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Christmas, December 25, 2015

The bed in my guest room is full of gifts. Some of them are wrapped, and some of them aren’t. One is not here yet, and one will not be delivered until sometime in January because the film has not yet been released to DVD. They are all gifts for my family and friends and in a very short time, I will be gathering them up and putting them into shopping bags to take to my sister’s for our family reunion.

Since this season is very busy for me, I sometimes choose to do without things I’d like to get done for things I like better. Christmas cards become New Year’s cards – or Epiphany cards or even Lent cards. The tree is decorated with lights but no ornaments. But I have gifts for my family and friends. It is very important to me to give them something they would like, something that is a token of how much I love them.

Christmas is about gift-giving, it is true, but it is also about receiving gifts from others, and I will get some from my family and friends as well. It is important to view this exchange in the right way – giving out of love, not a desire to curry favor, and receiving in a spirit of thankfulness, not greedy grasping for things.

Of course the most important gift of Christmas is the one that came from God – the incarnation of God Godself as Jesus, the Christ. God came to live as one of us, to show us how to live and love, to reconcile us to God. On this day as we read the familiar story, there are five parts of the gift that God gave us that allow us to take the story in and hold it close to our hearts.

The first part of the gift is the gift of a baby – an ordinary baby born in an extraordinary place – a manger in the town of Bethlehem. The gift of the baby is God’s way of saying, “I want to be with you, just like you, to help you understand my love for you. I want to experience all the things you experience so you can trust me more deeply to know what you are going through.” The gift of the manger is a gift of vulnerability. Mary and Joseph are in Bethlehem not because they want to be, but because they have to be for a census that the emperor has mandated. Their lives are not their own; they are an oppressed people. Joseph and Mary cannot find any lodging for the night. They have looked and looked but in this busy time, there is not one room. Finally, they are told they can stay with the animals. The place is certainly smelly and uncomfortable, but it is shelter. Mary is vulnerable because she is in pain. She is in labor and labor hurts. When the baby is born, he is of course the ultimate symbol of vulnerability, made even more obvious by the fact that he has to be cradled in a feeding trough. The gift of Bethlehem is the gift of continuity – the gift of God’s promise fulfilled, what the prophets foretold. This baby, born to be the Messiah, is of the house of David, just as it was predicted he would be.

The second part of gift we receive is the gift of the angel coming to the shepherds. The angel was a gift because it had a message to deliver – a message that was not fearful news but good news. The angel proclaimed that a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord was born in Bethlehem. This news is about a ruler. The only kind of ruler the shepherds know is the emperor, who had actually brought the empire to a relative state of calm with what was called the Pax Romana. Some statues labeled him the savior. But the peace brought by violence never lasted long. This ruler, their ruler would bring lasting, non-violent peace to those he favored – and that was all people. 

The shepherds were a gift because they were the outcast. In ordinary circumstance they would never have considered that they would receive any kind of gift like this from God at all; they were excluded religiously and socially from Jewish society. But the angels came to the shepherds for that very reason. They did not tend to include themselves among “all the people”, but the angel wanted to assure them they were. The message of the birth of Jesus, the Incarnate Word, was for every being God created, even homeless, smelly shepherds, more accepted by their sheep than by people.

The third part of the gift we receive is the shepherds’ curiosity. The angel spoke of a sign, of a baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying a manger. What an unlikely sign for a new king, a new Savior. But the shepherds wanted to see if what the angel said was true. They wanted to be in on this event. So they went with haste. Just as the fishermen dropped everything to follow Jesus, the shepherds dropped everything to go to Bethlehem. They gave up their routines; they gave up their duties. They left their sheep, who would probably get into a whole lot of trouble without them to go to see about that baby. And see him they did. There were Mary and Joseph gazing at the baby in the manger, and there were all the animals that lived there, going about their business and giving Joseph and Mary the space they needed, as if they too knew who was lying in that trough that belonged to them.

The fourth part of the gift we receive is the shepherds’ excitement. From a normal night in the hills had come an extraordinary vision of angels bringing them a message from God himself. From a general feeling of depression about themselves and their future had come a feeling of well-being, of self-worth, of the peace, the shalom, that the angels had been singing about.  They are so excited that they become the first evangelists. They tell the assembled people in the streets the news the angels had told them. Some people probably believed them, and some thought they were crazy, but everyone was amazed at the news – everyone but Mary. It was wonderful to get a reminder of the special job she was doing for God, and she took all the words the shepherds had said and treasured them and reflected on them and tried to discern what they might mean for her family. After all, she was most concerned about her husband and her son and having a good life as any new mother would be. She wondered what life with Jesus would be like.

The fifth and part of final gift we get from God on Christmas is the shepherds’ response to all they had heard and seen – they gave praise and glory to God. They went back to the fields to their ordinary work but  with a different attitude. The gift of God in Christ was now the center of their world. They would never forget what happened to them or the changes it brought to their lives of desperation and hopelessness and being on the outside.

The gifts of Christmas are for us. In the Christmas story Luke gives us gifts that will sustain our faith and guide our responses if we let them. The gift of the baby Jesus is the greatest gift of love God could give us – Godself . in human form, vulnerable like we are, especially when we are babies, but in truth our whole lives long. It is the gift God has promised us through the prophets and we can rejoice that God is a God who fulfills God’s promises. God gives us the gift of knowing who Jesus will be through the message of the angels – the Messiah, the Lord, the Savior. This baby is God as well as human, because we cannot save ourselves, only God can. The shepherds are our gift of belonging. We all belong to this God and God’s desires for us even when we feel lost, outcast and marginalized. We are given the gift of curiosity to investigate this Jesus for ourselves – to read about him, to think about who he is, t try to build a relationship with him. And we are given excitement to go and tell about all we have seen and heard and ask felt in the love God has given us in our lives. Finally, the only response we can have is the one the shepherds had – to praise and glorify the One who gave us everything, the One who gave us Godself.

When we leave church and finish our Christmas activities, we will go back to our ordinary lives, but I hope we will take the gifts of Christmas with us. Our lives may look the same, but our hearts are forever changed by a vulnerable little baby who is the promised savior and messiah for us and for everyone. May we be curious and excited and thankful for all God has done for us and express these feelings in our lives.

AMEN

-        Rev. Ann Barker