Ever had one of those embarrassing situations where you get a late Christmas card, say on December 23 or 24, or you get an unexpected gift from someone who was not on your list. It’s too late to reciprocate without it being obvious that it’s an afterthought. Or you get something of much less or much more value than the gift you have for someone. Awkward. But is a gift really a gift if something of equal value is expected in return?
What about God’s gift of Jesus to us? Is that a gift we deserved or could possibly match with something in kind? Not a chance because the supreme gift at Bethlehem is a gift of grace. It is unmerited, unearned, for no reason – just because God’s middle name is “Grace.”
That’s one of the big differences between God and Santa Claus. You know the song that says, “You better watch out, you better not pout, you better not cry I’m telling you why. He’s making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice?” The clear implication is that the Jolly Old Elf only brings good gifts to the Nice. And that’s the reason we start celebrating Christmas in October or November now – it gives parents and teachers more time to extort good behavior out of kids who are anxiously waiting, not for Jesus, but for a new X-Box.
By contrast, the gift of the Christ child comes without bribes or a big price tag. It is one of those more-than-we-deserve or ever expected gifts, and those who recognize it are blessed indeed. There’s a little known addition to the Christmas story in Luke because it comes after the end of what we normally read as “the Christmas story”. We usually read as far in Luke 2 to get all the characters present at the manger scene, except for those late arriving kings, and we stop there at verse 16. But Luke continues the birth story later in chapter 2.
Luke 2:25-32 tells the story of the baby Jesus being brought to the temple to be consecrated when he was just 8 days old. His parents made an offering of a pair of doves or 2 young pigeons, the simple gift of peasants, all they could afford. And then Luke tells us,
“Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
Simeon has spent his life looking for the Messiah. He allows God’s spirit to put him in the right place at the right time, in the Temple, to fulfill that purpose. And when Simeon holds baby Jesus in his arms he finds the peace that only comes when we are true to our life purpose and persistent enough to follow our dreams till they come true. Because Simeon’s deepest desire is fulfilled, his life is complete and he tells God he is ready now to die in peace.
I pray for that kind of satisfaction when my time here on earth is over. Death is very hard for those who have unfinished business in their lives but much easier for those who are at peace. This is probably a poor analogy but some of us can relate anything to football. The last few minutes of a football game can either be very exciting or pretty boring. Which it is depends on who’s ahead and who has the ball. If the team that is behind has the ball they will do anything they can to prolong the game – call time out, run out of bounds, spike the ball to stop the clock, in order to make the game last as long as possible so they can try and score enough points to win. They are not satisfied to let the game end because their purpose has not been fulfilled. But if the team that is ahead has the ball it’s a totally different story. They will wait as long as possible to run every play, keep the ball on the ground and inbounds so the clock won’t stop, and finally just get in what is called the victory formation and kneel down and let time expire, because they are satisfied with what the scoreboard says.
Simeon was wise enough to know that his life purpose was accomplished. He had found the promised salvation of his people, but much more than that, Simeon is wise enough to realize that God’s good gift is not just for the Jews but is for all the world. He says, “My eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles (which means everybody else in the world who is not a Jew), and for Glory to the people of Israel.” It’s the same message the angels gave the shepherds: “we are bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
No matter how old we are, we all need mentors—people who can teach us things we need to know. Mary goes to her older cousin Elizabeth for advice, Joseph and the shepherds are mentored by angels, and Simeon is a great mentor for all of us because he understands the scope of what God’s grace is all about. Who are your mentors? Mentors don’t have to be old. Isaiah tells us “a little child shall lead them.” My grandkids teach me all the time about what unconditional love and joy are all about. Older people like Nelson Mandela teach us what it’s like to love and forgive even after 27 years of imprisonment, most of it at hard labor. Think of the bloodshed Mandela and others working with him prevented by finding a peaceful way to end the evils of racism and Apartheid.
Grace is the gift of salvation for all people, a freely given no-return-expected gift. Grace is one of those words that are hard to define, but we know graciousness when we see it. For example, in the Exodus story, when the Hebrews came to the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit, they were trapped, facing certain death until the waters of the sea were parted and they were able to cross on dry land. And then when the Egyptian chariots and horses and soldiers tried to follow them the seas closed up and drowned them all. That part of the story is in the Bible, but another story says that God was away on business that day and left the angels in charge. And when God came back he found the angels high-fiving each other and celebrating. They said, look Lord, we got them; we wiped out every last one of those Egyptians! The angels were expecting praise and a promotion from God for their victory, but God did not look pleased. One of the angels said, “What’s wrong, Lord. We saved your people!! Why are you not pleased?” God said, “Don’t you understand, the Egyptians are my children too?” And do you know who tells that story? The Jews. Amazing Grace prepared in the presence of all people.
Fred Craddock, one of my favorite preachers, tells of meeting a woman at coffee hour after a service where he preached. The woman was in her late 30’s. She asked Craddock about his family; so he inquired about hers. She said her parents were dead, sisters all lived out of town, and she had taken care of an elderly uncle for 8 years before he died. Craddock said, “Your uncle must have been very grateful.” “If he was he never said so,” she said. “I never heard a word of appreciation – just much swearing and complaining if his meals were late or not to his liking.” She worked at a bank and went home every day at lunch to feed him and then hurried home after work to fix his dinner. She had no dates or social life because she needed to be with her uncle. When he died, her co-workers said she must be relieved. But she said through her tears, “they didn’t get it. I loved my uncle.” A profane, demanding, cruel, oppressor who had enslaved her for 8 years, but she loved him. By the way, her name is Grace.
Adam Hamilton in his book, The Journey, writes about going to the Holy Land to research his book. One of the things he discovered there in Nazareth where Jesus grew up was that scholars believe that Mary’s family lived in a cave. A cave!!! These were dirt poor, working class folks in a little back water town that was so unimportant it didn’t even make it on the list of towns and villages in Galilee! And that’s where God chose to send his only begotten son. Amazing Grace prepared in the presence of all people.
Can you imagine the conversation at the staff meeting in Heaven when God announced his plan to come to Bethlehem as a poor peasant boy who couldn’t even afford a first-class offering at his consecration? The angels said, “Why would you do such a thing? Maybe for good, nice righteous people like Simeon, but not for all the people! They’re profane and unfaithful. They’ve stoned the prophets and broken every law you ever gave them. Have you forgotten the golden calf and the inquisition and Auschwitz and Nagasaki and the KKK, 9/11, Newtown or Columbine? They’re ungrateful and demanding, never satisfied with what you do for them. They don’t have a clue about living in peace with each other or how to take care of the earth!”
And God said, “I know, but they’re my children, and I love them.”
Receive again this night God’s gift of amazing grace – for the naughty and the nice – for all people who will receive him still. Amen.
[Jerome UMC, Christmas Eve 2013]