The Greatest Gift

December 24, 2017

Norwalk First United Methodist Church

The Redemption of Scrooge

Fourth Sunday of Advent

The Greatest Gift

Luke 2:8-20

Maybe you’ve heard the idiom, “There’s no time like the present.” But if you think about it, “the present,” this moment right now, is so fleeting. There is, in fact, no time in the present because the moment I start thinking about the present, it’s already in the past. Indeed, “there’s no time like the present,” because it can’t be measured or quantified. It’s over before it’s begun. I’ve also heard that the present is called “the present” because it is a gift. This is true in the sense that present is where all of the action is!

Another popular idiom is to say that someone “tells it like it is.” When people say this, what they usually mean is they agree with what has been said. The interesting thing about telling it like it is, so to speak, is that we can never be completely objective when observing it, whatever it happens to be. We will always, however small, only be able to tell it like we see it.

The Ghost of Christmas Present is about to take Scrooge on a journey, offering Scrooge a window into the way things are that he could not experience by himself. If anyone can tell it like it is, the Ghost of Christmas Present certainly can. Would you pray with me?

PRAYER

As Scrooge awakens from sleep and realizes it’s time for the next ghost to appear, the clock strikes one, but no spirit appears. It is several minutes before Scrooge sees light shining under the door and is wooed by the Ghost of Christmas Present into another room, a room transformed with signs of life. Holly and berries adorn the walls, the fireplace roars with heat, and a bounty of food covers every surface. The Ghost towers above him with a booming and joyful voice. With the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge can feel the warmth of the fire and smell the turkey on the table.

The laughter, warmth, food, and decorations of Christmas remind us of God’s ever-present abundance. God is always present and always offers us what we need. Scrooge’s senses come alive in the “realness” of this vision. Why? Because the present is the only part of time that feels real. The past is a memory, and the future is a dream, but the present is “now, and “now” is when everything happens. Every word of love we share, every meal we enjoy, every song we’ve heard were all experienced in the now. The past and future are simply “nows” that you have either experienced or will experience.

Couldn’t you and I say that God lives in an eternal now? You see, it’s all now to God because God is independent of time as we know it. He is eternal and omnipotent, which is a concept that’s hard for us to understand. Not only is God always with us, but God always offers us what we need.

Unfortunately, we often confuse our needs with wants. Sin causes us to be afraid we won’t have enough, so we buy more food than we need, more clothing than we can wear, and more shelter than we can keep clean. God always provides enough. The problem is we are afraid it isn’t enough. This story is as old as the birth of humanity. God offered the man and the woman every tree in the garden except one, but their fear of not having enough transformed desire for the Creator of the fruit to the fruit itself, and Jesus came to unwind that misguided desire that we still struggle with today.

Abundance can certainly get out of hand during the holiday season. When we surround ourselves with stuff rather than Spirit, we find ourselves getting angry that Starbucks’s cups aren’t Christian enough, or we become defensive when someone at the grocery store wishes us “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” We begin to think that there is a war on Christmas while forgetting that there are actual wars happening across the world.

To combat this “stuff” mentality and the overabundance of presents we sometimes heap on our children, Pastor Matt Rawle, in his book, “The Redemption of Scrooge,” suggests this as a new tradition that he started with his family. He writes this: “When our kids put together their Christmas lists, we ask them to write down four things: something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read. The kids can write down whatever they like. Of course,” he says, “their ‘something they want’ list is quite long, but they know that after Santa’s reindeer leave, there will be four things under the tree.”

So here is Pastor Rawle’s thinking. Get your children something they want because, as Christians, we should want to be near God, to have a desire to be with God. Get your child something they need to remind them that we are always in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. God satisfies our needs, but also leaves us wanting more.

Get your children something to wear. Clothing, for good or ill, says something about us. It is a way to tell every passerby a little bit of who we consider ourselves to be. As Christians we should wear the humility, kindness, and generosity of Christ. And lastly, get your children something to read on Christmas morning. Education is important for the “renewing of our minds” and reading Scripture daily is some practice children should be in the habit of doing. It can truly be transforming for your children.

And, as an added bonus, get your children one gift to share to remind them that church is where we learn to share our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. As your children grow older, pray that they will come to realize the significance of the gifts they receive, and that ultimately, it’s not about the presents under the tree, but the presence of each other.

Well, as soon as Scrooge begins to travel with the Ghost of Christmas Present, he notices how dreadful the town is. The houses look bleak, as the wintry weather seems to emphasize the chilly disposition of everything he sees. It is not that the streets were full of squalor; rather the grayness of it all left little room for good tidings and the usual cheerfulness we have come to know during the holiday season.

Surprisingly, however, there is a glimmer of an unexpected happiness. Scrooge notices that the people shoveling the snow are gleeful, the produce in the shops is radiant, and the shopkeepers joyful. It’s almost as if there are two stories happening at the same time – joy and pain, frivolity and hardship, abundance and scarcity.

This must have been what Jesus’ first night on earth was like. Too often we forget that Christ’s light was shining upon the poverty of a family who could find no room in the inn. Traveling with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge’s eyes are opened to the poverty of the people who live around him. The people don’t have much, but they are thankful anyway, acknowledging the blessings they have received. Jesus came to turn our world upside down and to bring a new kingdom, one that goes straight for “the least of these.”

As Scrooge is with the Ghost of Christmas Present, the church bells ring out. As townsfolk leave their homes to gather in the sanctuary, the spirit begins to sprinkle incense upon the families’ meals as a means of blessing their food. As Scrooge is perplexed why the spirit is offering more incense to some and less to others, the spirit replies without reservation that the poor need it the most. The spirit’s simple gesture offers us a moment to pause and consider how God works within the world. Sometimes we think justice means that everyone should receive the same, but this doesn’t seem to be the gospel that Jesus proclaimed. Throughout Scripture, God’s justice involves a lifting up of the lowly, not a divine mandate that all receive the same.

Eventually the ghost takes Scrooge to the home of his counting clerk, Bob Cratchit. The Cratchits are a simple family who share great faith, which seems to go hand in hand more than some realize. Scrooge overhears Bob talking about taking his young son, Tiny Tim, to church that evening saying, “He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”

The Cratchits’, despite their paltry abundance, consider the many blessings they have. Pastor Rawle writes, “It is easy to get distracted with the decorations, lights, and festive music of Christmas; but at its heart, the first Nativity is a story born out of poverty, where scarcity is transformed into abundance by a God who will stop at nothing to be with us. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the magnificent “Gloria, Gloria in excelsis Deo,” and forget that the angels are singing to shepherds.

Our scripture says, An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they wee terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

The angels’ proclamation is timeless. The greatest gift, Christ’s presence with us, is an ever-present reality. It’s a word that becomes timeless because it is always in the present, which is the place God resides, the place where God lives. This is Jesus’ birthday.

The announcement was made to shepherds, and maybe this is the key to understanding what God is doing – God is favoring the poor with this grand announcement, and this should give us pause in the way we often think about poverty.

Why did God send the angels to the shepherds? God delivers the good news to the shepherds, not because they were best equipped to spread the news, or that they were nearby, and it was convenient; it is because God was already there, with the unlikely. The shepherds were members of a humble and poor community. God shows up in the unlikely, pursuing those whom he lifts up as important. Over and over in Scripture, God appears in pursuit of what God loves and the lengths God’s willing to go to, for us.

Jesus’ birth, the greatest gift, is the eye of a storm that continues to turn the world upside down. Jesus came so that we might discover and share abundant and everlasting life. Through Jesus, God has reconciled everything, from the depths of the earth to the farthest star in the sky.

Pastor Rawle writes, “If only we could have been there for the first Nativity. Maybe if we had seen the Christ Child with our own eyes, our Christmas celebrations would be more like what God intends them to be.”

“But the beautiful thing is that we are in the story, in a way. When the shepherds arrived to tell the Holy Family what they had seen and heard from the angels, Luke tells us, “Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, the funny thing is, the only folks present that night were Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and the shepherds, so who is the “everyone” who heard the shepherd’s story? Folks, we are the “everyone.” We should be filled with amazement at their news. We, along with Mary, should treasure and ponder the mystery of God being with us in the flesh. Maybe then Tiny Tim’s precious and prophetic prayer will ring true – God has blessed us all, with the gift of himself. God lives in the present. So, fill your cup with good things this season, and share God’s goodness with the world! Let’s pray.

Prayer: Gracious God, our ever-present Lord, help us to let go of our worry and self-loathing, so that we might see today as a gift. By your Spirit, help us to share joy and laughter as a sign of faith and trust in you. Amen.