"The Half-Unwrapped Gift"
Christmas Eve Dec.24, 2005
Mt.2:1-12; Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7
When we give someone a gift, you want them to appreciate it. You'd feel bad if they took off the wrapping paper and a shadow of dismay crept across their face! So for the past few weeks, shoppers have been spending hours in the stores and online, searching for just the right gift.
For each one of us, there are probably a number of gifts that would cause us to be less than enthusiastic. Particularly gifts that are associated with work that we don't normally do: these would come with an unspoken suggestion, "Get busy, bud!" For instance, I would hardly be excited on Christmas morning to receive a brand spanking-new toilet brush. Or, a husband giving his wife a shiny vacuum cleaner might be rewarded more by a groan than a grin. Or suppose a teenager thought they were unwrapping a snow-board only to discover it was instead a snow SHOVEL. Such gifts might risk remaining forever half-unwrapped: as soon as you see what it is, you stop and reconsider - "Do I really want this?"
The birth of the Son of God in a stable might be very similar. People have in the past usually looked forward to deliverers or a messiah who would rescue them from their troubles. So the song is "Joy to the World" - until they realize Jesus didn't come just to help us out of external fixes; He places a call on our lives that demands inward change in how we operate.
Think of driver Ted speeding down a slippery, drifting winter road with bald summer radials. We're not surprised to find him stuck in the ditch. Of course he needs help getting pulled out. But he needs more than a one-time rescue: he needs different tires! Or he'll just keep getting stuck over and over. Likewise, Jesus challenges our fallen, slide-off-the-road-prone human natures. We want to run our own show, but apart from His intervention, we're just going to end up again in life's ditch. So we need to completely unwrap and accept His Lordship as well as His salvation.
To understand this better, let's contrast two styles of leadership we find in Matthew's Christmas account - and see if we recognize any tendencies in the mirror.
Evil that's Herod-itary
With the current federal election campaign on, it's easy to come across political cartoons that poke fun at our leaders for making promises just to get into power. One current issue is whether to reduce the GST, or ease the tax burden other ways. Since its introduction, the GST has been referred to sarcastically as the "grab, smash, 'n' take". We realize governments need money to operate, so one way or another, they're going to get it. That's just the nature of political power.
Herod the Great might have had "GST" for his nickname: his style of leadership was "grab, smash, 'n' take"; he made Saddam look like a good guy! King Herod wouldn't have tolerated the Gomery inquiry - he'd have executed Judge Gomery before any questions were asked. Commentators note Herod was "a man of great force of character, but a bloody tyrant;" "a man of most bloody and unscrupulous character, a great tyrant, the murderer of his own wife and sons." Herod was a usurper, an Idumean not actually a Jew. He took the throne by force and political manipulation. He held onto power ruthlessly; if Herod smelled even a little whiff of suspicion about you, you were eliminated. Augustus once said that it was better to be Herod's sow than his son, for the sow had a better chance of life.
Follow Herod's political plotting; we may discover there's a little Herod in all of us. In Matthew 2:3 we read, "When King Herod heard this [the Magi's report that a king of the Jews had been born] he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him." Perhaps Herod felt fear, jealousy, rage: as a usurper, he couldn't afford to let a legitimate heir to the throne arise and rally popular support. V4, he "called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law." When you're feeling threatened, some respond by ordering people around, making 'em jump when I say jump; shores up our shaky feelings of being in control. Herod began his reign by arranging a massacre of the whole ruling council, the Sanhedrin, so the priests and scribes probably hastened to comply when he called them together.
Herod asked where the Messiah was to be born. Another essential in holding onto power is to get more information, better information than your opponent has so you're 'one up' on 'em; if we can't out-muscle them, maybe we can outsmart them. V7, Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them what time the star appeared. Manipulators like to operate deviously, in subtle hidden fashion; it's a warning flag of dysfunction when a family has to keep all sorts of secrets. In v8, Herod tells the Magi to tell him where the child is when they find out "so that I too may go and worship him." What a broad-faced lie! Herod's not out to worship Him but to kill Him. V16 tells us sadly, "When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under..." What a slaughter, just to be rid of one potential threat! Herod's true colours finally show through: lying, deceitful, treacherous, destroying dozens of harmless infants just to shore up his grip on power. His pride and selfishness made him REJECT any possibility of a Messiah, rather than be receptive.
We may be shocked and horrified by Herod's evil tactics; but our own everyday actions may not be much more noble. How do WE feel when someone cuts in on us on the highway, or sneaks into the one remaining spot in the crowded mall parking lot before we can? Are we any less hateful when someone alienates a loved one from us by creating distrust or sowing lies? Aren't we quick to shore up our defences when threatened - whether the threat comes from increasing costs, or vandals breaking in to our vehicle or home? At a gut level, our knee-jerk reaction when threatened is to strike back, to do whatever it takes to protect our interests. We become suspicious of others, trying to second-guess their motives, deviously manoeuvring so things will work out to our advantage. There's a lot of Herod in us.
The apostle Paul, writing to Titus, talks about learning to say 'no' to ungodliness and worldly passions: that's saying 'no' to the Herod-side of us. Paul admits in 3:3 - and most of us, if we're honest, will agree - "At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another." Nobody wants to be around a Herod. It's an operating style that works, but at others' expense - and in constant paranoia that you need to "do it" to others before they "do it" to you (kind of a backwards Golden Rule). Grab, Smash 'n' Take - get it while you can, before it all slips away between your fingers.
The Gracious, Giving King
By contrast, the King whose birth we celebrate tonight operates a different way. Christmas is about "the grace of God that brings salvation" - help, not hate; mercy, not massacre. We celebrate the coming of (in Paul's words) "our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ": Jesus is not only God, with greatness to be feared; more than a thunder-bolt-hurling Zeus, He is our Saviour and friend, showing us eternal life. He didn't come to sit in rich purple robes on a marble throne, issuing orders all day; Paul says in v14 Jesus "gave Himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for Himself a people that are His very own, eager to do what is good." Did you catch that? Jesus didn't come to Get, but Gave Himself for us, for two reasons: to redeem and to purify us. He came to earth, to womb, to manger, to wilderness, to fishing boat, to Temple, to the cross, to the grave, giving His whole perfect human life in exchange for our sinful life, freeing us from guilt's stain and punishment for eternity, cut off from God. When God looks at those who believe, who are 'in Christ', the moral sentence for our sin is cancelled; if we repent and confess, we're forgiven - God the Father sees Jesus' spotless reputation clothing us instead of our long list of faults.
But that's only part of it - like getting the vehicle back on the road. Christ also purifies those who commit to Him, He makes us new, equips us with snow tires with righteous grip to cope with and overcome whatever drifts and threats may come. Jesus gives both justification and - if we're willing - sanctification. Paul declares that because of God's mercy, "He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior..." That Herod part of us can be cast out, overwritten by God's very own Spirit poured generously into the centre of our being. It's all made possible through Jesus' giving of Himself, which we first see at Bethlehem. He justifies us - nullifying our sentence - and remakes our character so we're fit to be heirs of eternal life; not usurpers, like greedy Herod, but legitimate sons and daughters of God through faith. The Holy Spirit steers our lives when we yield to Christ; Titus 2:12 says the grace of God teaches us "to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope..."
To completely unwrap the gift of Christmas, to really feel the effects of grace in your life, you can't stop at wanting God on your own terms, as if you're Herod giving Santa a list of orders. You need to humble yourself; join the Magi in bowing down and worshipping the Child; and allow Jesus to work His purifying effect, so your behaviour actually becomes "self-controlled, upright and godly." The Lord's generous gift of grace prompts us to respond by offering our whole life to Him, ready to obey and exercise the spiritual gifts He gives us in loving service to others.
Herod lives by GST, "Grab, Smash, 'n' Take". Because Jesus came, we can live by a different GST: Grace that Saves and Teaches.
Empty Manger / Jesus Inside
Jeannie Williams recalls a Christmas when she was bitter and disheartened because that year her parents, after 36 years of marriage, were getting divorced. Jeannie became depressed; her childhood memories of gleaming decorations and the love they shared as a close family would cause her to burst into tears. But now she needed to buy some ribbon and wrapping paper for her own children, so two days before Christmas, though she dreaded the idea, she headed into town. She recalls:
The store was crowded with last-minute shoppers - pushing, shoving, and complaining as they grabbed from shelves and racks not bothering to put unwanted articles in place. Christmas tree lights and ornaments dangled from open boxes, and the few dolls and stuffed toys reminded me of neglected orphans who had no home. A small nativity scene had fallen to the floor in front of my shopping cart, and I stopped to put it back on the shelf.
After glancing at the endless check-out line, I decided it wasn't worth the effort and had made up my mind to leave when suddenly I heard a loud, sharp voice cry out. "Sarah! You get that thing out of your mouth right now!" "But Mommy! I wasn't puttin' it in my mouth! See, Mommy? I was kissin' it! Look Mommy, it's a little baby Jesus!" "Well, I don't care what it it! You put it down right now! You hear me?" The child insisted, "But come look, Mommy.It's all broken. It's a little manger and the baby Jesus got broked off!"
[The little girl] appeared to be about 4 or 5 years old and was not properly dressed for the cold, wet weather. Instead of a coat she wore a bulky sweater several sizes too large for her small, slender body. Bright colourful pieces of yarn were tid on the ends of her braids, making her look cheerful despite her ragged attire...She clutched the little doll to her cheek, and then she began to hum. Tears slowly filled my eyes as I recognized the melody..."Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head." She had stopped humming and was softly singing the words.
[The mother] was paying no attention to the child but was anxiously looking through the marked-down winter coats displayed on the bargain rack near the end of the counter. Like her daughter she was rather shabbily dressed, and her torn, dirty tennis shoes were wet from the cold, melting snow. In her shopping cart was a small baby bundled snugly in a thick, washed-out, yellow blanket, sleeping peacefully.
"Mommy!" the little girl called to her. Can we buy this here little baby Jesus? We can set Him on the table by the couch and we could..." "I told you to put that thing down!" her mother interrupted. "You get yourself over her right now, or I'm gonna give you a spankin'. You hear me, girl?" "But Mommy!" exclaimed the child. "I bet we could buy it real cheap 'cause it's all broken. You said we ain't gonna get no Christmas tree, so can't we buy this here little baby Jesus instead? Please, Mommy, please?"
Angrily the woman hurried toward the child [Jeannie recalls], and I turned away, not wanting to see, expecting her to punish the child as she had threatened. A few seconds passed as I waited tensely, but I did not hear a sound coming from the next aisle. No movement, no scolding. Just complete silence. Puzzled, I peered from the corners of my eyes and was astonished to see the mother kneeling on the wet, dirty floor, holding the child close to her trembling body. She struggled to say something but only managed a desperate sob, and the little girl seemed to understand her despair.
"Don't cry, Mommy!" she pleaded. Wrapping her arms around her mother, she nestled her head against the woman's faded jacket and avidly apologized for her behaviour. "I'm sorry I wasn't good in this store. I promise I won't ask for nothin' else! I don't want this here little baby Jesus. Really I don't! See, I'll put him back here in the manger. Please don't cry no more, Mommy!"
Her mother answered finally, "I'm sorry too, Honey. You know I don't have enough money to buy anything extra right now, and I'm just crying because I wished I did - it being Chrismas and all - but I get Ole Santa is gonna bring you them pretty little play dishes you been wantin' if you promise to be a real good girl, and maybe next year we can get us a real Christmas tree. How about that! Let's go home now 'fore Jackie wakes up and starts cryin', too." She laughed softly as she hugged her daughter and then kissed her quickly on the forehead.
The little girl was still holding the doll in her hands. She turned to put it on the shelf, glowing with anticipation...She announced excitedly, "You know what, Mommy! I don't really need this here little Baby Jesus doll anyhow! You know why? 'Cause my Sunday School teacher says baby Jesus really lives in your heart!"
I looked at the nativity scene and realized that a baby born in a stable some 2000 years ago was a person who still walks with us today, making His presence known, working to bring us through the difficulties of life, if only we let Him To share in the glorious wonder of this holiday celebration and to be able to see God in Christ, I knew one must first experience Him in the heart. I began to pray: "Thank You, God...for a wonderful childhood filled with precious memories and for parents who provided a home for me and gave me the love I needed during the most important years of my life, but most of all thank You for giving Your Son."
Quickly I grabbed the nativity scene pieces and hurried to the check-out counter. Recognizing one of the sales clerks, I asked her to give the doll to the little girl who was leaving the store with her mother, explaining I would pay for it later. I watched the child accept the gift and then saw her give "baby Jesus" another kiss as she walked out the door.
Jeannie Williams concludes, "The little broken nativity scene I purchased that evening graces my desk every Christmas.It's there to remind me of a child whose simple words touched my life."
We experience God's transformation as we see His Son at work in situations around us, and extend His mercy to others. Jeannie demonstrated grace in paying for the broken manger scene so the little girl could have the figurine. Jesus paid the price so we could be "at home" with Him. The empty manger on her desk reminds us it's most important to have Jesus inside, healing our brokenness, changing us from Herods to helpers who like the Magi offer their best in worship and serving those in need. Let's pray.