My feet were tired, my hands cold, my arms exhausted from the weight of the packages, and it was beginning to snow. The bus was late. I kept rearranging my packages, trying to hold them in a different way to give my poor arms a rest. I still remember that day as if it were yesterday, and yet fifteen years have gone by. Nevertheless, when Christmas rolls around, I remember that day on the bus.
I was tired. I had been Christmas shopping all day long. When the bus finally arrived, it was packed with holiday shoppers in the same exhausted mood as I. I sank into the only vacant place, near the back, by a handsome gentleman. He politely helped me to situate my packages and even held some of them himself.
“My goodness,” he said, “did you leave any merchandise still in the stores for the rest of us?”
“I don’t think so,” I moaned. “Worst of all, I still haven’t made all of my purchases.”
The woman in the seat behind us joined in my grief and added, “No, the worst thing is that the day after Christmas we will be carrying this same armload back to the store to exchange it.”
Her comment brought a general chuckle from all those within earshot, including my seat mate. As the laughter subsided, he began in a quiet, melodious voice, deepened with experience, to teach me a lesson that I have never forgotten:
“Hear now the parable of the shopper,” he said, speaking gently and indicating my packages. “A woman went forth to shop, and as she shopped, she carefully planned. Each child’s desires were considered. The hard-earned money was divided, and the many purchases were made with the pure joy and delight that is known only to the giver. Then the gifts were wrapped and placed lovingly under the tree. In eager anticipation she scanned each face as the gifts were opened.”
“‘What a lovely sweater,’ said the eldest daughter, ‘but I think I would prefer blue. I suppose I can exchange it?’
“‘Thank you for the cassette player, Mother. It’s just what I wanted,’ said her son. And then aside, secretly to his sister, he continued, ‘I told her I wanted the one with the automatic reverse and an extra speaker. I never get what I want!’
“The youngest child spoke out with the spoiled honesty of her age, ‘I hate rag dolls! I wanted a china doll. I won’t play with it!’ And the doll, still in the box, was kicked under the couch.”
“One gift still lay under the tree. The woman pointed it out to her husband. ‘Your gift is still there.’
“‘I’ll open it when I have the time,’ he stated. ‘I want to get this bike put together first.’
“How sad it is,” continued his soft, beautiful voice. “When gifts are not received in the same spirit they are given. To reject a thoughtful gift is to reject the loving sentiment of the giver himself. And yet, are we not all sometimes guilty of rejecting?”
He was talking not only to me, but to all of those on the bus. They had all gathered around. The bus was parked.
He took a present from my stack.
“This one,” he said, holding it up and pretending to open the card, “could be to you.” He pointed to a rough-looking, teenage boy in a worn denim jacket and pretended to read the gift card. “To you I give My life, lived perfectly, as an example so that you might see the pattern and live worthy to return and live with Me again. Merry Christmas from the Messiah.”
“This one,” he said, holding up a pure, white present, “is for you.” He held out the gift to a worn-looking woman, who in earlier years must have been a real beauty. She read the card out loud and allowed her tears to slip without shame down her painted face. “My gift to you is repentance. This Christmas I wish you to know for certain that though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow. Signed, your Advocate with the Father.”
“That isn’t all. No, here is a big, red package.” he looked around the group and brought a ragged, unkempt, little child forward. “This package would be for you if He were here. The card would say, ‘On this Christmas and always, My gift to you is love. From your brother, Jesus.'”
“One final gift,” said my seat mate. “The greatest of all the gifts of God–Eternal life!”
He held our minds and our hearts. We were a hungry audience. Though our shopping had left us drained, now we were being filled by his words.
“How we receive these gifts, these precious gifts from the Babe of Bethlehem, is the telling point. Are we exchangers?” he asked. “Is there really anything else we would rather have? It is what we do with a gift long after we have opened it that shows our true appreciation.”
With those words he was gone. That was fifteen years ago, only a wink in time. But not even an eternity could erase the sermon, or the man.