The Gifts We Want, The Gifts We Need

Threre were two Christmas Eve services with stories and carols this year.   The homily for the services follows.

Sermon: "The Gifts We Want, The Gifts We Need"; Rev. Peter Friedrichs

I’ve been thinking a lot about Frankie -the woman in the story that Chrissy told this evening.[1] Every year she dreamt of getting a certain gift and every year she was disappointed. It’s such a sad story to tell, really, until you realize that all those years of dissatisfaction, and all those disappointing gifts, got her to where she really needed to be. It’s the old tale of “You can’t always get what you want. But sometimes you get what you need.”

And then I think about the Wise Men, the Magi, the three Kings.  We didn’t hear about them in today’s telling of the Christmas story. They don’t appear at all in the Gospel of Luke. They’re only in the Gospel of Matthew. In that book we’re told that the Magi followed a star that they thought was going to lead them to a great king. To a savior. To the Messiah. That’s what they were hoping for. That’s the gift they were expecting. It’s why they had those presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Those are gifts that you give to someone of royal birth. Someone who sits on a throne. Someone who has power and might. They were expecting, they were hoping to meet the man who would set the world aright.

Can you imagine their disappointment when all they got was a baby? And not just a baby, but a baby lying in a trough, surrounded by animals in a smelly old stable. What a let-down that must have been for them! And if you think about it, what a let-down Jesus’s birth was for all the Jews as well. Jewish prophets had been predicting the arrival of a Messiah for generations. For someone to release them from their bondage. Don’t forget that, when Jesus was born, Israel was under Roman rule, and King Herod was a vicious and vindictive despot. The Jews were hoping, they were expecting a great ruler to emerge, someone from the line of King David, who would vanquish their enemies and lead them out of their oppression. And what they got was a baby. A baby lying in a trough in a stable. A baby born not from a royal couple, but of poor, working-class parents. Parents who had little or nothing beyond a donkey and the clothes on their back. What a letdown that must have been.

No, the Jews did not get the king – the Christmas gift – they had so desperately hoped for, wished for, wanted for so long. But look what they got instead. A man of humble origins who became a force to be reckoned with. His power came from his humility. His was a quiet strength. Were Jesus alive today, he would never tweet in all caps. And for his entire life, Jesus upended expectations. He didn’t ride into Jerusalem on a white stallion, armed with lightning bolts. He rode in on a donkey. Quietly, patiently. He overturned not just the tables of the money lenders in the Temple, but all understanding of what real power looks like. And out of that powerful humility he upset everything his society had ever been taught. “Jewish law says this,” Jesus would say, “but I tell you that…” “The law says an eye for an eye, but I tell you to turn the other cheek.” “The last shall be first. The first shall be last.” “The meek shall inherit the earth.” “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit the kingdom of heaven.” “That which you do to the least, you do unto me.” “Love not just your neighbor, but your enemies as well.” These were revolutionary statements, statements that disrupted the status quo. These were words of resistance against evil and power and the occupying forces. So much so that Jesus needed to be put to death. No, the Jews didn’t get the mighty king they hoped for. But they got the savior they needed.

And maybe we did, too. Maybe these are the messages of Christmas we need to hear most this year. That the way things are isn’t the way things need to be or always will be. That we find our power in our humility, not our hubris. That we can resist the forces of evil with persistent hope and with abundant love. That a child born of the most meager beginnings – and, in fact, every child born of whatever beginnings – can grow up to change the world.

May it be so. Merry Christmas.

[1] “Silver Packages”