After the Manger: Odd Gifts
Topic: Odd Gifts Scripture: Matthew 2:1–2:12
Have you ever stopped and wondered what someone must have been like as a child? I think it’s something we do with public figures and celebrities a fair bit. Before I moved here, I never really thought about Abraham Lincoln all that much. But after being here a while and hearing so much about Lincoln, I couldn’t help but wonder what he was like as a kid. Or even, what did he look like as a kid? Or maybe you think of a famous actor or actress. Like Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson or Ellen DeGeneres? Can you imagine what they were like as kids? And we do this when we’re dating too. Often times our loved one’s parents are happy to oblige but we want to know what our loved one was like when they were younger. Maybe some of you have wondered what I was like as a kid. Well, I’m ready to show you. Here you go.
I know, it’s crazy. Matt had hair?! And I’m telling you right now…I don’t want to hear any jokes like, “You were so cute. What happened?” But, yeah, I think I was a pretty cute kid. One big difference between me now and me as a kid and even as a middle schooler is that I was extremely quiet and shy. Again, I know, a shocker. It wasn’t until I became a Christian, actually, that I found my gift for gab. I’m still the same person but several aspects of who I am have changed, including the need to buy shampoo.
For the next three weeks, we’re going to be working through a message series called After the Manger. Often times, when we think of Jesus, we have two images in our mind. We have the newborn in a manger and we have the bearded, robed adult Jesus. But what about the in-between? The truth is that the Bible doesn’t provide us with all that much insight into the younger years of Jesus’ life. Can you imagine what kind of temper tantrums a toddler Christ could whip up? Did the teenage Jesus ever go through the same kind of awkward phases we did? Well, I don’t have any insight for you on those but we are going to look at three places within Scripture that give us a glimpse of what occurred in Jesus’ life After the Manger. And the first one involves three of our favorite though misplaced nativity figures. We’re in Matthew 2:1-12.
* Read Matthew 2:1-12 *
Alright, so before we go any further, I have to just clear up a little something. Whenever we set up a nativity set, we always have the three wisemen in the scene. The problem though is that we can see how it would be quite improbable for them to have been at the manger the night of Christ’s birth. We read that they came from the east and went to Jerusalem to inquire about the birth of the King of the Jews, and that they did this AFTER Jesus was born. It was from there that they traveled to Bethlehem and found the baby. Even more, we read that they found Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in a house, likely a place where they settled, and most certainly not in a manger.
One other small bit for clarification. We sometimes use the word “kings” when talking about our traveling gift-givers. We’ll even sing that classic song in a few minutes. The word used in the original Greek is “magoi” or Magi. Historically and literally, these visitors were astrologers and star-gazers. Their attention was often fixed on ancient prophecies and the hope that the mysteries could be solved in the skies above. The likely reason they are referred to as kings is because royalty often had magi among their courts for insight and wisdom. These particular Magi, though, we know came from the east - and must have been looking for the fulfillment of prophecies concerning the Messiah. That brought them first to King Herod, the ruler of the area, and then to the infant Christ Himself.
And when these wayfaring sages do finally reach the King of the Jews, the Messiah, they arrive with what can only be described as some Odd Gifts. We’ve all received some weird gifts in our time, right? In fact, I don’t think there’s any shame in admitting that sometimes we open a gift and our first thought is, “So…did they put the receipt in the box somewhere?” A couple of years ago in PA, I was working on a message about gifts and I asked folks on Facebook to share some of the gifts they’ve returned in the past. I had a few people comment that they would never return a gift because it’s the thought that counts and all that. Ok, great. Not what I was looking for. I did get some good responses though. A lot of people said clothes. Wrong size, wrong style, that kind of thing. A couple people got duplicate gifts from different people. One person got the second book of a series she wasn’t reading. Another got a pair of nice earrings even though her ears weren’t pierced. And a good friend of mine just wrote, “What was that thing you got me last year?”
Bottom line, we’ve all received some Odd Gifts at one point or another. You’ll be happy to hear that this isn’t something unique to you. You’re not the first one to open a gift and wonder if the person giving it to you really knows you at all. It actually happened to Jesus as well. Our star-gazing magi arrived to the side of the infant Savior and they presented gifts. As far as baby gifts go, it must have been anticlimactic. Jesus was given gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We’re used to casseroles, diapers, and those cute little baby shoes. But the truth is - these Odd Gifts are packed with powerful meaning.
Gold might seem like an obvious gift. After all, it’s currency and we know that Mary and Joseph were not among the wealthiest of society. But it’s value goes much further than simply what it was worth. Gold was a gift for a king and offering made to royalty. The magi were not giving the biblical equivalent of a savings bond to the baby Jesus. They were humbly submitting to and celebrating Christ’s identity as the King of the Jews, the one prophesied of old.
Frankincense is actually something people are more familiar today than in recent history thanks to the wide-spread interest in essential oils. Possessing an earthy and almost wood-like scent, frankincense is a potent but also relaxing aroma. The magi didn’t simply bring an ancient form of baby lotion though. Instead, frankincense possesses a religious and ceremonial significance. It was burned at services of worship and within holy temples. In fact, the Catholic church that I grew up in used frankincense in their censer’s during mass. You see, this gift of the magi was an admission and celebration of the holiness of this child. It was a priestly gift given to the one who would be our High Priest.
And then, finally, myrrh. All three of these offerings made by the Magi were odd gifts but this one possesses a solemn and troublesome tone. Myrrh had a few uses in the ancient world but the most prominent and common was burial. Myrrh was the primary ingredient used in creating the mixture of elements that was applied to a body before it was placed to rest. Gold and frankincense at least had ancillary uses. But what must have gone through Mary’s mind when she sees myrrh being given to her newborn son? We can’t assume that the Magi, even with their affinity for the stars and sciences, could have guessed the ultimate sacrifice of the infant they had come to visit. Nonetheless, this odd gift of myrrh sets the tone for the sacrificial and costly mission of Christ. It is the first foreshadowing to the cross, to the tomb, and ultimately to the Resurrection.
So, we can now grasp just how odd the gifts were that the Magi brought to Christ. Our first moment in Scripture, After the Manger, we are given the subtle introductions to the identity of Jesus Christ. As king, as high priest, and as the sacrificial lamb. But the truth is - these may have been odd gifts but they are appropriate in that Christ Himself was an odd gift, was He not? Our God, the One we read of in Colossians as being the One in whom all things were created, is born into the frailty and weakness of a child. The child would grow in stature, strength, and wisdom, and eventually become a respected Rabbi, a radical advocate for the broken, a miracle worker, and a profound teacher. Jesus would become a Savior, not merely by the words He spoke or the wonders He performed, but because of His willingness to carry a cross that didn’t belong to Him and to die a death that was not rightfully His own. The gifts of the Magi, odd as they may be, are perfect because of the odd but wonderous gift Jesus Christ was and is to this world and to all of humanity.
And, friends, I want to close with this. In our first look at Christ After the Manger, we encounter the familiar figures of the Magi and what can only be called some very Odd Gifts. But those gifts point to and declare the true and lasting identity of our Savior.
Christ Himself was an Odd Gift and one that was not understood fully at the time, but, nonetheless, Jesus has spoken value into each of us and given us purpose. Each and every one of you, all of us, have gifts and callings that we are asked to share with this world. I know that sometimes it can be difficult to determine the ways in which God could use what you have to offer. We have all struggled with self-doubt and we all question what good we could really do. But if God can use the Odd Gifts of the Magi to magnify and honor our Savior, imagine what our Lord can do with the gifts you have – odd as they may be.
That little boy I showed you at the beginning of the service grew into a kid who could barely speak in public and who was as shy and lacking in self-confidence as could be. But I let God take what I had, what I have and let Him use my odd gifts. God can use our gifts and even what we consider our quirks for His glory. Whether it be an affinity for technology or the ability to strike up a conversation with any stranger you meet, or a strong sense of organization or a growing musical talent. You might be good with numbers or have an artistic eye, or maybe you have the spiritual gift of not being rattled in a room of 20 screaming kids. It doesn’t matter whether you love holding babies or find your greatest peace mowing a lawn or working in a garden. It doesn’t matter whether they are odd gifts, unusual gifts, common gifts, or even gifts you’re not quite good at yet. God can use all of them…if we let Him. Your gifts and your presence could be valuable gold that compels a person to learn more about a Savior who loves them. Your gifts might be the welcoming aroma of frankincense that helps someone feel like they belong in the family of faith and realize that they are a beloved child of God. Your presence could be the myrrh that soothes the aching heart of those who mourn or suffer. God can use you in meaningful and powerful ways, in unexpected ways, and the Magi show us that often times God will use what we consider to be Odd Gifts.