December 23, 2012

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC



Luke 2:1-14


There was an art exhibit that featured paintings by Pablo Picasso.  Imagine the surprise of the art aficionados in attendance when they noticed that one of those studying the paintings was none other than Pablo Picasso himself!

The exhibit featured paintings from various phases in his career.  They were so different, it was hard to believe they all came from the same artist.  So since Pablo Picasso himself was there, why not ask him about this?  One woman did.  She said, “Excuse me, but I wonder if you can help me understand.  Those paintings over there on that side of the exhibit, the ones you painted when you were just starting out, they’re so mature, so serious, so somber.  And these painting over here, the ones you just recently completed, they seem so simple, so joyful, so playful.  I would have thought it would be just the opposite.  How do you explain this?”

Pablo Picasso just smiled and said, “It’s simple.  It takes a long time to become young.”

It takes a long time to become young!  If you think about that, that’s really quite profound.  Life is a journey from simplicity to complexity and then back to simplicity.

I can think of a couple of very smart people to illustrate this.  One is Albert Einstein.  I’m not sure anyone was ever smarter than Albert Einstein.  His live began with childlike wonder about the universe, it moved to incredibly deep thought about how the universe works, and it all led him back to childlike wonder about the universe.

The other is Karl Barth.  He was such a deep religious thinker that I don’t read him.  I can’t understand him.  People write books to help people like me understand the books Karl Barth has written.  But when he was an old man someone asked him how he would summarize what he had been saying in his many volumes of scholarly writings.  He said, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

The story of Christmas as we just heard it read is written with childlike simplicity.  It reads almost like a fairy tale.  The poor, humble family on a journey.  A baby on the way.  No room for them in the inn.  The baby is born in a stable, next to farm animals.  The angels sing.  The shepherds visit.  All is calm and all is bright.  It’s a beautiful story.

The Christina faith could survive without Christmas.  In fact, the Christian faith did survive without Christmas for a long time.  It began with the story of the cross and the resurrection.  It began with the end of the story.  It wasn’t until generations later that they added the beginning of the story.  The story of Christmas.  It’s almost like it was necessary for them to wrestle with all the theological complexities before they were able to capture the story of Jesus in its childlike essence.  It’s such a simple, such a beautiful story, of how in the darkest of times God came into our world.  In a time of despair and cruelty and evil, a time when people were expecting something terrible to happen like the end of the world, that’s the very time God chose to come into the world to be with us.  And he came into the world as a baby, because we come into the world as babies.  He came into the most humble and unlikely of circumstances to show that God has come for everyone.

That’s the Gospel — so simple, so profound, so childlike!

We often hear that Christmas is for children.  Sometimes I feel it’s up to me to give you the grown-up version of Christmas.  That’s kind of what I did last week as we explored the question, “Why Christmas?”  But I think you have to be careful explaining Christmas.  Too much explaining and you ruin it.  You can explain something to death.  It was said of Ralph Miller who coached basketball atOregonStatefor a number of years, that if you asked him what time it was, he would tell you how a clock works.  My rule of thumb this time of year is to go light on the explaining.

Especially since I don’t think there is a better way to explain Christmas than in childlike terms.  God came to be with us in a tiny baby.  Nature sang.  Shepherds rejoiced.  Kings knelt down with their gifts.  And because of that baby, there will one day be peace on earth and good will among all people.  The night the baby was born, the world was the way it was meant to be and because of that baby the world can be that way again.

A Salvation Army volunteer was ringing his bell outside a shopping mall on a cold December night.  Donations were a little slow.  He was feeling discouraged.  Then along came two little boys with a box full of mistletoe.  They parked themselves right next to him and opened their business.  It was 50¢ a sprig.

At first the Salvation Army ringer thought this was cute.  Then, when it became apparent that the boys were getting more money than he was, it didn’t seem so cute.  They were competitors.  They were infringing on his territory.  But just as he was starting to get angry, he noticed that one of the boys wasn’t even wearing a jacket.  And it was a cold night.  It dawned on him.  These children are poor.  They aren’t little businessmen trying to add to their allowance.  They’re probably here because their parents sent them here to make money for the family.

One of the boys came over and asked, “What do you do with the money you get?”  The Salvation Army man explained that it went to help poor people, people who didn’t have enough, so they can have a nice Christmas, too.   The boy said, “I guess we should help.”  After that, for every sprig of mistletoe they sold for 50¢, they put a quarter in the kettle.

These boys understood Christmas.  Even if they’d never heard of Jesus.  They knew exactly what the coming of Jesus into our world means.  Christmas is for children and also for adults who are able to see the world in a spirit of childlike innocence.

The Christmas story we read today is told in a spirit of childlike innocence.  Everything is just wonderful.  Everything is too nice.  That’s Luke’s Christmas story.  It’s everyone’s favorite.  Matthew tells the story, too, but he’s the one who has to break the magical spell by inserting a note of realism.  He’s the one who tells us about the maniacal King Herod who tries to kill Jesus by ordering the death of all the male babies born in that area at that time.

It’s an interesting and very disturbing juxtaposition this year.

The killing of babies is part of the Christmas story and the killing of first graders and their teachers is part of the news we’ve been living with as we prepare for Christmas.

Parents have had to be careful about what they allow their children to hear.  I’m sure in many homes, the news has been turned off.  It’s not that different from parents being careful about what part of the Christmas story they tell their children.  The pretty story in Luke is the story of choice.  You’ve got to read Matthew to get the wise men.  You don’t want to leave the wise men out.  But you cut off the story when it gets to the part about what Herod does next.

Adults know very well that the world is not as sanitized and as safe and as innocent as Christmas makes it out to be.  And sometimes adults respond by rejecting Christmas.  Turning off the Christmas music.  Reports have come out ofNewtown,Connecticutof people taking down their Christmas decorations.  Maybe we should cancel Christmas this year.  Like in those “Grinch Stole Christmas” books.  It’s easy to be a Grinch.  It’s easy to be a Scrooge.

You remember him.  Ebenezer Scrooge, the star of “A Christmas Carol”.  It’s the story of an old man.  He’s old, but his attitude makes him seem even older.  And it’s the story about how this old man became young again.

Three spirits visited him.  The first reminded him of his past.  He once was young.  He once gave his love to another.  But then he panicked.  He saw the real world.  It scared him so he retreated back into his shell.  He hardened his heart.  He decided to look after himself and not worry about anyone else.  That’s what he did.

The second spirit helped him see what he’s lost.  He is taken to the home of Bob Cratchitt on Christmas Eve and sees how this family lives.  Bob Cratchitt works for Ebenezer Scrooge and it doesn’t bother Scrooge one bit that the low wages he pays keeps this family in poverty.  But even in their poverty, there is a joy in this family that Scrooge had never known.  They had so little but they enjoyed life and they enjoyed each other so much.  Each family grace ends with Tiny Tim’s famous words:  “God bless us every one!”

The third spirit shows Scrooge the end of his life.  It is the end of a life lived for nothing more than self.  Scrooge is horrified.

The final scene of the story takes place on Christmas Day.  Scrooge is as old as ever, but the truth is, he’s become young again.  He’s joyful for once in his life.  He wears himself out running  around doing kind things for people.  He has to sit down and rest, and tears come to his eyes.  He’s never been this happy.  He’s never felt this alive.  Sometimes it takes a long time to become young.

Jesus said, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3).  Unless you become young again.  Jesus also said, “You must be born again” (Jn 3:7).  And how old were you when you were born?  You must become young again.

This doesn’t mean you have to surrender your realism.  Jesus said, “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mt 10:6).  Be realistic, just don’t let your realism become a prison.  Don’t let it keep you from stepping outside of yourself into the life God wants to give you.  Don’t be afraid to be born again.  It happened to Scrooge.  It can happen to you.

We usually think of the life we’re after as being something we haven’t achieved yet.  Some day we’ll get there.  Some day before we die, let’s hope.  I think we have it backwards.  Real life is not something we’re chasing after.  It is something we had once and lost.  And if we could only become young again, if we could only find the courage to let go of the life we cling to, we would find that life.

Madeleine L’Engle received a letter from an 11-year-old girl.  This girl had a question.  “How can I remain a child forever and not grow up?”  She had to think a while before she answered that letter.  Here was her answer:  “I don’t think you can remain a child forever and not grow up.  And I don’t think it would be a good idea if you could.  But what you can do and what I hope you will do is to remain a child forever and grow up, too.”


Dear God, our bodies may age but our spirits don’t need to.  Our spirits can remain young, open to life, open to Christmas, with wide-eyed anticipation.  Some of us need to be reborn.  Some of us are old beyond our years.  Some of us are dead in spirit even while our bodies give the appearance of life.  But it’s not too late.  This Christmas may we turn and become like children and enter your kingdom of life.  Life as revealed in Jesus.  “In him was life and that life was light for us all.”  Amen.