"With Christmas Over, Now What?"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 12/27/1998
Isaiah 63:7-9; Titus 3:1-7
Ten minutes later as I listened to the WMAL news, a reporter indicated that shoppers were already lined up at the entrance to Lake Forest Mall in Gaithersburg. He said the parking lot was quickly filling with vans and sport utility vehicles ready to haul away "the special purchase" merchandise that retailers make available for the after Christmas shoppers. So the rush for bargains, including Christmas cards at a 40 percent savings, was in full swing.
After Christmas many people do what they always do, exchange gifts and hunt for bargains. And why not, that is what many of us enjoy doing. There is no better feeling, I suppose, than the one of finding something you have always wanted at a give-away price. For example, we may discover a bread machine for $48.00 when the identical unit was $168.00 a year ago. That kind of "real find" makes us smile as we add one more item to our inventory of this season's purchases.
What happens after Christmas for every one of us will correspond to what we were doing before Christmas unless we have decided to break the pattern. A lot of people enjoy the traditions of the holiday season. There is nothing wrong with that. But if we stay with the traditional experiences we may miss the real celebration, the celebration of understanding the opportunity that God was presenting to humanity. Many of us miss the substance by leaping toward the shadow. We do it all the time.
I am going to illustrate this point by telling you a story that at first will appear to be a million miles away from the topic we are considering. This adventure began when a young man was transferred from the New York City office of Merrill Lynch to one on Connecticut Avenue in the District of Columbia. He was single, bright and enjoyed his work.
During his first week on the job he spotted a woman whom he explained later "simply took his breath away." Whenever she walked away from her cubical, his eyes instinctively followed her. Her hair was groomed immaculately. And the way she dressed was quite alluring for him. He was reminded of what his English teacher used to say. "A well written essay is a lot like a woman's skirt. They should be long enough to cover the subject and short enough to be interesting." For him, she was most interesting. He could not get her out of his mind. He wondered if she were seriously dating anyone. He wondered if she might find him attractive.
One day an opportunity presented itself where he could meet her naturally. He was available on the day she was scheduled to make a presentation to other account executives. She had recently secured a large account for the company simply by making a cold call. Her supervisor wanted her to tell others how she did it. Interestingly enough earlier in the young man's career he had worked for that same company. "What an opening," he thought, "we may even know some of the same people." As it turned out, they did.
Following her presentation he invited her to lunch. The two found they had many things in common. What piqued his interest was that someone like her was still single and available. He was confident that all his thoughts about her were accurate. After the lunch engagement, they began to see each other socially.
One Friday evening she invited him to her apartment for dinner. He was so excited he could hardly believe it. When he entered her apartment, however, he instantly became aware of one of the reasons she may still be single. She obviously surrounded herself with what had meaning to her.
One wall was covered with bookshelves that featured hardback best sellers on subjects like sales techniques, time management, conquering barriers, and investment strategies. On her coffee table lay copies of Barrons, Forbes, Fortune, as well as numerous copies of financial newsletters. For the first time, he saw through the fantasies he had created about her to the substance of who she was.
He learned that more and more would be required of him if he wanted to keep up with this well informed and well disciplined woman. He learned that her number one priority in life was not waiting around for some man to find her. Being with a male companion was nice but only when she had time. He learned that her corporate knowledge, her intuitive skills of negotiation and her insights into tomorrow's financial growth opportunities put her in another universe other than the one in which he lived.
Here is the point of the story. Central to every one of our lives is a glaring question: What have we done with the opportunities God has given to us? What have we ever done with ourselves after Christmas? Our young male account executive found that his dreams faded once he learned who lived inside this well groomed form who had so captured his attention.
Each one of us can look forward to Christmas with the same eager anticipation. We can develop thought patterns of God coming in a form that we can understand. We can even go so far as to worship Jesus, but we may be no further along in life than the young man in our story.
God does not need our adoration nor does God need for us to go to Bethlehem and remember again what God has done. Such things are easy to do. The opportunity that God extended to humanity is discovered only when people move through and beyond the pageantry to the substance. Bethlehem got our attention. Something powerful started there. What has the power to change lives, however, occurred once that baby grew up and people listened to what Jesus had to say.
A quick review of the couple in the story may give us some insights. The woman had taken her life very seriously and had learned to invest everything she had in understanding what she could do with her gifts and talents. In one sense, she knew what to do after Christmas. A by-product of her focused energy was that she made an excellent living for herself.
The young man, on the other hand, appeared more interested in being fulfilled through a relationship, a common goal for many people. He was attracted to an image that he had created in his mind more than to the reality of who this woman was. What we have illustrated in the story is what happens when a well polished diamond is placed along side a marginally polished piece of agate.
The imagery in the story can be applied to the development of our spiritual lives. We want to find affirmation and validation before we pursue excellence. It is wonderful to discover that God loved us so much that God came to us in a form we could understand. To know that God loves us without question may do nothing. That truth is a given but such information may not have the power to motivate us. Many people are loved by other people and they have not yet learned how to respond to it. It is no different when God loves us.
Being "saved" in this life can be compared to what happens when people find themselves in water. If they know what to do in water they have no fear. In fact they can play, float or swim to their heart's content. But if they have not learned what to do in water, fear overwhelms them and they flail about wildly.
What separates these two people is not the quality of their faith. They both may love God and God loves both of them. What separates these two people is that one learned how to swim and the other did not. One knew what to do after Christmas and the other did not. And if anyone tries to teach you anything else about your relationship with God, just say, "Thank you for sharing" and go on living what consistently works for you.
Our lesson today provides an excellent Biblical example. This small letter to Titus is packed with insight. The words that were read for us this morning are like a distillation of the Sermon on the Mount. Paul would not have written such words to Titus if he had not been fully aware of the power of his faith. Titus knew what to do with himself after Christmas.
While we know little about his background, Titus surfaced in history around the year 49. During that year, Paul and Barnabas took him to Jerusalem where they confronted the disciples of Jesus. The first major controversy in the early Church happened when the disciples insisted on making circumcision mandatory for all male Gentiles.
Jewish Christians insisted that no Gentile "could be saved" unless his body were marked by this surgical procedure. Titus may have been the only Gentile to attend that conference and his faith became strong because it was tempered and hammered on the anvil of rejection (Gal.2:3-5). Paul, Barnabas and Titus were victorious in their struggle. They preserved their interpretation of Jesus' message. From that historic moment, Gentiles were accepted because of their understanding and not because their bodies bore the mark of traditional Judaism.
We also know that Titus accompanied Paul on his second and third missionary journeys. Titus became instrumental in the Corinthian church not only by combating false teaching but also by repairing the relationship that had been severely strained between Paul and the Corinthian Christians (2 Corinth. 7:5-9).
I mentioned this background because I want to emphasize that Titus was a swimmer. He knew well how to navigate in water. Anyone capable of successfully confronting the original disciples of Jesus with a greater truth and then using his loving people skills to sooth the tensions between Paul and his new converts in Corinth, obviously knew what to do with himself after Christmas. The question is do we?
In our lesson Paul wrote about the way people lived prior to their understanding Jesus' message. As we enter the New Year, all of us should give this a lot of thought. If we act and think no differently than those outside the church, we should be doing some soul searching. As someone recently said, "Going to church no more makes you a Christian than walking into the garage will make you a mechanic."
We have to learn how to use what we have been given. Up until Bethlehem, people had an orientation toward life based in fear. After Jesus, people were given the opportunity to commit to an orientation in life based in love. Paul's letter to Titus said, "Remind your people not to speak evil of anyone, but to be peaceful and friendly, and always to show a gentle attitude toward everyone."
If each of us went into the New Year having mastered just this one skill, think what God could do with us. Think of how others would have their lives brightened. We cannot arrive at this skill level without doing our inner work. Like the young man in the story, we can be swept away by our dreams and miss the substance, or we can use what God has given us to become a powerful presence in the world. Titus knew what to do after Christmas, do we?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Eternal and ever faithful God, we remain amazed at how humanity has taken the simplicity of your message and changed it into abstractions. Jesus taught that we can trust you as a little child can trust her parents, while we toil over the "necessary steps" leading to our personal salvation. Jesus taught us to love our neighbor, while we divide ourselves over the "correct meaning" of Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Jesus taught us to forgive our enemies, and we continue our struggles among ourselves over who is right and who is wrong. Jesus taught us that life does not end, and we fashion our lives around the belief that it does. You came to us, O God, to heal our belief in all that makes us afraid. As we approach the New Year, we ask that you so guide our thoughts and feelings that your will may be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We are so grateful, O God, for the methods you use to make your presence known. With all the elements of life that call out their importance to us, we might not sense that any other reality exists were it not for your signposts.
It has been the signpost of Christmas that reminds all of us that you came to us in a form we could understand. You spoke to us in a language and used symbols that helped us learn who we really are.
It is the signpost of Lent that reminds us of the value of restraint, of reflection, of meditation, of remembering who you called us to be.
It is the signpost of Good Friday which lifts up our inhumanity to each other, our blindness to truth, and the glory of love's radiant power even in the face of death.
It is the signpost of Easter which proclaims the truth of the pearl of great price that none of us dies. And because of that knowledge, there never needs to be anything in this world that should ever make us afraid again.
We thank you for the joy of learning through our mistakes. We thank you for our ability to have our emotions and spirit touched by gifts that are priceless -- when others forgive us, when others love us, when others call us "friend," and when others glow around us because they enjoy being with us.
Thank you, God, for being exactly who you are and for revealing yourself each day we live. We pray these things through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us all to say when we pray . . .