A few years ago Garrison Keillor had a Christmas special where he told this story about a Christmas gift. A few years ago, someone near and dear gave me a Polo shirt for Christmas and I said thank you, of course, and put it on and tried to look pleased, but what I was thinking was, “Burgundy?” In my experience, burgundy shirts are worn by guys who smoke cigarillos, drive Buick LeSabres, sit in the dark corners of cocktail lounges and place large wagers on basketball games. I’m more of a wheat type of person. Wheat or antique blue. But did I turn to the giver and say, “Sorry, I’m an English major and we don’t wear this color”? No. I put it in a special section of my closet where I keep never-to-be-worn clothes. After the three-month-Christmas-gift cooling-off period required by law, I gave the shirt to a shelter for the homeless. I hope it’s being worn by someone, and yet I can imagine a homeless person being offered this shirt and saying to the volunteer, You wouldn’t have something in a pale green or aqua would you? Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you look good in burgundy.
Thus, Garrison Keillor begins a fun essay on the perils of Christmas getting.
I didn’t say Christmas giving. At this time of year, some of us think the toughest job ahead of us is to go out and find the perfect gift – the perils of Christmas giving. But, if we are honest, we must admit there are also perils of Christmas getting. Much is required to be the sort of person who is able to give the right gift. It also takes a great deal to be a person who is able to receive Christmas gifts in just the right way.
As Keillor goes on to say, “A Christmas gift represents somebody’s theory of who you are, or who they wish you were.” We know how to handle the wildly inappropriate gift from a stranger, but what if you see yourself as a suave dude wish a swift intellect and then one year your wife – your wife – gives you a pair of singing undershorts that perform “O Tannen-baum” when you sit down and a battery-powered coin bank in which a little farmer picks up the coin in his pitchfork and hoists it into the silo? That’s when you go through a sort of identity crisis. You’d like to get a gift that aims high – Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a ticket to Nepal…instead here is a pair of bedroom slippers with lights in the toes so you can see your way to the bathroom at night, or a rubber ball on a paddle. Not the thing an inquiring mind would spend a lot of time with.
Like Keillor says, a Christmas gift often tells us very little about who we are,
but it tells a great deal about who others think we are or want us to be. A man was telling me the other day that he was the oldest in his family and his sister was the youngest. Every Christmas, he would receive clothes that were a size or two too big. His sister would receive clothes that were a size or two too small. What does that tell you? It told him that his parents were always pushing him, wishing that he was older and more mature, while they were always holding his sister back, hoping she was just a bit younger. In a way, the gift told us much more about the parents, the givers of the gifts, than it did about the children, the receivers of the gifts.
And how many children have unwrapped a package that appeared to be a boxed set of CDs – they were excited, imagining it was a new Screaming Meemies Set or Road Kill…And they got the paper off, and found Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos? With a picture of a geeky guy in a tux, holding a stick in his hand, and they looked at their parents with a pitiful wan smile and thought, “Why are you giving me this? Do you want me to be a hopeless nerd? Do you want me to never be invited to parties?”
I guess we could say that Christmas is “a holiday fraught with peril.” Again, part of the peril of all this gift giving and gift receiving is that we are stunned when we realize somebody whom we love and who apparently loves us, perceives us in a way different from our own perception. One of the toughest parts about Christmas is on Christmas morning, opening up gifts in front of the giver, and you are shocked, stunned by what you receive. What can you say? All you can do is sit there and exclaim, “Oh! Look at this! How interesting! Who would’ve thought!” You can’t tell them what you’re really thinking. Namely, “What on earth have you done? Who do you think I am? Are you crazy?” You take that gift, you put it wherever you put such gifts, and then, in the spring when the Seekers Class has its annual churchwide garage sale, you are able to offer a superb piece of merchandise, still in the box was unwrapped so leave off. Of course, you need to be careful. If the person who gave you the gift comes to the rummage sale, you’re in big trouble.
There is for each person a perfect gift – your heart’s desire – and nobody can give it to you except yourself. I’ve written a great deal about getting gifts from people, gifts that we didn’t expect, and certainly don’t want. Sometimes this can be a real pain. But at other times, such gifts can be a real blessing. Think of the gifts that you’ve received over the years that you did not want, would not have dreamed of asking for, but turned out to be just the right gift. Sometimes others are much better suited than you, to know the gifts that are really your heart’s desire. Sometimes, what you think is your heart’s desire really isn’t. I think that’s what happened to us at Bethlehem in the gift of the Christ child. We got our hearts’ desire. But we got our hearts’ desire not in the form in which we expected, or even wanted. We got a baby.
In this world that worships power, success, prestige, and raw force, we received a baby. Vulnerable, gentle, meek, and mild. And when that baby grew up, he became for many even less of what they wanted. He spoke biting, challenging words to the establishment. He challenged many of our conventional notions about who God was and what God wanted. He called us forth from our smug securities toward a life of high adventure and rebellion. Even at the end, particularly at the end, even after he had been with us for a number of years and we’d heard his teaching and seen his work, we rejected this gift. We took God’s most precious gift and nailed it to a cross, rejecting the gift. Still, God kept on giving, and keeps on giving even today.
We need to expect that God will send gifts our way that we did not ask for or expect, gifts that perhaps we did not want, but gifts that we really need. I know that this past year some of you have received many challenges and difficulties that you did not desire. Some of you have had health crises.
Some of you have gone through a period of great distress or trauma. Now, in many of these cases, I would be the last person to speak of such difficulties as “a gift.”
However, by the grace of God (the word grace means “gift”), even some of our worst difficulties can be transformed and seen as gifts. Having received the gift of the babe at Bethlehem, a gift we did not ask for or expect, but yet a gift that changed the world and us, we live in the expectation that God will bring things into our lives that at first may seem like great burdens, but by the grace of God become deep blessings. So, I don’t think that we are the only ones who can give us gifts we really want. I believe that the gifts we really need come from a loving God. This day has been born to us a child, a Savior, whose name is Jesus. He is God’s greatest gift. He is the one who, though we did not desire him, is a sign of God’s great desire for us. And that’s why we say, confronted with this gift, Merry Christmas!
And so we received an unsought, unexpected gift named Jesus. Thanks be to God!