First Sunday After Christmas Day
TEXT: Matthew 2:1-23
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2:7-11)
In our culture, it’s hard to imagine celebrating Christmas without exchanging gifts. Some people trace gift-giving back to the Magi—the “wise men”—who arrived from the East bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the baby Jesus.
But the Magi were not the first Christmas gift-givers. At best, they came along second. The first gift-giver was God, and the first Christmas gift was Jesus.
Now, we sometimes give gifts with strings attached. But the story from Matthew’s Gospel demonstrates how fully and completely God gave up the Christ-child to us.
In Jesus, we have been given the most precious gift ever—a gift straight from heaven. To be sure, God must have hoped that we would appreciate that gift and take good care of it—but no strings were attached. Even so … God knows the human heart …
… an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” (Matt. 2:13b)
God did not yank Jesus out of the world at the first sign of trouble. Instead, God turned Jesus over to the world. The world can be a rough place, however—as our gospel lesson reminds us.
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. (Matt. 2:16)
Matthew’s heart-rending account of the slaughtered children of Bethlehem introduces a harsh note into the Christmas story. We remember them to this day as the “Holy Innocents.” Jesus was Herod’s target—they were the “collateral damage.” Their tragic story reveals a sad truth: that from the very beginning, the powerful of this world did their best to destroy God’s gift. And so, Jesus and his parents became refugees.
… Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. (Matt. 2:14-15a)
But of course, Jesus did not escape from death because his family carried him to Egypt. No. He merely received a stay of execution. In the end, the world took the God’s gift and nailed it to a cross. You might say that the world did not care for this gift, and decided to exchange it. The world exchanged the living, challenging Jesus for a dead and silent Jesus.
Have you ever noticed how exchanging gifts takes on a different meaning in the days following Christmas?
After Christmas, we return to the store with all the gifts that we do not want. The gifts that did not fit, or did not work, or did not please … they are exchanged for something else—something we like better.
Now, some gifts certainly ought to be exchanged—but other gifts deserve to be honoured and cherished. Trouble is, sometimes we’re just not wise enough to know which is which.
Consider the gift of that Child born in Bethlehem. In one way or another, most of us keep trying to exchange Jesus for something more comfortable—something that we think will fit us, or suit us, better.
We take God’s gift of Jesus Christ, and we exchange him. Exchange him for what? Perhaps:
- For the “heavenly buddy” who helps us out in a pinch—and leaves us alone the rest of the time.
- Or for the annual Christmas visitor—all cuddly and speechless—in whose name we can throw parties, and hang lights, and gain a few pounds.
- Or perhaps we exchange him for the Jesus who lives only in the church building, whose blessings we invoke when we’re baptized, married, or buried (“hatched, matched, and dispatched,” as someone has said).
Sadly, it’s not just ugly sweaters and unwanted aftershave that will be exchanged during this season. Once again, most of the world will exchange the living Lord for something more comfortable, something less demanding—something that will fit on the shelf, something that does not require so much time and energy and sacrifice.
You know, the expression “to exchange gifts” has a double meaning. It may mean trading in what we don’t want. But it can also mean giving gifts to those who give gifts to us. You give me a gift, and I give you a gift.
There’s nothing wrong with that—not if it’s done freely and in a spirit of grace. When someone gives you a gift, it’s a healthy instinct to give something in return.
It is in that spirit that I encourage you, at the start of this new year, to exchange gifts with God. God has given us something unspeakably wonderful—the gift of God’s own self.
With our human minds, we cannot understand how God could fit in a manger—or on a cross, for that matter—but this is the truth of the Incarnation, whether we understand it or not.
Friends, what we have received in Christ Jesus is nothing less than God’s own self—his whole self. And the gift we must give in return is nothing less than our own, whole, selves. If you’ve never done that, I encourage you to do it now.
Our culture loves making resolutions each New Year. People resolve to lose weight, give up smoking, spend less money, and try new things. As 2023 begins, let’s not forget that the most important resolutions we can make are in regard to our faith.
One of the most thrilling verses in the Book of Revelation informs us that “the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ ” (Rev. 21:5)
Christ has the power to transform us completely–from the inside out. In 2023, we have the opportunity to offer all of our joys, all of our sufferings, all of our triumphs, and all of our failures to Jesus, so that he can make them new.
If you’re looking for a good New Year’s resolution, how about this one: how about drawing closer to Jesus? Learning more about him? Becoming more like him?
It may be the Sunday after Christmas, but it’s certainly not too late to exchange gifts with God. And you know what? You are the gift that God is longing for! And he will never exchange you for anything else.
That is the Good News we proclaim! Amen.