Sometimes people miss out on a treasure by not recognizing its worth.
An elderly man in Sun City, Arizona, had been storing in his garage a Jackson Pollock painting that has been estimated to be worth up to $15 million. The painting was discovered when appraiser Josh Levine was asked to evaluate the man’s belongings.
When Debbie and I had the privilege of visiting Turkey several years ago, we toured the Topkopi Museum on the grounds of what had been the Sultan’s Palace in Istanbul. We saw an 82 carat diamond there—the fourth largest diamond in the world. When I walked to the opposite side of the room, I was still dazzled by the light shining from that diamond. According to legend, that diamond was found in a garbage heap by a poor man who traded it at the market for three spoons.
That gets me wondering about all the people in Bethlehem who missed out on the greatest treasure of all when Jesus was born.
But Magi from the east recognized the abounding worth of the One who was born on Christmas day. They brought to this child gifts that were in keeping with His worth. They brought gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.
Who gives such costly gifts?
Two kinds of people come to mind:
1: Lovers give great gifts for they choose gifts that match the height and depth and breadth of their love for the person.
Henry tells the story of a young couple, named Jim and Della, who wanted to buy for each other the best Christmas gift possible. The problem is that they were desperately poor. Della wanted to buy a platinum chain for Jim’s prized gold pocket watch, but she had only $1.87. Out of love for Him, she made the ultimate sacrifice: she cut and sold her beautiful, long, thick, brown hair for enough money to buy the chain. Meanwhile Jim set out to buy a lovely set of combs for Della’s beautiful hair. Not having enough money for the gift, Jim made the ultimate sacrifice for Della: he sold his prized pocket watch for the money to buy the combs. Both sacrificed their prized possession to give a gift of love to the other. You might think that what they did was a foolish waste of their resources and that everything turned out wrong. Indeed, in the final paragraph of the story, O. Henry concedes, “I have lamely 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.” Yet O. Henry concludes by affirming the worth of their gifts by the value of their love: “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…. Everywhere they are the wisest. They are the magi.”
Lovers give gifts that match the height and depth and breadth of their love. When I find myself being stingy about my gifts to God, it is time for me to come back to the basics and to ask myself, “How much (or how little) do I love God?”
2: Those who are grateful give great gifts for they give gifts that flow out of the depth of their gratitude.
Until his death from esophageal cancer in 2007, Larry Stewart gave away $100 bills to 500 people every year at Christmas time in Kansas City, Missouri. He did it anonymously and was known only as “Secret Santa” until the year before he died. Donna McGuire told his story in the Kansas City Star: “That story begins in 1971 in Houston, Mississippi…. The man-who-would-become-Santa was a young salesman then. His employer went out of business. After losing his job, Santa slept in the car eight nights. Out of gas and money, Santa turned to a local church for assistance. But the person who oversaw a fund to help poor people was gone the day he inquired. The next morning, Santa walked into the Dixie Diner, ordered a huge breakfast, slowly sipped coffee refills and planned how he could escape without paying. Finally, he feigned losing his wallet. The owner—who was the cook, the waiter and the cashier—lifted a counter top door, reached toward the floor and acted as if he had picked up something.
“‘You must have dropped this,’ the owner said, handing the young man $20.
“As he drove away, [Stewart] thought about how fortunate he was. Suddenly, it occurred to him that no one had dropped that money. ‘Cookie’ behind the counter helped in a way that allowed [Stewart] to keep his dignity. Later that year, [Stewart] found a sales job in Kansas City, and continued living from paycheck to paycheck. One cold day shortly before Christmas 1979, he pulled up to a little drive-in restaurant in Independence. The carhop looked so cold and miserable, Santa decided to give her the change from $20. Her face glowed. Santa smiled. He went to his bank and withdrew more money. He didn’t have a lot to give then, but his spree had begun. These days, Santa, who has become a successful Jackson County businessman, hands out $50,000 or more each Christmas. And he’s never forgotten the person who got him started.”
Those who are grateful give gifts that match their gratitude. When I find myself being stingy about my gifts to God, it is time for me to come back to the basics and to ask myself, “How grateful am I to God for all He has done for me?”
More often than a Christian likes to admit, faith is a challenge to us. We want to trust God, but things turn out differently than we anticipated or wanted, and we don’t know how to handle the disruption to our expectations.
Such seems to have been the case with Joseph when he was engaged to be married to Mary. The Bible tells us that Joseph was a “righteous” man; he wanted to trust God. But he received a severe blow to his expectations. He found out that Mary was pregnant…and he knew that the child she was carrying had not come from him! What was he to do?
The Bible reports that Joseph “considered this.” The English translation sounds so calm, but the original Greek paints a different picture. The Greek word translated into English as “considered” in Matthew 1:20 is enthumathentos. It comes from the combination of two Greek words, en, meaning “in” or “with,” and thumos, meaning “anger,” “fury,” “rage,” or “intense feeling.”
When Joseph heard that Mary was pregnant (not from him), he did not calmly and emotionlessly consider what to do next, he stormed internally. The emotions in him erupted with fury, rage, and anger.
Or consider the situation from Mary’s perspective. She is called upon to give birth to the Son of God, but nobody understands. Even the man she is engaged to doesn’t believe her and assumes the worst about her. Though she is trying to be faithful, she finds herself in a scandalous position. Matthew reports that Joseph could have exposed her “to public disgrace,” which could have included having her stoned to death. Even thirty years later, questions about the legitimacy of Jesus’ birth were raised. In the midst of an argument between Jesus and the Pharisees, recorded in John 8, the Pharisees stressed that they were “not illegitimate children,” leaving hanging in the air the insinuation that Jesus was illegitimate. A bit later in the conflict between the two, they replaced the insinuation with an outright accusation. In verse 48 they say, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?” They accuse Mary not just of having sex outside of marriage, but of having it with a hated Samaritan! If such accusations were flying around 30 years after Jesus’ birth, we may wonder whether the reason Mary left Nazareth in the ninth month of her pregnancy to accompany Joseph when he had to go to Bethlehem for the census may have been because it was more uncomfortable to her to have stayed in Nazareth with people gossiping about her than it was to walk 70 miles on dusty roads to Bethlehem.
The Christmas story confronts us with the reality of the Christian faith that even when (or perhaps especially when) we are seeking to be “righteous” and trying to fulfill faithfully God’s call to us, things turn out differently than we anticipated or wanted.
But here’s the good news of the Christmas story: Even when our expectations are disrupted, leaving us in the midst of confusion, disappointment, or struggle, God is with us! That is the good news the angel shared with Joseph, telling him to wed Mary for the baby she would give birth to would be called Immanuel, “which means ‘God with us.’”
Ever since Christmas day, that’s the good news we live with (through all of the ups and downs of our lives): God is with us!
To say that things did not turn out the way Jerry Sittser anticipated or wanted would be to understate his grief by a thousand miles. In an instant, he lost his mother, his wife, and one of his daughters when a drunk driver slammed into his car. In the midst of deep pain and anger, he turned his heart to the miracle of God becoming one of us at Christmas. He writes, “God embraced human experience and lived with all the ambiguities and struggles that characterize life on earth…. His sovereignty did not protect him from loss. If anything, it led him to suffer loss for our sake…. The God I know has experienced pain and therefore understands my pain…. The incarnation means that God cares so much that he chose to become human and suffer loss, though he never had to…. He is not aloof from my suffering but draws near to me when I suffer. He is vulnerable to pain, quick to shed tears, and acquainted with grief. God is a suffering Sovereign who feels the sorrow of the world.
“The incarnation has left a permanent imprint on me. For three years now I have cried at every communion service I have attended. I have not only brought my pain to God but also felt as never before the pain God suffered for me. I have mourned before God because I know that God has mourned too. God understands suffering because God suffered.” (A Grace Disguised, p. 158-159)
The good news of Christmas is not that we will get what we want but that, even in the worst messes of this world, God is with us!