One of the things many, most, perhaps everyone looks forward to at Christmas are the presents. We do try to tell ourselves not to be so shallow or materialistic. We say the joy of Christmas isn’t dependent on what we get But even if we have grown out of that, we can still remember or still observe the excitement that opening a present can bring. There is the moment of anticipation before the wrapping is torn off and the contents revealed. And that anticipation is hardly reduced when the receiver of the gift already sort of knows what is inside, when the gift has been on their Christmas list, and there has been an implicit promise from the giver to get the receiver what they were wanting. But there is no disappointment like opening a Christmas present and finding it is not what you were hoping for. There is a moment of deflation. The bubble of anticipation is burst by the sharp point of reality not matching expectation, things not turning out the way we had hoped. And the disappointment is perhaps almost more acute when the gift is a near miss. That is when what is unwrapped is similar to the desired object, but deficient, wrong in one or more crucial respects. And this may or may not be followed by some very hasty face saving; “No, no, its lovely, really it’s just right.” Israel lived its whole history with a kind of pre-Christmas anticipation. They looked forward to the gift that God had promised them. They prayed long and hard. Their Christmas list was very clear, they made it quite plain, and the prophets time and again had promised that their prayers would be answered. And through the prophets God had outline the kind of gift that would be given; The Messiah, the one who God would give them and who would save the nation. And John the Baptist was the last in that line of prophets, and he was the one of whom Isaiah said:
See I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare the way for you.
It was John whose task it was to hand God’s gift over to the people ready to be unwrapped. And he had been completely confident that Jesus was the gift that had been so long promised. John himself had been sure that here was the one who would by baptise with Holy Spirit and fire, whose call to repentance would be heeded, who would blow away the chaff and gather the grain, who would save the nation, and who would establish the reign of heaven. To many though Jesus was a bitter disappointment
They had been expecting something quite different! For those, like the Zealots, who had asked for God’s gift to be national liberation, Jesus already was looking signally unpromising. How could a carpenter from Nazareth, a wandering preacher, a healer, who gathered around him a crowd of the lowest and the least, how could someone like him deliver the nation from oppression? How could someone like him drive away the Romans and establish sovereignty and
prosperity for Israel once more? They weren’t just disappointed, they were repelled.
For those, like the scribes and the Pharisees, who had asked for God’s gift to be moral and spiritual transformation of the nation, Jesus likewise looked unacceptable. He was that acutely painful disappointment of a near miss. He called for repentance, he demanded moral and spiritual renewal. But how could someone who kept company with prostitutes and tax-collectors hope to straighten out the morals of the nation? How could someone who went to as many parties as Jesus did call people back to upright living? How could anyone who appeared to care so little for the traditions and rituals of the ancestors re-establish the spiritual life of the nation? The weren’t just disappointed the were afraid.
For those, like the Sadducees, who had asked God for more of the same, Jesus was truly unacceptable. How could someone who got people all riled up be the one to encourage order and stability in the nation? How could someone with such a radical message about wealth and power protect the property and prosperity of those who ruled in the nation? How could someone who insulted some many of the people that mattered save the nation from the threat of foreign domination? They weren’t just disappointed they were infuriated.
As gifts go Jesus is going to be a disappointment to anyone who is already sure that they know what they want, and are certain that what they want is the same thing as what they need.
John, sitting in Herod’s dungeon, had been sure that Jesus was the gift that God had been promising all along. But perhaps in darkness and the the loneliness of his cell he had begun to lose his nerve. The Messiah was suppose to bring prisoners release. But he John was a prisoner and no release for him had occurred. He had begun to think that perhaps he was mistaken, that maybe, he John, was last but one of the prophets, that Jesus rather than he would be the one to deliver the gift that Israel was waiting for and see their joy as they unwrapped it. So he sent word:
Are you the one to come, or are we to wait for another?
When we don’t quite get what we want, we are tempted to look for something else. Perhaps that’s why the January sales are successful. Everyone who was disappointed with what they were given going out and buying what they wanted for themselves.
To all those who are disappointed with what they are offered in Jesus, turning away and looking for some other source of salvation, or simply rejecting the gift altogether and carrying on with what they have already got, Jesus can give no better answer than the one he gives to John’s query. He directs John and everyone else’s attention to the power unleashed through his ministry. He points to what is happening; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. These are exactly the signs and gifts that God had been promising all along. And Jesus could have gone on; the outcast are welcomed, the divided are reconciled, those oppressed by sin are released, and peace is established among those who welcome God’s reign.
John had not been mistaken. When people had gone out to see him in the wilderness they had seen a prophet, more
than a prophet. As Jesus put it: “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John .” His was his great privilege to hand over the gift that God had so long promised. A gift so great that anyone who gladly received it would be be greater even than John.
The best sort of gift to get is the one you didn’t know you wanted. Daniel Niles – the Sri Lankan Methodist Theologian – used to tell a story about his childhood. When he was a child his father often travelled abroad on business. Each time before he left Daniel and his brothers and sisters would besiege their father with demands for gifts from his exotic destination. Daniel recalled that their requests were fanciful and even outrageous. When he returned their father never brought them what they asked for. But the gifts he brought were always wonderful. The children soon forgot what they had asked for, because they gifts they were given always showed that their father truly knew and understood and loved them.
Jesus offered yet another beatitude to the messengers from John;
Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.
It seems Jesus is most likely to offend either those who have an interest in what they already have, or who have a very strong sense of wanting what they want. But to those who take no offence, most of the the least and the lowest the outcast and the dispossessed, he gives a gift beyond their power of wanting. He gives the gift of peace and the power to become children of God and members of the kingdom he himself embodies and establishes. The best sort of gift is the one you didn’t realise you wanted, but what you truly needed. As you unwrap it your anticipation and excitement grows, as you recognise that this is something that until that moment you hadn’t thought of but now can’t imagine being without. And joy and gratitude emerge that are genuine and unreserved. Jesus really is that kind of a gift.
The Gift You Didn’t Know You Wanted by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0