Sunday, December 30, 2007

Faith According to the Calendar

Faith According to the Calendar
Matthew 2:13 – 23

Now I’m not sure if the message this morning is going to rub the wrong way with some people because it sounds cliché, or if people are going to throw insults my way because I’m going to say that our work of Christmas is not over?

I mean, I know that Christmas really is a lot of work, and so if I suggest that it’s not over, I guess I’m just glad I’m still a student minister and that I can blame it all on not knowing any better. Maybe then you will forgive me for suggesting that this crazy holiday season is not over, that there is more to be done, and that there are more tasks to be completed.

I also fear that this message may not reach some, because it has become cliché. It has become cliché to remind people that we should keep the Christmas spirit all year long. It has become something we write in our Christmas letters, or that Hallmark writes on their Christmas cards, and we generally mean it, be we rarely think about that prospect past…oh probably January 3rd? We live in a world of Wal-marts and Targets where the day after Christmas we sell off Christmas at half-off, and for buy one get one free, and where as soon as the stores open up, despite the mad rush to make all the after-Christmas sales, we are also asked to look forward to the next commercial holiday and start thinking about Valentine’s Day, complete with end caps and special displays offering candy and miniature hearts. As we sit in our living rooms full of green bean casserole and the weird Jell-O thing that our second-cousins brought this year, we watch commercials on TV that remind us we have to start thinking about New Years, we have to start thinking about our New Year’s resolutions to start working out and eating right. Even the church this year, Lent and Easter are very early this year, and the church is asking you to think about Lenten Bible Studies and 40 days of discipline as we prepare for Easter morning.

Is it all just too much to take in? In that sense, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we keep celebrating Christmas. In that sense, you should be thanking me that I’m asking you to stay with Christmas and celebrate, rather than moving on to all that faces us in the new year.

We almost have to say something in that manner, something, that keeps Christmas around a little longer, that keeps the spirit of Christmas at least for a few more days. Don’t we? We’ve all been waiting and expecting and preparing during the season of Advent, putting in order, arranging and getting ready for Christmas day and then it happens and we wonder where it went. We make plans and drive hundreds of miles, prepare food for what seems like days, and then its all over, in a matter of hours. Depending on the children in your house, presents may be opened, and Christmas may be over in a matter of 2 minutes and 27 seconds, complete with the wonder of where the additional presents are that need to be opened, because these on the floor just didn’t last long enough.

As many of you know, I was able to travel to Kansas City Christmas this year, and I spent a lot of time with my 5 year old niece and my 3 year old nephew. And part of me wondered the same thing when my nephew Charlie sat on my lap and asked, “is it over? Are we all done?”

Someone once compared Christmas to skydiving. After I heard this comparison, I thought back to my own experience sky-diving and even got out my pictures as I reminisced. Now once you get over the fear that you are jumping out of a perfectly good airplane, and falling thousands of feet to the ground with a backpack that is intended to save your life and make it all better…Christmas really is like that sense of freedom you feel when you jump out of the airplane & are free-falling through the air. You feel the wind on your face & you can see the beauty of God’s world – seemingly the entire world. You can in fact see the curvature of the earth when you are up that high – it is an absolute beautiful sight.

But just a few 45 seconds later, after the brief 45 second free-fall you are reminded that the earth is rushing toward you, so you pull the ripcord. Your parachute jerks open and it’s over. Soon you hit the ground, most likely without much grace or poise, with a jolt that possibly makes you tumble all the way to the ground. For a few brief moments you felt a wonderful exhilaration & then "plop." You are on the ground, facing reality once again, back to the realities of everyday life.

If this is what happens with Christmas – then someone needs to remind us to keep Christmas in our hearts all year long. Someone needs to remind us that Christmas does not have to end with a jolt that brings us back to reality. We need to remember that reality is in the Christmas we need to hang onto.Just how do we hang on to Christmas? How do we respond faithfully to God’s desire for us to continue these feelings and proverbs of “Peace on Earth, Good will to All?” Especially in our world where war continues, poverty groans, hatred runs rampant, and it seems like struggle defines us, how do we respond faithfully to this message of Christmas and Christ’s coming?

I’m convinced that we are ideally supposed to respond to these things the way Joseph appears to have responded in Matthew. We read that after the hoop-la of Jesus’ birth, and angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream instructing him to ‘get up and take his newborn child, and his recovering wife, and flee to Egypt, where he knows no one, and simply wait for the Lord to tell him what to do next.’ Scripture says, “Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt. “ Now granted, I haven’t taken my New Testament studies class just yet, so I haven’t studied this explicitly, but something tells me, we have the abridged version of this story. That an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph, and after telling him he should still care for his pregnant fiancé, who society has probably looked down upon, for being a pregnant, unwed, teenager, and in whom he has to regain his trust after she tells him that God is the one who has made her pregnant, this angel now tells him to take his family to unknown lands for an undetermined amount of time, and that Joseph obeys with one stroke of the pen, saying “Then Joseph got up…” I think they took out the part where Joseph said, “this is enough. You know, I’ve listened to your crazy idea that I should trust my fiancé that she has is carrying the son of God, I’ve traveled to Bethlehem with a 9 month pregnant wife, I’ve delivered a baby in a barn, I’ve let strange shepherds come see my son, and I’ve been greeted by strangers who claim to be kings bringing gifts to pay respect to the king that I call my son. And now you want me to do what?” I think we missed that part of the story.

“I’ve been planning for Christmas since Halloween ended, I’ve been to the mall 137 times, I’ve written 276 Christmas cards and addressed and licked all their envelopes, I’ve worked extra hours to pay for the gifts, I’ve cleaned my house from top to bottom, I’ve made 17 pies to feed the 76 members of my extended family that will came to my house, I’ve gone to Christmas Eve service, lit Advent Candles and sang ‘Silent Night,’ I’ve woken up at 5:30am to open gifts from Santa, put together 1,692 toy pieces by reading an instruction manual that came in every language EXCEPT English, washed 238 dishes, rang the bell for the Salvation Army, directed a Christmas Pageant, bought gifts for the Angel Tree, donated to the “Toys for Tots” drive, made cookies for shut ins, and now you want me to keep “Christmas” with me throughout the rest of the year?

A preacher’s family started to put up a nativity scene in their front yard. All of them were carrying out the little statues to put in their nativity scene and finally everything was in place – Mary, Joseph and the manger and the baby, the angels and shepherds and all the barnyard animals. Then their youngest son came out of the house carrying one of his favorite toys, the figure of the fierce Tyrannosaurus Rex, king of the dinosaurs. It was one of those plastic figures that you inflate, & in comparison to the other figures it was an enormous thing, towering over them all, apart from the obvious fact that it had no place in a nativity scene.

The Dad said to his son, "You have to take that back inside the house because it doesn’t belong there. Dinosaurs existed thousands of millions of years before the baby Jesus, & it just doesn’t belong in a nativity scene.’"But his son insisted, so they finally put it there behind all the other figures - a fierce dinosaur hovering over the Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus.

The preacher said, "As we stood back & looked at it, we realized that maybe that dinosaur says more than we realized. For over each of us there is this menacing character that threatens to rob us of all our joy & peace & cheer." "But Christmas reminds us that the baby in the manger is stronger than all the dinosaurs in our lives."
The baby in the manger is stronger than the dinosaurs that tell us to forget about Christmas and start on the next holiday.

The baby in the manger is stronger than the dinosaurs that tell us Christmas is the only time when we should pray for peace.

The baby in the manger is stronger than the dinosaurs that tell us we only need to be religious during the big holidays like Christmas and Easter.

The baby in the manger is stronger than the dinosaurs who steal our Christmas spirit away because of grief, depression, stress, or loss.

The baby in the manger is stronger than the dinosaurs that force Christ’s family to flee to safety because of political unrest brought by news of a new king.

The baby in the manger is stronger than the dinosaur of uncertainty which we face in our lives as we try to keep Christmas with us into the future.

The baby in the manger is stronger than the dinosaurs which threaten the hope in our Christmas story.

The baby in the manger is stronger than the calendar which tells us Christmas is over.

Christmas is not over. And dare I say the work of Christmas is not over. Christmas has just started.

Howard Thurman wrote, “When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, then the real work of Christmas begins.” [Personal emphasis added]

To find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to visit the imprisoned, to forgive a neighbor, to listen to an enemy, to affirm an individual, to rebuild a nation, to bring peace among brothers and sisters – this is the real work of Christmas. And the list could go on forever.

We’ll take down our Christmas tree and put the decorations back in storage for another year. All the presents have been unwrapped, and the suspense of Advent and Christmas morning have ended. But may we listen to the lingering of Christmas. May we listen to the call to respond faithfully, as Joseph did, to the Christmas story. May we remember that the hope and peace, the love and joy, provided in the babe in the manger, are stronger than any of our dinosaurs which threaten to end Christmas according to the calendar.

Laura Phillips
Woodland Christian Church
Lexington, Kentucky
December 30, 2007

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