Saturday, 10 December 2016

Christmas Present (a family service sermon for tomorrow)

Long, long ago, when I was a very small boy, I remember just how much I wanted one special present at Christmas. It was a farm set, it came with buildings and fences and model cows and sheep and horses, and a tractor and trailer. Every time we went past the toyshop window in town I would look at this farm set and tell Mum and Dad that I really hoped Santa Claus would bring me one of those. “You’ll have to wait and see,” my Mum and Dad told me, “and of course you’ll have to be very well behaved, because Santa doesn’t bring presents to little boys who are not well behaved.”

So I was very well behaved right through till Christmas Eve, hoping that Santa would bring me a farm set. I remember that I woke up very early on Christmas morning. It won’t have been light by then, it will only have been about 5 o’clock. Now my Dad was an organist and he had to play at the midnight service, so there was a firm rule that while we could get very quietly out of bed and look at what Santa had placed in our stockings, we were not allowed to go downstairs until after 7 o’clock to see what was under the Christmas tree by the fireplace in the lounge.

I sneaked out of bed and looked in my stocking. Santa had obviously been, and he’d left the usual stuff - there would have been a sugar mouse, a small orange, maybe something like a yo-yo, maybe a sensible present like some handkerchiefs. But they didn’t much interest me. What I wanted to know was, had he brought me the farm set.

So I did quite a naughty thing. I opened my bedroom door ever so quietly, and ever so quietly tiptoed along the landing and down the stairs. The tree looked lovely, all tinsel and different hangings, some shiny ones, some chocolate ones. In those days our Christmas tree didn’t get decorated until after we’d gone to bed on Christmas Eve.

In the fireplace was an empty plate that had held a mince pie for Santa, and an empty glass that had been filled with sherry. We’d left a carrot for the reindeer and that was gone too. And the tree itself was surrounded by presents, all nicely wrapped in Christmas paper. One looked quite promising; a big box that certainly looked large enough to have a farm set inside it. It had my name on it. Could it be? I had to check! So I peeled back just a little bit of the wrapping paper, and yes! I could see on the corner of the box the word “Farm”. Santa had brought me a farm set, just as I’d wanted.

Well, I carefully put the wrapping paper back, and back upstairs I went, and pretended to be asleep until 7 o’clock. And then as soon as it was 7 o’clock, I woke up my Mum and Dad, wished them a happy Christmas, and raced back downstairs. The Christmas tree still looked wonderful, and there were still lots of presents all piled around it, but one was missing. No box big enough to have a farm set inside it. No box that I knew had got a farm set inside it. Instead there was a message: “Because William sneaked downstairs long before he was supposed to, and peeked inside the wrapper to see what he had for Christmas, I’ve had to take it back. After all, I only bring presents for well-behaved boys - signed, Santa Claus.”

I was devastated. Or at least, I was for a moment or two, before I realised that Santa’s handwriting looked an awful lot like my brother’s. Yes, I hadn’t tiptoed quite quietly enough; he’d noticed me sneaking downstairs and decided to play a trick on me. Oh, how we laughed. And the present reappeared. That was the last Christmas we had my brother, by the way. We got rid of him in the next January sales. No, really I was making up that last bit. But it did take me a while to forgive him for his trick, even though I know we’re supposed to forgive people, brothers especially.

Maybe I’m getting a bit too old now to be waiting and longing for some particular Christmas present. These days I’m more likely to say “Surprise me!” when I’m asked what I’d like for Christmas. That probably means I get socks or gloves, rather than the wildlife holiday in Costa Rica that’s what I’d really like if money was no object and everything else worked out. But I hope we are all looking forward to Christmas itself with eager anticipation. That’s what Christians are supposed to do in Advent: to wait in eager anticipation for the gift, the special gift that comes to us and all the world at Christmas: the birth of a child who will be hailed as the Prince of Peace, the proof of God’s love for us, the coming of Jesus.

Our behaviour is important, if we dare to call ourselves Christians, if we think of ourselves as God’s people; and so Advent is a time of preparing, of sorting things out and getting things right. So that we can play our part in proclaiming this act of love; so that we can do well at letting the love of Jesus shine in our own lives, and from us into the dark places around us. But, whether we who wait for him are good or not so good, whether we’re eager or apathetic, the special child is born anyway: born despite our sin, born despite the world’s darkness, born not as a reward for our goodness but as God’s free gift to us for our salvation, born to do for us what we could never do for ourselves.

This is the greatest of all Christmas presents; God gives himself to save us, gives himself because he loves us, dares to enter his own creation, quietly, humbly, lovingly, just as one of us. It’s all right to take a sneak peek at this beforehand; this gift is promised beforehand by the prophets. God wants us to confident of his love, he wants us to be looking forward in hope to what he will give. And the present we are given in Bethlehem, the child who is love incarnate born among us, is one that will never be taken away from us.

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