Unexpected Gifts

This sermon was originally preached at Mission Hills United Methodist Church in San Diego, California on January 5, 2020. To listen to the full recording, visit our podcast, “Mission Hills United Methodist Church” or search ‘Mission Hills United Methodist Church’ wherever you get your podcasts.

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for from you shall come a ruler

    who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Have you ever received a gift you thought was given freely, but actually came with an addendum? Have you ever assumed an addendum of a gift you were given?

When I was a kid, my parents figured out how to tell when my sister, Ally, and I wanted something from the other sister. Usually this meant we were nice to each other in front of them. Looking back, it probably wasn’t rocket science, not that hard to tell when suddenly, the switch would flip on how we were treating each other.

Whenever they saw us share a toy or offer a snack to one another, something was probably up. I probably wanted her to play with me or she needed help with something, or the most likely, one of us did something wrong and didn’t want the other one to tattle to our parents on us.

Even as adults, some of the gifts we receive are given with expectation, strings attached. People give ‘I’m sorry’ gifts, expecting forgiveness. People give gifts that seem to call for reciprocation. And we’re all aware of the gift when students give their teacher an apple, right?

Maybe, like me, you’ve learned from society to distrust gifts, or to question the motive of the gift giver. What if they gave me this so I would do something for them?

Our scripture today can warrant that very question. The story of the Magi, the three Kings who travel to visit baby Jesus, and offer him gifts. What was their intention? What did they expect from him, or from Mary and Joseph? Well, maybe not what you think.

You see, King Herod was sending these wise men, the magi, to essentially show Herod the route to travel. These magi were akin to astrologers at their time, following the stars to show where baby Jesus was. Herod did not ask the magi to celebrate the baby, or Mary and Joseph. And maybe that wasn’t even their intention, as they began to follow the star. Herod needed intel, and these three were the people to do it. Once they had found Jesus, the magi were to report back to Herod, so he could go pay Jesus a visit. And no, Herod was not the kind of person you’d want to see show up today at your hospital bed. He was not the kind of visitor people wanted to see.

The passage says, when they got there, the magi were filled with joy. The experience of seeing Jesus lying there, with Mary and Joseph, that filled them with a sense of gratitude, and stirred them to generosity, even so much that they defied Herod’s orders, and took a different route back, so as not to tip him off on where the Christ child was.

Now, getting back to gift giving for another moment: One of the more awkward things is when someone gives a gift, and the other person doesn’t have one for them in return, right? Have y’all experienced that one this holiday season?

It may lead to a weird moment or two, but it can also lead to be a moment of sincerity, of true gratitude. Because something about the one who receives that gift filled the other person with true joy, joy that they’d give freely, without expectation or a gift in return.

The magi gave their gifts freely, because of their abundant joy. And through their gift, they gave more than the gold, the frankincense, and the myrrh. They showed their joy to the new parents, to the newborn baby, and to all of us, as we hear the good news today.

Mary and Joseph graciously accepted the gifts they were offered, something that is hard to do at times. As far as we know, they didn’t suspect ulterior motives. They didn’t argue with them about how it was ‘too much’. They didn’t lie about having a gift for them too, but you just ‘forgot it at home’. They graciously accepted the gift, the gift born out of joy and gratitude.

This passage teaches me a lot of things, about my own intentions, about trusting the intentions of others, about seeing the good and adopting an attitude of seeing people’s best intentions. And it teaches me about faithful giving.

  • What holds us back from accepting the unexpected gifts we are offered with grace?
  • What holds us back from offering our gifts born out of the same grace and joy?
  • How does the story of the magi and the family inspire us to give and receive faithfully?

As you leave today, I want to challenge you to find an opportunity to give or to receive generously, with a spirit of joy. This may look like receiving a literal gift, or volunteering your time or your talents. It may be practicing gratitude and telling those you love how grateful for them you are. The goal is to practice joy without expectation in this Christmas season.

May you too, follow the star, knowing you are surrounded by God along your journey. May you seek joy and see joy as you freely give and receive God’s love. And may you know, that without exception, we are all given the unexpected gift of Jesus, this Christmas season, and always.

Let us pray:

God of joy and life, we thank you for the ways you move in unexpected ways. We give thanks for the ways you have gifted us, through our experiences, our talents, and our loved ones. Call us to adopt a spirit of generosity and gratitude, as we tell the story of Jesus through our words and our actions. In your name we pray, Amen.


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