"I used to be that little boy / Who prayed for gifts at Christmas time / But these days I find more joy / In seeing things made right / And I’ve wrapped a gift or two / But today I cannot say / Just how long my presents lasted Or what difference they made"
Christian singer/songwriter Kyle Matthews sums up our fascination and dilemma with Christmas gift-giving in a song titled “The Gifts We Give” from his Christmas album, “Timeless Christmas Child.” What exactly are worthy gifts for celebrating the birth of Christ?
Matthews, in the last lines of the verse, offers a test for Christmas gifts: Have they made any difference? The Gospels give us some hints from the first Christmas if we dare use the accounts of the birth of Christ as an example.
Some lift up the gifts of the wise men from the east as the kind of gifts best given in honor of the Christ child. Some might refer to these as luxury items — gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Bible says these items were among the treasures the Magi carried with them.
Gold obviously was (and is) a precious metal, often used for jewelry. It likely was a rarity in the homes of average Jewish families in the first century. Frankincense was an ingredient used to make the perfume for the most holy place in the temple. Myrrh was perhaps a prophetic gift. It was an aromatic resin used in anointing oil reserved for gift-giving, sometime used as a perfume and to embalm bodies. Few people could give such extravagant gifts.
The wise men bore gifts worthy of a king. Convinced they had found a child who would be a king, they offered their gifts without hesitation. So convinced were they that they bowed down and worshipped Jesus. Perhaps they had their own ideas about what kind of king he would become.
We can only wonder about the use of these gifts by Jesus and his family, if they indeed found them useful. Perhaps they stored them away. Gold might have come in handy for a family on the run to Egypt in a mad dash to save the life of their son. Perhaps it would be used someday when Jesus began his itinerant ministry. Frankincense? We can only guess. Might the myrrh presented to the young king have been carried to His tomb by the women intent on preparing his slain body?
Some today use those Magi gifts as a reason for making lavish purchases during Christmastime.
The better — the best — gift on that first Christmas came not in fancy wrapping but in simple swaddling clothes and was presented to visitors in a manger. No hand-carved cradle in that stable, even though His father was a carpenter.
God’s gift to mankind was the sort that drew people and from the start was accessible to just about anybody. The angel assured the shepherds of that, saying, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10b, NIV).
Shepherds knew they had no business visiting royalty unless they had an invitation. Given a heavenly invite and an assurance that the Savior was even for them, they made haste to find the baby and were received into His presence. Their account of the angelic presence became part of Mary’s memory book. Had they not come to Bethlehem, we might not know their story today.
One has to believe that this simple encounter with Jesus — still only a baby — had a lifelong effect on these sheepherders.
If Jesus was the perfect gift, then we should place gifts that last high on our checklist. From the start, He was an eternal gift. He is the gift that keeps on giving. He is eternal love.
The old hymn says, “What a friend we have in Jesus.” People called Him a friend of sinners. He made cross-cultural friends, consorting with Jews and Gentiles alike. When Jesus becomes your friend, you have a friend forever.
Jesus was self-sacrificing for the good of others. No explanation needed.
Jesus was fearless, and he emboldened those around him to stand tall for God and to stand up for others.
Perhaps the greatest gift any of us can give is to be more like Jesus. The chorus of Kyle Matthews’ song offers more than a hint: May the gifts we give at Christmas / Be the love we show each other / And let the love we show each other / Be the gift we give to God.
God bless you in your celebration of the advent of the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and Savior of all mankind this Christmas. Give lasting gifts to God and to others.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.