The Gift

READ Luke 2.1-20

In my hometown in Upstate New York, the house I grew up in was on a dead-end road, which terminated in some scraggly woods about 100 yards from the banks of the Mohawk River, which ran through town.

As child, my dad would take me on these great hikes through the single track trails that ran beside the river.

He told me these were once old Mohawk Indian trails.

I believed him; it’s plausible.

Later, as a teenager, my friends and I would wander endlessly through those woods, ride our bikes on the trails and fish in the waters.

Today, my mom still lives in that same house on that same road, and when I visit, I sometimes walk down to the trails.

They’re still there.

But there is something different:

You see, the woods are much bigger now.

The grassy areas have been overgrown with rushes and brambles of cattails and pampas grass far as the eye can see.

And portions of the trail have been paved into bike paths.

At first glance, the place looks pretty much the same.

And it’s surprising to see that developers have not capitalized on riverfront views and thus no homes or businesses been built along the banks, as one might expect;

No roads have been cut into the woods, and no trees have been logged.

Instead, those hardwoods are mature now.

And they are a beautiful array of oak and maple and — my favorite — the mighty sycamores.

But despite that the waterfront hasn’t been developed, a lot has actually changed:

Although I might prefer dirt trails, on my last visit, it was wonderful to see kids and adults of all ages and families together using the newly paved recreational trails.

Being in nature and getting some fresh air and exercise.

I even saw kayakers paddling down the river one day.

It’s wonderful!

Had I not ventured back down to the river after so many years, would I have noticed the transformation?


Maybe I would have heard about the transformation that has taken place.

Maybe I would have seen the changes in some people — that because of the trails, they seemed happier and maybe even healthier.

Maybe the neighborhood, which seemed to have been slipping in recent years, is picking back up again — as the trail system seems to be a rejuvenating force for old neighborhoods such as these.

You see, when we’re right in the middle of things and we’re very familiar with them, we don’t always notice the changes.

Even great changes.

That may be because we don’t expect things to change much.

Or we just expect those things the change the way they always have, good or bad.

They seem incremental. Business as usual.

That’s what I was expecting.

My hometown, you see, is sort of a dying industrial town.

The factories all went overseas. The airbase closed years ago.

I was expecting the same dirt trails and scraggly forgotten woods.

I was caught in what we might call a cycle of expectation.

Same old, same old repeating…

Even when we hear change is coming, we just don’t expect much of an impact.

2000 years ago

And so imagine this very night about 2000 years ago.

When all of Judea and all of the region we called Palestine was bathed in untypical and unexpected light from a bright, bright star.

A bright star that cast shadows upon a very business-as-usual life for everyone.

The Roman Empire stretched from England and Spain to all the of the Mediterranean, down into North Africa and way out east into Asia.

And at this time, the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar, through all his vassal minions throughout Palestine, ordered all people to return to their hometowns to be registered.

The registration was to make sure everyone —especially the Jews — all payed their taxes to Rome.

And the registration was a great way force people to understand that their obedience belongs to the empire, and the empire alone.

Among these to be registered were Jews who were very different form the Gentile Emperor.

And because of their steadfast belief in the One True God, they were persecuted horribly and taxed heavily.

And they needed someone to save them.

They believed the ancient prophets who said a savior would come.

And they understood John the Baptist, who told them all to get ready.

But what were they expecting?

They were expecting their savior to come as king, maybe on a white horse, with purple robes and a mighty sword who would liberate all of Judea from the oppressive grips of the Roman Empire.

They would be freed.

But the the transformation that they thought of was part of that cycle of their own expectations.

* First, that new king would build walls, create a castle to live in, and rule from a golden throne.

* Second, the elite would probably benefit most, as the elite always seem to do.

* And third: That the majority of people — the peasants — at least could farm for themselves rather than paying crippling taxes to Rome and living in what amounted to indentured servitude.


Contrast all that, then, with what really happened that night some 2000 years ago.

Mary, a poor village girl at about the age of 12 or 13, was assigned to be married within the year.

Instead, she would have to tell her fiancé, Joseph, that she was already with child — and from God!

And Joseph would face great ostracism and maybe even shame, yet still follow through and take Mary as his bride and the baby as his own child.

Doesn’t sound like the making of a king.

With Mary already nine months pregnant, they would be forced from their poor home in Nazareth and would have to walk the roughly 80-mile trip to Bethlehem, where Joseph’s family was from, to be counted.

80 miles walking, in her last trimester, in some of the most inhospitable places in all the world.

To a place that was worse than where they lived.

Doesn’t sound like the making of a king.

And when they arrive, for whatever reason, neither Joseph’s own family nor anyone else will make room for them, or at least the very pregnant Mary.

Instead, they are relegated to what was most likely a sort of cave or a carved-out area in a hillside wall where animals would be herded to for the night.

Doesn’t sound like the making of a king.

Neither the civic leaders, the Jewish priests, the vassal governors, nor the emperor himself would be notified that the Messiah was to be born under that star.

Instead, God chose to inform what was undoubtedly the most lowly occupation and probably the most uneducated and unsophisticated people around: God told the shepherds to follow the star.

Doesn’t sound like the making of a king.

Because for those in power, a king from a line of kings, of royalty, was a threat to their sovereignty;

A king for the people who hoped for liberation comes as an adult — a strong, male figure with an army and impressive weapons.

Not a baby who comes basically unannounced to anyone of any sort of influence at all.

Not to temple in Jerusalem, where the high priests believe God would meet them with a savior.

No, instead, God chooses the most earthiest, natural place in creation,

and informs those closest to the earth, grounded in true realities and who would see the dramatic contrast of this thin place.

This is where the shoot would come from the ground.

And grow into the promise that God gave to all people.

A true messiah. A true savior. A true Christ.

What everyone — kings to shepherds — was expecting was the same old, same old.

What they received was anything but…

For YOU…

Hear the words:

“The glory of the Lord shone around them.”

“The angels said to the shepherds: I am bringing you good news of great joy for ALL the people.”

“…to YOU is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Did you hear that?

The lowest people, the ones persecuted, forced to this hard labor, no hope for a better life at all, simply survival.

The glory of the Lord shone AROUND THEM!

The angels were delivering TO THEM the good news.

for ALL people.

Not just some. Not just the expected. ALL people.

Not those who are righteous, but the sinners too.

Not just those in power, but the powerless, too.

Listen to the words:

“…to YOU is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Tonight, a savior is given to you, the angels say.

…A Savior is born

Brothers and sisters, hear these words:

Tonight, a savior is given to you.

To you. And to me.

Rich or poor.

Powerful or weak.

Pure or sinful.

Black or white.

Republican or Democrat.

Straight or gay.

Educated or 8th-grade dropout.

Model citizen or death-row inmate.

Faithful or unbeliever.

Pious or church-hurt.

Old or young.

All together or completely damaged.

God tells these shepherds that for you, this child is born.

For you, this child will suffer greatly.

For you, this child will die.

For you.

So that no matter who you are, or where you’ve been, or how you feel in this very moment, you are still given the gift of eternal life.

Not because of what you have done, or what you can give, but only because our loving Father wants you — you — forever at his side.

Great Expectations

Tonight, we come from all over to gather here at church — this church, and churches just like it all around the world.

People from all walks of life, of different color, orientation, doctrine, language and even creeds.

People who at one time in their lives believed in the transformative power of the Messiah.

People who are expecting something — anything — good to happen here tonight.

Mothers and fathers who dragged their kids here tonight just to have them sit beside them and hear even their quiet singing of the hymns.

We come here alone because our family isn’t with us anymore, or a loved one is gone.

And we come here expecting something. Anything.

Under our breath, we pray “Please, God. Please!”

We come here to hold on to something.

Maybe we do that every Sunday.

Maybe we do that just once or twice a year.

Maybe we do it for others, but not ourselves.

The fact is, we come here from all over.

All different ways of lives, all different beliefs.

Different levels of joy or fear or peace or pain.

And still the angels’ voices call out to you:

they are speaking directly to you right now.

For all people, a Savior is born.

Here is your Savior!

Tonight and always

We will leave this place in a bit.

The service will end, the candles will be blown out, and the table will be put in order.

We’ll head to our homes.

Maybe there’s a party or gathering.

Maybe we will read to our kids “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

Maybe we’ll go home to a lonely apartment or house and watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Maybe we’ll reminisce about the good old Christmases past, or maybe we’ll pray for comfort tonight.

And maybe we won’t think about anything the pastor said tonight.

But before we do any of that, I need to ask you:

When you came here tonight, what were you expecting?

Or do you not expect anything at all?

Does celebrating the birth of Christ mean remembering something great that happened so, so long ago?

Because here’s my gift to you tonight:

And it’s actually not mine to give; I’m sort of re-gifting:

That despite what we might have been expecting on that night 2000 years ago in Bethlehem under that great star,

we were given so much more.

We we’re actually given the gift of expectation.

What I mean by that is that with every breath you take - now or in years and years to come — you can expect that you are saved.

That you are saved from a world of darkness and fear,

and instead are given the power of light and hope.

Not just hope for an eternity with God and your loved ones after you die;

but an eternity given to you to live true light and love and hope and joy right now.

A promise to revisit the Angels’ words and know that because of this gift, you have the ability to change the world.

That you have the opportunity — again and again and again — to revisit that place and truly stop and look around and see the transformation that has happened, that is happening now, and will happen until Christ returns in final victory.

That you not only can hope for this kind of change, but you can expect it.

That if you open your hearts even just a little bit, you can EXPECT to be transformed.

Maybe not overnight — let’s face it: we all want everything instantly.

But that if we truly stop and look this gift in the love it was given, we will know true transformation

and we will see eternally.

That’s the promise of the Good News.

That’s what lies wrapped in that gift just for you.

Like Jesus, wrapped so tightly in that blanket and placed in that manger

2,000 years ago.

and today.

and always.

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