“It’s Not Under the Tree”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
December 23, 2018
1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.
2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
3 All went to their own towns to be registered.
4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.
5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.
7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:
11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth 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 heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
How many of you think there is a present for you under the tree? How many of you know there is one because you looked and saw your name on at least one present under the tree. Yes, mmhmm… confession is good for the soul, and I am not even going to ask who might have shaken a present, or gone looking for one because you didn’t see one under the tree. And if you bought it, wrapped it, put your name on it and put it under the tree that doesn’t count. No sir!
It’s a good feeling to see your name on a present under the tree isn’t it? Makes you feel good! And if you don’t see one, no matter how “mature” you may try to be that little voice in the back of your head is saying something, you know it is. It may vary from something as simple as, “hmmm, I wonder…?” To a full-blown, “Hey what the heck? I’ve been a good boy [ or girl ] this year!” Yes, it is a good feeling to find your name under the tree. That assures you at least one gift for YOU this Christmas.
Of course, all that stuff under the tree can get costly depending on the number of people you are buying for. I guess just be glad you aren’t buying all of the gifts from the “Twelve Days of Christmas” for everyone on your list. Have you seen those estimates of how much those presents cost? I went on line, because you know you can “Google” everything, and found out that Forbes magazine reports that it will cost you almost $40,000 to buy all 364 gifts in the classic Christmas carol, up $450 from last year. I always wondered if the cost meant they bought all the other gifts every day up to the twelfth day but evidently with it being 364 gifts that is what it means. Last week my daughter told me that the “5 Golden Rings,” are actually birds, not jewelry. I suspect that would bring down the total a bit.
Of course, if the list of the twelve days isn’t bad enough there is the list in that lovely Christmas song, “Santa Baby,” in which the singer implores Santa that she has been a very good girl and so would like “Santa Baby,” to “slip a sable under the tree, for me.” As well as a convertible car, a yacht, a platinum mine and a few other things including “checks” and she doesn’t mean the cereal mix.
All that aside, this morning I want to talk about you, about presents for you, about what’s under the tree for you, and what’s not. I wonder what you really wish would be under the tree for you? Maybe it would be a convertible or checks or something like that. All you more virtuous people are saying, world peace or better health or the end of world hunger, you know that isn’t going to be under the tree.
I say all this because I was struck by those two words in the Scripture this morning, “for you.” It’s what the angels said to the shepherds: “for to you is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” For you! Now maybe they meant more than just those scraggly, smelly, old shepherds but they meant them. That’s who they were talking to. So whatever else the message of Christmas is, it is to a group of people among the least socially acceptable. So maybe there is hope for the rest of us if the shepherds qualify for “good news of great joy.” But here’s the thing, what they announced to the shepherds couldn’t be put under a tree with a ribbon and bow and a nametag. Good new, great joy, salvation, all those things are pretty hard to wrap and label and put under a tree. That’s not to say expensive presents under the tree aren’t welcome and appreciated – keep ‘em coming! – But the truth is the gift that most of us really want most this Christmas isn’t going to be under the tree, and I don’t mean a ’54 convertible in blue.
And think about the reaction of the shepherds to this news. They are so moved they leave their sheep out there in the fields, no word whether they left one shepherd to watch over them all or left them all untended, and go to “see this thing that had been made known to them.” What would be so great that it would give a shepherd courage to go see a king? That would be unimaginable in most circumstances. What would make them think they would be welcome? Smelly, dirty, poor old shepherds – not really welcome among the poorest of the poor but at the cradle of a new – born king? Yet they went, and they saw and they reported what they had been told.
The truth is none of us has probably ever been so moved by this story of a baby born in 1st Century Palestine, to a couple of poor peasant parents, shamefully unwed to boot as to be filled with wonder, awe and a decision to risk whatever the reaction might be to go see what God has done. Christmas these days is mostly a chore of too many extra duties on top of the stress of everyday life while trying to squeeze in something we call “Christmas Spirit,” at least once when we hear “Do You Hear What I Hear” for the 700th time. Wonder and awe? Most of us lost that sometime around age 7.
So what would it take for God to announce to you, to YOU: I bring you good news of great joy for all the people, a Savior” for you to truly be filled with wonder, awe, and joy? Truth is some of us are far better givers than receivers. I pity my family at birthdays and Christmas. I am a terrible person to buy a gift for. Our oldest son cared enough to contact his mother – from the other side of the globe, somewhere around Singapore – to actually ask what I would like for Christmas. He actually was thinking about buying me a Christmas present. You know you have arrived as a parent when the kid actually at least thinks about giving you a gift. The sad thing? She, my own wife, said, “I don’t know.” She doesn’t have a clue what to buy me for Christmas. I am a terrible person to buy gifts for. I don’t think it is because I am poor at receiving, but I am definitely better at giving, but even then…
Well, I guess I am scarred by my childhood experience of trying to give a gift. My family still makes fun of me for what they call the “Cigar Box Award.” It wasn’t an award. It was my attempt at making a Christmas present for my father. I was maybe 6 at the time. It was last minute and I didn’t have any money to buy anything. All these years later I don’t even remember what I actually put in there to be a gift. Maybe it was nothing, I don’t remember. All they remember is that there was an old cigar box, remember them? And I had taken some newspaper that I found in a trash can that was wadded up and I put that in the box to serve as the replacement for fancy tissue paper around whatever was the gift. Now I didn’t know there was a cigarette butt in there – I was in a hurry not to get discovered as I wanted it to be a surprise. But sure enough, when my father opened it and was taking the old crumpled up newspaper out to see what was in there a cigarette butt fell out and some ashes too. Anyway, something meant to be a child’s first effort at gift-giving failed and became my older siblings’ ongoing laugh-fest called derisively “the cigar-box award.” They all asked if they were going to “win” the “cigar –box award” the next year, suggesting of course that such a win wasn’t really a prize. Ah, old scars and memories….
But what would you do if God sent angels to you to say, “I bring YOU good tidings of great joy?” What would give you great joy? God said it was a Savior, a Messiah who is the Lord. Would it be enough if I told you that the message of the angels is that God comes for YOU? Just as God came for those shepherds? After all, the angel said it: “I bring you good news of great joy for ALL THE PEOPLE!” That includes YOU and me. It may not be under the tree this Christmas – in fact, I can pretty much assure you it isn’t, because if you could put what you really need under the tree who would need a Savior? But God’s gift to you is God’s own Self, a Savior is born, TO YOU. God’s pure love is for you. God’s pure light is for you. God’s loving presence is for you, and for me, and for everyone else.
I don’t know about you but that ought to be something that would make “heaven and earth rejoice.” That ought to be enough to bring “Joy to the World.” And sure, while it is also for the shepherd and the peasant girl, for Mr. Trump and for Mrs. Clinton, and for Putin, and for those dangerous immigrant hordes trying to invade our country, it is also for you.
Do you remember the feeling when you got something that was yours? All yours? Do you remember your first car? Do you remember when you got your first job and got that paycheck? Do you remember that first house you bought? Do you remember that first child? Yours, uniquely yours. Oh, sure you had to share the car with people and the house and the paycheck, well it went before you knew it, but it was yours. So when I say the love of God is YOURS, just because it is also for all those other people it doesn’t diminish the amount or quality of love God came to bring you. It is infinite. It is perfect. It is for you. You won’t find it under the tree. It isn’t under the tree. But if you let the gift of God in Jesus Christ come to you, that love of God is yours.
“Good news, of great joy, to ALL the people. A Savior is born, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” What a gift! It isn’t under the tree. But it has your name on it. It is the gift of God’s presence with you. It is love, perfect, pure, unearned, undeserved, but for YOU. Will you receive that gift? Amen.