Receiving the gift - Christmas Eve 2013 - Dave Walker

Bible readings: Luke 2:1-20 and Luke 5:27-31

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So, it’s Christmas Eve. Ok, here’s a question for you: is Christmas Eve a time for giving, or a time for getting? What do you think? I know that in Mistletoe and Wine Cliff Richard says it’s both, but just let’s ignore Cliff for a moment. Which is it? Giving, or getting?

Well imagine if something a bit like this happened on Christmas day. Imagine if tomorrow morning the time came for opening of presents and you handed over that gift which had been chosen with care, paid for yourself for a person you love, and they pulled out their wallet or their purse and said, “OK, that’s great, how much?” It’d be ridiculous wouldn’t it? It would completely undermine the purpose of giving the gift in the first place. You’d have to say something like “I don’t think you understand. This is a gift. You don’t pay for it, you receive it. It’s not something you’ve earned. It’s something I’m giving.”

Because that’s the issue, isn’t it? A gift is given, it’s not paid. You don’t give a gift to someone because they’ve earned it, do you? It’s not performance-related pay. It’s a gift. You give it because you love that person and you want to give. That’s all.

But do you know, I think that many many people, and quite possibly you, think that it’s ok to do something a bit like that with God. People think we can buy God’s generosity. They think that we are entitled to his blessing. We’ve earned the right to good things from God. Or we’re trying hard to earn them. Maybe you think that.

Tonight I want you to see why that is a big mistake. It’s my deep conviction that if you can get over that way of thinking, you will be free to enjoy the message of Christmas so much more. And I want that for you. Because God wants that for you.

So let’s look very quickly at one of the more shocking things Jesus said. We’ve heard already tonight about Jesus’ birth, about how it was good news of peace for people on whom God’s favour rests – that was the message the angels gave to the shepherds, wasn’t it? But did you notice that other thing too? The thing Jesus said to explain why he had come. He said he had come for some people, and not for others. That’s pretty surprising. Listen to what he said:

“I have not come for the righteous, but for sinners.” Do you see that? He starts off by saying who he’s not come for. I have not come for the righteous. That’s a very religious sounding word. Let’s paraphrase: I’ve not come for the goodies; I’ve come for the baddies. Says Jesus.

That’s not very Christmas Eve, that’s not very Father Christmas, is it? Have you been very very good this year? Oh well then he’s not come for you. He’s come for the bad kids. This is Jesus the Anti-Santa. What does he mean?

Well he explains what he means doesn’t he? He says he’s like a doctor. "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." You don’t go to a doctor because you’re well, do you? Not unless you really want to waste their time. The thing that qualifies you to go to a doctor is that you are sick. Jesus says “that’s how it is with me.” I’ve come for sinners. Only for sinners.

He told an amazing story to really get this message across. It was a story involving the characters that Jesus was talking to here. On the one hand you had the Pharisees. Now we tend to think of Pharisees as baddies, but at the time, everyone thought they were goodies. They were the people who everyone knew were right. The people who had the right answer for everything. I don’t know who the modern day equivalent would be – Stephen Fry? John Humphreys? The sort of person who always says the right thing and who most people respect. The other end of the scale were the tax collectors: nobody liked them. Their politics were all wrong; they worked for the wrong side, they were morally questionable: the sort of people that comedians would laugh at and the rest of us would get annoyed about.  

Jesus said this Pharisee and this Tax collector went to the temple to meet with God. And when they get there the Pharisee says “I thank you God that I am not like those others – even like the tax collectors – I do the right things. I’ve been good.” And who would argue with him? But the tax collector stands right on the fringes, his head bowed, hardly able to speak, except to say “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” And Jesus says “which one goes home in the right?” “Who gets it right with God?” The goodie who knows he’s good, or the baddie who knows he’s bad?

What do you think? Who would you put on the good list? You’d go for the goodie every time. I would. But Jesus says “it’s the one who humbles himself before God.” It’s the one with no bargaining chip in his hand. The one who doesn’t think he’s entitled to anything from God. But who just asks. Jesus has come for him. Not for the other man. The tax collector goes home justified – that is God counts him as guiltless. He’s clean. Not so the Pharisee.

I went to India once and if you know anything about India you’ll know that there are lots of Hindu shrines around, and every morning people go to these shrines and make an offering of some sort. I got talking to a man there who was a Hindu and I asked him why people go to the shrines. He said “they do it because they want good luck; they want things to go well. That’s why they make their offerings.” They’re trying to buy blessings from their gods.

Now I don’t just say that to have a go at Hindus; I have no doubt that there are people here tonight who’ve come for a similar reason. Maybe you’re hoping things will continue to go well for you, so you’ve come here. Or maybe things have been going badly and you’d like it to change, so you’ve come here. And you think that by being here you’re doing your duty. If you scratch God’s back, maybe he’ll scratch yours in return. You wouldn’t phrase it like that, but deep down somewhere that’s how you think it works. If you’re good enough God will pay out.

The message of Christmas is so much better than that. The Christmas message is not “if you do your duty enough you can have some of God’s blessings.” It’s not performance related pay. The Christmas message is about the most fantastic gift.

That’s what amazes the shepherds: “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you” To us? What have we done? Nothing. That’s the point. This is God the loving generous Father giving us his very best, his Son, so that we can become sons of God too – members of his family. With all the privileges that brings. Free access to our Father in heaven. We can live now with God with us. And the keys to the family home – a certain future, not just uncertainty followed by death, but life with God, the fullest life, life that will not be spoiled by evil and pain and death. That’s the gift. Today a Saviour has been born to you.

So how do you receive a gift? Jesus tells us. Immediately after telling that story of the Pharisee and the tax collector Jesus said this: “whoever will not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.”

Last Friday morning I was dressed up as Santa Claus, laughing like Brian Blessed as I doled out presents to the kids at the pre-school that meets here. When I gave them the presents what did they do? They just came and took them. They received the gifts. Not one of them offered to settle up the costs.

It’s an obvious thing to say, but the way to respond to a gift is to receive it. The way to respond to Jesus Christ is to receive him. With open hands. Like the tax collector in the story. God have mercy on me, a sinner. He doesn’t rely on his own good standing with God, he knows he doesn’t have any. He throws himself, all of himself, on the mercy of God.

Of course the reason we shy away from that is that it is so humbling. We’d much rather have God on our terms. We’d much rather trade with him, a bit of duty here, a bit of time there, that should do it. That allows us to be the ones who set the agenda. We expect God to meet our terms. We write the contract: God if I give you this, I expect that.

But Jesus doesn’t give us that option. He offers himself. God’s personal presence and the keys to his kingdom. That’s the offer. And Christmas, really, is all about getting. God has given himself to us. Will you receive that gift with open hands?