Sara Wood and her son, Landon, were facing a bleak Christmas this year. Landon is five years old. They were sleeping in the same bed at her parent’s home. Her husband and his father, Staff Sgt. Scott Wood, died four weeks ago due to complications of injuries he sustained in combat. Sara said of Landon, “He knows daddy’s in heaven, though I don’t know if he fully comprehends what that means. He knows daddy’s not coming back.”
Scott’s favorite team was the Houston Texans of the NFL. Scott was buried with an Andre Johnson jersey beneath his military uniform.
Last Sunday, the team decided to help Sara and Landon with gifts and honor the memory of her husband. The team brought Sara to the game under the pretense that she and her son would be part of a halftime ceremony in which Landon would receive a bike and Scott’s memory would be celebrated by the 71,500 in attendance. Sara and Landon had never been to game before.
What they didn’t know was the presentation of a really big gift. The organization, Operation Finally Home, gave Sara and Landon a new mortgage-free house. When the gift was announced on the stadium loudspeakers, the crowd roared in approval. The house will be built in Alvin, Texas.
Operation Finally Home solicits donations of land and materials to build homes for disabled veterans and war widows. It was founded by Houston builder Dan Wallrath. Thirty-two vets and widows have benefited from the charity, so far.
The celebration of Jesus’ birthday is known to us as a time of gift giving. Sara and Landon certainly received a really big gift. But the tradition of Christmas giving is a fairly recent one.
Gift giving at this time of year may have begun in ancient Rome. It was a tradition to give gifts on New Year’s Day. These were simple gifts that usually had an association with one of Rome’s gods.
Even with the fall of Rome, gift giving at the beginning of the year continued. The church tried to banish the practice to no avail. So church leaders tried to find a way to incorporate the custom with church tradition, which is how we get many of our church traditions.
The justification for gifting was found in the story of the magi and their gifts that they brought for the Christ child. Since the coming of Christ into the world was a gift from God, giving us the gift of redemption and everlasting life, we, too, might give of ourselves to others.
Giving gifts at Christmas has its roots in Victorian England. Giving gifts became a way of expressing kindness with the celebration of the season. Presents were gift wrapped to hide what they were. In-home mazes were made for people to go through to find their gift.
This tradition came across the Atlantic to the U.S. We added the Dutch tradition of Santa Claus. Santa Claus came into people’s homes leaving stockings full of goodies. Then Coca-Cola cemented the image of Santa Claus with the holiday. Then the commercialization of Christmas was well underway.
Something grand like the giving of a house to Sara Wood brings the spirit of the season back into focus from all the ads and from the excesses of events like Black Friday. Certainly the gifts of magi were also grand.
The birth of a baby is always a great gift. We are here tonight to celebrate a special birth. We don’t know what time of year Jesus was born. The church co-opted a Roman solstice holiday to shift the culture from a pagan celebration to a Christian celebration. Even though we don’t know what time of year Jesus was born, the church thought it important to observe Jesus’ birth.
This is the Feast of the Incarnation: God entered history in human form. God thought of us so much, loved us so much, to be with us. Jesus came to right our course. Our future is one of peace and harmony. Jesus pointed us to that future. And so we observe his birth, reminding ourselves of his message. Even the angels declare peace on earth in announcing his birth. Jesus is also called the Prince of Peace. Churches are named Prince of Peace.
It was the prophet Isaiah who said that the messiah would be the Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6-7) Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, calls us to peace.
For us and for Scott, Sara, and Landon Wood, Natalie Cole sings about what she wants for Christmas, her “Grown-up Christmas List:”
“No more lives torn apart
And wars will never start,
And time will heal all hearts.
Everyone will have a friend
And right will always win,
And love will never end.
This is my lifelong dream,
My Grown-up Christmas List.”
Text: Luke 2:1–20