Numbers 18:6-14, 19, 25-32; Matthew 19:13-15
November 15, 2020
— Blessing of the Boxes
I thought I would begin today with 101 things that you can do with a box. Doesn’t that sound pretty exciting? Here is my box – just a fairly standard small to medium size box. With a little imagination, it becomes a plane for a little person, shelter for something small, a bowl for non-liquids, a decoration with a little wrapping paper, storage, a riser for something not too heavy, an art or school project, even a camera if you have some light sensitive paper, and the list goes on. If you want to look more at the obvious, the box is really designed to be the carrier for a package, something shipped or given to someone else. As we draw closer to the time of Christmas, boxes will become harder to find as demand goes up, seeing as how they are the prime packaging for gifts. Surprise, surprise. The topic for today is the idea of gifts. What is a gift and what does it mean?
It turns out that gifts are all through the Scriptures but not in ways that I necessarily expected. You have spiritual gifts or the gifts of the Spirit, but that is not really the kind of gifts that I wanted to look into today. I’m thinking actual gifts that you can give others out of some expressions of appreciation or grace. Of course, there is no Christmas back then, and I don’t think birthdays were celebrated quite like we do today. The only parties that I know of were wedding feasts. We have a lot of examples of gifts in our culture today that were just absent in biblical times. Still, there are gifts all through the Bible, but big way we see gifts in Scripture is given to God.
What we call tithes and offerings today could just as easily be called a gift according to the Bible. They were not giving money so much back then but more like real gifts – livestock, grain, drink. Later on, the wealthy might give gold or precious substances, but the average person was quite poor and did not have precious things. The gifts that were dedicated to God were also used to feed the Temple staff. That is what the Numbers passage is all about. God set apart that group of Levites and people dedicated to Temple and religious practice. They were working for God, so they were not able to support themselves with a regular kind of job. In exchange for their service to God, they got us use at least a portion of what was given to God to live on. Gifts in this sense are dedicated and holy offerings. They fulfilled a sacred purpose. Gifts and giving are an expression of spiritual faithfulness and devotion. They point to your willingness to support God’s ministry, but the key is that they are given to God and for God. They help others but they are for the glory of God.
It is no surprise to me now that two of the most precious gifts I ever received were directly related to my ministry. My mother made me this stole that I am wearing today. It was the first one that she made, and a number of you have seen it up close and commented on the exquisite detail and craftsmanship that my mother used in this. Any other stole that I have will never compare with this one that I cherish to use in the leadership of our church worship. The second gift was this lap blanket that was given to me by a church member at Blackstone who loved to quilt. It is a beautiful blanket with music all over it, and I love the colors. The woman who made this was a very dear and sweet lady who enjoyed life into her 90s, and I was blessed to be able to conduct her funeral, but this blanket seems so meaningful to me as something I enjoy having around on a chair but also something I may use in my later years to help keep warm. It will always make me think of her and that ministry.
Gifts to God can go even further, too. One of the most powerful stories of giving for God’s use is the story of Hannah and Samuel. The beginning of 1 Samuel opens with Hannah not being able to have a child, and she asks God for one. She promises to give the child to God if she can at least have a child and feel more worthy to her husband. Today, that does not sit so well, but back then, it seems to be much more relevant culturally. In the story, God obliges Hannah who has a baby Samuel. After weening him, Hannah leaves Samuel at the Temple and comes back every year with clothes and to check on him. He does fine and has a long and illustrative career in the service of God, but it all started with that gift.
Children have always been gifts to us but their value has never been completely obvious. When my first child was born, I remember being struck by the sheer grace of it all. That precious life was being placed in my hands as a father, and I was going to be responsible for that life without any vetting or approval or criteria. I was not worthy of that gift, but that gift was given to me and my wife from God. Neither one of us had earned that child, but maybe by now we have. Seriously, it was all a gift of grace to us. This was when I really began to understand better how God relates to us, how giving things reflects love and devotion and faith. As long as we continue to have children in this world, it is proof of God’s faith in us – to continue entrusting those gifts to our care and responsibility to raise in the faith and service of God.
Maybe this is some of what Jesus was trying to tell those who were listening in that exchange in Matthew. Back then, children were less valued than today but still valued, of course. They absolutely should never bother the rabbi, the Messiah, the Christ when he was coming through and teaching and healing. He was there for the important people, the adults, and not for silly children. That’s when he turns those thoughts on their heads. In fact, he says, this is what the Kingdom of God is for. This is who receives the Kingdom of God. This is how you enter the Kingdom of God – as a child. These children are greater gifts than you can know.
The innocence of children, the bright spirits of children, the wonder of children, the fun and play of children, the unreserved love of children; all of these invite the gift of God’s Kingdom and make us gifts to God.
It is no accident that we also cherish the stories of gifts to Jesus himself – the magi bringing their gold and frankincense and myrrh. Again, these are gifts to God and offerings expressing worship and adoration. We are coming back to those in a few weeks, but the other gift to Jesus that really bears hearing is the woman who broke the perfume and anointed Jesus feet just before his death. She cracked open perfume worth her life’s savings – it was her retirement fund, and she poured out that precious oil on Jesus’ feet. He admitted that her gift would be remembered forever.
We also come bearing gifts today, these boxes from Operation Christmas Child which we are dedicating to God for God’s holy use. Two ways in particular that these boxes bear witness to the idea of gifts: they are for children and they are given by our hearts in faith. Just like when Jesus invited the children to receive the Kingdom of God and for us to be like children, we commit these boxes to share something good and loving and fun to children all around the world. When they open these boxes, they will rejoice and enjoy the contents for fun and health. The greatest goal is that they will know that someone else out there cares about them in the Spirit of Jesus, and we can share his Spirit together.
These are also expressions of our hearts, offerings of love for these children. Literally, they are like any offering given for the building up of God’s Kingdom on earth. They are given to God with love and faith: holy gifts.
Thankfully, the church staff does not have to eat or drink the boxes. Our religious giving has evolved, thank goodness, though it was not too long ago that church staff did survive on the livestock given by the church. And the church manse is also an expression of this kind of giving.
What we need to remember for this day is that our gifts matter as they are given in faith to God, but the ones receiving our gifts also matter tremendously, too. Whenever we give from the heart, we are sharing grace that reflects our hopes for God’s good work. Whenever we give to the glory of God, God’s glory shines. Even the little packages can contain the biggest gifts. To God be the glory. Amen.