David Jeremiah - The Spirit of Giving
I get letters, e-mails, sometimes conversations. They go something like this: "Shouldn't we celebrate Christmas more in our hearts rather than in the shopping malls, and hasn't Christmas gotten way too materialistic"? Well, I don't have any desire to debate that. I wanna give you another look at it today. This week, I read a response to that question that really captured me. "The Christian life is about living concretely where God has placed us. The buying and selling that characterizes Christmastime embodies the economic exchange by which God regulates vocation, and choosing a gift for someone and paying its price is just a shadow of what God has done and continues to do for each one of us".
And, Jesus, as we know, is the most indescribable gift, but Jesus came to this earth to teach us all about the generosity and liberality and giving of the Father. From his incarnation to his ascension, Jesus Christ puts giving and liberality of God on display. In every miracle, in every parable, simply by being in the world at all, Jesus is proclaiming, "God is good, he loves giving, and I am here," says Jesus, "among other things to prove that that is true". Many parables in the gospels present God as an irrepressible giver.
"Once there was a farmer who scattered seeds so liberally that most of it didn't even take root. Once, there was a king who forgave a debt of 10,000 talents, millions of dollars today. Once, there was a vineyard owner who gave people far more than their work was worth. Once, there was a father who gave away half of his estate to his rebellious son, and then gave him a party when he came crawling back having wasted it all. Once, there was a nobleman who gave three months' wages to all his employees, and then went on a foreign trip. Once, there was a landowner who gave his vineyard over to the tenants. Once, there was a king who gave wedding invitations to every undesirable in the country. All of those parables and all of those givers represent God. And what is true of Jesus's parables is true also of his miracles. I mean, how many weddings need 150 gallons of fine wine? Why can't someone who miraculously multiplies bread and fish avoid over-catering by 12 basketsful? Why walk on water rather than swim? Why calm a storm rather than waiting a day to go sailing? Why should a death cause not just earthquakes, dark skies, and torn curtains, but also dozens of random people coming out of the grave? Who produces 153 fish out of nowhere, nearly causing the boat carrying the fish to sink, and who does it twice"?
"At the heart of Christmas is the receiving and giving of gifts. God is always bestowing gifts. Jesus himself is a gift, all wrapped up in swaddling clothes. And salvation is a gift, all wrapped up in the grave clothes of Jesus". The spirit of Christmas is to give gifts, and it started with the greatest gift that has ever been given by the greatest giver of all. Paul broke out into an ecstatic moment when he said, "Thanks be to God for his unspeakable, indescribable gift". We know that God is the great giver. Our favorite verse in the Bible, for many of us, is "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son". But we also know that we're not very far into the studying of the Christmas story before we discovered that there are some other people who gave, and perhaps these three givers are more responsible for the way we exchange gifts to one another today than anyone else in history. We call them wise men. And their story is recorded for us in Matthew chapter 2, and this is what it says:
"Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is he who was born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him.' And when Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, 'In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophets, "But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah, for out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd my people Israel".' And Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them, what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and he said, 'Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship him also.' And when they heard the king, they departed, and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came, and it stood over where the young Child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to him: Gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way".
Something very special and mysterious about this age-old picture. From across a continent, over the desert and beneath the silent stars trudges this curious caravan. In a distant land, these men have read signs in the evening sky, sensing an indelible truth that few other living souls were to recognize for many years. These three men, these three aristocrats were first sited in the vicinity of Jerusalem, asking a question which we read from verse 2 of Matthew 2, "Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and we have come to worship him". Painters throughout the ages have enjoyed showing the elegant wise men worshiping Jesus on Christmas night beside the shepherds. But such an idea as that never came from the Bible.
Matthew tells us that, when the magi arrived to worship Jesus, the scene was not the rustic birthplace of Christmas at all, but it was a house. Did you read that? "And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary his mother". It would seem that a few weeks have passed, maybe even a year and a half, and Jesus had been born in a manger that time in the past, and now Joseph and Mary had situated their little family in a more suitable home. Therefore, it was a bit later when the wise men came. Three? Well, maybe, but maybe a lot more. Maybe there were three, and maybe they weren't. As a matter of fact, three names have traditionally been associated with these men. You've probably heard that, and maybe we'll hear it again this year: Balthazar, Melchior, and Caspar. They aren't in the Bible. You won't find their names anywhere in the Bible.
In fact, it was in the seventh century before these names were attached to the Christmas story, and they came out of an opera that was created to tell the story of Christmas. Somebody just gave these dudes a name. So I don't wanna undercut your faith today in the Christmas story, but I want you to know what the Bible says. The wise men weren't in the manger scene. Now, I hope that doesn't ruin your Christmas, and you don't have to go resend all your Christmas cards. Let me kind of put that in perspective for you. You remember the film, the Nativity story that came out a few years ago? Well, it was being finished, and the people who were producing it sent me a copy of the screenplay. I'd never seen a screenplay before. They asked me if I would read through the screenplay and find if there was anything in there that was unbiblical.
So I read it, and I sent them back a note that, "It's mostly okay, but there's only one thing that's not quite right, and that is the wise men are at the manger scene, and they're not supposed to be there". And the director sent me back a note which said, "Jeremiah, this film is only 93 minutes long. We have to get 'em in before the film is over". That sort of says it, doesn't it? "We want them in the story, so we bring them all together". We really wanna know the truth? The wise men came when Jesus wasn't a babe. If you look down at your Bible again, Matthew 2:9, it says, "Till it came and stood where the young Child was". He wasn't a babe. He was a young child by the time the wise men came.
So why do we say there were three? Well, the only reason we say there are three is because the Bible tells us there were three gifts, and we assume that each person brought one gift, but we don't know that for sure. But having said all of that, we do know it was these men of intelligence, these aristocrats, these Gentile kings, who came a long way to find Jesus, and they came for the very same purpose for which the shepherds had come. They came to worship him, and they brought gifts as a token of their worship. So, first of all, let me talk with you about what the wise men gave to Jesus, these first gift-givers. They brought gifts, and these were not incidental. These were not things they grabbed on the way out the door. These were out of their vast treasures. They weren't last-minute gifts.
The gifts were extremely significant. When we understand the background of each of these gifts, we will understand a lot more about the nature of the worship the wise men brought to Jesus. The first gift that we read about is a gift of gold for a king. We imagined the first visitor stepping forth, opening his little small chest to reveal a breathtaking sight: gold. And the gift needed no explanation. Even back then, throughout the world, gold was coveted as the most precious of metals, the standard by which all wealth was measured. Even back then, they had such a thing as the gold standard. "Gold is one of the most noble metals," even today.
Did you know that, "No single acid can destroy gold, nor will it ever rust away or will it like iron or tin ever be corroded? No one can successfully imitate or fake gold, and it is the metal easily turned into the uses of beauty". All the way back at Exodus chapter 39, we read of them sewing gold into the fabric of the garments of the priests. Chemists say that the durability of gold is so great that a single grain of gold can be drawn out into a wire, one-one thousandth of an inch in diameter and extended for a length of over one mile. Pure, simple, almost indestructible, gold is a royal metal, and in the ancient world in which Christ was born, gold was even rarer than it is today. That's why gold is a royal gift symbolizing the kingship of Jesus Christ.
John Henry Hopkins gave us a little carol that we sing sometimes, "We Three Kings," it's called, and one of the stanzas reads like this: "Born a King in Bethlehem's again, gold I bring to crown him again, King forever, ceasing never, over us all to reign". So gold is a gift which was given to signify that they understood that this little one, this young child that they saw in the house, was literally a King in waiting. He was the King from heaven. Some have pointed out the incredible paradox here that a baby born in the simplicity of a feed trough to peasant parents, and here's three wealthy men journeying from a far country to give this child a gift fit for a king. Only God could write a story like that.
The gift of gold for a king. The second gift was called a gift of frankincense. The second wise man steps forward, and he opens a little bottle. He takes off the top, and this delicious fragrance permeates the small room. It's the aroma of frankincense. This was holy oil, well familiar to anyone who lived near Jerusalem. To sniff its pungency was to be reminded of a visit you recently had to the temple. As the cloud of fragrance spread, it suggested the pure and beautiful presence of God. Its name means "whiteness".
Joseph and Mary may have trembled at this new sensation, the aroma of the temple in their own humble home, but it was meant to remind them, then, something far more important that was true, that the presence of Jesus was in their home, the God incarnate, who had come to be one of us, was in their home and absolutely worthy of any worship, including the aroma of incense. In the Old Testament, incense offerings were never associated with sin offerings. The incense was always a thanksgiving and praise offering. It was always an act of worship to bring incense to God. So the second wise man opened up his gift and released this permeating, beautiful aroma of frankincense.
And the third gift of a wise man was the gift of myrrh. Myrrh. Say that out loud with me, "myrrh". Yeah, this is what it is. It's murmuring. It is the gift of sadness. And in this story, it's the gift for a Savior. When they opened their treasures, they presented to him gold, frankincense, and myrrh. "Myrrh" is a word which comes from the Hebrew word "mar". It means "to be bitter". In Jesus's day, myrrh was the ingredient that was used to embalm a dead body. It was an external embalming. As you remember, in those days, when they prepare a body for burial, they would wrap the body in layers of cloth, and then they would place in between these layers the spices of embalming.
One of the churches in Asia Minor, one of the churches of Revelation, one of the seven churches, is the church of Smyrna. That sounds a little bit like "myrrh," doesn't it? "Smyrna," "myrrh". And it's true because that's where myrrh was manufactured. Smyrna got its name from a manufacturing of myrrh. Interestingly enough, if you've studied the churches in Revelations, Smyrna was the suffering church. It was the church that was so persecuted for its faith and had only sadness in its letter. Smyrna is the church which is associated with suffering, and so myrrh is associated with Smyrna. Myrrh is a sad, sad gift.
If you were invited to a baby shower to honor a new baby and you were asked to bring a gift, would it even cross your mind to bring a case of embalming fluid? I'm sure it wouldn't, but, indeed, that's what these men brought. Myrrh had a value. It could've been sold for money, but the significance of the gift of myrrh is that it was given to someone who was born for the purpose of dying. Jesus was born into this world, and the purpose for which he came was so that he could die. We all are born and ultimately die, but we are not born for the express purpose of dying. Jesus came for one purpose only that he might die on the cross and pay the penalty for our sin. And so myrrh was given to Jesus to point out that he was not only the King and the Priest, but he was to be the Savior.
The day would come when Jesus would be offered this gift again, but on this occasion, he would refuse it. Do you remember this? "And they brought Jesus to the place Golgotha, which is translated, Place of a Skull. And they gave Him wine mingled with myrrh to drink, and He did not take it". Why did he not take it? Well, for this reason: One of the other uses of myrrh, besides embalming was as a painkiller. It was used to deaden the pain of suffering, and when my Lord was offered the opportunity to find relief from the suffering he was going through on the cross for you and for me, when they gave him a painkiller to lessen the pain of his agony, he turned it away because the Scripture said he would feel every ounce of suffering for our sin.
And just as Jesus was anointed, the first coming to this earth, with extravagant gifts, do you know he's coming again? You know that. And when he comes again, as a King, there will be another celebration like Christmas, only far greater and far more majestic and universal in its scope, and when he comes again like the wise men did the first time he came, they will once again anoint him, once again give him gifts. There is a very wonderful truth about that found in Isaiah chapter 60. Here is a little, descriptive verse about the Second Coming of Christ. "The multitude of camels shall cover your land, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah, all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and incense, and they shall proclaim the praises of the Lord".
Now, when you read that prophecy, your first thought, "Is there something missing"? Myrrh is missing. There is no mention of it in this prophecy. The writer must have forgotten. No, he did not forget because the gifts you bring to Jesus in his Second Coming don't have any myrrh in them because his death has already passed, and when he comes the next time, it will be for the gold and frankincense of praise and worship and never for a moment for the myrrh of suffering and death. How carefully the Scripture records that. Is that not a wonderful thought? Myrrh is associated only with his first coming, and how accurate is the Scripture, even so many years in advance, when speaking of his Second Coming.
So there's a lot more in the gifts than you would think, gold, frankincense, and myrrh: gold for a King, incense for a Priest, and myrrh for a Savior. That's what the wise men gave to Jesus, but the second part of my talk this morning is what wise men still give to Jesus, and I'm assuming that we're all wise men and women in this room today. I use the term "man" generically. And, you know the reason why you're wise? 'Cause you came to church. That's the wisest thing you've done all week, to come to church. So I'm gonna address all of us as wise men and women. What do we, the wise men and women, give to Jesus today? Well, first of all, we will pattern our giving after the wise men. We will give gold, our response to Jesus Christ as our King.
Let's go back through the gifts once more. Notice that the first gift was gold given to the King, and we can say, "Lord God, here is my gift to you. I bow my knee before you as the Lord of my life," and I am confident that what the Lord wants from his people more than the treasures we have, more than the money we give, he wants our obedience. In fact, the Old Testament says it very plainly, 1 Samuel 15:22, "To obey is better than sacrifice". What God wants from us, he wants the gold of our willing worship and submission to him. He wants us to be able to say, "Lord God, you are my King. I bow before you in total submission. What do you want me to do"? God wants the gold of our willingness to come before our King and make him the King of our life.
How many of you know that, when we become Christians, we invite Jesus Christ to come and live within our heart? But if you're like me, you probably remember that, even after the early days, when you accepted Christ, he didn't have control of everything in your life. I hear stories sometimes of people who've been steeped in drugs or alcohol or some addictive practice, and they become a Christian, and the moment they accept Christ, it all goes away. But I also hear stories of people who have those habits that they bring to their conversion, and it takes time for those things to be taken out of their life, the habits that they've had.
What the Lord Jesus does not want is just to be a resident in yourself. He wants to be the president of yourself. He wants to sit on the throne of your life. He wants to be the King of who you are, and so the greatest thing you can do is to offer him the sacrifice of yourself. "Lord, here I am. Show me what to do". There's a story that I remember reading in English class, and you probably remember it too, but let me refresh your memory. It's called, "The Gift of the Magi," written by O. Henry. The story is about a young, married couple who are very much in love, and Christmas is approaching, and neither one has enough money to buy the other a Christmas gift. Each one does have one prized possession that they hold very dear to themselves, something they treasure very much.
Della, the wife, has beautiful, waist-length, long hair, and Jim, the husband, has a beautiful, gold, pocket watch that was given to him by his grandfather. In her love for her husband, Della goes to a wig maker and sells her hair in order to buy for Jim a beautiful, extravagant, gold chain for his watch. Jim, in the meantime, sells his watch in order to buy Della a beautiful set of combs and hairbrushes for her hair. Each one, out of their love for the other, sacrifices the one thing they prize the most for the other, and this connection of their gifts doesn't really matter when you hear the story because all you can think about is how these two young people, totally in love, took the one thing that was most precious to them and turned it into a love gift for the one who was the object of their love.
At the end of the story, O. Henry leaves us with this challenge. Here's what he says: "The Magi, as you know, were wise men who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents, and here I have related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days, let it be said that of all who give gifts, these two were the wisest. These are the magi". What he was saying is there is no greater gift you can give to the Lord than to give the most important thing there is to give about you, and that is yourself. "Lord, here I am. I bow before you. You are my King".
So what do we give to our King today? We give him the gold of our response to him, and we give him the frankincense of him being our Priest. Do you know this verse? I'm sure you do. "For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin". Jesus, our High Priest, has come down here to be one of us, and throughout all of his life, he felt the pain that you feel and that I feel, and frankincense reminds us that he is our priest. He is the one who has come to draw near to us, and we offer him now our hurts, our problems. We praise and worship him for the incense of our lives.
Jerome, the ancient father, once had a dream, and in his dream, he was trying to give a gift to Jesus, and he brought his treasures, and Jesus said, "I don't want your treasures". And he brought some property that he owned, and in his dream, Jesus said, "I do not wish to have your property". And in his dream, Jerome said, "Lord, then what can I give you"? And Jesus said, "Give me your sins. That's why I came. I came to take your sins". When we come to Jesus and give him the frankincense as our Priest, we are offering up our lives to him, and we are understanding what a blessing it is to have a great High Priest who's understanding. He knows everything we've been through. He's experienced everything you've ever experienced, yet without sin.
And I know the old adage that, "If he couldn't sin, he couldn't have felt what I feel," but that's craziness. Not only did he feel what you feel, but he feels everything you don't feel because you gave in to the temptation at the very beginning. He endured it all through, and he never did give in. He felt the entire temptation. One of the reasons we don't understand this is because, often, we yield to temptation early on. The Bible says Jesus felt temptation through his whole life. Never one time did he sin. You talk about someone you'd like to talk to about what's goin' on in your life, your habits, your hurts, and your hang-ups? He's the one who's waiting for you. And when you give your life to Christ and you give your heart to him as your priest, you are celebrating Christmas.
Finally, gold, responding to him as your King, frankincense, responding to him as your Priest, and myrrh, receiving him as your Savior. This is the most important thing in all, and probably should be first in my message instead of last. That's the thing you need to do most of all. Somebody says, "What gifts should I give to Jesus first"? Give him your heart because, until you give him your heart, you have nothing else to give. He receives nothing from us until, first of all, we give him our heart. Myrrh tells us that Jesus is a Savior who was born to die, and when you think of myrrh, you ask yourself this question: "So he died for me? Have I received his gift, and have I given him my heart"?
The wise men are striking examples to us of the kind of faith it takes to be a Christian. Just think, they believed in Jesus even though they had never seen him. Traveling thousands of miles, they went to meet him, and when they saw him, he was just a toddler, and before they saw him perform a miracle or ever preach a sermon, they believed in him. They worshiped him, this poor, helpless, weak child, who was indeed the Son of God. We have the revelation of the Scripture telling us who Jesus is, and we must make a choice: Will we believe in him, or will we just celebrate him? You know, one of the things that happens at this season of the year, if you're a preacher, people don't always understand why you put all this together.
I remember in our programs, we used to put a cross up on the stage during the Christmas program, and we not only would go through the manger scene, we'd go through the crucifixion. You cannot believe how much grief we got for that. "What are you doin', killin' Jesus on his birthday? Come on". One day, after a service, preacher had a young man come up to him, and he was really upset because of what I had just said. He said, "I don't know why you have to preach on the cross, why you have to talk about the blood, why you have to say something about Jesus dying, especially at Christmastime. Doesn't fit, and I don't like it. Why can't you just talk about Jesus as the great example? We could all deal with that so much better and I have a lot of friends who've told me that, if you wouldn't talk so much about the blood of Jesus and the death of Jesus, and if you would talk more about him being a great example, that they would be much more favorable toward the church, and they would probably even give money".
The pastor who received these compliments was a very wise man, and he said to the stranger, "Sir, would you be willing to follow Christ if I preached Christ, an example? Would you be willing to follow him"? He said, "Absolutely I would, and so would many others". And the preacher said, "Jesus Christ did not sin. Can you take that step"? The stranger said, "Obviously, I can't take that step. I do sin". And he was kind of confused, and he didn't know what to say. "Well, said the preacher, your first need of Christ is not as an example. Your first need of Christ is as a Savior. If you try to follow him as an example without his redemptive work in your life, he will set an example you cannot follow, for he is sinless, and you sin".
And then the preacher told him this little parable: He said, "Son, suppose you were sinking in quick sand, and a man on firm ground nearby called out to you and said, 'Why don't you walk like I do? Lift your feel like I do. Follow my example'. His advice would do you absolutely no good. His advice would do you no good because you have to get your feet planted on solid ground before you can walk like he does. What you need is someone to come and take you out of the quicksand and lift you up and place your feet on solid ground".
What does that sound like? That's what it means to be saved: to be brought out of a sandpit of sin by the miracle of God's grace, lifted up out of all that had been over us and has controlled us. And then, as you watch the Lord Jesus in the New Testament, you can begin to emulate his life because he gives you a new power in the person of his Holy Spirit who comes to live within you. If all we have in Jesus is a great example, we are in worse shape than if we had never heard of him at all because he sets a standard that none of us can ever follow, and that's the beauty of the Gospel. While we cannot reach up to him, he reached down to us in the person of his Son, the Lord Jesus. He did not come here, first of all, to be a great example, although he was that. He came to die on the cross and save us from our sin.
"For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost". And so the question this Christmas is, "What can you give to Jesus"? If you're a Christian, you can give him the gold of your willing submission to a King. You can offer him the incense of your fellowship with him as the High Priest of your life. And if you have never put your trust in Christ, you can offer him the myrrh of his Saviorhood. You can acknowledge that he did die and that he died for you. Christmas is a wonderful time to preach the Gospel, a very difficult time for it to be received.
We're caught up in all of the cacophony of the season, but hear me carefully today: There is no Christmas without Christ. There is no celebration without a Savior. If all you wanna do is have a little manger scene in your house and give lip service to an event that happened over 2,000 years ago, you may get a few moments of joy from that, but it has no lasting value. When Christmas comes to your heart, it never goes away. It's Christmas all year long. For Christ sets up his rule and reign in your heart, and every day, you fellowship with him. You can talk to the one about whom we have been speaking today. He will become not only your Savior but your friend.