Waiting for the Gift

ultramanThe best gifts come from the most unlikely of places. When I was maybe about four years old, my parents told me some exciting news: some Japanese are going to come over to the house tonight! I knew by their tone that I was supposed to be thrilled; but I wasn’t. The fuller story, which I didn’t know at the time, was that my grandmother’s best friend had spent most of her adult life working in Japan as a missionary. She was back visiting the States and had brought along a couple of friends, and they had a speaking tour planned. Our house was a simple social call along the way.

But I didn’t know any of that. All I knew was that some Japanese, whatever that word meant, were coming over to the house. And since I didn’t know what “Japanese” meant, I filled in the blanks with fear and dread. Maybe those early Saturday mornings spent watching the Japanese monster series “Ultraman” had put ideas in my head – but whatever it was, I was terrified. I thought my parents were trustworthy, and yet here they are bringing “Japanese” into the house? As soon as the doorbell rang, I sprinted for my parents’ bathroom and locked the door.

It took some coaxing, but I finally emerged and headed downstairs to find these two Japanese…people?!?...sitting on the couch. They were smiling and holding my baby sister! “Well, why didn’t you say they were people? That’s a whole different story!”

They ended up giving me a little wooden toy, called a Kendama, one of those little cup and ball games. Winning that game occupied my attention for the better part of the next few months.

The best gifts come from the most unlikely of places.

Our lesson from the gospel of Matthew today highlights this very point, that the best gifts can come from the most unlikely of places. The magi, in bringing their honor to the baby Jesus in the form of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, are the most visible manifestation of this truth. And yet, there is more – so much more.

For centuries, the Israelites have been waiting for the birth of Messiah, the promised one of God. The yearning of that promise has deepened with the weight of years and the prophecies left unfulfilled. And now, the people are expecting nothing less than total revolution. The Romans occupy the land, and the current king Herod is nothing more than a puppet, carrying out ceremonial duties and bloating his own coffers while allowing the Romans to do as they please with the general population.

It is in the midst of all of this, visitors arrive in Jerusalem. The lesson refers to them as magi, a Persian word, pointing to their origins in modern-day Iran. The three gifts they bring are uniquely grouped together in Nabatean culture, suggesting that they come from modern-day Jordan. In other words, wherever they come from, what we know for certain is that they are foreigners.

It is the stars that have led them to Jerusalem, pointing their way to a promised king. Herod, wily enough to know when his power is threatened, receives the foreigners and consults the religious scholars. He then sends the magi as unknowing scouts to Bethlehem, to root out this infant rival for the throne so that he can then come and eliminate the competition. But like a Greek tragedy where fate is already set in stone, they go home without stopping in Jerusalem while the child’s father seeks temporary refuge for the family in Egypt. Herod, recognizing he has been duped, vents his murderous rage. And yet, none of this is able to stop the child from growing up to claim the promises for which he had been born.

The best gifts come from the most unlikely of places.

Do you notice anything peculiar about this story? The ancient Near East was a tribal place – not that different from our modern world, mind you, but exaggeratedly so. And yet, in this amazing tale, the roles of good and evil are reversed, and pointedly so. Persia, the land of magi, had once been the land of exile for God’s people. And though they had found favor in King Cyrus, Persia was also the land where royal intrigue had almost led to the genocide of the Israelites.

Egypt, where Jesus, Mary, and Joseph found refuge from Herod’s slaughter, had once sheltered Abraham and had provided sustenance to Jacob and his family in a time of Canaanite famine. But it had also been the land of slavery for God’s people, where only the otherworldly intervention of seas parting could save them from another megalomaniac’s rage.

And Nabatea, the land of gold, frankincense and myrrh, may have figured less in Biblical history, but it had its place in the political and military maneuvers of the ancient world – warring with Judea at times. And it was most often referred to in Scripture as “the wilderness”, a dreaded, barren place.

Judah and Jerusalem, on the other hand, play the villain. The King is a heel straight out of central casting, conniving to try and undermine God’s desires and promises so he can keep his grip on his little fiefdom. His plan is so violently over the top as to seem cartoonish: slaughtering everyone under the age of two – which, if you may have noticed, is the exact opposite of “thou shalt not kill.” Up is down, left is right, good is bad, countryman is traitor.

These themes rise up throughout Scripture again and again. On the one hand, where we want to draw the lines for our tribe is rarely the same place that God would draw them. And, at the same time, our expectations for the way God desires things to be are likely to be flipped on their head. It’s almost as if God is trying to tell us something…

As we turn the page on the calendar, we know there’s nothing magical that happens as we move from 2015 to 2016. The dates are arbitrary. It may mark another circuit around the sun, but the idea that something critical happened two days ago just isn’t true. And yet, it is one of those moments that gives us an opportunity to root ourselves in the present as we look toward God’s future.

What are you looking for in 2016? What are your hopes? Your fears? Your dreams? Your expectations? And, more importantly, how do they point you toward what it is that God desires for you?

After all, the best gifts come from the most unlikely of places.

I would like to suggest a path forward for the coming year, and it is simply this: be open to the surprises of God.

In our lesson from this morning, enemies turn out to be friends, and allies become oppressors. In our reading today, though the priests and scribes recognize God’s wisdom, its path does not come by way of rulers or tribes, but through stars and dreams. If we think we know who is against us, if we think we know how it is that God will speak to us, we have already closed ourselves off to God. We might as well lock ourselves in the upstairs bathroom until the strange visitors go away, taking their gifts and their warmth with them.

Instead, I want to suggest that we spend time on God’s possibilities, God’s new hopes for us and for our lives. And I think we are likely to find them in two places: in relationships and in disciplines.

The first is in relationships we would reject out of hand. I’m not talking about building intimate trust with those who have wronged you before; that’s a whole different conversation for another day. What I am talking about is building trust with those whom you don’t know but have decided to reject out of hand anyway. Or, to use Jesus’ pointed question about our expectations, who is your neighbor?

Who is that person who is, at first glance, very unlike you? How can you begin to build trust and hope with them? Perhaps it’s the literal neighbor, the new family down the block. Maybe it’s the new co-worker, or maybe you’re the new co-worker. Perhaps it’s the new kid in school, or the person you see in church every Sunday but haven’t yet gotten to know. It is in these relationships that we might find our assumptions challenged, which is the surest way to find God’s surprise. So in 2016, I encourage you to put yourself out there, to nurture a new friendship, with eyes wide open to God’s wisdom at work.

And the second place we are likely to encounter God’s gifts is in new disciplines. Many of you have a spiritual practice that works well for you. Your daily prayer, or your morning Bible study, or your afternoon walk or jog, or your evening meditation – maybe you have already found your intimacy with God. If your practice continues to surprise you, if you consistently find new revelations and insights, then there is no need to alter course. But: if all you end up doing is reinforcing what you already know, then it’s more than time for a change.

It might be as simple as a different route, or a different time of day, or a different mindset of open and willing reception. The point is that if all we are doing is meeting our expectations, then we’re just not doing it right. And if you don’t plan any regular way of encountering God, well, now is a good as time as any to start. But unlike the gym membership or the treadmill you purchase, make this one doable, winnable, achievable. Start with five minutes a day of prayer, or ten minutes on a daily Bible reading, or increasing your worship attendance, or starting to come to Sunday School.

Friends: the gifts of God are already here. And they’re not what we expect. They are on this table: cup and bread. So come to this table. And as you do, commit yourself to the newness and openness this new year can bring to you and to God’s desires.

Right here, at this table, is where the surprise happens. What is on this table is simple. The wine and juice are made from simple grapes. The bread is made from – well, it’s not made from wheat, but it’s still simple. But even so, they contain promises beyond their mere appearance. Because when we are at this table, and when we share this bread and this cup, we encounter Jesus himself. And it is in our relationship with him that we will find ourselves always changed, always transformed.