Tuesday, December 24, 2002

From Presents to Presence

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Christmas Eve
Text: Titus 2:11

From behind the counter of a nearby store I heard, not long ago, a muffled remark that bears just a moment of consideration tonight. A middle-aged salesman, perhaps working a second or third job, surrounded by hasty customers, knee-deep in wrapping paper, was writing orders with his left brain and speaking on the phone I suppose with his right brain, and so peddled tennis rackets, swimming goggles, skies, basketballs, running shoes with measures of patience and good humor through it all, until it seemed that something snapped. Suddenly he wheeled around and muttered in response to life, history, the universe, Christmas: “This is unreal”. This is unreal.

Perhaps, recently, you have thought or said the same. Christmas is a wonderful time, richly to be honored and celebrated. With the season comes a raging tide of letters, phone calls, meetings, parties, memories, hopes, presents to buy and promises to keep. Every aunt, grandparent, father or friend who is heading home tonight to make a few last minute preparations, to find a last minute present or two, has our fraternal sympathy. Hovering over tab a and slot b, you too may snap and wheel around and mutter in response to life, history, the universe, Christmas: “This is unreal”. This is unreal.

It does raise the question of the moment: just what is real?

We may want to take the 12 days of Christmas that stretch out before us and ponder this matter in our hearts. What is real? Presents or Presence?

At the conclusion of the 12 days we will honor the visit of the Magi, the wise men of the east, who travel to the manger bearing presents. So in these feast days, following the discipline of Advent, we shall wonder a little about what is real. For giving gifts is good, even when the stress and strain of the season makes a grown man groan, “This is unreal”. The kings, if we could conjure them up tonight, as they begin their 12 day trek west to the manger, would agree. This late December production may be, simply, religion at solstice gone wild. Or, it may be the opening for you to a way of salvation. The kings bring gold and incense and myrrh in order to say something about what is real and what is not real. This familiar world of gifts and Christmas chaos, but also of basketball and maternity wards and police cars and fingers and meals and taxes and the New York Giants and harness bells and woods that are lovely dark and deep: this world, in the unwitting preachment of the Rochester merchant, by comparison, is itself unreal. The presents of the kings point toward the Presence that is ultimately real, and in comparison to which, everything else is ever so greatly or slightly unreal.

What is real? By comparison with this birth, this invasion and all it portends, everything else is comparatively unreal. The love of God in Jesus Christ is the ultimate reality. Everything else is penultimate, slightly unreal. We lay our gold and frankincense and myrrh in the mud and stench and cold of a poor manger, and tomorrow’s gifts under the tree are the latter-day, shirt-tail cousins of these. What is real, what is important, what is reliable, what is valuable, what is lasting, what is rock solid is not the presents under the trees of this life-pageant that so intrigues and beguiles us. This is real: the love of God in Jesus Christ.

The presents remind us of the Presence.

The gold, and similar modern gifts, remind us that Jesus Christ, right now, for his real life, uses our wealth, our resource, our energy and our labor, as He will, to save us from our own worst selves. He is pulling us out of danger. He is saving us from ourselves. The Prince of Peace is at work in the way of peace to save us from holocaust. Will we labor with Him?

The incense, and all similar modern gifts, remind us that Jesus Christ, right now, for his real life, desires our imaginations, our minds to dwell on him. Jesus is saving our souls. Titus: “God has revealed his grace for our salvation”. This is real: it means that alcoholics really recover, that prideful people really are made humble and whole, that families move out of disfunction and really learn forgiveness, the aged really die with the assurance of undying love. The Great Shepherd is at work in the way of mercy to save us from our sin. Will we labor with Him?

The myrrh, ah the myrrh. This is the most important present pointing to the Presence Divine. The myrrh reminds us that Jesus really dies upon a cross, in this world. Myrrh is medication for the sick, balm for the wounded. For His real life, Jesus Christ dons the cloak of human pain, tonight. Sorrow, loss, hurt, fear, pain are his garments. The Great Physician is really saving us from the sickness of this world. Will we labor with Him?

Think again tonight about just what is real. Presents or Presence?

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