By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 2:1-16
There is a TV commercial for a medication to treat Psoriasis. It begins with headshots of people. We hear them say, “See Me” as the words appear on the screen superimposed over their faces. Four people, male and female, of varying ethnicity, say, “See me,” “see me,” “don’t stare at me,” “see me.”[i]
As human creatures we long to be seen; not objectified; not viewed in a condescending fashion; we simply want to be seen as people worthy of compassion and kindness.
This year, during the Advent and Christmas season, along with biblical stories, we are also looking at the Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol. Though not categorized as a “religious book,” Dickens’ story has many themes and elements that connect to our sacred story of the birth of Jesus. Last Sunday, I spoke about Scrooge being visited by the Spirit of Christmas Past.
Today we look at the Spirit of Christmas Present and we are compelled to consider that there is something more; something of greater value to be seen than holiday gift wrap, colored lights, bright ribbons and newspaper ads for 20% off.
The Spirit introduces himself to Scrooge saying, “I am the Ghost of Christmas Present. Look upon me!”[ii] Scrooge does look; but he does not initially see what is hidden within the folds of the Spirit’s robe.
Retired Methodist Bishop, Will Willimon, writes of our Christmas charity: “everyone, even the nominally religious, loves Christmas. Christmas is a season to celebrate our alleged generosity… We love Christmas because… Christmas brings out the best in us.”[iii] In other words, our celebration of Christmas does a good job of making us feel good about ourselves. It is easy to drop our change in those red kettles and go merrily on our way.
But Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus does nothing to indulge our desire to feel good. Some of you are already aware that we have spliced and comingled the gospel stories by placing shepherds and magi side by side in our nativity scenes. But the Gospel of the Crèche is not the Gospel of Matthew for in Matthew’s version of the story, it is not the shepherds and magi that go together; it is the magi and Herod; the worship and the slaughter; the mystery and the madness; the devotion and the destruction. According to Matthew, the magi and Herod’s slaughter of the infants are one seamless story; they belong, sadly, together.
According to Matthew, the message of Jesus’ birth is delivered via a star to some very unlikely recipients: magi. They are foreigners (likely of Babylonian or Persian descent) who study the stars. It is their careful looking that will allow them to see the Savior of the nations.
In ancient times, it was believed that the birth, or death, of a mighty leader would be “heralded” by some sort of unusual astrological phenomenon. So when this very distinctive star is observed by the magi, they want to follow it, believing it heralds the birth of a mighty ruler. We can infer from the story that, at some point, the star’s appearance or position was no longer clear and so these magi, uncertain of their next step, assume that this new ruler would be found in a palace. They go to Jerusalem, to the palace of Herod, King of the Jews and the inquiry they make leaves Herod and those around him quite unsettled.
A friend of mine had an interesting experience a few years back. She was working in a medical office that had a lot of drama and a lot of employee turnover. One day at lunch with some friends, one pointed out a job listing in the local paper. My friend read it and said, “That sounds like my job.” There were some nervous chuckles. Sure enough, at the end of the day, my friend got the pink slip.
Herod is none too happy about the magi’s inquiry as to the birthplace of this “king of the Jews.” There’s only one position open for that job and he has no intention of retiring anytime soon. Herod inquires of the religious authorities as to the possible birthplace of this child. Pouring over scripture, their best guess is Bethlehem. So Herod hatches a plot. He lies to the magi; he requests that, once they find this child, would they please return and give him a full report so he can go and worship the child as well. But, Herod’s intention is to dispatch these magi on a reconnaissance mission to seek out the enemy so Herod might go out and destroy him.
The magi go on their way with the star once again guiding their steps to the home of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. Once there, the magi kneel before this little child just as one would appropriately kneel before a mighty ruler. They pay him homage; they assume a posture of service and submission. Then, they honor him by offering gifts.
Now somewhere between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, these magi had a dream and these guys are great at dream analysis; I mean; analyzing dreams and stars, well that was their job. The dream advised they NOT return to Herod.
So they head home by another route and when time passes and Herod realizes they’ve tricked him and given him the slip, he is enraged. He will not be made a fool of. He sends his troops to put to death any child who could, potentially, be this so called “king of the Jews.” It is a dreadful story; but, like it or not, it is a part of the story of the birth of Jesus. It was Jesus’ birth that not only elicited worship and generosity from the magi; it was Jesus’ birth that inspired Herod’s ruthless massacre.
And friends, that is how life in this world is. We may wish it otherwise, especially at Christmastime. But we gain nothing by burying our heads in the sand and pretending the evil and suffering is not there. Christmas isn’t a time to pretend that all is right with the world because it’s not. You may consider talk of sorrow and suffering offensive or disruptive in this season of joy; but the truth is that Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth has always placed joy and sorrow, rejoicing and suffering, even life and death side by side.
Still, this morning’s story is just the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, just the beginning of the story of this child who will grow to be a man who will teach his followers that he is to be seen, he is to be recognized, in every man, woman and child who suffers.
In chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel, he will teach a story that we often refer to as the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats.[iv] It is a story of the judgment of all people at the end of time and it is not only a judgment about what we’ve done or not done; it is first and foremost a judgment about what we have seen or overlooked. Jesus, in the parable, proclaims that as we feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, cloth the naked, bring healing to the sick, and visit the condemned; we have done these very things to him. Those who have failed to act are shocked. They ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison?”[v] When was it that we saw you? When was it that we saw you? Jesus replies: “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”[vi]
Catholic priest Richard Rohr says that he often begins his classes on contemplation by repeating the same sentence twice: “Most people do not see things as they are because they see things as they are.”[vii] [repeat]
Friends: if, in this holy season, we intend to truly seek and worship and offer our best to the Christ child, we must begin by seeking out and honoring and offering the best of ourselves to those who are in need.
Esteemed preacher Thomas Troeger points out something interesting in the story of the magi.[viii] He reminds us that they do not offer their gifts until after they have worshiped and paid homage to the holy child. The giving of their gifts is preceded by the offering of themselves and friends it can be no different for us. Before we give, we must see; we must look upon our Lord in “the least of these;” the hungry and naked and sick and condemned.
One of my favorite movies is “The Fisher King.” In one scene, Jack is dialoguing with a well-chair bound Vietnam Veteran who is holding out a cup to collect donations. One passerby tosses coins in his general direction. They miss the cup; falling to the floor, the veteran can’t even reach them. Jack comments, “He didn’t even look at you” and the vet replies, “He’s payin’ so he don’t have to look.”[ix]
Friends, we do have to look. It is not enough to toss in a donation here and there. We must look; we must offer our presence and attention before we offer our charity. We must see; not just a cup or a red kettle. We must look upon the person before us and see in them our Lord and Savior.
Two of the most exciting opportunities to serve here at Trinity, I think, are Family Promise and Jubilee Christmas. They directly connect us to people. We just wrapped up a week of hosting Family Promise. The meals times, especially, are a chance to sit and talk; to hear people’s stories and get to know them. Likewise, Jubilee Christmas this Saturday provides the opportunity to truly be with people. I hope as Trinity Church that, as we move into the future together, we’ll continue to identify and respond to opportunities not only to give to those in need but to truly look upon them and see them and see Jesus in them.
In Dickens’ Carol, after they have journeyed together through the night, at long last it would seem Scrooge does finally look upon the Spirit and truly see him and, when he does, he notices something tucked within the folds of his robe. The Spirit instructs Scrooge, “O Man, look down here” and Scrooge beholds two children described as “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous and miserable.” The Spirit pronounces their names: Ignorance and Want.[x]
They are Man’s children; our children and we are called, not by the Spirit of Christmas Present, but by our Savior always present with us, to recognize him in the “least of these.” We are called to see and to serve because the advent, the coming of Jesus, was God’s blessing for all and when we respond to the call of God’s Spirit, God’s blesses us, everyone.
[i] You Tube posting of the TV commercial “See Me” for Cosentyx.
[ii] Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: With a Four-Week Bible Study for Advent by Travis J. Scholl, Creative Communications for the Parish, 2004. P. 59.
[iii] Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas; Ploughe Publishing House; 2001; reading for Dec. 14.
[iv] See Matthew 25:31-46.
[v] Matthew 25:44. NRSV.
[vi] Matthew 25:45. NRSV.
[vii] Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation. December 2, 2016.
[viii] Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1. Westminster John Knox Press. 2010. P. 217.
[ix] The Fisher King (1991). Quote from the Internet Movie Data Base
[x] Charles Dickens’ a Christmas Carol: With a Four-Week Bible Study for Advent. Pp. 78-79.
The Hopes and Fears of All the Years
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Isaiah 9:2, 6-7; Luke 2:8-14
This year, in the Advent and Christmas season, in addition to the traditional biblical texts, we’ll also be looking at the fictional story “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. Now, you might think it an odd choice. But, prior to the publication of Dickens’ classic work, the celebration of Christmas was a very somber event; not at all the joyous, festive occasion we have come to know and love today. If you think our modern quandary regarding the commercialization of Christmas versus Jesus as the reason for the season is a new controversy, you would be mistaken. Much of what we struggle with today was a challenge in Dickens’ context as well. Can Christmas joy be experienced by the humble, poor and weak or is it the sole property of those who try to purchase Christmas just as they would any other novelty item? How do we focus attention on the true gifts of Christmas (hope, love, joy and peace); gifts given by the Christ Child and not available on Amazon? How do we condemn the message of marketing: that joy can be found in a brand new Lexus in the driveway? What does a “December to Remember” really mean?
These are important questions to wrestle with and I’ll tell you why: because Christmas is anything but joyful for many people. A few years back I was visiting with a church member who was terminally ill. When people are terminally ill, they will share with you the things they’d ordinarily keep to themselves. The woman’s daughter, Sarah, who lived several states away, had recently gone through a painful divorce. Each time the two of them spoke by phone, she heard the sorrow and loneliness in her daughter’s voice and so she encouraged her daughter, frankly pleaded with Sarah: “Please, go to church on Christmas Eve. Don’t stay home. It will be good to be with people. You’ll feel better if you go to church.” A couple years later, I attended a Christmas Eve service. An elderly couple in the congregation was celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary that day. That is, without a doubt, a wonderful thing. But I listened with horror when the pastor during the service announced their anniversary and commended their commitment to honor their marriage covenant for 50 years. He encouraged all of us to applaud; but all I could think about was Sarah. I had no doubt that, in that sanctuary, were others like Sarah: men and women whose marriages had ended despite their most valiant efforts; men and women who’d mustered up their courage to come to worship alone that night because they trusted it would make them feel better.
So you see; how we talk about this season does matter. How we define love and joy and hope and peace matters. And we limit – in fact we prevent people from celebrating this season if we are unwilling to acknowledge the pain and suffering in our world and our personal past heartbreaks. Advent is a season of preparation and it matters how we prepare to celebrate the remembrance of our Savior’s birth. There’s nothing wrong – in fact there’s everything right – about acknowledging our deepest hopes and our fears because the light of the world has entered into our darkness to address those hopes and fears.
“Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Our past is not something to be ignored, suppressed or condemned because our past exercises great power over our present. That is what the Spirit of Christmas Past reveals to Scrooge. In the case of Scrooge, his childhood had been filled with rejection and loneliness. Yet when the Spirit leads him quickly through his past decades, he is also able to see moments of great joy. He must face his past – the joys and the heartbreaks – if he is to live fully in the present. He must acknowledge the nature of his past relationships if he is to embrace new, healthy relationships. Because the hopes and longings we carry with us have taken shape in response to our past; they are the fruit of our past experiences.
So, what is it that you long for most this season? I’m not asking what’s on your Christmas list or that silly proverbial question about what you would do if you had a million dollars. I’m asking about your hopes, your desires, your deepest longings.
This morning’s two scripture readings are both birth announcements. In the case of Isaiah, it is the proclamation of a king who will restore the fortunes of Israel; a king descended from the great King David. That new king, though only a child, represents salvation for God’s people. Even as a child, he is deemed a wonderful counselor, a mighty God, an everlasting Father, a prince of peace. As Christians, we have come to interpret that Isaiah scripture as prophecy about Jesus. But the Israelite kings were also called sons of God and viewed as a father to their nation. In Isaiah’s time, the people of Israel are threatened by strong nations all around them, seeking to exploit them and overpower them. Sadly, their eventual destruction will be the result of betting on the wrong horse; of making alliances with nations that are not to be trusted. Only God is worthy of our trust. Only God has the capacity to reclaim us and to redeem us from our past sorrows and suffering. Perhaps at Christmas – more than any other time of the year – people try to hide their pain by purchasing expensive gifts, by lots of dinner parties, fancy dressing and decorating. But none of those things can soothe our deep seated sorrows or our distant regrets. Only a child can do that. Only a child can bring light into the darkness of our lives. Only a child can dispel the regrets and fears of all the years. Only a child can fulfill our deepest hopes and longings.
And so the announcement of Jesus’ birth comes to those shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. Shepherds had a rough life. Their work was hard; they were disdained and viewed suspiciously by the wider culture. I doubt there was much joy in their line of work. Yet the angel chooses the likes of them to be recipients of this birth announcement. The angel says, “To you is born this day…”; not to the wealthy folks, the politically powerful, the religious professionals, even the everyday Jewish Joe. Nope; it’s these shepherds who receive this remarkable birth announcement: this baby is born for them; this baby will be their Savior.
You see, good news doesn’t belong to the ones who’ve got it all together and got it made; this kind of good news doesn’t give a hoot about a Lexus in the driveway. This is good news for those who need it most: the poor, the struggling, the lonely, the despairing and the grieving ones. This birth announcement is good news for those who need it most. A baby, a vulnerable infant, swaddled in clothes and nestled in hay, will be the one to change the world and to bring hope and joy and peace out of the very worst of circumstances. He brings light to the darkest places in our world and in our lives.
In Dickens’ classic, the Spirit of Christmas Past shines the light on Scrooge’s life. It is hard for Scrooge to watch; tough for him to process. Perhaps it would be easier if he didn’t look. He tries to snuff out the Spirit’s light; but it’s impossible. Even when he pushes its extinguisher cap down as far as it will go, light still shines forth because, as John’s gospel reminds us, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”[i]
Friends, the word Advent means “coming.” It is a season that prepares us to remember and celebrate Jesus’ birth. It is a season that reminds us that Jesus will come again. It is a season that reminds us that the Spirit of Jesus is still with us. He came to us not as a mighty general commanding troops. He came to us as a poor and vulnerable baby born to peasants and his coming is good news for those who need it most. This is the season to prepare your heart to celebrate his coming by considering your past; by acknowledging your heartbreaks; by accepting that you, too, are often vulnerable. This is the season to name and face your fears. This is the season to reach deep into your soul to identify your deepest hopes and longings. This is the season when the winter solstice will graphically remind us of an entirely different and enduring light source. This is the season to affirm your faith that whether in the dark streets of Bethlehem or Lafayette, shineth the everlasting light and that the hopes and fears of all the years are met in a child named Jesus.
Friends; in the midst of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday, we know the truth that God’s blessings are not a commodity for the fortunate, favored few for God’s blessings came wrapped up in the vulnerable flesh of a baby. And in that child, God has blessed us… everyone.
[i] John 1:5
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