The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
December 24, 2016
This evening marks our daughter’s fourth Christmas. In those four Christmases, my wife, Maggie, and I have always looked for the perfect Christmas gift for our daughter. We have spent hours scouring Amazon, we’ve talked to other parents, we’ve wracked our brains for that perfect Christmas gift. I’m not going to spoil it for you, and for her; suffice it to say that what we got this year is pretty great.
But Maggie and I know that we could shower our daughter with the greatest gifts in the world, and they would come nowhere near to being the best gift she ever received. Our family has gathered in this church for four Christmases to give thanks for that great gift – the gift of Monkey. Monkey is her little pink stuffed animal monkey that she received four Christmases ago. Wherever we go, Monkey goes with us. When we’re happy, Monkey celebrates with us. When we’re sad, Monkey consoles us. When we’re scared, Monkey gives us courage. And admit it, you had your own monkey when you were a kid. I had Teedle the teddy bear. Maggie had Berry the Bear. We all had that gift.
Now, Monkey was given to Lydia by my godmother, even though my godmother has never met Lydia. That was unexpected. Little did we know that the unexpected gift would make all the difference in the world. It wasn’t the fancy toys, or the nice clothes, or the baby dolls. It was a little, fuzzy, pink Monkey.
Tonight, we are gathered in this church because of an unexpected gift, a gift that has made all the difference in the world. And truly, Jesus was an unexpected gift. Mary wasn’t expecting to give birth. Her husband, Joseph, wasn’t expecting to be a father quite yet.
Perhaps the gift of Jesus was most unexpected for the shepherds. The story says that the shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night. And an angel of the Lord stood before them. And they were terrified. They weren’t expecting this. And the angel gives the shepherds a bit of unexpected good news. “The Messiah is born this day,” says the angel, “in the city of Bethlehem.” The angel says that this is good news of great joy for all the people.
The birth of Jesus is good news of great joy for all people. The birth of Jesus is an unexpected gift, a gift that makes all the difference in the world.
But I think that the good news of great joy rang hollow for those shepherds.
Remember, Jesus was born at a time of utter despair for the ancient Jews. They lived under the boot of the Roman empire. Mary and Joseph had to take a long journey, forced from their home, to register themselves to a foreign regime, to pay their taxes. There were uprisings, wars, insurgencies. It was a bleak midwinter. The shepherds probably weren’t expecting much good news.
And let’s face it, the angel’s proclamation of good news rings hollow for many of us. We could tell of all the heartaches and troubles we had in 2016. In this church tonight, some of you have lost jobs this year, lost loved ones, lost homes. You’ve been diagnosed, you’ve been abandoned, you’ve been devastated.
On the face of it, what the angel says to the shepherds just doesn’t seem to stack up. How can anyone be joyful as the world around us is falling apart? How can anyone be joyful as they set the Christmas dinner table but there is one empty chair? What is joy to those who have lost their jobs? How is this good news when we’ve lost our homes, our hope, and our friends?
And so we find ourselves on this Christmas Eve, relying on that greatest Christian word: nevertheless. This is a broken, dark, and sinful world, nevertheless, God loves us infinitely. The shepherds live under the boot of a foreign empire, nevertheless, God has come to deliver them. We are stricken by sin, failure, loneliness, anxiety, addiction, rebellion, and warfare, nevertheless, this child is born to love us. And that means for you, too. Wherever you are. You can come up with all the reasons in the world for God to not love you, but God will not let you finish that sentence. Where you want to put a period and give up and say that you’re not worth the trouble, God says, “nevertheless.” This is the unexpected gift that makes all the difference in the world, because it is the gift of joy. As one theologian put it, without joy, Christianity is incomprehensible. A miserable Christian is a contradiction in terms. We do not deny the present darkness, but we also believe in a greater light. We believe in a greater joy.
Now here is the tricky part. The nature of this gift, is that you cannot keep it to yourself. This gift of joy in God’s love is not like our daughter’s Monkey. We cannot cling to this gift, it is not ours to keep. We must give it away. The gift of joy, the gift of Jesus, can only be received once you share it. Think of the shepherds. The first thing they do after seeing the baby Jesus is to go on their way, radiating with joy. They left the manger glorifying and praising God. They do not try to keep the gift of Jesus for themselves, the shepherds give it away.
This gift is not our security blanket that we cling to and are afraid of losing. That won’t get us anywhere. Because you know what it’s like when we lose Monkey. The radical nature of this gift, of this night, is that we have to give it away. It is good news for everybody. We, the Church, the Body Christ, we cannot decide that this good news of God’s love is for some people but not for others; we cannot go around saying that Christmas joy is for us, but not for them. The instant we do that, the instant we cling to the gift, we lose the gift. We lose the joy. Joy must be shared.
As you leave this church on this holy night, I bid you to be the shepherds to this world. Leave this place glorifying and praising God for all you have seen and heard. As you are fed by this bread and wine, you are to feed the world. You will be their bread, and you will be their wine. I bid you, leave the manger and give this world an unexpected gift. The gift of love to a world that only knows hate. The gift of joy to a world that is accustomed to pain. It will make all the difference in the world.