At Christmas, people all over the world exchange gifts. The Gallup Poll estimates that each American will personally spend about $740 this Christmas on Christmas gifts. (Source: http://www.gallup.com/poll/166226/consumers-holiday-spending-intentions-remain-modest.aspx). American Research Group estimates that each American spends $801. (Source: http://americanresearchgroup.com/holiday/)
Research says that on Black Friday 2013, Americans spent $12.3 billion in stores and nearly $2 billion online. Source: http://www.slideshare.net/WishpondTechnologiesLtd/black-friday-2013-results-1). Hundreds of billions of dollars more will be spent during the entire Christmas season.
Children look for Santa Claus to bring them gifts. According to a survey on Today.com, 67% of American families will give each of their children at four gifts or more for Christmas. So most American children get more gifts for Christmas than Jesus got on His own birthday! Many children are so excited about getting gifts that they forget that the holiday is to celebrate Jesus’ birth.
In America, exchanging gifts at Christmas has become gluttonous, excessive and wasteful. How did get so far away from the original idea? Let’s work our way backwards to where this all came from, and see if we can’t also get back to where we should be.
I. The tradition of gifts from Santa Claus
Santa Claus as we know him today originated here in America, particularly in New York.
The tradition of Santa Claus comes primarily from the poem by Clement C. Moore, a seminary professor in New York City. The poem was originally called, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” but most of us know it by the first line, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” It was published in 1823 and had a great impact on the tradition of Santa Claus. It is from this poem that people get the idea of a jolly elf with a big belly coming on Christmas Eve with reindeer and bringing gifts for children. Yet even this poem never calls him Santa Claus, but instead it calls him St. Nicholas. New York, where Clement C. Moore lived, was first settled by the Dutch, who used the term Sinterklaas, to refer to St. Nicholas, and Sinterklaas came to be pronounced Santa Claus in English. But who was St. Nicholas?
Nicholas was a real person who was a Christian bishop in the 4th century. He was born in A.D. 270, and died on December 6, A.D. 343. Nicholas grew up in a wealthy home in Myra, part of modern-day Turkey. He became bishop of Myra and was known as a conservative, Bible-believing bishop, with a reputation for secret gift-giving and caring for children. One legend said that he often put coins in the shoes of people in need. The most famous legend about Nicholas was that a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for their wedding. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the girls’ plight, Nicholas decided to help them, but being too modest to help the family in public (or to save them the humiliation of accepting charity), he went to the house under the cover of night and threw three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the house.
One version of the legend has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throwing the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes of age. Invariably, the third time the father lies in wait, trying to discover the identity of their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Saint Nicholas say it is not him he should thank, but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man’s plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead; a variant holds that the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking. (Sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas#Gift_giving, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nicholas)
You can quickly see how these legends developed over the centuries into the legend of a character who brings gifts in secret, sometimes in stockings or down a chimney. He is known by many names in many countries, including Father Christmas, Père Noël in French, and Sinterklaas in Dutch.
Because the real St. Nicholas died on December 6, in many nations he is remembered on that day with the giving of gifts. But during the Protestant Reformation, many Protestants changed the gift-giver to the Christ child, which is Christkindl in German, and changed the date from December 6 to Christmas Eve. The German Christkindl got corrupted to Kris Kringle in English, and the Dutch Sinterklaas got corrupted to Santa Claus in English.
But we need to go further back than St. Nicolas to understand gift-giving at Christmas. Nicholas was a Christian bishop, and we need to go back to the Bible to see where he learned to give gifts.
II. The tradition of gifts from the wise men
Many traditions have grown up about the wise men who came to bring gifts to Jesus. The popular Christmas carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” has led people to believe that there were three wise men, and that they were kings. Tradition has even given the three kings names: Melchior from Persia, Caspar from India, Balthasar from Arabia. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_Magi)
How much of this is really in the Bible?
Matthew’s Gospel tells us that after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that wise men came from the East, following a star to find the newborn Messiah, the king of the Jews. It does not say there were three of them, it only says they brought three gifts. There could have been twelve of them, for all we know.
The word translated “wise men” in Matthew 2:1 is magi. It is a Persian word that described priests of the Zoroastrian religion who foretold the future by studying the stars. The word magi was first used by Darius the Mede, who is considered from the people group known today as the Kurds. Kurds today still celebrate certain Zoroastrian practices, especially the Zoroastrian New Year that they call Newroz. Thus instead of kings from India, Persia and Arabia, the wise men were very likely Zoroastrian priests and astrologers from the Medes, or modern-day Kurds.
Now let’s look at Matthew 2:11. It says, “Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary His mother, and falling on their knees, they worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
This happened many months after Jesus’ birth, so they now live in a house, not in a stable, and Jesus is a child, not a baby. Joseph is not mentioned, probably because he was away at work. But what is most important for us is to notice what the wise men did. If we will pay close attention to what they did, we will get our Christmas gift-giving back in balance. They did two things. First, they fell on their knees and worshiped Jesus. Second, they presented Him with treasures.
Notice that their first gift was their worship. There is no greater gift that you or I can give Jesus than to give him our worship. The poet Christina Rosetti wrote,
“What can I give Him? Poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part. Yet what can I give Him, Give Him my heart.”
This was the first gift of the wise men, the gift of their hearts. The apostle Paul writes about the Christians in Macedonia in 2 Corinthians 8, who gave offerings even though they were poor. Yet Paul says in 2 Corinthians 8:5 that they first gave themselves to the Lord, even before they gave their financial gifts.
Notice that their second gift was their treasures: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There are many traditional symbols associated with these three gifts. Gold was considered one of the most precious medals in ancient times just as it is today. Job 28:15 talks about wisdom being so valuable that not even gold could be exchanged for it. King Solomon’s court was full of gold. Gold is often associated with Jesus as king. Frankincense is an incense that was used to burn before the Lord in the altar, according to Exodus 30:35-36. Thus frankincense is associated with prayer and worship. Myrrh is a valuable perfume. Myrrh was used as a beauty treatment, but John 19:39 says that the women used myrrh to anoint Jesus’ body for burial, and thus myrrh was associated with Jesus coming to die on the cross for our sins.
III. How to find Christ in our giving
So how do we find Christ in our Christmas gifts? Our journey backwards to the root of our traditions should give us some answers.
First, we should give ourselves to Christ in worship.
The wise men first gave of themselves in worship, and then gave their treasures to Christ. This should remind us that Christmas is about giving, not getting gifts. It is not about us receiving gifts, but about us giving to celebrate Christ. The most important gift of all is our worship to Christ. A Christian who is too busy exchanging presents at Christmas to give Jesus his presence in worship is guilty of idolatry! The wise men came to Jesus, and fell on their knees before Him. So should we.
Second, we should give Christ our treasures.
This should also remind us that our gifts should have a purpose. While there are many legends about the purpose of the gold, frankincense and myrrh, the reality is that soon after this, Joseph and Mary had to flee from the murderous intentions of King Herod, and the rich gifts from the wise men must have been very practical and useful to them in financing their trip. Genesis 37:25 mentions traders on a caravan of camels who were carrying perfumes and incense. The fact is that all three gifts were easy to transport, valuable and easy to sell on the open market. The gifts were not wasteful; they had a useful purpose.
If we truly treasure Jesus Christ, if we are truly grateful for Him coming to safe us, then we will want to give gifts to glorify Jesus Christ. This can include gifts to people in need, and gifts to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.
What would happen if just half of our church members would just give 10% of their spending to missions to share the gospel?
Last year, Southern Baptists gave $149.3 million to the international missions offering.
If just half of Southern Baptists gave just 10% of the average Christmas spending to missions, we would give $592 million dollars to missions. Instead, Southern Baptists only gave 25% of that amount.
Third, we should not teach our children to be greedy and materialistic. Many children think that Santa Claus has an unlimited supply to give them anything they want, which encourages greed and selfishness. Parents need to resist the culture’s materialism in the way they give gifts to their kids. As a mentioned in the beginning of this sermon, most American children get four or more gifts at Christmas, yet Jesus only received three. Many parents are saying that it’s time that they take a lesson from the wise men, and in honor of Jesus, they give their children three gifts. By giving your children three gifts, you remind them of Jesus’ three gifts. Some families do it this way: something they want, something they need and something to read. Others choose something they want, something they need, and something to wear. Other families give a “gold” present, and “frankincense” present, and a “myrrh” present. The “gold” present is something a child would want and treasure. The “frankincense” present is used in worship and spiritual life, such as a Bible, and the “myrrh” present is something for the body, like clothing or shoes. Many families allow a fourth present, as the child gets to pick a gift to give away to somebody else in need.(Source:http://t.co/ckwo8WQcvZ)
Fourth, we should exchange gifts to express our love.
As long as we honor Christ at Christmas, there is nothing wrong with exchanging gifts with our family and friends, as well. After all, giving and receiving gifts are an expression of love. Gary Chapman, in his bestseller, The Five Love Languages, says that people feel love in five major ways: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Although people have a primary love language, most people feel loved when they receive all five of those. Chapman points out that a gift does not have to be expensive to express love. It’s more important that the gift is thoughtful.
My sister, Nancy, is the best gift-giver I know. I have always noticed how thoughtful she is in selecting gifts for others. So I called her up and asked for her advice, and here is what she told me:
Nancy said, “I think about what that person would enjoy. It depends on who the person is. I ask, would it appeal to that person, not to me. So I ask myself, how would they react when they open this gift? Like a person who loves cats, I might think they would like a cat figurine, but then I think about how this person does not collect items and so even though they like cats, they don’t collect figurines. So I don’t just think about it just a minute. I give it some time and thought.
“When it comes to gift giving, the magic thing is not the dollar value. It’s showing the other person that you care about them and value them by thinking about what they would like. It’s about the receiver, the care and thought. One year when I had no money, I baked cookies and put them in plastic bags and put handwritten notes with the cookies, and it went over fine, because I tried to personalize it. A lot of times, a card you make yourself or a blank card that you write a note in, means even more.”
“What you will discover when you start putting time and thought into your gift-giving, is that gift-giving will become more enjoyable for you. You will look forward to seeing how the other person reacts and how they know that you showed that you care by selecting something just for them. After all, giving gifts is an expression of our love, and if we love someone, we will put some thought into what we give them.”
A young man wanted to get a special Christmas gift for his father, who lived far away. He looked for something unique that would show how much he valued his father. So he got an exotic parakeet. It could speak five different languages and it could sing “The Yellow Rose of Texas” standing on one leg.
He spent $10,000 on the bird and had it shipped this unusual bird to his father. On Christmas Day, he called his father. He couldn’t wait to hear what his Dad thought of his gift. He said, “Dad, did you get my gift?” His father said, “I certainly did, son.” The man said, “Well, Dad how did you like it?” His dad replied, “Oh, it was delicious!”
He said, “But Dad, that was a special bird that could speak five different languages and even sing while standing on one leg! I can’t believe you ate him!” His father replied, “If he could speak five different languages, I can’t believe he didn’t say something before I ate him!” (Adapted from Tony Evans’ Book of Illustrations, p. 117-118.)
God sent the greatest gift at all at Christmas when He sent His Son to save us. But many of us have missed the point, like the man who ate the parakeet. But before we criticize those who miss the point, let’s ask ourselves a question: “Why don’t we say something?” After all, how are they going to know about the real gift of Christmas if we don’t tell them?
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A couple of years ago, my late friend and dear deacon, Mark Callaway, called up to ask, “Brother Bob, is it Kings or Magi?” A lot of people ask that, so I’m repeating the answer I gave Mark that day:
Mark, it was magi. Although the popular Christmas carol says, “We Three Kings Orient Are,” Matthew 2:1 says “magi,” or “wise men,” came from the east, following the star to the newborn Christ child. The term “magi” comes from a Persian word for wise men who studied the stars. The association with kings comes from Messianic passages like Isaiah 60:3, 6: “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your radiance…They will carry gold and frankincense and proclaim the praises of the Lord.”
By the way, although Matthew 2:11 lists three gifts, scripture does not explicitly say there were three magi. I still love the traditional carol. Somehow, “We half dozen wise men from Persia are,” just doesn’t flow as well.