Several years ago my brother and I traveled to Haiti to visit the work of a missionary in Port au Prince. Before leaving, we collected school supplies, clothing, and toys to bring to the children at a school we would be visiting. It was fun giving so many things to children who had so little. Every toy, every notebook, every pencil, and even each piece of gum was appreciated. The pastor of the church that sponsored the school said to us, “We are so grateful for all that you have brought us. It will be put to good use. But we are even more grateful that you came to be with us. Our work here can be difficult and lonely. It means so much to us that you brought these things to us in person. We do not get many visitors here.”
Gilbert and Harriet were an elderly home-bound couple that I visited in a previous congregation. One time when I visited right after Christmas there was a brand new television in the corner. “What a nice TV,” I said. “Yes,” said Harriet, “our son had it sent to us for Christmas. And look at that wonderful bouquet of flowers on the table. He had those delivered to us also. And that nice big recliner that Gilbert is always sitting in is also a gift from our son. Our son lives in California, you know, and he ordered that chair over his computer, and just like that, it was here for Gil’s birthday.”
“Your son buys you nice gifts,” I said.
“Yes he does,” said Gil gruffly, “but for my part he could forget the gifts and use the money to buy a plane ticket and visit us sometime. There is no gift that would mean more to his mother and me than that. He calls once in a while, but he hasn’t been here for over three years. It would be so nice to have him here with us again sometime, even for short visit, but it doesn’t happen.”
In both stories gifts were given and were appreciated. This is the season for gift giving. You may receive some wonderful gifts, and you may be excited about surprising someone with a nice gift. But we all know that the best gift is the gift of ourselves to each other. To be present with those we love is indeed the greatest present. How disappointing it is when loved ones cannot be together at this time of year. In my visit to Haiti, it was the gift of being there in person that was most appreciated; and for Gil and Harriet, that was the gift that was wished for more than anything.
Our God is the giver of so many good gifts. Everything we have is from Him. Our lives, our families, our homes, our food; we owe everything to this generous God. And at Christmas-time we gather at church (another gift of God) to celebrate God’s greatest gift– the gift of himself, the gift of his own personal presence here with us, in our world.
John’s Gospel begins with these words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” referring to Jesus as the Word. Then, says verse 14, “This Word took on human flesh and lived among us for a while, and we have seen him.” Verse ten tells us that He was in the world that ‘was made through him.’ In the past, God had sent prophets and angels. But in the birth of Jesus, God himself came to be with us. In doing so, says the book of Hebrews, God saw and felt firsthand what it was like to live a human life, to be tempted, to suffer in both body and spirit, to laugh, to cry, and even to die. This is the miracle we celebrate at Christmas. “Oh come, Oh come Emmanuel,” we sing. Emmanuel means ‘God with us.’
I love to read. Reading can transport me to long ago times and faraway places– even to Haiti. But reading about Haiti and visiting Haiti are two very different things. To be in Haiti, to visit those desperately poor slums, to walk the muddy streets, to see and smell the filth that accumulates in a place with no city services for sanitation or sewage; to meet the people who are stuck living there, and yet, see their faith and joy and humor– this all means so much more. By being there you learn things and feel things that you could never get from a book. The Haitians know that, and so they are grateful for those who come to see, and to feel, and to be with them.
The Bible portrays an Almighty God who knows everything and can do anything. But still, as implied in Hebrews chapter four, there were things God could feel only by being here in person. Hebrews four says that Jesus is able to “empathize with us in our weakness, because he was tempted in every way, just as we are, yet he did not sin,” and the next chapter says “he is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself was subject to weakness;” and, it says, “he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears… and he too learned obedience by what he suffered.” Think about that! God, in Christ, had to learn what it was like to be human, and he learned it by being here, by visiting us, by being one of us. There’s comfort in that, just like the people in Haiti are comforted by those who came to share their burdens. God becoming a man in Jesus is something like that, but infinitely deeper and more wonderful. For this is the all-powerful, all-knowing God; learning about suffering, about being weak, and about being tempted– learning about being human.
That is the miracle and the wonder of that life which began on Christmas.
Matthew 1:22-23 — All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
II Corinthians 5:19a — …God was in Christ…
Hebrews 4:14-16 — Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
James 1:17 — Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
O God, our Father, we remember at this Christmas time how the eternal Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
We thank you that Jesus took our human body upon him, so that we can never again dare to despise or neglect or misuse the body, since you made it your dwelling-place.
We thank you that Jesus did a day’s work like any working-man, that he knew the problem of living together in a family, that he knew the frustration and irritation of serving the public, that he had to earn a living, and had to face all the wearing routine of everyday work and life and living, and so clothed each common task with glory.
We thank you that he shared in all happy social occasions, that he was at home at weddings and at dinners and at festivals in the homes of simple ordinary people like ourselves. Grant that we may ever remember that in his unseen presence he is a guest in every home.
We thank you that he knew what friendship means, that he had his own circle of those whom he wanted to be with him; that he knew too what it means to be let down, to suffer from disloyalty and from the failure of love.
We thank you that he too had to bear unfair criticism, prejudiced opposition, malicious and deliberate misunderstanding.
We thank you that whatever happens to us, he has been there before, and that, because he himself has gone through things, he is able to help those who are going through them.
Help us never to forget that Jesus knows life because he lived a life, and that he is with us at all times to enable us to live with confidence and hope.
This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
—A Barclay Prayer Book, William Barclay, pages 16-17