Friday, December 25, 2009


Christmas Eve
December 24, 2009

Many of you know that Mike and I eat out a lot. On Saturday, after my sermon is finished, we frequently head for Emperor’s Garden – a Chinese buffet on 41, north of Inverness. Often, but not always, there is an ad in the coupon books. The ad has two coupons: free beverages, or 10% off the meal. Free beverages is the better deal, so that’s the one we use.
Since we have a stack of coupon books, we use one coupon, and pass the other to another diner. It’s always fun to see the look of surprise and delight in their faces when we hand them the coupon. A small, free gift. Unexpected, yet welcome, and valuable, even if it only saves them a little bit.
At different times during my life, I have sometimes devoted a lot of time to gift-wrapping, and sometimes very little. Some birthday gifts are offered in the original Wal-Mart bag, or tucked into a gift bag with a scrap of tissue. Some gifts in easy-to-wrap shirt boxes have tidy, tight corners, with the finished edges folded neatly under. The bow may be a simple stick-on, but there is a bit of ribbon twisted under it to fancy it up. Other gifts are carefully wrapped, with special paper, ribbons, and expensive bows. 
When my boys were small, I knew they were peaking into the closet to look at the gifts hidden there. As they grew, I left off the labels, but wrapped them and put them under the tree. I had a code which changed each year. The code was written small, on the underside of the box, where it was hard to find. One Christmas Eve, as I went to put the labels on the coded packages, I noticed that my tight corners weren’t as tight as I knew I had made them. I guessed it was Danny who had been peeking – and he confirmed that a few years ago. He unwrapped the ordinary gifts – the sweaters, the socks, the pajamas. He hadn’t found the better stuff – the toys and games that were hidden at my office until the last minute. So, I still was able to give him the gift of surprise on Christmas Day.
Over the centuries and centuries of God’s relationship with God’s people, many promises had been made, and many gifts had been given. The promises told of God’s desire to give good gifts to God’s people. Sometimes, those gifts came wrapped in warfare and conquest; sometimes, those gifts came wrapped in peace. The rainbow came after the Flood. The Exodus came after slavery. The settlement into the Promised Land came after battle after battle with local residents. The Babylonian Exile came after conquest, and the Return to Jerusalem 70 years later came as a surprise gift from Cyrus, the Persian.
In our reading from the prophet Isaiah, we learn of a promised new ruler who would restore justice and righteousness to God’s children. The gift of this new ruler would come as a child who would grow up to be Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. This new leader would come wrapped in light, and share that light with those living in darkness.
This promised child did come, 500 years later, as a surprising gift. People of Jesus’ time were looking for royalty – a child born to a descendant of King David, a child born of the royal family, a child born in a palace. The people of Jesus’ time were looking for a military hero, to make things better for them in the short term. The people of Jesus’ time were looking for a new king, to replace Herod, who ruled because Rome said he could.
God’s surprise gift was a baby born in a cave where animals were stabled, gift-wrapped in swaddling cloths, and laid in an animals’ feeding trough. This gift baby was born to a poor family in unusual circumstances – Joseph worked with his hands, and Mary was pregnant before they got married. This gift baby was praised by angels, and visited by shepherds – among the lowest people on the social scale.
It can be hard for us to appreciate the depth of the surprise for this birth of God’s Son.
·         Imagine, if you can, baby Jesus being born in a corner of a New York subway station, or in the dank, dark corners of Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago. Would such a child even have a blanket to be gift-wrapped in?
·         Closer to home, imagine baby Jesus being born to a family in Crystal River, where some of the poorest people in the county live. This child might be gift-wrapped in a thrift store blanket.
·         Or, perhaps, imagine Jesus being born to a family in one of the rental houses down the street or around the corner from this church. A hand-me-down onesie might be the gift-wrap for that child.

Would we be able to see God’s promise in a child born in these circumstances? Would we go to visit him, and praise God for his birth? Or would we wonder, as many did of Jesus, “Can anything good come from Nazareth/ a New York Subway station or Lower Wacker Drive/ Crystal River/ Citrus Springs?”

God has always made promises and fulfilled them in surprising ways. What gifts has God sent to you, wrapped in surprising ways?
·         Has a stranger – or a friend – given you a coupon, just when it would come in handy?
·         Has a life-threatening illness renewed your faith in God? Was that renewal wrapped in the prayers of the faith community that surrounded you?
·         Has a less-than-perfect child drawn you closer to God as you prayed to be able to handle the challenges such a child brought into your life?
·         Has losing a fortune in the stock market – or losing your job because of the recession – caused you to trust even more deeply in the promise of God to provide for you?
·         Has the plight of a neighbor caused you to reach out in love to offer to help?
·         Has a neighbor reached out in love to help you? Was the love wrapped in the offer of money, or food, or a ride, or handy hands, or a cup of tea? Did you accept the gift and unwrap it to receive the love given to and for you?

The baby born in Bethlehem 2000 years ago did not look like a king, did not look like God’s Son, did not look like Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. But he was gift-wrapped in God’s promises of love, justice and righteousness, light and life for all of creation. And his life, death, and resurrection fulfilled God’s promises in those days, and continues to do so today.
Baby Jesus is the gift who keeps on giving, wrapped in God’s love for us, wrapped in our love for one another. This year, as you give and receive gifts, check out the wrapping. It may look fancy or humble, but it is love. Open your hearts and receive it.

Please pray with me. Gracious God, like any parent you wish to give us gifts, and sometimes those gifts come wrapped in surprising ways. Help us to appreciate not just the gift but also the wrapping of love that comes with it. In Jesus’ holy name, we pray. Amen