As we reflect on the wise men in the manger scene we see some principles emerge about the whole process of giving gifts to loved ones. Like it or not, in our culture, part of getting Christmas right involves sorting out who we’re going to buy presents for, how much money we’re going to spend, and how much time we’re going to invest in the whole process of shopping and wrapping. We believe there is wisdom available to inform our choices about gift-giving that will help us get Christmas right.
Full Sermon Script
Hi I’m Matt VanCleave, one of the pastors at Blue Oaks. I’m glad you decided to join us today for week three of our series, “Getting Christmas Right.”
Today I want to spend some time thinking through the practice of giving gifts to one another… because like it or not, in our culture, part of getting Christmas right involves sorting out who you’re going to buy presents for, how much money you’re going to spend, and how much time you’re going to invest in the whole process of shopping and wrapping.
Well, throughout this three week series we’ve been reading select passages of the Christmas story, and I want to continue that today by reading from Matthew 2. This is what Matthew writes:
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 when it rose 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 Messiah 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 shepherd my people Israel.’”
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 search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
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, frankincense and myrrh.
I think if you were to spend 20 minutes reflecting on the passage we just read, you could get a little help from these Magi. If you reflect on this passage, I think you’ll see some principles emerge about the whole process of giving gifts to loved ones.
So that’s what we’re going to do today.
And if we look at each of the things they brought – the gold, frankincense and myrrh – you’ll see these gifts had incredible meaning and significance.
Let’s just walk through them real quick.
The first gift was gold. Gold is the currency of kings. And they thought to bring it.
We don’t know how much, but they brought gold to honor what they believed this young child to be, which is the true king.
And so they brought this very expensive gift, not a very light gift, but they took it with them over a long journey because that’s what they believed about who they were going to see.
Then there’s frankincense. What’s frankincense?
It’s a form of incense. And this incense was used in Jewish temples by the high priests – by priests who honored God and declared his presence among the people.
So the idea is they would burn this incense – frankincense – and it would reach up to God, and he would be pleased with their presence and communion and union with him.
So they brought Jesus frankincense – this incense that was burned in the temple, in the holiest of places. That’s where frankincense was burned. The wise men were making a statement that he is the ultimate priest.
So they bring gold, they bring frankincense, and then they bring myrrh. This is a weird gift.
Myrrh is a very expensive form of perfume. People would buy it when someone they loved had died. And they would use it to cover the whole body with myrrh, so that the aroma would keep away the stench of death. It was very common to use myrrh for this purpose… so that they could honor the person who died.
It’s not the best gift to bring to a baby shower, is it?
I’d be thinking, “Oh! Myrrh! A blanket or pacifier would have been nice, but myrrh. I’ll save that for later.”
But you have to understand the significance of what they knew and why they brought myrrh.
Because they believed every prophecy about Jesus.
As a young child, they knew that one day he would die. And because of his death, he would bring life to every one of us. And they wanted to honor that and celebrate that, mark that moment. His death would bring us life.
And so they brought myrrh, frankincense and gold.
Now, in studying this passage, we notice a few things about the giving of these gifts that we can apply to our gift giving this Christmas season.
The first thing we notice is they planned for giving gifts.
Before the wise men even leave their home country in the east, they think ahead. They think, “If this child really turns out to be a king of some kind – if he turns out to be the long-awaited Messiah – well, we’ll need to honor that child when we locate him.”
So they reason with one another, “Let’s buy some gifts right here and right now, pack them carefully, and transport them along with us so we’ll be prepared to give gifts to this special child.” They did some planning.
Secondly, they personalized their gift. They thought through and had some very specific gifts in mind.
You know it takes quite a bit of time and effort to personalize, to customize a gift and make sure it fits the person you’re giving it to. The Magi said, “It’s worth the time and the effort.” So they personalized their gifts.
Thirdly, they wrestled with the appropriate price they should pay for their gifts.
They could have gotten lots of other gifts much more inexpensively. They spent quite a bit of money to get their gifts, as well they should have, because these gifts were gifts fit for a king. But you’ve got to think through the price point component of gift giving.
Finally, they got their presentation right. The writer of Scripture says very specifically that before they presented their gifts, they first went down on bended knee. They humbled themselves. They didn’t just send their gifts Camel Express or leave them on a doorstep. They intensified the effect of their gifts by how they presented them.
I looked at this text quite a bit this week, and as I was studying it dawned on me: In all the years I went to church as a kid, in all the years I’ve been a pastor as an adult, I’ve never heard or given a sermon on this whole practice of giving gifts to each other. I’ve never heard anyone give sound, biblical wisdom about how to think about this.
It seemed a little ironic to me, because for two solid months at the end of every year, we are bombarded by the media to believe that we’re modern day Scrooges unless we take out second mortgages on our homes in order to wow family and friends with stuff they probably don’t even need.
Under that kind of pressure, some of us lose our way, and we spend way too much money. We dig a financial hole for ourselves that we don’t get out of for months on the other side.
Then we create escalating senses of expectations with family and friends, and we get on that treadmill of expectation and sometimes a sense of entitlement that our kids develop. And some of this stuff is not healthy for anyone.
People lose all sense of reality and spending control when it comes to Christmas.
Now, some people decide rather piously to bail out of this gift-giving practice all together.
That might solve a few problems on one end of things, but then it runs the risk of taking a bit of the joy out of a wonderful holiday tradition, especially for children.
So how do we sort this out? I think maybe we should simply follow the practices of the Magi. They were wise men you know. So that’s what we’re going to do in the time we have left.
Alright, the Magi started with planning.
Speaking personally, there were many Christmases in the past that I did not get right, especially the gift-giving part of the Christmas holiday, because I failed to plan.
I’m a classic “keep your options open” guy. I’ve been known to wait until the last possible minute to figure out who it is I really want to buy a gift for, and then I get it in a mad scramble. “Alright, what would the right gift be? Where do I have to go to get it? Then how do I convey the depths of my feelings through this gift?” and all that.
For many years I’ve led myself to a position of frustration and disappointment for the simple reason that I failed to plan.
Now I’ve learned that this kind of craziness can be avoided if I would just practice the principle of planning like the Magi did.
They invested some time and energy up front on their gift before they even left. And as a result, they got their gift giving right.
About a month ago when I started planning this series, the thought occurred to me that I should probably teach this message on gift-giving first so that people will have more time to apply it in their preparation for Christmas.
But then I thought, “This message will have twice the impact if I teach it just before Christmas, because last minute types are going to be humble. They’re going to know they screwed up yet again this Christmas, and they’re going to be like sponges soaking up every drop of insight they can.”
I want to tell you last minute types: All is not lost. You still have a few days to pull this one off. So after this service, just sit down and formulate a plan.
And let me suggest how to do that.
First of all, write the names of your family members down. All of us are probably going to buy something for our immediate family members.
But then I want to encourage you to take it a step further. Really think about this for a few moments, because this will get you real near to the heart of Christmas.
There are some people beyond immediate family who are really a gift to you from God.
Part of what makes your life as full as it is, is God has gifted you with some friends.
Think about the people you work with. Some of you love your job because you have some friends at work.
Some of you enjoy living in your neighborhood because you have a friend in your neighborhood.
Some of you love Blue Oaks because some of the greatest relational gifts you have are in this church. They’re in your small group. They serve with you. They’re people who have touched and blessed your life. They’re gifts to you.
Put their names down.
Say, “Who has been a gift to me this year? Because beyond immediate family, I want to bless friends who God has put into my life.”
And then form one more list. And this is so in keeping with the Christmas spirit. Think to yourself for just a few moments when you’re in this planning mode: “Who are some people I know who are likely to get neglected come Christmas time?”
Who are some people who are not standouts at work or in the neighborhood or around the church? Who are the people who are most likely to be forgotten this Christmas?
I want to ask you to form a list of people you think are probably going to get overlooked this Christmas. Who’s probably not going to get cards and gifts and blessings because they’re probably not on someone’s list? Who’s the one neighbor that everyone will just go, “Oh man…”?
Well, I did this very exercise that I’m challenging you to do. I put the list of family members down, and then the special list of people who God has gifted my life with – friends. And when I got to this part of who are some people that I know that are most likely to get overlooked this Christmas, this was very touching. And I’m glad I did that little exercise and put their names down, because I’m going to do something for those people. And I’m probably, when it’s all said and done, more excited about that than the other two categories.
Alright, write the names down, and once you do that, while you’re still in planning mode (It’s not too late. You still have a few days left.) think through how you can personalize a gift to them.
The Magi gave gifts fit for a king. They gave gold, special incense, and myrrh. Their gifts demonstrated their understanding of the true identity of the kingship of Jesus Christ. They gave a customized gift. It fit Christ perfectly.
You see, every Christmas gift we give is an opportunity to say to people we care about, “I know you. I understand you. I celebrate your uniqueness. I celebrate your interests and your passions.”
And you’ll know you’ve gotten the gift-giving part of Christmas right when upon opening your present the recipient smiles and the look on their face says it all. They just look at you and they go, “You knew. You know me well. You knew what would give me joy and delight and you provided it.”
Let’s learn from the wise men. Do a little planning. And personalize your gifts.
Alright, two more things we learn from the Magi about gift-giving.
And this one is difficult, but we need to talk about the price of Christmas gifts. The Magi spent a lot of money, as we said earlier, on the gifts they brought to the Christmas child… as well they should have. The Savior of the world was well worth buying a pricey gift for.
But does that mean we should all bankrupt ourselves by buying extravagant gifts for people we care for?
Let me state the point as directly as I can.
Stay within your God-given means as you exchange gifts with family and friends. Don’t go into debt to buy gifts for people that you care about.
And that may be a challenge for you. So you’re going to have to get very creative as you seek to honor some people in your life, because many of us don’t have a lot of additional resources to work with.
And I want to say to you, “Don’t let that stop you from being creative with your gift-giving.”
Some of the most precious and memorable gifts I’ve every received at Christmas or birthdays or whenever, have been small, inexpensive, very thoughtful, highly personalized gifts. Gifts that honored me in a way that I remember long after the excitement of the gift wears off.
They’re gifts I knew came from a big heart and not necessarily a big wallet.
Don’t ever feel bad about giving an inexpensive but highly communicative, loving, creative gift that tells a person that you care about them.
And don’t break biblical laws of stewardship and spend more than you should.
Now people who have more resources, admittedly, they have a little more flexibility when it comes to buying gifts for family and friends. But you know, the writers of Scripture speak to affluent people as well. They say, “To whom much is given, much is required.”
The writers of Scripture say the standards for stewardship goes up as our income goes up.
I want to take a minute and say something to the wealthy among us. You know who you are. Resist the temptation to load up family and friends with expensive gifts just because you can afford to buy them. Truth be told, a lot of wealthy people stroke their own egos by lavishing extravagant gifts on children and spouses and extended family and friends who, quite often, already have more stuff than they need.
This creates additional expectation for next year and a sense of entitlement, and pretty soon we’re drowning in material gifts… and that’s not good for the soul of anyone receiving those gifts, and it’s not good for the soul of the giver either, and it’s not very close to the spirit of Christmas.
Let me say something else to those of you who have a little extra income this Christmas. There are so many good things you can do if you’re carrying a little extra cash this year.
When we started the Christmas toy drive this year, there were 250 families in our immediate community who were not going to be able to buy Christmas gifts for their kids – single parent families, families who are unemployed this year, with just no money.
We sponsored all of those families and had to find more to sponsor.
You ended up sponsoring over 300 families in our community this year.
And I would say, that’s real close to the heart of Christmas.
A friend of mine who owns a business called me last week. He said, “Matt, we’re getting toward year-end. Our company had a pretty good year. We want to bless people in need in our community, but we’d like to do it through Blue Oaks; and he handed me a check for thirty four thousand dollars. That’s pretty cool… that he wants the church to get the credit for helping people in need in our community.
Another friend sent me an email and said he wanted to donate twenty thousand dollars because they’ve had such a great year and they want to bless our community through Blue Oaks.
Now, this normally doesn’t happen. I don’t normally have people had me checks for thousands of dollars.
I know most of you give privately to Blue Oaks. You tithe, and I don’t know what you give. I prefer it to be that way.
But I think with these two individuals, the motivation of their heart was to bless others out of the richness God has blessed them with. And when those are the motivations of your heart, you’re really starting to get Christmas right. I mean that’s as close to the heart of Christmas as you can get.
So we’ve talked about doing a little planning for your gift giving. We’ve talked about personalizing your gifts, making sure they fit the person right. We’ve talked about getting the price right.
And finally, I want to close by giving you one last piece of counsel regarding Christmas gifts. Pay attention to the presentation like the Magi did.
Before they gave their gifts, they got on bended knee. “They bowed down,” the writer of Scripture says, and they worshiped first. Then they gave their gifts.
You know I had a picture in my mind of something, I think, quite beautiful. It’s funny how often this picture came back into my mind this week.
It was a picture of the gift exchanges going on in all the families represented by our church. And I thought, “Wouldn’t it be something if we would all follow the Magi?”
Wouldn’t it be something if before we start the mad exchange and the tearing off of wrappers, and the yelling and screaming, which, as you know, is a fun part of Christmas when there’s kids around. There’s a time for that.
But before we do that, wouldn’t it be something if we would pay a little attention to presentation and provide a little context to better understand what this gift-giving thing is all about really?
Wouldn’t it be something if we all started a new tradition in our families where we say, “Before we give our gifts to one another, we’re going to spend just a moment honoring the ultimate gift giver – God himself. We’re going to take a few moments and remind ourselves who it was that started this whole tradition of giving gifts to those we love.”
And if you would stop right there and take out a Bible – mom or Dad, take out a Bible and say, “We’re going to spend just a couple minutes and read the Christmas story from Luke 2.” Then after you read the Christmas story, maybe say a quick word of prayer for the gift of Jesus Christ.
If you put your family gift exchange tradition in the greater context of what Christmas really represents, it will enrich your whole gift-giving tradition.
If you have the courage to remind whoever is sitting in your family room that 2,000 years ago, God put on a gift-giving clinic. He saw that human beings were losing their way and sinning all over the place. They were self-destructing and taking out other people as they were destructing.
So God did a little planning as all good gift-givers do.
But God’s plan, when it got passed around heaven, took heaven’s breath away, because his plan involved a sacrifice of that which was most dear to him.
His plan involved rescuing each and every human being from eternal ruin.
His plan was personalized, and his plan was unbelievably pricey. Talk about an expensive plan, an expensive gift.
There’s a passage of scripture that I love in 1 Peter 1. The writer says, “You were not redeemed by mere silver or gold – the most precious commodities in our world – but you were redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus Christ, God’s only Son.”
Think about that. Talk about a pricey gift that you received.
Do you understand now why the heavens exploded with music from angels the night Christ was born? Do you understand why the angels were singing, “Glory to God in the highest!” Because they knew no one ever gave a gift like that before in history, and no one ever would again. This was the ultimate gift to meet the ultimate need.
You see, if you’re going to get this Christmas right, before you exchange your material gifts with friends and family, stop and acknowledge the ultimate gift giver – the ultimate, redemptive gift in the person of Jesus Christ.
Maybe say a prayer of gratefulness.
Put it all in perspective.
And hopefully, as you establish that tradition, that tradition will go from one generation to the next and the next, and in your family line increasingly, people throughout the generations will get Christmas right.
And it can start with you. You can set that pattern.
Alright, now to seal this message and to seal this series, the band is going to lead us in a song about our Christmas king.
Blue Oaks Church