Posted by: Johnold Strey | January 5, 2009

Sermon for the Festival of the Epiphany of Our Lord (2009)

LOOK CLOSELY AT GOD’S CHRISTMAS GIFT

1. Look at its tag
2. Look at its wrapping
3. Look at its value

Text: Matthew 2:1-12

Introduction

Several days after Christmas, you stand in the living room, admiring the tree and the general Christmas ambiance in your home.  You look at the foot of the tree and decide that you want to arrange the presents under the tree in a more displayable fashion.  As you move some of the kids’ new toys around and fold some of the Christmas clothes received as gifts, you notice an envelope in the box that contained the new sweater you received.  You hadn’t noticed it on Christmas Eve.  As you open it, you discover that along with the sweater, you received a gift card with a rather generous amount loaded on it, good for further purchases at your favorite upscale department store.  In all the excitement of opening your presents with the rest of your family, you didn’t notice the extra gift inside the box.  It’s a good thing that you took a closer look at your gift!

Today [Sunday, January 4, 2008] is the eleventh day of Christmas.  And now that several days have passed, we sit in the church, still admiring the tree and the general Christmas ambiance in the building.  The Christmas season officially wraps up in two days on January 6, when Epiphany is traditionally observed.  For practical purposes, we are celebrating Epiphany in our service this morning.  In many ways, Epiphany is like that post-Christmas living room/present scenario I just described.  We know what Christmas is all about-the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was born to be our Savior.  But Epiphany provides us the opportunity to sit down and look more carefully at the gift that God has given us.  And when we do, perhaps we will see things that we didn’t catch on Christmas Eve and Day, when we first “received” the gift.  So as we celebrate the Epiphany visit of the Magi to the boy Jesus, we want to look more closely at God’s Christmas gift, and notice some details about the gift that perhaps we didn’t notice when our celebration started eleven days ago.  So let’s look closely at God’s Christmas gift.  Look at its tag, look at its wrapping, and look at its value.

I.

When it comes time to open up your Christmas presents, you don’t grab a present at random and open it.  You look for a present that has a tag with your name on it.  The tag tells you whom the gift is for.

God’s Christmas gift is his Son, Jesus Christ.  But for whom did Jesus come?  What does the “tag” on God’s Christmas gift indicate?  Jesus was born to a Jewish family, and the Messiah had been promised to come to the Jews by all the Old Testament prophets.  But look carefully at the tag on the gift.  What does the tag say as we listen to the Epiphany story?  “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?  We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’ When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.”‘”

There is some tradition surrounding the Magi.  Three Magi are typically pictured, often arriving on Christmas night just after the shepherds went back to their flocks.  Even names have been associated with them.  But all of that is developed tradition.  Here’s what we can say about the Magi.  The Magi were a class of priests and astronomers.  Matthew tells us that they came “from the east,” and scholars often assume that they were from Babylon.  We don’t know that for sure, but it seems like a reasonable assumption, because the Old Testament mentions the Magi when the Jews were in Babylon under captivity many generations earlier.  If that assumption is correct, perhaps the Magi learned about the God of Israel and the promised Messiah from the captive Jews, and this knowledge had been passed on through succeeding generations.

They had seen a star rise in the eastern sky some time earlier, and they knew the Old Testament prophecies that connected the star to the Messiah.  So they traveled to the general vicinity of the star, which took them to Bethlehem.  And they stopped at Herod’s palace to ask for directions.  We talked about Herod in last Sunday’s sermon when we focused on the events that took place after the Magi left Bethlehem.  Herod didn’t understand what kind of king Jesus was; all he knew was that he didn’t like the idea of a rival king.  That’s why “he was disturbed,” and given his murderous reputation, the news of Herod’s disturbed state disturbed the whole region.  So Herod formulates his plot.  “Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and make a careful search for the child.  As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.'” While Herod collected information to take Jesus out of the scene, the Magi went on their way to pay their respect the King of the Jews.

The star was the tag on God’s Christmas gift.  And the star led the Magi to the boy Jesus.  In our Christmas Day sermon, I said that the shepherds were unlikely recipients of the angel’s announcement.  It is just as true that the Magi were unlikely recipients of the star’s announcement.  If these men are from Babylon, then God directed people from Israel’s former enemy nation to the Christ child!  But that is what was on the tag.  The tag on God’s Christmas gift says that Jesus is for everyone-for lowly shepherds, for unlikely Magi, and even for you.

It is so easy to read the Christmas story and hear the Epiphany story and not look at the tag.  “Yes, the story is nice, but it can’t be for me.  I’m not in the class of people to whom God sends gifts.  I’m not the one to whom angels sing good news.”  But your feelings of unworthiness and guilt are not the tag on the gift.  Those feelings of unworthiness and guilt are often correct-they are your conscience’s acknowledgment that your life is a far cry from the holy standards God has called you to live.  But proper feelings of inadequacy do not change what the tag on the gift says.  Look at the tag!  The angels told the shepherds that Jesus born for them.  The star told the Magi that the boy Jesus had come for them.  And the Word of God tells us, “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).  That means you!  That little boy in Mary and Joseph’s Bethlehem home is no less than the Son of God, and he came for you.  He was born to be your Savior.  He lived a sinless life as your substitute.  He died on the cross as your sacrifice.  And his resurrection testifies that his substitutionary sacrifice has completed his work as your Savior!  Look closely at the tag on God’s Christmas gift, for the gift is meant specifically for you!

II.

The first appearance of the star got the Magi to the right place.  But it appears that the star came, went, and then appeared again after they left Herod’s palace.  Verse nine says, “After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.” Our NIV translation has a footnote with an alternate translation that is preferable: “The star they had seen when it rose (literally: in its rising) went ahead of them.” That’s why they respond they way they do in verse ten: “When they say the star, they were overjoyed.” (I like how the King James Version handles this verse: “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy”).  And the Magi were not just joyful for the star, but because the star took them to the boy Jesus.  “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.” The Greek word for “worship” here may not mean “worship” in the sense that we do, that is, acknowledging him as God.  I know that would make a better version of the story.  Even though they bowed down before him, it is reasonable to say that they may not have left behind their pagan religion completely and recognized Jesus as the Son of the one, true, and only God.  But they didn’t let the appearance of a diaper-clad boy fool them, either.  Even with incomplete knowledge, they knew that this boy was something special, someone extraordinary.

Did you ever receive a Christmas gift that wasn’t wrapped all that elegantly?  Maybe the giver wrapped it in newspaper, or put it in a brown paper bag.  Sometimes people do that to “trick” the recipient.  Newspaper gift wrap suggests that the gift isn’t going to be much, until you open it and discover a gold watch or a diamond necklace!

Look carefully at the wrapping on God’s Christmas gift.  A little boy, maybe a few months old, perhaps almost two years old.  He’s crawling or toddling around.  Maybe he can say a few words.  He’s completely dependent on his parents for care and nourishment.  The wrapping suggests that this isn’t a significant gift.  But don’t let the wrapping fool you!  The Magi knew that there was more behind that wrapping.  How much more should we know that-we who have the luxury of having the entire Scriptures at our disposal!  The Word of God tells us not to let the wrapping fool us!  “[Jesus] he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that … he might make atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17).  God wrapped his Son in the flesh and blood of a human being like us because he came to rescue flesh and blood human beings like us.  Behind that soft baby skin is the strength of God.  Behind the unassuming appearance of the adult Jesus is the all-encompassing God who fills heaven and earth.  Behind the gory appearance of the crucified Jesus is the glorious grace of God who sacrificed his own Son to free us from sin’s death-grasp on our souls.  You would never know it, but behind the wrapping on God’s Christmas gift is God himself who has come to save you and make you his own child forever!

III.

Your friend’s family welcomes a new baby in the world.  You visit them at the hospital.  You want to bring them a gift.  What will it be?  Balloons?  Flowers?  A congratulatory card with cash?  A gift card to Babies-R-Us?  Think about that scenario as you hear about the Magi’s gift.  “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.”

These men had no personal connection to this family whatsoever.  And yet they not only travel an incredible distance just to see the child Jesus, but they give gifts that are fit for a king.  Some Christians have tried to find some hidden, allegorical meaning in the three gifts that the Magi presented, but all that we can safely say is that they were the kinds of gifts you would give to royalty.  But that should tell you something about their understanding of Jesus.  Even though they may not have recognized the boy Jesus for all he was, they at least realized that this little boy deserved their respect and their best gifts.  The value of their gifts tells you something about the value of Jesus.

Look closely at the value of God’s Christmas gift to you.  No price tag could define its value.  You would never give your own child to save someone in your wildest dreams, but God gave his own precious Son to save you!  The flesh in the manger was God’s incarnate flesh.  The boy before the Magi was God himself.  The blood shed on the cross decades later was God’s own blood.  Could there be anything more valuable than that?

And could a gift from God with such tremendous value not inspire an appropriate response?  There is so much that could be said about our own expressions of appreciation for the value of God’s Christmas gift, but let me give you just one possible expression.  During Epiphany, we often think about mission work.  The Magi’s visit reminds us that Jesus came not for one race or one class of people, but for all races and nations.  That drives our mission work, especially the mission work we carry out together in our church body, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.  You have heard and read quite a bit the past few months about the “Year of Jubilee” offering our synod is collecting at this time.  We would like to see the internal borrowing debt of the WELS paid down so that nearly $3 million dollars of each year’s budget can go toward real ministry, real mission work, and real education for the future ministers of the church.  An offering like that would not merely be a gift to a non-profit institution.  An offering like that would be a confession of our faith and an acknowledgement that we value the tremendous value of God’s Christmas gift to us.

Conclusion

After today’s service and voters’ meeting, it will be time to take the church Christmas tree and decorations down for another year.  Christmas has come and gone.  But don’t let the end of the season cause you to forget the gift that this season brings.  On this Epiphany celebration, take one more close look at God’s Christmas gift to you, for it is a gift meant personally for you, a gift wrapped in the humble flesh of a human baby boy, but a gift whose value is so great, that nothing else you have ever received can compare.  Look closely at God’s Christmas gift!  Amen.


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