Home for Christmas: Regifting
121221 Luke 3:7-14 Home for Christmas: Regifted
Our theme this season is Home for Christmas, only today’s reading has us going in what seems like the opposite direction. This not a “home for Christmas” story. In this story people are leaving home for Christmas; leaving their farms in the Judean countryside; leaving their shops and homes in the Galilean villages; leaving their jobs, their schooling, their military assignments and finding their way into the Judean wilderness. They’re not heading home; they’re leaving home. And for what? To listen to a prophet shout out warnings and woe sayings, manifestos and moral directives, calling them to get ready for the coming of the Messiah by turning their lives around.
His first instructions might surprise us by how contemporary they seem. He tells those who have two coats to give one away; which suggests something we might not have thought of before; that is, that ours isn’t the only society in which people might have more than one coat; might have two, or even several—on purpose. This suggests that, as is true with us, there might have been people in his time who, in the words of another John, John Updike, had a difficult time ever achieving a sense of “enough.” First century Palestine must have had a marketplace a lot like ours, one that was really good at persuading people to buy into impractical purchases; to get a second coat, for example, even when the first one’s perfectly fine; and we can only wear one at a time; and we may not have the closet space or the budget to accommodate another one; and the more coats we own, the more upkeep; and so on.
Whoever has two coats, give one away. This is tailor made for 21st century Americans. That’s the first surprise. The second is that John’s introducing an idea I thought we invented: regifting. You have something you don’t want, then come Christmas, give it to someone else; whether it’s a coat or a rubber chicken that sings or whatever. I came across some regifting guidelines the other day that might come in handy this season if we choose to follow John’s directions and give somebody else something we already have.
Some of these we might call common sense. Okay—all of them we might call common sense: When regifting, always take the original gift tag off before you present the gift to someone else. Never regift family heirlooms. Your grandmother may ask you someday to show her the Russian dolls she gave you for your wedding—the ones that have been in the family for six generations. Never regift monogrammed objects, except, of course, in the rare instance when the recipient shares your initials. Finally, never regift a present to the person who originally gave it to you.
Whoever has two coats, give one away. John goes on: If you have more food than you need, share it. If you’re in business, be fair and honest in your dealings. If you have influence, status, power in your line of work, or in your community, then use it not for gain, but for good.
John is challenging the lifestyles of these people, calling out their immoral behaviors, questioning their way of life. What about all of this would have felt to that crowd like going home?
Maybe this: John’s words would have struck a chord of profound familiarity with his listeners. What he’s telling them would have called forth at least a vague recollection of something holy and true that they knew, or once knew.
Rudolph Bultmann once observed that we all carry within us a faint recollection of the garden of Eden. Its beauty; its bounty; maybe also its life-preserving rules.
John’s admonitions have been around for centuries; they’re as old as the Mosaic law itself. This code of life, how to behave as the people of God, is tested, tried, and true, learned from childhood, handed down across generations. We can even hear echoes of the prophet Micah in John’s words: Do justly, love mercy, walk modestly with God. John’s listeners would have recognized those words; their challenging tone, their enduring truth, their life-giving power.
Just as we do. Live simply. Share with others as a way both to love and to avoid excess. Be fair. Be kind. Honor God. It’s what we teach our children. Learn in Sunday school. Sing in our anthems and hymns and canticles. Study in groups. Whisper in our prayers: It’s what we know will fulfill us when we live it out. We have a name for that—the times when what we know will make us happy and whole and what we choose to do are one and the same. We call it inner peace. We might even call it home. The heart’s home.
If Christmas this year is filled with such kindness, self-giving, generosity, toward the friend, toward the stranger, it could very well change the landscape, both out there and in here. So that no matter where we are, who we’re with, who’s missing; no matter what personal hardship or disappointment we carry; what unfamiliar place we find ourselves in; no matter what pandemic is extending beyond its bounds; no matter what discord in society; or tensions in the world; we will change the landscape, out there, and in here. From wilderness . . . to home.
Even as John is calling on the crowds to regift, he is doing it himself—and breaking a few of those regifting rules in the process. Here’s a present, he says. How to live faithfully and well as the people of God awaiting a Savior. But, John—these are already our deepest truths. I know, he said. The deepest things are sometimes the most forgotten things. And so, I’m giving them to you again.
The writer Sue Monk Kidd relates how her 5 yr old daughter, Anne, placed two wrapped presents under the tree a few weeks before Christmas. If I’ve already told this story, then consider it regifting. Put two presents under the tree. She and her husband were puzzled. Of course, little Anne didn’t receive an allowance yet—she was just five. They hadn’t made any trips to the store. She hadn’t made anything recently from their craft closet. They decided just to wait and see. Christmas morning came. Sue unwrapped her daughter’s gift to her: it was a pair of earrings; earrings she recognized. Her husband opened his. It was a navy blue tie with a little duck pattern. He knew that tie.
Thank you, Anne, they said. “Where did you find these wonderful presents?” She said, “In your cedar chest.” Little Anne gave her parents things that were already theirs. Maybe she learned it from John.
John’s been in our cedar chest. He’s giving us our own special treasures; and challenging us to do the same—to give our own special treasures to those we love the most; and also to those we’ve never met before; and by such means to prepare for the coming of the Savior, who will surely occupy whatever empty space is created in us by our self-giving, occupy that place, and make a home.