Below is the prepared text of the message preached this morning at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York. We explore the history of Christmas, the poem/song by the same name as this message, and Matthew 2:1-12. The sermon audio is available here. Next Sunday will be a service of readings and carols with a brief message on the difference the incarnation makes in our lives today, as well as communion.
We’ve lamented together about how early the Christmas season has been starting in our culture. But our culture and many churches today wrap up the whole Christmas season on December 25th. It hasn’t always been this way. 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. In some cultures the exchange of presents takes place on Three Kings Day. When my parents lived in Puerto Rico, for example, they found that the tradition there was not to send Christmas cards but instead to send Three Kings Day cards. The first record of the church observing Christmas on December 25th was in A.D. 336. We do not know for how long it had been observed on that day before that year although we do know that birthdays were not very important in the early church. It was in A.D. 567 that a church council proclaimed the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany as a sacred and festive season. The exchange of presents on December 25th only became popular in the 1800s. Thus “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was published in England before it was popular 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.
- 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 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. This year it will be a little more expensive to buy all of the gifts in the song than it was last year. The drivers of this small increase are the pear trees, golden rings, and the wages for the Lords-a-leaping. The main culprit for the increased cost are the gold rings, which have jumped up 10% since last year after five years without a change. The other nine gifts didn’t change in price since last year. This year the true love who repeats as the song suggests will be out $157,558. It is an increase of only 0.7% from last year. 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 $34,558.65. If you are an online shopper it will cost you an additional $10,538 to buy all of the gifts once. [For more info check out PNC’s website.] 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 might just find yourself imitating the impulse of the wise men or 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. Jesus gave you His time, talents, travel, treasures, and Himself. His blood on the cross is priceless – we could never afford it. You are His true love and though He is your king, He came to serve you. What Jesus gave for us is nothing less than amazing. And it is a free gift. It is not one that we deserved. 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. (So how do we respond to such a gift?)
- You imitate the impulse of the wise men and the true love. This is not an imperative. I’m not telling you what to do. I’m simply reporting what Christians find themselves doing because they are so thankful for their salvation but even more thankful for their Savior Jesus Christ. 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 really want something out of God or because you think you need to prove yourself worthy to receive His gifts. The real reason for the season of twelve days is to set apart some special time to offer your praise, feast and fellowship together, worship together, and even find yourself using all of the gifts that He has given you for His purposes. But no matter what your Christmas traditions in the past, the present or the future might be, these are the elements that are there not just for a day but for a season and by practicing them for a season you create patterns that may just carry you through the year. Thanks be to God. Amen.