Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas is all about presents...

This weekend I took my annual trip to London. I’m not a massive fan of London, I must admit, it’s big and anonymous and the tube line I need is never working properly. But once a year I take a trip to London and do the oh so commercial walk from one end of Oxford street to the other, admiring the christmas lights, and spending a few hours in Hamley's, to do my Christmas shopping. Now I’ve spent many years kicking against the commercialism of Christmas, to the point where I’ve been a bit of a scrooge. But sitting in a coffee shop on Carnaby street, watching the happy shoppers pass by the window, I came to the conclusion that Christmas is all about presents. And we’d all be better off if we just accepted it.

You see a precedent was set in that very first christmas story, as the magi made their very long journey to visit a new born king. I suppose my thoughts may have been somewhat coloured by the salvation army’s rendition of We Three Kings outside the window. So I sat and pondered the gifts the magi brought with them to greet that baby, born in a stable among the animals, his life already threatened; not the most regal birth one could imagine.

“Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain, gold I bring to crown Him again.”

Gold is the symbol of wealth, and power, and excellence. We still give gold medals to those who achieve great things. Our wealth, our material substance, represents the investment of our time and the application of our abilities. Our “gold,” whether it’s money or some other entity, shows what’s important in our life. What we do with our “gold” reveals what we hold to be of greatest value. It was important to the Magi to find the Saviour of the world, and when they found him they honoured him with their substance, that gold that speaks of his royal authority.

How do we allocate the resources with which the Lord has blessed us? For truly, our “gold” isn’t about us — it’s about God, and how he has worked in us to bring about the rewards of honest labour and diligent effort. Will we, like the Magi, recognize and honour our Saviour with our gifts of gold? Will we bring our substance to the feet of our King, no longer a babe in a manger but the victorious Lamb seated at the right hand of the throne of God — “King forever, ceasing never, over us all to reign”? What we do with our money and other resources tells the whole world who we think our King and Provider really is. When we offer our gifts for the work of the gospel of Christ, we join the Magi in declaring his kingship. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12).

“Frankincense to offer have I; incense owns a Deity nigh.”

In the Bible, incense is a symbol of prayer and worship, for it was offered along with the sacrifices of the sanctuary. The Psalmist cries, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice!” (141:2). When the Magi offered incense to the Christ child, they were acknowledging that they knelt in the presence of the holy, they came, worshiping — bending the knee, falling down before the Christ, perhaps bowing in awed silence in the presence of a divine mystery they could not fathom.

As we enter the place of worship, do we come with that same sense of the holy mystery of God that the wise men brought to the Christ child? Do we come, offering the “incense” of our worshipful expectancy and humble adoration? Do we come with “prayer and praising, voices raising, worshiping God on high?” The Magi remind us that it’s no casual thing to enter into the presence of the living Christ. They remind us that we don’t come to be entertained, amused or even instructed; we come to meet the Lord, to encounter the overwhelming majesty of God. If that doesn’t happen in our gathering, we haven’t brought the right gift into his presence. We’ve brought another agenda with us, an agenda that runs counter to the purpose the Lord has for us when he declares, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Let’s always come into God’s presence as the Magi did, offering the gift of our prayerful devotion.

“Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom.”

What kind of a gift is this for a newborn — myrrh, the spice used in preparing a body for burial? Death is usually the furthest thing from our minds when welcoming a new child into the world. Yet, somehow, the Magi knew that this child of Bethlehem was destined for death — not in the massacre of King Herod, who murdered many innocent children in trying to wipe out this threat to his rule, but death on a cross bearing the sins of the world. Had the wise men heard the ancient words of Isaiah, “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (53:3)? Somehow they understood what would happen to this child, and their understanding was perhaps confirmed when they saw the reaction of the Jerusalem leaders to the news they brought of the birth of a ruler. And so they came, kneeling in humility before a King, kneeling in worship before a God, and kneeling in sorrow before a Saviour who would one day give his life for them.

How do we offer our own gift of “myrrh” when we come to worship the Lord Jesus? As we gather about his holy table, we remember the words of the apostle Paul: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”. As we gather around his table, we hear his words: “This is my body which is for you; do this in remembrance of me. . . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Even at the most joyous of times, even in the high of the Christmas period, we never forget the price Jesus paid to reconcile us with our heavenly Father. We come in humble thanksgiving, remembering what Jesus has done for us, “sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,” his body “sealed in the stone cold tomb.”

You see in our own Christmas story the precedent was set; giving presents is an important part of Christmas. Sitting around the tree together and exchanging gifts is not something we need to kick against, it is something we can embrace. But we need to remember, as we swap gifts with one another and share our generosity, not to forget the birthday boy! We must ask ourselves as we walk along our high streets laden with bags full of presents and cards and wrapping paper, what gifts we will be offering to our king this Christmas, will we arrive empty handed and underprepared, too worried about who we have and haven’t bought for? Or will we arrive full of wonder, love and awe, offering our gold, frankincense and myrrh?

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