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“The Greatest Gift in the World”
Luke 2: 1-20
December 24, 2021
I once saw a cartoon that showed two children sitting in front of the tree on Christmas morning, surrounded by empty boxes, piles of wrapping paper, and toys scattered everywhere. As the weary and worn parents looked on, one child said to the other, “How long ‘til we get to do this again next year?”
There is a great deal of joy in giving gifts, but the truth is that after all the time we spend planning and shopping and wrapping, on Christmas morning, it’s all over so quickly! In no time flat, ribbons are ripped off, paper is shredded, carefully selected toys flung hither and yon. Even for adults, the doldrums always come after the anticipation is over.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a gift that never ends, a gift that exceeds all expectations, that does not wear out or run down, that can never be depleted or outgrown?
Scripture tells us that the gift of the Christ-child is just that gift. It is not something fleeting that is here today and gone tomorrow. Jesus is Emmanuel, which means, “God with us.”
“God with us.” That is the greatest gift in the world----that God loves us so much that God, the Holy One, became clothed in flesh and came to earth in the form of a little child, to live with us. Emmanuel.
Of all the ways God has spoken to humanity through thousands of years—through patriarchs and matriarchs, prophets and priests—there is no greater, no fuller communication than this one act: the coming of God himself to earth in human form.
The scripture passages we hear on Christmas Eve tell the story of how it happened: Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, the wearying journey to Bethlehem, the birth in a stable, because there was no room in the inn. These passages speak to our hearts, because the way God chose to come to us says something about God’s love.
Jesus was not born into a great family, in a grand home, surrounded by wealth and luxury. He was born into a humble family, under challenging circumstances, welcomed not with grandeur and glory, but in a manger with the cattle lowing on that silent night.
Scripture takes us into a scene that is much more modest than the glittery images of Christmas cards or crèches. My husband and I have a beautiful nativity scene that belonged to his late mother. The porcelain figures gleam in ivory and gold. Mary is beautiful, slender and elegant. The figure of Joseph stands protectively near, as they look at the radiant, rosy-cheeked baby, glowing in the manger. Behind them stands a shepherd boy, sparkling as if he’s just dropped in fresh from heaven, holding a lamb that is snowy white. The animals gathered around them shine: a spotless donkey and a pristine lamb.
I love my nativity scene and treasure it. But the picture scripture sketches is very different. The Mary in my nativity scene looks as if she just stepped out of a salon rather than having just given birth in the straw of a stable. And I imagine that Joseph probably looked less peaceful and serene, and far more worn with the tiredness and grime of travel, and the care and worry of having a wife and new born baby sharing space with livestock in a barn. And the shepherds-----well, I doubt they looked anything like the lovely figures in my nativity scene. The real shepherds surely were rough and tumble folk, working-class men living out in the wild with their animals. Yes, the way Jesus came is part of God’s message to us.
Think about those shepherds, the first people to know about the Savior’s birth. We may wonder about this heavenly visitation. Why in the world would a multitude of the heavenly host visit humble shepherds? Even Mary and Joseph received just one angel, but these shepherds were visited by the whole heavenly host! Could the angels have arrived at the wrong address? Was their GPS not working? Surely they should have gone to the temple, to the priests and scholars, the Pharisees and Sadducees, the important people in Israel! But instead, Luke tells us, the angels went to shepherds, living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. First one angel appeared, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. “But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Christ, the Lord.’” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’”
The account in Luke is not what we would expect. And maybe-----maybe that’s just the point. The surprise is part of God’s gift. Aren’t surprises wonderful? There’s nothing better than receiving a gift you did not expect, something you may secretly have longed for but would never have requested. When a family member or spouse or friend gives you a gift like that----what a joy! What an expression of love!
Of all the ways God could have chosen to arrive in the world, this is what God chose—this surprising birth, in less than perfect circumstances, unheralded except to lowly shepherds out in a field. God’s entrance into the world reveals the nature of God: a God who enters into the realities of human life and dwells with us where we are, because God loves us.
One of my favorite Christmas stories was told by Kenneth Carter, a Methodist minister in North Carolina. He said, “a man was home with the children one afternoon while his wife went out Christmas shopping. He was reclining on the couch, half sleeping, half watching a football game, when the kids came into the room.”
“’Dad, we have a [Christmas] play to put on! Do you want to see it?’”
He roused himself from his nap to become the audience for their play.
His children, ages four, six, eight and ten, were the actors.
As Carter described it, “Joseph came in with a mop handle [for a staff]. Mary came in with a pillow under her pajamas; another child was an angel, flapping her arms as wings.”
“Finally the last child, the eight-year-old, came out, with all of the jewelry on that she
could find in the house, her arms filled with three presents. ‘I am all three wise men,’ she said. ‘I bring three precious gifts: gold, circumstance, and mud.’”
Carter said, “The father didn’t laugh. The father did not correct the wise man. The father reflected [that somehow his child had gotten] to the heart of the … story: God [comes to us where] we are, our gold--where we are at our best; our circumstance--where we might be even now, even our mud--where we are when we are most human,” he said.1
Gold, circumstance, and mud. We do not have to be perfect and pristine, like the figures in a nativity scene. That is not the way God came into the world. God came as Jesus, the babe in the manger, who still enters into our lives, whoever we may be or wherever we have gone or whatever we have done. He is Emmanuel: God with us.
So maybe the angels got it right, after all, when they appeared to the shepherds, working out in the fields. What was their message again? “Do not be afraid!” the angel proclaimed. I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people!”
Good news for ALL people: to YOU is born a Savior. To YOU: shepherds and outcasts. To you, the excluded and marginalized. To you, the meek and the mourners. To you, the peacemakers and the persecuted. To you, the last and the lost and the lowly. To you . . . and to me . . . to all of us, all of us in our circumstance and mud, who may be unworthy of the love of God, but who get it anyway. To all of us the angels come, bringing good news! To us, a Savior is born! God’s great gift of love in Emmanuel, God with us! The Greatest Gift in the World! Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Dawn Mayes
Manassas Presbyterian Church