December 11, 2016
Third Sunday in Advent
Here we are at the start of the third week of Advent and I’m going to start out with a story again to help us illustrate what I want us to contemplate.
Timmy and Jack were best buddies; young boys who were next door neighbors growing up together. They were together every day. They were the same age and in the same class at school and in church. They did everything together. They were both excellent students and outstanding athletes. Tim and Jack were like brothers, but they were extremely competitive with each other.
In school they would always run against each other for class president. One year to Timmy would win, and the next year Jack would win, and so it went. One year Jack would have the best grades, and the next year Timmy would.
In football, they were both so talented that in one series Timmy would play quarterback and Jack would play tailback, and on the next series, they would switch positions. When they played basketball in the backyard, one on one against each other, it was all out battle. The competition was fierce.
When they reached the fifth grade, it came time for the Christmas play, and Jack wanted to play the role of Joseph. He played Joseph the year before and had received lots of compliments on his performance and he wanted to do it again. But the teacher said, “Jack, you played Joseph last year. Let’s let Timmy be Joseph this year, and you can be the innkeeper.” Jack was not amused, and he decided on the night of the play that he would play a trick on Timmy; he will get Timmy, but good!
So during the play, as Mary and Joseph approached the innkeeper, Timmy, playing the role Joseph, said his lines perfectly, “Sir, can you help us? As you can see, Mary is about to have her baby. She is so tired from our long journey. We need lodging. I know the city is crowded right now, but please, sir, can you help us?”
This was the moment Jack had been waiting and planning for. This was the moment where Jack could play his trick and put one over on his friend Timmy. So Jack, playing innkeeper, said loudly and dramatically, “Can I help you? Absolutely, I can! Come right on in, Mary and Joseph. You can have the bridal suite!” There was a stunned pause as Timmy tried to figure out what to do and what to say to keep the Christmas play going.
Timmy was accustomed to matching wits with Jack, though, so pretty quickly he came up with the answer. He walked up to Jack, the innkeeper, peered over his shoulder, and then said, “Look at the place, Mary. It’s a disgrace! I wouldn’t stay in this dump for anything! Come on, Mary. We would be better off in a stable than a place like this!” Now that’s what you call rising to the occasion. Timmy rose to the occasion and kept the Christmas story going.
Rising to the occasion - that’s precisely what the wise men in Luke did also.
They rose to the occasion by seeing the star and then following the stars that led them to the Christ child.
They rose to the occasion by taking the time and coming up with the financial support needed to make the long, arduous, and expensive journey.
They rose to the occasion by bringing gifts that not only were appropriate for the celebration of the birth of the Christ child, but also gifts that foreshadowed who the Christ child would become and what he would do.
First, there was gold, a gift fit for a king, an appropriate gift for this One who was the King of Kings and would choose to reign not with force but would love.
Second, there was frankincense, a gift fit for a priest. In the temple in those days, the sweet perfume of frankincense was used. (Apparently, it was a different kind of frankincense from what we use, because it is not very sweet to me.) By the way, the Latin word for priest is Pontifex, which literally means “bridge-builder.” Jesus would become the One who builds a bridge between God and us and makes it possible for us to enter into the presence of God.
And third, there was the gift of myrrh. Myrrh was used for embalming, so myrrh was a gift fit for the One who would come to die for us.
The famous artist William Holman Hunt once created a painting called Shadow of Death that shows Jesus as a young man, standing in a doorway stretching his arm after working in the carpenter shop all day. He stands there in a doorway with his arms outstretched, and behind him, on the wall, the setting sun casts his shadow, and it is a shadow of a cross! The gifts presented that day by the wise men foretold that Jesus was to be the true King of Kings, the priest who bridges us to God, and the Savior who dies on the cross to save us from our sins.
The wise men rose to the occasion and played their part beautifully. But there was another way they rose to the occasion, one that was even more daring and courageous; they defied King Herod. In order to save the Christ child’s life, they disobeyed King Herod, and that was a dangerous thing to do indeed, because King Herod was a powerful, dangerous, coldhearted man.
He was called “Herod the Great,” and in some ways he was a great ruler. He ruled as king for nearly 35 years, and during that time, he did succeed in keeping the peace. And he was a great builder; he was responsible for rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. But Herod had one huge problem; he was insanely afraid that he might lose his kingdom. The longer Herod lived, the worse his fear became. His solution was to eliminate anyone who might become a threat to his throne, so, over the years he executed his wife, his mother-in-law, three of his own sons, and many others, including John the Baptist.
To give you a glimpse into the coldhearted, self-centered nature of Herod, look at what he did when he was 70 years old. He knew that he would not live much longer, so he issued an order that at the precise moment of his death, a large collection of most distinguished and respected citizens of Jerusalem should be executed. By this action, he tried to dupe history. He knew that when the word went out that those beloved community leaders had been killed, there would be great grief and mourning and crying in the streets, and that when future historians would look back at this moment, they might mistakenly think that the tears of the people were being shed for Herod. Luckily, this command was not carried out.
But when we think of Herod in his warped and selfish way of thinking, then we can imagine how he must’ve felt when he heard that a child was to be born in Bethlehem, and that the child was destined to become the king of the Jews. Herod told the wise men to go to Bethlehem and find the baby and then to notify him so that he, too, could come and worship the baby. But, you see, the wise men really were wise men - they saw through Herod and his plot. So after they found the Christ child and presented their gifts, the wise men disobeyed King Herod’s order; they didn’t report back to him the location of the baby, because they knew that Herod didn’t want to worship the baby; he wanted to kill the baby.
The wise men not only were wise, they were also brave. So, we could say (not counting Mary and Joseph) that the wise men were the first people in the world to give gifts to the Christ child, and the first ones in the world to take a courageous and bold stand for Jesus.
Now, obviously we can’t go back to that night in Bethlehem and bring gifts to the manger, but what can we give to Jesus? What can you and I give him today? What can you and I give him right now?
In 1872, Christina Rossetti wrote a beautiful poem about this, which contains these poignant words;
What can I give him,
poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd,
I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man,
I would do my part;
yet what can I give him:
give my heart.
( “In the Bleak Midwinter”)
Now, with this as a backdrop for our thinking, let me suggest three good gifts that we can give the Christ child for Christmas this year.
First of all, we can bring him our penitence.
Here is where we start with penitence - with sorrow for our sins. This is what the Advent and Christmas seasons underscore for us so dramatically, how very much we need a Savior.
You see, this world is not enough. Apart from God, we are incomplete. We have sinned. We can’t make it by ourselves. We need help. We desperately need a Savior. That’s what Advent and Christmas tell us.
There was once a young man who filled out an application form for admission to college. One of the questions read, “What are your personal strengths?’ The young man wrote, “Sometimes I’m trustworthy, loyal, cooperative, and kind.” Then the form said, “List your weaknesses,” and he wrote, “Sometimes I’m not trustworthy, loyal, cooperative, or kind.” We can all relate to that, can’t we? That’s why we approach the manger Christmas on our knees in the spirit of penitence.
In the city of Bethlehem is a small Cathedral at the supposed birthplace of Jesus. Inside the church is a small cave lit by lamps. In the tile floor is a star design that marks where the manger was. Visitors are allowed inside the sacred cave, but you cannot walk in with your head and shoulders held high. The doors are so low that you must stoop to enter.
There’s a sermon there somewhere, and I think it is this: you may be able to see the world standing tall and proud, but to witness the Savior you have to get on your knees. You come in humility and penitence.
Max Lucado, in his book The Applause of Heaven, puts it like this: “While the theologians were sleeping and the elite were dreaming and the successful were snoring, the meek and penitent were kneeling. They were kneeling before the One only the meek and penitent will see. They were kneeling in front of Jesus.”
Someone once sent a Christmas card that says it all. The card had the caption, “God Sent Us a Saviour” and it lists the options God had in sending salvation to the world. Should he send an educator? Or a scientist? Or an entertainer? No! Our greatest need was not information or technology or pleasure. The card concludes with some very powerful words: “Our greatest need was forgiveness, so God sent us a Saviour!”
This is the good news of Christmas. We need a Savior, and God sent us one. Talk about exchanging gifts for Christmas! Top that gift! First of all, we bring God our penitence, and he will give us the gift of salvation and life.
For our second, we can bring him our gratitude.
Some years ago there was a little girl whose name was Jane. She was one of six children living with her family in East Texas. Suddenly, Jane’s father became ill with heart problems so serious that he would not be able to work for some time. Jane knew that the family would be in for a lot of changes, and sure enough, her mother told her the news. “I’m so sorry, Jane,” her mother said. “I know school is about the start, but right now there is no money for school clothes and supplies.” Jane was shocked. No school supplies? No new school clothes? All her old clothes were too small, but she could tell by her mother’s face that was a serious situation.
“We hope and pray that dad will be better soon,” Jane’s mother went on to say. “He can’t work now, so we all have to pitch in and help. We all will have to help earn money for food.” So the children took odd jobs. Jane worked at the neighborhood store, her brother took the newspaper route, another sister worked at the larger grocery store, and another babysat.
One day the phone rang. It was the church secretary. “I know school is starting soon. Some people here at the church want to help Jane. They’re going to buy her some new clothes for school and all of her school supplies.” Jane couldn’t believe it. The clothes were better than she could have imagined, and the school supplies were just right.
Jane and her mother were so grateful, and she wanted to say thank you to the people who helped them so graciously and so generously. They called the church. Jane’s mother said, “Could you help us? We want to say thank you to the kind people who did so much for Jane.” The church secretary replied, “The people who helped you said you can thank them by just doing something kind for someone else.”
Well, over the years Jane and her mother have done just that. When Jane’s father’s health improved, Jane’s mother began to take meals to people who were sick at home, and she continued to do so for many years. Not too long ago, Jane’s mother was honored by the Meals on Wheels program for 25 years of delivering meals to people who were not able to leave their home. And Jane became so committed to helping other people as an expression of her gratitude that when she grew up, she went into full-time Christian service, and she is now a member of the staff of a church to help children and families every single day. Her name is Jane Williams. She was for years the director of children’s and family ministries at St. Luke’s Church in Houston Texas, but is now the coordinator for second through fifth grade Sunday school. Jane was so grateful to God and to the church that she committed her life to serving God and helping other people.
That’s what it means to be Christian. We are so grateful to God for his gift of Jesus Christ that we can’t sit still. We want to pass it on, to pay it forward, to share it with others as an expression of our thanksgiving to God for what God has done for us in sending Christ into the world.
When we really understand and accept and wrap our arms around and celebrate that, it changes our lives. It makes us grateful servants. First, we bring to the Christ child the gift of penitence and second, we bring the gift of gratitude.
Third and finally, we can bring to the Christ child our love for others.
That’s what Jesus wants most of all. Remember how he said it: “As you did it to one of the least of these … You did it to me.” Nothing makes glad the heart of Christ more than when he sees us love one another.
Some years ago, minister and author Dr. Hoover Rupert told about a beautiful incident that took place at the Mohawk Central School in Pains Hollow, New York. The principle of that school became concerned that some of the children whose families were struggling financially would have no Christmas. So he set up a Santa’s Helpers Fund and encouraged all the students who could do so to contribute to it, so the gifts might be bought for the underprivileged children in the area.
One 13-year-old boy was touched by the idea, and he scrimped and saved for weeks so that he can help some poor child have a gift for Christmas that year. The boy managed to raise $1.50, but on the day the contributions were to be received (which was the last day before the Christmas vacation), there was a terrible blizzard, and school was canceled. With the snow and ice everywhere, no buses were running. But this 13-year-old boy was convinced there would be someone at the school to receive his money, so he walked through the blizzard and put his $1.50 into the hands of the principal. As the boy turned to go back out into the blizzard to head back home the principal had to swallow hard and blinked back tears, because the principal knew that this boy’s name was on the list of underprivileged children who were to receive gifts from the Santa’s Helpers Fund.
What a beautiful story. The power of sacrificial love, the power of loving others. What a great gift to bring to the Christmas table at the inn.
As we come to the manger at Bethlehem later this month, we can do that to. We can bring the Christ child three good gifts: our penitence, our gratitude, and our love for others. Or, in other words, what can we give him? We can give them our hearts!
Let us pray.
Father God, thank you for the many gifts You give to us each day. Thank you for food, clothing, shelter, family, friends, health, work, and so much more. You have blessed us with the gift of life. Help us to truly appreciate it and make the most of it by giving ourselves to You and to others. Help us to give love to the unloved and hope to the hopeless. Open our eyes to the needs of others, and help us respond in love.
Lord help us this week to reflect on what You have given us and thus what we can give back to You and to others. Help us to give ourselves away. Help us to give our time, our love, our patience, and our understanding. Help us to be good listeners to those who are feeling hurt or alone. Whole help us to give a smile to someone who may need it. Help us to see our blessings; and to look for ways to share our blessings with others. We ask all this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.