January 3, 2016

A Christmas Disturbance

Service Type:

Every Who down in Who-ville liked Christmas a lot…
But the Grinch, who lived just north of Who-ville did NOT!
The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!
Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason of all may have been
that his heart was two sizes too small.

But, whatever the reason, his heart or his shoes,
He stood there on Christmas Eve, hating the Whos,
Staring down from his cave with a sour, Grinchy frown
At the warm lighted windows below in their town.
For he knew every Who down in Who-ville beneath
Was busy now, hanging a mistletoe wreath.
“And they’re hanging their stockings!” he snarled with a sneer
“Tomorrow is Christmas! It’s practically here!”
Then he growled, with his Grinch fingers nervously drumming
“I MUST find some way to stop Christmas coming!”

There’s something about Christmas that some people find disturbing. When we moved to Markham in 1991 I had occasion in December that first year to drop into the elementary school two of our children were attending. A display case had been built into the wall opposite the office and there, very tastefully displayed, was an Advent Wreath and a Hanukah candelabra. Can you guess how this display was labelled? —The History of Candle Making.

Humorist Dave Barry poked fun at all of this when he wrote: “To avoid offending anybody, the school dropped religion altogether and started singing about the weather. At my son’s school, they now hold the winter program in February and sing increasingly non memorable songs such as “Winter Wonderland,” “Frosty the Snowman” and—this is a real song—”Suzy Snowflake,” all of which is pretty funny because we live in Miami. A visitor from another planet would assume that the children belonged to the Church of Meteorology."

The Bible records those in power when Jesus was born were disturbed at the news. King Herod was King of the land of Israel in the day when Jesus was born. But he wasn’t King by right of birth, for he wasn’t an Israelite, he was an Edomite. He was ruler of the land only because Rome had given him that throne.
He called himself “the Great” and in some ways he was a “great king.”
๏ He had doubled the size of the Temple
๏ Built numerous palaces and fortifications
๏ Kept the area of Palestine at a relative peace with its neighbors
๏ And, when a famine had devastated Israel he purchased food for his starving people with
money from his own treasury.

So why would a successful, wealthy, and, in some ways, compassionate king be so upset with a baby born in Bethlehem? So upset that he was willing to massacre every child in this village to make sure he had destroyed that one single helpless child?

Actually, Scripture doesn’t tell us why, but history gives us a pretty good picture of this wicked King’s motivation. You see, Herod had a reputation for jealously protecting his power and position.

When his 16 year old brother-in-law tried to make a name for himself Herod killed the boy himself. Years later, one of his many wives, Mariamne, became involved in a plot to have her family rise to power…even though he loved her deeply, he had her executed. A couple of years before his death, he heard rumors that two of his sons, Aristobulus and Antipater, were engaged in a plot to kill him—he had them executed as well.

After hearing of this last incident, Caesar Augustus commented: “It is safer to be Herod’s pig than to be Herod’s son.”

Herod’s main motivation was to “stay in control” of his life. Anything or anyone that threatened this authority faced his wrath. He would do anything in his power to destroy whatever endangered his ability to stay in control.

There’s the issue, isn’t it. As most of you will know, the way we observe our Christmas celebrations is a sort of amalgamation of the stories from the gospels of Luke and Matthew. In our pageants and Sunday School plays we see the regal magi arriving within seconds of the bath-robed shepherds. We ought to insert an off stage voice into these events. This year we should have said, "The wise ones now approaching the holy family began their journey in 2013." That's why this story from Matthew is the text for Epiphany. It's meant to be separate from Christmas.

Do you know what the word means? Epiphany is another way to say appearance. We can be reasonably certain, I think, that the Magi, the wise ones were the first non-Jews to see Jesus. When they saw the star they began a journey that led them from their home to Jerusalem. They hoped to find the one whose birth they had seen announced in the appearance of the star. They are about 8km away from Bethlehem, where the baby was born. They make the mistake of thinking that if a new king has been born then those in the capital city, Jerusalem, must know the details.

Herod tells the Temple officials about the visit he’s had from these wise foreigners and wonders what they know about the birthplace of the Messiah. They know right where to go—they pull out the Micah scroll, unravel it and there about two-thirds of the way through it is the text for which Herod is looking.

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days (Micah 5:2).

Give Herod the credit that he is due. He asks the magi to go to Bethlehem and find the child and then to send word to him, so that I may also go and pay him homage. You see Herod knew the one thing you cannot do with Jesus is ignore him. You ought to worship him; you can resist him but he really doesn’t leave open the option of ignoring him.

Have you heard the story of the woman who served on a number of civic committees who was asked to pick some carols to accompany the community tree-lighting ceremony? She asked her pastor for some help but when she surveyed the list he provided, she said to him with some dismay: “But they’re all so theological!”

Yes they are. Have you heard in this wonderful season what it is we sing? “This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing.” “O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.” “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” What did the magi do when they find the child? They knelt down and paid him homage. They worship the one who has been born king.

Of course this is a disturbing matter. If you are a king who seeks power, if you are a grinch who resents joy, if you are an executive who craves influence, if you are just an ordinary David or Mary or Jim or Susan with yourself at the centre of your life, this Christmas birth is a disturbing matter. Either Herod is right—I’ve got to get rid of him, or the magi are right—I must worship him. Ignoring him is not an option.

It’s not only the songs that we sing that are theological but even the stories are full of good theology. You know what it is that is suggested about the Grinch—his heart was two sizes too small. Christmas is a heart matter. It’s about who is going to be on the throne of your life, who you will worship as your God and Saviour. “If Christ were born a thousand times in Bethlehem, but not in you, it would all be in vain.”

I suspect that fan is not the right word, but I can't think of another way to say it. I am a fan of the music of the U. K. composer John Rutter. He has written arrangements of so many carols and anthems and written so many original songs for this celebration that some have given him the title "Mr. Christmas." The older I get the more I become convinced that it is the artist, in this case the poet, who is able to express with greater eloquence the meaning of such spiritual mysteries as Christmas and how you and me should respond to what God is doing. One of Rutter's original compositions is Christmas Lullaby.

Clear in the darkness a light shines in Bethlehem:
Angels are singing, their sound fills the air.
Wise men have journeyed to greet their Messiah;
But only a mother and baby lie there.

'Ave Maria, ave Maria':
Hear the soft lullaby the angel hosts sing.
'Ave Maria, ave Maria,
Maiden, and mother of Jesus our King'.

Where are his courtiers, and who are his people?
Why does he bear neither sceptre nor crown?
Shepherds his courtiers, the poor for his people,
With peace as his sceptre and love for his crown.

What though your treasures are not gold or incense?
Lay them before him with hearts full of love.
Praise to the Christ child, and praise to his mother
Who bore us a Saviour by grace from above.

Here we are on the third day of new year. Are any of your resolutions still in tact? I realize that in the big scheme of things there is not much that is truly different when the clock turned over from 11:59 on Thursday to midnight on Friday. But there is a part of our gospel text has always echoed in my spirit. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. After meeting the Christ child, they took a different road.

My wife and I have an affection for this congregation that goes back a number of years. Back in 2001 I took a brief hiatus from pastoral ministry. On the Sunday after September 11 of that year, we needed a place to worship. That was not a Sunday for any Christian to be playing hooky. We came here and both of us remember with gratitude how Ralph Garbe ministered with grace and care that day. So I am delighted that Dr. Clubine and the leadership at Central has given me the opportunity to preach; I do hope it's not the last time. But more than that I want to be sure that I have done whatever I can to bring us face to face with God's Word and issued for your consideration the call to respond. So you have a piece of paper in your folder today that looks like this. The graphic asks the question, "What shall we give him?" This is, I think, THE Epiphany question. What is it that you must give to Jesus in order for your commitment to begin, or to begin with new purpose, or to grow in depth and grace? Perhaps you need to give more time; perhaps it's more money; maybe you have to give to Jesus your love of the things of this world so that he can truly be your King.

(At this point I explained the response opportunity: during the musical postlude worshippers were invited to write on the piece of paper what they needed to give to Jesus and to place it in the little "treasure" box which had been placed at the front of the sanctuary with the nativity scene.)

Those who are wise still come to worship him and he has found a place in their hearts.