First Reading: Isaiah 7:10-16
10The Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. 15He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”
Psalm: Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock;
shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim.
2In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, | and Manasseh,
stir up your strength and come to help us.
3Restore us, O God;
let your face shine upon us, and we | shall be saved.
4O Lord| God of hosts,
how long will your anger fume when your people pray?
5You have fed them with the bread of tears;
you have given them bowls of tears to drink.
6You have made us the derision of our neighbors,
and our enemies laugh us to scorn.
7Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine upon us, and we shall be saved.
17Let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
the one you have made so strong for yourself.
18And so will we never turn away from you;
give us life, that we may call upon your name.
19Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
let your face shine upon us, and we shall be saved.
Second Reading: Romans 1:1-7
1Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
7To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Gospel: Matthew 2:1-2, 10-11
2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.
10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Share with your neighbor what your favorite Christmas drink is. Does it come in a paper cup, mug, or china cup and saucer?
Let us pray. Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Rock, my Redeemer, my source of hope, peace, joy and love.
SERMON: Love in Presence and Presents
December 25th this year falls on a Sunday. The Christmas Sunday text is the Luke report on the good news to the shepherds. God includes the poor and marginal in the Advent themes of Hope, Peace, Joy and now Love. The next Sunday, January 1, New Year’s Day is when culture focuses on the different bowls of sports entertainment, and our text will focus on the naming of Jesus. An important part of our Nativity scenes is skipped over. The Matthew report of the Christmas story includes the wise men. Epiphany, January 6, celebrates the arrival of the wise men from the East or from afar. Their arrival moves the Christmas story from Bethlehem to a story important to the foreigner, the non-Jews, and us.
Scholars debate if the wise men or magi came at the actual birth or later. King Herod killed children under age 2. Perhaps there were more than three men but there were three gifts. Perhaps they were from east of Jerusalem but not the Far East. Probably they were astrologers or ambassadors from other regions. So many perhaps-es that we will leave to theologians to discuss because our banner for today and our theme for the fourth Sunday in Advent is LOVE.
Love is not dependent on calendars, stars, titles, or ethnicities. I want us to focus today on the LOVE that is found in presence, just showing up and being there for another, and in presents, the gifts that come with our arrival. The arrival of the wise men expands the Christmas story beyond the genealogy that gives us hope, beyond peace found in the midst of problems and politics, and beyond the joy of knowing God is in our story. The love of God is bigger than December 25 and a manger. The birth of Christ speaks to a universal love of the Creator for his creation.
The word “love” has been so diluted in our world today that I think it best to get a Biblical definition. Let’s use these verses to ground our thinking and not Hollywood.
“18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:18-19)”
We have been tracking the Matthew report of Christmas as seen through Joseph and the wise men alongside “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the struggle between George Bailey and Mr. Potter. We ended last week watching George Bailey, after seeing what life might have been like had he not been born, returning to the bridge where he had contemplated suicide but this time praying, “God, I want to live!” His policeman friend drives us and recognizes him and George knows he is alive. He is seen by his friend. George runs home to his family and his fate. There his friends begin to enter, donating money to help replace his misplaced $8,000 but more importantly to express their love for all George has done for them through the years. George’s friend Sam Wainwright wires a message that he is willing to loan George $25,000. George’s brother walks in. George and we are overwhelmed with the gifts of love, hope, peace and joy that overflow. My husband would say, “We are drinking from the saucer because the cup is overflowing.” Love overflows George’s story and gifts us!
Biblical Joseph has obeyed God. He has faced public ridicule, possibly religious sanction, and has taken Mary to be his wife. He has walked from northern Israel, Nazareth, to southern Judah, Jerusalem, by foot with a nine month pregnant Mary. He has been counted by the Romans and has entered the territory of King Herod, a ruthless dictator. Luke says “there was no room in the inn” and so the baby Jesus was born in a stable. Matthew seems to indicate a bit of time has passed as “after Jesus was born” the wise men arrive at “a house.” They too have taken a journey to be in the presence of fulfilled prophecy and to offer gifts. Our nativity scenes almost always include the wise men in the manger scenes that define Christmas. Love overflows the temporal boundaries of our stories, the locations we live in, and the people we associate with. God’s love pours over the cup and we drink from the saucer!
“Where is the child…”
Love seeks presence.
The wise men come to Herod with a question, “Where is the child?” Matthew’s text confronts us with that question. Where is the child, Jesus, for us today? For many Jesus is a historical story of a baby born in a manger. It is so easy to slip from “Silent Night” to “Sleigh Bells Ring” and the blessings of love we would like to be experiencing at Christmas. Santa Claus and presents, Grandma’s cooking, snuggling under blankets in a sleigh ride, and eating good food, deck the hall of our thinking as we gather. But where is the child? Oh yes, we will read the Christmas story, maybe, and probably remember to say a prayer for the food but where is the child? The manger could not hold the child forever anymore than the cup of God’s love can be held but overflows into the saucers of our lives.
The question of “Where?” is a question of presence. The wise men were looking. People are looking. How would you answer the question? Interestingly, Herod sent for his religious scholars and they knew the answer. There was a prophecy. The child was to be born in Bethlehem. The prophetic and historical truth did not impact their lives, though. They did not go with the wise men to find the fulfillment of prophecy. Wow. Herod, on the other hand, was quite interested in the question because it threatened his kingship. He too did not go with the wise men but let them do the dirty work. He sent them to search out, find, and report. It reminds me of the joke about a guy getting to heaven’s gate and being asked about his spiritual journey. Oh, the man says, he let his wife go to church. He let her teach Sundays school and worship. St. Peter tells the man that then he will let her enter heaven. Ouch. It is easy to let our spiritual life drift into second place, assuming God’s love desires nothing from us for after all we are so busy.
So again the text confronts us. Where is the child? Is Jesus an after thought, a special prayer at the Christmas meal? Is he a historical reality to remember at Christmas, Easter and other special days like funerals? Where is the babe in our lives today? Are we letting the religious scholars sort it out for us or are we looking for the living Word in the Written Word? Are we feasting on the testimonies of how others “found Jesus” or are we investing in that relationship ourselves?
George Bailey is given the gift of being able to review his life and the decisions he made, the investments he made with the energy and insight he had. He lost his hearing saving his brother. He invested his honeymoon money protecting others in the bank run. He built affordable living homes for people who could not afford. He has forgotten and lost perspective and his financial crisis calls the question, where is the child in George’s life? As we, the viewers watch the people stream to George’s house with the offerings to help, we know the baby is not in the manger but in our lives today.
Where is the child? Baby Jesus is not in the manger today. We are blessed to know the rest of the New Testament. That baby that was prophesized was blessed by the presence of the wise men and protected from the hate of Herod. The incarnate God grew up, taught, healed, and lived a life that we might drink from the saucer. Love does not stay in the manger but grows past the cross to permeate life and eternity. The wise men did not stay in Jerusalem. They continued following the star to Bethlehem.
“On entering the house..”
Love is Presence
Mr. Potter knew that the misplaced money had ended up in his hands. He knew the truth. But he not only did nothing, he allowed the crisis to continue. The people of Bedford Falls were not only glad to be informed of George Bailey’s problems so they could pray; they streamed over to George’s house because they wanted to be present. The wise men were not content to learn from the scholars and King Herod that the birth was a reality in Bethlehem. They continued their journey to experience the birth for themselves. They wanted to be present and see for themselves the miracle that had come about.
So how do we become present to the presence of the babe in our lives today? May I suggest that like the wise men, we today must make a journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem? Relationship with the babe is not only a mater of being present at church, being baptized, going through confirmation or some mountain top experience. It is a journey that may well face us with decisions about partnering with political powers like Herod. It may take us to foreign countries like the wise men, foreign to our culture anyway. It may mean we search the scriptures like the religious scholars to learn prophecy. But I would suggest the journey is a search for the presence of the babe who is active in our world today.
The wise men left changed from their journey. They did not return to Herod. They returned home to live the truth that the babe of prophecy that will bring peace in our problems, that brings joy to our hearts in meager circumstances, that babe lives. They were drinking from the saucer because their cup of God’s love was over flowing. They were an important part of the Christmas story. God had become present to them.
“Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of
gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
Love overflows the cup into the saucer.
The people of Bedford Falls flow into George Bailey’s living room. Their presence of love brought presents or gifts. None of them were kings but the little they had they shared with a friend in need. They gave not because of taxes but because of love. The wise men journey to Bethlehem and open their chest of gifts. This is not the response to a new tax by Caesar. They were not bringing gifts to be found worthy to enter the king’s presence. These gifts were presents of love. They were drinking from the saucer because their cups were overflowing.
It is possible that the gold acknowledged the kingship of the babe. The frankincense acknowledged the priestly role of the babe and the prayers that would rise to him in the future. The myrrh may have been prophetic for the anointing of this babe for the death he would die for our sins, to bridge the gap between God and his creation. The gifts may have financed the flight to Egypt and all the expenses of the relocation there and then the return to Nazareth. The scriptures don’t really say so we are free to let ideas speak to our hearts. Songs like “The Little Drummer Boy” comes to mind.
The gift of the wise men’s presence is a present to us today. Their presence and their presents expands the love of the Christmas story beyond Joseph and Mary, beyond the stable, beyond shepherds, and beyond Bethlehem to challenge us to thank God for his love that not only overflows the Christmas story to the Cross to the Easter story but keeps overflowing into our lives today.
- “Where is the babe..?” He is not in the manger. He is in your life, faithfully shepherding you, fulfilling the promises to never forsake you and guide you to him as that relationship grows. We are people of HOPE for the babe is not in the manger and was not defeated by Herod.
- “On entering the house..” Love seeks presence that crosses ethnicities, locations, and social barriers. It takes a journey into the unknown that brings PEACE.
- “…opening their treasure-chests…” Presence creates JOY that overflows the cup of blessing and inspires us to give presents.
- The Christmas story is a story of LOVE.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not perish
but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Let the people of God say “Amen!”