Christmas Eve - December 24, 2011
Isaiah 9.2-7 ~ Psalm 96 ~ Titus 2.11-14 ~ Luke 2.1-14
“What do you want for Christmas?” Way, way back when, when I was growing up, this was the topic of constant conversation from the moment that the Sears “Wish Book” arrived in the mail until we opened our gifts on Christmas Day. The Sears toy catalog, known as the Wish Book, was our source for Christmas gift hopes and dreams.
My siblings and I spent the weeks leading up to Christmas creating our Christmas’ Wish Lists where we listed, ranked, noted color preference and even provided page numbers in the Wish Book. When I was a child, Christmas was all about the gifts.
I looked up the word “gift” in the dictionary and it said “A gift is something given voluntarily, without any expectation of payment or favor in return – something bestowed without any particular effort by the recipient. A gift is not earned. 1
Hmmmm…based on this definition of gift, are we truly giving gifts at Christmas? If we give out of obligation – as in, “I better give a gift to Aunt Betty or I will never hear the end of it!” – that is technically not a gift.
How about when we tell children they will not get their gifts, if they do not behave? That is not truly gift giving either. Then there are those gifts we give hoping to receive a gift in return – according to this definition, those too are really not gifts.
At the most basic level, a gift is a form of communication. Gifts say ‘I love you’ and ‘Get Well’ or ‘I am sorry.’ Gifts can carry layers of communication…my friend Sarah talks about the time her Grandmother sent her note cards and stamps for her birthday.
The card attached read “Happy Birthday,” but she knew the embedded message of the gift was, “learn to write thank you notes young lady, or you will never get another gift from me.”
You see, ultimately, gifts reveal something about the giver.
And somewhere along the way I was taught that Jesus is God’s gift humankind. While there is a certain naiveté to this sentimental thinking, there is also a great amount of truth. Jesus was sent to communicate God to us.
As author John Stendahl wrote in Christian Century, God’s old methods of putting words in the mouths of prophets had not sufficed. The urgent words of love and warning had not been heeded. God needed to come closer to redirect our attention.
So God put God’s Word – God’s message for us – in the gift of a child. Jesus would grow to speak the needed words and hearing him would be like listening to the voice of the one who sent the Gift – the voice of God. We would be able to read what God wanted to say to us in the shape of Jesus life, in his words and deeds. 2
What we here tonight from the prophet Isaiah is a wish list of sorts. This well-known oracle was likely originally used as a birth announcement or coronation announcement for one of the Davidic kings.
Long after the king for whom these words were crafted was but a memory, this piece of prophetic poetry remained a part of the prayers of ancient Israelites because this poem spoke of the gift for which ancient Israelites longed.
They desired a mighty leader who would conquer their enemies and return them to their former glory. One who whose rule would be marked by justice and righteousness; a leader who would care for the people and show mercy toward the weak.
We don’t always get exactly what we ask for on our wish lists. Many of us have breathlessly opened a gift expecting one thing only to find something very different. We might say “What were my parents, husband, partner, or children thinking!? Didn’t they read my list??
Tonight, Luke tells us how God delivered on God’s promise to give the people a messiah. Instead of the warrior king that was on the wish list, God gives a vulnerable baby born to an unwed woman-child in a barn. What was God thinking!? Instead in fulfilling nationalistic expectations, God offered all people the gift of true hope.
Gift giving can be a pretty risky business. What if the recipient rejects your gift? What if the recipient misinterprets the message you wanted to convey? Gift giving can leave us feeling very vulnerable – especially when the message the gift was intended to communicate is very important to us.
Yet God chose to reveal God’s self in perhaps the most vulnerable gift of all – a human baby. God’s willingness to be vulnerable tells us a lot about God’s desire to be known.
We all desire to be known and loved for who we truly are---but this desire also calls forth our greatest fears. Several years ago I attended a retreat where the leader suggested that to live a truly authentic life; one must allow oneself to be vulnerable.
He reflected on how so often in life we get so wrapped up in worrying about how other people will like us that we often lose ourselves completely.
Psychologists tell us that on the whole, as social animals, the human creature is prone to seek approval from peers. There are those who seldom let others see who they truly are--- they worry that if people really knew their deepest hopes and fears they would be rejected or viewed as weak and unworthy. These fears often make us shy away from being vulnerable.
We all struggle to live our lives as the gifts that they are. The straight A college student hesitates to take a class with the best and most challenging professor for fear of getting a B.
The junior executive fails to speak truth or blow the whistle on unethical behavior for fear of a poor performance evaluation.
A parent does not appropriately discipline his children because he doesn’t want to listen to the whining and wants to be liked by his children.
Perhaps in recalling that the Christ child is gift then we can gain the courage to make ourselves vulnerable by knowing that we are meant to live authentically. We can communicate something of the truth of our lives in how we love, and by how we forgive and in how we release our fears and simply live in joy and thankfulness for what we have.
So with all of my nagging during Advent about the dangers of materialism, maybe Christmas truly is all about the gifts!
Jesus was sent among us as gift and he lived his life as gift. At the risk of pushing my metaphor too far----it might be said that Jesus is God’s “Wish Book” for humankind.
In his life and message –in the way he lived, his love for God, and his love for all the people around him - Jesus teaches us with his whole life what it means to be truly authentic, to release our fears of rejection and dare to share love and mercy with one another with no strings attached.
Do we dare to accept this gift? Every day, we have the opportunity to accept or reject this gift that Christ brings. Every day we have the opportunity to share Jesus’ gift of love and mercy with others.
This may be the only gift in the whole world that is truly worth re-gifting!
So what do you really want for Christmas? What is at the top of your true Christmas wish list? I pray that the gift of God’s love is born yet again in each of us this night. Amen.