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Did you get any nice gifts for Christmas this year? We know that Christmas isn’t just about the presents. In fact the presents are only a small part. But it’s always nice to get gifts – even if you have to buy them yourself. I’m enjoying my new car battery, for instance!
On Epiphany Sunday we read the story of the wise men visiting baby Jesus. The wise men brought gifts—gold, frankincense and myrrh. These were very nice gifts. They would be useful for any young family, since they could be sold or traded for other necessities. And perhaps they have a symbolic meaning too—gold signifying that Jesus was a king, frankincense signifying that Jesus was a priest and myrrh reminding us of Jesus’ death. Beyond that, the receiving of these gifts, at least the gold and the frankincense, was prophesied by Isaiah – as we read in today’s Old Testament reading.
Like Christmas, that prophecy of Isaiah was about much more than the gifts. The main point in the prophecy is the coming of the gentiles to faith in Israel’s God. “Nations shall come to your light,” said the prophet. Israel was to “lift up its eyes all around and see” as the gentiles “gather together and come to them.” The people would come not for economic reasons or tourism but for spiritual light. The words “arise, shine, for your light has come” are a prelude to this coming of the nations. The prophecy indicates that the occasion of the nation’s journeys to Israel was a new light that had appeared there.
We see how obviously this prophecy fits with the story of the wise men coming to baby Jesus. Jesus was a new light sent by God for his dark and fallen world. The magi from the east – wise rulers who were seeking for God to work powerfully in the world—came to honor the one who they knew to have been born king of the Jews. They were led by a star. They brought gifts. Something big would have had to happen for the gentiles to come to Israel with gifts, not swords.
The church’s ancient prayer of the day for Epiphany makes it clear that the coming of the gentiles to Israel’s light is the main point of the story. God had made known this great conversion through other prophecies as well. Isaiah had earlier told of the great feast on Israel’s mountain for all people. Zephaniah told of a time when God would “change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call upon the name of the LORD and serve him with one accord (3:9).” As far back as the time of Abraham God had revealed his heart for the whole world, telling Abraham:
“in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
As God worked in the lives of Abraham and his descendants he blessed people through his revelations of law and promise. He caused the stories of the scriptures to be written down for our learning. He worked to maintain a holy and separate people, Israel—protecting them and disciplining them as needed through the years. He did this until the time was right to send his Son. He had promised that this holy descendant of Israel—Son of God and Son of Man—would come some day. This holy one would be Israel’s true and rightful king. He would be the Messiah – the “anointed one”—a king after God’s own heart.
This Messiah would come to save his people. The people mostly thought that he would save them from their enemies, doing so through the usual human ways of war and domination. But God’s plan was different. The Messiah would save them from their sin, working in their hearts so they could make peace with their enemies and open the road for the conversion of the gentiles. The Messiah came to save all people, not just Israel.
The story of the wise men coming to baby Jesus is extremely significant because the coming of the nations to Israel was such a hard thing for Israel to imagine. Nations had often come with their armies. Israel was understandably suspicious of the nation’s arrival. Many thought the prophecies indicated a time when the nations would come bringing tribute, having finally been brought to their knees by Israel’s great military power. But the wise men bring gifts as an act of worship, freely, not out of compulsion. They come on their knees to acknowledge the light God was bringing into the world.
The nations coming to Israel indicated a time for big change. Indeed, that change would occur not only among those nations who converted their beliefs, but also among Israel itself. A good share of the New Testament is dedicated to helping Israel navigate the changes which the coming of the Messiah, and the coming of the nations, brought.
As we read through the New Testament during the year we encounter many of these teachings on change—dealing with subjects such as Sabbath observance, circumcision, eating of foods and observing of festivals. But today I would like us to focus one change that is still being played out regularly in the life of the church—the change that comes when new people bring new gifts.
From its beginning the church has been greatly blessed by the gifts new converts have brought. I thought of some of these as “national gifts” – gifts given by nations which were known for certain strengths. For instance, the church was greatly blessed by the learning and philosophy of the Greeks. Yes, that philosophy threatened to overshadow the Gospel at certain times, as St. Paul and St. John warned the people in a couple of their letters. But it also brought a love of reasoning and inquiry that has served to strengthen the witness of the Gospel to the world.
So also, the church was greatly blessed by the organizational and building skills of the Romans, the mysticism and emphasis on beauty in art and worship found among the people of the East, and the passion in piety and commitment found among the people of Africa. All of these nations, coming to the light of Christ, enhanced the church as they brought with them their gifts.
Gifts can be found in the culture and history of a people, but gifts find their fullest expression in the words and actions of individual people. So looking again at those first centuries of the church we see converts from among the Greeks such as Origen and John Chrysostom making great contributions in early Christian scholarship. So also we think of Roman leaders such as Hippolytus and Ambrose, Eastern writers such as Basil and John of Damascus, and African theologians such as Athanasius and Augustine. Each of these people brought tremendous gifts of energy and intellect into the church when they came to kneel in faith before the Lord Jesus.
The list of individual bringing their gifts to the Lord is so great that there is no way we could number them all. They are like the grains of sand on the seashore or the stars in the sky that Abraham was told could not be numbered. What is more important to us than numbering them is to be able to identify them when they are seen among us.
The nations are still coming to Christ. We can think of individual countries where the Spirit is moving powerfully right now and many are kneeling before Christ their savior. But beyond the movements of grouped people are the many individuals who see the light of Christ and come to worship. They bring with them their gifts. They bring gifts of intellect and skill. They bring gifts of communication and energy. They work with their hands. They work with their minds. They share their love. And, as people born again of water and the Spirit they are gifted with the gifts of the New Testament too—gifts of mercy, faith, healing, prophecy, leadership, service and encouragement.
These gifts are brought to individual congregations, like our own. When new people join our church they bring new gifts—some of which will blend seamlessly into the existing fabric of the church and some of which will introduce change, leaving us a little different. We must ask ourselves: are we ready for such changes? We who like things the way they are, who value stability and consistency, are we open to being changed by what the Holy Spirit brings us?
The Holy Spirit does not bring changes in the message of the Gospel. The Gospel must, and will, remain the pure teaching of the Holy Scriptures. The changes which are brought will be changes in how we offer praise, or how we organize ourselves for our work, or just simply how our life together plays out. An extra voice in the choir may lead to one of the parts being stronger. Can we live with that? Or must the new member also find voices for the other three parts before they are allowed? Of course not!
Other new members may suggest changes in the songs we sing, or the topics we study, or the service projects in which we engage. Our congregational life has been enhanced by many such changes over the years. Openness to change is an essential part of being a strong and healthy organization.
And, let us not forget that new people bring new needs to the church too. I’m thinking the wise men may have stayed the night with the holy family before heading back on their long journey. They had a need for shelter. Did the family feel put out by the need of their guests, or did they celebrate? I’m guessing it was the latter. What about us? Do we believe that maybe the needs of our new members might be a gift to us too? Perhaps we will learn a lesson in the filling of such needs. Certainly we will be strengthened in our understanding that God can use us for good purposes. Needs can be gifts as well.
Years ago I attended a class on working with people in groups. The teacher gave us a sticker which said: “the gifts are in the people.” I kept that sticker, along with a few others, on the bulletin board above my desk for many years. It was like a star in my vision, reminding me of an important truth. Now I’ve remodeled my office and the sticker is tucked away in a drawer, but I’m pretty sure after all these years I won’t forget its message.
Years ago wise men from the east came and knelt before the baby Jesus, offering him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. People are still coming today to worship that baby, because he has proven to be the king all people need. As new people come, let us welcome them with joy – and receive the gifts they bring. In the name of Jesus, amen.
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