Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Gifts of Christmas Past

Are you ready for Christmas?

And I’m not asking if gifts have been bought – in spite of some guilty looks in the room…

Are you really ready for Christmas?

Funny how the meaning of that question has changed over the years, isn’t it?

Once upon a time, “Are you ready for Christmas?” could have meant “have you sent out all your Christmas cards?” (some of you remember that) Nowadays, some people don’t send out anything through the post – they call it “snail mail” now – instead, greetings are now sometimes sent over the internet.

Once upon a time, “Are you ready for Christmas?” could have meant “are your Christmas lights up? When I was young, my Dad hauled out the ladder every year and painstakingly attaching little hooks to the eaves-troughs so that we could have a single row of Christmas lights, and then one of them would burn out (which would extinguish the whole thing) and he’d take the whole thing down, find the faulty bulb, and put them up again. Nowadays, people have no trouble throwing out whole bags of lights and getting really fancy ones to hang from the inside of the window. It is sure a lot more convenient, isn’t it?

Well, lots of things have changed over the years, haven’t they? I was having this conversation with Mrs. Collins just a few weeks ago. I was observing that my parents’ generation really knew what it was to work. They worked hard. And by comparison, I’ve been spoiled. Compared to them, I’m soft. And yet Mrs. Collins said that her parents worked even harder. (wow!) It is almost as if over the last three generations we’ve lost the ability to work! I wonder what else we’ve lost along the way.

For example, perhaps our parents understood and appreciated gifts and giving much better than we do. After all, most of our parents lived without all the luxuries that we take for granted. They also lived without all the leisure that we take for granted. So when Christmas came, if someone they loved were to get them something for them that they really needed but couldn’t afford… wow! Not only would it be an extra-special meaningful gift, but it would strengthen that relationship (the relationship between giver and receiver) in a really special way.

Today? Most of us can afford practically everything that we need. And many of us buy those things whenever we need them, rather than waiting for Christmas. So instead of receiving gifts of the things we need, we now receive gifts of the things we want. Unfortunately, all that advertising that’s constantly bombarding us convinces us that what we want is the next, the bigger, the better, the trendier, and the more luxurious. And I’m not at all sure we’re any happier for all that. But I am quite sure that we’ve lost that special relationship-building aspect that gift-giving used to involve.

And I’m afraid that our children are in even greater trouble in this respect. After all, what is the meaning or value of a gift when you not only have everything you need but you even most of things you just want as well? What good is a gift, after all, if it doesn’t move you in the slightest?

Here’s two cultural expressions indicating that we’ve lost most, if not all of the essence of giving and receiving gifts. First, there is actually a website called “” – because we all need plenty of advice on the topic. Second, there is this guy named Jimmy Kimmel.

If you don’t know, Jimmy Kimmel is a television comedian. He’s often clever – and sometimes funny. Last year, he asked folks watching his show to do something tragic… but hilarious. He asked them to tell their kids that they were allowed to open one gift one week before Christmas – only to surprise them with a gift they’d never want. And then to film them opening that gift…. As you can imagine, some of the children’s reaction were truly horrifying. But I want to share one, because Marisa is so adorable (and her brother deserves some credit, too)… about as adorable as a five-year-old could be after just unwrapping a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich. Watch this…

[video of Marisa edited from the Youtube]

Now if you thought that was funny, I’ll admit it – so did I. But maybe, just maybe, you felt a little piece of your soul die as the sacred act of gift-giving was turned into cheap entertainment – the real entertainment, of course, came from the two children!

In order to recover some of what we’ve lost – in order to really appreciate what gifts and giving should be all about, we need a good dose of Christmas. And not the plastic, artificial, commercial travesty they call Christmas on TV. I’m talking about the timeless, profound, change-the-world Christmas that most of the world has tragically forgotten.

To get us there this morning, let me tell you about two Christmas gifts I’ve encountered over the years. For fans of Dickens, these are the gifts of Christmas past. Each of these gifts tells me something about real gifts. Two gifts, three lessons.

The first of these gifts was given seventeen years ago to my son, who was two. Now you may be aware that about twenty-five years ago or so, some “clever” person decided that there really wasn’t any difference between little girls and little boys – besides the obvious. They actually started to teach this in university: that baby boys and baby girls thought the same, and that gender roles were all part of the culture. Recently, the largest toy company in Sweden was actually reprimanded for marketing cars to boys and was told to change its advertising.

Sadly, some people who went to university when this thinking became trendy actually fell for this nonsense… And one of these dear people convinced my wife that she would be doing my son, Nathanael, a favor by giving him a doll for Christmas. She handed him the wrapped package, and he tore off the wrapping. He frowned. He looked at his mother. And in his wonderful deep little-man voice (nobody ever noticed Nathanael’s voice change – he’s spoken like that all his life), he said, “This is for Meg,” referring to his older sister. “No, this is for you!” replied his mother. And before she could even close her mouth, that doll was flying across the room, never to be looked at again. Sometimes we give gifts for ourselves, perhaps to make us feel better. The best gifts, on the other hand, are given for the other person – to be personally meaningful to them!

Thousands of years earlier, on that first Christmas morning, there was a gift given to some people who weren’t used to getting anything. Their employment was difficult, the hours were terrible, and the health benefits were non-existent. They were doing the night shift. And it was cold. And it was boring. And there was no chance of escape. But that night, as they sat around the fire, suddenly a messenger came to tell them about their gift. And not just any messenger, either: it was an Angel. The Angel said to the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid! I bring you good news of great joy. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you.” A Savior, and a Savior for you.

Can you imagine what the Angel could have meant when he told the shepherds that the Savior was born for them? What would you say if I were to tell you that the Savior was also born for you? Some people might say “what could the birth of a poor Jewish boy two thousand years ago possibly do for me?” Sure – in some circles, that’s the common response. But others… others have found amazing comfort in this Savior – even today!

People today continue to find that He reaches out to them; He touches them where they are; and He rescues them from the difficulties of life in a real and personal way. For those people, the Savior was born for them, too. That first Christmas gift (“unto us a son is given”) can be personally meaningful to each of us, too, if only we’d let him be. Of course, if you close your mind and guard your heart, you can think of all kinds of reasons to avoid this Christmas miracle. But the fact of the matter is that this gift is for you, too.

It can be so tragic when we over-protect ourselves. Sure, that’s the temptation when life has hurt too many times. But when we convince ourselves that “it’s no big deal” sure, it will make it less painful when life hurts, but it will also make us incapable of experiencing life’s true joys. One of the greatest gifts that we can ever receive is a gift that moves us. Don’t be so guarded this Christmas – be open to the God of Christmas moving you with His love and with His generosity.

The Angels first appeared to the poorest of the poor – young Jewish shepherds. And then the message came through the stars to the wise men. These were the educated, the “scientists” of the day. By correctly reading the message built into nature, these non-Jewish, rich, old men were also able to rejoice in the coming of a Savior along with the Jewish, poor, young shepherds. It is such a shame that a small number of very loud atheists have hijacked this channel, and insist that nature’s only message is “chance and necessity”. But they aren’t right, you know. God’s message is available to us, too – if only we’d open our eyes.

But the Christmas story doesn’t stop with the wise men. Later, at the temple, Jesus was greeted by two important old people. Simeon was someone that the Bible calls “righteous and devout.” The other, the eighty-four-year-old Anna, is called a prophet.

Please notice just how remarkable this Christmas story really is. It is the first recorded event in history in which young and old, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile all play roles as equals. And please understand how earth-shaking this is. Two thousand years ago, the social structures of race, and sex, and age, education and wealth meant that only the male, and the old, the educated and the wealthy were “in.” Everyone else was “out.” Let’s face it: we still suffer from the artificiality of some of those distinctions to this day! We can be thankful that we do much better than they did two thousand years ago. But the reason we do so much better is Chrismas! Christmas shook up the world order. Suddenly God’s gift of salvation was available to everyone. This Savior has been born for you.

And this is a message that isn’t just there in the Christmas story – it all through the Bible! You know this verse:

• For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son [as a Christmas gift to us], that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. – John 3:16

But check out these verses, too:

• the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. - Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45 • He … did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all - Romans 8:32a • the Lord Jesus Christ… gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age - Gal 1:4 • the Son of God … loved me and gave himself for me. - Gal 2:20b • Christ loved us and gave himself up for us - Eph 5:2 • Christ Jesus… gave himself as a ransom for all people - 1 Tim 2:6 • Jesus Christ… gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness - Titus 2:14

You might sense a theme here. Rescue, salvation, deliverance – that’s what the gift of Christmas entails. The tragedy is that so many people are satisfied with so little instead. Listen to C.S.Lewis, when he says “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

I told you that there are two gifts that I wanted to share. Here is the second one. When I was growing up, I had four brothers. And Christmas always meant opening gifts that were labeled “Doug” and contained…underwear. Or on a good year, pajamas. On occasion… there was a cool toy or game, but those were always labeled “to all the boys”, or “to Doug and Frank” or “to Dave and Doug” (names always in birth order). I had a deep subconscious longing for a cool gift that was addressed only to me, “Doug”. But I didn’t realize it until when I was sixteen. That year, I received a gift that was both really cool, and just for me (I still have it, actually). The feeling was euphoric. I was walking on air for weeks after. Like I said before: the best gifts are personally meaningful. But the funny thing about it was this: on the one hand I thought that I enjoyed it so much because I didn’t have to share it, but on the other hand, I enjoyed it so much, I wanted to share it with everyone! The best gifts are the ones that make us thankful and generous ourselves.

And that’s exactly the right response to gift of Christmas. And that, of course, is exactly what the Bible encourages of us. Here are some verses reminding us that we are to supply to others the grace that we receive from that baby in the manger:
• Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you - Romans 15:7
• Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you – Eph 4:32
• Walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us – Eph 5:2
• God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he committed to us this message of reconciliation - 2 Cor 5:19

So what have we got so far? First, the best gifts are designed for us – those who receive the gift. Now Christmas, and the Savior who came that first Christmas morning can be personal and can be fulfilling. Second, the best gifts make us feel generous. And when we receive that ultimate Christmas gift, we also want to be generous to others. Christmas, more than any other event in history has also resulted in the most generosity for those who have received it. I was recently in a conversation with someone who was skeptical of this claim.

Ever heard of the Red Cross? Salvation Army? World Vision? Mennonite Central Committee? St. Vincent de Paul? Sure, there are charities today whose roots aren’t explicitly Christian. But do the research, and you may be surprised how deeply those roots go for all the oldest and most respected charities!

One last one:

I earlier mentioned a special gift that I received when I was sixteen. Later, I discovered that this gift was not cheap, and that my Mom wasn’t really on board with its purchase. My folks weren’t so rich. But that’s another thing about the best gifts isn’t it: the giver has to sacrifice for them. When a child saves his pennies and buys something for someone he loves, he also makes himself vulnerable. There is absolutely nothing quite as devastating as doing something for someone you love only to have them turn up their nose at it, or undervalue it. But with real gifts, that can’t be helped: the best gifts make the giver vulnerable.

But is there anything in the world quite as vulnerable as… this [picture of a newborn]? Few other species are quite so vulnerable, and for so long as human babies. But God became one of us, and carried that mantle of vulnerability just for us. But that’s only the beginning.

Jesus knew the meaning of sacrifice, and he embraced it… for you. He knew that his sacrifice – his ultimate sacrifice [picture of crucifixion] – was the only way to heal us, to save us, to bring us back to reality. As the Bible says, it is through this sacrifice that we have been made holy. Jesus didn’t die for good people. Nuh-uh. God shows his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

God didn’t send his Son as a king to impose his values on the World by force. Instead, Jesus was born into poverty and oppression. Jesus didn’t do miracles to force people to accept him. Instead, he showed acts of mercy in order to demonstrate God’s love. This man, the most revolutionary moral thinker who ever lived, the most brilliant teacher whose stories still touch lives thousands of years later, the only blameless man to ever walk this earth. He didn’t push himself on us. He didn’t “prove” himself. Sure – he could have. But he didn’t on purpose. He wanted us to have the choice. He gave us the opportunity to reject him. The best gifts make the giver vulnerable.

In fact, this is what the Bible says, isn’t it: “He came to his own people, but they didn’t want him.” God became vulnerable in Jesus. God became vulnerable with Jesus. God is even willing for people to take him and his blessings for granted. He loves you that much. He really does.

My prayer for you this Christmas season is that you will unwrap this, the greatest of all gifts; that you will open your heart to the joy, and the comfort, and the peace, and the wonder of what God has given you this morning.