When you hear that word, what’s the first thing you think of?

Is it special Christmas music, or Christmas cookies, or Christmas vacation?

Or maybe it’s presents.

…the presents you hope the grownups in your family might give you. (You’ve been asking and asking, right?)

Or perhaps the present you have made specially for someone, friend or family.

Soon many of you, perhaps all of you, will be opening presents. Opening presents can be an exciting time. It can also be a time of surprises, some good, some not so good.

I remember one present I opened many years ago, when I was a little girl, about 8 years old.

It was about this big, and like all the other presents under my family’s tree, it was wrapped in colorful paper and tied with a bright ribbon.

After untying the ribbon and tearing off the paper, I saw a very fancy box, sort of a deep red color, with fancy gold letters printed on it. They said, “Oxford Bible.”

Oh dear. This was a big box, so surely it held a big bible.

I will tell you, this was not an exciting gift for me. I had not asked for a bible, especially a big bible. Why on earth would my parents ever think I wanted a big fancy Bible for Christmas?

My love was horses. I rode horses, I read about horses, I drew horses, the walls of my room were covered with photos of horses. In fact, I think I liked horses more than just about anything else in the whole wide world.

So here I was with this big red box with fancy gold lettering, which I hadn’t yet opened, trying to arrange my face so my parents wouldn’t see my disappointment at the gift of a bible.

I took a deep breath and thought about trying to look excited and opened the box. Surprise! There was no bible inside. There was a beautiful toy horse. A perfect gift for me.

Thank you, Mum, Thank you, Dad. I treasured that horse for years.

Why do I tell you this story? Because despite all the excitement of Christmas — music, cookies, vacations, presents — there can be surprises, even disappointments.

A long time ago, before Jesus was born, the world was waiting for a perfect present. For many years, God sent present after present: God sent prophets to tell stories about how God was doing great things in people’s lives. God sent poets to write songs about God, sometimes love songs, sometimes not so much. (We call these psalms.) God sent leaders to help people live in freedom and not be afraid that others would make fun of them, or be mean to them, when they prayed.

So the world went on like this for a long, long time, probably more years than you or I can count. With prophets and poets and leaders….but something was missing.

Then one day, God looked at the world and thought, I am going to give the world a surprise. Something no one really expects. God needed human help to make this surprise happen, so God asked a girl named Mary if she would help. She said Yes.

And I think you know what happened next. Mary had a baby, named Jesus, who was the son of God. Jesus was the present God sent to the world, to help people who were sad or hurting or hungry. As he grew up, Jesus showed his friends, we call them disciples, how to take care of people: how to feed them even when there didn’t seem to be enough food. How to help them get better when they were sick. How to be friends with them, when no one else would. How to comfort them when they were sad. How to share things so everybody had enough.

Tonight, Christmas Eve, is the time we remember that wonderful, surprising present from God: a baby named Jesus. I don’t think anyone expected a present from God to come wrapped up in baby clothes. But as the baby grew, they learned that Jesus was the best gift ever. And that gift was not just for them, then, but is for us, now.

Now you may think that baby Jesus is something that’s only for Christmas. But here’s the surprise: Jesus is there for you tonight and will be there for you as you grow. Sometimes you may think Jesus is not there, or is not giving you something special that you really want. But I can promise you this: Jesus will be with you when you are happy or sad, excited or disappointed. Jesus will be with you even when you are not paying attention and your mind is on other things.

No, wait — that’s not right. I said Jesus will be with you. I should have said, Jesus is with you. Because Jesus is God’s love, wrapped up in human flesh. And that is God’s present for each one of us— that is the surprise of Christmas.

When I opened the red box with the fancy gold lettering, there was no Bible. There was a toy horse. And there was something else I didn’t see then, but I can see now: there was love. May the gifts you give and the gifts you receive be filled with love, just as Jesus is filled with God’s love for us. Amen.

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