Gold or Dung?

Malachi 1:1 – 2:5
Matthew 2:1-12
January 5, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott 

Tonight is 12th Night, or as we might call it today, “Epiphany Eve.”  In years long past, and in many parts of the world today still, Christmas lasts for 12 days and ends with the celebration of the arrival of the Three Kings on Epiphany, January 6th. (1)  In the past, people partied and exchanged gifts during the entire twelve days giving rise, of course, to the familiar song about the dedicated suitor who showered on his true love everything from partridges to a squad of drummers during the 12 days of Christmas.  Most Americans, however, don’t celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas if only because the thought of coming up with 12 days of presents for all of our loved ones feels exhausting.  It’s difficult enough to think of presents for just one day of Christmas, let alone 12.  One year while I was Christmas shopping at the mall, I watched five teenage boys browsing the aisles of Hallmark trying to find a gift for one of the boy’s mothers.

“What does she like?” the four friends asked the boy. “Does she like candles?”

“I don’t know,” the boy responded glumly.

“Well, what about a teddy bear?  All girls like teddy bears,” another offered.

“She’s not a girl,” the boy grumbled.  “She’s my mom.”

“How about this?” one of the friends suggested pointing to an embroidered hanging. “It says, ‘Mothers are a piece of heaven on earth.’  You can’t go wrong with that.  Mothers love that kind of sick stuff.”

The boy shook his head in despair and the group moved out of earshot but I was sorely tempted to follow them.  I was curious to see what the boy would decide was an appropriate gift for the mother who, as much as he obviously hated to admit it to his friends, was too important to him to get her just anything. 

At Christmas time, whether we celebrate it for one day or twelve, we give gifts to our loved ones to try to bring them a bit of joy and to express our appreciation for their presence in our lives, and choosing those gifts can be a difficult task.  It’s actually often easier to shop for a person we don’t really care about because we can just pick out some trinket that says, “I thought of you this season, but not for very long.”  When we are giving a gift to someone we truly love, however, to someone who means a lot to us, we want to give that person something significant; something that shows them just how deeply grateful we are for their presence in our lives. 

This is what the magi were doing when they kneeled before Jesus and presented him with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 

In the gospel of Matthew, an angel proclaims that the baby to be born to Mary will grow to be the savior of the world.  His birth is so significant that it affects the courses of the stars themselves, and when the magi read of Christ’s coming in the heavens, they travel half way across the known world to see him for themselves.  When they arrive finally in Bethlehem, the sight of Christ fills their hearts with joy and they offer him gifts — gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Many jokes have been made about the impracticality of those gifts, wits suggesting that diapers might have been more appropriate, but the gifts of the magi were symbolic of the best that humankind could offer in those days, gifts fit for a King, gifts that would demonstrate the depth of our gratitude for the love that God has bestowed on us by sending Christ into our world.

During the twelve days of Christmas, we give thanks for the gift which God has given to us in the coming of Christ but on Twelfth night, we move into the season of Epiphany when we, like the magi, consider what gift we will offer to God in returnWe kneel before our Savior and consider all that Christ has meant to us — the light he has brought into our darkness, the healing he has offered in our brokenness, the community of caring we have known through him, his mercy and forgiveness that has removed our guilt, the comfort he has given that has mended our tattered spirits, the meaning and purpose he has brought into our lives — and we ask, “What can I give to my Christ who has given so much to me?  What can I offer to God that will convey my deepest gratitude and love?  What can I give to a body-less eternal being who is holy beyond my understanding?”

What do you get for the God who has everything?

For much of the church’s history, people believed that the best gift we could give to God was brand loyalty.  As modern Americans, we have come to identify ourselves by the brands to which we are loyal — Ford, Wegmans, Old Navy, Apple, the Buffalo Bills — and for much of the history of the church in America, we treated Christianity as “our brand” and people believed that what God wanted most from us was a demonstration of loyalty to that brand.  Consequently, for much of the 20th century, Christians believed that the best gift one could give to God was to go to church on Sunday, learn your catechism, put money in the offering plate, bring green bean casseroles to the church pot luck dinner, and say grace before eating because those things demonstrated your loyalty to the Christian brand.  You did those things because that’s what loyal grateful Christians did, just like those who are loyal to Apple buy iPhones and won’t even look at a Samsung Galaxy no matter how good their cameras claim to be.  “I’m an Apple person,” we say. Of course, for most of the 20th century, dedicated loyalty to the Christian brand didn’t take a lot of effort.  Being a Christian in 20th century America was like being a loyal Amazon customer — Christianity was everywhere.  Businesses were closed on Sundays, no one would think of scheduling a soccer game for Sunday morning, and no one looked at you cross-eyed when you mentioned that you had to usher that week in worship.  Deep faith and lukewarm faith looked very much the same on the outside. If you believe that what God most wants is brand loyalty, then it didn’t matter whether you went to church to meditate on the scriptures or whether you went to church to meditate on what game to watch when you got home that afternoon because either way you were there to show your brand loyalty to Christianity by publicly attending a Christian worship.  Moreover, your loyalty was easy to give because all of your neighbors and friends were in church too and it was better to spend the morning with them as to stay home alone causing them to whisper about your moral character.  

In our responsive reading from Malachi, however, the prophet makes clear that the gift God desires of us is not brand loyalty.  The prophet Malachi condemns the priests for their show of religiosity that has no depth to it. 

“Oh, most beloved God,” the priests pray, “receive from our hands this gift of our love, this offering chosen carefully and especially just for you,” and then they they lay on the altar an animal that was destined for the refuse heap anyway. 

God fumes, “I have loved you yet you have despised my table.  You wouldn’t give such a gift to someone you truly respected, yet you try to pass this off to me as a symbol of your devotion… I will take the dung of your offerings and throw it in your face and cast you out of my presence.”

Malachi attributes some colorful language to God in order to drive home the point that brand loyalty is not what God wants from us.  God sent to us the gift of Christ who gave his life that our hearts might be mended and re-made.  Christ’s love could not be defeated even by death on a cross but continued to flow forth for us, for the world, and even for his enemies, so that God’s vision of a world grounded in peace with one another, love for each other, justice for the lowly, food for the hungry, and forgiveness and mercy towards others could be manifest through us who have been re-made in Christ’s love.  This is not a shallow brand loyalty that God desires, but a commitment that goes from the top of our heads to the tips of our toes and is expressed in everything we do, 24 hours a day seven days a week. 

The good news for us is that brand loyalty to Christianity no longer dominates our landscape.  Polls over the years have shown a consistent decrease in the number of people who identify as Christian, and many younger people have not only never attended churches but may have been raised by parents who themselves never attended church.  Even for older members, church-going is more of a choice than it ever was in the past because your neighbors aren’t going to look askance at you if you decide to stay at home on Sunday mornings.  It’s likely that they are staying home too.  Today, if you feel a need for spiritual insight, you can listen to church services online, download apps offering devotional guidance, read the Bible on your phone, or follow Christian blogs and forums; you no longer really need the institutional church to be a Christian consumer because, like everything else, you can do it virtually from the privacy of your screen.  As a result, the shallow piety and the brand loyalty that passes for faith is gone, or at least, moved online.  While the resulting decline of church membership is a struggle financially for those trying to pay professional clergy or maintain church buildings, the positive side is that the people who are in church today are people we know are serious about their faith…. about our faith.  One church leader said, “The reason you would go to church today is that you’ve moved from being a consumer to being a contributor. You don’t just go to be served, you go to serve.” (2)

We are here today not as consumers but as contributors.
We are here today to develop our hearts and make them better at loving.
We are here to strengthen our spirits so that they can withstand the slings and arrows of the world.
We are here to lift others from their knees and give them a shoulder to lean on, to cry on.
We are here for our children believing that in the stories of faith they may find heroes upon which to model their own lives.
We are here to find ways to take the small amount of days we have been given on this earth and make the biggest amount of difference. 

At Christmas time, we received the good news that God sent Christ into the world to heal us and save us.  God gave to us the greatest of all gifts.
Now in this season of Epiphany, let us, as the magi did, kneel before him and offer a great gift in return…. our very selves.


Footnotes:

1. There is some disagreement as to whether the 12 days begins on Dec 25th and ends on January 5th, the Twelfth Night of Christmas, with Epiphany following, or whether the counting begins on Dec 25th making January 6th the 12th day, in which case “Twelfth Night” should be taken as shorthand for “the night before the 12th day” akin to our “Christmas Eve” or “New Year’s Eve.” https://www.tudorsociety.com/twelfth-night-and-epiphany/

2. https://careynieuwhof.com/why-attending-church-no-longer-makes-sense/