December 24, 2018
As a kid growing up, my family were not regular church goers. We showed up here and there, Easter morning, some random Sundays. But always, always we went to the late service at the Episcopal Church of our Savior in San Gabriel, California, not far from where I grew up. The whole setting was unfamiliar to me - the dark, the candles, the strange ritual - I think that the only way my parents got me to sit through those night services was they let me open one present, just one, after church late on Christmas Eve.
I couldn’t wait for church to be over so I could open my present. Driving home I anxiously wondered - what gift would I open that night? A new game? A toy? A new football? A new baseball glove? Now, my parents were wise to this whole thing. And they always managed to outfox me, because one of the stipulations was that they got to choose the present I could open on Christmas Eve. I would tear through the gift wrapping late on Christmas Eve and invariably it would turn out to be…socks. Seriously, every year. Socks. You would think that, eventually, I would come to expect socks, but no. I had been waiting 364 days since the last Christmas for presents. I had to sit through a church service late at night. And then, just when Christmas was in my grasp, all I got were some lame socks. What a let down.
What a let down. We’ll all leave here tonight and go back to our homes. By noon tomorrow all the Christmas carols will stop playing on the radio. In a few days all the lights will come down from our homes. I know that some of the toys opened tomorrow morning will be broken by New Years’.
And we’ll leave here and wonder - was that it? All the build up, the expectation of Advent, the poinsettias, the carols, the communion. Is that all there is to Christmas? We come in here for an hour, sing some songs we’ve already been singing for a month, listen to a story we’ve heard before, and then hop in our cars and drive away. Did God just give us some socks? Shouldn’t there be more?
You know, for all the talk about Christmas and the birth of Jesus, there isn’t actually very much about it in the bible. We read most of it tonight. And while Mary knew that this child was special, the actual birth was quite ordinary. Almost a let down. I mean, after an angel told you that you were going to have this baby, wouldn’t you expect something special when he was born? I mean, if this is truly the Savior of the world, the Son of the Most High, wouldn’t you expect something miraculous? But no, Mary gave birth to Jesus the same way that women have been giving birth since the dawn of time.
Imagine, Mary and Joseph had walked for four days from Nazareth to Bethlehem to pay taxes to a hated foreign empire. They get to Bethlehem, and all the doors are closed to them. Sure, she’s carrying the Son of the Most High, but it all seems awfully ordinary, almost forgettable. Sure, the shepherds show up, but no angels or anything. The shepherds bring with them good news, news of wonder and amazement, but at the end of the day, they’re just shepherds. We’ve been waiting, Mary and Joseph have been waiting, the whole world has been waiting for this promised gift from God, and the birth is as ordinary as could be. You tear open the gift wrap late tonight and it’s just socks. What a let down.
Looking back now, as a parent myself, I now understand the art of the let down. I see the wisdom in the anguish my parents put me through on Christmas Eve. Because when I woke up on Christmas morning, I didn’t have to open that package of socks. I could focus on the toys, the games, the bike, the baseball glove, all the great stuff. The stuff I really wanted. The socks were just the beginning, they’re what got me started, and I didn’t have to bother with them on Christmas morning.
Over time, what I’ve learned is that the best gift of Christmas is not actually Christmas. Tonight is just the beginning, not the end of our devotion. Yes, tonight is the night that Jesus is born, tonight is the night that heaven stoops to earth. That is good news, don’t get me wrong. But there is even better news, there are better gifts still to unwrap.
Jesus Christ does not stay a baby. The good news is that he grows out of the manger, he outgrows his swaddling clothes. Jesus grows up out of the manger to heal the sick, to cast out demons, to restore those who have been excluded, to love the unlovable. He eats with sinners, tax collectors; he hangs out with people you don’t mention in polite company. And the best gift of all, the best gift was that Jesus would die on a cross and rise from the grave for me and for you.
Perhaps in a way, God has outfoxed us. We thought we would come here tonight, on the big night. We came tonight thinking that if we did, we would get the best gift of all. With the cute pageant, the candles, the songs we all know by heart. But God was wise to our little scheme.
For I tell you, tonight, the beauty of Christmas Eve, is really just some lousy socks compared to the gifts of mercy and grace yet to come in everyday Christian life; the gift of love we receive on all the days that aren’t Christmas. It’s the prayers we say, day by day. It’s our worship, week by week. It’s knowing each and every hour that God loves us infinitely and eternally.
Tonight is not so much a let down as a warm up to all that God has in store for you. As you leave here tonight, I ask you to make this a new beginning. And when you wake up tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, I ask you to unwrap another gift. It’s your own heart. Tear through and throw away the wrapping over your own heart - the cruelty, the laziness, the disregard in our little lives. Open your heart and you will receive the greatest gift of all, God’s love for you, even you.