy to lose sight of your destination; to forget why you ever thought such a journey would be fun in the first place.  But there is nothing like reaching the top and gazing out upon a vast and beautiful landscape.  There is a reason why some events in life are called “mountain top experiences.”  The perspective is wondrous and if you let it, it will change you.

The season of giving thanks is upon us, and with it comes a rare opportunity to rest.  Thanksgiving is one of those uncommon days in our common life that remains relatively free to be what it is: a day to rest and be thankful.  There are no gifts to give.  There are few cards to send.  There are only sumptuous feasts to prepare and savor around tables hallowed with prayer and loved ones.  It is one of the few days that we allow ourselves to cease, to rest, to savor, and to experience the deep gratitude that wells up within us.

For people of faith, this quality of rest and thanksgiving is called Sabbath.  Sabbath is practiced on different days in different religious traditions, but what is so important about Sabbath-time is the way it changes us.

It is no secret that we live in a culture where work can become the center of our lives, and over-work can become of badge of honor.  Even our leisure activities these days can take on a kind of deadly seriousness.  But people of faith have long known that rest is essential to the life of the spirit.  This knowledge is conveyed in the book of Genesis with regard to the creation of the Sabbath:

“And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done,
and rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done.
So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested
from all his work which he had done in creation.”
(Genesis 2:2-3)

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches in his seminal work, The Sabbath, three acts of God mark the seventh day: God rested, God blessed and God hallowed (that is, God made holy).  It is no accident that these three things occur together — for to bless and to make holy require a center of calm and serenity only a spirit of restfulness can provide.  The kind of rest which brings ease and relief from work is important.  But the rest of the spirit — the rest which gives birth to thankfulness — is a different kind of rest entirely.  And the life of faith must be punctuated by it.

May this season of thankfulness bring you much joy.  May your hearts be quieted and renewed by the tranquility that rest can bring.  And may these days of giving thanks prepare a place within your spirit for the gratitude that is a witness to faithfulness.

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Practice, Practice

When I was a kid growing up in California, I used to swim competitively.  It was pretty serious.  We swam every morning from 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m., and every evening from 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.  By the end of the day, it was quite within the realm of possibility to have swum upwards of five miles.  We were pretty good.

Kids can get pretty good at the things they practice.  It’s kind of scary, really, when you look at how accomplished some of our young people are.  We’ve got kids in this church who sing like they’re heading to Broadway; kids who play soccer like they’re going to the Olympics; kids who are scary-smart and get great grades.  We’ve got dancers and instrumentalists and athletes and scholars.  We’ve got kids playing bells and kids learning how to be leaders; kids teaching other kids how to be good citizens and good friends.  We are indeed blessed with an abundance of riches!

All this practice really does make a difference.  Like I said before, it’s scary to watch how good kids can get at the things they work hard at doing.  If it was me — at the age of 53 — taking up an instrument?  Well… enough said.

But kids, can pick up stuff so quickly.  Their young minds are like sponges.  Everything they learn, everything they practice, can make such a huge difference in their lives.  It practically goes on “the hard drive” of their little bodies, minds, and spirits.

And so, for that very reason, it is so important for us to respect and honor the shaping power of our faith – if we give it a chance.  Practice, practice – it makes such a difference.  It’s true whether we’re talking about football, ballet, playing the trumpet, or practicing the life of faith.

It takes practice to learn how to pray.  It takes practice to learn how to center ourselves in God’s Spirit.  It takes practice to discern what is good for us and what is soul-destroying.  It takes practice to recognize when we are being tempted, and what to do in those circumstances.  It takes practice to cultivate hope in the midst of times of personal despair.  It takes practice to learn to stand up for what you believe in, even when you find yourself standing alone.  These are faith-based practices, and it takes time to develop them.

What’s really important to remember is that these practices will last you a lifetime.  You’ll never outgrow them.  You’ll never get too old or too out of shape to do them.  The more you practice, the deeper and richer the journey becomes.

So, let’s practice together — old and young alike.  It’s what we’re here for.  And, you know what?  We’re pretty good at it.

 

 

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A Season of Return

The fall is my favorite season.  I love the cooler temperatures, the changing colors, the signs all around that Creation is beginning to bed down for the winter.  I love the rhythm of the fall with its regular routines, the return of “normal” schedules, and the excitement of children heading off for their first day of school.

But of all the things I love about the fall, it is the sound of geese overhead that stirs me the most.  What an awesome mystery it is, that these noisy creatures know when to head off on their navigational adventures.  What a wonder it is that they know where to go when they do.  Wherever and whenever they go their rhythm of departure and return is a powerful and comforting mystery of God’s Creation.

Maybe it’s because I spent so much time in school – but I am much more inclined to make “resolutions” in September than I am in January.  I am much more inclined to believe that I can “turn a corner,” “close a chapter,” “turn over a new leaf.”  New notebooks, freshly sharpened pencils, well organized book bags, a clean calendar – all speak of endless possibilities to me.  The words of one “Assurance of Pardon” come to mind: “The past is finished and gone, everything has become fresh and new!”

Teshuvah is the Hebrew word for repentance.  It means, literally, “turning.”  Teshuvah denotes the genuine change of heart which impels the sinner to turn from evil and return to God.  It is this kind of returning to God which is at the center of the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur which our Jewish neighbors will soon be observing.

The season of return.

For our Jewish friends these days of turning towards God will be particularly holy ones.  For Christians, they can mean a recommitment to personal prayer practices; a return to regular worship attendance; a rededication to the life of faith expressed in religious community and in the world.

In this season of returning to God, how are you caught up in the turning?

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