“Our Take-Away from Christmas”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – December 30, 2018

Centenary United Methodist Church

    Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52

    The end of one year and the beginning of a new one always presents us with an opportunity to review our lives, particularly if we would like 2019 to be better than the year we are leaving behind. What we really want is to grow emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually beyond where we were in 2018.

    Try to imagine how long it takes for the afterglow of Christmas to wear off?  How long does it take for us to plunge headlong back into our lifestyles and daily rituals?  Sometimes what we experience is just another Christmas that temporarily transforms our environment and our getting together with friends and family.

    Our Scripture lesson this morning discusses what took place when Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem.  We may think that this lesson is misplaced by being between Christmas and the New Year.  Actually, it is ideal. When his parents found Jesus, he had engaged a group of teachers with his precocious personality.

    His questions and answers were intelligent enough to have attracted a good number of professional Teachers of the Law.  However, whatever the result was from Jesus and this group of teachers, it was not enough to move the needle on their position regarding the Laws of Moses controlling the lives of their people.  

    The same response can be found between us and the themes of Advent and Christmas.  Most of the time, very little moves the needle in us to the point where we commit ourselves to change a number of our attitudes and habits.  We discuss the themes of Hope, Love, Joy, Peace and God's spirit manifesting in a human form, but so what? 

    In every generation, it is difficult for people to change their minds when they have trained themselves for decades with responses that govern their lives. When people become wedded to one consistent pattern of responding to life, they can easily become blind to new possibilities, innovations, and fresh thinking.

    Some time ago, someone put together a verbal portrait of what happens to us when our life-patterns seldom change. Our thinking and emotions can become frozen by using responses that we learned in our childhood.  Here is that verbal portrait:

If you always believe what you have always believed, you will always feel the way you have always felt.

If you always feel the way you always felt, you will always think the way you have always thought.

If you think the way you have always thought, you will always do what you have always done.

If you always do what you have always done, you will get what you have always gotten.

If there is no change, there will be no change.

    During Christmas, we welcome the break in our normal routines.  We enjoy giving and receiving. We enjoy the aromas that come from our kitchens.  We enjoy letting go of our diets for a while as we eat seasonal foods that we may bypass during the rest of the year. We enjoy being with our family and friends. 

    There is nothing that better illustrates the thrill of parents giving their children gifts as when they use their cell phone's movie application to record the moment when they open their presents.  What is the take-away for many children? Parents can passively reason, "Our children are way too young to understand the real meaning of Christmas." 

When Jesus' birthday is the occasion of our celebration, what the children learn is that they are the ones getting the gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Children learn much faster from their early experiences than they do from the words that come later from a Sunday school teacher or a bedtime Christmas story being read to them. We are not always as skilled as we think we are in passing our faith to the next generation.

    Once a young family had gone to grandma’s house to celebrate the big annual Christmas meal, a time when the entire family gathered. As soon as little Logan received his plate of food, he began to eat like there was no tomorrow. 

    Upon seeing this, his mother scolded him, “Logan, please wait until we pray! Where are your manners?”  The little boy innocently responded, "We don’t need to. This is Grandma's house."  "Of course, we do!" his mother insisted, "We always say a prayer before eating at our house."  Logan said, "That’s at our house, but this is Grandma’s house and grandma is really a good cook."  The entire family burst into laughter at Logan's response. He sat there wondering what he said that was so funny.

    One has to wonder if anyone told Logan why his family uses their meal time to express gratitude to God for the many blessings that his family could easily take for granted.  Seeing and hearing our parents pray is often where we learn our values.

    New practices and habits may become part of our take-away from Christmas. They can save us from the plateaus of not changing anything about ourselves for decades. God does not need our gratitude. God does not need to see us being gracious and forgiving in an effort to honor or please God.  God does not need anything from us.  (Acts 17:24f) Gratitude is what happens to us when we become transformed from taking everything in our lives for granted.  

    The coming New Year gives us another opportunity to polish our responses of gratitude, instant forgiveness, and a chance to experiment with letting go of issues in spite of their lack of justice.  Paul gave us a listing of such qualities in our first lesson this morning.  (Colossians 3:12f) 

    How many unintended consequences occur when we engage in such polishing?  Our mental health improves.  We demonstrate to everyone in our sphere of influence who we are becoming.  Gaining a greater creativity to our collection of life-responses can become one of our take-aways from Christmas.  

    Who knows but that one of the take-aways of the 12-year old Jesus' question and answer session with the Teachers of the Law was listening to their responses.  We can develop a clearer understanding of our values when we observe and listen to how other people respond to their life's circumstances.  Suppose Jesus asked those professional theologians this question: 

    Which is better, to obey the Laws of Moses meticulously when doing so is not our desire, or to live the spirit of the Laws because that is our authentic desire to do so? Our ancestors taught, 'Do not think ill of foreigners who are living in your land.  Treat them as you would an Israelite, and love them as you love yourselves.'   (Leviticus 19:33f)

    As mentioned earlier, nothing in that exchange between Jesus and the Teachers of Law did anything to move the needle in their thoughts, feelings, or spirit.  They were bound to remain entrenched in the traditions of their heritage.  Jesus grew spiritually to a point where he could say to one of the great teachers of Israel, "I am telling you the truth; no one can understand God's will unfolding in the world without changing completely how he or she thinks and feels." (John 3:3) Obviously, the needle had moved in Jesus.  The needle must move in us, too.

     The truth is that Jesus does not and cannot save anyone, any more than a 12-year old Jesus could save the group of professional Teachers of the Law from remaining deeply rooted in their centuries-old system of beliefs and practices.

    What saves us from being consumed by the issues of this world is a take-away in the midst of our living.  Our spirits become touched by some experience in a way that ignites the dormant fire of our compassion and we are transformed completely. (Romans 12:2)

    A woman came into my office one day after Christmas asking for my advice.  Her daughter wanted something for Christmas that was very expensive.  With great reluctance, she and her husband bought it for her. Young Kate was delighted beyond anything that they could have possibly imagined.  Several weeks following Christmas, Jackie no longer saw her daughter playing with her sought after and much-loved present.  She asked her daughter where it was.  Kate hesitated and then responded:

    I'm sorry Mommy.  When I went back to school, I asked the girl who sits next to me what she got for Christmas.  She didn't answer.  I kept asking.  When we were eating lunch together, she told me that her family did not have enough money to give any gifts during Christmas.  Mommy, I have never heard of anyone who ran out of money at Christmas. Please don't be mad with me, I gave to her what you and Daddy gave to me.  I wanted her to have a Christmas like the one that I had.

    Jackie said, "What am I going to tell John when he gets home. He will be furious. Right now, he is in New York on business."  I said,

    There is only one response, Jackie.  You and John cannot take away her experience of giving to that friend her most valuable possession.  This is not to say that you two buy another one. Let her feel the loss of something she highly desired. Let her know how proud both of you are of her.  This was her take-away from Christmas and one of the best I have ever heard thus far in my ministry happening to one so young as Kate. You have done well with Kate.  Continue to praise her thoughtfulness.

    Jesus came to teach us how to live in this world.  The choice of how we do that is clearly ours and ours alone to make.  Kate made one of those life-transforming decisions as a young girl.  What is one take-away from last Tuesday's celebration of Jesus' birth that we want to build into our lives?



Merciful God, as we approach the dawning of the New Year, teach us how best to reflect on the effectiveness of our faithfulness. Jesus warned us not to look back, but we do.  We are aware of the promises we made, of relationships that we were going to mend, of habits we had hoped to change, and of attitudes we were going to discard.  Today offers us time to reflect on how successful we were in our desires to change that were so compelling last year. Guide us to continue our journey with attitudes of compassion and kindness so that others can see your presence in the person we have become.  Amen.                                                    



What a year it has been, O God. There were times when our lives were beyond our control because of the demands of our schedules. There were other times when we could quiet ourselves, curl up on our sofa, and relax.  We come this morning on the last Sunday of the year asking once again for the guidance as our lives continue to evolve and unfold.

Teach us why complaining never drove a nail or hoisted a beam into place. Guide us to understand why resistant attitudes never motivated us to roll up our sleeves or say, "Here am I. Send me." Teach us why our spoken opinions are useless unless they are helpful, insightful, and kind. Help us to learn why laughter is so critical to the balance of life and why doing something for others enables us to rise above the cares that usually defeat us. Show us why commitment and discipline are as essential to living as is our being open to possibilities for change.

As we enter the New Year, may we do so free of old hurts, liberated from habits that obscure our loving spirits, and willing to embrace change as an energized option that helps us to grow. Ignite in our souls the deep desire to live inspired lives. We want to trust your guidance so completely that doing so melts all our fears of the unknown.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .