Precious gifts

Every year business analysts make predictions about the amount of money the average shopper will spend for Christmas gifts.  Most years they hope that the typical Christmas shopper will hundreds of dollars on Christmas gifts.  Of course, there are always exceptions: there are some gifts that astound us like the car company advertising the gift of a shiny new car with the red bow on top.  A gift of this magnitude would stun most of us, but then there are the gifts that really amaze.  Listen…

The sanctuary of Third Suburban Presbyterian Church was filled to capacity on Christmas Eve.  It usually was crowded that night – “the perfect opportunity for an economic stimulus!” according the the church treasurer.  The chair of the Finance Committee had suggested auctioning off a reserved pew for Christmas Eve services.  It wasn’t visions of sugarplums but hopes of a balanced budget that danced in her head when she made the suggestion to the Session.

Worshipers came that particular night for a variety of reasons.  Some had come to hear the Christmas story.  Some were there to sing carols.  Some had come because it was tradition.  Some had come because they needed to get out of the house for an hour or so.

To think that only a few hours ago, it was very likely that there would be no Christmas Eve Service at Third Suburban.  A crisis had arisen – a very serious crisis indeed!  The baby Jesus was missing.

Alice arrived at church around eleven that morning to make the final preparations for Christmas Eve.  One of the first tasks was to place the tiny figure of baby Jesus in the manger.

The figure of the baby Jesus was kept wrapped in tissue paper and laid in his own felt bag until his annual appearance on Christmas Eve.  The stable and animals had taken their places in the first week of Advent; the shepherds had arrived in the second; Mary and Joseph were there in the third week; and the wise men arrived on the fourth week.  The order of arrival puzzled Pastor McAfee but he never mentioned it to anyone but his wife.  The baby Jesus was always scheduled to arrive on Christmas Eve just like the jolly man in the red suit.  Now the baby was missing!

Pastor McAfee received the first phone call.  His number was the ‘9-1-1’ for all church matters.  A phone call from church could bring word of a broken furnace or paper jam in the copier or a call about someone in the hospital.  In any event, Alice was sure that he would want to know that Jesus was missing.

Her second call was to George, the worship chairman.  She informed him that she had searched diligently for the child but he just couldn’t be found.  George could hear the panic in her voice and he told her he’d be there soon. When he arrived at church he found her sitting in the office, waiting by the phone like an anxious parent waiting for the ransom call from kidnappers.

Elizabeth wanted to stay home that day.  She wasn’t in the mood for Christmas and was afraid to see friends.  She didn’t want her tears and sadness to ruin the mood for others she told herself.  She needed to get a few groceries – some bread and milk – and decided to make a quick trip to the store.  She had not taken into account that this was Christmas Eve and nothing would be “quick.”

She found the store filled with shoppers.  Some were buying needed household items.  Others were there searching for the last minute gifts.  Some had delayed shopping intentionally while others were there because of a forgotten gift.  A few shoppers were there because an unexpected guest and gift had arrived at their front door.

Elizabeth found the milk and bread and made her way to the checkout lanes.  Her neighbor was there – Sarah and her five year old daughter Emily.  They had come out to buy a bag of carrots for Santa’s reindeer.  Emily was staring at the candy bars that lined the checkout lane.  She pleaded with her mother to buy one – the big one right there just at her eye-level.  Sarah insisted that they would not be buying a candy bar that day.  The little girl was pouting as they left.  Elizabeth remembered those years when she lived out this same scenario.

When it was Elizabeth’s turn at the checkout, she reached into candy box for one of the bars.  She paid and headed home where she wrapped the candy bar in a beautiful gold Christmas wrap and walked next door.

Christmas Eve services began at 9 o’clock yet at 7:30 that evening the baby Jesus was still AWOL. Alice, George and Pastor McAfee had searched everywhere only to find a copy of the bulletin from last Easter; a picture of the youth group at the beach dated sometime around 1950; and a copy of an old hymnal that had been replaced some 20 years ago.  Alice was beside herself.  Her husband had called just after lunch when she didn’t come home, only to be drafted into the search and rescue team.

Alice was certain of one thing – Christmas Eve Services would have to be canceled because there was no Jesus in the manger.

Pastor McAfee had taken the opportunity that afternoon to do some visiting.  Alice, her husband, and George came up with a plan to avert the Christmas Eve disaster.  If the figure of the baby Jesus wouldn’t be there, they would disguise his absence in a bundle of swaddling cloth.  They’d make it look as though he was there and no one would know.

As services began Pastor McAfee was delighted to see the bundle of cloth in the manger – they must have found the baby while he was out.  He welcomed the congregation and they sang their first carol – “O Come all Ye Faithful”.  Pastor McAfee watched the faces of the choir and congregation as the pageantry of Christmas Eve began.

Pastor McAfee invited the children to come forward for a special story. This year it was about gifts.  At the end he invited them to come to the stable to see the baby Jesus.  Everyone thought it was so nice…everyone but Alice whose appearance suddenly went pale in terror.

Tommy, the four year old who brought the toilet paper Santa to church in the second week of Advent, was there that night.  Tommy was precocious and he was also one of the loudest kids in church history.  As they peered into the manger, Tommy’s voice was unmistakable,

“Hey I don’t see the baby.  He’s not here!”  Tommy broke from the pack and ran back to his seat.  To say that all were amazed by the cherub’s announcement was an understatement.

At that moment, Alice’s panic-level soared.  She thought she could hear the collective gasps of 300 worshipers in recognition that Jesus was missing.  She imagined a formal inquiry by the Session, with a liturgical CSI team, to determine who knew what and when they knew it.  All evidence led back to her.

It was after her visit with Sarah and Emily that Elizabeth had decided to attend Christmas Eve services after all. She walked to her neighbor’s house with the small golden package around 3p.m. and couldn’t help but smile at the gleam in the little girl’s eye as she took the small gift.  The candy bar cost eighty-nine cents and the wrapping paper merely a few cents more but the joy in that little girls eyes made it more precious than 24 carat gold.  Something about that moment made Elizabeth realize that she needed Christmas this year probably more than ever before.

Elizabeth watched as it all unfolded.  She wasn’t sure what was happening but it certainly seemed nice.  She had a peaceful feeling that despite knowing how Christmas was never going to be the same, it held the possibility for something precious and new.

Pastor McAfee didn’t know what to say.  In all his years in ministry he’d never had to deal with a traumatized child and a missing Jesus on Christmas Eve.  He watched as Tommy ran back to his seat and thought about the phone calls he was going to get after this.

Tommy whispered something to his mom, who smiled and nodded in return.  Meanwhile Pastor McAfee had regained control of the service.  “Away in a Manger” was the next carol while the children returned to their seats. Suddenly Tommy was there – up by the manger.  In his hand was a tiny figure that he carefully, tenderly placed in the manger before returning to his seat.  It certainly didn’t look like the Savior of the world.  It had green legs and yellow biceps and some thought they saw a mask.

Third Suburban Presbyterian Church was filled with singing that night.  Songs of Christmas filled the sanctuary and reverberated throughout the neighborhood.  On most years, folks would rush out of church, too eager to get back to the world and its procession toward Santa and gifts and Christmas dinners.  Tonight however, it seemed that no one wanted to leave church.  They were all drawn to the stable – to see what was in the manger.  It was certainly a very precious gift.

What do you expect to find in the manger?  Does it trouble you that the baby wasn’t there?  What are your expectations of Advent and Christmas?  If Jesus isn’t in the manger, where in fact is he?  There are many more stories still to be told if you will only – Listen…

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