The regular reminder at this time of year that there are "only (insert number) shopping days left to Christmas", is indicative of how pressurised we are in the preceding weeks. Indeed, Christmas apparently ranks high on the scale of stress-inducing events in life.
One consequence of this pressure is that we tend to resort to easy, time-saving ways of getting done the many tasks we feel obliged to fulfil with the minimum fuss. The rise of electronic communication has enabled many of us to do our Christmas shopping and mailings online.
Gift vouchers can be purchased and despatched to relatives and friends with only a few taps of the keyboard. We can instantly do bulk Christmas greetings in the space of a few seconds by means to the 'e-card', an electronic 'virtual' card that is sent and received via email. With hundreds on my Christmas greeting list, I plead guilty! However, research has demonstrated that whilst it is a cheap and easy alternative, for the majority of recipients, the humble Christmas card is the preferred option. Although many believed "it's the thought that counts", the delivery of a physical card through the post received greater appreciation.
What the research highlighted which was particularly interesting was that younger people in the 18-32 age bracket were actually the most appreciative of any age group about receiving physical cards through the post. Although they are the most tech-savvy generation, they were quick to realise that not much thought or effort necessarily goes into an e-card. One e-card can be sent in a few seconds to multiple recipients. However, when someone takes the effort, time, energy and expense to buy and then write a physical card, then it is perceived to be more meaningful.
There's a lovely story of a teacher in Africa who told her students that Christians, as an expression of their joy, gave each other gifts on Christ's birthday. One of her students duly presented his teacher with a sea shell on Christmas Day. She said: "This is the most beautiful sea shell I have ever seen. But we are a hundred miles from the sea. How on earth did you get it?" The boy replied, "Long walk part of present." The expense of time, energy and effort can sometimes outstrip the financial value of the gift itself.
And it occurred to me that God Himself expended an extraordinary amount of effort, time, energy and expense in the act of sending Jesus into the world. It was not a thirty second gesture, despatched in a brief moment snatched during a coffee break. The sending of Jesus was planned since before the beginning of time. Prophecies of God's intentions were declared throughout the whole of the Old Testament period, spanning thousands of years. Even the preparation for Christ's birth had meticulous planning, in the sending of John the Baptist as a forerunner. It was only when the fullness of time had come, that God sent forth His Son (Galatians 4:4).
Even the birth of Jesus was carefully planned and designed by God with the choice of Mary, the explanation and reassurance given to Joseph, and then at the birth the sending of angels, the appearance of the star and the fulfilment of prophecy. It was certainly not something as routine as another email. In your preparations for celebrating the coming of Jesus into the world this year, I hope you will be reminded, as I have been, of the time, care and effort that God has undertaken, indicative of his immense love for his creation. And undoubtedly that is part of the present.
Tony Ward is a Bible teacher and evangelist who was ordained in Zimbabwe. He ministers mainly in Cardiff and Bristol.