Well we have arrived at this holy night once more! The cookies are baked, the houses are cleaned, the chores and shopping are all done, the gift purchases and wrapping process is complete, and the Elf on the Shelf has seen nothing but good things, right? Well, maybe not so much. More typically is that after you leave here some of you will have to face the dreaded three words all parents fear: SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED! Come tomorrow morning on the only day you can get your kids out of bed early, you will be looking for some VERY strong coffee!
We have explored the area of Christmas gifting throughout the season of Advent – the season of waiting. We looked at the whole process of exchanging gifts at Christmastime and I put our children’s minds at ease by noting I was not on a campaign to diss the whole Christmas gifting thing! Yet in each of the phases of gifting – the Hunt, the Purchase, the Wrapping, and the Presentation – we have compared how we view the gift of God’s only son Jesus to a world suffering from eternal darkness. How do we view the gift of God’s son? Do we view Jesus with sheer joy and thanksgiving? Do we view Jesus with disappointment, expecting something completely different? Do we see Jesus as someone we choose for ourselves? I hope so. God’s greatest gift has been given, but the acceptance is up to each of us.
You’ve heard the Christmas story again. For some, you have heard it many times before. Perhaps we are struggling a bit to see how it is that a baby born in obscurity to humble yet bewildered parents is a gift to each of us. Maybe we just don’t have time to even think about it – getting through our day-to-day challenges is all we can handle. We just survived the Christmas season!!! There is nothing left, including energy! We are pressured from all sides to make this time special and perfect.
It is hard for us to accept a gift without feeling the need to reciprocate. Have you ever had that experience, where someone unexpectedly presented you with a gift and you were empty-handed? Did you discuss exchanging gifts? Was there some unwritten rule you were unaware of? Maybe you just don’t like this person and they were not even in your scope of awareness much less inclusion on your gift list. Yet God presented us with the gift of God’s son without any expectations. We cannot earn a gift that has already been given to us – it is ours for the taking.
We as human beings live in a broken world. Hatred seems to be the norm all around us. If you doubt that, consider the number of times you were asked to light a candle or say a prayer this year as a result of yet another mass shooting. We are surrounded by those who present a message of ‘everyone for him/herself.’ It seems those who look out for others, helping the poor and hurting in our world are the exceptions instead of the rule. Into that darkness, God sent the precious gift of light. Into hatred, God sent Jesus as the embodiment of love. Into war and unrest, God sent the innocence of a baby as a symbol of peace.
Our journey through Advent has brought us through four special Sundays where we light candles to represent different ‘gifts.’ The first is the gift of hope. The hope we have with the coming of the Christ child is that of eternal life. We no longer have to live in fear because God has given us this precious gift. Hope is not a pipe dream but an assurance of things to come. God has promised a paradise of never ending peace, joy and love by sending God’s son to lead the way. But this gift of hope is not just for the future but for each of us today. Without hope we are truly trapped in darkness. But because of God’s precious gift of Jesus, hope quite literally springs eternal.
That second special Sunday marks the time when we light that candle of peace. Real Christmas peace – can we actually find this in a gift? There is only one that I know of. We cannot buy Christmas peace though many of us try. It is already given to us through the gift of Jesus. Think of Jesus’ mother Mary and the fact that in spite of her precarious situation of being called to be a Mom when she was most likely planning her perfect wedding; in spite of her requirement to travel miles from home and family right at the time her baby was due to arrive; in spite of all of this, Mary found peace in her heart. Perhaps we feel peace has eluded us. In a world of unrest, we can’t seem to find peace anywhere. In our age of always being connected, this idea of relaxation and downtime seem to be only myths. That is the mystery and blessing of the Christmas story – the coming of Jesus as a gift of peace. In spite of the craziness and darkness all around us, we can experience peace in knowing we are loved and treasured by God.
The candle of joy is probably the one gift we experience the most during this time, or at least I hope it is. For some, finding joy about now is tough, particularly if we are missing loved ones who are no longer with us. Everyone around us is celebrating, but perhaps we feel a bit out-of-place. Loneliness is a powerful enemy. Being forgotten is one of our greatest fears. If we can take our minds off the hustle and bustle and seek out someone who is hurting, sharing just a little joy, the effect is miraculous. Not only have we helped someone in need, but we are changed in the process. Real joy comes from loving God and loving others. It is a change of focus – when we decide there is more to life than just helping ourselves, we become the vessels of joy for others.
The candle of love reminds us of the importance of what the Christmas season is all about. Perhaps for a while we become the people we hoped we always would be. Perhaps for a while we realize that true love has not eluded us but is already here. God loves each of us so much. God wants a relationship with us that is not self-centered but allows us to open our hearts to the needs of others. When we accept God’s precious gift of love through Jesus Christ, we are blessed to be a blessing to others. You will notice a focus for this church is a Passion for Mission. We called upon our buddies the Blues Brothers to help us share this passion. Take a look: [play movie clip.] Love came down at Christmas and we are instilled with a passion for mission – we are on a mission from God and it’s time to put the band back together! At our welcome table you will see we are collecting names of military families who have loved ones who are deployed. We want to help these families and their loved ones throughout the year. You might notice a football goal and buckets for our BackPack Buddies program – helping children in our neighborhood with food through the weekends. We wrapped up the Angel tree program where children in our area received Christmas gifts from folks here. This is all good stuff but there is more to do. If we are not passionate about mission – sharing God’s love in tangible ways – then we are not a church. Love came down at Christmas, and we are sharing that love in every way we can.
The challenge for each of us is to keep the spirit of Christmas in our hearts all year long. Remember God’s precious gift given to anyone who wishes to receive it. We do not need to be afraid about what lies ahead because we know God is with us now and always, during the celebrations and sorrows. May God bless and strengthen each of you during the coming year. And in the immortal words of the great Dr. Seus, “May your heart grow 3 sizes this day,” (quote adapted from How the Grinch Stole Christmas.)