Dec 25 - The Gift
Dec 24 - God's Love Changes Everything
Dec 18 - Lonely?
Dec 18 - Getting Ready
Dec 11 - The Desert Shall Bloom
Dec 4 - A Spirited Shoot
Nov 27 - Comin' Round the Mountain
Nov 20 - Power on parade
Nov 13 - Warnings and Love
Nov 6 - Saints Among Us
Oct 30 - Reformation in Catechesis
Oct 23 - The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Oct 9 - Continuing Thanks
Oct 8 - The Cord of Three
Oct 2 - Tools for God’s Work
Sep 25 - Rich?
Sep 23 - With a Word and a Song
Sep 18 - To Grace How Great a Debtor
Sep 11 - See the Gifts and Use Them Well
Sep 4 - Hear a Hard Word from Jesus
Aug 28 - Who is worthy?
Aug 21 - Just a Cripple?
Aug 14 - Not an Easy life with Christ
Aug 6 - By Faith
Jul 31 - You can't take it with you
Jul 25 - Companions
Jul 24 - Our Father
Jul 18 - Hospitality
Jul 17 - Priorities
Jul 11 - Giving
Jul 10 - Giving and receiving mercy
Jul 3 - Go!
Jun 26 - With urgency!
Jun 19 - Adopted
Jun 12 - A Tale of Two Sinners
Jun 5 - The Laughter of Surprise
May 29 - By Whose Authority?
May 22 - Why are we here?
May 15 - The Spirit Helps Us
May 8 - Free or Bound?
May 1 - Let All the People Praise You
Apr 24 - A New Thing
Apr 17 - A Great Multitude
Apr 10 - Transformed
Apr 3 - Here and There
Mar 27 - The Hour
Mar 26 - Dark yet?
Mar 25 - The Long Defeat?
Mar 25 - Appearances
Mar 24 - Is it I?
Mar 20 - Bridging the Distance
Mar 13 - What is important
Mar 6 - What did he say?
Feb 28 - Pantocrator
Feb 24 - Singing the Catechism: the Creeds
Feb 14 - Available to All
Feb 12 - Home
Feb 7 - Befuddled, and that is OK
Jan 31 - That We May Speak
Jan 24 - The Power of the Word
Jan 17 - Surprised by the Spirit
Jan 10 - Exiles
The Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Day - December 25, 2016
Remember that present...you remember the one... that ugly one, the useless, one, the one which you didn't know quite how to handle.
For Donna and me it was a lamp, not quite as large as a “leg” lamp, but even more ugly than the one from the Christmas movie.
It was made from a thin animal hide, sort of translucent, and painted with an oriental red and green design.
It was around for years. Once in a while we would get it out and think well maybe we could use it here or there, but no, it is just too ugly.
I think we finally got rid of it when we moved from Harrisburg.
It was a present that we didn't want and couldn't use, and we found it just annoying.
It was not wanted and not useful.
When I was a boy, things were very tight financially at home.
I would spend hours looking at the big Sears catalogue, but knowing that absolutely none of those wonderful toys were going to show up on Christmas morning.
What would be there under the tree would be a nice new plaid flannel shirt and blue jeans.
We have a school picture of me in one of those plaid flannel shirts, practical and needed for walking to school on cold winter mornings, but not particularly wanted.
It was not wanted, but useful.
Then there was that present that we thought we wanted...we all remember that kind of present, too...the one about which we dreamed and hinted and waited, until it actually came.
It was like the “secret decoder ring” from the Christmas movie; wanted so badly, but when it arrived it turned out to be far less than we expected.
It was wanted but not useful.
C.S. Lewis, the man who wrote the wonderful Narnia books and much else, once wrote a grumpy essay about Christmas gifts.
He was complaining about the unsolicited gifts that come from someone just when we think that we are done with buying gifts and cards.
Then there is the guilt about having to go out and buy a reciprocating gift; a not very subtle form of extortion, Lewis writes.
An unexpected gift, not wanted and its usefulness uncertain.
So what is the point of getting such a gift?
Should they be outlawed, as Lewis grumpily writes?
Maybe the unexpected gift is closer to the real point of this day than we usually think.
Hear again the Gospel: Do not be afraid; for see—I bring you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
God kept trying, with every means at his disposal, to get through to us:
--the covenant with Abraham and Sarah,
--the promises continued through the patriarchs,
--the poetry of the prophets as we heard throughout the Advent season,
--the praise of the Psalms.
When none of this worked, he gave us his Son.
Over the centuries, thousands had begged God in prayer for a sign, but none of them asked for the Son, “the reflection of the Father's glory and the exact imprint of his very being.[Heb.1:3]
The angel said This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in hands of cloth and lying in a manger.[Lk2:12]
A sign of what?
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. [John 1:14]
And we know that the meaning of that good church-word grace is “gift.”
Jesus is full of grace, that is, he is God's full gift to us.
The problem is that it is a gift we don't want.
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. [John 1:11]
Who was asking for this much God, God all bundled up in one person, God in a way that cannot be evaded, God in front of us, face-to-face, in the flesh, unavoidable, speaking words simple and direct, pointing a way not easy of evade?
“God help us,” we cry, but when he send us Jesus, we do not receive him, keeping him at arm's length.
And yet, to those who have the courage or imagination to receive this unmerited, unsolicited gift, he gave power to become the children of God.[John 1:12]
To those who are willing to receive a gift we think that we do not want, from the God whom we know dimly, he gives more than we ever imagine.
This gift lives up to its publicity, not like the plastic gadgets and toys that break after a single use.
This gift, this Jesus, the one we think we really don't want, turns out to be the most wonderful gift , and the gift of greatest use for us.
There was a dear lady in the Catawissa parish who had a pile of troubles.
She was of advanced age; she had been widowed for decades; she lived with ...shall we say...a demanding sister; and she knew she had an inoperable aneurysm, a bulge in a blood vessel that could break at any moment and bring immediate death.
But upon meeting her, one would not sense any of these things.
She was involved in every activity and event in the parish; she was always at worship; whenever I announced a van trip for learning or a service project or fun, she was the first to sign up; she had jokes to tell and life to live.
None of this took away the troubles and burdens of her life, but those troubles all rested lightly on her because she knew the gift she had received and was continuing to receive, the gift that helped her to make sense of life and live it to the fullest, the gift of the Lord Jesus and his promise to hold onto her in every twist and turn of living.
[Ironically, when she did die, years after I left that parish, it was not because of that long-lasting aneurysm but another cause entirely.]
Which kind of gift is it that we receive this day?
Will we judge it to be one not wanted and not useful?
Or, is it one not wanted, but useful?
Or, is it wanted but not useful?
Or, is it an unexpected gift, not wanted and its usefulness uncertain?
Fortunately, we don't have to do all of that analysis and calculation; we can simply recognize that a gift is offered to us and we are invited to receive it gladly, open it and revel in it.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth...God's full gift to us.
Fashions come and go, situations change, but the Good News is consistent.
I went back in the files and looked at the first sermon we had together in April of 1996.
[Yes, of course I have them all.]
It's title was “Surprise!”, about how Jesus surprises us, from Bethlehem birth, through cross and resurrection, through opening the hearts and minds of the pair on the road to Emmaus, through the Pentecost event, to us as we gather at Holy Communion and then share what we have heard and seen.
We do those ancient things which Jesus did and asks us to do, to take, bless, break, and share bread and cup and Surprise!...Jesus is no longer an interesting historic figure, but the living Lord among us.
The most we can do is recognize the gift of his presence here and to elbow our neighbors invite them to “Come and see Jesus.”
What happens when we do so is always a intriguing surprise.
That new life begins with the gift of a bath in Jesus' name.
There was that baptism 23 years ago when signals got crossed with the altar guild, and the ewer, the baptismal water-pitcher, was filled with cold water.
I didn't discover it until it was time to use the water...so we went ahead.
That day the child turned completely around in my arms, as if to say “Hey man, what are you doing?”
So now I end this sermon with the same words with which I ended that first sermon
nearly 21 years ago:
“What does God have in mind for you and for me?
As we hear and read, baptize, take, bless, break, and share, it will be opened to us,
and it will be the gift of a wonderful surprise, Jesus promises, a surprise which leads to life indeed.”
Let all the people say Amen.
Please note: The preceding sermon is provided as a resource for the thought, prayer, and meditation of the members and friends of St. Mark's. It is the residue of a verbal event, and thus it does not have academic footnotes and other details that would be expected in a written document. The writer gladly acknowledges the prior thought and work of many Christians before him.