"The Spirit of Christmas Presents"

December 24, 2010 Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2:1-20 

The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen
I had three conversations in the last month that gave me a new perspective on Christmas this year. The first conversation was with my brother. Last fall we decided not to exchange gifts this year. There are a few good reasons for this: First, we're both men and we hate to shop. Second, we're both Willadsens, so we hate to spend money. Third, we never like the gifts we get from each other. Like a lot of people we give gifts that we ourselves would like to receive. For years I've given Alan books about professional baseball. Either books that I have enjoyed-or ones I expect to enjoy when he finishes reading them. And Alan gets me books on modern theology or Bible commentaries. He has good taste and theologically we are in agreement, it's just that I do not read theology for fun and so getting books like this just doesn't feel festive.
So my brother and I decided not to exchange gifts with each other this year. Last week there was a box from Amazon at our house, addressed to me. There was a wrapped book in it, and a card that indicated it was a Christmas present, and not to open the card until I opened the gift. The card got separated from the book. Two days later I opened the card and found that my brother had broken our agreement and gotten a Christmas present for me. I called my brother, "Dude, we agreed not to exchange gifts this year!" I said unto him. He admitted that he'd broken our agreement, but he also said that gifts are always given freely and he loved this book so much that it gave him great joy to give it to me, and he was not expecting me to get him something in return. I know all this. In my head. I know that the joy of giving is in finding a really, really good gift for someone. I know that the only obligation that one has in receiving a gift is to say, "thank you." I believe that. I know that. And I even trust that my brother understands why this makes me feel awkward. And he gave me this terrific gift anyway.
So here's my Christmas gift dilemma: Do I abide by our original agreement not to exchange gifts or do I try to keep the scales of gifting balanced by scrambling to find something for my brother on short notice? I spent a day pondering this question and then on waking up one morning I found the perfect resolution: We agreed not to exchange gifts, therefore if he gets me something, and I don't get him something-we have not exchanged anything. So by not getting my brother a present, we're both keeping the agreement. And I can thus also uphold the Willadsen family tradition by not spending money. Everybody's happy this way.
Alan told me that to him, the first line in the book was worth the cost: It reads, "Every preacher should walk into the pulpit thinking, ‘I have wonderful news to tell these people!'" My brother's right, and the book he gave me, contrary to our explicit agreement, is also right! And you're all here to hear the wonderful news-news of a "great and joyful event that is meant for everybody, worldwide: A Savior has been born in David's town, a Savior who is Messiah and Master." [The Message] That's the Reason for the Season that we are supposed to remember, according all the message boards we've been seeing this month. Christ's birth or let's think of it at Jesus' birthday-is the reason for the season.
The second conversation I had earlier this month was with a friend I met at the public library. She pointed out that there's a lot to enjoy at Christmas time, there are a lot of special holiday traditions that do not have any religious content whatsoever. She got me thinking, and her comment caused me to listen to Christmas music this year with an ear for anything about Jesus' birth. Last year I commissioned a friend to make a CD for me-she burned 16 songs that I must hear at Christmastime. I will not reveal the whole list, but some of the holiday essentials are Bruce Springsteen's version of "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," which features an marvelous sax solo by Clarence Clemmons, Merle Haggard's forlorn "If We Make it Through December" and the Spice Girls' recording of "Sleigh Ride." Of the 16 songs that I need to hear at Christmas-only 2 have any religious content: the Harry Simeone Chorale's version of "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and in "We Need a Little Christmas," from the musical Mame, Angela Lansbury sings, "I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder." But the Christmas that she needs is carols at the spinet, candles in the window, bright lights, holly, stockings, fruit cake...there is a lot to Christmas. And anyone can celebrate the holiday completely and joyfully, without saying anything about Jesus. As I listened to other Christmas songs in the past few weeks I noticed how much of what we celebrate is what one could call "the spirit of the season." Sleigh rides, pumpkin pie, being home for the holidays...you can fill the days leading up to Christmas without ever even thinking about the fact that today we are celebrating the birth of the baby we believe is the Son of God, the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior. "Simply having a wonderful Christmas time."
On Monday I read in the paper that 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas. 86% of us put up a tree; 79% play holiday music. I think we could say that nearly 100% of us hear holiday music. Yet only 28% of Americans read or tell the Christmas story from the Bible! Look around at the people who sitting with you here. We are a minority. Vi read the story from the Bible. You've come to worship God on what I would say is the second holiest day for Christians. 9 out of 10 people in this country celebrate the holiday, but fewer than 3 in 10 seek to make it a holy day. Last year the Session voted to move Christmas eve worship to 4:30 in the afternoon so that families with young children could start to make worship part of their annual family routine. So children could grow in the knowledge that the reason behind the hoopla and festivities is the simple, profound fact that God showed God's love for all of creation by sending a baby into the world. That this baby was fully human and fully divine. That this baby was one people would call names like "wonderful" and "Prince of Peace." That this baby was "God-with-us." It's a preposterous claim we Christians make. It's a mystery that we need to hear overandoverandover when we hear the story about Jesus' birth.
When I was in college one of my best friends lived across the hall from me my last three years. Steve and I spent about as much time playing backgammon as we did going to class. His family was not religious. They did not take part in any faith community. And looking back I think he would have objected being called an atheist because just that term implied a rejection of something that he'd never been inclined to think about in the first place. Once he mentioned something about buying a Christmas gift for someone in his family. I was surprised that he and his family of non-believers observed Christmas. I believed that all Christmas traditions should be off-limits to non-believers. He said "you don't have to be a Christian to enjoy giving and receiving presents." And in America most people celebrate Christmas without attending a worship service or even reading the Christmas story. I've been thinking about my friend's comment this month. My family drove through the Festival of Lights on Wednesday. It was a lovely, impressive display as it is every year. And as we entered the park we were treated by a nearly full harvest moon rising over Lake Winnebago. The display was beautiful and colorful and joyous and anyone could enjoy it-not just Christians. And it seems to me that nearly all of the things that mark the Christmas season, nearly all of the things that we love at Christmastime are not rooted in the story of Jesus' birth. At best they are very shallowly rooted. That's why it's so important that we gather for worship. That we call the days before the Big Day "Advent" and not "Shopping Season."
The third conversation I had took place around the supper table last week. We were talking about Christmas presents and why we give Christmas presents. I remember as a child that my mother explained that giving presents to honor Jesus' birth was because the magi brought gifts of frankincense, gold and myrrh. That did not make sense to me-bringing presents to Jesus's family made sense, but our giving presents to one another because of that...well, let's just say the connection was not clear to me, but I didn't say anything because I wanted Christmas presents! Last week my younger son, David, said that we give Christmas presents because God gave everyone a present by sending Jesus.
I like this explanation a whole lot better than my mother's! God sent the world a present because God loves us. We give presents to other people because we love them. And you know that the real joy of giving presents is seeing the joy on the face of someone for whom you've gotten the perfect gift. I know my brother feels that in the book he gave me. A book that reminds me that it's my job to tell you wonderful news!
So I want you to imagine how God feels right now. Giving the whole world the perfect gift. The ultimate "one size fits all" present. I hope at least once in your life you've had the feeling of giving the perfect gift. "So God imparts to human hearts The blessings of His heaven." But what will make God happiest, I think, is that we really appreciate the gift, that we accept this gift with good tidings of great joy, that we join the sheepherders and let loose, glorifying and praising God for everything we have heard and seen. Feel God's joy in accepting the Spirit of this perfect Christmas present. Amen.