Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the Content


Home > Sermons

How Can I Be a Gift at Christmas?

In this season, take time to actually see what's around you.


As we live in the gap between Christmas expectations and Christmas reality, we end up raising really profound questions about this whole deal of Christmas—questions that were, in fact, raised and wrestled with in the very first Christmas. So we're going back to that first Christmas to listen for the answers to a handful of these questions we raise.

I have to ask: What's the worst Christmas gift you've ever gotten? I'm not talking about the gift you got at the White Elephant Gift exchange that you left behind, hiding behind the couch pillow, but a true gift that you were really given that was really awful.

A couple of years ago, Time ran a story written by Kit Yarrow that chronicled some of the worst gifts given that readers had submitted. One woman reader shared that for years, her mother-in-law had bought the other daughter-in-law an expensive makeup or perfume, and then she proceeded to give this daughter-in-law the free gift that came with it. Another reader shared how she had received a waffle iron from her husband. That wouldn't be the worst gift ever, except for what was implied in the relationship. "He thought if we had a waffle iron, I could make waffles for him," she said—which makes you wonder whether he really was trying to give her a gift, or whether he wanted to give himself a gift.

Another reader shared how they were given a manila file folder for Christmas. Yes, just one manila file folder. But that one was actually generous compared to one reader whose spouse always tells them, "Things will be cheaper after Christmas sales!" Then they never actually give them anything—they just say, "I owe you one!"

We all know a bad gift at Christmas when we see it.

But I would suggest that it's not just the gift itself that makes a gift bad at Christmas: It's actually the giver's attitude and demeanor that makes it really bad. If a giver has a demeanor and attitude of thoughtfulness and care, then even a bad gift isn't so bad. It's actually kind of touching, in a strange way. I mean, how many parents hold onto shabby items for years, just because their child took the time and care to give it to them?

But if a giver has a spirit with shades of vengefulness, spite, insincerity, or apathy, then seemingly no matter what they give—even a late-model, foreign car—is a bad gift because the gift carries their aura into it.

You see, the people behind the gifts are what make for the quality of any gift at Christmas. In some sense, people are actually the gift beyond what they give.

So with all the gifts we're going to be giving, how can we be the sort of giver that ennobles? Or let me put it a different way here: How can you and I be the real gift, beyond what we actually give under the tree?

Well, thoughtfulness certainly goes a long way, but how easy is it to be thoughtful in this blitz of this season? Certainly, sincerity is important, but how easy is it to be sincere with all the high expectations put on us in this season? Certainly, generosity is key, but how easy is it to be truly generous in a season that bombards us with requests? And certainly, love should be behind all of it, but how easy is it to love with all the Christmas chaos and how ugliness seems to surface around this time of year? So I ask us all again: How can you and I be the real gift on Christmas, beyond what we actually give?

Ironically, our answer lies in looking back to the first Christmas, to those who actually gave gifts. It was the Magi or Wise Men who came and brought gifts to Mary and Joseph to honor the birth of Christ.

It is ironic that they'd be the ones teaching us because the Magi weren't even Jewish. They were a combo of wise men and priests from Persia. They were astrologers who looked to the night sky to make astrological predictions, like ancient horoscope readers. Granted, they were renowned in most of the Roman Empire for their ability to interpret dreams and unlock the mysteries therein about someone's future. It's just that they had to be a little bit odd with their gaze always turned upward, carefully recording the movement of stars and objects in the night sky. And when their gaze wasn't skyward, it was book-ward: to find connections between images in dreams and future happenings. As a result of these two practices, they were religiously and politically influential in Persia. Their predictions and interpretations could make or break a ruler there. Their insinuations and implications could send people into a panicked frenzy or a calm and cool security. Think of the chair of the Fed, with how any slip of economic thoughts from their lips and the impact that has on the stock market. That was the sort of influence the wise men held in the Persian political and religious circles.

But those practices were also what made them an object of derision from Jews. The Bible always censured what magi practiced, because they were dabbling in mysteries belonging exclusively to God. Ordinarily, the Jews looked on them with a stink eye. They wanted nothing to do with them. So in the most anticipated and promised Jewish event in history, with the coming of the Messiah, it's ironic that foreign astrologers who dabbled in questionable areas would show up—much less be a gift at Christmas. And they were a gift: not just because they gave, but because of the kind of giver they were.

The story of the Magi

(Read Matthew 2:1-12)

This is really an amazing story: one that maybe we've gotten too accustomed to in order to appreciate how profound it is. Imagine being in Jerusalem at this time. There's the normal, run-of-the-mill life going on, but then out of nowhere, there's suddenly a grand hoo-ha going on with the entrance of this huge, foreign entourage into Jerusalem. The following is extensive, and the entourage is robust with a parade of camels, people, and accoutrements. The whole city is stirred up. Normally, when there isn't some religious feast going on, the town is sleepy. But this strange entourage from the East has stirred the pot and thrown people into a tizzy.

Then out from this entourage step some eccentric looking men. I know we sing songs of three kings, or we see scenes with three wise men, but we really don't know how many of these wise men there were—only that there were at least two and maybe more. The number three was arrived at because there are three gifts to be given later on: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. With three gifts, it's convenient to think of one gift per wise man and voila, we have three wise men.

In any case, there's this group of wise men who then stride out of the entourage toward Herod's palace, which was no shack. Of course, Herod welcomes them. Herod's a man of the world. He's politically shrewd with Rome, and he knows how respected the wise men are outside of Israel. The only reason Herod's even associated with Jews is that his grandfather led his family to Judaism to gain power in the land as a Roman-appointed governor. Herod then worked the system to rise to power and stay in power in the Roman world.

So Herod welcomes them to hear what they have to say. And they lay it out: They've come to welcome the newest king. They know he's been born king over Israel by virtue of his birth from a royal line, almost insinuating Herod's illegitimacy as a king who only came through scheming his way to power. These wise men share that they know all of this because when they were in the East, they saw a new star rise in the night sky. The connection of a new star and a new king eludes us, but in the ancient world, that was a very common connection. (In fact, for you history buffs, a first-century Roman historian named Tacitus said during the reign of Nero that the "general belief is that a comet means a change of emperor.")

The wise men see a new star, so they conclude there's a new king—maybe even because they knew some Jews in Babylon who told them about Balaam's word in the Old Testament, when he looked on Israel and said that "[a] star will come out of Jacob; / a scepter will rise out of Israel" (Num. 24:17). The wise men had noticed what no one else in Israel noticed: the birth of a new king, the birth of God's historically unique and anointed king who would rescue his people, the king they all had been waiting for all these years.

But since that new star appears, that also means nothing but trouble for the current regime, because they were on the hook to be replaced by that new king with that new regime. That's why Herod reacts as he does. He doesn't want to give up his throne to anyone. He's not going to give an inch—not to his own sons, whom he killed when they looked like possible rivals; not to one rightly born king from a royal line in Israel; and not even to God's anointed Messianic king.

So Herod schemes to kill this newest rival to his throne, no matter his age or importance. But first, Herod needs to pin the location down. He doesn't know the Scriptures all that well, because he really doesn't have any immediate reason to. He calls on the scribes and experts to point him to the location. They zero in on Bethlehem, using an obscure text in Micah—almost as if it were on the tip of their tongue as they were awaiting the birth of the Messiah.

With the location pinpointed, he needs to know who the actual child is so he can take him out. He devises a scheme to make the wise men his unknowing reconnaissance. First, he finds out the timing of the star from them so he can know the age of the child. Then he sends them on their way to find the child, with the instructions to come back and tell him where the child actually is so that he, too, could welcome this new king. Instead of Herod or any Jewish scribe going firsthand to find God's promised Messiah, these wise men are sent as the first official welcome team.

Just think about how weird that is. Think about what a strange scene this would be: the Jewish powers that be, the leading Jewish scribes and teachers, aren't the first political dignitaries welcoming their God-anointed king. It's a bunch of eccentric foreigners who dabbled in questionable areas. But the wise men buy his story, and they go on their way with their whole entourage to Bethlehem in order to find this child.

They follow the star until it seemingly stops over the house where Jesus was, not the stable he was born in. This—along with what Herod does later in killing all boys under two years old—should signal to us that Jesus isn't an infant at this point, when these wise men arrive despite those quaint nativity scenes or Hallmark card depictions.

When these wise men spy the child Jesus, they bow in respect of the new king. Then, in keeping with that homage, they give gifts fitting for a king: gold, a metal prized for its beauty and value; frankincense, a glittering and fragrant gum that they made by cutting into the bark of several trees; and myrrh, a fragrant spice and perfume from a specific tree in Arabia.

At first blush, you'd expect that this kind of welcome from this kind of wise men would discount Jesus as God's rescuing king for his people—because outsiders can't be the welcoming party for the insiders' king. But far from discounting it, this only served to further confirm Jesus as the Christ. The wise men's visit echoed and hearkened back to very familiar Scriptures surrounding the coming of the Messiah: Scriptures that were on the tip of the collective tongues of the Jews who were awaiting God's coming Messiah.

These are passages like Psalm 72, where we read, "May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores / bring tribute to him. / May the kings of Sheba and Seba / present him gifts. / May all kings bow down to him / and all nations serve him" (v. 10-11). Or Isaiah 60, where we read, "Herds of camels will cover your land, / young camels of Midian and Ephah. / And all from Sheba will come, / bearing gold and incense / and proclaiming the praise of the Lord" (v. 6).

Then, as quickly as these wise men came, they depart on the insider information provided by God in a dream. And we never see or hear from them again. That's the wise men's part of the story of Advent.

But did you catch it? Did you catch what set the wise men apart? Did you catch what they were doing—which no one else was doing—that enabled them to be a gift at the first Christmas?

The wise men were actually looking

The answer to that comes in noticing the surprise of this story. Just a hint here in trying to understand stories in the Bible: When you locate the surprise in it, you've located a major teaching point that God is making. And if you can't find the surprise, keep looking until you find it. It's that important.

But that surprise here is actually repeated so that it sticks out like a sore thumb and so that we don't miss it. It's in the word "see." The wise men see this star in verse two. Once the wise men are on their way out of Jerusalem, they again see that star and follow it until it's at the place where Jesus is in verse nine. When they see the star seemingly stop over the place where Jesus is, they rejoice in verse 10. And then they see the child with Mary in verse 11.

The wise men are repeatedly seeing, while no one else even looks—much less sees. That's the surprise, because think about it: If you were a betting person, who are the odds-on favorites to be actually looking for the birth of God's promised Messiah? The top bet would probably be the scribes and the teachers who transcribed the Scriptures and taught them to others. They knew where the Messiah would be born, and they knew without much effort to the point that they could tell Herod when he asked. So why aren't they camped out in Bethlehem? And if they understandably don't want to live in Bethlehem, why aren't they scanning all the male births in Bethlehem? We don't know. But they weren't looking.

Another good bet would be Herod. He's the one with power to lose should the Messiah show up, which he knows about, even vaguely. Herod's infamous for his insane grip on power and his itchy trigger finger to keep it: killing sons and even his favorite wife when he feared they were trying to grab his power. Caesar Augustus even once remarked that he'd rather be Herod's pig than his son, probably because pigs can't pose a threat, whereas sons can even mistakenly have that appearance. So with that much paranoia to keep power, why wasn't he looking for the Messiah, who was promised all along and who would be a rival to him? Why is this the first time he even bothers with it? And if he didn't want to bother with it, why didn't he make it the job of someone somewhere in his administration? We don't know. But he wasn't looking.

The long shot in this whole story for looking, much less seeing, is the wise men. They had no stake in Israel having a king. They had nothing to gain and nothing to lose in a king being born to Israel. But on the grounds of interest, they were the only ones looking for the Messiah in this story.

This isn't like the wise men were able to see something no one else was able to see. It's not like everyone was looking at a Magic Eye picture, and only the wise men were able to go cross-eyed to see what no one else could see. It's that the wise men were actually looking while no one else was, for whatever reason they had.

What was actually going on here is more akin to the Selective Attention Test. It's more famously referred to as "the invisible gorilla." It was a test done at Harvard University, where psychologists put a video together of three people with white shirts, and three people with black shirts who were passing a basketball around. Then they asked someone to watch how many times people in white shirts passed the basketball. A measure of mayhem would ensue, and these people would walk around in a jumbled mess and pass the basketball. In the smack dab middle of that mayhem, a gorilla walked in, thumped his chest, and then walked off.

After people watched the video, they'd ask people how many times people in white shirts passed the basketball. Of the people who counted the passes, can you guess what percentage of people missed the gorilla? Fifty percent. For half of the people watching the video who counted the passes, the gorilla was invisible: hence the name of the experiment. They didn't see the gorilla because they weren't looking.

That's this story. Jesus was invisible to everyone who should have seen him because they weren't looking—except there were the unlikely wise men who were actually looking and then saw the star leading to Jesus as the true King come. Actually looking is what separated these wise men from everyone else on the scene, and it is what positioned them to respond to God.

You see, actually looking is what separates those who can respond to God from those who don't know to respond to him, because then they can actually see how God is moving. Actually looking is what differentiates those who snap up opportunities laid by God from those who never seem to catch a break, because then they can actually see those God-opened doors of opportunity. Actually looking is what enables us to see so we can be a gift at Christmas.

The wise men confront us in our rush and blur of Christmas, and they force us to ask, "Are we actually looking so we can see what God is up to? Are we actually looking around us so we can see what God is doing around us and what opportunities he's opening up for us? Or is the gorilla invisible for us?"

Taking time to actually look to see

In my better moments, I'm aware enough to look, and I'm seeing: whether it's Christmastime or not. But in all honesty, in my more ordinary moments—Christmas and otherwise—I can be so oblivious. I don't know what it is. Busyness. Weariness. Distraction. Tyranny of expectations I feel. Obligations. Status quo. Holiday hoopla. For whatever reason, I can simply fail to look, and so many times, I don't see.

For those of us who find ourselves in that boat, there's good news for us. God is always working, so all we have to do is stop, stand back, and look so that we'd see. Yes, we do have to stop, or at least stop for just long enough to be able to stand back and look. Somehow, someway, we have to hit the pause button long enough—in our rush and Christmas blitz, in our drive to get things done, in our own exhaustion—so that we can stand back and actually look. And what do you think we might see about now?

Some of us would probably see spouses or roommates who are overwhelmed. We'd see how they tend to carry the lion's share of the Christmas load in our relationships. Then we might even see how God might want us to take some of the load off to help them to enjoy Christ more at Christmas.

Others of us would probably see that we ourselves are overwhelmed, but if we're honest, we're overwhelmed with a bunch of stuff that's not all that important. We might see how over the years, we kept adding details to our Christmases to make them better, but now we live with an avalanche of details that's choking us during Christmas. Then we might even see how God might want us to hand some of those details off to others, or even—God forbid—not do them, so that we can see Christ at Christmas through slowing, enjoying the people around us, and simply considering how God came for us.

Still others of us would probably see parents and people around us who are doing their best to show their love to us during this season, which we'd miss otherwise because it may not be how we might naturally think of it. Then we might see how God might want us to say, "Thank you."

But most definitely, we'd all see Christ come at Christmas. Then we might be able to remind others and point out his coming to others. We might also see how God will come back again to redeem and restore us and this whole world, to fulfill a promise not unlike his first promise to actually come. That might also get us thinking about how we could join in with what God will ultimately complete in redeeming and restoring us, people around us, and this world.


You see, actually looking enables us to see, so we can be a gift at Christmas.

Don't be fooled: This isn't about adding something good to our Christmas season. This isn't about another Christmas obligation. This isn't about mustering up more Christmas spirit. This sort of thoughtfulness, this kind of sincerity, this type of generosity, and this order of love is only possible if we'd have Christ for ourselves as the wise men did, to do as the wise men did.

It's only possible if we'd embrace Christ as the King—our King—whose throne was a manger and whose scepter would be a cross. Only then will we have a Christmas about more than just us and getting through it. That's when we'll have a Christmas where we re-coronate Christ in our hearts as God come to be with us and to die for us on a cross to bring us to himself.

So embrace Christ as King come at Christmas, and then go honor him as your King—with the throne of a manger and the scepter of a cross—by actually looking so that you see and be a gift this Christmas and beyond.

Steve Luxa is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Davis in Davis, California.

Related sermons

Charles Swindoll

A Tiny Gift- Strangely Wrapped, Silently Delivered

In the birth of Jesus, God has delivered an indescribable gift to us.

God's Christmas Grace

God orchestrated Jesus' birth to bring us grace.
Sermon Outline:


I. The story of the Magi

II. The wise men were actually looking

III. Taking time to actually look to see