Tonight we gather to celebrate the birth of God’s Son, Jesus the Christ, Immanuel, the Prince of Peace.
And as a result, he was an unexpected gift found in an unexpected place.
Tonight I want to tell you about an unexpected and even disappointing Christmas presents I received.
It was a Flexible Flyer sled. A runner sled or rail sled as some might call them.
It was said to be the best sled in the world.
This was interesting because at the time I thought the best was a sled called the “SPV” a heavy, girthy, hard plastic sled; compete with handle breaks for steering.
According to my older brother, the SPV was the sled ridden by those who routinely won the Wooster Parks and Recreation Super Slide Off—a once year sled ridding race—a race that my brother had won on multiple occasions, always on a SPV sled he had borrowed from a neighbor.
This was the early 80’s, and such was the sled of choice.
The Flexible Flyer was something from the 40’s and 50’s—olden days to those who were of an certain age, such as myself.
Needless to say, a Flexible Flyer sled was not on my Christmas list.
In this particular year, Christmas was on a Sunday. And because it was, instead of getting up and opening presents, my family and I got up and went to church.
Admittedly, I was more than a little annoyed by this because after all, just the night before we had gone to church! Why did we possibly need to go again?!
My protests went unacknowledged, and I begrudgingly trapesed out to the garage and got into the family car, and off we went.
A couple of hours later, we pulled back into the garage, and out of the car I flew, again through the garage, and into the house.
The key to this, that will become more relevant in a few moments, is that now twice I had walked into and out of the garage.
Finally, after an agony of waiting until after lunch, my family began to open our Christmas gifts.
Interestingly, but then again maybe not, I don’t recall any of the gifts I opened that year, until I eventually got to a small box that once opened I found inside a note.
This was not surprising as it had been a trend, and is still a trend in my family today, to give a gift that has some size and girth to it, but instead of wrapping the gift, you would simply put the gift in the living room closet or put it out in the garage, and then wrap up a note that directed the recipient to look for their gift in a particular location.
And that’s what I had. I was directed to go to the garage, and find what “Santa” believed would help me win the next Wooster Parks and Recreation Super Slide Off.
Thrilled and certain that I was about to take procession of my very own SPV sled, I ran out to the garage, the same place I had already gone through twice that day—and what to my wondering eyes would appear—but an old fashioned, used runner sled, with faded words that read, “Flexible Flyer.”
Needless to say, it wasn’t hard to contain my enthusiasm.
I turned around and my father stood watching me, and seeing the confusion and admittedly the disappointment on my face, he said, “I’m not surprised you’re disappointed. You didn’t even notice it earlier. But just wait. I think you will be very pleased with that gift.”
It was an unexpected gift. It was a disappointing gift, a gift that twice earlier that day I didn’t even notice.
Christmas gifts can be like that because no matter our age, we all have a Christmas wishes in our mind—whether it’s about gifts or expectations or hopes for what the holidays will hold, or even how our time with family or friends will be—we all have expectations.
As a result, the expectations around the holidays are often impossibly high.
But I found then, and still find today, that it is the unexpected gifts of time, people, or even presents, that often bring me back to my fondest memories of Christmas, while also bringing me back to the true meaning of Christmas.
Jesus was born over 2,000 years ago in the city of Bethlehem.
His parents of course were Mary and Joseph—a young maiden and a carpenter.
They had travelled to Bethlehem, the city of David, from their home in Nazareth.
When they arrived there was no vacancy at any of the local inns. The only place they could find to stay was a lowly stable, and this is where Jesus was born.
They laid him in the only bed they could find—a manger. His bedding was the animal’s hay. His clothes were bands of cloth—swaddling clothes as we call them.
And here’s the interesting part of this story we know so well, but never seem to think about: No one noticed. No one cared.
The innkeeper sent this holy family out back to the stable. No townspeople came by. The throngs of people that had flocked to the city for the census and now filled all the local inns didn’t come by.
Angels had to appear as a heavenly multitude to get anyone’s attention—and then it was just a bunch of lowly, outlaw shepherds.
A bright shining star was needed to draw the magi to the manger.
And still, even after all that, only a handful people noticed, only a few came.
It is amazing that God’s own Son would be born in such a humble way, so unexpectedly. It doesn’t make much sense.
This was the arrival of the Messiah? Really?
That’s not how people were expecting such a thing—not in the least!
If it were true, it would be more than a little disappointing—which is exactly why many folks didn’t believe this was the birth of the Messiah.
But here’s the thing—this unexpected way, in this unexpected place, this is itself, part of the gift, because the way Jesus came to us is just as important as the fact that he came at all.
The people needed to just wait because God knew we would be very pleased with this gift.
It is worth noting—this was not how God typically showed up.
Prior to the birth of Jesus, the history of God and God’s people had not always been an easy one.
God called God’s people to righteousness and holiness, but they kept falling short.
And as a result, God issued more rules and harsher judgments.
God called and sent more leaders and prophets, but still, God’s people faltered, which caused God and God’s people to grow further and further apart.
After this happened for a few thousand years, God knew that there was but one way to reach God’s people, there was just one way to bridge the gap between God and God’s people, and return them to God.
And that one way was this…Rather than continuing to call us to be more like God, God came down to be like us—God came to be one of us.
God came to us, to be born as we are born. To live as we live. To die as we die.
But God also came to rise again—not as we did, but rather to be able to raise us up to abundant and everlasting life.
In Jesus, God joins us in our struggle for hope, peace, joy, and love.
God enters our world and our lives to transform them…to bring us the unexpected and undeserved, in an unexpected place…
…to bring us hope in hopelessness…
…to bring us healing and wholeness in shattered lives…
…to bring forgiveness in sinful lives…
…to bring unconditional love when we have been unlovable.
In the birth of Jesus, God collapses the great distance that once existed between God and us, so that we might be as close to God as a parent to their child.
Jesus came to us in this unlikely and unexpected way to show us the depth of God’s love for us—to show us that God is so in love with us that God would go to any length for us, even being born silently in a stable.
The unexpectedness of the story only emphasizes the unexpectedness of the gift.
We have given Jesus many names—Lord of Lords, Savior, Prince of Peace, Messiah.
But the one we use most at Christmas is Emmanuel, which means what? “God with us.”
In Jesus, God entered into our reality and our lives.
And because God did, God knows what it is like to be human.
God knows, intimately, what we go through.
God knows what it is like to have: hopes and dreams, fears and doubts.
God knows what it is like to belong and to be rejected, to succeed and to fail.
God knows, and because God knows, we can know that no matter where we are, no matter what we have done, no matter what we have become, God is with us, because Jesus, came to be one of us.
Tonight we are reminded that God chooses to be with us, wherever we are. God is with us, tonight, tomorrow…always.
Jesus is God’s love made visible. It is a beautiful and unexpected gift in a humble and unexpected place.
And it is a gift that always has, and always will, please us to no end.
So you might be curious about my Flexible Flyer sled. Maybe you’re wondering if my Dad was right.
Was I “very pleased” with the gift that I didn’t even notice twice before that day?
Well, a few weeks later the Wooster Parks and Recreation Department held its annual “Super Slide Off Sled Riding Race”—a tournament format divided up in various age groups.
In each of my races, my Flexible Flyer lived up to its name, and took me all the way to the championship race, against Kirk Donges, who was riding, of course, an SPV sled—the sled that routinely won the Super Slid Off.
The moment of truth had arrived in story book fashion.
And how did the story end?
It ended, with me and my unexpected Christmas present, crossing the finish line far, far ahead of Kirk and his SPV.
It is my prayer that your Christmas will be filled with many unexpected gifts—be they presents, relationships, or moments of grace.
But whatever they are, may they remind you of the original unexpected gift of Christmas—Jesus, Immanuel, God with us.
And may we all receive again the unexpected gift of Jesus, fully aware that Jesus is the greatest gift we will ever receive.
Merry Christmas. Amen.