Gift of the Stranger

Preached on January 8, 2017 at St. John Episcopal Church in Snohomish, Washington
Epiphany, Year A

Gifts are one of my favorite parts of Christmas.
Shopping for that special something that will light up the person’s face; whether it’s a toy for a giving tree or something one of my loved ones really, really wants – or maybe doesn’t even know they want.  And, the truth is, yes, I enjoy receiving gifts – to see how the people who are closest to me; the people I love – how they see me and our relationship.

One year, our son had just bought a used car, so we gave him a winter weather kit:  A flashlight, an ice scraper, windshield deicer, tire chains, gloves, kitty litter, a shovel, and jumper cables.  It was very practical.  But it was also a gift of love.

Now local customs vary, but the tradition of exchanging gifts is common across the church.

Some places exchange gifts on St. Nicholas Day, early in December.
Most people in this country exchange gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.  And others wait until this day, the Feast of the Epiphany, when we celebrate the arrival of the magi to visit the holy family; to pay homage to God’s Greatest gift to us in Jesus; and to offer their gifts to a newborn king.

Instead, of talking about the gold and frankincense and myrrh, I would like to focus on some of the other gifts in the story; gifts that are easily overlooked.

First, there’s the gift of Jesus.  From his birth, he brought together all kinds of unlikely folks:

  • We find shepherds from outside of Bethlehem visiting a carpenter from Nazareth and his family, not to mention the angels
  • Next we see a band of gentiles, astrologers from the East, conferring with a Jewish king along with the priests and scribes of the Temple.
  • And finally, of course, we see those same gentile magi visiting the family, and worshiping an infant. I wonder what Mary and Joseph were thinking and feeling at that point.  I would think it would be terrifying to have such strangers just show up.

Second, there’s the gift of the Magi.  Their gifts were sight and interpretation and courage.  They were able to read the signs and recognize that a king had been born.  And then they had the courage to set out across the desert to seek that king.

Yet, even with such extraordinary gifts, they arrived in Jerusalem, lost and confused.  They were close, but in the wrong place, talking to the wrong people.  They needed the priests and the scribes to help them find their way.

Which brings us to the third gift.
The Priests and the Scribes had the gifts of knowledge and interpretation.  It was their knowledge of the Holy Scriptures and their ability to interpret the ancient prophecies that guided the magi to Bethlehem to find the child they sought.

The local “experts” hadn’t noticed the signs.  They needed the fresh eyes of the Stranger to point them out.  The magi needed the locals to help them interpret what they had seen; to help them find what they sought.

Everyone has gifts to offer; Even the Stranger; perhaps most especially, the Stranger.
We may find the gift we need or the gift we don’t even know we need in the most unlikely places and the most unlikely people.  And the gift of Christ is to draw unlikely people together.

Why?  And How?
Two things about this story strike me and it turns out they touch on those two questions.

One is that God does whatever it takes to draw people to God’s self in Christ.  God connects with the magi through their own culture and religious practices so powerfully that they get up and go to see.

The other is that as it has been said,

It takes the whole world to receive the gospel.
It takes the whole world to understand the gospel.  It takes the whole world to proclaim the gospel.
That’s the why.  The gospel isn’t Good News in isolation.  The gospel, God’s love and grace and blessing is for everyone.  We need each other and we need  the Other, the Stranger.

All this reminds me of the jumper cables that we gave our son.  Jumper cables are worthless by themselves.  You also need a car with a good battery.
The day after Christmas, we were all at the store and our son left before we did, to go to work.  He called me from the parking lot.
“I just used my jumper cables already!” he said.  “I got out to my car and there was a guy in the parking lot with a dead battery. He asked me if I have some jumper cables.  And I said, Yeah, as a matter of fact, I do.”
So he gave the guy a jump and they were both on their way.

All gifts come from God – all gifts are to the community through individuals.  God chooses the people of Israel not as God’s “favorites” or Teacher’s pet, so to speak.  All through the Scriptures, it says they are chosen to receive the teaching; to be a nation of priests.  They are blessed in order to be a blessing to all peoples.

We are blessed in order to be a blessing to others.  We can’t keep it for ourselves.  You can’t hoard blessing.

The question is, how will you use your gifts?  How can you be a blessing to others?