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December 25, 2005 (Christmas Day)
Intern Pastor Joshua Graber
It’s almost been fifty years since the first human being ever saw the earth from outer space. The first time photographs got back to us of earth floating in the midst of space, it caused quite a stir. In fact experts say that the distribution of photographs of the earth from space, especially in the San Francisco area, was one of the major factors inspiring the peace and justice movements in the 1960s. It’s amazing what a little perspective can do. But we don’t always see the big picture.
The gospel lesson from John for this Christmas Day brings us the big picture of the Christmas story. John is trying to explain the most important event in human history, what we call the incarnation. But what does this mean? What is the incarnation? It means as John says “That word became flesh and dwelt among us.” But what does this mean? It means that God became human.
That’s the big picture and the good news of John’s gospel! That’s where the story of Jesus begins for John—with the incarnation, with the realization that this Jesus—this man—was actually also God. Jesus was there at the very beginning of time, was involved in the creation of all things, and stepped into human history. It’s quite an amazing big picture.
There is no manger or nativity scene in John. John brings us to focus on the big picture of the gift of the incarnation and brings us to ask “How do we humans receive this news, this gift from God that we celebrate at Christmas?” And that question brings us back here to the manger scene with a new perspective.
It’s odd isn’t it. Of all the unique creatures gathered around the baby Jesus in the manger scene we see before us today, I think we humans are the most unique and the most peculiar of them all. Something sets us apart. And it’s not just that we have thumbs, that we walk upright, or that we have big brains. The big picture reveals something negative about us as well. We humans are worse than any other creature at receiving gifts.
What do you think the cow wanted for Christmas? Probably some good hay, a warm place to sleep. What about the donkey? A friend to work with? Does the sheep want anything in particular? Green pastures and still waters, a good shepherd?
Do you think any of these animals would ever ask themselves if they deserved these gifts, or what they owe for these gift or whether they’ve earned these gifts? But we are not quite as simple as these other creatures.
There is a time when we are children when it is much easier for us to accept gifts without question. But as we get older, it can become more and more difficult for humans to simply accept a gift for what it is. We tend to use our big brains to complicate the situation.
One reason it can be hard for us to accept gifts is because we don’t think we deserve them. Receiving a gift means we have to recognize that people care enough about us to love us even if we don’t always deserve it. That’s hard for us to do.
Another reason it can be hard to accept gifts is because we think there must be strings attached. Receiving a gift can make us feel like we’re in debt to the person that gives it to us, and that’s not a feeling we enjoy. Most of us live with enough debt already, and we’d rather feel like we don’t need others help and we would like to avoid the guilt of others doing nice things for us.
But I think the biggest reason we can struggle with accepting gifts is because we know we would much rather earn a gift than be given it, even though gifts by definition are meant to be freely given not earned.
While this Christmas we celebrate God giving us the gift of Jesus Christ, deep down we know we like earning our reward rather than receiving a gift from someone else, and deep down we like the kind of system we get with Santa, where we know others have been naughty and will go without a gift, while we are assured we have been nice. And we know Santa didn’t just give us something out his love for us, but because we’ve earned our gift, as a reward for our good behavior.
But is this what we do as well? If we gave people presents they’d earned this year we should call them “Christmas Rewards” rather than “Christmas Gifts.”
Sometimes we’re much more comfortable with Santa’s way of doing Christmas, aren’t we, or we find ourselves falling into the modern consumer version of Christmas gift giving. I saw an episode of the TV show The Office this week that reminded me of that temptation as well. It was about a gift exchange at an office—something some of us may have done recently. The character being interviewed is sure that he has gotten the best gift for his coworkers because it is the most expensive gift. He gets a color iPod even though he set a $20 limit for his coworkers gifts. He explains that he loves Christmas because it’s all about love. “It’s about telling people I love you...this amount of money.”
Are we in competition with each other at Christmas time? Are Santa and a God of Grace representing two opposing philosophies in how and why gifts are distributed?
While we hear the good news that Jesus Christ freely comes to earth, in order to give us forgiveness for our sin while we are still sinners. Where does that leave us? We don’t want to be passive recipients; we want to earn what we have coming to us. This is something Santa offers that Christ doesn’t.
We’re used to needing to earn anything worth having, it’s hard for us to just accept a gift. It should be the easiest thing for anyone to do. But it is easier for a cow or a dog to accept a gift than a human.
Rarely do we run into people who would turn down a gift because they felt they hadn’t earned it, but I know they’re out there. I know I’m someone who often feels the urge to do just that. It’s a human instinct. Love is overwhelming. A good gift given in love makes you thankful and penitent all at once. It humbles you to know someone loves you enough to get you something you don’t deserve.
And it reminds you of the big picture. With that in mind, when I think back on the gifts that have meant to most to me, they are not ones that I have asked for three months in advance. They’re often not the most expensive gifts either.
The best gifts I have received are the ones that come from someone who knows me so well that they get me exactly what I really want and need, even though I wouldn’t have thought to ask for it myself.
That’s the kind of gift I cherish, and that’s the kind of gift God gives in Jesus. The incarnation is a gift that human beings may not even know they need. But it’s exactly what we want and need more than anything else.
Santa Claus may have gotten you something you want this Christmas, and hopefully your friends and family have gotten something you want, but only God can offer you what you really need, and that is the hardest gift of all for us stubborn and rebellious sinners to accept.
But God is a part of our lives together, and God wants to live in our hearts. Every year, every present we give or receive is first a gift from God.
But Jesus Christ is the gift that gives us new life, eternal life through the forgiveness of sin. We receive this not because we have earned the gift but because Jesus gives himself freely. John reminds us that this is going to happen whether we like it or not and whether we’re ready for it or not. It was set in motion at the beginning of time.
In this big picture we are confronted by grace. But we are as bad at grace as we are bad at accepting gifts we don’t deserve. We want to earn the gift. We have trouble with grace. We would rather have Jesus deliver a new law for us to follow so we can point out when others are naughty, and we can know how to be nice.
But try as we might, when we think about the things we’ve done and the things we’ve left undone this year, we are all probably plenty naughty, even to those we love—maybe especially to those we love. God knows this and yet Jesus the little babe in the manger came into the world as John tells us “not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved though him.” Jesus takes the judgment against all the “naughtiness” of the world for us. That’s the work of Jesus planted in the seed of the incarnation. And that’s something Santa just doesn’t do.
Last night or this morning when you opened a gift from someone you love and someone you know loves you, remember it wasn’t given because you’ve earned it, but because that person is trying to show their love for you, even if you don’t deserve it.
In the same way Jesus gives himself for you not because you’ve earned the gifts of the cross, eternal life, and forgiveness of sins, but because Jesus loves you and he loves you so much he gave his life for you. He earned it for us. That’s the gift of the Word, and it is hard for us to unwrap, but it’s the gift we receive everyday and the gift we gather at this church to celebrate year round, Christmas to Christmas, Easter to Easter. It’s also the gift we celebrate in baptism. And I’m glad we Lutherans celebrate the gift as a gift by baptizing infants, like Kainani will be baptizing today. I’m glad we do that because that’s the big picture perspective on grace. Children are better at receiving a gift than we adults are. In fact when you think about it, children are our teachers in grace.
Today we celebrate Jesus becoming human with us in this world, the ultimate gift to humanity, wrapped in swaddling clothes: The best gift and a gift for all humankind. The gift of grace in human form. Did you forget to open this, the greatest gift, this Christmas. Didn’t you see it under the tree. It was addressed to you! It was from God.
As far as I know, Hallmark doesn’t make any “incarnation” cards. I was shopping for cards this week and didn’t see any. But if you could open this gift from God this Christmas it would be like opening a Hallmark card from God and it would say, “I am with you, here (Webmaster’s note: Here he pointed at the manger scene). I want to be this close to you (Pointing at his heart). And I love you this much (Pointing at the cross).” . That is the gift of Christmas.
Maybe you’re scared that you’re too naughty to receive this gift, maybe you’re too smart to believe in something this crazy, in a God that cares for you and comes to you. But this news—this big picture—is here for you. It happened 2000 years ago, and it’s just as true and good an event as it was then.
That is the big picture John brings us back to today. It is a big picture but a simple message. Christ is born. God is with us—a gift to all.
This happy holiday we celebrate is called Christmas because it is about Christ. It’s about Christ meeting us in our own backyard, as he did in that backyard in Bethlehem. And the gifts we give at Christmas are all reflections of the gift God gave to us in Christ.
For all the pagaentry and beauty of the Christmas story, for all the consumerism and glitz that Christmas has become in our modern culture, once you have the perspective to see past all the decorations, you see that Christmas is really the simple concrete example God has given all of humanity in the person of Jesus. It’s God saying “I love you.” That’s the big picture John brings us in John 3:16—“So God so loved the world that he gave his only Son....” And that is the gift we share with each other all year and remember especially at Christmas. And it’s enough to perhaps find yourself saying, “Mahalo God, it’s just what I wanted.”
Merry Christmas to one and to all. May it be filled with the joy of this big picture perspective, and may you be filled with the grace and promise of the baby in the manger. Amen.
Copyright © 2005 Joshua Graber
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org