19th December, 1999

  Being Given the Unexpected
  Matthew 2:1-12

This week a friend from America e-mailed me about a family acquaintance of theirs. My friend knew Mike and his family and were wondering how they were getting on following Mike's death just before last Christmas. It is always a hard time for a family with three teenage boys when a dad suddenly dies, and the mother has to step into his shoes with three very demanding teenagers. But Judith seems to be doing well. She told of a custom their family has.

Judith wrote: "It is just a small, white envelope stuck among the branches of our Christmas tree. No name, no identification, no inscription. It has peeked through the branches of our tree for the past 10 years or so. It all began because my husband Mike hated the commercialism of Christmas: the overspending, the frantic running around at the last minute to get a tie for Uncle Harry, and the dusting powder for Grandma - the gifts given in desperation because you cannot think of anything else. He just said, "All I want is for my boys and us to be together, and to be Christian."

Knowing he felt this way I decided one year not to buy him the usual shirt, sweater, tie and so forth. I reached for something special just for Mike. The inspiration came in an unusual way. Our son Kevin, who was 12 that year, took up the sport of wrestling at the school he attended. Shortly before Christmas, there was a match against a team sponsored by an inner-city church. The boys were mostly black and came from under-privileged, poor families.

These youngsters, dressed in sneakers so ragged that shoestrings seemed to be the only thing
holding them together, presented a sharp contrast to our boys in their spiffy blue and gold uniforms and new wrestling shoes. As the match began, I was alarmed to see that the other team was wrestling without headgear, designed to protect a wrestler's ears. It was a luxury the ragtag team obviously could not afford. Well, we ended up walloping them. We took every weight class. And as each of their boys got up from the mat, he swaggered around in his tatters with false bravado, a kind of street pride that couldn't acknowledge defeat. Mike, seated beside me, shook his head sadly, "I wish just one of them could have won," he said. "They have a lot of potential, but losing like this could take the heart right out of them."

Mike loved kids -- all kids -- and he knew them. He had coached little league football. When Christmas came that year the idea for his present came. I went to a local sporting goods store and bought an assortment of wrestling headgear and shoes and sent them anonymously to the inner-city church for their team. On Christmas Eve, I placed the envelope on the tree, the note inside telling Mike what I had done and that this was his gift from me. His smile was the brightest thing about Christmas that year. In succeeding years I followed the tradition -- one year sending a group of mentally handicapped youngsters to a football game, another year a cheque to two elderly brothers whose home had burned to the ground the week before Christmas, and on and on, always helping the poor.

The envelope became the highlight of our Christmas. It was always the last thing opened on Christmas morning and our children, ignoring their new toys, would stand with wide-eyed anticipation as their dad lifted the envelope from the tree to reveal its contents. As the children grew, the toys gave way to more practical presents, but the envelope never lost its allure. As you know, we lost Mike last year due to cancer.

When Christmas rolled around, I was still so wrapped in grief that I barely got the tree up. But Christmas Eve found me placing an envelope on the tree. It was my gift for Mike. I was sending in his name a group of underprivileged kids to church camp. In the morning, as we all gathered round the tree in our pyjamas, I was amazed to find three more envelopes stuck in the tree. Each of our sons, unknown to the others had placed an envelope on the tree for their dad telling what they had done for others. This year we know it will happen again. A tradition has grown and someday will expand even further with our grandchildren standing around the tree with wide-eyed anticipation watching as their fathers take down the envelope. Mike's spirit, like the Christmas spirit, will always be with us."

As I read Judith's e-mail, my eyes filled with tears. What a magnificent tradition in that family! What would your re-action be if you were given the unexpected? It happens and that surprise may be the most beautiful of all. After all, weren't the first gifts totally unexpected? Mary and Joseph were amazed at the unexpected gifts given to their newborn baby Jesus.

Matthew 2:1-12 records the story of the coming of the Magi from the East. This aspect of the story of Jesus appealed to him. You remember his occupation? He was a customs collector at Capernaum where the trade routes from the East entered the land of Palestine. What was he interested in? The same as all customs men: who are these people? What is the purpose of their visit? What goods are they bearing? Are they for commercial use or are they personal gifts? The customs inspector and tax assessor of Capernaum took a professional interest when Mary told him of their visit.

The church celebrates the Epiphany, the showing forth of the Lord to the wise men, not at Christmas, when we are so eager to see the meaning of God's gift of Christ, but twelve days later. The twelve days of Christmas refer to the coming of the wise men or Magi, not to the manger, but to a house to which they had shifted. 2:11 We have all heard of the significance and the symbolism of their gifts. But there is an even greater significance in their coming than in the meaning that lay in their gifts. Your unexpected presence at Christmas may be more significant than the unexpected presents you hold in your hand for someone.

"After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.

When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written: "'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.' " Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him."

The holy family was suffering as all homeless poor. They felt pawns in the bureaucratic machinations. Rome could not care less about little people. Caesar wanted a census regardless of the inconvenience to an unknown family on the fringe of his Empire. Herod was paranoid, having murdered his two sons and his wife. No other king should be a threat to His throne. The family suffered loneliness far from family and home, the inconvenience of having to obey the census laws, and from fear of a murderous man intent on killing their baby. But God came in their sufferings. In the Magi, with their fine robes, haughty camels, expensive gifts, and determined purpose that had taken them over deserts, the holy family realized that God was with them in their sufferings. God came through the presence of the Magi. Their presence was as important as their presents! The despair of inadequacy was ended by God's resources. The fear of not coping was ended by God's strength. God comes in our suffering.

What did that little family so far from home, alone and troubled in Bethlehem, think after the visit of those wise men? Angels, shepherds, the star, now learned astronomers and Kings from Persia! . v9-11a "After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him." What a confirmation of God's promises and comfort Mary and Joseph found in the presence of those wise men.!

Once Mary and Martha were sorrowing over the death of their brother Lazarus, when they heard that Jesus was coming. Martha immediately ran and met him in the street greatly encouraged because Jesus was coming to comfort them in their troubles. Once Jesus saw the troubled look among the disciples as He was facing the Cross. His disciples felt alone and Jesus said: John 14:18,15 "When I go, you will not be left all alone...I will ask the Father, and He will give you a Comforter, a Helper, who will stay with you forever". Once Paul was deeply troubled by the hostile resistance he found in North Greece. He wrote: 2 Cor 7:5-6 "After we arrived in Macedonia we had no rest. There were troubles everywhere, quarrels with others, fears in our hearts, but God who encourages the down- hearted, encouraged us with the coming of Titus." So the coming of the Wise Men reminded the Holy Family God comes to us and comforts us in our troubles.

v11b. "Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route." God has special ways of providing for our every need. We have only to pray and believe and God contributes to the meeting of our need, often in ways beyond our imagining. Joseph was far from Nazareth, was poor and without resources, and the whole family would be in danger from a homicidal king. Herod would cause the massacre of the infants of Bethlehem in his mad search to destroy the newborn king. How could Joseph possible finance their emergency? Matthew understood the position clearly, because if there was one thing Matthew had been trained in it was balance sheets, income and expenditure, taxes and customs. The family needed money to escape the murderer. Who but God could have possibly thought of having the wise men offer to the Christ child gifts of gold, expensive frankincense and costly myrrh? Those gifts enabled Joseph to travel immediately to Egypt and so save the family from the mad king.

God often uses the gifts of wise men and women who come to Jesus, to contribute to the needs of others, to comfort people in their troubles and to come to them in their suffering. Your presence with some people this Christmas and your gifts may do more than you realize. You may come as an agent of God to someone in suffering, to another in trouble and be the means of meeting their needs. You may be the heavenly visitor.

Rev Dr Gordon Moyes

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