Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr
December 9, 2018
Text: Philippians 1:9, O.T.: Malachi 3:1-4, N.T.: Philippians 1:3-11
Julie and I drove to the Ross Park Mall two Fridays ago. It wasn’t Black Friday, yet the parking lot was full. Stretched before us were cars to the farthest corner. The Mall was buzzing with life.
We entered the Christmas bazaar to look for eye-glasses. But you didn’t need spectacles to see the Mall sparkling with excitement. Lights, music, smiles, and busy-ness overwhelmed our vision. Young and old were carrying away treasures. The scene swelled with confidence in Christmas’ arrival.
Stretched before us was the American dream – the land of opportunity and freedom in its Christmas finest!
Gift-giving was in force. A year’s anticipation over the fiscal cliff seemed far off. We were gift-giving with the enthusiasm of a joyful people.
Gift-giving is the fruit of joy. This is the season of joy – a time unlike other times. Now is the season when joy inspires us to share.
The years of Mom and Dad patiently explaining to us to share with our brothers and sisters at the age of two culminate at Christmas. As we grow older, and become responsible for encouraging sharing, we acquire a deeper appreciation for the message. Sharing gifts is distinctly the joy of Christmas.
Parental lessons to share around the Christmas tree challenge children claiming gifts for themselves amid a blizzard of ribbons, wrappings, and boxes that blanket homes. We untangle the baubles and beads of personal ownership by reminding our fledglings of the reason for sharing. Bling and sparkle distract them from hearing our message. Merry Christmas!
Except in Norwalk, Ohio where my parents lived. I often entered Christmas with a bit of anxiety. My father discouraged gift-giving – at least to him. “I don’t need you to spend any money on me, Jack. Use it for your own family.”
With his succinct message, the joy of gift-giving vanished that my brother and I had been taught. I was trying to share, yet he was discouraging sharing.
Or was he?
Now, as I remember the emptiness of my parents’ home following my father’s death, and all the gifts given to them through the years that sat in the silence, another thought has emerged.
What gift can we give for life?
What one gift can you give your spouse, your parent, or your children that’s limitless in its joy? What can you share that doesn’t lose its appeal, doesn’t collect dust, isn’t eaten by moths, doesn’t get lost in a past that can never be relived yet is always enjoyed in the future?
In a Mall full of choices for Christmas gifts, what gift do you give that exceeds things that sparkle, twinkle and distract around the Christmas tree?
The gifts we usually give are merely symbols of that greater gift. But they’re not good representations of the gift for life. In fact, they lead to confusion for the youngest among us. Christmas gifts we usually give acquire an importance for children that exceed the gift for life. Those gifts aren’t the gift of life.
The struggle to teach children to share at Christmas is part of children’s confusion about the gift for life. We give toys, books, puzzles, and electronic devices that deny a child appreciation for the gift for life. These gifts present an illusion about what’s important for life. Is it any wonder that they stray away from the Church latter on in life in the vain worship of things?
Christmas gift giving, for the majority of families, opposes the gift for life. Then we parents have to deconstruct our children’s thinking about the ultimate value they’ve inappropriately given to something that doesn’t give them joy for life. We have to teach them the idols they worship are false gods after we’ve spent their childhoods giving them things that aren’t the real thing.
Christmas is the gift for life. Christmas is the gift of life for the human heart – life that doesn’t fade away, isn’t bound by time, space, or mortality.
I’m not talking about the blizzard of paper, boxes, or even a Christmas tree. What God has given at Christmas can’t be represented by anything of this world. Its beauty lies not in the colors of a ribbon or the wizardry of technology.
Christmas’ gift for life isn’t a fantasy that masques reality. It’s the ultimate gift that transcends living in this world.
So why give gifts that aren’t the Christmas gift for life?
Why even pretend that most gift-giving symbolizes the gift for life?
Children intuitively know the lessor objects they receive at Christmas can’t give them joy that lasts for life. They know the gifts they’ve received have a limited life span. They are predestined to be broken, lost, cast aside, or forgotten.
They seek a greater gift of joy – the gift for life.
This was illustrated several years ago by an Internet story about a policeman who bought a new pair of boots and socks for a bare-foot homeless man so he could be warm through the winter. The bare foot man could be any child who depends on others to live. The police officer inspired the nation’s heart through his compassion for the homeless man.
Within a few days the same homeless man was back on the Internet, photographed without his boots. The boots were missing, like the gifts that surround millions of Christmas trees around our land – lost, broken, or forgotten. He was barefoot again.
The policeman’s gift-giving went viral over the Internet. An unexpected concern emerged from receiving the policeman’s gifts. The homeless man was publicly known. He felt vulnerable. His gifts were dangerous to him – at least that’s what he thought. Others would try to rob him in order to get the boots.
So he hid them.
The police officer, who thought his gift would help a needy person find joy, discovered his gift had the opposite effect. The boots weren’t the blessing he expected them to be.
The kind of gift we give matters in its outcome.
What remained for that homeless man was the true gift of Christmas that lives. It wasn’t the boots or the socks that are brought him joy for living. What lived on for the homeless man was the policeman’s compassion that lasted beyond the boots, socks, shelter or food.
The officer had given the gift for life by offering compassion for the homeless man. Despite his homelessness, that man on the street had discovered that he wasn’t excluded from the love Christmas inspires. The compassion offered by the police officer first came from God in Jesus Christ.
The gift for life that God gives at Christmas is the gift of God’s compassion for humanity. Love is what lasts beyond the silence of an empty house after your parents have left, but the Christmas gifts of bygone years remain. The love they gave and the love you offered blesses and unites you in life, and in death.
My Dad wasn’t interested in the books or clothes Julie and I gave him. He was simply interested in our love. Being with him at Christmas was his joy.
Love transforms children’s hearts to share what’s more important to them than toys. Children love to share love. It’s ageless. Love bridges this life and the next. It connects us with those who aren’t with us at Christmas except by Christ’s love. His love is the gift that can’t be destroyed. His love offers the gift that lives.
We spend so much time searching for gifts to represent or symbolize love. Why not simply give love – the love that’s in Jesus Christ?
Christ’s love can’t be hoarded. It’s shared to give life. Christ’s love can’t be manufactured. It’s the spontaneous outpouring of the heart that’s thankful for God’s blessing in Jesus Christ. Christ’s love lasts when other gifts lose their value. Christ’s love expands our horizons to see the greater divine force that gives life.
Life in God isn’t to be contained in the crucible that our souls inhabit. Life in God extends beyond what we sense as His creation. Life in God lasts forever and ever, and ever – to the end of time and beyond.
We know this from God’s love in the birth of Jesus Christ.
Why would we offer a gift at Christmas that’s temporary and fleeting when the best gift of all lasts forever – God’s love in Jesus Christ? When you give your family, your children Christ, when you give the homeless Christ, when you give the unlovable Jesus Christ, you have given others the joy of life!
Perhaps children would understand gift-giving better if we simply gave them and others Jesus Christ’s love. What better Christmas gift is there to give?
That’s what my father had been trying to tell me all along. It’s why my fondest memories of being with my father are worshipping with him on Christmas Eve. It was his gift of love to me for life. Amen.