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God's Greatest Gift

December 24, 2008, 7:00 pm & 7:30 pm
Christmas Eve
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Pastor Emeritus

Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 98; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:1-20;

This last Sunday in worship, I asked the children why we give gifts at Christmas. I got a wide array of answers ranging from the secular: “because Santa is coming and we’ve been good,” to the emotional: “because we want to show people we love them,” to the historical: “because the Wise Men brought Jesus Gifts.” Fortunately, I did not hear anything about keeping the economy afloat; but given the fact that these are New York City children, that would not have surprised me. Fortunately, these young ones are still sheltered from those harsher realities of life. On the other hand, the evening news has nightly reminded us of the impact of the economy on Christmas revenue for department stores, clothing stores, and shopping malls that depend upon the seasonal surge in income to stay in business. Just out of curiosity, I went online to to see just what the average American usually spends on Christmas. What would you guess it was? It ranged between $600 and $1,500 per person. As I thought further about that, it brought me back to one of the children’s answers: that might easily have been the first century equivalent of the value of the gifts those ancient Magi from the east brought to the Christ child.

But, did you notice, the Magi are absent in tonight’s readings? After all, they appear in only one place: the second chapter of Matthew. And if you read that chapter carefully, you will discover it is not about the night of Jesus’ birth at all, but about the impact of his birth upon principalities and powers at about the time Jesus is ready to enter his terrible twos.1 Matthew used the story of the Magi’s appearance as a way of reminding us that what happened in that little backwater village called Bethlehem, southeast of Jerusalem long ago, was not simply the birth of a liberating king for Israel, as we heard the prophet Isaiah promise in our first lesson–this is a global event. These Wise Men, neither numbered nor named, and in all probability, elite, priest-astrologers from regions east, perhaps Parthia, Rome’s enemy,2 represent for Matthew, Isaiah’s rulers of all the nations who are to come from across the world to respond to the light of God’s presence radiating from the face of this child born to be king.3

The Magi had begun their travel toward the Christ child, the night his star appeared in their heavens–the same night the heavens exploded about the shepherds in the light and angelic song of, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to God’s people on earth.” They too were on their way to worship–to pay homage and express their political and religious submission. When they stop off in Herod’s court to ask about the child, it becomes apparent to Herod that a rival to his own throne has been born. Is it any wonder Matthew tells us that at the Magi’s message, not only Herod but all Jerusalem with him was frightened? The birth of a liberating king for all people, the child Isaiah sings about so triumphantly, whose appearance will bring light in the midst of their darkness, joy like that at an exceedingly abundant harvest, and the destruction of all implements of warfare, will be met by the powers of that day with hostility and brutal violence aimed at everyone–especially the innocent–in order to stay in power. Herod has every right to be frightened by the Magi’s news; and when the Herods of this world are frightened, so are all else who have an ounce of sense. He orders the massacre of the children in and around Bethlehem, two-year-olds or younger, as an attempt to hold on to his throne.4

Here is the downside of the incarnation: the incursion of God’s presence in the world always drives the power of Evil to do its utmost to destroy, but Evil is no match for God. This child is a king that those who abuse power will always find their enemy, whether in Rome or Harare, a king they should rightly fear, for he has and will continue to displace every pharaoh, despot, monarch or dictator that has opposed him and his ways. You see, history is on his side, not simply because it is history, but because it is quite literally, his story.

How different the shepherd’s reactions. But then, they were anything but the elite, and had little to lose. The message is much the same: news of a child to be born savior. But what to Herod was a threat, is to the shepherds good news. “Do not be afraid; I bring you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” The difference here is not in the child; he remains the same. The difference is not his purpose; that too remains the same–a liberated world where justice, righteousness and lasting peace are the norm. The difference is simply in how the news of his birth is received. Is he welcomed as gift, or rejected as threat? Does he come as God’s judgment upon us, or as God’s goodness and loving kindness to us?

Tonight is about gifts, but not the gifts of the Magi. Tonight is about giving, but not about our own giving, whether to one another or even to this child. Tonight is about a gift more costly and valuable than the sum total of all that has ever after been expended on Christmas gifts. This is about God’s gift to us–God’s greatest gift–the gift of himself. The scandalous and outrageous claim of the Christian faith lies hidden beneath the wrappings of angels and shepherds, but cannot be masked behind slogans of peace on earth and good will to all people. The sheer audacity of this moment cannot be toned down by baby’s coos and cattle’s lowing. The astounding claim of tonight cannot be tamed by gifts large or small, extravagant or simple. The word is simply this: God has come among us as one of us in this child, become one of us, so that you and I may become one with God in him. That is what Christmas is about. The atonement of humankind has begun. And what began that night with God’s entrance into God’s created order in a new and transforming way, to reclaim, redeem, renew, and reorder is still taking place. He is no longer a child, but he is still present. He is here for everyone. His presence, power and purpose are not dependent upon our acceptance, our adherence or our belief. This is simply the way it is–God acting as God; as only God can. We may like it, we may not; we may welcome it, we may not; at one level it does not make any difference whatsoever. We are as powerless to stop God now as Herod was long ago. But the gift is for us. It is, in the word of the letter to Titus: “The goodness and loving kindness of God our Savor appearing (sic) to save us, not because of any works of righteousness that we have done or might do, but according to God’s mercy–according to the very nature of God, God’s self.

So at one level it matters not a whit what you and I think or do. Yet at another, how you and I respond makes all the difference in the world. Herod set out to destroy him, and was himself ultimately destroyed. Mary treasured the shepherds’ words about the angels’ message and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned to their abandoned sheep, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as it had been told to them. One wonders if they made any sense of what they had seen the next day, and if it made any difference. Was it just a night of glorious Christmas music? But the Magi, the wisest of those included in tonight’s story, went home another road–another way.5 It is not just that they heeded the dream that warned them not to return to Herod in Jerusalem, but rather, ever after there was for them “another road in life, another way.”

This is God’s greatest gift–God’s giving of God’s self to us in this child so that we may receive him as the gift of another way and find in him not only that other way, but the gift of new as well as eternal life.

Let us pray:

    O holy Child of Bethlehem,
    Descend to us, we pray;
    Cast out our sin and enter in,
    Be born in us this day.
    We hear the Christmas angels
    Their great glad tidings tell;
    O come to us, abide with us,
    O Lord Emmanuel! Amen.

    1. Matthew 2:1-12
    2. Warren Carter, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible–NRS, with Apocrypha, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003), p. 1749f, footnote 2:1.
    3. Isaiah 60:1-3
    4. Matthew 2:16
    5. Matthew 2:12

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