The Gift

I’m all out of scary ghost stories, but I am here to share of the glories of Christmases long, long ago.

Twas the night before Christmas at my grandparents’ place, there was this massive present, that took up all the living room floor space.

It had my name on it. We had our typical Christmas Eve family meal, but I couldn’t tell you what I ate. For one eye was on the present, and another on my plate. Maybe we had the Who-hash, the Who-pudding and roast beast. I do remember the poppy seed roll, done in our family’s style.

Then it was time for the present. My mind had raced with all the possibilities. Could it be a go cart? No, too skinny. Or a treehouse? I don’t think they would put all the lumber in boxes. Could it be in the famed GI Joe aircraft carrier, the legendary toy that every ’80s kid wanted?

The time came to open it, and it was… a dark blue, telescope. I was so excited! I love space, astronauts, planets and such. I could picture myself out in a field, or moor, or mountain, following a yonder star with my telescope.

Maybe you had such an experience. Maybe there was a gift you were given that stands out over the years. Something unexpected, but a gift that made an impression and formed you. Someone really understood who you were.

Who would think that what was needed to transform and change my life would be a telescope? My money was on the aircraft carrier or latest video game system.

Over the years, the times spent with my mom and sister, gazing out into the depths of space, together in the dark are good memories. At least from this vantage point. From the haze of my nostalgia I probably have forgotten that my sister and I were more than likely bickering. Or asking after a snack. Or complaining about the mosquitoes. Or the car ride to get out in the middle of nowhere. And were we safe out there? I mean, how could my mom know that there weren’t any werewolves or vampires out here?

From the haze of our nostalgia, or for our expectations of what this evening or tomorrow’s gift giving might hold… we often overlook this radical story that we are in the midst of telling.

How in the little town of Bethlehem, in the dark streets shineth, the everlasting light of a gift given. It came not in a deep and dreamless sleep, nor in stillness. But in labor. And blood. And pain. In a barn, for there was no room for them in the inn.

How away in a manger, there was a couple who were road weary. Overlooked by the world and the keepers of history, but in this act… in this birth… the course of history changed.

It was an unexpected gift. One wrapped not in festive patterned paper, but in swaddling clothes. Can you picture it beyond the haze of nostalgia and pristine Rembrandt renderings? Can you see the scared parents? Can you smell the musky animal smell? The blood from the birth splattered on the dirt floor of the barn?

This is how the gift of God comes. How silently, how silently. The wondrous gift is given! I’ve come to understand that the birth might not have been silent, but it was unrecognized. Not even a line in the newspaper, like they had when I was born, “Mary and Joseph son of Heli[1], boy.”

It’s so radically normal. We all arrive through labor. Maybe not in a barn surrounded by animals during a Roman census, but we all arrive crying in a context. A gift to our parents who are strangers to us and might be strangers still. So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of God’s heaven.

Our being here… not just here tonight, but here existing is a gift. A gift we didn’t ask for nor think we needed. Maybe if we had a choice, some of us would have chosen the domestic pet package like being a Suburban Yellow Lab, or Urban Calico. Yet here we are. In this gift of life. And we’ve gathered here, using our telescope of the gospel stories to look back into a context. Some of us are bickering with each other. Some of us want a snack. Yet here we are together. Trying to learn something from these stories and each other about what it means to be human.

No matter your faith, or your lack of faith or your questions around faith… you’re here. And we’re all here, and we’re having this experience of existence. How we view existence is how we view the nature of God. Is this a fun adventure you’re on? Or are there werewolves and vampires lurking in the woods?

While shepherds kept their watching o’er silent flocks by night… angels. The angels’ message, “Do not be afraid.” While in far off lands, foreign kings and magicians see the star at its rising through their telescopes and begin their long journey into the unknown.

Strangers and foreigners show up, and they leave praising God. You know, people we’re supposed to be afraid of, stranger danger and all that. They are featured here. Also in the story, women are featured. Elizabeth and Mary and their songs of praise for God who has lifted up the lowly. The elderly with Simeon and Anna are the first to spread the word and they are still doing it! Thank you to all the who grandparents who encourage their children and grandchildren to come to church.

What we think of existence, says theologian Rob Bell, we think of God. Is the universe a friendly place or a cold place? A loving place where the whole point is to keep your family close and make a whole bunch of friends? Or is it to divide and conquer and the one with the most toys wins?

I think, the story that has gathered us in tonight tells of a very human, very humble beginning. Of a baby who increases in wisdom and knowledge and will tell crazy stories. Not about the non-modalistic doctrine of the Trinity as understood by the Council of Nicaea of 325. But about sparrows and lilies. A woman losing one of the coins in her set and scouring her house. A shepherd leaving the 99 sheep to find the one. Two brothers at odds during their father’s party. When you start with the humanity of this story, you’re surprised by the divinity.

And I invite you to do that here. Maybe this is your first time back at church in a while. Maybe this is your yearly visit that someone MAKES you attend. Maybe you’ve tried other places, but the others don’t have brass or familiar stories and it’s confusing. Maybe you’re here each and every Sunday. Whoever you are, it’s good to be reminded of what we’re trying to do here. We are trying to welcome, love, and serve our neighbor as the God-in-Christ modeled for us.

As we encounter the sacred stories of scripture, the sacred stories of our lives are unlocked. We learn something about this stranger who is our neighbor. And in learning, fear diminishes. Fear not! Nothing beats fear like a face. And the universe grows a little warmer. Our heart grows two sizes and makes more room for these strangers who become friends, and these friends who become family.

Sara Miles writes that religion is like learning how to see. Trying to make meaning from things we hadn’t previously paid attention to… the events we hadn’t bothered to see and the people we didn’t want to.[2]

This church is teaching me to welcome, love, and serve myself through welcoming, loving, and serving my neighbor. It looks like planning worship series. It looks like cooking meals for CUPS Café. Of learning what Habitat for Humanity is doing in Medina County. It looks like talking with one another about how we should respond to the growing homeless population here in our lovely town. And yes, it also looks like youth group lock ins, social gatherings, and meals shared at the table.

What I learned through that telescope is that the universe is infinitely vast and makes me feel small. And I am small. Yet I also hold within me cosmic significance. All the minerals and atoms that make up me were born from supernovas from time immemorial. Life here, began out there. In a bang that still echoes through our universe, just as this birth echoes through our lives. Just as our birth echoes even now.

There are these moments that occur… says Rob Bell. They normally sneak up on you. No past, present future, just this eternal now where all is well, even when it isn’t. May we learn from each other how to see these moments and treasure them in our hearts. May we tell the stories of these moments and invite others to share theirs. And in doing so, the world is less cold, less violent. More understanding. More warm and loving.

May you go from here and tell of those stories that formed you. Tell of the times you were surprised by love. For that’s what we’re celebrating tonight. How God surprises earth with heaven, coming here on Christmas Day. Such joy to the world! Heaven and nature are singing! Go tell it on the mountain! And may grace and peace be yours. Amen.

Works Cited

[1][1] Luke 3:23

[2][2] Take this Bread, page 210-211.

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