I am preaching at the Dover Plains UMC (Location of church) this 1st Sunday after Christmas (26 December 2010); service starts at 11 and all are welcome. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 63: 7 – 9, Hebrews 2: 10 – 18, and Matthew 2: 13 – 23.
Several years ago at one of the churches that I am associated with, someone took home their Christmas poinsettia after the Christmas week services. Now, in and of itself that would not be a big deal; after all, if you paid for it and you hadn’t made prior arrangements to have it delivered to a shut-in or to one of the nursing homes or hospitals in the area, it is yours to take.
Now, as it happened, this individual came to us a couple of weeks later and told us how great their poinsettia was doing. It had been a month after Christmas and it was still in bloom and none of the flowers had wilted or turned brown or anything like that. And suddenly, one of the great Christmas mysteries was cleared up.
You see, as we shifted from the Advent and Christmas season to the season after Christmas and Epiphany and began to put things away, we had discovered that someone had taken one of our “fake” plants and that we had some extra live plants. It became clear to us that this individual had taken one of the fake plants and thought it was a real one.
For almost a month, this individual had carefully watered and cared for a plant that needed no care. And sadly, all of the live ones had been given away so we had no real one to give in exchange.
Sadly, as well, is the fact that too many people today seek gifts and materials like that fake plant. They want the appearance of something good without having to take care of it. And Christmas, instead of being a season or a time of thought, is reduced to a single day with few references to what actually took place and why we even pause so briefly to mark it on our calendar.
Our society tells us that gift-giving is important but for all the wrong reasons. Instead of having some meaning in our lives or expressing some thought of thanks and joy, our giving gifts is meant to show our patriotism and economic good-sense. That we gave gifts means that we bought something and that we went somewhere and spent money to support the economy. I would hate to think what the political and economic commentators might say about someone who made all of their own gifts instead of buying them.
And the Spirit of Christmas as an economic force now seems spread over most of the fall, starting long before Halloween and the one day when we are supposed to think of our loved ones. It zipped through Thanksgiving in the blink of an eye with barely a pause to give thanks before we rushed blindly to the malls on “Black Friday” and sat at our computer keyboards on “Cyber Monday.” Did we even remember that there were things to give thanks for this year?
And then we zoomed right into our real Christmas shopping. Advent, it would seem, was more a preparation for the madness of the parking lot and finding last minute bargains than it was for preparing to welcome the Christ Child into the world. It is a good thing that we are a Biblically illiterate society or we might find a way to merchandise and market the days between Christmas and the Epiphany (the day that the Magi are said to have come and visited the Holy Family) into twelve purposeful days of shopping and economic indulgence.
Now, Epiphany Sunday is next Sunday and we will properly and correctly examine that visit at that time (no sense getting ahead of ourselves more than we are going to do). On this Sunday, we look at the Holy Family, of Joseph, Mary and Jesus, as they have been told that there is a threat on the baby’s life. Gifts, no matter how big or small were hardly on their minds that night when the angel came and told them to leave immediately for Egypt.
It had to be hard enough to make the travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, even harder when they got there and found no room in the inn. A birth in those days was hard enough; under the conditions that Mary and Joseph traveled and stayed, it had to be even harder.
And now, as they pondered the events of that night, of the visit by the shepherds and the Magi, the angel comes to tell them that they must flee for their lives. The gifts that the Magi brought, the gold, the frankincense and myrrh hardly seemed important under those circumstances. But the tradition of the church from probably its creation is that the gifts that the Magi brought, the gold, the frankincense, and myrrh were used to finance the trip to Egypt and the family’s stay there until it was safe to return.
What is interesting is that the Magi brought their gifts out of a societal obligation. They had seen the signs, they knew the prophecies, they knew that somewhere to the East of their homeland a person was being born and that person was going to have an impact on the future of the world. They saw this person as a king and they brought gifts for a king. They will not understand until they too are visited by an angel that the child they had come to see was more than a child who would be king; He would be God Incarnate in human form.
We give gifts in much the same way as the Magi did so many years ago; we give them out of obligation or expectation, a quid pro quo so to speak. But we were given a gift that night in Bethlehem some two thousand years ago and it was given without obligation or expectation.
God’s gifts to us were given in love and purpose. They were given in person, not in proxy. They were given, as the writer of Hebrews noted, for the people, not the angels.
When Joseph, Mary and Jesus left for Egypt that night, they left behind a world of hatred, anger, and violence. Sad to say, when we woke up this morning, it was to a world filled with hatred, anger, and violence. The people of Israel some two thousands years ago had let their own selfish nature compromise their relationship with God and it is probably no different today.
We do not have the luxury of escaping to Egypt or some faraway land. Nor, do we have the luxury of hiding within the walls of the church sanctuary and hoping that God will protect us from what’s outside those walls. We have allowed our own selfish interests to dictate what gifts we have been given from God.
So it is now that Christmas has passed and so many people want to focus on the “real” world that we look at what we have been given. God has given us a vision for the future and more importantly, he has given us the wisdom and the ability to make that vision a reality.
Christmas represents more than a single day in a year of single days. It is a day that reminds us that we have been given a new hope and a promise for tomorrows. But we have to break free of the world in which we live, in which gifts are given out of expectation and obligation and give to the world our gifts, our talents, our presence and to do so in love and with Christ.
Christ did not have to come to Bethlehem and be born as a child. He did not have to grow up in this world. But He did, so that He would know what our lives were like. And so we would know how much we were loved.
The True Gift of Christmas is the love, hope, and promise found in that Bethlehem manager. Our gift has to be that we make sure that the love, hope, and promise is given to the world.