Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Best Christmas Gift Ever

Christmas Eve
Isaiah 9.2-7; Luke 2.1-20
Thursday, December 24, 2015 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

Here we are. Christmas Eve. The day we have been awaiting for the last four weeks of Advent, if not longer. All the preparations are done. The shopping is done. The gifts are wrapped. All that is left is to enjoy the festivities. For some that may have already begun. For most, that will probably come tomorrow morning. Spending time with loved ones. Feasting. Opening presents.

In our culture, particularly our secular culture, we place a great deal of emphasis on the gift-giving aspect of Christmas. The gifts we give and the ones we receive. At times, we might get upset at and rail against the consumerism that is inherent in this aspect of the Christmas season. But the giving and receiving of gifts is also a holy act. It is a sacramental act. A sacrament is defined as the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace that we experience in our lives. Gifts are the outward and visible signs of the inward and invisible love that we feel for those who are important to us. This sacramental act symbolizes the focus and primary sentiment of this season – love.

So what is the best Christmas gift you ever received?
Who gave it to you?
How did you feel when you received it?
What made it the best gift you ever received?

The answers to these questions will vary for each of us. After all, the gifts will be as unique as the individuals that we are, as the individuals that gave them to us. To be honest, I would be hard pressed to name just one gift. As I look back over my life, there were various gifts that, at the time, seemed like the best gift ever.

In more general terms, what makes a gift the best gift ever? Again, hard to say. For me, some that really stand out in my mind were big and expensive. Others were small, seemingly insignificant in terms of size or cost. Yet others could not even have a price placed on it. For many of us, the best gift may have been something that filled a great need. Or maybe an overwhelming desire. Or maybe it was something of incredible sentiment. More often than not, what makes a gift a great gift, a contender for best gift, probably has more to do with a combination of who gave it and some personal understanding of what was behind it – a special meaning that only you and the gift-giver share.

With all that in mind, I want to shift the focus to what today is really about. To the birth of a child approximately 2,020 years ago. A child born to a poor carpenter and his intended wife, far from home in a strange town. A town so crowded with visitors that the child had to be born in a stable surrounded by animals. On the surface, this birth was not particularly spectacular. But the birth announcement . . . That was something spectacular. When an angel appeared to a band of insignificant shepherds tending their flock.

“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk 2.10-11). The announcement was spectacular because what had happened was indeed extraordinary. Despite the surroundings and the circumstances of the birth, this child was someone extraordinary. No, this was no ordinary birth. This was no ordinary baby. This was the long-awaited Messiah! The one who would come to save his people. And not just that. This was the Son of God. This was God incarnate. God in the flesh!

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’ (Lk 2.13-14). Indeed, this was cause for celebration. For singing glory to God. As the multitude of angels tell us, this birth heralds the bringing of peace to the earth.

But there is so much more to what this means. This birth is the fulfillment of the entire story of salvation history to that point. It is the culmination of what the Old Testament is all about. God’s relationship with his people. Throughout the Old Testament, we see a God who loves his people without limits. We see God seeking to be in relationship with his people. We see covenants established. And covenants broken. We hear God speaking through prophets. And the warnings of prophets ignored. We see the continual faithfulness of God. And the infidelity of the people. As a result, the world had become filled with darkness – the darkness of sin. The world had become a troubled place. The world was filled with injustice and cruelty. The world was filled with hate. Because we would not follow God’s laws and be faithful to his covenant. Because we would not reciprocate God’s love. Because we would not share God’s love.

Despite all this, God continued to love us. God continued to seek a way of being in relationship with us. If we could not relate to, be in relationship with a faceless, formless God, God would just need to come to us face-to-face. God would need to become one of us so that we might be better able to relate to him, on our level. And so God came in the flesh. Emmanuel. God with us. In the form of a baby. The Son of God. Jesus.

And in so doing, by coming into the world, God sought to restore the world and humanity to his dream for his creation. This child that was born in Bethlehem would be the light in the darkness of the world. He would usher in an era of peace for a troubled world. He would bring justice in an unjust world. He would spread love in a world filled with hate.

But even more, the birth of this child is meant to touch each of us on a personal level. Christmas, the coming of this child, is about light coming into the darkness of our own individual lives. It is about finding a place of peace in the troubled areas of our own lives. It is about finding the courage to seek justice in those areas of our lives where we are mistreated, even abused. It is about experiencing the love of God through Christ that banishes the hatred directed at us, and the hatred we may feel toward others. In short, Christmas is about the birth of Christ within us. Within each of us.

All of this, all of it, is provided as a gift from God to bring about our salvation. Because the stark reality of Christmas is that we are in need of being saved. From ourselves. From others. From the dark forces of this world. Yet, we are unable to save ourselves. We need help. And God’s way of providing for our salvation is through a tiny, helpless child, born this night. A child who will grow to adulthood. Who will teach, heal, and perform miracles. Who will ultimately be crucified for being a light in the darkness of the world. Who will transcend the darkness through his resurrection. Who, in so doing, will defeat the bonds of sin and death. Thereby bringing about forgiveness of sin. Thereby insuring eternal life. For all humanity. For each and every one of us.

Light. Peace. Justice. Love. Forgiveness. Salvation. Eternal life.

All because of a little child. Jesus the Christ. Son of God. Emmanuel. God with us. The gift of God’s self to humanity. The greatest possible expression of God’s love for us.

So, I ask you again. What’s the best Christmas gift you ever received?

Merry Christmas!

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