Gifts That Really Matter
A sermon on Isaiah 60:1-6 & Matthew 2: 1-12 by Nathan Nettleton, 6 January 2002

This sermon is a revised version of a sermon called “A Christmas Do-over” by the Revd Jack McKinney of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA

The gifts we most need - a place of belonging and a place of sacred meaning - will be found when we offer them to others.


Today is the Feast of Epiphany, the day that marks the end of the Christmas season and celebrates the revelation of Christ to the wider world with the story of the visit of the Magi from the East. We celebrate this Feast each year on January 6th, which means that many people are not too familiar with it because it doesn’t usually fall on a Sunday as it has this year. Originally, the Feast of Epiphany was the day when Christians shared their gifts with one another in honour of the Magi's example of gift giving. Some Eastern Orthodox Christians continue this practice, and this morning many Orthodox kids will have been opening their gifts with the same gusto that our kids demonstrated twelve days back.

So it seems to me that with our big pressie unwrapping day behind us for another year, Epiphany may be the ideal time for us to stop and think about what sort of gifts would really make a difference to our lives and our world. We stress so much over Christmas gifts, trying to make everyone happy even though we know that that’s probably a hopeless dream, and we often end up with as much disappointment as joy. It is brought home to us again that all theses presents, no matter how perfect they are, cannot fill up the empty places deep inside us. So on this day, as we remember the trip of the Magi, and the strange-sounding gifts that they laid at the feet of the Christ child, let us think about what sort of gifts we would like to receive if gifts were not just purchased items in fancy wrapping.

The reading we heard from the prophet Isaiah describes a gift that we all hunger for: a place where we truly belong. The text uses the image of light to portray a new day dawning for our Hebrew forebears: "On your feet people of God! Let everyone see you! The glory of the Lord has set you ablaze with light like the sunrise on the rock." It is a picture of restoration and hope of joyous homecoming. "Open your eyes! Look around you! The crowds are streaming towards you. Everyone is coming, even the children you thought you had lost forever." This dawning light draws them. It is a picture of a great homecoming as everyone returns to the place where they truly belong. How deep the hunger is in each one of us for such place. How we yearn to find that place where we not only feel comfortable, but loved and accepted.

The great tragedy of this text is that the particular homeland being described in this passage has become a place of blood instead of peace. Isaiah’s vision about all nations coming to this land to find the light, is far from reality today. Hardliners in the Israeli government think this place of belonging is only for them. Some militant groups among the Palestinians feel just as strongly that the homeland is only for them. The cruel tragedy is that both groups, indeed all of us, are searching for the same gift. A place to truly belong. A place where we are loved without question, accepted without condition, blessed without reservation. Deep in our guts we yearn for this place far more than for anything we found under our tree on Christmas morning.

In his novel, Les Miserables, Victor Hugo describes the plight of Jean Valjean. Jean has just served nineteen years torturous imprisonment for something he hadn’t done. Now on his release, he has the look of a large, angry monster. Everywhere he goes he is shunned because he is a former convict. No one will give him a place to stay or anything to eat, and he is becoming desperate. Finally a kind woman points to a door near the church and tells him to knock there. That place, she says, will will not turn him away. Without knowing he is knocking on the door of the bishop, Jean bangs violently and enters quickly with these words:

"See here! My name is Jean Valjean. I am convict; I have been nineteen years in the galleys. Four days ago I was set free. During those four days I have walked from Toulon. Today I have walked twelve leagues. When I reached this place this evening I went to an inn, and they sent me away. I went to another inn, they said: 'Get out!' It was the same with another; nobody would have me. I went to the prison, and the turnkey would not let me in. I crept in a dog-kennel, the dog bit me and drove me away as if he had been a man. I am very tired-twelve leagues on foot, and I am so hungry. Can I stay?"

"Madame Magloire," said the bishop, "put on another plate."

The man took three steps, and came near the lamp which stood on the table. "Stop," he exclaimed, as if he had not been understood. "Everybody has thrust me out; will you receive me? Is this an inn? Can you give me something to eat, and a place to sleep? Have you a stable?"

"Madame Magloire," said the bishop, "put some sheets on the bed in the alcove."

At last Jean Valjean believed, and his face was transfigured from hardened gloom to a barely comprehending, stupefied joy; a suddenly beautiful face. Whether we have spent nineteen years in the dungeons, or have just have been searching for a door that will welcome us, the gift we all hunger for is to find the place where we truly belong.

But there is another gift we all hunger for but which can never come wrapped in pretty paper. This gift is revealed in Matthew’s gospel as we follow the long trek of the Magi. We remember their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but these are not gifts most of us yearn for. But we do hunger for something that they found. The text says that at the end of their search they kneel down and worship the child. They have come a long way, and put up with who knows what, and now they have found the one who is the goal of all their searching, the one they believe in and to whom they want to give themselves. They have risked all, sacrificed all, and offered all to find that one thing that will infuse their lives with meaning, the one who is the answer to their questions and the goal of all their longing. Isn't that a gift we all crave? To find something or someone that matters, that fulfils us; something or someone next to whom nothing else seems to matter; the one treasure for which no sacrifice or struggle is too great. We would gladly give up many lesser gifts if it means discovering that thing or person or mission worthy of our ultimate devotion.

So how do gain such gifts. Where can we find the place where we truly belong or the thing worthy of our most sacred allegiance? Being a preacher, I am of course expected to say “right here, in church.” This can be a place where you are accepted without reservation and where you can worship and serve the One who fills all life with meaning. And I do pray that this might be that kind of place for you. But the reality is that if we just come looking for it, we probably won’t find it. Perhaps it’s true with most gifts, but it happens the other way around. The real question is not how we get the gift, but how we give it away. If we want this church to be a place where we can truly belong, then we have to look at how we can make it such a place for others? If we want to find purpose and meaning and devotion within these walls, then we need to look at how do we can help others find the same here? The Christmas gifts that really matter this Epiphany are gifts we have to give away before there will be anything in them for us. In seeking to belong, we provide the safe haven. In hoping for meaning, we share the deep treasures of the heart with others. It's an old formula. We give away that which means the most to us, and we find our lives enriched beyond belief.

Here, we come with the gifts that we bring and the gifts that we are, so that in Christ we can become gifts to one another and together a gift to the world.