The text of the sermon that I preached this morning at Berkeley Springs Presbyterian Church in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, is below. I thought that I would share the text for your reflection today…before Christmas is over 🙂
The last time I visited with you was the Sunday after Thanksgiving. It was the First Sunday of Advent and the sermon that Sunday was about making sure that we didn’t miss Christmas. If you feel like you missed Christmas this year, I’ve got some good news. You haven’t missed it yet because Christmas isn’t over yet. It seems like the Christmas season has been starting earlier and earlier every year until now the season begins as soon as Halloween ends. I don’t know about you, but I really wish it wouldn’t start so soon. But I also wish it didn’t end so soon. Our culture and many churches today want to be done with the whole Christmas season on December 25th. This isn’t the way things have always been done. In fact, we know that birthdays were not very important in the early church. And the first record of the church observing Christmas on December 25th was in A.D. 336. We suspect that Christmas had been observed on December 25th for several years before this. But we don’t know how many years before this. It was in A.D. 567 that a church council proclaimed the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany as a sacred and festive season. Thus traditionally the celebration of Christmas began on December 25th and continued for the next twelve days followed by Epiphany or Three Kings Day on January 6th. The exchange of presents on December 25th only became popular in the 1800s. In some cultures, even today the exchange of presents takes place on Three Kings Day. In Puerto Rico, for example, they don’t send Christmas cards but instead they send Three Kings Day cards. In any case, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was published in England before it became popular in England to give presents on December 25th. It was first printed without music as a chant or rhyme in 1780. And today many people know the twelve gifts in this cumulative song from the partridge in a pear tree to twelve drummers drumming. But before we hear how much those gifts cost this year, let’s look at those presents the wise men brought to Jesus on the first Epiphany. Hear the word of God:
You don’t need to exchange presents for twelve days nor to abandon December 25th as the day to do so in favor of January 6th, but you might reflect on the reason for this twelve day season.
That the season lasts twelve days reminds us that the wise men took a long journey to find the baby Jesus in Bethlehem and offer Him presents. These wise men were the best astrologers and dream interpreters the world had to offer. The Kings of Babylon long relied on their wisdom in order to make important decisions. And being experts in worldly wisdom, the magi naturally thought that the King of the Jews would be born in a palace in the great city of Jerusalem. So first they went an inquired of King Herod. As it turns out that was not such a wise move, but it is what we would expect from those who are well versed in the wisdom of the world and not the Scriptures. But these astrologers followed a star to the place where Jesus was. It may very well have been an angel that looked like a star to these astrologers given the way that it moved. Nevertheless, the trip itself was part of their offering to the newborn King of Kings. We do not know exactly how long it took them, only that it was less than two years. But these Gentiles from the east traveled a great distance to come and see the one they called the King of the Jews. When they arrived and found this Jesus they offered a sacrifice of praise – rejoicing exceedingly with great joy. Then they gave an offering of obedience – falling down and worshiping Jesus. Most memorable to us were their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These three presents were very expensive. We know they looked upon Him as a king, and these were gifts well suited for a king – especially gold. We know that they had been pagan religious leaders and frankincense is an appropriate gift for a priest as Israel’s priests also used it on the altar. Myrrh was used in burial preparation. Traditionally Christians have stressed that gold shows His kingship, frankincense shows His deity, and myrrh points to His death. The Wise Men may have even brought other gifts, but Matthew mentions these three probably for this reason and because Isaiah 60 prophesied foreigners would bring gold and frankincense to the Christ and praise the Lord. Altogether then the wise men offered their time, their travel, their treasures, their thanksgivings, and themselves.
The old carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” is also a costly proposition. PNC has been calculating the price of purchasing the gifts mentioned in the song since 1984. Thankfully the price didn’t change much—you’ll pay about the same as last year. I’ve been following these numbers since 2005 and this is the first time I remember that happening. The gold rings will cost you more. Last year the price of gold was down but this year they’ve seen prices rebound up 10%. They blame interest in backyard farming for the price of geese increasing for a second year in a row. They are up almost 8 percent this year. But the price of turtle doves, which have not fallen in price since 2004, are down 20% this year. Now the true love who repeats the gifts as the song suggests this year will be out $170,298.03. If that’s too rich for you to repeat the way you are supposed to each day, consider that the cost of purchasing each item only once is only $38,993.59. If you are an online shopper it will cost you an additional $3,265.32 to buy all of the gifts once. But no matter how you look at it these gifts add up to be an expensive proposition for a true love. Of course, that is on purpose. True loves will give cheerfully and generously to their lover – not only with such treasures but also of their time, travel, thanksgivings, and themselves.
When you consider how much Jesus gave for us, you may find yourself imitating the impulse of the wise men or even the true love in the song.
The eternal Son of God stepped out of eternity and into time being conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary; He traveled from heaven above to be with us on earth; though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich; indeed, His life and death are gifts to you. Though He is your king, He came to serve you. You are His true love. Jesus gave you His time, talents, travel, treasures, and Himself. His blood on the cross is priceless – we could never afford it and we don’t deserve it. Indeed, we deserved eternal separation from God because of our sins. But He gives us this free gift of salvation. It is really free—there is no fine print. We receive this gift of Jesus by faith—which is a gift from God whereby we approach God with empty hands because we have nothing to offer in exchange. (So how do we respond to these gifts?)
You imitate the impulse of the wise men and the true love. Allow me to make an observation about the grammar of that sentence. This is not an imperative. That is, I’m not telling you what to do. I’m not telling you to imitate the impulse of the wise men and the true love. I’m simply reporting what Christians find themselves doing because they are so thankful for their salvation but even more thankful for their beloved Savior. This is what Christians do because they love Jesus. You find yourself offering sacrifices of praise to God and His Christ, you find yourself offering Him gifts of great value to you, you find yourself falling down and worshiping Jesus, you find yourself looking at this life as a spiritual pilgrimage or journey, you find yourself spending time with God and His people and sharing your God-given talents with others. You find yourself loving God more than other people. You find yourself loving God more than acquiring stuff and experiencing entertainment like the true love does in the song. You find yourself giving to the church and giving to the poor. You find yourself offering yourself to God for His purposes and to bring Him glory alone. And you do this all without expecting anything in return – not because you want something out of God or because you think you need to prove yourself worthy to receive His gifts. So the real reason for the season of twelve days is to set apart some special time to offer your praise, to feast and fellowship together, to worship together, and even to find yourself using all of the gifts that He has given you for His purposes. Whatever your Christmas traditions in the past, the present or the future might be, when you find yourself doing these things not only for one day but for a whole season then you are creating patterns that can last all year. So Christmas isn’t over yet… Thanks be to God. Amen.