A Christmas Gift
by Jack Wald | December 25th, 2011

Matthew 2:1-11

The origin of giving gifts at Christmas has a number of different sources. In Matthew’s gospel we read that the magi came to see Jesus in Bethlehem, about a year after he was born, with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Although this is a logical precedent for giving gifts at Christmas, it does not seem to have been what motivated Christians to begin the gift-giving tradition.

One source for this tradition comes from the celebration of the Winter Solstice (December 21) in ancient Rome. During the feast of Kalends, high ranking officials were expected to give gifts to the Emperor since the Winter Solstice celebrated the birth of the Sun God, to whom the emperor was directly related.

Why does this have anything to do with Christmas? Since Christians did not know when Jesus was born (it is most likely he was born in the spring), they adopted the celebration of the Winter Solstice and some of its traditions as a way of celebrating the birth of Jesus. This began the custom of exchanging gifts.

Another early source of gift-giving comes from St. Nicholas, who was a historic 4th-century saint and Greek Bishop of Myra, part of modern-day Turkey. Because of the many miracles attributed to his intercession, he is also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him, and thus became the model for Santa Claus.

In the 1800s with the development of modern advertising, the giving of Christmas gifts shifted into high gear and today retailers in the US count on Christmas for 20% of their annual sales. Retailers love any excuse for people to come and shop so even here in Morocco there has been an increasing presence of Christmas with trees and lights and gifts over the past twelve years I have been here.

One of the best gifts I ever received was the Christmas before Annie and I were married. Annie bought twelve presents, one for each day of the twelve days of Christmas. I can’t remember them all anymore, but here are six of them. She gave me a wicker wastebasket, a novel by Saul Bellow, the game of Monopoly, a Bob Dylan album, a box of mints and a tea mug which I still use today. She knew what I liked and went out to buy these presents as an expression of her love for me. Those presents were wonderful.

One of the best presents I ever gave was for my father. When I was an infant, my father built his own house. He worked evenings after work, weekends and vacations. He worked in all the seasons of the year, even when there was snow on the ground. He did this for a couple years and never tired of talking about this experience. He was very proud that he had built this house by himself. My parents moved a couple times after this and the year before I came to Morocco, I drove to the town where my father had built his house and located it. I was writing his oral history and wanted a picture of what the house he built looked like forty years after he left. I discovered that the door knocker was still the original one he had put on the door. And it had his name written on it: John R. Wald jr.

I talked with the people who now owned the house and explained who had built their house and asked them if I could buy the door knocker. They agreed and that Christmas I gave my father the door knocker as a present, forty years after he had left his house. He was so surprised and delighted. That was a great gift.

This morning I want to give each of you a gift. The ushers will hand them out and I ask you not to open your gift until I tell you to.

Now that everyone has a gift, open it.

Some of you have a new ten dirham coin, others two new five dirham coins. These are the new coins, uncirculated, in mint condition. How do you feel receiving a gift in church? Do you like your gift? Is this a good gift? For some of you this gift will be more appreciated than for others. It is difficult to give the same gift to everyone and have everyone equally pleased.

This morning I want to talk about giving a gift, receiving a gift and then sharing a gift.

First, giving a gift. What makes a gift a good gift?

The first necessary part of giving a good gift is that you have to know the person you are giving the gift to. Giving a ten dirham coin does not show that I know you. To make a really good gift I would have to know what you like. If I gave you a soccer ball, you might be delighted and you might want to throw it at my head. The first Christmas after my brother-in-law was married, he gave my sister the romantic present of a pair of running shoes and I think she might have thrown them at his head.

The point is that we do not all have the same tastes. We do not all like wearing the same kind of clothes. We are individuals and when someone takes the time to know us and buys us a present that matches what we like, it is a great gift.

When I know you, I know what you need and what you like. One of my daughters gave me a cd of a man playing Bach on a ukelele. She knows I like unusual things. Another daughter gave me a shirt from Malaysia from a butterfly farm. It is a beautiful shirt. They know me and know how to give me a gift that I will appreciate.

Giving a good gift begins with knowing the person who will receive the gift.

The second part of giving a good gift is to give something that meets a need in the person’s life.

Once I know you, I can think about what you would enjoy. It could be something you want or something you need, but the gift needs to be directed specifically to you in a way that meets your needs.

In the marriage course Annie and I hold, there is a couple who talk about gift giving as a love language. The wife talks about a present her husband gave her that was really special. He gave her a tube of toothpaste and she was delighted. It was just a tube of toothpaste but what made this special is that she had mentioned that her teeth needed to be whitened and also mentioned that her teeth were becoming more sensitive to hot and cold. So her husband bought toothpaste with whitening and desensitizing ingredients in it. The wife was so pleased with the gift because it showed he had listened to her and paid attention to what she wanted.

The third part of giving a great gift is that it needs to cost you something to give it.

What made the gift the Magi brought to Jesus so special? They brought three expensive gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, but the gifts they brought were not the best part of their gift. It is the long journey to Bethlehem that is the most special part of the gifts they brought to Jesus. It is the long walk to Bethlehem that was the best part of their gift. They took the time and effort to travel a long way to find Jesus.

Annie took the time to think about what I liked and then went out to get and wrap the twelve presents. The doorknocker I gave my father was a great gift and part of the gift was that I took the effort to drive to the town where he built his house to get it, a three hour drive one way. It did not cost much money but it did cost in time and effort.

We received a Christmas ornament someone made for us this year and it is not only beautiful, but I know it took time and effort to make it. That makes it a wonderful gift.

Given these three qualifications of a good gift, how does God’s gift of Jesus to us at Christmas rate?

God knows us. God knows not only what we like and don’t like, he knows what we need at the deepest level of our being. He knows what we need even when sometimes we have no idea what is we most need.

We look around and think we need a house, a car, some electronics, a vacation. But God sees past those superficial desires. In the words of Paul Simon,
We work our jobs
Collect our pay
Believe we’re gliding down the highway
When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away

The end of this life is approaching when all we have worked so hard for and all we have desired so fiercely will slip away and we will be lost. Our hard work and hard-earned reputation and hard-earned money will not save us. We will be lost and it is this that Jesus sees so clearly. This is why Jesus came, to save us, to rescue us.

This is the gift of Christmas. God knows us so completely that he gave us the gift we most desperately need.

The third qualification of a good gift is the cost involved. The Magi made the long walk to Bethlehem which made their gift a great gift. Jesus made the long walk from eternity into our finite world. In the words of the early church hymn, (Philippians 2:6–8)
though [Jesus] was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

God made the long walk to earth to become human and then kept on walking to the cross where he died in our place. This gift has everything that makes a great gift. We are known. Our deepest need is met with the gift and the cost of the gift is beyond our comprehension.

How do we receive a gift?

It depends on the gift.

Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities, takes place during the French Revolution when the aristocracy is being guillotined. There are two men in this novel, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton. Charles Darnay is the protagonist who ends up marrying Lucy and they all live happily ever after. Sydney Carton is a shady character who no reader roots for when reading the book. At the end of the book, Charles Darnay is in jail awaiting the guillotine when Sydney Carton arranges to take his place. (They look very much like each other.) So Sydney Carton goes to the guillotine in place of Charles Darnay so Charles can live. This is where the famous line comes from, “Tis a far better thing I do than I have ever done before.”

This is your situation. You were sitting in jail awaiting the guillotine and then Jesus took your place so you might live.

When you receive a present from someone, a beautiful bowl or a painting, it is impolite not to respond with a note expressing your appreciation for the gift. Not to respond to the gift is rude and insulting. The larger the gift, the greater the obligation. If I give you a plastic ring I found on the street, not much of a response is needed. If I give you a diamond ring, a greater response is expected. Maybe even, “Yes, I will marry you.”

If we are walking down the sidewalk and I step out into the street and you pull me back so I do not get hit by a car, a thank you is appropriate. If you push me back to safety and in the process get hit by the car and go to the hospital with a broken arm, a mere thank you seems inadequate. If you are killed by the car as you push me to safety, my life now takes on a new meaning, I have to live with the knowledge that you died to save me.

But now, if I am facing death, and you choose ahead of time that you will take my place, that you choose to die so I am free to live, I owe you my life. I must live the rest of my life for you.

In the case of Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, the sacrifice was mitigated somewhat by the fact that Sydney was not a good person and deserved to die. Charles Darnay lived the rest of his life knowing that Sydney Carton had gone to the guillotine in his place. But think how different the story would have been if Charles Darnay had taken Sydney Carton’s place, if Charles Darnay, who did not deserve to die, had gone to the guillotine for Sydney Carton who did deserve to die?

This is what happened with you and Christ.

And as if that was not enough, God keeps on rescuing you. When you try to do right and fail, when you try to resist temptation and fail, God does not reject you. The Holy Spirit keeps on working in you, giving you second and third and fourth and fifth chances. As Christians, we are continually being rescued by God who does not give up on us, even when we give up on ourselves. God brings us hope over and over again as he encourages us to step up and try once more to live a life pleasing to him.

How do we respond to a gift that is given as perfectly as the gift of Jesus at Christmas? Paul spent eleven chapters of his letter to the church in Rome talking about the incredible work of God to rescue us and then in Romans 12:1 he writes:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

In view of God’s great gift, we offer ourselves.

Notice what Paul did not say. He did not say we should offer our tithes, a portion of what we have. He did not say we should offer our time after we are finished with school or work responsibilities. He did not say we should offer the abilities we are confident we can use well.

There are no limitations to what Paul said we are to offer. We are to offer our bodies.

When a Jew brought a sheep to the Temple to be offered as a sacrifice, what happened? Did the priest clip off a bit of wool and toss it into the fire as a symbolic offering of the sheep? No. A knife was slit across the throat of the sheep and the lifeblood of the sheep was poured out. The sheep gave everything.

This makes me think of the chicken and the pig who were walking down the road when they passed a church having a fund-raising breakfast advertising “Ham and Eggs!” The chicken said, “Let’s go in and make a donation.” The pig responded, “For you it’s a donation. For me it’s a sacrifice.”

Paul did not urge us to make a donation, he urged us to make a sacrifice.

In Revelation 1 when John had his revelation of the ascended Jesus in all his glory and majesty, remember how he responded?
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.

Paul urges us to climb up on the altar and lay down our head for the slit of the knife. John did not care if he lived or died, he was at the feet of Jesus and all of him was offered to Jesus. Paul urges us to offer ourselves, all that we are, all that we desire, all that we hope to be and to be ready to give it all up for Jesus.

That is our appropriate response to the great gift of Jesus at Christmas.

What will you do with the ten dirhams you received this morning? It is a gift given without any conditions. You can see how far you can throw it. You can lose it. You can give it away. You can spend it on some candy. You can do anything you want with it.

The same is true with the gift of Jesus at Christmas. You are under no obligation to do anything with the gift of Jesus. You can ignore it. You can throw it away. You can leave church this morning without making any response to the gift of Jesus. It is not a gift you are forced to receive.

But I have to say that if you do ignore or throw away the gift of Jesus that is offered to you, the time is coming when you will deeply regret your choice. You may die this year or many years from now, but you will die and then what will you do? Jesus is a gift perfectly chosen for you, exactly what you most need and given at great cost. Be careful what you do with such a gift.

How do we share a gift?

If you were dying from cancer and someone gave you a cure for cancer, would you take it, be cured and then sit on it? Would you be grateful that you were healed and be unconcerned about others with cancer?

The shepherds had an evening concert when the angels appeared to them and shared good news (Luke 2:8–20 )
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.

How was it possible for the shepherds not to share what they had seen and heard?

Did they go door to door and hand out tracts? I don’t think so. What they had experienced was so amazing they shared with their friends and neighbors in a spontaneous expression of their delight.

We cannot sit on the knowledge that Jesus came to rescue us from certain death. We must share what we have experienced. But our world is not the same as the shepherds. We live in a world that is aware of Jesus and most people have a preconceived view of who Jesus is. Going door to door with tracts in this country would not be a good idea. So how do we share what we have received with others?

Receiving the gift of Jesus is a transforming experience. Because of the grace and mercy of God, when we surrender to Jesus, we are saved and have hope of eternal life. This is given to us without any effort on our part.

But then begins a process that is the second stage of salvation and this does involve our effort. The Holy Spirit comes to us and begins to work in cooperation with us to transform us into holy beings. Some of us are further along than others, but we begin to live increasingly transformed lives. Sometimes the change in someone when they surrender to Jesus is dramatic and sometimes it is more gradual, but when we surrender to Jesus, the Holy Spirit begins to work with us to transform us.

This becomes our witness, the way we share with others what God has done. We live transformed lives, showing kindness to people, respecting others, caring for others, helping as we are able to help.

I talked about this last night at our Christmas Eve service. In John’s gospel Jesus said (John 9:5)
As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.

But notice that he said, “As long as I am in the world…” Jesus was the light of the world when he walked the roads of Palestine. But what about now?

In Matthew 5:14 Jesus taught his disciples,
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.

As we are transformed, we reflect the light of Jesus to the world, just as the moon reflects the light of the sun.

I have a friend who was deported last year along with his wife and family. They were so much loved in their neighborhood that when the news spread that they had to leave the country, the neighbors came to their apartment and wept. Their landlord wept. They had been so important to that neighborhood, praying with people and counseling with them. They were admired for being people of the Book. Their daily lives were a proclamation that Jesus loves us and came to rescue us. They brought the light of Jesus into their neighborhood.

Jesus is the perfect gift, given to us. Jesus is what you need more than anything else you think you need. Jesus made the long walk from eternity into our finite world so he could rescue us. What does it mean for the pre-existing creator God to become human and enter into the suffering of our lives? What does it mean for Jesus to take on sin and die for us. We will never, not here and not in heaven, be able to comprehend the scope of this gift. We will always be in awe of the sacrifice he made for us. We will always be amazed at the depth of his love for us.

How will you respond to the gift of Jesus to us?

Some of you have grown up in churches and heard the story over and over again but never made a declaration that you decide, from this point forward, to live for Jesus. Some of you may not be familiar with the story, but still you know in your heart that what I have said this morning it truth with a capital T.

The Holy Spirit is present with us and if you sense that truth has been spoken, then you need to decide if you will respond and make a decision to follow Jesus.

We are going to pray and then sing a couple Christmas songs. As we do, I encourage you to come forward and pray with one of us at the front of the church. Let today be the day you decide to follow Jesus.

Some of you have given your life to Jesus but then backed away. Jesus does not force us to stay with him. Our following of him is always voluntary. Some of you have been pulled aside by temptation and you have lived with guilt. After awhile the guilt was too uncomfortable and so you dulled your conscience. But this morning the Holy Spirit is reminding you of your need to repent.

I encourage you when we are singing the last two songs this morning to come forward and pray with one of us. Surrender to Jesus this morning. Rededicate your life to Jesus. Determine this morning that you will resist temptation, turn away from sin and move forward with Jesus.

Jesus is the gift that keeps on giving. Repent from your heart, turn to him and he will accept you with open arms.