“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.”
Overwhelmed with joy! We have spent the last five weeks reflecting on Jesus’ birth through the lens of Joy as we commemorated the anniversary of Joy to the World. Of course through those weeks, we also prepped and wrapped and gave and received, gifts of all sorts, from family, from friends, from lovers, from colleagues. Where were you overwhelmed with joy along the way? Where were you underwhelmed? What caught you unexpected this Christmas?
Not all gifts are freely given. And that can temper both our giving and our receiving.
Far too many gifts come with emotional or expectational strings attached—some spoken, some unspoken. Some gifts are given with the expectation of some kind of reciprocation; others are given as a way to purchase forgiveness. Sometimes these gifts are genuine expressions of one person’s gratitude for the other; at other times gift-giving only perpetuates the commodification of unhealthy relationships.
We’ve all experienced some type of gift-giving awkwardness: the inappropriate gift, the obvious re-gift, or a stark difference in the size or significance of the gifts two people exchange. Giving or receiving a gift when none is offered in return can be awkward, depending on the circumstances, but it can also be an occasion of deep sincerity, generosity and gratitude.
The gifts brought by the magi were completely unexpected by the household of Jesus. The gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, were not self-centered in any way. The magi weren’t obligated to give gifts to this family (they didn’t even know them!), and certainly they weren’t given out of guilt or the expectation of anything in return. No, these gifts were completely born out of a genuine realization of the reality of Christ—an epiphany.
Gifts offered freely out of a deep sense of joy, generosity, or gratitude are powerful both for the one who gives them and for the one who receives.
Coming as it does at the end of the calendar year, the Christmas season also includes an opportunity to reflect on the past year. One story that caught my attention was a church community coming together to offer an unexpected gift of overwhelming joy.
Dan was a young man who struggled with substance abuse, but he turned things around. He got active in a church, got a job and began building a better life. Then he got pneumonia and landed in the ICU. Because he couldn’t work, he lost his job, and with that his health insurance. He left the hospital physically healed but sick with medical bills.
Many people today are just one car accident, one slip on the ice, one complicated pregnancy, one bad diagnosis away from a tsunami of medical debt. They barely make everyday life work financially, and an unexpected trip to the hospital can become a lasting nightmare.
When such hospital bills go uncollected, hospitals often sell the debt to a collection agency for pennies on the dollar. The hospital gets some compensation and the agencies can go after larger amounts than they paid for the debt.
This also opened the door for Southminster Presbyterian Church in Idaho. In the same fashion, Southminster raised $15,000, the minimum amount to purchase medical debt in their area. With that $15,000 they acquired $1.5 million in uncollected medical debt. In November, Southminister let 549 Idaho neighbors know their medical debt had been wiped out.
Talk about overwhelmed with joy.
Matthew’s sparse details about these figures from the east have been enhanced down through the centuries by carols, poets, preachers, artists and pageant goers. They have been transformed into kings, clothed in lavish royal robes and impressive turbans. Matthew does not tell us how many there were, but we have set their number at three as the carol “We Three Kings” has fixed it in our minds. We have even provided names, Gaspar, Melchoir, Balthasar, identifying them as different races.
It is an unexpected gift of Matthew’s story, that every generation of Christians is enabled to add such details, taken from their own context of living. Just as Matthew saw in the magi symbols of his own Gentile Christian community.
They represent those outside the expectation of God’s gift to the world. The magi, like all Gentiles, have only nature as a source of God’s revelation, they followed a star, not the words of scripture. They have discerned God in what they witness around them, and they have come to worship that gift. So too is our calling, to see God around us and receive this unexpected gift.
When asked what they had learned on their journey into medical debt relief, the folks of Southminstster responded, “small contributions add up; mission goes beyond traditional church projects; we can be involved in the deepest concerns of the nation and our community.
How might we, too, follow the star, to present an unexpected gift to another? How might we discern the signs of God around us to follow and present an unexpected gift? Southminster church, like the magi, offered unexpected gifts to the world in which they lived. Where might we travel afar, out of country or comfort zone, to offer as a gift of overwhelming joy to people in need of the gift of God’s love?
I think the only expectation God has of us is that we follow the star to the unexpected.