December 27, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
UNWRAPPING THE GIFTS OF CHRISTMAS
Different families have different ways of unwrapping their Christmas gifts. Most families fall somewhere between two extremes. Extreme number one: Everything gets opened all at once, wrapping paper strewn everywhere, and it’s all over in 60 seconds or less. Extreme number two: Everyone takes turns and takes the time either to try on or to play with each gift before it’s time for the next person to open the next gift and then spend time either trying it on or playing with it. Depending upon the number of gifts involved, this process can take anywhere from two hours to two days.
Our first child, Kelsey tended more toward the second extreme. She would open her gifts by tearing off the tiniest piece of wrapping paper, one tiny little piece at a time. It drove her grandmother, Helen’s mother, crazy!
You are here in worship today, I’m going to assume, because you know that Christmas means more than the presents under the tree. We have a few people missing today. Maybe they are among the “slow gift openers of America” and they aren’t done yet. But you are here. You are here because you know that the real gifts of Christmas have to do with faith and that they are much more precious than anything money can buy.
The scripture we read today gets a lot less attention than either Luke’s scripture that tells of the shepherds or Matthew’s that tells of the wise men. John doesn’t really tell a story at all. He tells us what the story means. He makes us think. These 14 verses are packed full of far more than we’re going to be able to unwrap today. I see five things here. I’m just going to briefly mention the first four and then we’ll spend some time on the fifth.
(1) John talks about “the Word” (1:1). In Greek, “o Logos”. This is a far cry from the babe in the manger. This is Jesus as the Word God spoke at the beginning of creation. “Logos” is the root in our word “logical”. It’s also found in the great disciplines of study and learning. Biology. Cosmology. Psychology. Jesus is the “ology” behind everything there is in this universe. Galaxies so distant that we don’t even know they exist, were created by God through Jesus. If that doesn’t blow your mind, I don’t know what will.
(2) Then John says that Jesus is life. “In him was life” (1:4). The Greek word is “Zoe” from which we get our word “zoology”. But this word means more than just the bodily processes that maintain life. It means what makes our lives worth living. It’s a claim that what it really means to be alive is found in the Bethlehem manger.
(3) Then it says that Jesus is “full of grace” (1:14). This is telling us that Jesus embodies the mercy, the kindness, and the tenderness of God.
(4) It says in the same verse that Jesus is “full of truth” (1:14). Jesus embodies the truth — the truth about God and the truth about what it means to be human.
(5) And finally we come to number five, and we’re going to
slow down and spend a little more time with this one. It says that Jesus is light. “In him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (1:4-5).
Light plays a big part each year in how we celebrate Christmas. We put up Christmas lights. We drive around town and we are mesmerized each year by the beauty of all those lights. Those lights are more than just tiny electrical bulbs. They represent the light of Jesus.
Of course candles are also a big part of how we celebrate Christmas. They used to use candles to light their Christmas trees. I don’t even like to think about that. But we still use candles in our Advent wreath and especially on Christmas Eve as we each get a candle and we each receive and pass the light as we sing “Silent Night”. Every year we know what’s coming. And every year it surprises us. It’s a magical moment.
And then there is the time of the year when we celebrate Christmas. It’s the darkest time of the year. At Christmastime, the nights are longer and the days are shorter than at any other time. There’s a reason for this.
I hope I’m not spoiling anything for you by telling you that Jesus was not really born on December 25. We don’t know when he was born. Most scholars think it was sometime in the spring. Maybe. Just an educated guess. So where does December 25 come from?
Years after Jesus lived, died, and rose again, his followers decided that they needed to start celebrating his birth. But what day should they celebrate? They chose a day that would communicate what Christmas meant. They chose the winter solstice.
The axis of the earth is tilted at about 23.5º. That’s the reason we have seasons. In the summer, up here in the northern hemisphere the tilt is toward the sun. In the winter, the tilt is away from the sun. (It’s the opposite in South Africa, as Debbie Sourgeon, who is new in our church can tell you.) But the early Christians were northerners, so they set Christmas on purpose at the very time when the days were shortest, the nights were longest, and there was maximum darkness.
Why? Because from Christmas on, the days get longer, the nights get shorter, and light begins to take over. So what better time for Christmas than at the one time of the year when the meaning of the Gospel can be seen in the natural world all around us? So that every year we would be reminded that Jesus is the Light of the World and that the darkness can never overcome it!
We’re going to take a closer look at this gift God gives us at Christmas. This gift of Jesus. This gift of light. It’s really three gifts. At least three. We’re going to unwrap each one.
(1) It means that God is with us. The Hebrew for our three words, “God with us” is the one word, “Emmanuel”. This name for Jesus is found in Matthew (1:23). But the reference in Matthew is to an earlier scripture. 700 years earlier. The Prophet Isaiah recorded these words: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel” (7:14).
Jesus is “God with us”. God became one of us when Jesus was born. God has not abandoned us or forgotten us. God is always with us. And if God is always with us, it means we don’t have to be afraid.
I remember as a young dad being awakened by one of our crying children. It’s been awhile, but my memory is that our first child, Kelsey woke us up the least; our second child, Heather woke us up a little more than Kelsey did; and then along came Collin. I was up with Collin a lot.
When your children are too young to talk, you just guess what they need and what will calm them down and make them ready to sleep again. But when they get older they can tell you what the problem is, and very often I remember with Collin that he was afraid of something. He heard a strange noise. Or it was stormy outside. Or there was a monster in his closet. The movies I watched with him may have had something to do with that last one.
I would get down next to him, put my cheek next to his, and I would say something like this: “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Daddy is here.” Usually, not always, but usually that’s all it took to calm him down.
But sometimes it took Mommy. And her secret weapon was singing. The special song she sang to all three of our children was, “I’ll be loving you, always . . . ”
Jesus is God putting his cheek next to ours and telling us there is nothing to be afraid of. We are not alone. We are not forgotten. We are not abandoned. God is with us. Always.
(2) The light of Jesus also saves us. In fact, that’s the meaning of his name. Jesus. The same passage in Matthew that gives us the name “Emmanuel” also gives us the name “Jesus”. An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. He knew that Mary was pregnant and that he was not the father. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do. And then, as he slept, this angel said to him:
Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:20-21).
The name Jesus in Hebrew is “Yeshua” which means “God saves“.
There’s another scripture in the Christmas story that you will remember. The angel gave the shepherds good news of great joy. “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). Jesus is our Savior. That’s the meaning of his name.
I’m afraid it’s more difficult to talk about this than it should be. Getting “saved” has become something of a cliché. “Are you saved?” is a question you might get asked by a total stranger while you’re minding your own business. It doesn’t feel like an expression of love and concern. It feels more like a verbal assault. The words “Jesus saves” no longer mean what they once did. They have almost become the punch line of a joke. And here is one of those jokes:
But Jesus does save. And it’s a salvation we all need. Here’s why.
We are all living in darkness. There a many different kinds of darkness. Yours might be the darkness of despair or depression. It might be the darkness of loneliness or emptiness. Maybe it’s the darkness of fear. Or the darkness of temptation. You’re struggling with something you know you shouldn’t do. Or with something you know you should do but don’t want to. Maybe it’s past the struggle stage. You’ve given in to temptation. You’re living in the darkness of guilt and regret. There are many kinds of darkness. Jesus is the light to save us from them all.
And Jesus saves us in two ways. Both are important because we desperately need them both. When our lives are headed down a dark, wrong path, Jesus shows us the right path. Jesus shows us the way. The light of Jesus illuminates that way. He is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). But just as importantly, Jesus sets us free from the shame and the guilt that we carry because of the poor choices we’ve made in the past.
I think it’s fair to say we’ve all done stupid stuff. We’ve all done things we would rather not have anyone else know about. God already knows. We’re ashamed and embarrassed and we carry this around wherever we go. God sets us free. God saves us. It’s through Jesus that this salvation is possible. His name means “God saves”.
A lot of people think this is the body language of the Gospel. (Shaking a scolding finger.) It isn’t. The body language of the Gospel is really like this. (Arms open wide.) Jesus is light revealing to us a God who loves us and accepts us in our darkness and is always giving us a second chance.
One more gift of Christmas. (3) The light that is Jesus shines in the darkest of darkness. Here’s how John puts it: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (1:5).
John knows the whole story of Jesus as he writes these words. He knows the part about the birth. He also knows the part about the death. The awful part. When Jesus is arrested and tortured and nailed to a cross. When his lifeless body is taken down and sealed in a cold, dark tomb. It certainly appeared at that moment that darkness had won. Darkness had overcome the light.
There are moments in our lives when it feels that way. Not only is it dark, but it’s always going to be dark. That’s the way it feels. There’s no turning this around. There’s no way the light is ever coming back.
Maybe you’re in a financial situation that doesn’t seem to have an answer. Or you’re in a marriage that has sucked the life right out of both of you. Maybe your health has been in a downward spiral. Or your mental outlook on life is just so negative it’s hard for you to get out of bed in the morning. There are many cold, dark tombs in which we can find ourselves.
But here’s the thing: On the third day, Jesus rose! The lights came back on. There was a new dawning of hope. That’s true not just for Jesus. That’s true for you. That will be true for you.
I know things can get so dark it’s hard to believe that. It seems impossible. As a pastor, I’ve sat with people who were sobbing and in the depths of despair. And then some time later I’ve seen those same people with joy on their faces. Joy they didn’t think could possibly ever come back.
So if you are feeling hopeless in your life right now, there is always hope in God. I don’t know what it’s going to look like for you. I don’t know how it’s going to turn around. All I know is that if you trust in God and hold on tight while it’s still dark, it won’t always be dark. There will be hope again. Joy again. Light again. Because in the long term, darkness cannot overcome light. The light of Jesus shines on.
There is more to Christmas than the gifts under the tree. The gifts that matter are the gifts from God. You can’t buy them. They are worth far too much. And yet they are free. Freely given to you and to me and to any who will receive them and unwrap them and believe in them.
There’s the gift of “God with us.” He’s always with us. We’re never alone. There’s the gift of salvation. God came to this earth to save us from our sin. He’s the God of the second chance. And there’s the gift of hope. The darkest darkness cannot extinguish the light that came into this world on Christmas morning.
There are no greater gifts, because there is no greater gift than Jesus.
Thank you God for Christmas gifts like these. Thank you for Jesus, the light of the world, the light of our lives, the light that we are to receive and also to share with others. May we do that on this last Sunday of one year and into the next, a new year that we await with eager anticipation. In Christ, Amen.