worship

In the Christmas Spirit
The Rev. Drew Stockstill
December 28, 2014 - Luke 2:22-40


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In the Christmas Spirit
Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Luke 2:22-40                

Rev. Drew Stockstill
Morningside Presbyterian Church
December 28, 2014

 

For the last four weeks we’ve been lighting candles, saying prayers, singing songs, reading scripture and making proclamations regarding God’s radical, world altering action of coming to us in the flesh of a 1st century Palestinian Jew named Jesus. You may have noticed the congregational response we sang each week was a different verse of the hymn “People Look East.” Through Advent, we sang of preparing ourselves for what was coming, all the while not really knowing what exactly to expect. Nonetheless, we joyfully joined our voices to sing of the expectation, “people look east and sing today…” We looked east every week for Love, the song said: love the guest, love the rose, love the bird, love the star; indeed it was love the Lord on the way. We looked and as we looked we longed. We had visions of the manger scene, imaging that silent night, holy night, in the little town of Bethlehem, where a little Jewish babe laid in Mary’s lap sleeping, and as we imagined we also tried – at times – to tuned our hearts to a longing for Love the Lord to come into our lives today. This morning, as we are celebrating the gift that arrived those many centuries ago in such mean estate to a poor young woman and her bewildered carpenter fiancé, we must find a way to respond to this gift today, even though we too are a bit bewildered by it all, at how Jesus, born to us so long ago and yet promised to come again, is a gift we have both already received and yet still long for. How are we to respond to this? The struggle is real.

 

I.

Our texts today, from Isaiah and Luke, can help us with the struggle by giving us examples of what faithful, joyous response to the very real gift that God has so generously given in Jesus Christ. The gift of salvation, Isaiah tells us, is so amazing, so generous the people of God feel like “a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord” because in the words of Walter Brueggemann the gift “means altering circumstance of the oppressed, brokenhearted, captives, and prisoners. God will reorder social reality into a viable, equitable working community.” In Luke we see how this gift causes the elderly Simeon and Anna to spring to life in thanks and praise and testimony. This is the gift we’ve been given and what a gift! But…how’s it work?

 

II.

‘tis the season of giving but also receiving. Properly receiving a gift can be a lot more complicated than it needs to be but we’ve all been given things that we just don’t know what do to with. This year Ellen and I received a gift that took us a minute to figure out from someone we love who will remain nameless, but it was her mom. It looks like a little knit tube-top for a ferret, with a squirrel on it. As far as we can figure, it’s a cozy for a wine bottle, but then again, it could be a ferret tube-top. How to respond to such creative generosity?

I don’t have much room to talk. My sister likes to tell people what a terrible gift giver I was before I met Ellen. One year when I was in 7th grade and she was in 4th I got her Christmas present from the Clair’s at the Tallahassee Mall, where I figured every 4th grade girl would love a present. It was a little jewel-incrusted pink pocketknife with the word “Diva” on it. As I remember it she loved it at the time but properly responding to a gift is a lifetime process, I’ll remind her.

It’s not always easy to respond with excitement and joy to a gift we don’t really understand. How are we to respond to a gift that means liberation for the oppressed, justice for the mistreated, forgiveness of sin? I’m not sure we really know what to do with this.

You might have seen the video recently of the two young British Children who are given an early Christmas present from their dad. I think their responses to his gifts are a good image for us. The little boy Louie, probably 5 and his sister Connie, about 3, are sitting at their kitchen counter as the dad asks what they want Santa to bring them. Louie wants some kind of watch and Connie says she wants a Princess Barbie and Ken the King. He tells them since they’ve been really good they can each open one present early. They are excited, to say the least. Louie is confident his will be the watch. Connie opens hers first after a bit of struggle with the paper; she turns it over in her little hands, confused, it’s an onion. “It’s not Ken the King,” she says, “It’s…it’s…my present,” and she hugs her onion gleefully against her. Louie has gotten his present open and holds it up, “A bananaaa!” he exclaims with a confused smile, turning the fruit over in his hands. They are quite for a moment as they look at their gifts and then Connie holds up her onion, she’s figured it out, “A pumpkin!” Her big brother informs her, “No, it’s an onion and mine’s a banana.” She squeals, “An onion!!!!” Their father is speechless behind the camera in the face of his children’s sheer delight at their Christmas produce. Louie holds his banana in front of his face like a smile, “Thank you for my banana!” Connie holds up her onion proudly, and exclaims, “A…a…PUMPKIN!”, “Thank you for your onion,” Louie helps her. She quietly studies her onion, admiring the way the skin is falling off and says sweetly, “Thank you for my onion.” Louie and Connie respond with sheer joy and authentic gratitude to their father in spite of his prank.

 

III.

Sometimes I think we modern Christians, with all our material luxury and relative comfort, could use a little help responding to the gift God has given us. For me it takes a little work to get to that place of praise and thanksgiving for the sheer fact that I get to live this life with the people God has surrounded me with and all their love and that I get to live with the gift of faith that through Jesus Christ I am saved never separated from God the Creator. It is a gift that changes everything. It’s a gift we are all about see God place in the life of Rebecca Frampton, through the waters of her baptism. I make myself take stock of that gift each morning, before I pick up my phone and get out of bed in that order, but rarely does this profound truth feel like the reordering of the social reality it is and seldom does it cause me to squeal in delight with a banana sized smile or feel like a beautiful crown in the hand of God, or fill me the joyful praise and deep peace that Simeon felt, or cause me to go tell everyone I can find about their redemption through Jesus, the way Anna does. Most days, I need a little guidance with what to do with this gift; some instructions on how it works. I read a bit of scripture in the morning and some of the story of Jesus and that’s usually a pretty good start. Then I encounter the people of God and I’m well on my way, soon even the trees around the little pond in my neighborhood are lifting their arms in praise as if they, like Simeon, were embracing the Christ child and showing the entire world their amazing gift which we all share in.

Maybe that’s just it, encountering Christ again and again the way we do in Scripture and in prayer, the way we do as we gather as the people of God in this place and hear each others sins and remind each other that Jesus has already forgiven us no matter what; we sprinkle a little warm water on the brow of a baby and tell her about how much God has already loved her and will love her forever, and as we remember again that we too are so precious and vulnerable and loved in the arms of God and it causes us to promise to be like Anna and tell each other about this gift of Jesus’ grace for us, and we promise to tell those children, and before the water has even dried on their heads, God is blessing us and loving us even though we will fall sadly short a lot of the time. This is the gift and these are some of our responses. Maybe we should give ourselves a bit of a break and not beat ourselves up too much about how Emily Post says it all ought to be; as my friend Charlie Cousar wrote, the gift of Jesus means liberation from the strains and traps of ‘oughtness.’ That liberation helps us then respond as we feel called not as we feel required.

Will and Sarah as you bring your baby forward in a few minutes to participate in that ancient and holy rite of baptism, I can’t help but think of our gospel story this morning. Mary, being the good Jewish girl that she is comes into the Temple with her one month old baby, to respond as her religion instructed she ought to after giving birth, bringing a couple turtledoves because they couldn’t afford the appropriate sacrifice of a lamb. But to the surprise of all, the Holy Spirit stirs things up and Simeon grabs the baby from her arms and sings of his destiny, filled with praise and peace. The 84 year old widow who as far as anyone knows never left the temple and spent most of her life in prayer and fasting, probably about as much a fixture and easy to overlook as a baptismal fount or a communion table, suddenly springs to life and while no one remembers much what she said, we do know it sounded a lot like good news for those who needed to hear it. And as the two elderly Jews dance and sing and shout the good news, there stands Mary with all the treasure in her heart and Joseph thinking who knows what, as God’s Holy Spirit shows them exactly what responding to the gift of their child looks like, a gift not just for them but for all.  

It’s Christmas and we’ve been given and extraordinary gift in Jesus Christ and while it matters how we respond to the gift, what is really important today is that we do respond. People look east and sing today, Love the Lord is on the way! Amen

Last Published: January 23, 2015 9:14 PM