Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Gift We Need

I had a wicked thought, the other day.

What if, the Sunday after Christmas Day, we each brought to church the one gift we’d received this Christmas, the one gift that we had the least idea what to do with. The kind of gift that you just hold in your hands and stare at a while, shaking your head, wondering how has this come to be?

You know, it might work. For one thing, we could turn it all into a silent auction, for who knows? Someone else might want that thing. Or, failing that, we could have a team of judges and give them a small supply of colored ribbons for various categories, like Most Astonishing, Most Puzzling, and Most Useless.

So what am I doing, but poking fun at how, at this time when the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ most honors matter, like flesh and blood, we do fill our days trying valiantly to repackage matter in such a way that the things we give one another succeed in, well, mattering.

The British poet John Betjeman wrote about this plight in his poem “Advent 1955”, a portion of which I’d like to read to you:

“…For now we feel the world spin round
On some momentous journey bound—
Journey to what? To whom? To where?
The Advent bells call out, ‘Prepare,
Your world is journeying to the birth
Of God made Man for us on earth.’
And how in fact do we prepare
The twenty-fifth day of December,
The birth of Christ? For some it means
An interchange of hunting scenes
On coloured cards. And I remember
Last year I sent out twenty yards,
Laid end to end of Christmas cards
To people that I scarcely know—
They’d sent a card to me, and so
I had to send one back. Oh dear!
Is this a form of Christmas cheer?
Or is it, which is less surprising,
My pride gone in for advertising.
The only cards that really count
Are that extremely small amount
From real friends who keep in touch
And are not rich but love us much.
Some ways indeed are very odd
By which we hail the birth of God.
We raise the price of things in shops,
We give plain boxes fancy tops
And lines which traders cannot sell
Thus parcell’d go extremely well.
We dole out bribes we call a present
To those to whom we must be pleasant
For business reasons. Our defense is
These bribes are charged against expenses
And bring relief in Income Tax.
Enough of these unworthy cracks!
‘The time draws near the birth of Christ’,
A present that cannot be priced
Given two thousand years ago
Yet if God had not given so
He still would be a distant stranger
And not the Baby in the manger.”

Between my wicked thought, and the poet’s clever lines, I conclude that we’ll not get inspired much by the caliber of our own gift-giving. So let’s fix our attention on the nature of God’s giving.

And about that, the Christian claim is astonishing. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…” No, let me read it in paraphrase from The Message, further paraphrased by me: “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need offer himself up on an altar of sacrifice; but by believing in him, by letting his love shape our own, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is put right with God.”

That (more or less) is how our patron, Saint John the Evangelist, expresses the Christian claim. If that wasn’t astonishing enough, the Book of Common Prayer puts it another way. In the collect for the Second Sunday after Christmas, we pray: “O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ…”

God, who invested the human race with dignity, does not hold it against us that we lost that dignity. Rather, God restores it to us as we share the divine life of Jesus, who humbled himself to share our humanity.

Listen to how this matters. God does not go 50% of the way to reach us, across the vast gulf of all that lost dignity. The story of God’s giving at Bethlehem shows God going 100% of the way to reach us. We must learn to reach out like that, go that far out of our way in love, in generosity, in forgiveness, to make the difference the world, someone in our world, needs of us.

We can give whole-heartedly like that, when our hearts are set free by receiving the gift of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

Let us pray:

Holy One, this Christmas, tonight, right now, help us open ourselves to the free and freeing gift of your love in the person and saving grace of Jesus Christ. Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.