Unwrapping Christmas: Give Presence
Today is the First Sunday of Advent. Our Advent series is called Unwrapping Christmas. It’s about giving which begins with God. God is a giver and everything is a gift. He has given us birth and life, friends and family, talents and possessions, opportunities and advancements. God is a generous giver.
At Christmas we celebrate that God the Father gave us his very best, his Son. Perhaps the most famous line in all of Scripture sums it up best: For God so loved the world he GAVE his only beloved Son.
Then the Son loved the world so much he GAVE his life for us on the cross, that we might have life in him. If you are becoming more like Jesus, which is what we are supposed to be doing, then you are becoming more generous as he is generous. To grow as followers of Jesus means growth in giving.
In our heart of hearts, we all want to be like that; we want to be givers, don’t we?
At the end of our lives, we want to be remembered as generous people. No one is ever honored for what they received, or took, from others. People are honored and remembered and celebrated, for what they gave, their contributions for the benefit of others. Besides, we know intuitively that our generosity is the key to our joy and happiness.
There is joy in giving! Today, we want to look at giving the gift of presence. One of the most frequent promises God makes to his people in the Bible is “I will be with you.”
The Bible isn’t about humanity’s search for God. It’s about God’s desire to be with his people, and unfortunately, his people’s sometimes lack of desire to be with him. This was perfectly captured in one of the most famous paintings of all time, Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, in the Sistine Chapel. A quick glance at it suggests God and Adam are reaching out to one another. But, a closer look reveals it’s God who is reaching out, stretching to reach Adam, who, on the other hand, appears almost passive.
Apparently, one of the messages that Michelangelo wanted to convey is God’s initiative and determination to reach out to and be present with humanity. But, in the painting, there is a little tiny gap between God and Adam. Adam has to reach up if he wants to fill that gap. Adam must choose. God wants to share his presence. We’ve got to choose. Will you choose God to be present in your life?
The prophet Isaiah in our first reading recognizes this special relationship between God and the people of Israel and that is what he writes about. God is both father and redeemer. He gives life and he redeems it, he forms his people and saves them. He saves them from their enemies, their past, their faults and failures.
Isaiah asks a very interesting question: “Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?”
It sounds like Isaiah is blaming God for this situation, but, this is more of a rhetorical question in which Isaiah is acknowledging the problem of free will. Free will is our ability to choose different possible courses of action. God gives us free will to choose. He does not force himself upon us. He allows us to wander from him. He allows us to harden our hearts toward him, to become indifferent to his presence.
Perhaps this is the story of your life. For some time or even a long time you ignored a relationship with God. You ignored his teachings about how to live. Or you have made a bad decision and then said to God, Why did you let me do that? Why did you let me take that job I hate? God, why did you let me buy that house I can’t afford? Why didn’t you stop me from dating him? Often we don’t invite God’s presence into our lives when we make a decision, but then we blame God for making bad decisions.
God respects our free will. If we invite him into our lives, he will be with us and he will share with us his wisdom. If we don’t, he won’t. It is often that simple. Isaiah recognizes that all the problems of the nation basically come down to this: they have acted like practical atheists, like people who do not know God much less allow God to rule their lives and to guide their behavior. This becomes a self-fulfilling process in which their perception of God’s presence becomes darker and darker.
Did you ever notice that when you sin against someone, you’re uncomfortable with their presence?
This is what it is like with God. When we operate without him, or are working against him, we are uncomfortable with him: uncomfortable with the Church, with religion, with the whole thing. The book of Genesis tells us that after Adam and Eve sinned, they hid from God. Of course we can’t hide from God, but we still try.
That’s how the people of Israel had been operating for a long time. They had not invoked God or called upon him for help, they were doing life alone and on their own. As a result they found themselves in an uncomfortable position.
Maybe that’s where you are right now. You realize that your life has gone off track because you have tried to live apart from him. Your marriage, your work, your finances, your grades, or your emotional health, are out of step, off balance, misaligned because you are living like a practical atheist.
If that’s where you are, congratulations! In recognizing your need for God, you might be primed for a breakthrough. It is unfortunate that we don’t recognize our need for God’s presence until we have problems. That’s the bad news. The good news is that God loves us enough that he’ll never deny us his presence. It is never too late.
Christmas is the partial fulfillment of this prayer. At Christmas God sent his Son into the world. But he did so quietly, silently. Nearly no one noticed. I say Christmas is the partial fulfillment, because it is not until the end of Jesus’ life, after Jesus died on the cross, that it is completely fulfilled.
When Jesus died on the cross, the veil of the magnificent temple sanctuary, which was like a giant curtain, about 60ft high, 30ft wide, and 4 inches thick, and it covered the section of the temple called the holy of holies, was ripped in two from top to bottom. That giant curtain represented the distance between God and humanity, the distance between us and the holy of holies, who is God himself. It was ripped in two from top to bottom. In the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God is now fully present to his people.
Today begins a favored season of the year, the season of Advent; a time designated by the Church of preparation for the Feast of Christmas. But also a season of anticipation and celebration as we remember what God has done, and what he will do, in our lives, and in the life of the world. Advent reminds us that God gave the gift of his presence. And each time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we remember and receive that presence.
We call the Eucharist “real” presence. God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, and gave himself. Our first job as Jesus’ followers is to accept and appreciate the gift of God’s presence. Our second job is to do the same. Give the gift of real presence. There are people who are crying out for your presence. They crave your real presence, they simply want you around.
Give the gift of your presence, first of all, to people who will value it. This is something as a pastor I reflect upon often, and it helps me make decisions about how to use my time. For example, I never go to wedding receptions. I don’t go because my presence there doesn’t matter. The focus is on the bride and groom, as it should be, and I’m just a prop for photos. On the other hand, if someone is sick, I understand my presence can be incredibly meaningful.
College students, please don’t miss this. The greatest gift you can give your parents in coming home this holiday is to spend time with them. Your presence demonstrates support. Look to give the gift of your presence when people need your support the most, especially when facing a challenge or difficulty.
Maybe you know people this Christmas who will be going through a tough time because it is the first Christmas they will face after the loss of a loved one. Support them with the gift of your presence. Your presence relieves loneliness.
For all of us who are so busy, it is easy to forget how isolating and debilitating aloneness and loneliness can be, especially during a pandemic. Who is someone you know who is alone or perhaps lonely this Christmas? Can you take time to make time for them? As we unwrap God’s Christmas generosity, remember, like God and his Son Jesus, our presence is sometimes the best gift we can give. And since you can only be in one place at one time, YOUR REAL PRESENCE is a “one at a time” kind of gift, and a “one of a kind” kind of gift.