Our scripture readings for last Sunday and today are obviously linked. Last week, the angel Gabriel announced the birth of John to his father, Zechariah, and Zechariah responded with the praise song we call Benedictus. Today, Gabriel announces the birth of Jesus to his mother, Mary, and Mary responds with the praise song we call Magnificat.
Luke, our gospel writer, structures their stories to make the parallels obvious. John, who will prepare the way for Jesus, is born six months before Jesus. John’s mother, Elizabeth, is long past the normal age of child-bearing. Jesus’ mother is young and still a virgin. Both births count as miraculous, though in different ways.
Mary humbly accepts the role she will play in God’s plan to save the world. But she has few illusions about how easy it will be. Gabriel brings good news to her and to the faithful of Israel, but it’s bad news for just about everybody else.
There’s an old song that prattles on about “gentle Mary, meek and mild.” This is a young woman with grit and spunk. (She might be a role model for Greta Thunberg, among others.) She knows that God will use her boy to turn the world upside-down, and she celebrates the turnover.
After all, this is the God who scatters the proud, knocks the powerful off their thrones, elevates the lowly, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. Bring it on, she says!
Jesus has, indeed, turned the world upside-down. But we’re still waiting for that other part. In today’s world, the proud and powerful rule, the rich are filled with good things, and poor and the desperate are sent away hungry.
The descendants of Abraham are still waiting for fulfilment of that ancient promise of justice and righteousness and peace. When will that happen, O Lord? If you’re waiting for us to make it a reality, you may wait another 2,000 years. Isn’t this something only you can do? Isn’t this the real promise of Advent and Christmas?
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Last Sunday I asked, “What was the worst Christmas present you’ve ever got?” This Sunday, I’ll ask, “What was the best Christmas present you’ve ever got?” No fair answering, “Jesus.”
Jesus is God’s special gift. But to understand why Jesus is such a special gift, it helps if we understand what makes any gift special. So, think for a moment about the best Christmas gift you ever got from another human being.
What makes it best? Is it the size of the gift? The appropriateness of the gift? The uniqueness of the gift? Or perhaps a combination of all these things?
I said something last Sunday that you may think a little odd. I said that a gift is not about the giver but about the person who receives the gift. At least, that’s the way it ought to be.
Good gifts delight the person who receives them – and not just because of the thing they receive. The greatest delight comes in knowing that someone cares enough about you to know that this is something that would delight you.
That’s why some of your favorite gifts probably were the least expected. Because you didn’t even know that you wanted or needed the gift until someone who knows you even better than you know yourself decided that this was something that would delight you.
Once you saw it, you recognized how perfectly fitting it was. Until that moment, the thing may never have been on your mind. You might have walked right by it in a store a hundred times and never given it a thought. But someone who knows you better than you know yourself concluded that this would be the perfect gift for you.
It’s perfect not because it suits the giver, but because it suits you. What makes the gift perfect is not only that it suits you but also that someone knew that it would suit you because that person knows you so well and cares so much about you.
Yes, it really is the thought that counts.
I suspect that the gifts you find most delightful are delightful because they celebrate a relationship. The best gifts are about the recipient, not the giver. But they celebrate the relationship of the recipient and the giver.
If you’re married, look at your wedding ring. Whether it cost $400 or $4,000 matters less to you than what it stands for. It stands for your relationship with your spouse. It was given to you as a sign of that relationship. It celebrates that relationship.
The best gifts are relational gifts. They are the gift of yourself to another. The wedding ring that Linda placed on my finger was a gift to me signifying the gift of herself to me, just as the ring that I placed on her finger was a gift to her signifying the gift of myself to her.
I gave myself with that ring, but the gift wasn’t about me. It was about her and for her. And her gift to me wasn’t about her; it was about me.
The best gifts are relational gifts. They may, in fact, be quite common things such as socks and sweaters, because it really is the thought that counts.
I have a collection of Father’s Day, birthday and “no special occasion” cards that were made for me by my daughters when they were children – and some similar cards made by my young grandson.
Sorry, Hallmark, I treasure these cards far more than anything you could ever produce. “World’s best Dad” written in crayon on construction paper cannot be surpassed by anything machine made.
Once upon a time, all Christmas gifts were handmade because they had to be. Then came the machine age. In the late 1800s it became unfashionable to give handmade gifts. Handmade gifts were considered tacky, unless done by children, and then only up to a certain age. Everybody knew that the best gifts were store bought.
It’s interesting how things have turned again. These days, we consider handmade gifts superior to the store bought. Why? Because they involve a greater personal investment by the giver.
It’s really not about presents. It’s all about presence. That is, it’s really not about presents with a “ts” at the end, meaning material gifts. It’s really all about presence with a “ce” at the end, meaning personal involvement.
The creators of the Advent Conspiracy think we should give fewer gifts that come in a box and more gifts that come from, in and through our very selves. Presents with a “ts” are tokens of our love. Presence with a “ce” show our love most directly.
Why give a token when you can give the real thing? Why give a token of your love when you can show your love in person? Your presence with a “ce” – your time, your attention, your energy, your creativity, your personal investment – mean so much more to those who receive such a gift.
The older I get, the more I appreciate the times that my family can get together. Even if we don’t actually do much of anything when we are together, just being together is the greatest gift I could receive from them.
There are perhaps only two occasions when presents with a “ts” are preferable to presence with a “ce”. One is when you are separated by geography or circumstance – when you live too far away to get back to grandma’s house, or when you are in the military or some other service occupation far away. Then you must send a gift in a box because you can’t give yourself in person.
The other occasion is when the other person’s needs are so great and so urgent that you best show that you care by providing material things such as food, clothing or shelter. Then you give money or you give the present in a box because by itself your presence with a “ce” cannot fill the need. By itself, your presence is not enough.
Remember that when Jesus encountered someone in physical distress, he always healed the person right away. He relieved their immediate physical distress before he attempted to address their other needs. He showed his presence in action, in ways we cannot.
The creators of the Advent Conspiracy suggest that you give one less gift to a loved one so you can give something to someone in need. Chances are, your loved one will never miss that gift. But the person in need may treasure such a gift because it arrives at just the right time and tells that person that she, too, is loved; that he, too, is valued – even if even by someone they’ll never meet.
It’s possible that receiving that gift could even change a life. Have you ever given someone a gift that changes that person’s life? Have you ever received such a gift?
In Jesus, God gives us God’s presence, God’s very self. Some days, even that doesn’t seem enough, when we realize how far the world is from God’s dream for it. Then we remember that Jesus is called Emmanuel, meaning “God with us.”
And having God with us, feeling God’s presence, helps make the long wait more bearable. It’s a cliché, but what we all want for Christmas is peace on earth and goodwill to all.
That’s the promise of Christmas. Let us continue to cherish that promise, even as we await its fulfillment.
“Give more” is a message that the Rev. James Hopwood intended to preach Dec. 15, 2019, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas. He was unable to reach the church because of a snowstorm. However, 28 people carried on quite well without him. The scripture readings for the day were Luke 1:26-33 and 46-55.