Well, hopefully by today you have finished all of your Christmas shopping. But that may not be true. Apparently when it comes to buying Christmas gifts we all fall into one of two camps. A 2022 survey found that 50% of people begin Christmas shopping in October or earlier, but then a 202 survey found that 50% of people are waiting until Christmas Eve to buy gifts. A lot of social science research has been done about our gift giving habits. This research is about more than just when we buy gifts because according to The Journal of Experimental Psychology there is an actual science to gift giving. A few years ago they published the findings of a study about what kind of gifts people appreciate the most, and what they do not. On the list of do nots they included do not spend a lot of money for a flashy gift. The study found that something being more expensive does not mean it is appreciated more. The study also found that giving a gift to a charity on someone’s behalf is not actually a good gift. The survey found that people like giving those gifts a lot more than they like receiving them. When it comes to what makes a good gift, three features really stand out. First, give a gift that will last. The gifts that have the highest level of satisfaction are ones that will last and can be used for years. Second, give a gift with a personal connection. Gifts that have a personal connection to the giver are also ones that really connect with us. For instance giving someone a book because it is your favorite and you think they will love it too, or knitting a scarf for someone are good examples of gifts that connect the giver and the receiver. The final tip from this study is the most important and perhaps the most obvious. The key to a good gift is give people something they want. Now this one seems obvious, but any child who gets socks for Christmas because they “need” them will tell you how true this is. In fact, all of these insights the study revealed seem to be common sense. It seems that instinctively we all know when we get a great gift.
Today is the last Sunday of Advent. It is fitting that today is also the morning of Christmas Eve. It fits because a lot of people begin exchanging gifts this evening and the greatest gift offered to us this season is Jesus. If the science behind the journal of Experiential Psychology is solid, then Jesus is scientifically the greatest gift ever given.
This morning’s scripture is from the very end of Romans and it is also a good scripture to end Advent on. In Romans, Paul expertly lays out several arguments. One of the main point of the book is that Jesus was fulfills the Old Testament law, this is the mystery of long ages past. That mystery has now been fully revealed and it is now made known. Paul makes clear in Romans that even though Jesus fulfills the Old Testament, the grace he offers is for all: not just for Jews, but for all people, regardless of background. Romans is very systematic in how it makes the case for this. Perhaps a seasonally appropriate way to summarize the book, and a way to paraphrase this morning’s scripture is: The gift of forgiveness and eternal life has been given. The scripture ends with Paul’s hopeful expectation that all gentiles would come to know Jesus. This morning’s scripture has a tone of excitement, and anticipation and I think that the ending hints at an unspoken questions lying underneath this scripture. If gift has been given, then the unspoken question is ‘Are you going to open it?”
Looking at the science of what makes a great gift, we can easily see that Jesus is a gift well worth opening. Jesus is a gift that last. Faith in Christ, is not a one and done experience. It is not a deeply spiritual moment that we move on from. It is a gift that lasts a lifetime, and it is a gift that we cannot wear out. One of the unique beliefs found in the United Methodist church is that we can experience grace in distinct ways. Once we have accepted the gift of forgiveness and new life, the way we express we experience God’s love is sanctifying grace. Sanctifying grace is grace that continues in our lives, it is the work of God in our lives to continually mold and shape us to be more Christ like in our love for God and neighbor. Once we open the gift of salvation through Jesus, we begin a lifetime of humbling realizing how much we need a savior and we spend a lifetime in awe of just how truly great a savior Jesus is. Best of all, Jesus is not just a gift that last a lifetime. Jesus IS the gift of an eternal lifetime. He is the gift that stays with us for eternity.
As a gift there is not one more personal than Jesus. A great gift connects the giver and the receiver, and that is literally what Jesus does for us. The gospel that Paul refers to is laid out in Romans. It is the very gospel that we proclaim today. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. While we were still sinners, while we were unable to do anything about our miserable state, Christ died for us. Christ reconciled, us and bridges the gap of sin between us and God. The gift of Jesus connects us to God. This connection fills us with an assurance that we, not matter who we are or what we are done, we are forgiven, we are loved, and that God will always, always be with us forevermore.
The final element of a great gift is being something that we want, and this one is a bit trickier. There are a lot of people in this world who claim they do not want Jesus. I know that is the case, but it is hard for me to relate to that viewpoint. Because from my perspective, I cannot see past all of the reasons why I want Jesus in my life. From my perspective I want Jesus because I want to know that my failures and weaknesses do not define me that because of Christ in God’s eyes my sins and transgressions are separated as far as the East is from the West. From my perspective I want Jesus in my life, because he is like a rock. When the storms of life hit, when uncertainty rolls in, I know that the rock will not be moved, it will not be shaken. I know that come what may I am loved and cared for by a love that will never give up and never fail. I know that no matter how bad things get nothing on this earth and no power of hell can ever, ever take away. From my perspective Jesus is the greatest gift who meets the greatest longings of my heart and soul.
As a season in the church one of the goals of Advent is to build us up with anticipation to celebrate God’s greatest gift. This morning’s scripture gives us a couple of hints at how we can celebrate that gift, and that is to share it! First, Paul mentions the gospel is the message about Jesus Christ he proclaims. We also can make the same proclamations. We often try to over complicate talking about our faith, but it is deceptively simple. When someone gives us the perfect gift that we just love, we are not shy to share our joy with others. Our faith should be the same way. If accepting the gift of Jesus has been life changing and brought you joy, then testify! Share that joy.
However, in order to share the gift of Jesus we have to share more than just words. For those who know Christ, the reason why the gift is so great is because we feel it in our hearts, we experience God’s love. If we are to share the gift of Jesus with others, then we have to help them experience that amazing, saving love. There is an old Christian story that speaks to this. The story is somewhat surrounded in legend, but it is likely there is a large kernel of truth in the story. The story takes place in 5th Century Greece. There was a widower with three daughters. This was man came from poverty, and while he did the best he could to make ends meet, he was unable to do much more. This was problematic for him and his daughters. The culture of the day required a bride to bring a dowry into a marriage. Without some sort of financial contribution, it was impossible for these girls to marry. Their father was aging, and if they were unmarried when he died then the future prospects for his daughters were bleak and involved being economically or physically taken advantage of. The father knew time was running short for his daughters as they had all come of age. Like all parents he wanted what was best for his daughters, but it seemed they were fated for the worst life had to offer. The Christian bishop of the area found out about the man’s plight. He had some wealth that he had inherited from his parents, and one night he took enough of that money to make a healthy dowry and threw it through into the house. The first daughter was soon wed. The details of when are different, but he soon did this again two more times so that all three daughters wed. Now the legends that surround this story differ. In some of the legends, the money is thrown through a window and lands in a stocking. In other legends, the bishop climbs on top of the house and drops the bags of money down the chimney. In all accounts the identity of the Bishop is the same. Today we remember him as St. Nicolas.
St. Nicolas took the grace of Jesus and made it tangible to that family. Through his kindness, he literally saved those girls. Upon hearing about the plight of that family the easy out would have been to express concern and tell the family that he would keep them in his thoughts and prayers. That is now what he did though, he put love into action. Through his own sacrificial giving he showed them what the love of God was like. While we are fortunate to live in a culture that does not require dowries to be paid, we can all sacrificially give of ourselves to help others. Even if it is giving money to do something as simple as provide a family we will never meet with honey bees. Those bees will help secure that family a future and financial independence that otherwise would not be possible. Jesus is a gift that is meant to be shared and often the best way to do that is through our actions that share the love of God with others.
This morning’s scripture ends with hope. It ends with the hope that all gentiles will come to know faith in Jesus Christ. That is a hope and expectation for a future that is still coming. As we end the season of Advent, we should share a similar hope. Jesus is the reason we celebrate Christmas, he is God’s greatest gift. But is not just a Christmas gift. He is a gift that we should share year round and we should do so with hopeful expectation. May you share the gift of Jesus. More importantly though, may you yourself claim that greatest gift of God. Jesus is God’s perfect gift for all of us, Merry Christmas!