PRESENTING GIFTS TO THE LORD
A Sermon by Rev. Kurt Ho. AsplundhPreached in Bryn Athyn December 25, 1986
“And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matt. 2:11).
Throughout the Word we read of giving gifts to the Lord. Most memorable of all, perhaps, is the account of the wise men who brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This moving act of worship was foretold in the Prophets and Psalms where we read: “The kings of Tarshish and of the isles will bring presents; the kings of Sheba and Seba will offer gifts. Yes, all kings shall fall down before Him; all nations shall serve Him” (Psalm 72:10f). “All those from Sheba shall come; they shall bring gold and incense, and they shall proclaim the praises of the Lord” (Isaiah 60:6).
The beauty of these gifts was in the love that prompted them. For centuries a small remnant of wise and faithful men from an ancient church eagerly awaited the sign of the Lord’s birth promised of old. And when the star appeared, they came to Jerusalem where they asked, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him” (Matt. 2:2). Undaunted by the confusion in Jerusalem, and learning that He was in Bethlehem, they left that city. In the clear night sky they saw, once again, that star which they had seen in the East. A great joy filled their hearts as the star went before them, guiding them to the Lord. And when they had come into the house, “they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him” (Matt. 2:11). Then it was that they opened their treasures and tenderly offered their most precious gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the wealth of kings, and spices from the East.
In an earlier era there had been gifts to the Lord that were unlike these. These were offerings required by the Law of Moses and given out of fear. “Three times you shall keep a feast to Me in the year,” the Lord had said; “None shall appear before Me empty” (Exodus 23:14f). Such gifts were demanded in this way because there was no other way the men of that church would respond. It was not because the Lord expects or requires adoration and gifts that He commanded this, but to represent the essential truth that all that is good is from Him. Offerings and thanksgiving are an acknowledgment of this.
After the Lord’s advent, such representative acts were abolished by the Lord and He sought a free response from man. “Henceforth,” He said, “I call you not servants, but I have called you friends” (John 15:15).
One of the most severe tests recounted in Scripture came to the rich young man who had come to the Lord to ask what he must do to attain to eternal life. The Lord answered: “Keep the commandments.” When the young man said that he had kept all the commandments and asked what he yet lacked, the Lord told him to sell what he had and to give to the poor. “When the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful,” we are told, “for he had great possessions” (Matt. 19:16-22). This incident is summarized in the seemingly casual exchange over the man’s greeting: “Good Master,” he had said, but the Lord responded, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God” (Matt. 19:17). While the Lord Himself is that “One” who is good, He said this to emphasize the truth that no man has any good in him that is his own. To “sell what we have and give to the poor” is not a command to divest ourselves of all of our possessions and to contribute everything to charity. To “sell what we have” is to acknowledge that everything of good in us is from the Lord. It is not ours, not a credit to us. It is freely given us according to our needs, to be used by us for the sake of others. Such is the nature of all good from God. It goes out in unstinting measure to bless others. It is to go out from us in the same way, to take the Lord’s love from man to man to all in heaven and on earth.
It is the spirit of a gift that is important, not the amount or extent of it. The Lord taught this in His observation of the widow’s gift at the temple which, in comparison with the gifts of the rich men, was insignificant. Yet He said, “This poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings … but she out of her poverty has put in all the livelihood that she had” (Luke 21:3). “Gifts,” the Writings teach, “are like all man’s deeds, which in themselves are nothing but gestures … It is the will in these which the Lord looks at” (AC 9293).
A true gift is a testification of our love. The required sacrifices that the Jews were to offer were to signify such things as are offered by man from the heart unto the Lord. The Jews did not always willingly make their sacrifices, even as we do not always observe the duties of charity with good pleasure, yet the sacrifices served to signify the desired state of willing response. It is this state we must strive to attain, and it is a state made possible through the Lord’s coming. Yet it is a lifelong effort and possible only as we turn to the Lord Himself to achieve it.
The Lord has given us life in such a way that it appears to be our own. What we acquire during our life, the accomplishments and achievements that we enjoy, all legitimately appear to be the result of our own efforts. Yet the fact remains, no one is good but One, that is, God. When we reflect upon this we can see that this is true. What do we have that is really our own? We can see that our natural circumstances are entirely dependent upon when and to whom we are born. We may be born to comforts or to privations. It is not our choice. Whether we are born to quick intelligence or slow, with certain admirable qualities of life, is very much a matter of heredity. Our states of remains are from the heavens. Loves in us are from the Lord through the heavens. We make certain choices freely of ourselves, but the currents of life that flow into us certainly are from the Lord. Even that ability to make choices is from Him, and our freedom preserved by the eye of Providence.
What is meant by the gifts of the wise men? They brought to the Lord gold that He had formed as an element of the earth, mined by strength flowing into men from Him, fashioned into forms of beauty inspired by His own laws of order and beauty. They brought spices extracted from the gum of plants He caused to grow, compounded into incense according to His natural law, and enjoyed as a fragrance by human senses He has given to man. These gifts were pleasing to the Lord. Why? Because they signified goods and truths, interior and exterior (see AE 242:17).
“The reason why the wise men from the East offered these things was that among some in the East there remained from ancient times the knowledge and wisdom of the men of old, which consisted in understanding and seeing heavenly and Divine things in those which are in the world and upon the earth … Consequently they knew that gold, frankincense, and myrrh signify the goods which are to be offered to God” (AE 9293:3).
The Writings describe the correspondence and significance of the three gifts that were given. Together they signify all the goods which are from the Lord which can be received by men. Specifically, gold signifies the celestial degree of good, the good of innocence that resides with the angels of the highest heaven and can inspire in us a love of the Lord. Frankincense signifies the spiritual degree of good, the good of faith which comes to us through the truths of the Word when we love and live these truths. Myrrh signifies the natural degree of good, or good loves in the natural as they operate and are applied in life (see AE 242:17, AC 9293:3). We are also told that these three gifts signify the “three goods of the three heavens” (AE 491:5) and thus “every good from first to last” (AE 324:10).
The Writings further state that “what are called `gifts and offerings made to the Lord’ by man are in their essence gifts and offerings made to man by the Lord; and their being called `gifts and offerings’ is from the appearance. All who are wise in heart,” we are told, “see this appearance” (AC 9938, emphasis added).
How can we give anything to the Lord? Everything we have that is good is from Him. This is the signification of the gifts of the wise men. Their offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh were a humble acknowledgment that every good of life is His, from inmost to outmost, and is to be attributed to Him. “Give to the Lord … ” we read in the Psalms. “Give to the Lord glory and strength. Give to the Lord the glory due His name; bring an offering, and come into His courts” (Psalm 96:7f). It was in this spirit that they came from the East bearing gifts: to give to the Lord the glory due His name.
This is the essence of worship, both internal and external. We come before the Lord in outward forms of worship, approaching Him in humility, kneeling in prayer before His Word and singing praises to Him. These gestures and acts of worship, if sincere, are pleasing to the Lord. “The Lord does indeed demand humiliation, adoration, thanksgivings, and many other things from man …,” the Writings teach, but the Lord does not demand these things for His own sake, “for the Divine has no glory from man’s humiliation, adoration, and thanksgiving … but they are for the sake of the man himself,” we are told, “for when a man is in humiliation he can receive good from the Lord … ” (AC 5957). And we come before the Lord in interior worship when we fulfill uses from a love of the neighbor. Here too we must act in humility, serving without thought of reward or merit for ourselves, but simply from a love of serving. The Lord can lead us to this happy state.
It has always been so that when a man is in a state of humiliation before the Lord, the Lord can flow in with heavenly good. At His advent, however, there was a new acknowledgment, and a special joy in the hearts of those who worshiped the Divine Child. The evils of our proprium are the obstacles to our acknowledgment of the Lord and obstacles to the entrance of any celestial, spiritual, or even natural good from the heavens. The Lord came on earth to combat these very obstacles and to teach us how to overcome them. His birth, then, was a promise of our salvation. Therefore, the gifts of the wise men signified not only that the Lord in His own Divine Human is the source of all that is good in us, but that unless He had come on earth to teach and lead us, no man would remain who could make that acknowledgment. This was the special acknowledgment signified by the giving of the gifts at Bethlehem.
As the wise men came, eagerly and willingly to bring their gifts to the Lord, so now may we come with a free spirit, to worship Him and to acknowledge that everything we have is from Him and for His glory.
We live today in a world where there is little recognition that all that is truly good is from the Lord. Instead, we call good that which we love, that which pleases and benefits us. Yet if we pursue only what appears to us to be good that is not truly good, we will find frustration and disappointment. We must learn to recognize the true loves of life which the Lord has now revealed. As we pursue these loves, setting aside our selfish desire to follow only our own inclinations, the Lord can restore to us a heavenly life and bring us into heavenly happiness.
The Writings teach that “the arcanum of the Lord’s coming into the world is that He united in Himself the Divine to the Human and the Human to the Divine … and thus … by that union it became possible for salvation to reach the human race, in which no celestial and spiritual, or even natural, good any longer remained; and it is this union which saves those who are in the faith of charity. It is the Lord Himself who shows the mercy” (AC 2854).
And so, the prophet asks, “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before the High God? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings …? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams or with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6-8). Amen.
Lessons: Psalm 72:10-19; Isaiah 60:1-12; Matt. 2:1-12; AC 9938
Arcana Coelestia 9938
“Which the sons of Israel shall sanctify in respect to all the gifts of their holy things.” That this signifies acts of worship representative of removal from sins is evident from the signification of “gifts” or “offerings,” which among the Israelitish and Jewish nation were chiefly burnt offerings, sacrifices, and meat offerings, as being the interior things of worship, for these were what they represented. The interior things of worship are those which are of love and faith, and from this forgivenesses of sins, that is, removals from them, because sins are removed through faith and love from the Lord. For insofar as the good of love and of faith enters, or what is the same thing, so far as heaven enters, so far sins are removed, that is, so far hell is removed, both that which is within man and that which is without him. From this it is evident what is meant by “the gifts which they sanctified,” that is, offered. The gifts were called “holy,” and presenting or offering them was called “sanctifying” them, because they represented holy things; for they were offered for expiations, thus for removals from sins, which are effected through faith and love to the Lord from the Lord.
They were called “gifts and offerings made to Jehovah” although Jehovah, that is, the Lord, does not accept any gifts or offerings, but gives to everyone freely. Nevertheless He wills that these things should come from man as from himself, provided he acknowledges that they are not from himself but from the Lord. For the Lord imparts the affection of doing good from love, and the affection of speaking truth from faith; but the affection itself flows in from the Lord, and it appears as if it were in the man, thus from the man; for whatever a man does from the affection which is of love, he does from his life, because love is the life of everyone. From this it is evident that what are called “gifts and offerings made to the Lord” by man are in their essence gifts and offerings made to man by the Lord; and their being called “gifts and offerings” is from the appearance. All who are wise in heart see this appearance, but not so the simple; and yet the gifts and offerings of the latter are grateful, insofar as they are offered from ignorance in which is innocence. Innocence is the good of love to God, and dwells in ignorance, especially with the wise in heart; for they who are wise in heart know and perceive that there is nothing of wisdom in themselves from themselves; but that everything of wisdom is from the Lord, that is, everything of the good of love, and everything of the truth of faith; thus that even with the wise, innocence dwells in ignorance. From this it is evident that the acknowledgment of this fact, and especially the perception of it, is the innocence of wisdom.