Pay It Forward

29 Dec

christthesaviormanger02(A sermon for December 29, 2013, the 1st Sunday after Christmas, based on Luke 2:22-40 and Colossians 3:12-17)

It’s interesting, you know, that nobody ever wrote a poem or a holiday song that begins with the words, “’Twas the day after Christmas!”

And that’s too bad; because in a way, these days that immediately follow Christmas are as atmospheric as what comes before, just in a different way!  For one thing, the house is quiet and folks are sleeping soundly; after all, children may still be rising early to play with their new Christmas toys, but at least it isn’t happening at four o’clock in the morning!  All the anticipation leading up to December 25 has given way to afterglow: stockings hang empty on the mantle; the dried up tree stands naked in the corner; all the brightly wrapped gifts that once were piled beneath it are now scattered about the house, the wrapping paper bagged up and out with the trash.  And while there might be a few post-holiday get-togethers yet to come, a few belated Christmas cards come in the mail, and some leftover turkey in the fridge, already there are clear signs that life is returning to normal, with all that’s left for this particular Christmas being the memories!

Still, if you’re like me, you’re asking, it doesn’t have to be over, does it?  After all, it’s only a few days after Christmas; there’s still some Christmas vacation left; and hey, on the Christian calendar, we’re less than halfway through the 12 days of Christmas! (Today’s the day for five gold rings, by the way; so you’d best get to Jared’s straightaway; just sayin’!)  So I don’t know about you, but I’m not quite ready to give up on the season just yet!  Surely there’s a little bit more spirit still to savor, a few more moments to linger at the manger before we have to move on: isn’t there a way for us to glean a little bit more meaning from this Christmas?

Well, I’m here this morning to tell you that I think that there is; but interestingly enough, it comes in leaving the manger behind!  And that’s because for you and I as Christians, Christmas is not the place where the journey ends, but in fact where it truly begins!

Admittedly, it’s easy to forget that; given that our thoughts during Christmas are so focused on what is often referred to as “the Holy Family” – Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child – along with the supporting cast of angels, shepherds and wise men!  That’s the story we tell on Christmas Eve; and traditionally, we end that story at the point in Matthew where the wise men have left their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and then choose to “go home by another way.”  Which is fine, except that the doesn’t actually end there; in fact, here is where is just gets going: with the angel the appearing to Joseph and telling him to flee with his family to Egypt; with Herod calling for all the young children in and around Bethlehem to be killed; a tragic piece of biblical history accurately referred to as “the slaughter of the innocents.”

Now, I realize that this is all pretty heavy stuff for Christmas Eve, but it does point up the fact of how much more there is of the nativity story than we usually like to think about.  And for Christmas to have real and lasting meaning, we need to acknowledge that; and go where the story inevitably goes.

The problem with this, of course, is that scripture only gives us scant information about events following Jesus’ birth; aside from his living in exile with Mary and Joseph in Egypt, and that wonderful story from Luke about Jesus being found by his parents in the temple, we actually know very little about Jesus as a young boy.  But we do, thanks to our gospel reading this morning, get a sense of what is to come for Jesus, as well as what awaits the world in which he was born; and this comes in the response to Jesus’ birth coming from two elderly denizens of the temple in Jerusalem.

The first is Simeon, an old man fervent in prayer and wholly nourished in the teachings of scripture; a man “righteous and devout” who had spent his life in the spiritual hope that God would yet deal gently with Israel by sending the long-awaited Messiah. Basically, Simeon’s story can be summed up in one verse; that he was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.”  At the time of his life when he might have been content to dwell altogether in the past, Simeon believed that the best was yet to be; and was confident that a new and brighter day for Israel and all of humanity was close at hand.

And so when he saw Mary and Joseph, who had brought the baby Jesus to Jerusalem “to do for him what was customary under the law,” that is, to have him “dedicated” as holy unto the Lord, Simeon immediately knew at long last that hope was fulfilled; and that this child was the Messiah, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to [God’s] people Israel.”  And this is what he says to Mary about it: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed;” and then this, no doubt looking square into the eyes wondering eyes of Mary as he says it, “and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

It’s a powerful and telling moment; at a point where most parents are consumed with immediate worries where their child is concerned, here’s old Simeon who knows exactly the destiny that awaits this child Jesus; and by extension, that of his parents; and who bluntly declares the joy of it as well as its inevitable heartbreak.

And then there’s Anna, an elderly woman in the temple; who, every day and every night for as long as anybody could remember had worshipped there with fasting and prayer.  When she encounters this “holy” family, she too immediately begins “to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Israel.”  Anna, you see, and Simeon along with her, were people with “a forward look,” people “in whom there burned a great hope.” According to a writer named William Quick, they were “persons on tiptoe, [with] the flame of freedom in their souls, the light of knowledge in their eyes, living in hope and expectation that a great day was coming when wrong would be righted… justice would be done, [and] God would reveal his arm and bring salvation to all mankind,” all of this because “the Word became flesh in a baby born in Bethlehem.”

So what we have here in this continuation of the story in Luke is an affirmation:  a proclamation, actually, that Christ is born; and that the Messiah has come!  That much is clear; but the real question here is, can we imagine what lay ahead?

In one sense, of course, we do know what’s ahead, because we know the gospel story; but think for a moment how full of promise and possibility was the future for Anna, for Simeon, or for that matter, for the shepherds and wise men and all of Israel; all because of the birth of this one, special baby!  For them, there was still this incredible story yet to unfold, and a journey to be shared with this child, who as Luke puts it would “[grow] and [become] strong, filled with wisdom;” with “the favor of God… upon him.” And it would be a journey that would inevitably lead to the cross.

That’s the thing, you see; the story of Christmas might start with the promise of light coming into darkness; it might come to its climax with a child born in a stable and angels singing songs in a starlit sky; but eventually it becomes this story of God’s own son bringing redemption and healing to the world; of the “poor having good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:5), about the Kingdom of God bursting forth into life and living, and yes, about a night of betrayal and desertion leading to the greatest sacrifice of love that the world will ever know.  The point is that Christmas is about Jesus; but ultimately, it’s about following Jesus.  And if we’re going to follow Jesus, friends, then we’re going to have to go where Jesus goes; and do what Jesus does.

Perhaps you’ve seen the movie from a few years back, “Pay It Forward,” about this boy who has a plan to change the world: basically put, the plan was that each person should do three good deeds for other people, without any expectation of reward or repayment for that act.  The only requirement would be for those people who received the kindnesses should in turn do the same for others, thus “paying it forward.”  The film depicts in a very rich way how goodness and love grows exponentially when one responds to the blessings they’ve received by offering up blessings to others; and although I’m sure the filmmakers never intended to make the movie into a biblical parable, nonetheless it much describes the way we are called to continue Christmas into the new year and making its true meaning last in and through our lives and living.

And don’t misunderstand; whereas joy and singing and gifts and food and celebrations are never a bad thing any given season of the year, we’re not talking about “doing” Christmas over and over again as we do it every December, but rather embracing the Spirit of Christmas – and the ways of Christ – in our lives and living as our gift to one another and the world.  As Paul exhorts the Colossians in the Epistle reading this morning, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other… and above all, clothe yourselves with love,” and of course, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”  Ultimately, beloved, the best way we can keep Christmas throughout the year is to model ourselves after the man that the baby Jesus grew to become; to “pay it forward” by seeking to embody what God himself came to earth to show us in love and righteousness.

You know, I have to say that as much as I love Christmas, I think I enjoy these days after Christmas almost as much.  For one thing, and I think you’ll understand, that for a pastor and family the pressure’s off a bit and at least one busy season is finally behind us.  And let me just say that Lisa and I have cherished the opportunity we’ve had to spend a few days this week with our family in the afterglow of Christmas!  But even more than this, I love this “Christmastide” because it really is an opportunity to renew ourselves for faith and action; how fitting it is that it comes in the last week of an old year and the very beginning of a new one; at a time there’s this palpable sense that all things are truly brand new and that the future is wide open, so that Christmas, true Christmas, can last throughout the year.

It is true what the poet Howard Thurman has written:

“When the songs of the angels is silent
When the star of the sky is gone
When the kings and princes are home
When the shepherds are again tending their sheep
When the manger is darkened and still
The work of Christmas begins –
            To find the lost
            To heal the broken
            To feed the hungry
            To rebuild the nation
            To bring peace among people
            To befriend the lonely
            To release the prisoner
            To make music in the heart.”

May each one of us, beloved, do the work of Christmas today, paying it forward into the New Year and beyond.

And as we do, may our thanks be unto God.


c. 2013  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on December 29, 2013 in Christmas, Discipleship, Jesus, Scripture, Sermon


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