A Strange Gift
Happy 11th day of Christmas! Today is the second Sunday after Christmas, but because we are not bound by the rigors of liturgical rubrics, we are celebrating today the Feast of Epiphany (two days early). Epiphany is the traditional end to the Christmas season – this time of gift giving and merry making. Epiphany is the twelfth day of Christmas and has influenced everything from Christmas Carols – I think there is one about 12 days of Christmas – all the way to a play by William Shakespeare aptly called Twelfth Night.
The celebration of Epiphany is one of the most ancient feasts for the Church, though, especially in our hyper commercialized world, Christmas Day has overtaken its importance. The Feast of Epiphany is still highly celebrated in many places, and it is the celebration of the Illumination of Jesus – Immanuel – God With Us – among God’s people. In fact, there are ancient liturgies that cover three Sundays – Epiphany (Revelation), Jesus’ Baptism (Manifestation), and The Wedding at Cana (Declaration) – tradition held that they were all happened on the same day. Before Christmas became its own feast day, part of the celebration of Epiphany was a remembrance of the birth of Christ, but the important thing was not just that Jesus was born – but that he was recognized – his light shining for all to see.
As liturgies (and for those unfamiliar with the word liturgy – I am speaking of worship services) around Epiphany began to take shape the tradition reading from the Gospels was the one we heard this morning – the arrival of the magi to the home of the baby. And if Janet were here she would want me to emphasize that they were not at the manger on Christmas eve like all the creche scenes show, but that it was in fact after the birth and after the manger and the stable. Mary and Joseph were probably at the home of a relative in Bethlehem at this time.
The story of the Magi has been the one long associated with the feast of Epiphany and their bearing of gifts is where we get our tradition of gift giving at Christmas time. Their strange gifts to a peasant baby, born to a working class father and a teen-age mother. And that is what I would like to focus on today – A strange gift.
Imagine what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph to see this caravan arriving at their relatives’ home. Imagine the relatives reaction. Now remember, no where does it say there were only three magi (and magi means wise one or seers). We assume there were three because there were three gifts, but in the Eastern tradition they say there were twelve. Whether it was three or twelve or fifty doesn’t really matter, the thing is that these strangers who arrived inthis small farm town of Bethlehem, called the city of bread. And regardless of the number I am pretty sure they each brought along their own retinue of people – servants and porters and what not. Into Bethlehem, unimportant Bethlehem, comes this caravan.
Camels and horses, strangers in bizarre clothes. Unknown scents emanating from the portable brasiers. The ones who seemed to be leading the caravan were in white from head to toe. Simple design, yet an unfamiliar material. They seemed like priests, but no priests that were known to the residents. There was no gold or jewels on them. The only color was the scarfs wrapped around their faces to keep the dust at bay. The magi, these wise ones, these seers were probably Persians priests of Zoaester. An ancient monotheistic religion from Persia.
The caravan processed, almost with a royal cadence, and finally stopped at the place that was the home of the baby. Who was this baby that it brought the dirty and roughneck shepherds from the hills to a manger, and now these – these strangers. No one seemed to notice the bright light that shone over head.
And here were Mary and Joseph, holding tight to the young Jesus, uncertain what these strangers were about. When without fanfare the magi dismount their rides and humbly ask to enter the home. Of course, being responsible Jews, they welcomed the strangers as Abraham welcomed the strangers – for they could be entertaining angels unaware.
We are not privy to the conversation between the magi and the parents, but they must have been enamored by this baby. This baby whose birth was announced to them by a star shining. Something so unique about it that they had to explore. They left their homes and their duties in order to explore this strange gift of light. They must have been even more entranced by the strangeness of this child when the King of the Jews himself – Herod – inquired about his where about. There was something about this baby that cause them to fall on their faces before him offering him the strange gifts of Gold – the gift for a king; frankincense – the incense offered to God in the temple; and myrrh – an incense offering as well as a healing balm – and more terrifying to the young mother and embalming ointment. These strangers and their strange gifts offered to the one who was a strange gift to them.
And as quickly as they had arrived they departed, but instead of leaving town the way the entered, they went a different way – told in a dream that this strange gift should not be made known to the king who seemed so enamored.
Strange gifts. Those odd things we receive that make us scratch our heads. They can make us laugh or they can make us cry, or they can just make us scratch our heads and say, “huh.” Most of us here have at one time or another gotten a strange gift.
I asked on Facebook and twitter for some strange gifts that some of my friends have received. One got a Flowbee – if you don’t know what this is it is a miracle of modern science – it is hair clippers that attach to a vacuum cleaner so that when you trim your hair it doesn’t get on the floor! Another friend got an electric roaster, another every imaginable kind and size of knitting needle, microwave potato cooking bags, a 25 piece screwdriver set, and a gallon – yes a gallon – of hot sauce.
These are all weird and unusual gifts, but when I asked people to post, I added the caveat that it had to be something that brought happiness or blessing. I wanted to see if people could find the blessing in the strangeness. And all of these things – all of these strange gifts – mean something deeply profound to those who received them.
As I was looking at the list of gifts, though, one jumped out and bit me in the face. One of my friends said that being diagnosed with a genetic mutation that predisposes her to various cancers was a strange gift that has changed her life.
Her words brought me back to the house in Bethlehem with Mary seeing the gifts of the magi – the gift for a king, the gift for a priest, the gift for a healer and the gift for the dead. As these strange gifts were opened in front of Mary, I can only imagine her thoughts. These gifts tell the story of the baby she had only recently born. This baby – her gift – was destined to live and die for the sake of the world. These gifts from the magi illuminated the strange gift of Jesus.
Jesus was born into a world and a place that was dark and oppressive. Born into a world where a king wished him dead. Born into a world that treated his people as dirt. Born into a world were shame and honor were the defining characters of society. Born into a world with nothing.
This strange gift was laid out for the world to see. He walked amongst the poor and the forgotten. He sat and ate with sinners. He reversed the understanding of shame and honor, blessing the poor, giving promise to the meek. He turned the social order of violence on its head saying that they way of the Reign of God is by loving your enemies and defiantly turning the other cheek.
This strange gift was laid out for the world to see. Bringing healing to the lame. Sight to the blind. Hope to the one diagnosed with a genetic mutation.
This strange gift is still with us – constantly opening our eyes. Liberating our sprits.
Who would have thought, five years ago, that we would be here today opening our doors to an art school for the kids of the neighborhood – a school that is transforming lives inside and outside of the church?
Who would have thought that a food pantry that at one time just handed out food, would become a model for other food pantries in how we interact and dignify all of our guest that walk through the door – welcoming them as the strange gift – as Jesus himself?
Who would have thought, three years ago, that we would again have a growing and vibrant children’s Sunday school class?
Who would have thought that people from the neighborhood, who have never worshiped with us, are excited about what we have to offer – a place of acceptance and grace. A place that exudes the love of God. People want to come here – it just looks different than it did 20 years ago.
And that is the strange gift of Jesus – he is always changing things and creating things anew. He is laid out for us – offering all he has.
Sisters and brothers, we have been offered a strange gift. A gift that just doesn’t make sense with what the words says is a good gift. The strange gift we have been given is a gift that is self-sacrificing; it loves unconditionally; it sees the image of God in everybody; it shakes the dust off the status quo of the world and offers us something brand new.
It offers us a way of life that can stand at the dark precipice of whatever life throws at us and give us the ability to say, “I am stronger that that. I am a child of the Light of God. I am loved by a God who can take whatever you throw at time. I am a child of God and will never be abandoned. I have a God who knows suffering and pain; addiction and disgrace; I have a God who weeps when his friend dies; I have a God who gave up everything just so I know I am loved. Bring it on. Bring whatever you have on – It ain’t gonna bring me down. God gave me a strange gift, and it is what makes me strong. It is what carries me when I am weak. I am loved and there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it.”
This gift breathed life into Adam.
This gift gave Sarah a baby.
This gift split open the Red Sea.
This gift tore down the walls of Jericho.
This gift fed two starving women.
This gift defeated a Philistine Giant.
This gift stood in the face of kings and said, “Thus says the Lord.”
This gift fought for her people.
This gift was born in Bethlehem.
This gift was killed on Calvary.
This gift broke thru the cave door of the grave.
This gift filled an upper room.
This gift crossed the Roman Empire and converted a king.
This gift took root in Africa.
This gift raised up leaders.
This gift built a church.
This gift traveled across Europe.
This gift crossed the Atlantic Ocean.
This gift was banished from Massachusetts.
This gift founded Providence.
This gift came to Indiana.
This give came to Tuxedo Park.
This gift came to Emerson Avenue.
This gift is here today and is in this place and ain’t nothing gonna keep you fro the love of a God who from the first breath of Adam meant for you to be be here and hear this word. You are loved. You are loved. The strange gift is a a God who love you. Who as loved you since the first breath of creation. Who has loved you though your dark and questioning times. Who has loved you when you have not loved in return. Who has loved you and who loves you now and will love you forever more.
Thanks be to God.