4 minutes reading time (864 words)

Learning to receive - a Christmas sermon

"To all who received him ... he gave power to become children of God" (John 1:12)

Of course, not everyone has received him, not everyone has accepted the gift of God himself, coming to us at Christmas.

And even if we count ourselves as committed Christians, or if we've been faithful members of the church for most of our lives, it may be that we're not very good at receiving. After all, the wisdom is that we're meant to give, and to do so without counting the cost, without thinking about what we might get back. When giving, the left hand shouldn't know what the right hand is doing. St. Paul quotes a supposed saying of Jesus (not found in the Gospels): "It is more blessed to give than to receive." End of story, game over, you might think.

But I think there's a catch here. I think you can't really give unless you've also received. If you're so focused on giving - because it's the right thing to do - that you find it hard to receive, you will run out of gas, sooner or later. And more importantly, you won't be entering into the two-way relationship of generous love which God invites us to have with him and with each other.

A friend who is a priest found herself in Costa in Barnstaple, after a particularly frustrating shopping expedition, having a good old moan about everything to the barista as she gave him her order for coffee. When she had finished, he looked straight at her and said, simply, "This one's on me." What I didn't ask her is whether or not she had her dog collar on - but either way, what was happening for her was that the barista was inviting her to receive a gift, and her priestly self found it surprisingly hard to accept his offer (though she did), because somewhere in her was the insistent habitual thought that she should be the giver.

Receiving, after all, can make you feel vulnerable, whereas giving can reinforce your self-esteem; it feels worthwhile and virtuous. At worst, giving can be a means of control. But to receive, you need empty hands, you need to let someone else do something for you. You have to let someone else give you a little bit - just a sliver, just a taste - of new life. It doesn't have to be a big deal, it can just be a matter of noticing and accepting a tiny act of kindness or generosity. And then - being thankful. Without thankfulness we're dead, we're finished, especially in grim times like these. Winter closes in, and we need to be thankful for the sparks of light that we're given.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was executed for his opposition to Hitler, wrote: "How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from him the little things?" Of course, at Christmas we are given a huge thing - God Himself - but in our everyday lives God's cosmic generosity plays out as an endless series of smaller gifts, too many and too frequent to be counted, easily missed by the heart that doesn't know how to receive. Or the heart that has known too many setbacks and disappointments, too much grief or guilt, so that the idea of simply being given something, with no strings attached, is absurd, and it's always safer to assume you'll get nothing,

So I suppose I'm asking: in the light of Christmas and the great and lasting gift it reminds us of - God's loving solidarity with us in our human frailty; in this light which even the darkness of winter cannot put out, how can we set ourselves to be willing receivers of God's goodness and love? How can we notice the small kindnesses, the glimmers of hope, the moments of beauty and peace, which come our way, and open ourselves to accept them gladly?

By watching, by listening, by refusing to despair, by keeping going, by valuing the small things in life, by believing - and discovering - that our God is not far away, safely ensconced in his heaven, but is with us, with every one of us, waiting for us to notice and respond to his generous, self-giving love. By realising how much every single person matters in the sight of God; and how all our interactions, our care for one another, our enjoyment of one another, are not add-ons or irrelevancies in the bigger picture of life - they are the reality of God's love entrusted to us.

Nothing has been more heart-warming this year than the gratitude of those who have come through the Covid ordeal because of the skill and commitment of the medical staff who have cared for them. They know that in their weakness they have received a great gift. We too, whatever our state of health, are weak and vulnerable; and we too are offered a great gift - Jesus Christ, God himself, to be with us forever. Let us learn how to receive all that we are given by him, with heartfelt thanks and with lasting joy.

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