"The Challenge Of Christmas"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 24, 2003

     At the heart of every major religion is a central question:  Can believers unequivocally remain connected with God while living in the material world?  Christianity is no exception. Christmas is a season of celebration filled with observances and participation in worship experiences; it is a time of sharing, decorating, gathering and eating.  As we observe our traditions it is difficult to keep our identities centered and connected to God.  We can be surrounded by God's energy, love and grace and never sense the Spirit behind the Bethlehem star that wants to lead us. 

     I was recently in a store behind two young men who had just gotten home for their Christmas break from college. We were in the card section. One fellow picked up several boxes of cards without looking at them and stacked them in his arm. His friend said, "Aren't you at least going to look at what they say?"  He said, "Are you kidding me?  I just hope I have time to print my labels."  I imagined that later that evening there was going to be an assembly line where he would get his cards signed, stamped and in the mail. There was not much opportunity to consider the meaning of Christmas. His motivation was to get his ritual of card sending done in a timely fashion. 

     While in another store, I overheard two women talking. One said, "Once again we drew names of people in the office and I have to buy a gift for someone named Cheryl.  I don't even know her.  They put a $30 cap on what we can buy.  Can you imagine -- $30 bucks?  I could do a lot with $30 bucks! Every year I hate our having to do this!"  Again, there was not much time to consider the meaning of Christmas, not with her mind thinking such thoughts. Maybe some of us have been there.  

     I really enjoy Christmas. Even though we are currently in an Code Orange terror alert, we pause anyway to remember a baby being born.  That baby grew up to teach people how to give to others from the identical spirit that God radiates to us every moment of our lives.  When we learn how to do this, we connect with God and miracles happen. 

     The Dean of the Boston University School of Music watched an unusual event take place in front of the school's library.  It was closing time and as people were leaving the building, they came upon an old man playing a violin.  He was hoping to pick up some spare change and was having no success.  His disheveled violin case was empty.  Worse yet, it was as though he were invisible. No one was paying attention to him. 

     He chose the most inappropriate time to play.  It was the Christmas break. The students  were hurrying back to their dorm rooms to pack their belongings and head for home. A young woman came out of the library whom the Dean recognized as one of his coeds in the music department.  Being a student of the violin herself, she paused to listen. She was headed home to a wonderful gathering with her family, but from the looks of him -- well, she did not know where he might spend Christmas.  

     She interrupted his untutored playing and asked, "May I see your violin for a moment?"  He looked at her and with great reluctance he surrendered his violin.  She asked, "Would you mind if I played something for you as my gift?"  It was this overheard request that caused the Dean to stop, lean up against a tree and watch as the drama unfolded.  She tuned the violin, robbed some rosin on the bow which she had in her backpack, put the violin under her chin and began to play, Ave Maria.             

     The Dean observed that almost immediately, something happened to the rushing crowd.  Her playing was so professional, so magnificent that people slowed their pace and began to gather around the two of  them. They appeared to understand immediately what she was doing.  With tears in many of their eyes, dollars began to drop into the old man's well-worn violin case. 

     The Dean wrote about this event in the campus newspaper and concluded his article with these words,  

I was touched by the spirit of one of our students that afternoon in a way that a thousand sermons on Good Will would never have done.  An old man, who was too powerless to help himself, sat on the ground weeping.  He appeared more touched by the gift of her time than by the quantity of money that was accumulating in his violin case. 


Of all the gifts that I received this past Christmas it was one of our students who gave me a memory fragment that I will treasure for the rest of my life. She reminded me of the priceless gift we give to others when we give of ourselves.  She also reminded me that this is precisely what God did for all humankind centuries upon centuries ago. 

     There can be so many distractions in our midst as we prepare for the Christmas season that we can miss God's visible presence all around us.  Sometimes it takes a jolt for us to open our minds to a reality beyond what our thinking has made of us.

     This was definitely the circumstance for a man who lived in a small New England town.  He was merely going through the paces of Christmas.  Several months earlier his wife had died of cancer, leaving him with three children to rear. 

     He worked in the Post Office of his rural community. His assignment each year was to open, read and respond to the letters that arrived addressed to Santa Claus.  He was dreading the task that year because he felt so empty and detached from any desire to celebrate.  He was afraid that he would not be empathic enough toward the sincere and often heart rending requests of children.  

     One afternoon several days before Christmas, he opened a letter that arrived from a very familiar address.  It was his own.  The letter was from his little daughter, Julie. 

Dear Santa,

Do you know how to get in touch with God?  If you do, would you please tell him that my Daddy is so sad since my Mommie has come to live with him.  He cries a lot. I don't know how to make him happy.  Please ask God if he knows how to make my Daddy happy again.


Santa, if you can do this for me, that is all I want for Christmas.  Please give what you were going to give me to other children.  Your good friend, 


     It was little Julie's innocence, trust and faith that held a mirror in front of her Dad. The reflection of himself provided the jolt he needed.  He suddenly realized that God had lost a son too yet God never stopped loving the rest of his sons and daughters, a loving response he had misplaced along the way during his months of grieving. 

     Our distractions come in different forms.  We all have them. Let us not allow them to blind us to opportunities to make God visible every moment we can.  Just as a college student and a little girl took the time to love authentically, so can we.  This is what God did for us in Bethlehem of Judea.  

     When Jesus grew into manhood, he taught his listeners, "Now, it is your turn."  Had those people failed in what he requested of them, none of us would be here tonight.  Clearly it is now our moment in the sun; it is our turn.  Generations not yet born will be the recipients of how we respond.  Amen.


     How many times, O God, have we gathered in a church on Christmas Eve and had our minds transported back in time by Scriptures, music and words to that little town of Bethlehem, nestled in a very rural part of the world?  As we peel away the layers of the pageantry, may we find in  the story of Jesus' birth the substance that will enhance our awareness of your presence among us.   

     Far too many of us confess that our spiritual development has come in a distant second and third to our desires for the enhancement of our primary relationships, our vocational skills, our income levels and our abilities at parenting, forgetting that our spirit is on display every day.  May we not forget that the baby, whose birth we celebrate tonight, grew up to teach us the art of living, the art of loving, the art of being a fully conscious human being, one capable of becoming far more alive with talents and abilities than most of us realize.   

     Enable us to perceive with loving spirits so that we might truly see this thing which has come to pass, which you have made known to us.  If we have been away from you too long, may tonight be the time that we remember who we are and come home, so that the two of us might make a more powerful presence with the time we have left on earth.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .