Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
I still remember the sign posted in a department store on Black Friday just after Thanksgiving. Men and women wildly scurrying about with packages in their hands- children gleefully tagging behind, all almost oblivious to the words, but it caught my fancy. “Make This a Christmas Your Spouse Won’t Forget. Charge Everything.” Yes, it reminded me of the error in the Christmas worship program: “Today the choir will sing, ‘I Heard the Bills on Christmas Day.”
For most of us, our Christmas preparations are limited to buying presents, planning menus, and writing Christmas cards. Although personally, I find New Year’s cards much more fashionable. And of course, maintaining a proper physical strength to endure a hectic Christmas schedule. And so we should. Christmas is a wonderful time of year. It has the potential to bring out the best in our human character- a sense of charity, a nobleness in giving, a dimension of wonder and reverence for the Word of God entering our human story, and a good dose of laughter. Even in the dark ages of European history, the preacher Anthony of Padua wrote in his Christmas sermon.
“Today God made the glorious virgin laugh, because from her birth is born our laughter. Laughter is born, Christ is born! Therefore, let us laugh and rejoice with the blessed virgin because God has given us in her a cause for laughing and rejoicing.”
Yes, God laughs with us in our exhausting Christmas frenzy, but my friends, he weeps as well. He weeps for those who do not know the joy of Christmas laughter. Our Lord weeps for those who know no joy, nor peace, nor love, this Christmas season. And for some, the forced merriness, abundance and laughter, may simply be masking an inward longing which no Christmas gift charged or purchased in a store can meet.
This morning’s gospel reminds us that there is more to preparation for the joy and wonder of Christmas, than purchasing visible gifts. In the message of John the Baptist, we are encouraged to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” We hear John’s invitation to those in the wilderness who are seeking peace and contentment. He does not speak of signs and gifts; he does not speak of Christmas shopping or holiday baking. John, himself, speaks simply of invisible gifts- gifts which the world cannot see or know, but which ultimately prepare the royal highway and allow the miracle of God’s presence to enter in. For the psychologist, this is language of self-discovery; for the sociologist, this is the language of renewal; for the religious, this is the language of repentance; and for the ultimate Christmas shopper, this is the language of the perfect gift. You see, we are all conscious of the visible signs of Christmas. We are all aware of the visible gifts we offer to loved ones. But today, I would like to challenge you to search deeper. Ask yourself, “What are the Invisible Gifts that you are seeking this Christmas?”
My friends, this morning let me suggest to you three gifts which I believe may lead you to a greater sense of joy and mystery this Christmas. These are the invisible gifts of a change of heart, a change of time, and a change of behavior.
The first invisible gift that you may be seeking this Christmas is a change of heart. The Wise Men journeying along the royal highway to see the Christ child were truly wise men. Unlike most men, they stopped to ask for directions. They sought a change of heart. I see many human relationships struggling at this time of year. Husbands and wives refusing to speak openly and honestly with each other; brothers and sisters who refuse to share a family dinner at Christmas. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters at odds with each other over long since forgotten arguments. Yes, once healthy human relationships are now floundering this Christmas season, because men and women refuse to be wise and stop and ask for directions. They refuse to offer one another the invisible gift of a change of heart. If husbands and wives, who are convinced 100% that their spouse is wrong, would only admit a small percentage of doubt, many an argument could be defused. If brothers and sisters could concede, just a tiny portion of their convictions, many a family relationship could be renewed and restored. Good Christian men and women who are secure in themselves do not need to be right on every issue, nor do they stubbornly insist on everything always going their way. Oh, I have plenty of personal experience in this matter, after all I descended from stubborn Norwegian immigrants. These characteristics are a part of gene pool. But my friends, I have learned that a change of heart, freely given, advances the cause of love and peace and joy, more than any visible Christmas gift.
The second invisible gift that you may be seeking this Christmas is a change of time. You and I have each been entrusted with a little “chunk of eternity” called time. These golden moments are doled out to us for our benefit and for God’s glory. If we use these moments poorly, they give little lasting joy. But if we invest them wisely; they will pay dividends throughout eternity. Many of today, however, believe that we can make distinctions in time. Americans are notorious for their notion of “quality time,” and some parts of the world have bought into it. We believe that we needn’t be concerned about our friends and family, so long as we offer them quality time. We needn’t be concerned about the lack of time spent with a family, so long as the experience or the money spent when they are together has bought something of quality. Pastors are just as guilty of such a notion. One pastor’s son didn’t know his father was out of town for a convention. His response was simply, “He was never home anyway- what did it matter where he was?” But my friends, after 15 years of pastoral ministry, I have grown to recognize the equally important human demand for the quantity of time. Our basic relationships need a steady and on-going partnership of time. A director of one of America’s most important university choirs, confessed to me once. “I knew my life was out of my balance when I saw my five-year old boy sitting outside the bathroom shower.” Curiously, he asked his son what he was doing. The boy answered honestly, “I knew that I would see you when you came back out again.” A change of time may be the invisible gift you are seeking this Christmas.
The third invisible gift that you may be seeking this Christmas is a change of behavior. For many of us this is the gift that takes the greatest amount of courage. We all have behaviors that are less than loving and caring. We struggle with anger, expectations, intolerance, impatience and pride. But I was recently reminded of how a changed behavior can make all the difference in a person’s life. A pastoral colleague in Illinois sent a letter which a parishioner shared with him. It was from a woman who had wrestled with life-long alcoholism, and had decided to confront it. She wrote the following letter and was giving it to her sons, ages 7 and 1 1/2 for Christmas. With their permission, I’m sharing it with you. Her letter is the inspiration for this sermon on invisible gifts.
“Dear Boys, This Christmas, Mom is going to give you a special present. It is most unique and rare. You will not find it wrapped in a box with a bow, or stuffed in your special stocking or in a card. No, this gift will not be anywhere near the tree, but it is a gift nonetheless. It is an invisible gift. Yes, that’s right, invisible. You will never place your hands on this gift, never smell it or taste it. You will be able to see it, but only if you know what to look for.
This invisible gift is something I wish I had received as a child. It would have meant a great deal to me, but I never got it. Now, don’t misunderstand me, your Grandpa and Grandma loved me very much. Over the years until both passed away, they gave me some of the best invisible gifts I have ever received. They just never thought to give me this one. And that’s OK. The invisible gift that I am giving to you, my sons, is my sobriety.
This gift I give you comes from experiencing Christmas with a bottle, both as a witness as well as a participant. Yes, Mom did what she tells you NOT to do. I let those around me convince me that being drunk during the holidays is THE THING to do. You see, Irish ballads don’t sound so off-key when you’ve finished off a bottle of wine all by yourself. And so, my sons, I have decided that your Christmases will be different from any I had as a child. I plan on watching you tear into your wrapped gifts on Christmas morning bright eyed. I plan on visiting your great aunts and uncles, Grandma’s brothers and sisters, with a clear head. I plan on tucking you in at night with nothing more than tooth paste on my breath. And, if this Christmas I do sing a ballad or two, it will be out of tune because, honestly my sons, I can’t carry a tune in a basket.
It will not be because I’ve had a few.
“Merry Christmas my sons. Love, Mom.”
What are the invisible gifts that you are seeking this Christmas? Is it a change of heart, a change of time or a change of behavior? Our Lord and Savior will provide you with the patience to seek these gifts. But more importantly you may need to consider the question, what invisible gifts can you give someone this Christmas? My friends, it is my prayer that as you prepare the royal highway you will have the strength and courage and good humor to witness and celebrate the Lord’s salvation this Christmas. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.