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Presents or Presence? - Christmas Eve, 2004
Pastor Joe Giacometti ©2004

Are you excited about opening your presents? Whether you open them on Christmas Eve or day, or some other time, we’ve all been looking forward to these moments for weeks now. But our thoughts should not only be on presents, but also presence this Christmas season. It’s funny that two words that sound exactly alike, but mean such different things are equally a part of Christmas. Christmas is a lot about presents, but I hope we all remember it should be more about presence.

Christmas is wonderful time to gather with loved ones; family and friends. Savoring time with these people should always be a top priority to begin with, but at this time of year, it’s a special time to focus on it even more. Maybe it’s with friends or family that is far away that you’ll be with for Christmas, New years or somewhere in between. Or maybe it’s just with your immediate family, during this time you have off from school and your family has off from work. Christmas is a time of special presence with others.

But more importantly, Christmas is a great time to ponder God’s presence.

God had always been interacting with his people throughout the Old Testament times. But in the Christmas story, God has chosen to break into our world in a new way, a way that shook the lives of those living in the 1st century Roman Empire. It seems in this immediate story that God has given us a gift, but is this really what is going on? From our perspective, maybe, but what is the larger story. What is the bigger picture here? Ultimately, Christ coming into the world offers to us a new way to experience God’s presence.

God didn’t want to give us a gift, God wanted to give us his presence. He wanted to be present with us in a new way, in a way we could understand, yet struggle to understand all at the same time. It’s not necessarily a matter of God wanting to get closer to us. God is there, all the time, whether we realize it or not. God makes this incredible move because he wants us to be more aware of and move closer to him.

God wants us to be aware of his continual presence in our lives. I think God looks down and smiles at our excitement toward the Christmas presents we’re getting ready to tear open. But I know what God truly desires, what makes him smile more, is seeing that our excitement for his presence in our lives is even bigger.

God’s ultimate goal: to restore his people to himself. God wants nothing more than for his people, his creation, to long for him, to love him, and to be close to him. This is his reason for sending Jesus. God knows that when we are receptive to his presence in this new way, it will bring us closer to Him, or move us toward Him in the first place. So Christmas becomes all about the presence of God in our lives.

This presence is not something to be realized, pondered and celebrated one day or one season of the year. It is something that rocked the world in the 1st century, and something that should shake us to our core every day of our lives. God just didn’t reveal his presence to us in this new way and then take off. He remained. This was a permanent change. This revelation was not intended for the short term, it was provided forever.

It is beautiful to celebrate this presence in a special way at Christmas time, but even more important that we live our lives based on this presence year round. The implications of this presence should change our very way of living.

Consider Christ’s words in Matthew 25:

For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.' (vv. 35, 36)

The people were confused and asked “When? When was this the case?” They are essentially saying, “We don’t remember seeing you like this and doing these things for you.”

Christ’s response is so profound it continues to shake me every time I think about it.

“When you have done it to the least of these siblings of mine, you have done it to me.”

Bill Gates, Michael Jordan, Julia Roberts, Oprah, Jesus himself; if these people came to your house, it would be easy to treat them like royalty. Your parents would probably get out their nice china, you would cook your best mac & cheese or grilled cheese, you’d make sure they were comfortable, and give them tons of attention. And that’s fine, treat them well.

But it’s like Jesus is asking, “what about the weak? How will you treat them? What about the people it’s hard to like? How will you treat them? Those are the people I truly care about how you treat, because my image is just as much a part of them as it is you or anyone else.”

It’s hard to see Jesus sometimes in your distant cousins or aunts and uncles that might be visiting for the holidays. It’s hard to see Jesus in your classmates, the people who pick on you, the people your friends might consider “losers,” people you work with, a homeless man, or even just the people whose stuff isn’t as nice as yours or maybe way nicer.

Jesus is essentially saying, “I came in a weak, unlikable package. I came through a weak young couple, as a weak newborn baby, in the lowly pen of the animals. Only a feeble few came to visit that night. I came for the weak people, oppressed by Augustus and Herod. I could have come in splendor, a grand entrance with crowns and jewels; an irresistible package… but so what. I know how the people would have responded to that.

“But I came in rags to see how you would respond. I walked in plain sandals and clothes to see how you would respond. I was a simple tradesmen followed by a small pack of weak, clumsy, selfish boys to see how you would respond. I wore a crown of thorns and bled on a cross to see how you would respond.”

God’s presence is something that can and should give us peace and comfort. But God wants his presence also to challenge us, to make us uncomfortable, to stretch us further than normal. Christ’s words in Matthew 25 are his words to us today.

“I’m in your relatives, classmates, bullies, losers, coworkers, that homeless person. How will you respond to my presence?”

Are you celebrating Christmas for the presents you might give to or receive from your loved ones? Or are you celebrating Christmas for the presence we will always have from the One who loves us like no other?

Let us rejoice at God’s presence in our lives this Christmas, but let us also step up to the challenge and implications of God’s presence in our lives every other day, in all the places that we go, and in all the people that we know and meet.

Jesus Christ is Born and lives, Emmanuel, God with us.