Regifting the World’s Greatest Gift
FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT, December 22nd, 2019 MATTHEW 1:18-25
It’s Advent. It’s gloomy. The Bible readings in this season prod us to stay awake and watch for signs. Signs of the end. And I think I’ve found some. Where does one go for signs of the end? Well, Amazon, of course.
Sign of the end number 1: You can buy a book entitled, “Crafting with Cat Hair”. Transform stray clumps of fur into soft and adorable handicrafts. From kitty tote bags and finger puppets to fluffy cat toys, picture frames, (picture frames?) and more, these projects are cat-friendly, eco-friendly, and require no special equipment or training.
Sign of the end number 2: You can buy a book called “How to Talk to Your Cat About Gun Safety and Other Dangers That Threaten Their Nine Lives.”
Sign number 3: You can buy a product called LICKI. It is a soft silicone brush you hold in your mouth to groom your cat. According to the Amazon page, LICKI is designed to feel pleasurable to your cat’s sensitive skin, and offers a unique bonding opportunity for human and cat. “Licking your cat is an oddly meditative practice, soothing for both you and your cat. Bond with your cat by communicating in their language, and watch your relationship deepen.” But that’s not all. Licki is now available in Glow-in-the-dark, enabling you to “easily return midnight headbutts without turning on the light!”
If anyone gives me one of these, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be ungracious, but I’ll regift it. Yes, regifting – the social phenomenon that is now an industry. According to Finder.com, Americans are expected to drop almost $15.2 billion on unwanted presents this Christmas, almost a third of which will be regifted.
Regifting is so big, that last week the Wall Street Journal ran an article titled ‘the Case for regifting’. Dave Ramsey has published his 10 rules of regifting, and Psychology Today even classifies regifting into four categories. Avoid retaliatory regifting and aim for altruistic, pragmatic, or playful regifting.
I’m confused. I can’t decide whether regifting is a moral virtue, promoting sound principles of stewardship, ecology, and generosity; or if it’s the ultimate sign of Western society’s culture of ingratitude and entitlement. You be the judge – virtue or the final sign of the approaching apocalypse.
Joseph got very close. Unbelievably close. This close. In fact, he had made up his mind. He was going to regift the greatest present the world could receive. The gift of helping to raise God’s Son. We just read it in Matthew’ Gospel, “When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”
You can imagine him when Mary tells him about the visit of the angel. “You expect me to believe that? I’ve never heard so much garbage in all my life. Now tell me the truth. Who is he? You know what this means don’t you? We’re finished. You do know what I could do? I could turn you in. Then you’d be stoned to death. And it’s no more than you deserve. But I won’t. I’ll make some arrangements. You’ll be safe and well-cared for – you and the baby. No one will hear of your shame or mine.”
And with a heart shattered into a thousand pieces by anger and betrayal, Joseph crashes out of the house, turns his back on his beloved, and begins a new life. God’s unimaginable plan to rescue the world from sin and death would still come to pass, but without Joseph. The man who regifted the world’s greatest gift.
But of course, he didn’t. Even when we reject God’s good plans for us he often makes sure they come to pass anyway. God, in his infinite mercy, saw into the heart of Joseph, felt the agony of this proud, skeptical, heart-broken man, soothed his pain, and changed his mind.
An angel says to Joseph in a dream, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” And so Joseph wakes up, reconciles with Mary, and continues with their plans to marry. And that is what makes Joseph the Carpenter such an amazing saint. He has his fears, he has his pride, he has his doubts, but he holds them lightly, and when God asks, he gives them up. He exchanges his fear of the future for the Greatest of gifts. He regifts those feelings that drive him from the woman he loves; regifts the pride that frets more about his reputation than about his loved-ones; regifts the cynicism that insists his betrothed is a cheat; regifts the belief that God doesn’t do miracles. Joseph regifts a gloomy future – a life of resentment, anger, pain, restlessness, regret, the prospect of a blighted, shriveled life – an existence ruminating on his hurt and victimhood; and in its place he accepts the gift of being step-son to God’s miracle. He summons all the faith he has, collects all the courage he has, holds out his hands, braces himself, and accepts the gift of being the man who will help raise the Messiah; the gift of fulfilling a role in God’s story of salvation that no one else can.
He regifts law for mercy. You see, the law was crystal clear. There it is in Deuteronomy 22, a text chiseled into the minds of all in his community: “If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” You SHALL stone them to death. You SHALL purge the evil. The law provides no escape hatch. There’s no room for clemency. The betrayed partner is not given the freedom to use their discretion. You shall.
But, there’s another law that speaks with solemn but joyful, authority deep within the soul of Joseph. One written not on parchment, but on flesh. The law of love. The law of mercy, the law of new starts, the law of God breaking into your consciousness and transforming your world. And Joseph chooses to obey that one.
When I talk to newcomers to St Paul’s, which happily is something I have the chance to do very regularly, I’m often asked about what we believe and how we’re different from other Churches they know. And I um and er, and guess at what I think would interest them. But there’s one phrase that I’ve learned means a lot to people, and I try to use it as often as I can. I talk about our love of tradition and our pattern of beautiful liturgical worship, but I balance that by saying that, for us, people are more important than dogma. We don’t apply the purity tests that are an increasing feature of wider society. You know the kind … Only if you believe this piece of political doctrine can you be considered a true member of our tribe. Only if your lifestyle matches up to this ideal can you be a faithful member of our church. Purity tests exist to exclude. They define who is truly one of us and who is suspect, who’s right and who’s wrong, who is sound and who is dangerous. Joseph has the chance to apply the ultimate purity test to Mary when she tells him of her pregnancy. Instead, he listens to the God of expansive love and inclusive grace. He regifts law for mercy.
Joseph has a lot to lose. I’ve tried to get inside his head this week. I’ve tried to become the young man whose fiancée tells him she is pregnant, and he knows he’s not the father. And he lives in a shame-based, legalistic theocracy. And here is what I’m thinking as I become Joseph. “There goes my reputation.” And I’m challenged to ask whether I am prepared to sacrifice my reputation for the sake of Christ. I used to do embarrassing things for God. When I was young and naïve and so enthusiastic about my new faith that I was quite unbalanced, I didn’t care what people thought of me. I’d share my faith at inappropriate times and places and in ways that did not respect my conversation partners. I was willing to be thought of as a bit weird. I cringe when I remember those moments and I thank God I’m a bit wiser now. And yet, I wonder if when I became a priest of the established Church of England and now I’m in the safe, balanced, reasonable, open, completely unembarrassing Episcopal Church, my reputation is now more important than my passion. “Your reputation is all you have”, says marketing guru, Nicholas Kusmich, and I fear I believe him. You see I don’t want to be thought of as radical, a zealot, a Bible-thumper. I want to be liked, admired, respected as a decent, smart, thoughtful, pragmatic, down-to-earth bloke. How far will I regift God’s glory for my reputation?
What will you regift this Christmas? And I don’t mean that weird-looking sweater that you’re bound to receive. I mean, what gifts will you be offered, and what will you keep? At some point over the next week, you will be offered the gift of frustration; because that is what happens when family is together for days on end. Regift it. Exchange it for patience. You may well be offered the gift of ingratitude, because that can happen when we have so much that we take material things for granted. Regift it. Exchange it for humble praise. It’s even possible that you may receive the gift of negligence, the gift that keeps on giving – the habit of failing to see God’s work in your life. Regift it. Exchange it for x-ray goggles that see the divine hand in all your circumstances. And listen to Joseph the Carpenter, regift your reputation; or at least, loosen your grip on it, so that your love for God and your passion for Christ is more important than what people think of you. Be more concerned with your character than your reputation. Care for what God thinks of you, rather than people. And what he thinks of you is pure, unadulterated, crazy love. When that present is under your tree, why would you regift it?