Christmas gifts

Good morning, Friends! Merry Christmas!

I hope you all had a good day yesterday.
Did you get anything nice for Christmas? Last week I invited people to bring one of your presents to show everyone this morning.

It doesn’t matter what it was. Did you get socks, or an ugly sweater? Did you get something delicious, that you already ate up at home?

Where does all this business of Christmas presents come from? People have been doing this for a long time now.

Whether it’s a new sweater or a partridge in a pear tree, Christmas presents have been given for hundreds of years.

Christmas presents are only mentioned once in the entire Bible. It’s in the Scripture that we’re going to read today.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, wise people from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. King Herod called together all the chief priests and teachers of the law, and asked them where the Messiah was to be born.

“In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the wise people secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.

When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another way.

Matthew 2:1-12

So, it was the wise men who were the ones who started all the Christmas presents. They brought things to give to Jesus. They knew that Jesus was a king, and back in their day, you always brought presents to a king to show your love and loyalty.

Later on, people gave presents to each other. Some people gave presents to their loved ones. Other people gave presents to the poor, because Jesus said that whatever we do for the least and lowest of our brothers and sisters, it’s just the same as if we do it personally, to him. But that’s how it all started.

I remember a lot of great presents. One year, the first meeting I served, there were these twin boys. They were about 4 years old. Both of them got great big stuffed toy alligators for Christmas.

They brought them to church Christmas day, to show them off. You could hardly see the boys’ heads over top of the pews. All through worship that Sunday, the boys kept wrestling with their new toy alligators.

I don’t think anybody heard a single word of what I said that morning. Everybody kept listening to the sound of growls and roars from their pew. And everybody keep looking at the alligator heads and tails that kept flipping over the top edge of the pew, as they fought it out.

When I was a boy, my mother always told us a story about a special Christmas she had, when she was a girl. That year she told her parents that all she wanted was a desk for her bedroom. Just a desk – nothing else!

Well, Christmas morning came, and there were piles of presents for every member of the family. And over in the corner, next to the tree, was just what my mother had asked for – a brand new desk, sitting all by itself. My mom was happy, but she gulped a little when she realized that her parents had taken her literally. The desk was all she was going to get that year.

She went over to it, and ran her hand over the shiny top. Then she opened one of the drawers – and found it was filled with presents! Her parents hadn’t forgotten. The other drawers had presents from her brothers and the rest of her family.

We still tell that story in our family all these years later. It’s a reminder that sometimes we get what we ask for – and sometimes, we get so much more.

Let me tell you another Christmas gift story.

Back at another meeting I served, there were two older people. Blanche and Walter.

Blanche and Walter had been friends for many years. They were both widowed, and they went everyplace together. Every chicken pie supper, every yard sale, every community gathering, Blanche and Walter were always there together.

Then, by accident, some silly little thing started a fight, and they both wound up with hurt feelings. And these two good people, these two old friends, stopped speaking to one another.

On Sunday morning, they would drive in separate cars to the meetinghouse. If one of them saw the other person’s car had gotten there first, the one who came late would sit outside, in the car, and not come in. They wouldn’t even walk into the building, if they knew that the other person was there.

This went on for close to a year. They were both good, kind, generous people. But once they started this silent, stubborn fight, they didn’t know how to finish it.

So that year, just before Christmas, I wrote to each of them. I said that it would be the nicest Christmas present I could imagine, if the two of them would make up with each other.

It turned out that both of them were just waiting for somebody to make the first move. They were lonely, and they missed each other. But they were both too proud for either of them to take the first step.

And on Christmas morning – Christmas fell on a Sunday that year – both of them walked in together to worship. And they shook hands and hugged each other in front of the whole church.

It was the best Christmas that any of us could ever remember. The whole church gave thanks. We realized that by sitting back and feeling helpless all that time, we had all been hurting ourselves.

These are true stories, by the way. I’m not making any of these up. Let me tell you one more story, about a special Christmas gift.

Kurt was a teenager in a meeting where I once worked. He had a lot of problems in his life. He was tall and he was skinny and he was painfully shy. Kurt didn’t have a lot of friends. After years of soul-searching and denial, he had come to realize that he was gay. Talk about how not to fit in!

Kurt’s mother was a waitress who had to work two or three jobs to make ends meet. Nobody knew what ever happened to his father. There was never enough money in the house for any of the things that mattered for a teenager who desperately wanted to be cool.

Late one day in early December, Kurt came to see me. He wanted to get a Christmas present for his mom, and he had no money at all. We had two small children then, so we didn’t have much to spare, but we liked Kurt and wanted to help.

I had fallen way behind on my fall yard work, so I asked Kurt if he would rake the leaves behind the meetinghouse and the parsonage. He agreed, and said he would come every afternoon when school let out.

That week the weather turned bitter cold. The wet leaves froze in clumps, which made raking a lot more difficult. Kurt only had a thin coat and no gloves, and I had nothing which would fit him. But he was determined, and he kept at it.

Dusk came early, but he stayed outside raking until it was too dark to see. When Kurt finally came indoors, he was so cold that his teeth were chattering and he was shivering all over. We sat him next to the radiator in the kitchen and poured hot cocoa into him till he thawed out.

At the end of a week, the raking was all done. We paid Kurt what we had agreed, plus a little more, and he had the money he needed to do some Christmas shopping for his mom and his two young sisters.

All week long, we had noticed that Kurt’s sneakers were too small for him. They were worn out, with holes and broken shoelaces and no socks.

For some kids this wouldn’t matter, but Kurt was at an age when he wanted so badly to look cool, especially at school. Right now, every kid in the entire school could see that he was poor.

So when Kurt went Christmas shopping for his mom and his sisters, we went Christmas shopping for Kurt. We got him a new pair of sneakers (size 13), and wrapped them up and gave them to his mom to put under the family’s battered tree. We got him some socks and gloves and a warm hat.

One way or another, it wound up being a really special Christmas for Kurt – and for our family as well. Later that year, I helped him fill out his application to get into the local community college. His life got a whole lot better.

Do you see what I’m saying with all these stories? Christmas is more than just what we get, or what we give ourselves. Christmas is more than just presents you pick up from a store or buy online.

Those gifts are fine, and we love to give them and receive them. But the best Christmas presents are the ones that come from the heart. They’re ones that money can’t buy.

The best Christmas presents are the ones that make people feel loved and accepted. They’re the ones that help people feel safe and secure.

The best Christmas presents are the ones that surprise us and fill us with joy. That’s why we do all the bows and wrapping paper. It’s an echo of the surprise that Mary and Joseph must have felt, when kings came to their door, with gifts for their newborn baby.

The best Christmas presents are the ones that bring people together, like those two old friends I told you about. That’s an echo of the message the angel brought, who came and said, “Peace on earth, and good will among all people!”

Christmas is about God’s overflowing love. God doesn’t just give us what we ask for. God gives us more than we ask, more than we expect. God surprises us, like the desk my mother got, where every drawer was filled with unexpected presents.

Christmas is when we give to people who feel lonely and powerless and cast out, like that teenage boy I told you about. Nobody at school wanted to be his friend. Nobody thought he was cool. Christmas was going to be cold and unhappy for Kurt.

God gave us an opportunity to help turn that around. He felt proud of himself again. He made his mom and his sisters happy.

But, see, that’s what Christmas is about. Because it’s things like this that Jesus came to do. He came to help the blind see, and the deaf hear and the lame walk.

He came to tell people that God loved them, and that they didn’t have to carry heavy burdens around with them all the time.

Jesus didn’t just tell people to forgive, he told us how to do it. He told us about joy, and about a life that begins now and lasts forever.

Christmas is more than just a story we read once a year. It’s hundreds of stories, it’s all these stories, in each of our lives, where Christ is born, and where the gifts arrive and just keep on coming.

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