Read Matthew 2:1-12 to start.
I know what you’re thinking. It’s the middle of February. This sermon is a couple of months late, or really early. And if this were a Christmas sermon, it would certainly seem to be in the wrong time of year. But this is not a Christmas sermon, even if my first reading this morning is one most commonly, and quite reasonably so, associated with that season.
I’d like to talk this morning about gifts and giving. The wise men of Matthew chapter 2, they are perhaps the most obvious and best known givers of gifts mentioned in all of scripture. Their gifts are also well known, I’m willing to bet that everyone here can name the three gifts that the wise men brought, for that matter if you went out on the street and asked random strangers, a good number of them would also be able to list gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
They would probably also say that there were three kings, which is inaccurate. We have three gifts but no numbers are given in this chapter or elsewhere in the Bible as to how large a group came from the East, and nothing is said to suggest that they were rulers of any kingdom. It could have been two, or ten, or thirty, we do not know, and it is not important. What matters is that these men came from afar to honour the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, He that was born King of the Jews, and that they brought gifts for Him.
It is likely that our entire concept of giving gifts at Christmastime arises from this account. Much could be, and indeed has been, shared and taught about the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and the particular spiritual applications of each gift. Many a good Christmas sermon has been preached on the topic. But this is not a Christmas sermon. And the wise men are not the only givers of gifts that I would like to look at today.
There are four different people, or groups of people, that we will consider this morning. Each is different, but each has something in common in that each gave of what they had, each shared a portion of their worldly goods with someone else. There’s an application to learn from each of them.
The wise men, they gave gifts of high value. We don’t know the amounts of gold, frankincense, or myrrh, not in weight or in monetary value, but it was no doubt significant. One does not travel from a distant country, taking what we believe was most likely a number of months, perhaps upwards of a year or more, in order to bring the ancient equivalent of pocket change and or stuff that they had lying around at home. I have no doubt that these gifts would have been worth easily the equivalent of thousands of dollars in today’s money, probably many thousands. This was a most impressive gift, one that likely funded the trip to Egypt which took place shortly thereafter.
It’s interesting that despite the obvious value of the gifts, not much time is spent on them, or what happened with them afterwards. Matthew’s narrative is concerned with the people involved, not the stuff. We read about the wise men, about Herod, about Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, about their emotions and their actions, the gifts are incidental. The cliché is that it is the thought that counts, and that seems to be borne out here. What they gave is not all that important.
The wise men were wealthy, and they were willing. We don’t know the measure of their riches, but they had more than enough to fund a long journey. They were not living hand to mouth, just scraping by. They had the means. Not everyone could have done as they did. And not everyone, in fact hardly anyone, would have been willing to do as they did. We can see from the passage that indeed no one from Jerusalem followed them down to Bethlehem, even though the distance was not far, and the time commitment not great. I checked the distance, it’s about 9 km. It wouldn’t take two hours on foot. It’s reasonably comparable to walking from my house up to Poole’s Corner. You could do there and back in an afternoon. It’s really not much of a journey. But no one in Jerusalem was all that interested. No one else went.
The wise men came from much farther. They came from a far country to give gifts, and to honour the Lord. They put their lives on hold, and they gave from their riches, to a foreign infant. And for what benefit? He was not a ruler at this point, He was a child on His mother’s knee, there was nothing He could offer them, not at that point in time, but still they came. Not for some sort of reward, or for recognition or to earn merit, but to honour the Saviour.
So often we only are interested in doing a thing so that we may earn something in return, or to avoid the consequences of not doing it. My kids ask what they get for completing their chores, and they finish their supper if they want to get dessert. And it’s not limited to younger folks. We obey the speed limit to avoid speeding tickets. We go to our jobs, not because we are bored and have nothing else to do, we go so that we get paid. Even if you enjoy your work greatly, you’ll stop going pretty soon if they stop paying you.
The wise men had nothing to gain from their visit or from their generosity, but still they came and they gave. They had the means and most importantly the willingness to do so. They may have been rich by the standards of this world, but they did not get so caught up in their wealth and concerns to miss what was of true importance.
Some who give are not nearly so wealthy. If you turn to Mark’s gospel, chapter 12, we’ll look at a few verses there which tell us of another giver. Reading from verse 41 And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. 42 And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. 43 And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: 44 For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.
We know less about this widow than we do about the wise men of Matthew chapter 2, and it’s not like we know a great deal about them. We know that she was poor, but still she gave. She had next to nothing, those two mites would have been worth something like a dollar, maybe less, but that did not stop her. She put her money in the offering box, and while it ended there as far as she was concerned, she became an example and a lesson to us all.
She did not have the means to make a difference, not financially speaking. She did not bring anything that the world would say was of any worth. A dollar added to the temple funds was insignificant, not when the wealthy were dropping in hundos by the handful. It’s unlikely that anyone else noticed her or her contribution that day. There were no doubt plenty of poor widows in Jerusalem, why would anyone pay this particular woman any heed?
The Lord did, however. He watched and he noticed, because while she was poor, her gift was remarkable. She gave all that she had, it says at verse 44.
We look at this from a practical, human perspective and we tend to be dismissive. Was her gift going to fund a new, well, anything for the temple? Of course not. It was a tiny amount of money, for someone of any means at all it was pocket change. But it was a lot to her. And it was a lot to the Saviour.
Our wealth may be small, or it may be great, but when you look at the creator of the entire universe, whatever we possess is basically nothing. The wealth we do claim, we only have that for a little while, for we either squander it quickly or we hoard it up and leave it to those who come after. The wheel of time turns, our short span of years ends, and the money, property, and material goods that belonged to us no longer matter. A dead billionaire is every bit as deceased as a dead beggar. All that changes is the size of the funeral. Whatever either one owned in life no longer matters.
The widow, her gift was important, was worthy of notice, because she gave from her poverty. She did not use that as an excuse to say she could not or should not give to the temple treasury. And it would have been oh so easy to rationalize that she needed not give. The temple had plenty of money. It’s not like the priests were living off ramen noodles and stone soup, they didn’t need her money. The temple itself was a grand structure, ringed with enough gold that when the Romans burned it not 40 years after this takes place, they pulled it down piece by piece in order to recover the melted metal. And that also reminds us that the temple was not going to last, whatever her two mites were ultimately spent on was not going to be around for all that long.
God does not need your money. These televangelists, these charlatans who go on TV asking people to give, give, give, they are nothing more than swindlers and crooks, they do not speak for God, they are only interested in lining their own pockets. God cares deeply for those who are in need, He would not have them defrauded and bilked of their money. That is a deep offense to Him. God will not demand that you give, give, give.
What God does need from us is our willingness to obey, and to share. Not that He can’t get along without our contribution, of course, but He wants everyone to step forward and do their part. When we hold back, when we keep our hands in our pockets as it were, we refuse to bless others, and we reject blessing for ourselves. We don’t know what God will do with what we offer, but he can certainly do a lot more with it than we can ever imagine.
The widow we read of, she was poor, but her gift was profitable. The Lord Jesus Christ noticed it personally, and through it taught an important lesson to all who will hear it. It’s not about the size of the gift, it’s about the willingness to give. It’s about being unselfish, even when our human nature is screaming that we need to look out for our own interests, to hang on to every penny. Our human nature is deeply selfish, and it is deeply wrong.
Christ used the widow’s gift, not the coins themselves, but the spirit of the gift, as an important lesson. When we are willing to share what we have, no matter how great or how small, God can do tremendous things with that.
And it’s not just about money. Sometimes it’s about lunch. Turn to John’s gospel, chapter 6, we’ll read from verse 1 After these things Jesus went over the sea of Galilee, which is the sea of Tiberias. 2 And a great multitude followed him, because they saw his miracles which he did on them that were diseased. 3 And Jesus went up into a mountain, and there he sat with his disciples. 4 And the passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh. 5 When Jesus then lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him, he saith unto Philip,Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat? 6 And this he said to prove him: for he himself knew what he would do. 7 Philip answered him, Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little. 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, saith unto him, 9 There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many? 10 And Jesus said, Make the men sit down. Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. 11 And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would. 12 When they were filled, he said unto his disciples, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost. 13 Therefore they gathered them together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten.
Some people are betting at planning ahead than others. And sometimes even the best plans are derailed. One imagines that a wise mother packed a lunch for her son who was going out to listen to Jesus of Nazareth. Five loaves and two fishes, and we shouldn’t be thinking that he had like five baguettes or white wonder bread or anything like that, along with a couple of trout. Probably closer to dinner rolls and sardines. Enough lunch for a child, no doubt. Nowhere near enough for a multitude.
This lad, we know next to nothing about him other than he had food with him, and he was willing to share it. Were there others in the crowd that day who had pocketed a little bread or a few figs or something else to munch on, but were not willing to share? When the disciples asked the crowd, if that is what they did, only one young man spoke up. He could have eaten his own lunch, and been filled. Maybe not entirely filled, but he would have not gone hungry. Had he eaten what he had brought, he could have said quite reasonably to the people around him that they should have planned ahead, and so not been hungry. He didn’t do that. He could have, but he did not. He contributed. He shared what he had, and while it may have been small, it was shared. And the Lord did something with it.
We don’t know how much the lad ended up eating that day, but it was likely more than just the five loaves and two fishes. He certainly did not go home hungry. No one went home hungry that day. The Lord provided more than enough food for everyone, with a dozen baskets left over, and He did so from the initial seed of one bagged lunch.
Did Christ need to have those loaves and fishes in order to perform this miracle? Of course not. It’s not that He was limited in any way by the food which was on hand. He could have created the food out of thin air, and it could have been anything. That was within His power. He could have created pizza, which actually wouldn’t have been as outlandish as you might think, as eating heated bread with toppings on it actually dates back to before Roman times. Not that the shores of the Sea of Galilee were in Grecoville, mind you, but I digress. Christ could have made sufficient food by willing it so, but instead He used something at hand, and made it far, far better.
The young lad’s contribution, like the widow’s mite, was not essential. But he was willing, and so he contributed what he could. Not money, but food, which was what they needed at that time. You can’t eat money. But you can eat bread and fish, you can eat and be filled.
As much as it was a blessing to everyone else to have a meal that day, it was a blessing to that boy that he was able to be a part of a miracle. He ended up coming out ahead. I don’t think that was his motivation, though. He came forward with his food because he could. Maybe he thought he could help one or two others. And you know what? Apart from the miracle, apart from the Lord’s intervention, yes, maybe he could have helped one or two others. So more than just one person could have avoided hunger, if things were done simply within human limitations. That’s small, but it’s not nothing. Perhaps that’s all he expected to happen when he came forward. I imagine he was as surprised as anyone to see the result of his contribution. Like the widow’s gift, this was far greater than expected.
We’ve seen gifts small and large this morning, there’s one more that I would like to look at. This one is different, it’s not a gift or an offering in the traditional sense, and instead of being freely offered, it was asked for. We’ll read in 1 Kings chapter 17, this is God instructing Elijah. 9 Arise, get thee to Zarephath, which belongeth to Zidon, and dwell there: behold, I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee. 10 So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, the widow woman was there gathering of sticks: and he called to her, and said, Fetch me, I pray thee, a little water in a vessel, that I may drink. 11 And as she was going to fetch it, he called to her, and said, Bring me, I pray thee, a morsel of bread in thine hand. 12 And she said, As the LORD thy God liveth, I have not a cake, but an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse: and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die.
13 And Elijah said unto her, Fear not; go and do as thou hast said: but make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it unto me, and after make for thee and for thy son. 14 For thus saith the LORD God of Israel, The barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that the LORD sendeth rain upon the earth. 15 And she went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she, and he, and her house, did eat many days. 16 And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD, which he spake by Elijah.
The other gifts we have seen this morning were all one-time events. Sure, that boy may have shared his lunch on other occasions, and the widow may have given to the temple treasury on other days, but the precise instances we read of in the gospels happened once. Certainly the wise men only showed up in Bethlehem with gold, frankincense, and myrrh only one time. Those were all specific occurrences. The widow of Zerephath, she fed Elijah for months.
It’s a bold thing to travel to a foreign country, find a poor widow who has little in the way of resources, and ask her for food and water. To do so in the middle of a severe drought, I think the word for that is chutzpah. But her reaction, that’s where things get really interesting, because she didn’t tell Elijah to get lost. She didn’t pretend she couldn’t hear him, she didn’t tell him where to go and get his own water, she didn’t lie to him and say that she had no food left at all. She may well have been hesitant, but this was a bold request. The fact she didn’t reject the prophet out of hand is significant. That is what saved her and her son.
She had so very little. Enough supplies to eat one more time. And not a large meal, either. You can’t cook all that much on a fire made with two sticks. No doubt they had been going hungry for weeks, trying to make the food last. After this meal, all that remained was starvation. Her words make it clear that she was resigned to this fate.
If a stranger came up to you when you were down to your last dollar and asked for 30 cents, what would your response be? Would it be the same as hers? When the same stranger says “It’s going to be okay, God will provide,” would you be quick to believe that? This woman, maybe she felt that she had nothing to lose, but she believed. Maybe with doubts, sure, who doesn’t have doubts, but she believed enough to obey. She made dinner for the prophet, even though she didn’t really have enough for herself.
Of all the examples we’ve seen this morning, this one is the most poignant. This is “give ‘til it hurts” embodied, because despite the desperation of the situation, I imagine that sharing her meagre food supply with a total stranger was one of the hardest things she had ever done. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Was it easy? Absolutely not.
We may never find ourselves in any of the situations we’ve looked at this morning. But then again, maybe things are not so different after all. Maybe you’ve never been in the position of starving to death, but have there been times when you wonder how you will put food on the table? I’ve had that happen. Have there been times when things might seem sparse and bleak, but someone next door has it even worse? And have there been times you don’t have much to give, but you give it anyway? Or times when you could have given, could have shared, but didn’t?
It’s not always like that. I’ve had times when I had the means to provide someone in hardship with a gift, when I’ve felt specifically lead by God to do so. Once I recall after a Bible study when we lived in town that I gave someone a cheque, and then felt that I should give him the $10 bill I happened to have in my wallet, and discovered that he needed to get a few groceries on the way home, and had no other money in order to do that.
I tell this not to boast or brag, but because when you are lead of God to do something, and you do it, the blessing is real and immediate, and felt on both sides of the equation. Once when I was a kid, someone slipped an envelope with cash under our door. We’re not talking a couple of fives and tens, either. It was hundreds of dollars. We didn’t know who, I still don’t know who, but it doesn’t matter. I didn’t know it at the time, but mom really needed that money. Maybe for rent, maybe for food, I don’t know. But it’s not like she went out and bought us toys and candy with it. That gift met a need for my family. God directed someone to give, and they obeyed.
I’m not asking anyone here this morning to give anything to anyone else. That’s not my place. I would simply remind you that God has provided each and every one of us with what we need, and maybe a little bit more. Maybe it doesn’t feel like it, and maybe that little bit more is quite small indeed. But God will bless a gift given in obedience to Him, in one way or another. No matter how much or how little we have, there’s always a need out there we can help meet.