Or rather “The Manger Gift Hypothesis”: What do you See? How do you respond?
This is my go-to Christmas message for new groups of people...
I love Christmas.
The excitement has been building, the traditions are all rolled out of the box, and it’s time for us to watch those classic seasonal films and eat the food that we only ever consider at Christmas... I mean, when else can you justify watching the Muppets Christmas Carol and eating turkey and brussel sprouts (neither of which any of us really like if we’re being honest...)!
And then there are the Christmas specials that come on the TV, both the classics that we’ve loved and watched for years, and the latest seasonal offering produced by our current favourite shows.
My favourite all-time Christmas episode of a TV series has to be, without a shadow of a doubt the Christmas episode of the Big Bang Theory, Episode 11 from Season 2.
For those who are unfamiliar with the show and the characters, the story revolves around a group of geeky male scientists (well, 3 scientists and an engineer) who are ridiculously intelligent yet socially clueless and inept, and their socially gifted yet intellectually inferior female friend Penny. Invariably the episodes revolve around Penny trying to impart useful social practices and common sense to one of more of the men who just don’t get it.
Sheldon is the most socially inept of the 4 friends, and in this clip he is struggling with the concept of gift-giving.
In this episode, titled “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis”, Penny tells Sheldon that she has a gift for him for Christmas and Sheldon, though he despises the concept of giving and receiving gifts, knows that the right thing to do is reciprocate the gift with something of equal value, but how does he do that when he doesn’t know what the gift is? And so, he comes up with the “Bath Item Gift Hypothesis,” which is explained, and undone, during this clip.
One last thing you should probably know before we watch: Sheldon doesn’t do physical contact.
It’s brilliant, on so many levels in my opinion, but there’s something about this clip that jumped out at me early on as being important for me to think about when it comes to the Christmas Story as we know it, particularly related to the passage we’ve already read this morning, and that’s this: What do you see when you open the present and look inside the Manger?
Penny’s gift to Sheldon is revealed in three stages, and his reactions at each stage change. As we consider each stage of Sheldon’s gift, we’re also going to consider the Gift of God and what it means for us.
You can hear the disappointment. Part of the development in Sheldon’s character to this point in the series is that he knows not to use the word “Just”. I’m sure he didn’t really know what he was expecting, but I am sure it wasn’t that. As he’s looking at it I can imagine what’s going on inside his head:
“All those bath gifts, and I now need to work out what the least is that I can give... Which of the things I’ve bought is worth as little as a napkin, while still allowing me to maximise the amount of money I can get on a return of everything else? If I break open the smallest package and give her say, a bar of soap, I can return all the others for a full refund, and keep the other products in the smallest basket for myself or emergencies...”
What happens for us when we look at the baby in the manger?
One response is to look inside the Christmas story and respond with: “Oh... A Baby.”
We could feign interest, and do those annoying things people do when they see a newborn baby, like using the word “Cute” halfheartedly, or squeezing it’s chubby little cheeks and smiling...
Of course that changes if you have any sort of relationship with the baby. The closer you are to a newborn baby in family or friendship with the parents, the more real the sentiments become, but to all intents and purposes, it’s still just a baby...
One valid response to the Christmas Story, and the birth of Jesus is to appreciate the gift of a newborn baby, and enjoy having a day off of work. The least we can do is turn up at church and give the baby a nod, or a quick “Isn’t he cute”, or raise a glass of something to say “cheers” with our roast dinner... That won’t cost us too much, and we can get back to our day.
But what happens if we look at the contents of the manger from a different perspective?
Penny is aware that there is something more to the gift she has given to Sheldon, and so she tells him to turn it over.
For those of you who are either too young, or undedicated in the world of science fiction, Leonard Nimoy was the original actor who played “Mr. Spock” in the Star Trek franchise. He also happens to be one of Sheldon’s greatest heroes.
In the act of changing perspective the gift has changed value, and Sheldon’s whole response changes accordingly.
Instead of “Just a napkin” Sheldon is now holding a message from someone he considers important, that is addressed to him. It is something personal, which contains a word of blessing.
In response, Sheldon has to find a seat. He is literally knocked back by this important news and needs support. He’s wracking his brains to think how much this gift is now worth, and whether he bought enough baskets to begin to respond accordingly...
What happens if we look at the baby in the Manger another way? What if Jesus is more than “Just a baby”?
What if this baby comes with a message from God? What if he’s got something
important to say? How do we respond then?
Other religions are willing to acknowledge Jesus as a Prophet, an endorsed messenger from on high. Others place value in his credentials as a teacher, and might fall in agreement with Gandhi in saying that “Jesus, to me, is a great world teacher... among others.”
But even this requires a bit more of a response than just an “Aww, isn’t he cute” or a “Cheers”.
You see, prophets and teachers, people with an endorsed message, should be worth listening to, worth hearing, and their messages should be at the very least tested, if not adopted to be part of our everyday lives.
If this baby is a messenger and message from God, growing into a man who taught about love and kindness and tolerance and generosity and being a good neighbour, we need to be moved by that message and test if it is something that will make the world a better place by adopting that teaching, by help ourselves and our world to “Live long, and prosper.”
What would it mean for us to respond to this perspective properly? What might it cost us in our gratitude for such a gift and message?
The third angle at which Sheldon appreciates his gift is one that was unexpected or unintended by Penny. This is where my analogy breaks down a little, because I think there was always this intention in the gift of God that first Christmas, but it’s still worth considering Sheldon’s response...
Apologetically, Penny points out the dirt because Leonard Nimoy had wiped his face on the napkin, but Sheldon doesn’t see this as a problem. Conversely he is on his feet, adrenalin running, ridiculously and uncontrollably excited at the fact that in his hands he has the DNA of his hero.
No longer is it “Just a Napkin”, or something to frame with a nice message and blessing to live out, but rather it could be transformed into the very presence of his idol... Indeed he creepily suggests he could grow his own test-tube version if he had a further gift from Penny (but we won’t go there today...!).
Now he knows that he hasn’t bought enough to be able to give back something of equal value to the gift giver, and so he gives everything he has and more. He does something that is unheard of in his story so far: He gives a hug! He gives himself in an unprecedented way to begin to represent and reciprocate the value of the gift he has been given.
And so to the baby in the manger...
What if, as John 1 suggests, the baby in the manger wasn’t just a baby, and wasn’t just a prophet, but what if he was the son of God? What if he was something so much more special who had the power to conquer death and to save the world? How would we need to respond then?
And what if our response was to worship? Not to ignore it, not to belittle it, but to give it everything we have. To be lost for words. To feel like we don’t have enough to give in response. To be ridiculously and uncontrollably excited at the fact that this baby contains the very DNA of God, as a living, breathing presence on the earth.
What if the only way we could give anywhere near enough back would be to give ourselves?
I think this third perspective is what John is trying to make us aware of. He doesn’t spend time talking about the shepherds or the wise men. We don’t hear in his Gospel about the manger. But he focuses on the gift that is given, and the notion that this gift of light and life is God become flesh and moving into the neighbourhood.
And so my challenge to you today, as we seek to remember the birth of Jesus, is what do you see when you open the present and look inside the Manger? How will you respond?
If you see “just a baby”, then thank you for being here with us this morning and taking that time out. May you be blessed in the rest of you day.
If you see a baby boy who carries with him a message from God, then what does it look like for you to test and put into practice the messages of love and joy and hope and peace that this baby stands for?
But if, like John, like me, you look inside the manger and get a glimpse of the DNA of God, may you be filled with the ridiculous and uncontrollable excitement, and seek to give all of yourself in praise and worship of this wonderful gift.
Remarcable is one man blogging about Youth Work, Theology, Family, Life and those other random things that come to mind.