Is there anyone who hasn’t opened a birthday or Christmas present and hasn’t had a moment of disappointment when it wasn’t quite what you thought it would be?
The story is told of the nine year old boy who one day saw what seemed like the perfect birthday present for his mother. He knew that she had one bet a year, on the Grand National, and here was a set of six shot glasses, each with the portrait of a Grand National winning horse. Ideal! He had no idea of what a foolish choice this was, a gift that hinted at a fondness for booze as well as betting, and neither was remotely true in his mum’s case, and not very feminine either.
The story is also told of a young lad who walked into the lingerie section of a department store and asked to buy something for his mother’s birthday the following day. But when it came to what size to buy, he was at a complete loss.
“Well, what’s your mother like?” asked the assistant. “Is she thin or fat, tall or short?”
“Oh, she’s just perfect,” said the lad. So the shop assistant sold him a size 14. The next day a lovely lady came in and swapped it for a size 24. Well, that was how he saw her.
There’s also a story told of a teenager who bought his mother cheap perfume. Months later he found it in a box of unwanted presents that might do for someone else.
You will have noticed that in all my little anecdotes it was a man who messed up.
The opening pages of Luke’s gospel are all about gifts. In tonight’s reading, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus their baby to the Temple in Jerusalem. They are following the law which Moses gave their ancestors: your eldest son should be dedicated to the Lord. In other words, they offer Jesus as a gift to God. But this comes straight after the Christmas stories, in which Luke has gone to some lengths to tell us that Jesus is God’s gift to Mary and Joseph, and to the whole world.
So, that mean that what I think the story of the birth of Jesus is saying is that this new life is no predictable fruit of human activity, it’s pure grace, a divine initiative; Jesus is God’s gift to the earth. Remember the words of the angel to the shepherds, ‘To you is born in the city of David, a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord’. So Mary and Joseph are, almost nonsensically, it seems, giving to God what God has just given to them.
This nonsense is part of what Paul calls the foolishness of God, a foolishness that is wiser than human wisdom. Worldly wisdom thinks in terms of ownership. It speaks the language of possession, so that what is mine cannot by definition be yours. God, foolishly, speaks the language of gift, of things to be given and not hung on to but given again, to be received, enjoyed and shared. Jesus is the foolish gift of God to a world too scared to be generous. The old man Simeon prophesies that he will become: ‘a sign that will be opposed.’ How true that is, because when Jesus becomes an adult he develops a ministry that is so bound up with finding what’s lost and mending what’s broken that he has no time for possessions. And people don’t like that, especially those like me who have a few possessions of their own.
As I’ve got older, I think I’ve become more minimalist, and less of a hoarder. I know those of you who’ve visited the manse will find that incredibly hard to believe, but do take my word for it that a lot has been thrown away, and I feel much better for it. There is a school of thought that says all property is theft, although as most of us own a house, or would be happy to own a house if we could so afford, and many belong to pension funds that survive by owning stocks and shares, I don’t think there’s a queue of people subscribing to that view here. But I do wonder if owning too much, and placing too much of our emotional investment in owning things can actually lead to a shrinking of life. If we try to hang on to everything, life can become a perpetual battle. Everything and everyone can become a potential threat to me and my things, and then the world outside becomes a darker, more menacing place.
Jesus offers us escape from that darkness, and the point of church is that we can see that in our community. There is no admission charge, there is no membership fee (we need money, but it’s not like that!), because what we strive to be about is modelling the generosity and the hospitality of God in our community here, and in our communion service we see manifest symbols of God’s generosity towards us, as bread and wine become a symbol of God’s very life put into our hands, as food for our souls. God doesn’t hoard anything, God gives it back to us and our world, in richer and more generous ways.
The story is told that one day a beggar by the roadside asked for money from Alexander the Great as he passed by. The Emperor threw him several gold coins. A courtier was astonished at his generosity and commented, “sir, copper coins would adequately meet a beggar’s need. Why give him gold?” Alexander responded in royal fashion, “copper coins would suit the beggar’s need, but gold coins suit Alexander’s giving.”
Jesus will be ‘a sign that will be opposed,’ says Simeon, ‘so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.’ How true that is. We are in church because, despite our inner thoughts, we cannot quite reject that sign, because we see in it, perhaps only faintly, a light for the nations, a wisdom which our wise world does not comprehend, though it needs to. And perhaps God’s foolishness is beginning to look a little wiser, because we are learning that, in your life and in mine, in the life of our nation, and especially in troubling times, only the generous are truly secure.