Based on Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
In 1905, the American writer O. Henry published a short story entitled, “The Gift of the Magi”. Some of you may have run across it in school as part of a study of great American writers. Others may know it because it has been made into numerous Christmastime T.V. shows. Possibly, you might never have heard of the story or have had it pass out of memory. I believe that the story has something to say to us again, some 115 years after it was published, especially as we celebrate Epiphany Sunday – the day that the magi worshipped he child-king Jesus.
O. Henry’s story introduces us to a young couple named Della and Jim. Like many young couples, they were living hand-to-mouth and didn’t have anything left for significant presents at Christmas. Della is saddened because even after all her scrimping and saving she had only accumulated $1.87. Even in 1905, $1.87 was not going to buy much of a Christmas present for her beloved Jim. She knew what she wanted to buy him, a gold chain for his heirloom pocket watch. Yet that chain cost $21 dollars, more than Jim made in a week…and Della did not have a job. What about Jim, you ask, what was he planning to buy for Della? Turns out that Della’s most precious belonging was her beautiful, long hair. Her hair, when she let it down to brush it out, fell down past her knees. Jim knew that she longed for a beautiful, jeweled set of hair combs that would be just perfect to show off her most prized possession. Yet, Jim knows all too well the state of their finances, and the combs were a luxury that they just couldn’t afford.
Our scripture readings on this Epiphany Sunday speak to us about the forward looking gifts of God’s favor on those returning from Exile in Babylon to the destruction of Jerusalem, the gift of God’s grace in the presence of the Christ given to both Jews and Gentiles, and about the gift bringing Magi who bring talisman gifts to the new-born king of the Jews. Before we proceed any further, let us go to God in thanksgiving for the greatest gift of all…Jesus.
Cyrus, the King of Persia, had released the Babylonian exiles and had sent them back to their homeland – back to Jerusalem. While they were pleased to be released after 70 years of enslavement, they were uncertain what they would find when they returned to Judah. Nothing had been done during the years of exile to rebuild Jerusalem – it was still utterly destroyed. There was a tremendous amount of work to be done by those returning in collaboration with those who had been left behind. Into this desolation, the writer of Third Isaiah speaks a prophecy of hope. The prophecy speaks of the light of God returning to the Israelites – the light which would draw all peoples to them. The prophecy promises that “the wealth of nations shall come to you” along with “the abundance of the sea”. Gold and frankincense shall be given as gifts and all shall proclaim the praise of the LORD. Great gifts of promise indeed to a despondent people!
Paul is recounting to the believers in Ephesus how he came to be a “prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles”. Through the gospel that Paul had shared with them, they had become “members of the same body and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus”. Through the gift of God’s grace, Paul has been able to bring them “the boundless riches of Christ” which will enable them (and all disciples) to share the rich variety of the wisdom of God throughout the world.
Matthew’s Gospel recounts the epiphany of the Gentiles as the Magi from the East come to pay homage to the King of the Jews. The star’s guidance was not perfect and they ended up asking for directions from King Herod. The King, after consulting with his chief priests and scribes tells them they were off by 9 miles – that they should look instead in the village of Bethlehem. The Magi found the young lad Jesus in the home with his mother and they presented their gifts of gold, frankincense and interestingly…the embalming spice myrrh. Gifts they gave for a king, priest and prophet respectively, all of which the child would one day become.
The scriptures have told us again today about the prophetic gifts of God – harbingers of the future, not practical gifts to be used in the present. With that in mind, let us pick back up with the story of Della and Jim and their Christmas gifts. Both Della and Jim were distraught with Christmas just a day away and no gift for their beloved. Desperation began to set in, but then they each received their epiphany. Della quickly rushed out to a person she knew who bought real hair to make wigs. Jim headed off to a dealer to sell his pocket watch. Della returned from her errand before Jim arrived home after work. She set about putting what was left of her hair in order and smiled to herself that she had been able to afford the gift of the chain for Jim’s watch. Jim smiled all the way back to the small apartment he shared with Della with the hair combs neatly wrapped.
What a shock Jim got when he walked through the apartment door and looked upon his young bride. He was caught flat footed by the absence of long hair on his wife’s head. She mistook his blank stare as a rebuke of her new look – perhaps Jim only loved her for her hair?! She quickly asked Jim what was wrong. He smiled, somewhat sickly, and told her she would understand when she unwrapped his gift for her. She ripped off the wrapping and there were the coveted combs. She began to cry and said, “Jim darling, don’t fret, my hair grows really quickly. Before you know it, I’ll be wearing these beautiful combs.” Then she quickly pivoted to her gift for him. “Jim, darling, please get out your beautiful pocket watch so that we can attach your gift”, she said as she pulled out the golden chain. Jim smiled and said to her, “Della, let’s put our Christmas gifts away and keep them for a while. They’re too good to use now.”
Unlike Jim and Della, the gift that we received on that Christmas long ago, the gift of Jesus the Christ, is a priceless gift that is too good not to use now. Jim and Della gave gifts of love that would continue to give as they moved forward in their lives together. Similarly, God’s loving gift of Jesus continues to grow in the believer from the day of their baptism until their last breath. When we become servants of the powerful gospel of Jesus, like the Apostle Paul, then we begin to see how we as the “least of all the saints” can spread the boundless riches of the Christ to all the world. Like the Magi of old, God has given us a forward-looking gift to use during the reign of God so that we can work with God to realize God’s kingdom here on earth.
On this Epiphany Sunday which celebrates the revelation of the Messiah to the Gentiles, let us also realize the power and beauty of the love of God in our lives. Let us work with the gift of Jesus, the gift that keeps on giving, in collaboration with God’s Holy Spirit, to transform our world into the kingdom God intends it to be. Thanks be to the greatest gift-giver, God…amen!