This was the message I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 1st Sunday after Christmas, 29 December 2002. The Scripture readings for this Sunday were Isaiah 63: 7 – 9; Hebrews 2: 10 – 18, and Matthew 2: 13 – 23.
“Well? Did you like your presents? Were they the right size? The right color? Were they what you wanted? Did you have to take it back and get something else?” These, I am sure, are some of the questions often asked on Christmas morning. They come about because I think we give gifts for two reasons: 1) because they are practical or 2) because they mean something. The problem may be that we sometimes confuse the two purposes. We also give them in expectation of receiving gifts or because it is expected that we do so.
The tradition of gifts comes, of course, from the three wise men bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the child. Tradition in the church is that the gold was used to pay the expenses of the family as they fled to Egypt when King Herod ordered the killing of the infants in Bethlehem following the non-return of the wise men to his palace. The frankincense and myrrh were kept and used to prepare Jesus’ body following the crucifixion.
But somewhere along the line, we have forgotten why we are even giving the gifts in the first place. If we were to monitor the news broadcasts during the month of December, it would seem that the purpose of Christmas was to revive and maintain the national economy. And having giving our gifts, it becomes our national duty to return to the mall the day after Christmas for an additional round of buying and exchanging of gifts. I think that we, individually and collectively, need to stop and pause for a moment and think about what this time of year is all about.
It isn’t so much the gifts that we give to our family and friends or the gifts that we get in return. It is the gift that we were given some two thousand years ago that really counts; it is a gift that cannot be measured in a monetary sense, a gift that even the prophets could not adequately describe.
“for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with jewels.” (Isaiah 61: 10)
The birth of Jesus was more than simply a birth; it was a gift to all the people of the world. It was a gift for which the impact was almost immediate. When Mary and Joseph, as the parents of a newborn son were required by law to do, brought Jesus to the Temple, there were two people there for whom this birth was special.
Simeon was waiting for the Consolation of Israel (Luke 2: 25), the Comforter of Israel, a hope that parallels the hope of deliverance first expressed by Mary and Joseph at the beginning of the Gospel of Luke. Simeon had known for some time that he would see the salvation, the rescuing of Israel in his lifetime and this was accomplished through the presence of the Holy Spirit present in Jesus that day in the temple. Anna was also someone whose life had been devoted to the work of God. And when she saw Jesus she knew that her work and prayers had been answered.
We are not necessarily expected to react in the same way that Simeon and Anna did upon the occasion of Jesus’ birth; but we are expected to do more than simply celebrate the birth. His birth was a gift from God to us and it is a gift that cannot be simply put on the back shelf of our lives.
This spring, as part of my certification training, I had to review a book. I chose a book entitled “Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs: Saints and Their Stories” by James C. Howell. In this book, Dr. Howell writes about various Christians whose belief in Christ, their faith in Jesus directed their duties, tasks, and lives. It probably does not come as a surprise that I found the chapter on misfits especially enjoyable.
One such misfit was a Georgian by the name of Clarence Jordan. Raised as a Baptist in rural Georgia, he came to question the hypocrisy of singing songs like “Jesus loves the little children; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight” in church while seeing the discrimination and harassment of blacks outside the church walls. His struggles led him to seek a doctorate in Greek New Testament and then to serve as a Baptist preacher. In that regard he is best known as the author of the “Cotton Patch Version” of the New Testament. In this adaptation of the New Testament, he told many of Jesus’ parables from the standpoint of a Southern preacher. His own faith in Jesus Christ caused him and led him to challenge others to do the same.
He established a community in Georgia based on Christian principles, principles that admittedly did not go down well with the so-called white Christian community of Georgia in the late 1940’s. It was a community that on more than one occasion was firebombed by the Ku Klux Klan.
After one incident with the Klan, Mr. Jordan asked his brother Robert (later a Georgia state senator and justice on the state Supreme Court) to be the community’s attorney. Robert declined, stating that to do so would destroy his political aspiration and that he might lose his job and house and everything for which he had worked.
In challenging Robert to do what was right rather than what was the expedient thing, Clarence Jordan reminded his brother of that day when they were both boys and they had come to the altar of their church to accept Christ and become members of the church. In response Robert Jordan said that he followed Jesus up to a point, to that point just before the cross but certainly not on the cross.
Clarence responded by saying that his brother was no disciple, an admirer of Jesus but not a disciple. He even suggested that his brother should go back to that church and tell the congregation that he wasn’t a disciple of Christ but rather a good admirer of the man.
Robert Jordan replied to his brother’s challenge by saying that if he did just that there wouldn’t be a church. And that is when Clarence asked his brother if he did indeed have a church. Later, Robert saw the light and became a true disciple, dedicated to the work of Christ in the world.
We have been a great gift. You can almost hear Paul shouting as he wrote those words in Galatians that the gift we have been given frees us in this world of sin and death. And you can sense what Isaiah must have felt when he completed writing those words that we read today:
“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.” (Isaiah 62: 1)
There is a challenge before us. That is why I made the questionnaires that came with the bulletin today. Take this questionnaire home, think and pray about it but do answer it. This is for all the members of the church, not just a select few. As we read in the Psalter this morning, “Young men and women, old and young together!”
You are a part of this church and a part of its future; without your input, that future becomes a little less clear. There is a deadline of January 12th, two weeks away. This will give us time to look at the responses and see what the future for this church is. As this year ends and the New Year begins we must begin thinking about what it will bring.
You may choose not to fill it out, you may feel that you cannot offer anything but I want you to stop and think about what you think you are. Are you an admirer of Jesus or simply a disciple? We have received a great gift but now I ask you what you are going to do it?
Here is a copy of the questionnaire that I mentioned in the message. Unfortunately, some six years after the the questionnaire and the attempt to revitalize the church, it only meets once a month on a Sunday afternoon.
Where do you see Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church in
1) One year?
2) Five years?
3) Ten years?
What one thing needs to be done now to meet the goal of
4) One year?
5) Five years?
6) Ten years?
7) How will you be involved in meeting these goals?