Ahhhh the eternal question, one always faced at this time of year. It is a plague on the modern shopper, the modern person and there needs to be an answer to it if we are ever going to get past it, this stumbling block to a happy life and an enjoyable future must be overcome. The question is, of course, what do you get the person who has everything?
Not that anyone literally has everything, even Rupert Murdoch has things he looks at and thinks, wow, I’d like to own that; watch out, I think he has his eyes on Belgium these days; but we are a people who have a lot. Compared to generations past, the shopping conundrum is much worse nowadays because there is a) so much more available, and b) so much more that people already have. Material goods are the way of things, we are a consumer culture.
So what do you get the person who has everything?
Compounding that problem is the fact that we have a hard time accepting gifts, we want to control the gift so that we can be assured that is something that we want, that is why we even have the notion of gift cards. They exist so that the recipient can exert control over the gift and just as importantly, we, the givers, are off the hook for the question, what do you get the person who has everything? That’s why the prevailing wisdom today is the gift card, let the person who has everything decide their own gift. We’ve dodged the question because it was hard to answer and life is hard enough.
And there is more and more gift giving going on. When you go to someone’s home for dinner there is a cultural expectation that you ought to bring something. Typical in this area is the bottle of wine which we bring from either our own wine racks or from our own tastes as we browse the aisles of the wine section at Safeway or at G and G.
But even then we think that we ought to open that bottle of wine and drink it at the dinner because we brought it. We give a gift, and yet still want to control this end of it. Ladies and Gentlemen, if I invite you over for dinner, I already know what wine I want to serve with that dinner. If I invite you over for wine, which also happens at our house, then the whole thing is up in the air, we’ll open anything.
Or the gift bag that is apparently required for birthday parties in the under fourteen set these days. Instead of being about giving the birthday child a gift, everybody has to get a present at the modern party, blurring the lines about exactly who the party is about?
Even the gift of grace is not exempt for our attempts to change and twist the meaning of gift. Look at the way that faith is portrayed in the media, assuming that you can find faith portrayed in the media, and you will see little if any grace, there is no forgiveness portrayed, there is little love for neighbor portrayed. Religious figures are seen as somehow a part of the institutional wallpaper of society, they are operatives of just another institution.
Who’d want to be a part of that? They wear those funny collars, they dress in black which might be slimming but it simply doesn’t work in the summer months in California. Nowhere is faith seen as a gift. It is a burden, something you have to do. You have to go to church every Sunday and miss your football game. You have to give them your money. You have to give up the things you love, after all, aren’t they all portrayed as being austere and solemn? Doesn’t sound like people who have gotten a gift, does it?
Why would people want that?
And the thing to understand, both for yourself as well for those who you meet, the ones outside there, pooh-poohing the gift of grace is that when a gift comes, the focus is on what we like, what we don’t like, what it does for us, does this present make my butt look big? What we see is the holes in what we want, the things we didn’t get, like someone who wins a hundred bucks in the lottery and bemoans his losses because just one more number and he’d have won a thousand.
Grace is a gift they cannot control. They can’t say what it means. They can’t make it about them, only God can. They can’t give back the parts they don’t like, it isn’t a gift card.
It’s a gift.
And it’s for you, all of it, all the time, every time.
Like it or not.
And it’s good for you too. It will build you up if you let it, it will tear you down a whole bunch too, of you let it, and then it will build you up again better than before, like the six million dollar man you will be remade, better, stronger, faster if only you let the power of Christ move in and through you.
But you will not be in charge. What comes is coming, no matter what you think.
This morning, a king is coming. The prophecies say so and people have followed a star from far far away because they are willing to let go of everything. They are in a new country, in a new world for them; remember that the average person alive at the birth of Christ traveled no more than seven miles from their home in their entire lives. Sure, there were exceptions and traders have always plied the waves and taken their caravans across the plains, but most people stayed close to home.
But these folks left it all. In this new land they are kings, perhaps, but only known by their clothes. They are not kings from around here, or in Bethlehem, and so they came simply as men, as wise men, perhaps, so say the songs if not the scriptures. There was a gift coming, the stars said so. They dropped everything and followed the star. After all, a gift was coming.
When they came they came bearing gifts as well. They brought the things that were precious to them, the things that befitted the coming of a king and so while myrrh may not be flying off the shelves at Target these days and we have no idea why it might be important, it was important and so they came to welcome the king, to receive the gift of His birth.
But Herod, well, Herod is a horse of a different color. Herod is so much more like we are than I think we’d like to admit. Herod knows that the King is coming, but it doesn’t seem like a gift to him in fact there are wise men coming from the East who are coming to pay the newborn child homage that Herod is pretty sure belongs to him. He knows the prophecies as well as any other Jew of his day, better probably, so the suspicion is that this might be the Messiah, but still, that gift must be managed, customized, or even averted if Herod is to be in control of the whole gift-giving paradigm in his local area.
Herod knows that God is a Jew in the same way that we know that God is a Lutheran, and God wants Jerusalem to prosper, for Israel to thrive and so the messiah must be the gift that might make that happen and so that gift, in the abstract, sounds like the greatest thing that could ever happen but even in that context, even seen in that light Herod still wants to maintain his own station, his own prestige and so he wants to be in control of even the gift from god because at the core Herod is missing the point.
The same way that we do. The same way that every day we set wisdom aside and try and manage the gifts that god have given us, turning them into something that we change instead of things that change us.
We are the people who have everything and so we think we ought to have some say as to what our gifts mean, what they say about us, how they should be used. So what do you get a people who have everything?
How about wisdom?
Epiphany defined is a flash of insight, or even more specifically from the Greek “a manifestation, or sudden appearance” as of knowledge, but more specifically, the star, and then the Christ.
Manifesting God’s very nature as the one who gives.
Gives life at the first, at the very first. Gives the laws, not to burden or to punish but to shape us into a people who love one another and see each other as brother or sister; gives promises and then keeps them, promises of future gifts, continuing care, love always.
And these are not gifts that we get to manage, not gifts we get to control, or return, or turn into something else. They are ultimately for us, for our prosperity, for our nurture and growth, for us.
All that god does, whether or not we grasp it that way, is for us.
It is indeed right and salutary that we should at all times and in all places offer thanks and praise. It’s not a demand, it is the right thing to do but lightning will not strike if you forget once in awhile if the game is on this afternoon, but far more importantly, it is salutary. It is good for you, it will build you up, make you more than you are now, better, because the gifts of God are always for you.
The blood is shed for you and the body is broken for you. It is salutary, good to do and will build you up.
The law was given for us, so that we might glimpse the narrow path and when the law was insufficient, then the Christ came, Jesus in the manger, manifest, appearing suddenly to give the gift of salvation without fear.
If we do not embrace the gift, knowing full well that we cannot control it, cannot manage it, cannot twist it this way and that to make it something we make decisions on, if we cannot embrace the gift that will change us forever, how can we expect the people outside of these walls to dare to accept a gift without trying to control it?
Epiphany is the coming of wisdom. It is the coming of the wise men, who come to do what is right, and salutary, and accept the gift of the coming king. They are not just aware that they will be changed, they have traveled afar, says the song, leaving status and name, leaving power and majesty behind in order to receive a gift from god, the same gift that we have received and continue to receive every day, the child in the manger who is the man on the cross who is the light in the darkness, and freedom from fear.
How do we receive the same gift?
What do you get a people who have everything? I hope that it is the gift of wisdom. Wisdom will help us see that God’s gifts will change us, but always for the better. Wisdom will show us that the person sitting next to us is not the limit of our reach, we have neighbors and co-workers and each of them is a person who has everything.
But nobody has everything. Nobody has enough forgiveness. Everyone has a secret fear, a secret shame a secret desire. Everyone has a secret hole that they are trying to fill. Many of them try and fill that hole with stuff, with goods, with toys or food, or sex or power. Most of them, and us for that matter, try and fill that hole with control. We try and manage the world around us to suit ourselves so that we do not notice so much the hole we are trying to fill.
You cannot control the only gift that can fill that hole. You simply have to accept it and know that what happens next is a good thing, something God meant for you, something right, something salutary, at all times, and in all places.
Happy Epiphany, may the wisdom of God be with you in the coming of the wise men who dropped everything they had held dear to bring the newborn king their gifts, their homage, even Myrrh, which I still do not completely get but I know is right, and salutary.
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mk 10:29–30). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.