“A reflection on Christmas gifts to remember” Christmas is past and we are already rushing into a new year. But before we put away the decorations and perhaps give a sigh of relief, I would like you to pause and reflect once more on the Christmas story – especially since the version recorded in Matthew is part of our tradition for Epiphany, January 6, and not December 25. Have you seen the bumper stickers or Christmas cards that say, "Wise men still seek him"? I really like that message, although the more inclusive version, "Wise people still seek him" loses the reference to the original Magi of Matthew's gospel that traveled from afar to worship the Christ child. Over the centuries a lot of tradition has been added to Matthew's simple story. If you read Matthew carefully, you will note that there is no mention of three kings, camels, or an arrival the night of Jesus' birth. Although the Magi may have been royalty, it is much more likely that they were pagan priests that studied the stars and acted as advisors to the royal court in the area of Iraq or Iran. The shift of tradition from astrologers to kings was probably made because some early church fathers were uncomfortable with a secondary translation of Magi as magicians (a practice condemned in scripture) and the desire to tie this visit to Psalm 72:10, 15 and Isaiah 49:7. Although later tradition named the "three kings," Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, even the traditional number of magi is not based on the Biblical text but rather the number of gifts that Matthew lists. Now the point I wanted to raise is that the wise men are remembered not for their place of origin, their names, or occupation, but rather because they made the journey and represented a Gentile recognition of Jesus as the Christ. The one detail remembered about these mysterious visitors is their gifts. How many Christmas gifts from the past do you really remember? To be honest, I can remember a few specific gifts, but the warm memories I have of Christmases past are due not so much from the physical gifts I received, but rather the gifts of love that I experienced from my family and friends. Each year we spend a lot of time and money shopping so that we may give gifts to loved ones. I wonder which of our gifts this year will be remembered ten years from now. As we begin the process of taking down decorations, I would encourage you to reflect on why we give gifts. Let us also remember that the greatest gifts are time, patience, and love and these may be given throughout the year. May we take a cue from the wise men and, as we enter 2018, let us give more "presence" than presents. And may we remember that wise people still seek the one about whom Isaiah wrote, "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’"
Although it has been a couple of weeks now, and our focus may have been replaced by our concern over the Chetco Bar Fire, I am sure that most of us were very troubled by the eruptions of violence in Minnesota and Charlottesville, Virginia. Hate is an ugly thing! There is really no debating it. Racism, sexism, hating another child of God simply because they are different, or don’t see the world the way we do, is wrong; it is sin, it is ugly. I cannot fathom how white supremacists and neo-Nazis can declare themselves Bible believing Christians and hold to such poisonous and hate-filled views.
Jesus was really very, very clear about how we are called to live and deal with those with whom we disagree:
“You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Matthew 5:43-45 (NRSV)
“He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’” Matthew 22:37-40 (NRSV)
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35 (NRSV)
The apostles were equally clear about our call to love one another:
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” Romans 13:8-10 (NRSV)
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:1-2 (NRSV)
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 1 John 4:7-8 (NRSV)
“Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” 1 John 4:20-21 (NRSV)
During the news coverage of the tragedy in Charlottesville I saw a shirt or poster (I can’t remember which) that I thought summed things up pretty well at the time, it declared in bold print “Tolerance is not tolerating intolerance.” Read that again and think about it. We have been taught to champion tolerance, and I agree, but as the saying declares that does not mean accepting intolerance in others. It made me think of a Christian teaching that we are to love the sinner but hate the sin, and I realized that this saying is even better. The Apostle Paul also wrote, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good….” (Romans 12:9)
One of the problems in Charlottesville is that some of the counter-protestors who came to declare their opposition to racism (a good thing – hating the sin) also planned and came prepared for violence themselves (a bad thing – not loving the sinner).
As we reflect on our Lord’s call to love others without compromise, but also our need to speak out against intolerance, injustice, bigotry, and hatred, I think it is good to remember that intolerance can be practiced by those on the extreme right, those on the extreme left, but also by those of us who consider ourselves the very righteous and respectable middle. Whatever our position, whenever we start to look down on those with whom we disagree and despise them, perhaps even begin to hate them, we are in danger of becoming the very thing we hate.
“Tolerance is not tolerating intolerance” that is true, but when we remember our Lord’s very clear commandment we need to remember that it is intolerance that we must oppose while still loving those who are intolerant. We are called to hate the sin, but love the sinner. Isn’t that what our Lord has already done for us?