As a child I always loved Christmas so much. It was for me then such a magical time of the year, and I suspect that our children and even the child still within us continues to enjoys the trimmings of this season – the lights, the cookies, the presents, the carols! It all mixes together and can generate such excitement, especially in the children. I remember, many, many years ago, when I was a child not being able to sleep at all on Christmas Eve. One year I simply couldn’t stand it any longer so I go up out of bed, around 4:00 AM or so and slipped down to the living room where I proceeded to begin to tear through the packages with my name on them that were sitting under the tree. Suddenly my dad showed up and sent me back to bed with orders to remain there until a “reasonable hour.” A reasonable hour? Now, exactly what is a “reasonable hour” on Christmas morning when you are a child?
Of course, one of the things that made the wait especially difficult was the uncertainty of what might actually be in those boxes that were piled up under the tree. There was, after all, always the possibility (and the threat) that this year I might not have qualified for any real presents; that on the “naughty and nice” scale this year my behavior might have actually tipped more towards the “naughty” part and that inside those boxes might be pieces of coal or sticks.
And I knew that it could actually happen. One Christmas when I was about 8 my cousins Billy and Rick who were 7 and 5 actually for real, got coal and sticks under the tree. I guess they had not earned any presents that year; that they were just not good enough to qualify for “real” presents. Now, as an aside, let me add here so you won’t be wondering for the whole rest of the service – they actually did get real presents. After the initial shock and trauma of discovering the coal and sticks it was discovered that their real presents were hidden in a closet. I have however often wondered if my poor cousins had been scarred for life by this practical joke. But I am sure that they got the message loud and clear – this year boys - you were not good enough!
Not good enough! They had not earned the gifts. I suppose some of us are a little horrified by this story, but this is one of the cultural themes of the season the way our culture celebrates it, is it not? How does that popular Christmas song go? He’s making a list and checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice….”
There is an old Calvin and Hobbes comic that I used to have cut out and posted, but have managed over the years to loose. Anyway, the comic has Calvin questioning his belief in Santa and he says, “how can HE know who is naughty and nice? Does he have spies everywhere?” Hobbes then asks Calvin why if he believes in God is belief in Santa so difficult. “Actually,” responds Calvin, “I have the same questions about God.” This comic points up something important not only about our society’s understanding of Christmas, but about our society’s popular understanding about God as well: We tend to at least unconsciously think about God like we do about Santa – up there, keeping track and ready to punish… “so, we better be good for goodness sake!”
Over against this popular understanding let us hear again the words of the Epistle text for this evening from Titus: For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all… Again: For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all…
God’s grace has appeared embodied and incarnate in Jesus – why? In order to bring salvation TO ALL! This is not qualified in any way – To ALL. Not to all who have been good, or all who believe the rights things, or believe a certain way, or who hold certain political views, or who have certain background or culture or lifestyle – No! To ALL – so you can make a list of all the qualifications you can think of and then you can sweep them all up and throw them out! God’s grace has appeared bringing salvation TO ALL – as a gift! As an unmerited, unearned and unconditional gift! God has created you – God loves you without qualification or condition – period! This is the way Pastor Fred Buechner puts it in his book Wishful Thinking – a Theological A-B-C: This is grace of God… there is nothing you have to DO; there is nothing you HAVE to do; there is nothing YOU have to do… here is your life, beautiful and awful things will happen – do not be afraid, I am with you! I love you!
We live in a world that is very graceless. So it can be very hard for us to accept that there is not some kind of catch. A part of us just doesn’t want to give up the expectation that we need to do something to earn God’s love and grace and salvation – if only so that we can assure ourselves that THOSE people will undoubtedly not qualify! But tonight, Christmas Eve 2016, the proclamation of the Gospel is that there is no catch. God loves you without conditions! The grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all! Which includes all of you; and each and everyone, along with everyone outside as well.
But there is more - is it not the case that whenever we receive a wonderful, beautiful gift that not only do we need to accept it, but that it often engenders inside of us a desire to give something back as well? That it prompts us to give something of ourselves in response in order to express not only our appreciation but also our commitment? If God’s grace is just something we have earned, something to which we are entitled then we can take it and there is no reason to give anything back – but a gift – a gift is different – a gift calls for a response – and this gift and the response can transform us!And so on this night – Christmas Eve 2016 – we have come together for worship – to sing together, to hear the word and take the bread and wine of Holy Communion. And we have brought with us our joys and our sorrows, our worries and our fears as we sit here in this place. Coming from the frantic rush of preparation we now sit here in silence as a holy hush descends upon us. On this Holy Night may you catch a glimpse of the gift of grace that God offers to you freely and unconditionally; may God enable you to open your hearts in order to receive this gift and may all of us together taste the joy that Christ brings; may we each catch a glimpse of God’s grace!
Picture at the top of the page: Hanna Cheriyan Varghese (Malaysia). “For unto us a Child is born”. - Malaysian
Picture at the bottom of the page: Joseph Mulamba-Mandangi (Congo). Nativity, 2001