I don’t know about you, but right about now, or more accurately, in a few minutes from now, is my favorite time of the entire Christmas season. The moment when I can breathe a sigh of relief. Good or bad, right or wrong, brilliant or mundane, I will have survived Christmas. I will have discharged my duties as your pastor. You might think I did great or awful, but it will be too late to change any of that. You might be seething or dumbfounded or in shocked, pained silence, but I’ll be smiling on the inside anticipating watching my family open presents, enjoying a Christmas nap, and relaxing the rest of the day. It’s the same sort of feeling I get most every Sunday just as the sermon wraps up. Assuming I haven’t preached heresy and nobody has died mid-sermon, I can relax. It’s the most relaxing time of the week for me.
My seminary homiletices (preaching) professor was fond of saying repeatedly through the course Sunday is coming. Three little words that strike terror into most pastors’ hearts. For Sunday is of course a day of holy obligations. Of bringing God’s Word to God’s people. Of leading and guiding people through the rituals of worship that the people of God have engaged in for two millenia. The responsibility of exercising publicly the private rights of a particular group of followers of Jesus the Messiah. As such, it is a day, or at least a morning, fraught with responsibility, privilege, honor.
Sunday is coming. And the words of that prof ring in my ears more than a decade later. They weren’t said as a threat, necessarily. Simply a reminder. A reminder that once we were out in the parish we wouldn’t have 20 hours a week to spend researching and writing our sermons. In the real world we would have obligations. The resposibility, the privilege, the honor of shepherding God’s people. That would take time, as it should. But whether the week was filled with appointments, hospital visits, calls on the homebound, administrative duties, fixing the church plumbing, and cooking for the men’s breakfast Bible study, Sunday is coming.
While most of you have never given a sermon you understand this feeling of joy and dread, fear and awe, because for every single one of you, year after year, Christmas is coming. Played out on a larger calendar, you deal with the same thing that pastors do week after week. The resolutions to be more organized next year. To start the shopping early. To buy the Christmas cards when they’re pennies on the dollar the week after Christmas. To hit the home décor shops on Christmas 28th and scoop up all those gorgeous little decorative Christmas doo-dads when they’re 80% off. The resolution to finish the Christmas shopping in July, to get the Christmas cards out Thanksgiving weekend, to have gifts in the mail by the first weekend in December. Next year will be different, better. Next year you’ll be able to relax and really enjoy the meaning of the season. Next year you’ll decline some of those Christmas parties. Next year you won’t cave in to the pressure to present a Norman Rockwell-esque Christmas Eve dinner while still attending both the grandkids’ Christmas performance and the candlelight service later. Next year you’ll have lost 15 pounds and fit back into that outfit you love so much.
It’s a warm afterglow that first week of Christmas. And then the next thing you know it’s December 1 again and you haven’t done anything the way you vowed. Everything has to get done, everywhere is crowded and crabby, prices are jacked sky high, the family won’t commit on when they’re going to come – if at all – for Christmas, you’ve lost your address book and gained 5 pounds. None of which really matters, because Christmas is coming.
Every year this reality stares us in the face. Every year we feel unprepared, and every year Christmas arrives regardless. Memories are made and shared. Photos are snapped. Christmas hams are kept away from eager dogs. Babies get fed and wrapping paper gets cleaned up and stockings get filled and bicycles get put together regardless of missing three screws and the directions being written only in Korean. Every year we sit crumpled on the couch afterwards listening to the sounds of laughter or the sounds of silence, amazed that, regardless of how ready we weren’t, Christmas arrived anyways.
This is God’s gift to us each year and each week. Christmas is coming. Sunday is coming. And you and I being sinful and broken and pretty self-absorbed, we hear that as a call to arms, a call to man the battlements and prepare ourselves. To provision the larder and ensure that there’s enough brandy and eggnog for Aunt Karen. We hear it as the nails -on-the -chalkboard whispers of Satan telling us it’s all on me. I have to get it right. I have to pull it together. If I’m not ready it will be a fiasco so epic that my great-great-great-grandkids will walk by the still-smoking crater of what used to be our home and whisper about the year they failed Christmas. Christmas is coming. Sunday is coming. As a gift. But Satan wants to steal this present off of our front porch like one of those people who steals UPS packages this time of year, and leave us instead with a flaming paper bag of steamy, stinky guilt that we try desperately to stamp out only to find out that our shoes are covered with it and we can’t get it off.
But today is a gift, not an obligation. It’s a present from God not a responsibility to shoulder. And it arrives whether we’re ready or not. Whether we’re happy with how we look or feel, or how the person next to us looks or feels. It arrives not because we caused it or created it or deserved it, but only and always because our God loves us and cares for us and desires to give us good things.
He gives us the best thing He can give us – his Son. Our Savior. Sure, the present isn’t wrapped very well by our aesthetic sensibilities. We might have preferred something a bit more sparkly, a few more bows on it. But He gives us his Son as a gift, and as anyone with any manners knows, you need to pay attention to the gift on the inside rather than the wrapping job on the outside.
He gives us his Son as a gift, as good news, as peace and joy and reconciliation. There’s nothing more to be done than to receive this gift. No need or ability for us to improve upon it. There are no batteries to be installed, no assembly required, no exchanges and no returns. One size fits all. It is the gift of God’s peace on earth, quite literally, his goodwill towards humanity.
Sunday is the day we observe the Sabbath, also a gift. A weekly reminder of God’s peace, God’s grace, God’s provision. It’s as easy for pastors to forget this every week as it is for you to forget this once a year. It isn’t about me. It’s about the God who gives good gifts to his people, and the response that naturally comes about when we receive a good gift. We can take the gift and put it on our back as another burden or responsibility, as another means of making ourselves feel good about our own efforts, but that’s ludicrous. Irresponsible. Rude. It’s far better to receive the gift and settle down to enjoy it. To really examine it. To really appreciate the magnitude of the thought, the depth of our need, and the goodness of our God who truly loves us. Christmas has come. Sunday is coming. Thanks be to God, go home and enjoy it. Amen.