Friday, December 16, 2016

Simple Gifts (Philippians 4:15-20) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

In case you're stressed about getting ready for Christmas, with all the shopping, cleaning, and putting up Christmas decorations, one company is trying to help.  Tesco, a British supermarket company, posted an ad for a new job - a Christmas Light Untangler.

The company's website offered the following description for the 36-hour-a-week job: "This new position will offer you the chance to run the unique in-store service with a friendly, flexible approach and making a genuine difference to the little things that matter to our customers this Christmas.  The first duty includes managing the Christmas Lights Untangling stand.  Candidates should be able to untangle 10 feet of Christmas lights in less than three minutes as well as check the bulbs for signs of breakage. The ideal candidate would also "be passionate about Christmas."   Finally, someone to help untangle those Christmas lights from last year.

In the fourth century the church established Advent and Christmas to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  It wasn’t long before carols were written to celebrate Jesus’ birth.   For 1,700 years Christians around the world have celebrated Jesus' birth at Christmas.

When it comes to Christmas, we naturally think of gifts.  What’s the worst Christmas gift you’ve ever gotten?  An article in Time magazine presented stories of people who had received questionable Christmas gifts.

One woman shared that for years, her mother-in-law had bought the other daughter-in-law an expensive makeup or perfume, and then she gave this daughter-in-law the free gift that came with it.   Another reader shared how she had received a waffle iron from her husband.  He said: “Now you can start making waffles for me.”  She asked so whom was this gift for anyway?

Focusing on the message of Christmas, the reason for the season, is always challenging.   There is the competition between preserving the historical and spiritual story of Christmas and the pressure of consumerism.   We hear on the one hand - focus on Jesus and the spiritual message of the Christmas season and on the other hand, buy, buy, buy the latest and greatest.  It is the tension between worshiping and honoring Jesus and consumerism.  We hear stories of shoppers who in the rush for a sale actually trample over other shoppers.  Is that a sign that things have gotten out of control?

As Jesus’ followers, we must stay focused on the core message, the central meaning of this season: the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, Emmanuel, the Son of God, the Savior of the world, the Word made flesh, that God became a human being in Jesus of Nazareth.

One of the traditional things we do at Christmas is to exchange gifts.  Is this appropriate?  Absolutely.  After-all, Jesus was God’s gift to the world.  And the Magi brought gifts to the Christ-child.  But we can also get overwhelmed with the expense and pressure of gift buying and giving.   Children can have unrealistic expectations about gifts.

Parents can feel tremendous guilt, competition and the burden of buying the newest and most popular gifts.  Today we are going to take a new look at an old idea, simple gifts.

There is an old Shaker song: It’s a Gift to be Simple.  Someone revised the words years ago.  “It's a gift to be simple; it's a gift to be kind. It's a gift to smile and to share a happy mind.  It's a gift from the Father when we go on our way, with a joyful song at the start of the day.  But the gift to be simple and the gift to be kind, are the gifts which only a very few will find. Yet these gifts from the Father can be found every day, if we look to him and his will we obey.  Love! Love! It's a gift to be kind. It's a gift when we smile, when we share a happy mind.  Love! Love! We go on our way, with a joyful song at the start of the day.  Love! Love! It's a gift to be kind. It's a gift when we smile, when we share a happy mind. Love! Love! We go on our way, with a joyful song at the close of the day.”

Simplicity.   What does this mean to you?   Simplicity, according to the Bible, is rooted in some basic convictions.  It’s believing that everything belongs to God, that everything you are and everything you have is a gift of God, being truly thankful for God’s grace, understanding that you are dependent upon God for each breath you take and each day you live, knowing that you are to take care for your possessions, but not to be possessed by them, not to become a slave to material things, and trusting that God desires for you to share your resources with others.

The biblical understanding of simplicity means that people are more important than things, that you measure your value, your self-worth on being a child of God, not by the material things you own.   It affirms that whether you live or die, you belong to God who loves you, who created you, who knows you, who forgave you on the cross and who will bring you to be with Him in the life to come.  It reminds us that we came into this world with nothing and that we will die with nothing.

Is it possible to simplify your Christmas?   Well, I don’t know, what do you think?  I think so. I hope so.  Our scripture passage gives us reason to pause.

In the letter to the church at Philippi the apostle Paul expresses his heart-felt thanks to the people of the church.  Philippi was not a wealthy church.  The gift would have been modest – a little money, personal letters, some food, medicine, some clothing.  Paul is deeply moved.  He writes: I have been paid in full; I have received more than enough, “I am fully satisfied now that I have received the gifts you sent.”  He describes the gifts as a “fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”  The church gave him gifts in gratitude for Paul's ministry.

What is God’s word today about simple gifts in this Advent-Christmas season?  I believe God is saying pay extra attention to people.  Spend time with them; take time to listen, to see, to feel this Christmas.

First, make a list of some people in your life.   You know the song: “He’s making a list, checking it twice.”  Making lists is traditional at Christmas!  Think about close people, your wife or husband, your children, your grandchildren, your parents, your grandparents, your aunts or uncles, your brothers and sisters, your friends, a neighbor, or a colleague at work.

But what about people you wouldn’t normally include: your dentist or doctor or accountant or lawyer, your dermatologist or acupuncturist, your barber or hair-stylist, a police officer or firefighter, someone in the military, a teacher, a favorite waiter or waitress, the people who pick up your trash, your gardener, your computer technician, a cashier at the grocery store, your auto mechanic or plumber or electrician, your mail carrier, the teller at your bank or babysitter.   Our lives unquestionably are far richer because of the support and services of these people.  God brings some truly remarkable people into our lives on a regular basis.   And we know we sometimes take these people for granted.

Second, give them a simple gift.   What is a simple gift?  I’m going to suggest some things, but I want you to use your imagination and decide for yourselves.   Make an effort to express your appreciation this Advent/Christmas season in simple ways.   You never know how meaningfully you can touch someone; you never know what joy you can bring to someone when you surprise them with a simple gift.

Like a handwritten note or email, telephone call, conveying a word of affirmation, appreciation, of encouragement or gratitude. “I want you to know I thank God for you.” “I want you to know how grateful I am for you.”   “I want to thank you for what you meant to me this year.”

Simple gifts, like taking time to listen carefully to someone whom you normally wouldn’t listen to.  There is the gift of hospitality, inviting someone to your home for a meal or out to lunch.  You can invite someone to come to our Christmas Eve services.  You might offer to drive a neighbor to church or to go shopping.  You might bring someone a cake or pie or plate of raw vegetables or fruit or hummus. You may offer to help someone complete a project or to help someone hang lights on their house.  You can visit a person during their recovery from surgery or make a long overdue apology to someone.  You might call someone you haven’t talked to for a while.   You can always ask someone for to forgive you.  You can strive to reconcile with someone whom you have been alienated from, spend time praying for someone and asking God to touch their lives or buy socks for homeless people through CCSA.

So how can we be the sort of giver that ennobles?  How can you and I be a gift to someone on Christmas?  There’s a question to ask yourself – “How can I be a Christmas gift to someone?”   Offer a simple prayer: “Oh God may I not let this Christmas be all about me.  May this Christmas be all about you and others. Christ, help me to see you, to hear you, to feel you this Christmas.  Dear Jesus, inspire and empower me to guide others to see you this season.

This sort of thoughtfulness, spiritual maturity, and love is only possible if we embrace Christ as the King, our King, whose throne was a manger.   That’s when we’ll have a Christmas where Christ is the center of the season.

Can we simplify Christmas just a little?  Can we give some simple gifts to others in the name of Jesus Christ?   I truly believe, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that we can.  Maybe, just maybe, we can try something a little different this Christmas.  Amen!

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