Sunday, December 30, 2007
First United Methodist Church
The Rev. Dr. Arvin R. Luchs, Preaching
It was bound to happen: accountants at PNC Wealth Management in Pittsburgh (apparently with too much time on their hands) have calculated the “Christmas Price Index.” Last week they released their results based on the current cost of partridges, drummers, pear trees and all. Here’s what they came up with:
A Partridge $15
A Pear Tree $150
Two turtle doves $40
Three French Hens $45
Four calling birds (they used canaries) $ 600
Five Gold Rings $395
Six geese-a-laying $360
Seven swans a swimming $4200
Eight maids a-milking $47
Nine Ladies Dancing $4759 per performance (they must be union)
10 Lords a-leaping $4,285
11 Pipers Piping $2, 213 (musicians are cheaper than dancers)
12 drummers drumming $2,398
And the grand total of the entire twelve days: a whopping $19,507—an increase of 8.2% over last Christmas! (cited in “Etc.” The Christian Science Monitor, December 20, 2007 p. 3)
But the real cost of Christmas—if the evangelist who wrote 1 John is correct--cannot be calculated financially: it has to do with the commitment of our hearts to grow in love for God and for each other. Listen again to the familiar words with which he tells of what it means to keep Christmas—this time from Eugene Peterson’s wonderful version “The Message”:
1 John 4: 9-12 (The Message, Peterson)
This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world
so we might live through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about—not
that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son…My
dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each
other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply
within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love!
Let’s be at prayer:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, for you are our strength and our redeemer. Amen
Some stories are true—even though they never happened.
That may be said of one of the enduring legends about building one of the world’s most beautiful buildings: The Taj Mahal.
It was built to assuage the grief—and fulfill the promise--Shah Jahan had made to his wife, Mumtaz Mahal who died while birthing their 14th child. Jahan loved his wife dearly and set about building an incredible temple to hold her remains, the likes of which the world had never seen. It would, eventually, take 22 years to build and is still considered the most expensive tomb ever constructed.
Her coffin was placed in the center of a large parcel of land and construction of the temple began around it. But as the weeks turned into months, the Shah's grief was eclipsed by his passion for the building project. As the years passed he became totally consumed with the details of the construction. It's all he thought about, day and night.
Then, one day while hurriedly walking from one side of the construction site to the other, he accidentally bumped his leg against a wooden box. Impatiently, he brushed the dust off his leg and ordered the workers to throw the box out immediately. Why, he wondered, would anyone leave a box right in the middle of a worksite.
You have already guessed. The box held the remains of his beloved wife. Shah threw out her coffin. He forgot she was there. (Lucado, Max The Applause of Heaven, Tyndale House, Wheaton, IL, 1999, pp. 131-132 quoted in a sermon by Moore, James A., “Let Us Go Over To Bethlehem And Find The Christ of Christmas,” accessed at esermons.com)
Have you done that with Christmas--gotten so wrapped up in decorating the house, finding the right gifts, making sure not to miss anyone on the card list, enjoying the parties and dinners--that you’ve missed the manger right in the middle of it all? And, now that the celebrations are over, family left for home and you’re cleaning up—did you throw out the baby along with the boxes, ribbons and wrapping paper—and didn’t even realize he was there? Well, you’re not alone—lots of us have done the same thing.
But I have good news for you—for me—for us all. It’s not too late. Christmas isn’t over—in fact it’s just started. You can still do something about it!
That was the whole point Howard Thurman made so eloquently in his familiar poem. It’s a message I ponder anew each Christmas because I need to keep it in my mind. I know you’ve heard it—but let me share it with you again:
When the song of the angel is still,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their sheep,
The work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among people,
to make music in the heart.
Then, in case someone missed the point, he added:
[Or, in other words, to do the work of Christ]
(Thurman, Howard, from a Christmas Card, Fellowship of Reconcilation, Nyack, N.Y.)
Christmas, you see, is not so much about a day, a week or a month—it is about a way of living. It is not so much feeling good cheer and celebrating with good friends, as it is a time to open our hearts to a new attitude about life. Christmas is not so much a holiday, as a holy day. It is all about welcoming the spirit of Christ and embracing his mission to transform the world with love.
And that’s what this morning’s scripture is all about!
There is no particular evidence that Christmas was recognized and celebrated during the time the books of the newer testament were written. Outside of acknowledging that Jesus was God’s messiah—there was no mention of Mary, Joseph, mangers, shepherds, or magi in any of the letters of Paul, the other epistles or the Revelation. But buried in the midst of three short letters written by an anonymous church Elder is the essence of the nativity.
The elder is upset because some in his congregation had been besieged by a group of skeptics who were debunking the idea that the messiah was a physical person and not a spiritual energy trapped in a material body—today we call their ideas “Docetism.” They argued that we should look for God—not in the flesh and blood, mud and dirt reality of life—but in other-worldly spiritual realms. But that wasn’t what it was all about.
The conviction that God refused to float in sublime isolation above time and space, but became in Jesus, flesh and blood, sweat and earth, is the main idea of the incarnation—of Christmas. The elder was fearful that his flock would be looking for God in intangible spiritual experience---overlooking the human being. “This is how God showed his love for us,” the elder proclaimed, “God sent his only Son into the world…”
But that’s not all, the old elder insisted. It didn’t just happen one time—sometime—long ago, “if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love!”
“Christmas”—God’s coming to earth in Christ—the incarnation of love—is not an ancient reality that we only celebrate. It happens again and again among those whose spirits are ready, whose hearts are open and who seek to let God work through them.
We remember a manger and a stable when the first Christmas happened—but Christ’s love comes again:
Whenever we reach out in compassion to any of God’s children.
Whenever we honor and respect all people—especially those the least among us.
Whenever we show grace and forgiveness to others—whether or not they earn it—just because they are our sisters and brothers in Christ.
Whenever we comfort those who grieve and encourage the downhearted with a word of hope.
Whenever we embrace a vision of all God’s creation and cry out that it be treated tenderly.
Whenever we stand firm against exploitation, violence, dehumanization and demand justice and peace.
And.whenever hearts like yours and mine are open and ready to grow more and more like Christ—deeper and richer in love and grace.
The poet and professor, Henry Van Dyke was also a Presbyterian pastor. Though he wrote in many genre’s, Van Dyke may be best remembered for his stories of Christmas: The Other Wise Man, and The First Christmas Tree. But it is one of his reflections on the season that caught my attention:
There is a better thing than the observance of Christmas Day, and that is keeping Christmas.
Are you willing, he wrote, to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world, stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death, and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem nineteen hundred years ago is the image and brightness of the Eternal Love?
If so, then you can keep Christmas.
And if you keep it for a day, why not always?
(quoted in Moore, James W., Christmas Gifts That Always Fit, Dimensions for Living Press, Nashville, TN., 1996, p. 112)
May Christmas be in your hearts—today and always. Amen!