Fourth Sunday of Advent 2012 Series: A Different Kind of Christmas Text: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 Listen to it HERE
Happy Birthday Jesus
At the conclusion of the 5:00pm Children and Family Christmas Eve service tomorrow evening, after we have sung “Silent Night” by the light of glow sticks, and I have given the benediction, I will then lead everyone in singing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. I like doing that as a reminder of what we are really celebrating right before the children go home and try to fall asleep quickly so Santa doesn’t skip their house.
This morning, during the Sunday School hour, our children and youth are celebrating their “Birthday Party for Jesus.” This too is a reminder of what we truly celebrate at Christmas. Nancy Fritzsche, our Christian Education Director, has planned a great celebration very much like the many birthday parties the children will attend for their friends throughout the year ahead. There are games, food, a cake with candles, and a time to sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus.
Everything looks and feels like a birthday party. Except for one thing. There aren’t any presents. No one brings gifts to the birthday boy. They don’t gather around him to watch as he opens the gifts that show their love and appreciation for him, his friendship, and the joy of having him in their lives.
Of course, that is a silly thought. Jesus isn’t here in flesh-and-blood to open birthday presents. But the idea gets us thinking about the question before us today. As the book guiding this series reminds us Christmas Is Not Your Birthday, it is Jesus’. So what can we give to Jesus for his birthday? If we want to give Jesus something, what would be on his wish list? Talk about trying to get something for one who already has everything!
Giving gifts is a joy most of the time. It is fun to shop for the people we love, trying to pick out something they would like, but might never get for themselves. Sometimes the giving really is much better than the receiving. I would guess each one of us has at least one person on our list for whom it is much less fun to shop. Sometimes it is because they are picky, but other times it is simply because they already have everything, and you wonder what you could possibly get them – like shopping for your parents. Usually, that means it is time for a gift card. You don’t have to know what they want, just one of the stores they like to shop in.
So what do you get Jesus for his birthday? When we think of expressing our deep gratitude for all he has done for us, we are stumped in what to give him. We don’t have the resources to do something worthy of what we have received, and we have no idea what Jesus might want. The good news is Jesus provided us his a wish list, and it is not something so grand we cannot provide it.
Jesus’ Wish List
Jesus’ wish list is laid out in several places in the Bible. One of my favorites is in Matthew 25 when Jesus tells a story about sheep and the goats. He says when the Son of Man comes in glory, he will separate the nations like a shepherd separating sheep from goats. He will put the sheep on one side and welcome them into the Kingdom of God. The goats will go on the other side and will not be permitted to enter the Kingdom. Explaining the difference between the sheep and the goats, Jesus says to the sheep, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:35-36). The goats, he says, did not do those things. Both groups ask, but when were you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison. Jesus famously replies, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it [or did not do it] to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it [or did not do it] to me” (Matthew 25:40 and 45).
Jesus’ wish list does not sound all that religious or spiritual. Instead Jesus’ wish list is about how we treat the people around us. These aren’t grand God-gestures, but simple ways of caring for the people around us. In this story “Jesus made the meaning of discipleship perfectly clear: you can’t separate your relationship with God from your responsibility for God’s people” (Slaughter 57). Our relationship to God and our relationships with people are intertwined.
Not a Grand Gesture
I was recently summoned by a pink piece of paper to appear for jury duty and spent a couple of days sitting on a jury. This meant I spent Tuesday and Wednesday of that week in Colorado Springs near the courthouse. During the lunch break each day I walked north on Tejon toward the restaurants to get something to eat. On Wednesday, as I waited to cross at one of the corners, I noticed a man standing on one of the walls of a flowerbed on the corner toward which I was walking. He had a sign leaning up against the wall with some scripture on it, I think John 3:16, and I could tell he was “street preaching.”
Knowing I would soon walk by him, I felt my heart-rate rise, as I seem to be one who is always picked out of a crowd to be preached to. But as I stood there, waiting for the Don’t Walk sign to change, I noted he was facing the other way. He was preaching toward the cars. It was a chilly day, so almost everyone’s windows were up, and they were passing by at a pretty good speed. Even those making a left at a couple of miles per hour would be lucky to hear one sentence at most. Surely, I thought, this was not a very effective way of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the city of Colorado Springs.
Behind the street preacher, there were about a dozen people waiting to cross toward me. I wondered why the man didn’t turn around and address those people, look them in the eye, and offer the love of Jesus to them. I also thought about the homeless and other impoverished people who gather downtown, and how he might reach out to them with the love of Jesus – maybe offering a meal, some clothing, and the hope of Christ.
I don’t mean to sound judgmental. God may very well have called this man to do exactly what he was doing. And God may have used his preaching to warm the heart of someone who overheard him. But I have to wonder if this wasn’t more about the preacher than the people. Was this man trying to do the grand, spiritual gesture for Jesus rather than the thing that is on Jesus’ wish list: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, and visiting the prisoner – which especially struck me while on jury duty.
Maybe this convicted me because I see myself in that street preacher. I have to ask myself: Is what I do here at Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church more about me than the people Jesus loves?” Am I trying to perform the grand, religious gesture rather than the work of God, which Isaiah outlined in our reading for this morning as, “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:1-2a)? Maybe I have tried to separate my relationship with God from my responsibility for God’s people (Slaughter 57).
Jesus’ Mission Statement
When we read the first part of our Old Testament Lesson this morning, you may have thought, “Didn’t Jesus say that?” Yes, you are right. In the Gospel of Luke we read the story of Jesus returning to Nazareth where he had been raised. He attended the local synagogue, his home church so to speak, and was asked to read from the scroll of Isaiah. Luke tells us,
He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:17-21).
This is the first story Luke tells us about Jesus’ ministry. After the Christmas story, Jesus’ baptism and then temptation, Luke gives a glimpse into what Jesus had been doing. The story of Jesus’ ministry then begins in earnest with Jesus’ reading of Isaiah serving as the mission statement for all he will do. Bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, freeing the oppressed, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor are the very things Jesus will do throughout his ministry, and it is the work he calls us to continue today.
Jesus Trained Disciples to Continue His Work
Jesus didn’t keep his ministry to himself. As all good leaders do, he trained those who would come after him to continue his work. For example, in the Gospel of Matthew, after preaching and healing all day, the disciples are looking out for Jesus’ well-being when they say to him, “send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves” (Matthew 14:15). Jesus quite simply replies, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat” (Matthew 14:16).
YOU give them something to eat. Notice Jesus doesn’t tell his followers to petition the Roman government about hunger. He doesn’t tell them to protest against the local fishing boats, farmers, or markets who charge too high a price for their food. He doesn’t tell his followers to preach a sermon on “spiritual food” to the crowds. He simply commissions them: “You give them something to eat.”
This is the work to which we have been called as followers of Jesus: to participate in the work of the Kingdom of God in our community and throughout the world. As a congregation we seek “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the work of His Kingdom” (TLUMC mission statement). To participate in having his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. It is not just what we wait for, it is what we work toward.
God’s Plan Not Destruction but Renewal
There was a lot of talk this week about the end of the world. The Mayan calendar ending on Friday, 12-21-2012, had people talking. Most of us just shrugged our shoulders at the thought. We have heard these predictions before. Radio preachers who believe they have determined the date of the end of the world. Authors who write about those in the public sphere who are the anti-Christ. Others who study the book of Revelation and find a nation that seems to fit as the “beast” that will bring destruction to the planet.
The idea all these have in common is the destruction of the world. A time when the world is literally going to fall apart and we hope to live someplace else in spirit. This is not a Biblical view. Biblically the end is not about destruction but resurrection, not evacuation but renewal.
Let us return to the passage from Isaiah Jesus quoted as his mission statement. Isaiah received these prophecies when the people of Israel were in exile. God is comforting the people as he tells them they will soon return to Jerusalem. In verse 4 he writes of what God will have the people do when they return, “They shall build up ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations” (Isaiah 61:4). The people are called to carry out the restorative work of God.
Then in verse 8 he shares what is on God’s wish list, “For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.” Restoration, renewal, and justice, these are the things on Jesus’ wish list.
In the wake of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut there has been a lot of talk and bad theology expressed about God’s presence and activity in the world. People ask, “If God is all-loving and all-powerful, then why doesn’t God do something about evil?” (Slaughter 64). That is a question we will address more fully in our next sermon series, What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Presence of God, but this morning I want to share a bit of a preview.
People ask, “Why doesn’t God do something?” I believe God has done something. He has brought you and me into the world, and has brought us together as the church to do something – to combat evil, to rebuild the ruins, to work for what we pray for – “thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” Our relationship with God is inexorably intertwined with our responsibility toward one another and “the least of these.”
The gift on Jesus’ wish list for his birthday, is us doing the work to which we have been called – “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:1-2a).
The Sparkle Box
The other day, Lydia Loyle – a faithful 8:30 service attendee, women’s Bible study regular, cake baker for Coffee with the Pastor, and office window decorator – showed me a children’s book she had received from Guideposts called The Sparkle Box. It is a great book for children to remind them about what is on Jesus’ wish list.
The story follows a young boy and his parents as they get ready for Christmas. This year the mom and dad add a sparkle box to the family’s Christmas decorations, telling the boy it is a special present they are giving Jesus for his birthday. They will be getting it ready throughout the Christmas season, and will open it on Christmas Day. The boy is, of course, intrigued.
They go through their Christmas preparations which include donating to a local food pantry and buying blankets for the homeless. The little boy gets so caught up in all of this that he winds up using his own money to buy mittens and a candy bar for a man on the street he notices is cold and probably hungry. Every day the boy asks about the Sparkle Box and whether it is time to open it yet. Mom or Dad will usually say something like, “We can’t open it yet. It isn’t ready, but we put something in it today.”
Finally on Christmas morning the Sparkle Box again catches the boy’s eye and he asks to open it. His mom and dad remind him the Sparkle Box is the present they are giving to Jesus for his birthday. Then mom and dad give the boy permission to open the box. Inside are several little pieces of paper. Written on each are things like, “Gave a blanket to a homeless person,” “Worked at the food pantry to feed the hungry,” “Gave mittens and a candy bar to a man in need.” The boy’s mom and dad wanted to share with their son that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, not theirs, and they understood exactly what was on Jesus’ wish list.
Christmas Is Not Your Birthday
Like that family, you have already given many of the things on Jesus’ wish list through the Tri-Lakes Cares Angel Tree, Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes, food donated to Tri-Lakes Cares, and time given to the Marian House Soup Kitchen. But it doesn’t need to be that formal. You also are giving Jesus a gift when you listen to a friend in need, visit someone in the hospital, talk to one who is distraught and feels trapped, or comfort someone who is grieving. You give Jesus a gift when you donate to buy a mosquito net through Imagine No Malaria, to dig a well for access to clean water for a village in Africa, or to purchase food for the hungry in El Paso County. Jesus is not looking for a grand, spiritual gesture from you this Christmas. Jesus is looking for a transformed life that puts his Kingdom first, through little things we can do every day.
There aren’t too many days left to get Jesus what he wants for his birthday, but I don’t think he cares if its late. In fact, I think he prefers it. Because it is not about one day, it is about a new life of generosity to those around us.
What can you give – as an individual, as a family, as a small group, or as a church – in celebration of Jesus’ birthday? It’s his day. Let us give him what is on his wish list, ourselves in service to our neighbors, all throughout the year.
Slaughter, Michael. Christmas Is Not Your Birthday: Experience the Joy of Living and Giving like Jesus. Nashville: Abingdon, 2011. Print.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at http://bible.oremus.org.