"God's Gift, Our Ultimate Quest"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - Christmas Eve 2000
Psalm 98:1-6; John 1:1-14
When we were taking our daughter to West Virginia University, such a question came into sharp focus. She was about to begin her freshman year there. What little belongings we were taking with us had to be carried on the elevator in a dorm complex known as the Towers.
Traveling in those elevators with other parents and students made us wonder how much of a priority getting an education was for many of these want-to-be producers in the world. There were skis, stereos, color televisions, video game play-stations and small refrigerators among the items we saw.
That particular year Playboy magazine listed WVU as one of the top ten party-schools in the nation, a reputation the university vehemently denied. As Lois and I were leaving we saw a sign that had been created by one of the fraternities which said, "Parents, thank you for bringing us your daughters."
We drove away from the campus in silence. We were thinking about what Sue's absence would mean in our home. We also wondered if she was ready to focus on a future vocation, to select the right courses, and to give everything she had to learning, thoughts most parents have as they deposit their high school graduates on a university campus.
If parents have given their children the gift of a college education, most of them did so knowing that the outcome of their children's lives is far from guaranteed. All parents can do is open the door to education and send them into the future, hoping that some day the adventure of learning will assist them through life.
We have all given gifts to people unaware of what they might do with them or even if they can appreciate them. This morning we are going to consider how God's gift to us had to be given in the same spirit. We are not going to consider what we believe about God's gift, nor about what we should be doing as a result of receiving it. God gave us an opportunity, knowing that what we did with that gift was up to each individual. For God, there were no strings attached.
Let us think about how this drama started. John opened his Gospel with these words, "In the beginning the Word already existed; the Word was with God, and the Word was God." The Gospel writer went on to write, "The Word was in the world, yet the world did not recognize him." Recognition is a critical element to our understanding. We have to know what something means before we can fully appreciate it. How could humanity have known anything about what was happening in Bethlehem?
A seed was sown in a town, the existence of which was known only to a few. The one who would bring the light of understanding to humanity grew up to be a tradesman in an illiterate culture where honoring century-old traditions was more prized than education. The region was so emotionally volatile that its stability was only insured by the Romans. And during his lifetime, this bearer of light would never travel more than 90 miles from the place where he was born. He lived only 33 years. What meaning could anyone have given such an event as this drama was unfolding?
Think about the enormous power God placed within something so small and obscure. Think about how that infant would influence future generations. As an adult he became capable of changing the world view of millions of people. Think of it! Yet God gave this gift totally confident in what that seed was capable of producing.
Never once did God attempt to protect the flame that was burning. Never once did God intervene in order to keep that light within the faith-tradition that gave it birth. God understood that truth is infinite and contagious. John wrote, "The Word was the source of life and this life brought light to people." John was not talking about the Bible here; he was talking about a spirit. The Word was an infinite spirit that was with God since the beginning of time. That spirit is not something anyone can define. But it is something all of us can experience.
Not long ago one of our members received word that his mother had died. No matter how old we are, losing one of our parents brings profound sadness. People in our church family sent cards in which they wrote messages. This person said to me, "Who are these people? Should I know them?" After looking through the cards, I said, "No. Many of them you may not know. Some of them attend the other service. I guess they wanted you to know their desire to walk with you. Many of them know that valley."
John said, "The Word was the source of life and this life brought light to people." The spirit from the one born in Bethlehem would spread because of our experience of it, not because of what we believed about it.
Last Tuesday the Angel Gang lined up our 183 teddy bears in the chancel. Pictures from this photo opportunity are on the kiosk in the narthex. These bears are currently being held by elderly people we do not know. Just like your cards that comforted one of our people, the bears are a material expression of the loving energy we generate together. This is the way it will be for Warm Nights. There is no question that God has total confidence in the light that was created in our midst.
In addition to the confidence God has in this gift, God also trusts what this energy is capable of doing as it is filtered through us. John wrote, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out." The one who brought the light was crucified. Imagine, the deliverer of the light was destroyed by those who did not understand God's gift, but not before the seeds of many possibilities were sown on the earth.
The power of that light has the ability to melt the strongest barriers we build. It can heal ancient hatreds. It can bring people together who have not spoken to each other in years. It can create communities of faith where the only thing people have in common is their healing attitudes. How interesting that God has given us a window through which to view our greatest quest, peace on earth as it is in heaven. Think of all that has happened in our own lifetime.
After the Second World War people believed that Americans would never willingly travel to Japan. There were people who knew that East and West Germany would never be united. There were people who knew that the Soviet Union would remain our eternal enemy. There were people who knew that there would never be equal opportunities for women and ethnic people in this country. What changed such thinking?
God trusted what would happen as the light was being filtered through us. That light has accelerated faster and faster. People may not recognize the force behind this new found understanding, but such recognition does not matter. Slowly we are becoming aware that we do not have time to have enemies. We no longer have time to waste human lives on conflicts where no one wins. Instead, we are learning that sharing allows everyone to win.
Today companies are desiring to export industry into countries where people need jobs. The program 60-Minutes recently provided a wonderful example. Citizens in Ireland were interviewed who remembered the horrible conditions of their home towns. They were fortunate if they had enough bread for the day. Ireland is a country where the median age is 28 and where the citizens enjoy the highest standard of living on earth. Irish-Americans are going back to Ireland to live and work. Talk about the acceleration of light! The transformation of Ireland has taken less than 30 years.
There are many people who would never attribute the acceleration of such progress to a baby born in Bethlehem of Judah. They want to keep the spirit of God in faith-based communities. The problem with such thinking is that the Word of God is a spirit that will never be confined by anyone's beliefs even if they call such thoughts their faith.
It takes courage and faith to establish business connections with Russia, China, or the nations of Africa. Their cultural and bureaucratic structures are barriers to doing business. The last time I looked, courage and faith are spiritual qualities that drive us forward in the face of fear. And who focused our attention to such qualities of spirit?
Love often comes in a package we may not recognize. Why should this be a surprise to us? No one recognized Bethlehem as an act of God's love. What happened there would never fit into anyone's understanding no matter how vivid their imagination. It has taken centuries for us to understand what occurred at Bethlehem. Even now we may resist the thought that what is happening all over the world had its origin with that baby.
Christianity is still predisposed to insisting on its interpretation of truth. What Jesus brought, however, was for all humanity. The Word cannot be stopped because it has already assumed many forms. That spirit, that Word, has already become the leaven for the loaf.
Together we are conquering diseases, developing seeds that produce higher crop yields, working on predicting weather patterns in order to save lives, and coming to the aid of our brothers and sisters in the aftermath of earthquakes and floods. The spirit of the world is changing at a very rapid pace. We are even using "Global Economy" to describe many of our human efforts. What spirit is guiding such activities? What causes us to reach out to former enemies? What drives us to bring dignity and economic prosperity to countries we used to refer to as "Third World Nations"?
The answer is that it all started with a little baby who was born in a manger. He grew up to say, "Love God with everything you have and love your neighbor as you love yourselves." Further he said, "As you do it unto one of the least of these, you have done it unto me."
Jesus must have known that people need food, shelter, clothing, and a way to support themselves before they have time to consider what love means. Much patience is required from all of us. While we still have much distance to travel before we experience Heaven on earth, we are getting there. And we are getting there because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
We are surrounded, O God, by your love. Our thanksgiving for your presence cannot be expressed in words. You made us in your image and we did not know how to express it. You designed us to create and we did not know how to use such abilities. You made covenants with us as we were becoming attracted to the trappings of our world. Finally, you sent us your son and we still struggle with the meaning of what he brought. Lead us, O God, to lay aside our struggles over what is true. Lead us to embrace each other as the sons and daughters of yours that we are. May the light of Christ be within each of us so that our touch heals, our words instill peace, and our presence communicates acceptance. Enable us to live what Jesus came to teach us. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving God, you alone know the joy of sowing seeds because you created the numerous possibilities for how each of them will grow. All of us celebrate this day the seed of love that was sown in Bethlehem. While humanity remained locked in the cares of their daily experiences, you gave us a reflection of yourself in Jesus.
As your seed continued to develop, so did our understanding. When Jesus was born, few people were aware that their true wealth was not found in gold or silver or in possessions that thieves could steal. Few people understood that true power did not rest in their authority and responsibilities. Few people knew that the Law was useless for creating in them a spirit that can heal. Few people had learned how growth could be enhanced by giving away their kindness, forgiveness and friendship. And when Jesus came and taught us about these things, we were left with a window through which to view the quality of people you designed us to be. What a priceless gift, O God. Thank you!
We know there are people for whom this season is challenging. Bless with courage those who are working through unexpected transitions. Bless with peace those who remain anxious about circumstances they cannot control or change. Bless with faith those who have misplaced their ability to trust you with the outcome of all things. As we live, may our words and deeds be for others like the seeds you have sown in our lives. We pray these thoughts through Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . . .