I love to have a house full of people. There were 9 adults, 1 teenager, 5 grade school aged kids, and a little baby at my house for Thanksgiving and it was honestly fun for me to cook for and host them all. I just love having lots of loved ones in my house. A few times a year, my patient, introverted husband humors me and agrees to have a pack of my friends from the seminary over for dinner and/or board games. There are two things that inevitably happen when my seminary buddies are over at our house: the first is that really, really dorky conversations are struck up. The second is the one that usually drives Tim upstairs to another room – we start reminiscing about seminary. And we always tell the same stories.
“Do you remember the time that so and so said that one thing in church history class?” “Do you remember the really hard exam we had to take in Hebrew? You know. . . the one where we had to translate part of Ezekiel on the fly?” “How TERRIBLE was that one class?”
Those of you who are still in touch with high school or college friends or even colleagues you’ve worked with might have noticed the same thing. Often the conversation turns to the hardest classes, the worst classes, the terrible customers, the professors we didn’t like. It seems like it’s easier to talk about those things than the highlights. And it’s not that any of us hated seminary or anything, there is just some sort of weird camaraderie that happens when you’re reminiscing with former classmates or colleagues about the difficult times.
At first, it seems like that might be what Luke is going for in this passage of his gospel. Roman rule could not have been easy to live under. The rulers were out for their own interests rather than those of the people. They weren’t very nice. And they did not like Jesus and his posse of disciples very much. So in a way, it seems that perhaps Luke is setting up the scene in order to build some sort of early Christian camaraderie. And that’s probably part of what he’s doing here, but there is more to it.
There’s more to this labeling of “remember that one professor?” than just a shared good or bad time with one another. It’s a confirmation that we were in a place and a time. We have historical weight and significance and that can be measured by comparing it to the history of another person. And often, it’s the shared conflict that brings us closer together because not only do we have a shared history, it’s a shared history of overcoming some sort of adversity.
Luke starts off this narration of the beginning of the ministry of Jesus by saying, “This is the time and place into which God came in, as, and through Jesus Christ.” By saying, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,” Luke is saying, “Jesus came into the real, physical, historical world. Jesus came into this world in a time and a place to share in the historical importance of our lives. Jesus shared in our suffering and in our difficult past.”
That’s what we celebrate at Christmas. We’re not celebrating some abstract, pretty story about people being nice to a young couple and giving them space in the barn to have their baby. We’re not just talking about the birth of a cool guy. We’re celebrating the day that God broke into time and space and history to be with us and to share in our collective history and experience. Not just from some abstract place or far off spiritual realm, but right here walking on Earth with us.
It’s that gift that inspires us – in theory – to give gifts to our loved ones at Christmas. But often what we give are just presents – P R E S E N T S – or trinkets. They are things we give out of obligation or some sort of pressure, but not out of a desire to be with and share in life with a particular person like God did when Jesus was born. We buy trinkets and tchotchkes and all sorts of things for people who don’t need them. Things that just pile up and are forgotten.
We all have things that we cherish that were given as gifts at Christmas, but I’d be willing to bet my lunch – and you all know how I feel about lunch – that very few people here, if anyone, could tell me everything they got for Christmas last year or the year before. I know I can’t. Sure, I got some great things the past few years – my box drum, a banjo, my favorite running shirt – but the reason they were great gifts was because they were from some my favorite people (my husband and my mom) and because they were gifts of presence (P R E S E N C E) – not just presents (P R E S E N T S). My mom knows that I love to run even when it’s freezing cold out. Tim knows I love to learn new instruments and play music with him. They are gifts of time and presence. Every year, Tim’s mom takes the kids to the theater for their big Christmas gift. While toys get old or lost or broken, they can tell you all about all the great plays and musicals and concerts they have gone to with their grandma. PRESENCE.
This passage uses attention to historical detail to help ground it in the real world. Jesus gave us his presence – the gift of being with us in the real world as we know and experience it. The greatest gift ever given is God’s physical presence among us in our own world and history and time and space. And that’s why we give gifts this time of year. We give gifts to remember and model our own lives after the gift we were given. And the gift we were given was not paid for in money. God doesn’t give us stuff or money. God gives us God’s self.
As we remember God’s gift to us by giving gifts to one another, let’s remember that. Let’s give one another the gift of presence – that’s p-r-e-s-e-n-c-e, not p-r-e-s-e-n-t-s. Sure, we can give things to people, but what and why are we giving them? Is it something that’s just going to wind up in the basement or attic or garage, or is it something meaningful that will reflect the love of Jesus and the presence of God? Sometimes that’s in the form of things that show thought and attention. And often, they are the least expensive presents that best communicate loving presence.
Last year, an anonymous person – you know who you are – gave me a package of highlighters because she’d been paying attention to how much I love to organize things and highlight stuff! It was hilarious and touching all at the same time. It was a small gift, monetarily, but it was a sweet and wonderful gift of presence. And the coffee table book about chickens? Excellent! That person was really paying attention! What a gift of presence!
That’s what we’re going for if we are serious about focusing on Christ at Christmas. There is no amount of Black Friday or Cyber Monday shopping that will show someone the love of Christ in and of itself. A stocking can be completely stuffed to the gills and still be utterly devoid of Christmas. Many of the Christmas trees with the most stuff under them – with the highest ticket items and the shiniest wrapping paper – are the saddest and least Christ-like examples of gift giving because they are just presents.
“Pastor,” you may find yourself saying, “That sounds like a lot of hard work.”
Well. . . yep. It sure is. And that’s why it matters more. It shows that person you care about just how much they matter. They matter enough that you’re willing to take some extra effort to let them know you know them. You’ve been paying attention. In a busy, spend-happy world, a little bit of presence in the midst of all the presents is exactly what we all need. That’s exactly what God did.
God could have miraculously given the Jews the military equipment needed to overthrow the Roman rule. But what did God give them? A baby – God came as a baby – presence. God could have simply worked things supernaturally to provide all of God’s faithful people with all the stuff they could possibly want. But nope – a baby. Presence. God just came and sat with us, felt our struggles, participated in our human history and walked on our very real soil. And that mattered more – lasted longer – had a far greater effect on creation than any thing ever could have. God paid attention to us, showed great care for us, and came to be with us so that “all people will see God’s salvation.”