Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Even in the midst of a global pandemic Christmas is the time for giving gifts.  Yes, Christmas is a time when kids tell Santa what they want and adults pay for it.  As the comic Miami newspaper columnist Dave Barry wrote, “Once again, we come to the Holiday Season, a deeply religious time that each of us observes, in his own way, by going to the mall of his choice.”  Although this year it would probably mean going to the website of your own choice.   Even when shopping on-line, and regardless of the cost, we will obey the three phrases that best sum up the spirit of Christmas: Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men, and every parents’ dreaded lament, Batteries not Included.  It is a close second, to Some Assembly Required.  And we will  reminisce about the good old days when people would stop Christmas shopping when they ran out of money.

This morning’s gospel, however, reminds us that there is more to preparation for the joy and wonder of Christmas, than purchasing gifts. In the message of John the Baptist, we are encouraged to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  We hear John’s invitation to those in the wilderness who are seeking peace and contentment.  He does not speak of Christmas shopping,  John, himself, speaks simply of gifts which the world cannot see or know, but which ultimately prepare the way 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 unseen 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.  They are gifts that cannot be purchased on line or delivered to your door. These gifts are the often most overlooked, but so desperately needed.   They are a change of heart, a change of time, and a change of behavior.

The first gift that you may be seeking this Christmas is a change of heart.  The Wise Men journeying along highway bringing their gifts to 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 during this pandemic.  Husbands and wives refusing to speak openly and honestly with each other; brothers and sisters who refuse to share a family Christmas dinner together, even by Zoom. 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 gift of a change of heart.  This doesn’t have to be a hopeless end of the year. 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 need to 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 my 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 Christmas gift purchased in a store.

The second 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.”  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 35 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.”  My friends, if there is one thing that we have all learned from this pandemic, from the time of lock down, stay at homes and quarantines,  is that time is not ours to control. Every moment of every day, had the potential to be quality time, if you give it and share it with others. A change of time may be the gift you are seeking this Christmas.

The third 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 to give to others.  We all have behaviors that are less than loving and caring.  We struggle with anger, expectations, intolerance, impatience and pride.  A changed behavior, however, can make all the difference in a person’s life.  A few years ago, a 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.

“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 unseen 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, he will also walk beside you and strengthen you so that you may give these gifts to those who desperately need them from you. My friends, it is my prayer that as you prepare the way of the Lord this Christmas that you will have the strength and courage and good humor to witness and celebrate the Lord’s salvation  and to lead others that you love- along that same path.  Let this be your perfect pandemic gift, that no money can buy, to those you love.  Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.