Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Gifts in Unexpected Places

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 25, 2008

Year B: The Nativity of Our Lord
Isaiah 62: 6-7, 10-12
Titus 3: 4-7
Luke 2: 1-20

Christmas Gifts in Unexpected Places

So, how’s everyone’s Christmas been so far? Pretty good? Last night both services here were wonderful, despite the rainy weather.

I guess for many of us here it’s been pretty much like other Christmases. I guess most people have their own ways of doing Christmas. Some people come to church on Christmas Eve and then go home and maybe open a present or two and then it’s off to bed to wait for Santa.

Other people, I guess like a lot of us here this morning, get up early, maybe open up presents under the tree, go to church and then go off and be with families and friends. Each Christmas many of us cook and eat the same foods, we sing the same songs, and we carefully place the same ornaments on the Christmas tree.

So, of course, many of us have our Christmas traditions. You might even call them routines. And, let’s face it, most of us like our routines. We like our ways of doing things. We like things to be familiar. And that’s good, mostly.

Looking back, when I was growing up my family was pretty normal when it came to Christmas. Like most other people, we had our own traditions, our own familiar Christmas routines. One routine in particular sticks out in my memory. And it’s a routine that, looking back on it, probably drove my parents a little crazy.

Each year when my sister and I were little we would get up very, very early on Christmas morning and go to the living room to see the gifts that Santa had left for us under the tree. So each year, while it was still dark out, my sister and I would go through packages, opening up boxes and playing with our toys. This was our routine, it was familiar. My bleary-eyed parents would come downstairs and sit with us and ooh and ah at our gifts. Anybody else have a routine like this?

One year, though, for some reason my comfortable, familiar routine was changed. I’ll never forget it. Now I know, of course, we only have good children here at Grace. But, I’m sure sometimes parents here have warned kids that if they’re bad they won’t get any Christmas presents. Or maybe if they’re bad they’ll just get a bag of coal.

Now, I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but my parents used to say things like that to me! But, I never really believed it would happen, because each year, even if I hadn’t always been nice to my sister, or hadn’t cleaned up my room, or hadn’t done my homework, each year there were always gifts for me under the tree. But, I have to admit, although I didn’t think it would ever really happen, the remote possibility of no gifts for Christmas was always in the back of my mind.

Well, anyway, this one year I came downstairs in the dark hours of the early morning. Maybe my sister was still a baby, because I think I was alone. I came into the dark living room, my heart pounding with excitement. I turned on the lights. And I stood in shock and horror. There was nothing under the tree. The nightmare had come true!

What happened next is embarrassing. Since it is Christmas morning and we’re in church, let’s just say I “got sick.”

I guess my parents heard all the commotion and came downstairs to see what was going on. They took me by the shoulders, turned me a little, and showed me my gifts.

It turned out that for whatever reason this year my gifts were not in their usual place. Instead, they were just a few feet off to the side. But because, even as a little kid, I was so used to my familiar routine I had managed not to see the gifts that were waiting for me the whole time, just a little off to the side. It was like I was wearing blinders!

As a kid I learned the lesson “don’t panic, things may not be as bad as they seem.” But now as an adult looking back on that experience I realize that as much as we like familiarity, familiarity can be dangerous. Familiarity can prevent us from really seeing things. Familiarity can sometimes blind us to the gifts that we are being given in unexpected places.

The English writer from a century ago, G.K. Chesterton, once said, “The greatest of all illusions is the illusion of familiarity.” “The greatest of all illusions is the illusion of familiarity.”

Children can get caught up in familiar routines, but I suspect adults are much more susceptible to the illusion of familiarity. But if we really stop and reflect on it, what seems to be most familiar turns out to be the most wonderful, amazing, exciting gift.

Being wrapped up in our own familiar routines we can easily miss the gifts we are given in unexpected places.

And sometimes, like what happened to me long ago, our familiar routines get interrupted. And for many of us that’s happened this Christmas or in past Christmases. Some of us have lost beloved family members and friends. Some of us have lost jobs or worry if we will keep our jobs in the new year. For many of us anxiety and sadness have overshadowed or interrupted our familiar Christmas routines.

And, to say the least, this overshadowing or interruption can definitely be upsetting. But I believe that this overshadowing or interruption also offers us an opportunity to recover our sense of awe and wonder.

This interruption of the familiar just might make us open to receive the gifts we are being given in unexpected places.

In today’s gospel lesson, Mary is the ultimate model for us on how to recover our sense of awe and wonder. Obviously, there’s nothing familiar or routine about what’s happening to Mary. She is in the midst of the most extraordinary events. Nine months earlier an angel had greeted her with the news that, if she said yes, she would give birth to the Son of God.

And now she has received this most unlikely gift in a most unexpected place, and, on top of all that, Luke tells us, she been visited by shepherds who report an encounter with an angel and “a multitude of the heavenly host.”

And what’s Mary’s response to these extraordinary events? Luke says the people around Mary were “amazed” - which seems like a nice way of saying they all thought the shepherds were crazy. But, what’s Mary’s response? Luke writes, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

For most of us here, two thousand years later, what seemed amazing to the people around Mary is all too familiar. I guess the Christmas story is the most familiar story of all.

But if we follow Mary’s example and really treasure these words and ponder them in our hearts maybe this old familiar story can come alive with awe and wonder once again.

In thinking and praying about today’s sermon, I’ve been reminded of a sermon that Lauren gave a few weeks ago. In her sermon Lauren noted that because of the economy many of us are feeling more anxious and insecure than usual. In a sense, our familiar routines have been interrupted. But, her key point was that in the future we should remember what this anxiety and insecurity feels like because that’s how most people around the world feel most of the time. Our anxiety and insecurity can make us one with the anxious and insecure people all around the world.

I found an unexpected Christmas gift in that sermon from weeks ago.

Yes, the Christmas story is the most familiar of all. Yet, if we really ponder this story in our hearts, the unexpected gift we receive on Christmas is Jesus – fully human and fully divine.

The unexpected gift that Mary pondered in her heart so long ago was that in Jesus the God of the universe experiences what it’s like to be one of us. In Jesus, God experiences what it’s like to be a human being. In that helpless, stinky baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger, God experiences the helplessness we all experienced as babies – the crying out for food and milk – the complete dependence on others.

In Jesus, God experiences what it’s like to work with one’s hands, to have friends, to celebrate at a wedding, to give someone a hug, to laugh at a joke.

In Jesus, God experiences what it’s like to weep at the death of a friend, to be afraid about the future, and to be betrayed and abandoned.

And so, just as you and I need to hold on to our current experience of anxiety and insecurity to be one with the anxious and insecure people of the world, God holds on to the experience of being human and has become one with us in Jesus.

In Jesus, God really knows what it’s like to be a human being.

And in Jesus we know what God is really like.

So, when we are celebrating and joyful we are not alone - God is right there with us and God knows exactly how we feel.

So, when we are anxious and frightened we are not alone - God is right there with us and God knows exactly how we feel.

Let’s use the opportunity of this unfamiliar Christmas. Let’s recover our sense of awe and wonder. Let’s keep our eyes open and find the gifts that God gives us – gifts that we often find in unexpected places. Let’s help one another find those gifts. And, most of all, let’s ponder in our hearts the greatest and most unexpected gift of all – the gift of Jesus.