"Great Gifts In Little Packages"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 23, 2001

Isaiah 7:10-15; Matthew 1:18-25

     Many years ago my grandfather showed me a Christmas card he had gotten.  I have not seen one like it since.  The basic theme of the card was that some of the greatest things in life frequently come in small packages.  Inside the card there were many illustrations of the wonderful ways that God has blessed us on the earth.  Something else was inside the card.  It was a small cellophane bag containing seeds from the Sequoia Gigantia, the largest specie of the redwood tree that grows in northern California. 

     With a young boy's excitement I said, "Do you mean if we plant one of these seeds, it will grow into one of those giant trees?"  My grandfather said,  

Eventually, yes.  You would have to plant the seed in the best place, protect it from dangers, and nurture it for as long as you live.  And then someone else would have to come along and do the same thing.  Then there would have to be a lot of people who would care for the tree for thousands of years.  Many of California's redwoods were about your size when Jesus was born. 

     It is odd how little snapshots of events of long ago stay with us.  When our minds have become finely tuned so that our thoughts serve us, they seem to know how to hold on to the wheat while allowing the chaff to blow away with the cleansing winds of time.  I have another mental snapshot I want to share with you.

     Every Christmas morning, my brother, my twin sisters and I would run down the stairs and look at the vast array of packages that were under our Christmas tree.  We were so anxious to open our gifts but Mom and Dad always appeared to live in another universe.  We had to eat breakfast first, an activity none of us wanted to do.   

     Following breakfast, my Dad would take his Bible and sit on the stairs.  Another family ritual was about to unfold.  All of us had to endure yet another reading of the Christmas story. We used to say, "Can't we forget it so we can see what we got!  Please!  Come on!  We know the story."  Dad, who always dressed in a red shirt, never listened to our pleas for mercy.  Not only would he read the story but he would have to pray.  Dad used to pack everything into his prayers.  Roy was the only one who showed any reverence.  Ruth, Jane, and I would look at each other and roll our eyes. 

     As the years have passed, our need to receive wrapped gifts surrendered to our desire to put something back.  We have since understood what our Dad was trying to instill in his audience of four children who, at the time, were really not interested.  When I link my Dad's efforts to what my grandfather said, the truth of their words and actions has come full circle.   

     "You would have to plant the seed in the best place, protect it from dangers, and nurture it for as long as you live."  We should ask ourselves this question, "Have we done that with God's small package?"  It is so easy to know what God has done.  And equally, it is easy to believe.  The story of God's love of us is incredibly compelling.  Yet not everyone who knows the path has developed the courage to walk on it.

     In spite of what we know, we can remain distracted by our appetite for what feeds our self-interest.  Without our recognizing it, we can become like children who imagine God being like all those wonderful presents that are wrapped and sitting under our Christmas trees.  We want God to be who we want God to be.  We often mix our understanding of God with the creature comforts of the world.  When we do that, we can miss the gift that came through one small life form nearly 2,000 years ago. 

     For example, we want God to protect us and our families.  We want to remain healthy.  We want our children to grow to become responsible, loving men and women.  We want life to be the grand adventure that is but we want it without pain or suffering and without substantial reversals in our primary relationships.  We want our faith to reward us with "the good life."  We are always wanting, imagining, and dreaming.  When we experience life's many uncertainties, frequently some of us have to revisit the basis of our faith. 

     Our dreams can become shattered.  Death can take our loved ones.  Our highest hopes for our children can become dashed as they make their own way into their world, a world we can never enter, not even for a moment.  Our spouses can leave us making us single parents. Our economic fortunes may change.  Our best friends can move away in keeping with retirement plans they made years before.   

     We may think about activities we had hoped to accomplish and how so many of them have somehow slipped through the cracks. We can look in the mirror and see lines on our faces that were not there last year.  We may begin to wonder if it is later than we think. 

     These thoughts will come to each of us.  We naturally question our priorities.  Have we planted our seed in the best place, protected it from dangers, and have we nurtured it with the understanding that we need to do so for the rest of our lives?  That was the recipe my grandfather gave for growing the giant redwood trees.  But it also is a wonderful thought pattern for keeping our lives vital and compelling every moment of everyday.   

     Only through our use of hindsight seen through the eyes of faith can we grasp the significance of what happened nearly 2,000 years ago.  Those who do not have such vision will escape the discovery of the greatest life-enhancing truth that has ever blessed our planet.  We tend to look at Christ's birth at Christmas time.  Was there not more?  

     Think about Jesus' life for a moment.  Regardless of how our traditions have sugarcoated the story, Jesus was born to an unwed mother.  Mary ultimately became a single parent with many children to rear.  Being the oldest, Jesus would have to put off fulfilling whatever dreams he had as a younger man in order to meet his family's economic needs.   

     He had to remain a carpenter until 3 years before his death.  And during his ministry, his mother and his siblings would question his lifestyle, wisdom, and possibly his sanity.  His closest friends would abandon him at the end.  And he would die like a criminal who had committed a capital crime against Rome. It looked as though nothing worked for Jesus but that is not true. 

     Many of us know what it feels like to be where Jesus was as he faced one or more of these episodes during his life. We have been there ourselves. We also know that what God gave us through Jesus is a gift we cannot see.  There is nothing to unwrap.  We can only observe how that gift supported Jesus during many of the most critical experiences of his life.  We also know what that gift does to us when we face circumstances that tempt us to abandon our identity as God's sons and daughters. 

     Have we planted the seed in the best place within ourselves, protected it from dangers, and have we nurtured it with the understanding that we need to do so for the rest of our lives?  Such a small seed has the potential to enable our lives to rise above all aspects of the physical world as we radiate who God created us to be.  There was a very specific purpose for Jesus' coming into our world. Let us look at the task he invited us to accept.

     Noreen Seiler was the new Associate Pastor of Christ Episcopal Church, a church that was not far from my own on Capitol Hill.  She asked if I would participate in her service of ordination.  The evening was unseasonably warm so I decided to walk to her church.  I had gotten to 7th and G SE when I was approached by two men.  They wanted money.  I told them that I never carried money in the District and that I happened to be on my way to an ordination service.

     I unzipped my bag and showed them my robe and vestments.  "Are you a minister?" the one asked.  Immediately the other man walked away.  The one who asked the question seemed searching for what to say.  Tears began to come to his eyes as he began to tell me about himself.  Then he said, "Do you think God still loves me?"  I said, "Yes, of course God does. But I also know that God would like to hear from you from time to time."  The other man yelled, "Come on!  Let him alone.  You'll make him late for his service."  Before he turned to go, he asked me if I would pray for him and I prayed for both men. 

     As the two men walked away I began to think what God must experience. God is not in a very good position to do much about our pain and suffering.  God is spirit and we are flesh and bone. Throughout history God has used people as extensions.  God cannot touch people as we can.  God cannot give a word of encouragement as we can.  God cannot show a person a better way to make life choices, as we can.  God cannot take someone's trembling, fearful hand and reassure them, as we can.  Throughout history inspired people have become extensions of God's presence.  God can do it all through those who are willing. 

     Two thousand years ago God sent us a treasure that came in a form all of us could readily recognize.  That baby would grow up to teach us how we can make God's presence and love known to others.  Jesus became a visual road map that would guide us toward making that happen. 

     Christmas will always be the time when we celebrate Christ's birth.  Advent always provides us the opportunity to check again if our seed of love has been planted in the best place.  If we have protected it from danger and if we have nurtured it, we can make God's spirit visible.  The real truth of Christmas is that we cannot enjoy what God has given to each of us until we learn to give it away.  When we do that our world literally blooms all around us. 


    Gracious, loving, and infinite God, your wisdom is beyond our understanding.  Only with the Spirit of Christ within us are our eyes opened.  We thank you that we can be here today and be inspired anew by the story of old.  We thank you for each other, for our families, for the truth revealed to us in Scripture, and for your daily presence in our lives.  We pray today that more of our lives might be transformed, so that our inner world will reflect your will to the outer world.  Bring such growth to our minds and hearts, through Jesus Christ we pray.  Amen.


    We have walked together during these Advent days, O God, and we know peace has not always been in our minds and hearts at the end of each day.  Some of us have been made weary by the sounds of new babies in our household.  Some of us still remain entangled emotionally in the events that removed friends and colleagues from our midst.  Some of us face life-threatening illnesses.  And still others of us face our first Christmas without someone who helped fill up our days with their presence. 

    There were many times in Jesus' life when he did not feel like celebrating.  Just as it was for him, such moments are fine for us too.  Yet we are grateful to those who decorated their houses when we could not.  We are grateful to carolers who blessed us with their music when we did not feel like singing.  We are grateful that someone touched us with thoughtfulness when we could not get our cards in the mail.  We are eternally thankful for those who stood by us when we were fragile.  

    We thank you God, for how contagious joy is.  And there is nothing more healing than when we know authentically that someone loves us just as we are.  When we do not look at our own shadow, we can be made to feel whole again simply by walking away from our neediness while opening our arms to others.  Bless each of us this day with the knowledge that we keep your gifts only when we give them away.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .