Sermons That Work

The Joy Known to God, Christmas Eve – 2001

December 24, 2001


Miss Manners would bury her head in shame! Miss Manners would hang her head in shame at the regrettable hospitality and gift-giving that appear in the Christmas story.

Joseph returns to his old hometown. What takes him there is no pleasure jaunt, but a government census designed to increase income from taxation. No doubt this young carpenter still has plenty of relatives in the old hometown: shirt-tail cousins who recognize his name and remember him from when he was a kid. But this fine young fellow and his obviously pregnant wife turn up one night and what happens? The clan is at a loss for where they can stay. There is not a spare bedroom to be had.

Mary and Joseph are sent down the street to a cheap motel, and not one of the uncles offers to pick up their tab. When the young couple get there, they don’t notice that the NO VACANCY sign is lighted, and they end up out back in the barn. So much for the strength of family ties, and hospitality in the old hometown.

Then there are those shepherds. Prompted by an angel, awestruck by choirs singing from heaven, these country people quit their hillside posts, leave their flocks to fend for themselves, and run to town to see the sight: the mighty messiah is a newborn baby.

But do they bring a gift? Not at all! Sure, there was no warning, and the stores are closed, but at least they could pass the hat, and with a smile one of them could furtively stick a wad of bills in Joseph’s hand and tell him to buy something nice for the little guy and his mom. But there is no evidence of this, or of any gift sent later with a small card enclosed. What happens is that the shepherd folk go back where they came from, glorifying and praising God for the most momentous event of their lives. Yet when it comes to a baby gift, the whole crowd of them strike out.

The wise men do little better. A traveling star leads them to the baby, but it takes a good while for them to get there. The little one has probably outgrown a couple of sizes of diapers before they arrive from their distant country. They bring gifts, to be sure, but odd gifts, not the usual nursery stuff. There’s gold fit for a king, the sort of incense burnt in temples, and myrrh to preserve a corpse.

All this appears deeply symbolic, and points to Jesus as king and God and sacrifice. Yet as baby showers go, these are not the most appropriate gifts for a young family on a budget. The wise men seem more familiar with the stars than they are with stuffed animals. Maybe these are the first baby gifts they have ever picked out.

No hometown hospitality. Empty-handed shepherds. Magi that arrive with oddball presents. Yes, Miss Manners would hang her head with shame!

It’s almost as though for 2,000 years Christians have tried to make up for these lapses. Consider what we do around the baby’s birthday. We put up bright lights, both outside and in. Wreaths and roping of Christmas greens show up here and there. Cheerfully wrapped packages are clustered under decorated trees. We give gifts to church and charity: money, food, clothing. We welcome one another to parties, dinners, and snug evenings in front of the fire. The music of Christmas sounds forth in countless versions from radio and television and compact discs, in elevators and shopping malls. We sing hymns of the season walking through the cold night or gathered in a warm church.

We may do these things for ourselves, our children, our friends, everybody around us, but there’s a real sense in which we do them because of Jesus. Every Christmas we realize again-however faintly-that we need to give some gift, make some gesture, in his honor.

Yet Christmas puts us in a tangle! We are doomed before we begin. The Father in heaven gives us the perfect gift in Jesus. For this Jesus is God-with-us, the brightness of God’s glory, and like the Father in every way. Jesus is the gift, not of something external to God, but the gift of God’s own self, the divine truth told in a human life.

How can we respond to that? Let us not fail to find room for him, as Joseph’s relatives did in Bethlehem. Perhaps it is best to come as the shepherds did, with open, empty hands, for no gift appears to be enough. But most of us follow the example of the Magi. We will do something-even if it’s “a day late and a dollar short,” even if it’s aimed not so much at the baby, but at someone for whom he was born.

And so we string up the lights at the risk of breaking our necks. We stir up the wassail, and throw in a bit of this and a dash of that. We wrap up the presents, even if sometimes the paper is cut too short. We sing the carols with happy hearts and off-key gusto. We decide to do something. We welcome the perfect gift of Jesus with our own less-than-perfect gifts.

Among these gifts we offer in honor of the child are many that cannot be put in a box and wrapped with paper and a bow. These unwrappable gifts are not so practical as a new tie or a pair of gloves. They are gifts that seem useless, pointless: the beauty of our music and our ritual, our acts of devotion, our struggles in prayer. Among these gifts are every cathedral in the world, and the soaring music of Handel’s Messiah; a frail old lady’s determination to get to church on Christmas Eve, and a young child’s handmade tree ornament, glittering and splendidly naïve.

These gifts include the checks we write to church or charity, though we think the amount too small and the need too vast. Included also are deeds of kindness that we perform for people near at hand: running an errand for a sick neighbor, bolstering the spirits of the downhearted, bearing cheerfully with someone who causes trouble. All these may seem painfully little, especially in the light of the great gift of Jesus himself, but although we are made uneasy by the littleness of what we do, God welcomes the gift we give, for God became in Jesus a little gift at Bethlehem: eternity wrapped in a blanket, the divine mystery nestled in his mother’s arms.

Jesus receives our gifts, small and simple and fragile though they are. He knows these are the only kind we have to give. In the Second Shepherds’ Play, a 15th century English work, the shepherds appear as rough-and-ready fellows, each with some gift in hand for the little one: a bunch of cherries, a pet bird, a tennis ball. These are not gifts rich and rare, but were available in the town square on any market day, the medieval equivalent of K Mart. Yet Jesus welcomes these gifts.

He welcomes ours as well: whatever small thing we do for him. The love of God made flesh in the Bethlehem baby is a gift beyond all reason, and leaves us fumbling, but our fumbling responses-a bunch of cherries, a pet bird, a tennis ball, a centuries-old cathedral, the singing of “Silent Night,” cans of food for the poor-these fumbling responses of ours are more than good enough. The man who was once the child of Bethlehem raises his arms to welcome us.

Jesus accepts our small gifts because he finds beauty in them, and rejoices in that beauty. He welcomes our little gifts and gestures because he recognizes them as signs-signs that his joy has touched us.

There we have the purpose of his birth. Jesus is born this night that earth may come alive with the joy known to God.

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