Christmas Day – December 25, 2000
GIFT EXCHANGE It was the day after Christmas at a church in San Francisco. The pastor of the church was looking over the Manger Scene when he noticed that the baby Jesus was missing from among the figures. Immediately he went outside and saw a little boy with a red wagon, and in the wagon was the figure of the little infant, Jesus. So he walked up to the boy and said, "Well, where did you get Him, my fine friend?" The little boy replied, "I got him from the church." "And why did you take him?" The boy said, "Well, about a week before Christmas I prayed to the little Lord Jesus and I told him if he would bring me a red wagon for Christmas I would give him a ride around the block in it." I can just imagine the twinkle in the eye of Jesus, and the gleeful laughter as he was taking the ride around the block in that shiny new red wagon.
One of the toughest parts about Christmas is on Christmas morning, opening up gifts in front of the giver, and you are shocked, stunned by what you receive. What can you say? All you can do is sit there and exclaim, "Oh! Look at this! How interesting! Who would've thought!"
You can't tell them what you're really thinking. Namely, "What on earth have you done? Who do you think I am? Are you crazy? I’m never going to use that thing."
You take that gift, you put it wherever you put such gifts, and then, in the spring when MCC has its annual Relief sale, you are able to offer a superb piece of merchandise, still in the box, still unwrapped. Of course, you need to be careful. If the person who gave you the gift comes to that Relief sale, you're in big trouble.
I have long been fascinated with watching people’s reactions when they give and receive gifts. There is the stunned surprize of someone who receives a totally unexpected gift. There is the joyful childlike excitement of someone too impatient to carefully unwrap the present. Then there is the occasional one who just won’t accept the gift no matter how hard you try.
There is a real art in knowing what to give to someone as a gift. It is still a greater art to be able to receive a gift and to recognize the giver in the gift. I don’t know about you, but I sometimes wish I could go and buy my own Christmas presents. After all, I know what I really need and want. There is, for each person, a perfect gift, your heart's desire, and nobody can give it to you, except yourself.
Something similar happens in our spiritual lives. We “know” what we really “need and want” from God. If God would only let us do our own “spiritual Christmas shopping.”
Jesus is God's greatest gift to the world. But, God's gift of salvation in Christ came to us in a form that we did not expect, as a child, a baby born to poor and simple parents in a dusty little corner of the world. He came to us in our darkness, but he did not leave us be. He demanded transformation and rebirth. Jesus is not necessarily the gift that the Jews expected, or even wanted, but he is the gift God knew we needed.
The prophet Isaiah speaks of the gift of a child, but this is no ordinary child. "Authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Isa 9:6).
The Gospel of Luke tells us that the angel said that this babe born in Bethlehem would be "good news of great joy for all the people" (Lk 2:10). This babe at Bethlehem, this gift, is also a great challenge to us.
My children taught me that lesson. This last October my son gave me a soft soccer ball for my birthday. In a moment of self-pitty I might have said, “What were you thinking? That’s not what I need, much less what I really want. If he’d given me a book, or a music CD, perhaps a nice pen, but, a ball.” However, I received the gift with great pride. And now, I frequently join my son in the fun when he plays with the gift he gave his dad. These times of kicking the soft ball around in our basement are some of the best moments I share with my son.
A gift often tells us very little about who we are. But it tells us a great deal about who some other person thinks we are, or wants us to be. In a way, a gift tells us much more about the giver of the gift, than it does about the receiver of the gifts.
Christmas is the time when Christians gather to celebrate a great gift given to us. Unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given. Today we celebrate what God thinks about us. In the Christchild God gives himself to us. He says, “Here, take this gift. This baby is good for you.” All of our songs this Christmas are songs of joy, complete, unrestrained joy and gratitude for this gift. But our Scriptures do much to remind us that at the first nativity, the birth of Jesus was not seen by all as a great, good gift.
The birth of Jesus was announced to Joseph, who was deeply alarmed. Mary is told by the angel that she will have a baby out of wedlock, and she is greatly troubled. The first thing the angel said to Mary was, Fear not.
There were many people in Judea who thought that what they needed was a military genius to come in, raise an army, and run the Romans out. That's what they needed and wanted. They wanted revolution, the violent overthrow of the oppressive Romans.
Others in Judea at that time prayed for and expected the gift of some great religious leader. Someone who stuck to religion and stayed out of politics, someone who quoted just the right verse of Scripture, who had sweet, uplifting sayings that might help everyone better adjust to his or her situation in captivity. But you will note that that was not the gift they received.
What they got was Jesus. Here was one who, as the Scriptures said, would bear the government on his shoulders. He would be a prince, but a prince unlike worldly princes. He would be a prince of peace. He would be a disturber of the status quo, a critic of the religious establishment, one who would call people to help him turn the world upside down. This is the gift they got, even though it was not the gift they wanted.
Sometimes others are much better suited than we to know the gifts that are really our heart's desire. I think that's what happened to us at Bethlehem in the gift of the Christ child. We got our hearts' desire. But we got our hearts' desire not in the form in which we expected, or even wanted. We got a baby.
In this world that worships power, success, prestige, and raw force, we received a baby. Vulnerable, gentle, meek, and mild. And when that baby grew up, he became for many even less of what they wanted. He spoke biting, challenging words to the establishment. He challenged our understanding about who God was and what God wanted. He called us forth from our egoistic securities toward a life of high adventure and rebellion. Even at the end, particularly at the end, even after he had been with us for a number of years and we'd heard his teaching and seen his work, we rejected this gift. We took God's most precious gift and nailed it to a cross, rejecting the gift.
Still, God kept on giving, and keeps on giving even today. On this day, we are reminded that one of the qualities required of Christians is the ability to be able to be surprised by the gifts God gives us. We need to expect that God will send gifts our way that we did not ask for or expect, gifts that perhaps we did not want, but gifts that we really need.
I know that this past year some of you have received many challenges and difficulties that you did not desire. Some of you have had health crises. Even now, some of our beloved are experiencing a period of great distress or trauma. In all of these circumstances I would be the last person to speak of such difficulties as "a gift." However, by the grace of God (the word grace means "gift"), even some of our worst difficulties can be transformed and seen as gifts.
I have heard some people express nothing but the most profound gratitude to God, inspite of – no, in fact, because of the great difficulties that they have experienced. It was certainly not something they wanted, but through the grace of God, even something so frightening and difficult as this, helped them put their lives in perspective, drew their family closer together, brought out the best within them. At this time I think we can say that also in reference to the life of our church, as a result of some of the difficult experiences of the past few month.
Having received the gift of the babe at Bethlehem, a gift we did not ask for or expect, but yet a gift that God knew we needed, we live in the expectation that God will transform the sadness and sorrow into deep blessings.
So, after all we may not be the only ones who can give us gifts we really want. I believe that the gifts we really need come from a loving God. This day a child has been born to us, a Savior, whose name is Jesus. He is God's greatest gift. He is a sign of God's great desire for us. With the gift of Christ’s love in hand we can wish each other, Merry Christmas!