Sermon preached by the Reverend Canon Richard Tombaugh
May the words spoken and heard here this morning be spoken and heard in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
You all have probably have had a similar experience. You see something that seems so out of place and time that you cannot forget it. It happened to me quite a few years ago. For some reason, which I cannot now remember, I went out early on Christmas morning to get some medication at a drug store. The only open pharmacy was some distance away in another part of town. As I was pulling into the parking lot I looked on the parkway in front of the apartment house next door and there was a Christmas tree, laid out for the trash truck.
I was shocked. It was 10:00 a.m. on Christmas Day and a local neighbor had already taken down the decorations, the lights, the silver balls; nscrewed the screws that held the tree in its stand and carried his symbol of the Christmas celebration to the curb for the Department of Sanitation to remove along with yesterday’s junk mail.
Ten in the morning on Christmas Day!
Upon reflection I have to admit that in our culture this discarded symbol does make sense. It makes sense that a Christmas season, which starts in September, and builds up to a consumer frenzy at Best Buy and Wal Mart in early December should come to a climax on Christmas Eve. We have by then mailed our cards, bought our presents, given our parties, sung the carols, enjoyed the meals and shared the gifts. It’s time to relax, clean up the mess, put away the decorations and enjoy a welcome sense of relief. Good grief, New Year’s Eve is barely a week away!
Still, I was caught up short by the timing. For this neighbor Christmas was over; while for me Christmas was just beginning. The Church in her wisdom gives us twelve days to live into the profound joy of Christmas and that morning at the pharmacy was only day one.
As I parked my car, the symbol of the trashed tree made me feel the counter cultural impact of my liturgical life in the church. The memory of that experience remains alive for me still. We in the Church have just concluded our yearly counter-cultural season of Advent. On Sundays we are urged, to cultivate quietness, to keep awake and to anticipate a momentous new beginning while during the week we get caught up in the frenzied commercial preparations for a major holiday. And now, when our culture says Christmas is over, we in the church are just beginning.
In our culture the Christmas season is about gifts – about spending and buying, giving and getting stuff and then it is over. In our church Christmas is about a single gift, the self-giving of God to enter our lives no matter what the cost. – “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us;” and, far from being over, Christmas is just a beginning.
Our Christmas season begins not in September but with Mary’s encounter with an angel nine months ago in March. Without much detail the first part of her story involves nine months of pregnancy, maybe some morning sickness, no doubt a lot of local gossip about Joseph, a mandated trip to Joseph’s home town for a royal census, a rough night in the barn behind the Holiday Inn and then quite simply the birth of a son. At first nobody gets it. Yes, some shepherds arrive, praising God, but neither they nor Mary seem at first to grasp who it is she holds in her arms. Then to complete this first chapter in our Christmas story twelve days later, three wise and rich kings, having traveled from far distant lands, arrive in Bethlehem bringing gifts of unimaginable splendor.
We celebrate this twelfth-night event on January 6 with the great Feast of the Epiphany. On the Epiphany Eve Mary and Joseph received gifts they could not imagine, did nothing to earn and did not really deserve. They received gold and frankincense and myrrh as symbols of the divine gifts they and we had just received in the birth of Jesus – gifts we could not fully imagine, did nothing to earn and did not really deserve – gifts of grace, redemption and love.
The immediate gift that our story of Mary, Joseph, Jesus and three kings gives us is twelve precious days in which to revel in this Christmas chapter in the story of redemption. Like so many stories we will not really grasp the full meaning of it until it is completely over. We will initially focus on the beautiful and evocative image of a tiny baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. It will take time and quiet reflection to understand that in Jesus we are seeing “the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
And so the church gives us, not one day, but twelve days as a reminder that hope and redemption do not come to us on some predetermined schedule or day. We have twelve days as a kind of “second chance” to comprehend the true meaning of Christmas and how this meaning is extended throughout our life and history:
Twelve days to understand the birth of Jesus as the highlight of the story not the end of it … Twelve days to realize how much every one of us is loved by God … Twelve days to revel in this good news of great joy
Twelve days to understand what it means to worship Emmanuel, God with us … Twelve days to feast on the joy of our redemption from isolation and loneliness … Twelve days to spread this word of redemption as good tidings of comfort and joy
Twelve days to know what the multitude of the heavenly host meant about peace on earth … Twelve days to sing, with one accord, our own praises to our heavenly Lord for peace … Twelve days to let the flames of love lead us all toward peace on earth
Twelve days to see behind a sense of obligation the underlying love any true gift represents … Twelve days to interpret all earthly gifts as tokens of divine love … Twelve days to comprehend our ability to give and receive the enduring gift of divine love.