I know, just from being in the shops this last week, that buying presents is an important part of Christmas for many people.
There’s a spectrum for Christmas present shopping. At one end there are those who have bought and wrapped everything by 1st October. At the other end are those who for various reasons put the shopping off and off and off – it’s a bit like playing chicken – seeing how long you can put it off until you absolutely have to force yourself out into the shops. These people are out doing the lot on 23rd and 24th December. I did that once. It was horrible. And expensive.
Why the emphasis on gifts?
I’m guessing you will know a little of the story about the first Christmas.
A young lady was visited by an angel who told her that she had been chosen to be the mother of God’s Son. Mary. She was engaged to Joseph.
Towards the end of her pregnancy the emperor of the day called a census, not because the government wanted to make future plans for building schools, hospitals and aged care facilities. It was all to do with power – about being the biggest empire, about knowing just how many loyal subjects you have. So Joseph and Mary had to travel from Nazareth, where they lived, to Bethlehem (about 130km), because in those days the census didn’t come to you – you went to it. You went to the town of your birth and signed yourself in.
As most of Israel was on the move because of the census there was little accommodation to be found. Joseph and Mary couldn’t find a room in an inn, but they were given lodgings in a stable. And Jesus - whose name means Saviour - was born .
I’m guessing you will know that God didn’t announce the birth of his Son by sending out a text message or putting it up on Facebook or even putting a notice in the newspaper.
He sent his messengers – angels. And this is where the story gets very interesting.
Who got to hear the news first? You know how you have to let certain people know first...there is a bit of an order to these sorts of things. Well God sent his angels to tell some shepherds. They were the first to know. They were told, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people. Today in Bethlehem a Saviour has been born to you.”
You may know that bit of the story. You've probably seen it on Christmas cards. But did you know that in those days shepherds were social outcasts? No-one spoke to shepherds or paid them any attention. They lived outside the city walls, looking after the sheep. So what is God doing telling these total nobodies about the birth of His Son? Why are they the first to hear?
God is saying that he sent His Son Jesus for all people. Maybe you think you aren’t worthy to be loved by God. If that is you, take heart from the shepherds. They were the complete outsiders of society. And God told them about Jesus first.
The other birth announcement was via a star, seen by wise men who travelled in from the east. They came to worship Jesus and brought gifts. And this is where we start to get the idea about Christmas gifts.
What were the first ever Christmas presents? No teddy bear, blankets and toys for this boy. Jesus’ gifts were gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Gold, like now, was a precious metal and generally only in the hands of kings. It tells us that Jesus is royal. He is a king. Indeed he is described in the Bible as the King of kings.
Frankincense. It’s a form of incense, easily available these days. But back in day it was rare and used only by priests. In fact only by the most important priest. He was called the high priest.
If you had done something wrong before God you would take an animal (a lamb or a dove for example) to the priest who would sacrifice it before God to pay for the wrongdoing and so make right again your relationship with God.
The gift of frankincense tells us that Jesus is like a priest. In fact he is called the great high priest and in dying on the cross at Easter he did away with needing to take animals to be sacrificed at the temple. Jesus died on the cross to take the punishment for all our wrongdoings and so restoring our relationship with God.
And finally myrrh – a perfumed oil – again, reasonably available these days but back in Jesus' day it was rare and precious. And it was used as an embalming oil - and used only to embalm royalty. It shows us that Jesus' death would be significant. Highly important.
Strange gifts - but they were gifts that show us what Jesus was all about.
Jesus – the Son of God - born a baby to grow into a man in order to die on the cross to take the punishment for all our wrongdoings but who was raised to life again and reigns, the King of kings, with God in heaven.
You may sometimes wonder about this business of Christmas presents. They probably had their origins in the three gifts from the wise men. But in all the writing of lists and checking them twice, of shopping and wrapping and giving, take a little time and remember that God has given us the best gift we could ever hope to receive.
There is a Bible verse that says, “For God so loved the world that he gave His one and only Son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
That is why we celebrate Christmas. So in the midst of all the presents, pause to remember the greatest gift that was ever given. Jesus.