The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 1/7/18
Text: Matthew 2:1-12
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

The three wise men. "They opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense (or frankincense, from the King James Version) and of myrrh." Simple words, but if we analyze them carefully (as an e-mail that my wife forwarded to me attests), we discover an important, yet often-overlooked, theological fact: there is no mention of wrapping paper.

If there had been wrapping paper, Matthew would have said so: "And lo, the gifts WERE inside 600 square cubits of paper. And the paper WAS festooned with pictures of Frosty the Snowman. And Joseph WAS going to throweth it away, but Mary saideth unto him, she saideth, 'Holdeth it! That is nice paper! Saveth it for next year!' And Joseph DID rolleth his eyeballs. And the baby Jesus WAS more interested in the paper than, for example, the frankincense."

But these words do not appear in the Bible, which means that the very first Christmas gifts were NOT wrapped. This is because the people giving those gifts had two important characteristics: 1) They were wise, and 2) They were men.

As you may know, men are not big gift wrappers. Men do not understand the point of putting paper on a gift just so somebody else can tear it off. This is not just my opinion: This is a scientific fact based on a statistical survey of two guys I asked. One said that he does wrap gifts, but as a matter of principle never takes more than 15 seconds per gift. "No one ever had to wonder which presents daddy wrapped at Christmas," he said. "They were the ones that looked like enormous spitballs."

The e-mail note says, "I also wrap gifts, but because of some defect in my motor skills, I can never COMPLETELY wrap them. I can take a gift the size of a deck of cards and put it the exact center of a piece of wrapping paper the size of a regulation volleyball court, but when I am done folding and taping, you can still see a section of the gift peeking out. (Sometimes I camouflage this section with a marking pen.) If I had been an ancient Egyptian in the field of mummies, the lower half of the Pharaoh's body would be covered only by Scotch tape.

"On the other hand, if you give my wife a 12-inch square of wrapping paper, she can wrap a C-130 cargo plane. My wife, like many women, actually LIKES wrapping things. If she gives you a gift that requires batteries, she wraps the batteries separately, which to me is very close to being a symptom of mental illness. If it were possible, my wife would wrap each individual volt.

"My point is that gift-wrapping is one of those skills - like having babies - that come more naturally to women than to men."

Since Christmas Day was two weeks ago, I can safely presume your wrapping is done...and undone. Didst thou saveth the paper? Is everything paid for? Someone has said, "If you don't believe Christmas lasts all year through, you don't have a Mastercard." I am always fascinated by the news reports regarding retail sales during the Christmas shopping season. This is the time of year when merchants make fully 1/3 of their annual transactions and 1/2 of their profits. Economists look on this period as a barometer of the economic health of the nation. Two months ago, an American Research Group survey found that shoppers around the country were planning to spend an average of $983 for gifts this holiday season, up from $929 last year. Planned gift spending for 2017 was $54 above spending in 2016, up nearly 6 percent. Sixty-one percent said they planned on making purchases on the internet and they would spend an average of $1,346, another all-time high.(1) Wow!

Of course, it is not hard to figure just how all this giftgiving began. It goes all the way back to the story of the Wise Men and the gifts they the infant king. To be sure, some people do not recall that as they shop. Some years ago, someone reported overhearing two women talking as they peered into a department store window which contained a manger scene. One said to the other, "Isn't it awful. Now the church is even trying to horn in on Christmas." Hmmm. Just the opposite of what we had this year from all those folks who called themselves defenders of Christmas and insisted on religious greetings from retailers.

Still, I wonder just how much thought most people give (even good church people) to this whole idea of giving gifts at Christmas. What about giving gifts to him instead of just to one another? As the alternative giving question has it, "Whose birthday is it, anyway?"

Of course, even if folks DID think about it, some would have no idea what to give. After all, Christ is the King of the entire universe - talk about someone who has everything! What do we have that he could possibly want? Well, let us think about it.

We could give him our SERVICE. There is LOTS to be done out there...if we would only bother to look.

Some years ago a Sunday School class in the church I served in Florida was studying world hunger. As they dug into the problem, they realized that, not only was hunger a "world" problem, but a local one as well. They investigated the possibilities of what could be done right there in Fort Myers, and the result was the establishment of a what became a VERY busy Soup Kitchen. It started out as a project of one Sunday School class, then the congregation, and soon it garnered broad support throughout the entire community. Opportunities for service, opportunities to make a difference in the lives of desperate people, are out there if we only bother to look.

A nineteenth century painting shows a long row of beggars waiting in a soup line. They are all ragged and sleazy looking. But around the head of one, barely perceptible, is a halo. One of them is Christ! You may see no halo around the heads of your brothers and sisters in need, yet to serve them is to serve Christ...he said so himself...for the King is hidden in them.(2)

Gifts to the Christ child? SERVICE is one. Most of us know how to do FAR better than we do. After all, according to the scripture, God holds us accountable for what we KNOW to do yet FAIL to do. As James wrote, "Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins."(3)

I prayed, "O Lord, bless all the world,
And help me do my part;"
And straightway he commanded me,
To bind a broken heart.

I prayed, "O bless each hungry child,
May they be amply fed;"
He said, "Go find a starving soul,
And share with him your bread."

"O, stir the hearts of men," I prayed,
"And make them good and true;"
He answered, "There is but one way -
They must be stirred through you."(4)

Of course, there are other gifts we can bring...SUBSTANCE, for example. This would seem to be almost automatic, but for many it is not. As we said, the experts were anticipating that, on average, we would each be spending $983 this Christmas season. Sad to say, that is a LOT more than some folks give to the Lord over the course of an entire year. That would amount to a little less than $19.00 per week in the collection plate, but an amazing number will not even do that.

The problem with too many is that they give, not what is right, but what is left. Did you hear that? Not what is right, but what is left...whatever is left OVER, what they figure they will not need. It is an afterthought. That is too bad, because they miss out on the real blessing that comes with INTENTIONAL giving.

Think of the joy you feel when you give a gift to a loved one, a gift on which you really went ALL OUT...wrapped, even. As you watch that package being opened and you see the anticipation in the eyes, there is a marvelous rush of excitement that YOU feel, and it is at least as great as the excitement of the one receiving the gift. When scripture says, "It is more blessed to give than to receive," in purely human terms, we know it is TRUE.

But, as we say, most people do NOT bring their gifts to the Christ child that way. Instead, it works out much in the way that this little scene illustrates: One rainy Sunday afternoon, two children had difficulty entertaining themselves until they stumbled on the idea of acting out their Sunday School lessons of the morning. The little boy agreed that he would be Noah and his sister would be Mrs. Noah. They found an old cardboard box which they decided would be an ideal "ark" so they started to fill it with their animals. The bathtub seemed the logical place for their "flood." They turned off the electric light - the "sun" disappeared. Then they turned on the shower and the rains descended.

After some time they turned off the shower, and the rains ceased and the ark floated upon the waters. They pushed the wall switch and the sun reappeared. They pulled the plug in the bathtub and the floods descended until once again the ark rested on dry ground.

There was another part to the story, however. After the flood Noah and his wife offered a sacrifice to God. The children decided that the kitchen stove would be an ideal place for them to burn their sacrifice. Reaching into the ark, the little boy found one of his sister's animals and said, "Let's burn this - it would make a good gift for God." "Oh no," said his sister in alarm, "I couldn't part with that." Then reaching in the ark she found one of her brother's animals and said, "Here, let's give this to God instead." But her brother was unwilling to agree to that. It was a problem.

They pondered their dilemma for some time and then the little girl had a happy thought. Scampering off to the attic, she returned in a few minutes with a little toy lamb. It had only three legs, its head was smashed, it had no tail, and it was so dirty no one could have guessed its original color. "Here," she cried, "Let's give this to God. We will never want it again." Her brother agreed, so they made their sacrifice. The little broken lamb they did not want was given to God.

Kids, huh? And yet, how often do we give to God only the things we do not want for ourselves? Hmm.

Gifts of service, gifts of substance...appropriate at this special time. But, of course, there is one thing more we should consider as our gift at the manger. And that is the gift of SELF.

Generations of Christians have heard revival preachers urge, "Give your heart to Jesus." For some, that meant walking down the aisle in a profession faith. For others, it was a brief prayer saying, "God be merciful to me, a sinner." For all too few, it meant really what it was supposed to mean...the commitment of all that we are and all that we have to the one who gave his life that we might live. That is what giving your HEART really means.

That would be quite a gift to give someone, at Christmas time or ANY time. It is our response to the gift that has already been offered to us...the gift of eternal life that is ours through faith in what that little babe of Bethlehem grew up and did for us on Calvary. We are willing to give OURself as a gift because he gave HIMself for us.

You are familiar with the name of William Booth, perhaps? If not Booth, then the Red Kettles that have been so ubiquitous over these past weeks. General William Booth was the founder of the Salvation Army. He was once asked the secret of his remarkable life. He answered, "I told the Lord that he could have all that there is of William Booth."(5)

All to Jesus, I surrender;
All to him I freely give;(6)

Yes, Christmas has time (wrapping time, perhaps)...a time which we set aside to joyously remember all those who mean so much to us. And if JESUS means what he should to us, we will remember him too - with our service, our substance, and our very selves. I hope you had a Merry Christmas and will have a most joyous New Year.



2. Bible Illustrator for Windows, (Hiawatha, IO : Parsons Tech., 1994)

3. James 4:17

4. Leola Archer

5. James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited, (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988), p. 98

6. Judson Van DeVenter, 1896

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