Unwrapping Christmas – Believing

This sermon was preached at UCC in Buenos Aires, Argentina on Sunday, Dec. 7, 2014.  The text was taken from Matthew 1: 18-25  The Story of Christmas from Joseph’s Point of View.  “Call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.”
Perhaps the most important question at Christmas for the kids has to do with unwrapping presents.  “What will I get for Christmas?”  Already my kids are hinting (or just telling me outright) what they want for Christmas.  Actually, my wife and I are pretty good at hinting as well.
When my kids ask me what I want for Christmas, I usually say, “a hug and a kiss.”  When they were young that is all that they could give me and it is always enough.  If my wife asks me, I would say, “underwear and socks,” meaning don’t spend our hard earned money on anything extravagant, just get me something I need, something that is already in the budget.

But, as Christmas gets closer, we start to think creatively and spend lavishly and give to our loved ones extravagantly because, well, we love them and Christmas is about showing your love through the giving of gifts, the more expensive the better.  I think Christmas is broken.

The truth is that Christmas is not just about tinsel and presents and brightly lit Christmas trees and poinsettias.  There’s something magical about Christmas.  People come home for Christmas.  Love is in the air.  Forgiveness becomes possible.  A family get together can bring healing…..or not.
Christmas time is a very lonely time for many people.  Suicide rates always go up during the holidays.  Family get togethers often end up in fighting and violence.  Forgiveness is often superficial.  Addictions ignored rather than healed.  Secrets kept in the closet.  Sins swept under the rug….
Ah, sins….perhaps that is the problem with Christmas.  Sin.  Rebellion against God.  A problem of the heart….Our passage tells us that Christmas is about sin and that little baby lying in the manger is the solution to the greatest cancer that is eating all of us alive….our addiction to our own self interest….our addiction to pride but, most of all, our addiction to self-rule, not letting God get close enough to take over our lives….
On the one hand, getting something you need for Christmas (like underwear and socks) isn’t very exciting even if it is practical.  We would much rather have something we want – a new iPhone 5, a vacation on the beach, tickets to the Ed Sheeran concert….but God, like a good parent, is dedicated to giving us what we need….he goes deeper and further into our lives to give us a gift that will truly change our lives.  God’s gift transforms lives.  He gets down and dirty and probes where it hurts.  He is in the business of teaching prostitutes how to truly love again.  He is in the business of taking away addictions and transforming lives.  He is in the business of saving people from their sins.

“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for the child within her is conceived of the Holy Spirit and you shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.”

God deals with reality, not tinsel trees and popscicle dreams.  Take Joseph for instance.  What did he get for Christmas?  A heart rending surprise is what.  The love of his life, his fiance, is pregnant with another man’s baby.  If he doesn’t denounce her, the rest of his family and friends and the entire village would think that it was his.  A child born out of wedlock.  That is reality for Joseph.  It took a visit from the archangel of God to set the record straight.  Nothing less would do.  And then, he finds out his taxes are going up and he has to move with his entire family to Bethlehem.  Mary is in her final month and she would have to travel with them on a mule for days on end and they would be lucky to get there on time before the baby was born.  And it costs money to move and there were preparations to make, things to do…..his Christmas experience was complicated, difficult and rooted in the reality of poverty and oppression by the Romans.

God wants to save us from our sins this Christmas.  It is not a gift we want necessarily but it is one that we need because it is the foundation of all the other gifts that he wants to give us.

God wants to give us a gift that matters because true love gives us what we need and what we truly need (but can’t get for ourselves) we truly want as well….restored relationships, peace in the family, a job to pay the bills and help those in need….
But, even that, is not God’s gift for me at Christmas.  There is something deeper and more important yet…..sin and rebellion against God is the fundamental problem.  God will not first of all fix our relationships and our circumstances.  He may (because he loves to make us happy) but he is committed first of all to fixing us….and our relationship with Him.
There is a saying that goes something like this….

“There is nothing more embarrassing in heaven and on earth than the arrogance of people who ought to be ashamed of themselves.  Sadly that applys to all of us.”

Sin is serious business.  We take it lightly but God takes it very seriously indeed because it has cut us off from Him.  Guilt and Shame about our sin is God’s first gift at Christmas….the convicting work of the Holy Spirit is a gift from God.  Most people don’t associate sin with Christmas.  Most people are not concerned about their sin or about their relationship with God.  But a real view of reality will allow us to see that this is the heart of the human problem.
Love and Forgiveness are the second gift that God gives us at Christmas but only because this child, the Son of God, would grow up and experience the reality of pain and suffering, betrayal and hatred, mockery and crucifixtion and even death and hell, especially hell, the utmost rejection of the person who he loved most in life….and he did it all for you and me.  That is his gift and it can change your life if you believe in it and trust it and therefore repent….
Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord, John the Baptist cried in the desert.  Repent and believe for the Kingdom of God, the gift of Emmanuel, God with Us, is at hand….the Kingdom of God is within you, Jesus said….
The gift of Christmas is salvation from our sins because of the cross of Christ.  Salvation means eternal life, abundant life with God….it means a new relationship with God that will solve the heart of the problem…..the Holy Spirit within is a fountain of life that will overflow into all of our other relationships and problems and situations and begin a process of healing and restoration.
Love changes people.  God’s love in Christ transforms lives.  That is his gift but we must accept it in humility….we need to come to the manger, to the throne room of God, on His terms, this is no cheap grace.  You don’t get a new relationship with God just because he is a nice guy.  God is not Santa Clause.  He is not a genie in a lamp with three wishes for you.  There is no magic in Christmas….There is only the harsh reality of sweat, blood and tears transformed by the love of God shown in a baby who is destined to grow up and die on the cross for you and me….

It was our sin, our rebellion, our addictions, our prostitution, our pride, our stupidity, our stubborness that made it necessary that this baby had to die for us….

We can be thankful for the gift but in humility we must accept that there is other way to solve the problem….not the wisdom of Buddah or the Dali Lama, not science and technology, not Islam, not Hinduism, only Christ, the babe of Bethlehem, destined to die a horrible death on the cross.  Love is exclusive, it does not share itself with some other lover, some other idol.  There is only one name under heaven by which we can be saved.  Not because we are good people, not because we come to church, not because we give to the poor or because we have good intentions but only because we are convicted by the Holy Spirit of what the true problem is and believe in God’s exclusive solution and because we believe and trust in God’s gift of salvation, we are filled with the power of the Holy Spirit to live a life of repentance and training in holiness and discipleship and prayer….

That is the power of the abundant life despite circumstances, that can transform the relationships around us, that can dig deep into the stench and sin of the reality around us and in us and make us a source of transforming power in the lives of the people we love the most….

So, do you believe in the miracle of Christmas?  Do you believe in the reality of your sin and the powerful love of God that invades your reality and transforms it through faith and belief and repentance and new life in Christ.  If you do, then bring God’s gift to those around you.  Forgive them.  Love them and tell them how God’s gift this Christmas has changed your life…..Amen.