Scientists tell us that December 21st is the longest night of the year. Every child knows better: Christmas Eve is the longest night of the year. I remember lying in bed as a child trying to will myself to sleep, peering outside the window to wonder which sparkling star led the magi to Bethlehem. And did I or did I not see a faint red glow in the distance that might mark the nose of a flying reindeer? Then it was morning. The morning. My sister and I would rendezvous and scheme our sneak attack on the living room. There were two entrances to the living room. One would be locked; but the other could not be, so we scurried that way, only to be confronted by my mom, with her housecoat spread out like Count Dracula, blocking our vision. “Back!” she commanded. “Back to your rooms until your grandparents arrive.” “You must be joking!” we wailed. Amazingly, she wasn’t. Grumbling, we trudged back to our rooms, talking about the things we had glimpsed behind the bathrobe, calculating how long it would take old people to drive ten miles to reach our home. And we listened for the sound of a car in the driveway, so my mom could come back to our bedrooms and announce, “Now! It is time to come out and unwrap the gifts!”
The people around the tomb of Lazarus would have spent several long nights keeping vigil with his family, nights of sorrow and pain. When Jesus arrived on the scene he found the mood so poignant and melancholy that even he cried. Then he wanted to see the tomb where they had placed Lazarus, and he commanded those around, “Remove the stone from the tomb.” Lazarus’ own sister said to him, “Lord, you don’t want to do that. He’s going to stink. He’s been dead four days.” The fact he had been dead four days was significant, for in their culture the soul was thought to hover around the body for three days in case the deceased miraculously revived, but on the fourth day it would have departed. On the fourth day after death all hope for recovery would have been lost. Even so, Jesus said, “Roll away the stone.” Then he issued this summons: “Lazarus, come forth!” Lazarus emerged from the cave, wrapped in the rags of death, his face covered with a cloth. Jesus ordered those around him, “Unbind him and let him go!” What was the gift that Christ gave unto Lazarus? Life? Yes . . . but also No, and upon this point the entire purpose of God hinges. Every creature that breathes can be said to enjoy God’s gift of living, the gift of existence. But that is not the gift God gave Lazarus. Christ called Lazarus to enjoy a different gift, to commune with the resurrection energy of the universe, to interact with the very Spirit of Life. Christ raised Lazarus to experience the dimension of living the abundant life. “Unwrap him and let him go!” Jesus commanded. In so doing Jesus was saying to Lazarus in essence, ‘Unwrap the gift of abundant life that I offer!’
If all Christ did was restore Lazarus back to more breathing, more eating, more drinking, more sleeping, more punching the time clock, more checking the ball scores, more consulting the stock market, more reading the tv guides– if all Christ had done was give Lazarus a few more calendar days, then Jesus had saved him from one death only to place him in the shadow of another. Why bother? Lazarus might be unbound today, only to take his own life tomorrow. That may sound strange to you, but I can assure you, there are a host of people in this world who if you saved their life today would start the process of taking their life tomorrow, would start drinking themselves, drugging themselves, smoking themselves, eating themselves, speeding themselves, working themselves to death. You might save them today, only to find they were determined to start killing themselves on the morrow in either slow or fast fashion. Why? Because they have no answer to the question, “Why do I live?” They have never really unwrapped the gift of communion with Christ. They have not unwrapped the gift of abundant life. They have never really found any satisfactory answer to the question, ‘What is the purpose of my existence?’
Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well who had replicated the same failed marital relationship over and over and over and over again, because she was trying to address the spiritual emptiness within her that no physical relationship could satisfy. Jesus offered her abundant life – living water that could slake a thirst that no material pleasure could address. Jesus commanded her, ‘Open the gift!’ and she did. The Scriptures say Mary Magdalene was healed by Jesus of seven demons. We don’t know exactly what that means, but if we are honest with ourselves we would admit that all of us have our own demons. But Jesus freed her from great inner turmoil. She became a disciple so committed that she stood at the foot of the cross and watched her Redeemer be crucified. She then resolved to go to the tomb and place spices around his broken body, only to find instead the resurrected Lord who commanded her, “Go! Go tell our friends that I am alive! Go tell our friends that it is time to unwrap the gift of resurrection power and the abundant life.”
The Gospel writer John stated quite plainly why he wrote his Gospel. He said, I write this Gospel that you might believe that Jesus is the Light of God and that this Light is the Life of humanity. He said, I write that you might embrace this Christ as Savior and enjoy abundant life. I write that you might enjoy a relationship with the divine that will give you eternal satisfaction. I write that you might unwrap the gift that God offers you in Jesus Christ.
Christ came into a Roman world of bread and circuses. The Romans offered people bread for their stomachs and circuses to keep them entertained and amused, distracting them from agitating for a truly meaningful life. Jesus comes into the world saying, “I am the truth,” and Pilate, for whom truth was always negotiable, could only reply, “What is truth?” Pilate thought he wielded the power of life and death over Jesus, but Jesus spoke of a power of abundant life that was beyond the scope of Pilate’s decrees. Jesus offered Pilate the gift of abundant life, but Pilate was scared of it, and washed his hands of it, leaving Christ’s gift unwrapped.
We, too, live in a culture where many have plenty of bread and the most exquisite circuses — televisions and movies, game boys, gadgets, x-boxes and play stations, stadiums and symphonies and smart phones. All of these items keep us amused and superficially entertained, engendering passions within us that don’t ultimately matter. None of these distractions can adequately answer the question, “Why should I live?” Karl Marx said that religion was the opiate of the people. So the so-called wise of the world tried to do away with religion, only to find that then opium became the opiate of the people — or alcohol or cocaine or power or wealth or a thousand other distractions and dependencies designed to detach us from reality. It never occurred to the so-called wise of our world that replacing humanity’s search for ultimate meaning with penultimate substitutes wouldn’t quench our desire to commit to something that really mattered. Many of us go through life, tearing through a mountain of gifts, never realizing that they are all rooted in the beneficence of God, intended to be used for the glory of our God. Like clueless children, we tear through our gifts only to ask, ‘Is that all there is?’ In truth, we are designed to give ultimate allegiance to that which is transcendent, and when we try to substitute some lesser deity for that transcendent dimension, it just doesn’t quite work. Even a young child senses on Christmas morning the vacuity at the heart of all material aspirations. He or she rips through every gift and draws momentary pleasure from each present, but by late afternoon even the child suffers a vague dissatisfaction, sensing that there must be more to all this Christmas business than empty boxes and discarded bows.
I find myself thinking of a brilliant man sitting in a jailhouse, condemned to lifelong confinement. His SAT score was higher than that of anyone in this room. His IQ was off the charts. He was admitted to Harvard at age 16 and thrived there. He possessed such a brilliant mind that he was a full professor of advanced mathematics by age 25! Yet he was wise enough to see the emptiness of our industrial, ruthlessly technological world. He had spirit enough to feel a prophetic wrath against the emptiness of material society. But though he had the prophet’s wrath, he had not the prophet’s vision, nor the prophet’s integrity, and certainly not the prophet’s alternative. He began to vent his wrath in ingeniously-constructed letter bombs that snuffed out innocent lives. He will go down in the annals of crime by the name, “The Unabomber,” and he will live out his days in a maximum security prison. In reality, Ted Kaczynski was a gifted child who didn’t know how to unwrap the many incredible gifts that God gave him. For all his brilliance, he knew not the answer to the question, ‘Why should I live? How should I use all of my great gifts to live a meaningful life?’ A thief broke in and stole the meaning of his life – a sad story all the sadder because the thief was him.
Every Christmas season you and I listen to Karen Carpenter sing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Karen Carpenter had it all: money, talent, fame, beauty – in a sort of toothy, 70’s sort of way. She had every imaginable gift, yet inside she suffered that Samaritan woman’s insecurity and emptiness – and she didn’t have the Samaritan’s woman’s living water. She enjoyed every imaginable gift but the gift of peace in her soul. That one gift she left unopened, wrapped. She enjoyed every gift but the answer to the question, ‘Why should I live?’ She died prematurely because of the strain placed upon her body by unhealthy eating habits. A thief broke in and stole the joy of her life – a sad story all the sadder because the thief was her.
How many people reach the end of their lives wondering, ‘What was I supposed to do? Why did I live? What was I supposed to accomplish?’ Our Lord says to us, ‘If you have a relationship with me you have abundant life.’ God wraps a gift for us, the gift of eternal fellowship with the divine. But if we leave the gift unwrapped, then we die spiritually. That sounds harsh of God, but how can we accuse God of harshness when it is God who gives the gift — and we who refuse to unwrap it? Simply put, God has given us the freedom to be stubborn. To be human is to be free to leave God’s gift unopened. But even more essential to our humanity is the right not to be stubborn. God also gives us the power to open ourselves to God’s presence, to connect to God’s power, to allow God’s joy to enter us and commune with us and empower us to commune with others and to experience the spiritual strength that God provides for us.
The gifts of the Spirit include love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are gifts that cannot be purchased through any material currency, cannot be obtained by any charge card. But these gifts of inestimable, unfathomable value can only be imparted to us through openness to the Spirit of God. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – these are the gifts that God places under the tree, inviting us to open them and live truly alive.
Sometimes, when I issue invitations such as, ‘Come, claim Christ as Savior and Lord,’ or ‘Come into this family of God and enjoy encouraging fellowship,’ I feel a little like a car salesman, trying to hawk spiritual benefits. But what I am really am doing is fulfilling the role my mom played on Christmas mornings long ago. I am simply echoing the message my mom delivered in her bathrobe to her children on Christmas morning: “Alright, come! The gifts are under the tree! Come unwrap the gifts!” I invite you this morning on this Fourth Sunday of Advent to unwrap the spiritual gifts offered you by our gracious and giving God.