New Year’s Day has its varied traditions. Many of these traditions are cultural and regional in nature, such as eating black eyed peas or putting a coin in cabbage. Some of these traditions are centered on the idea of seeking good luck and fortune for the new year. Personally, I never understood how one could gain luck through eating cabbage or black eyed peas.
Among those traditions is one we are most familiar with and, perhaps, one we participated in a few days ago. That is the new year’s resolution. The idea that we will resolve to do something different in the new year that we did not do not as much in the previous.
Problem is that it seems we just recycle previous resolutions. Our resolutions often cycle around the common themes of losing weight, saving more money, and finding more ways to relax. Resolutions, though, that are appropriate coming out of a season of heavy eating, tons of purchases, and stressful calendars. For the record, my resolution for 2015 is to find more time to relax and not to stress about the little things in life. We’ll see how long that lasts.
While there seems to be a pattern to our resolutions there is another common theme that we focus on at the start of the year. That is our faith. We often take these first few weeks of a new year to reconnect ourselves with our faith in God. There is no better way to start the year than to commit ourselves to our relationship with the Lord. Discipleship and growth in our faith in God is something we should seek in all seasons of life and not just the beginning of the year. It is that important.
Because it is that important we do not want our commitment to grow closer to God to fall to the wayside like many of our new year’s resolutions. Many of our resolutions will be forgotten by the time we get to Super Bowl Sunday on Feb. 1. We do not want that to happen to our faith. We want our commitment to be a lifelong pursuit of spiritual growth and devotion to the Lord.
Yet, as we begin 2015 we want to dedicate ourselves to practices and spiritual disciplines that will help us to sustain not just growth for the year but lifelong growth in our relationship with the Lord. Throughout January, we will focus on practices that will help us to grow closer to God and to live more deeply in our relationship with the Lord. Each week of our “Resolution 2015” series will focus on a key word that will enable growth and reflection on what it means for us to follower the Lord.
We start, today, with the word “gift.” It is a word that we take from the traditional Gospel reading for this Epiphany Sunday from Matthew 2:1-12. On this day that we celebrate Christ’s light coming into the world and the revelation of God’s glory through Jesus, we look at the response of a group of wise men, magi, who came from the east, perhaps even ancient Persia, to the Christ child. How they responded to Jesus’ birth gives us an idea of what it means to live out the deeper meaning of this word “gift.”
First, let’s back up for a moment and take a look at how we get to this moment where these wise men appear in Bethlehem. Matthew is the only one of the four gospels that gives us this story of a group of magi, who were astrologers and astronomers, who came from the east to visit Jesus. They often looked to the sky to determine key moments of events believing that the placement of the stars would tell about great things. We are told that upon gazing the stars that they saw a bright light coming from afar. Anticipating that an event of great magnitude was to take place in Judea they went to check it out for themselves.
When they arrived, they approached King Herod, who believed himself to be not just a Roman official but also the king of the Jews, to determine the location of the king’s birth. They immediately ascribed a sense of royalty and honor to Jesus’ birth. After a lengthy bit of discussion, Herod sends them to Bethlehem to investigate so that he could eliminate Jesus.
Once they arrived in Bethlehem they were able to see Jesus with Mary. Their reaction was a joyous wonder and it led them to worship. They gave praise to God because they were in the presence of God, the Christ, the Son of God. These wise men do something else. It was customary in those days for visitors to give gifts of submission and respect to those in authority, especially those who were a king. They opened their treasure chests and pull out three gifts: Gold, frankincense and myrrh. Their act of giving created the custom that we have today of giving gifts at Christmas, while some parts of the church do so on January 6 (which is the Day of Epiphany). Each gift has a spiritual notation behind them of representing Jesus’ royalty (gold), his role as the true high priest (frankincense), and his eventual death on the cross (myrrh). They announced who Jesus is and the work he came to do.
More than that they tell us something else. In response to the very presence of Jesus in their lives the wise men responded by giving of what they had to the Lord. They gave what they have in order to worship and serve the Lord of all. Giving was an active and living response to the fact that Christ has come and dwells amongst us.
This is what Jesus calls us to. As followers of Christ, we are called to be people who are known as “givers.” We are to be people who give in response to the very presence of Christ in our lives. Like the wise men, we are to give of what we have as a living and active act of worship directed to the one who came and will come again.
For many of us when we think of giving as a response to Christ’s presence in the world we think of the offering plate. This is our way of giving to the Lord through the gift of our tithe and finances. It is an important aspect of giving, but maintaining the ministries of the church through our financial giving is just one part of what it means to give as a response to the Lord’s presence. Giving is much more than that. If we want to be people who give in response to the Lord, then we will not just focus on our finances. We will give our entire selves to the Lord and to others.
Giving as a response to Christ is about seeing our entire life as a gift from God to be given back to God as an act of living worship. Genesis 1:27 tells us that our lives are a gift from God in that we were created in God’s image to reflect the very nature and character of the Lord in our lives. Each of us were made with unique talents, blessings, experiences, and moments that shape us and make us who we are. Our lives are breathed into by the very presence of God who walks with us in all things. As a response to God’s presence that came at Christmas through Jesus we are to give back to the Lord our entire life as an act of worship.
Doing so requires us to change our perspective a bit on how we see our lives. It is easy, especially today, to see our life not as a gift but as a series of obligations that we have to fulfill. Life, then, has no meaning other than to do what we have to do to get by. Seeing our life as a gift to be given and shared with the Lord reframes our focus. Our lives are more than just an obligation. They are a gift given to us by the Lord so that we may worship the Lord through how we live our lives and in the ways we seek to a blessing in the lives of others.
That is one of the primary ways we give worship to God by living our lives as a gift. Seeing our lives as a gift allows us to worship the Lord through how we seek to live with each other. We take our talents, experiences, the moments that fill our lives, and ask God to show us how these moments might be used to bless others. We see our life and our common existence with each other as a way to share God’s love and the gift of God’s love through our words, actions, and deeds.
This isn’t the way our culture teaches us to live. We are taught that our life is about what we make of it and about what we want out of it. The talents and experiences we have are given to us in order for us to be rich, gain prosperity, and to enjoy all the blessings of life. Yet, this is not the way God desires for us to live. God calls us to live in a deeper and more counter-cultural way that sees our life as not our own.
In doing so, we see that seeing our life as a gift from God calls us to give up our life in order to gain the gift of God’s presence and life. That is the way of Christ. It is not about us, but about letting go of our own self in order to receive the gift of Christ and to recognize our own giftedness. We have to begin to see our life as not our own, but God’s very own life given to us in order to bless and love others. Given to us so that we may respond to the presence of Christ in the world through our loving actions towards others.
Seeing our life as a gift to be given and shared with others allows us to more richly experience Christ’s presence. For it is in seeking to bless others that we often receive the blessing of Christ’s presence and love in our own life. It is in the giving of our life in response to the Lord and in service to others that we gain God’s greatest life for us and deepest joy.
Communion allows us to experience that reality. In a moment, we will share this gift of bread and juice that connects us to this deeper way of living. Through this meal, we are reminded that Jesus came to give of his life for others so that they may experience the blessings of God’s grace. We take this meal as a reminder of that gift and as a reminder that Christ’s presence is with us as we seek to live by Jesus’ desire to be a blessing towards others through the way we live our life.
Our life is not our own. It is a gift given to us by the One who created us, molded us, and shaped us. Given to us for a purpose to love the Lord and to bless others through the talents and experiences of our lives. May we give generously that which we have been given so that others may experience the gift of God’s love in their own lives.