Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Rejoicing in the Gift”
Rev. Art Ritter
December 30, 2018
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.
We had our Ritter Christmas gathering in Belding, MI last Friday night. As such family gatherings go, we engaged in the sharing of memories and in the sharing of stories which may or may not be true. My sister brought up something about my mother’s sister, an aunt who passed away around ten years ago. She was something of a legend in the family, perhaps not always for good reason. My aunt always saw herself as a voice of wisdom within the family, the source of much practical knowledge. The rest of us however viewed her more as a know-it-all and a party pooper! Let me give you some examples.
Many years ago at my sister’s wedding, my aunt waited to be the last person in the receiving line so she could speak privately with my sister and her new husband. I asked my sister what she said. Laurie told me that my aunt reminded her that weddings can be beautiful but sometime marriage isn’t. She talked about how hard it is living with an imperfect person. Nice advice maybe, but not the kind of thing you want to hear in your wedding receiving line.
A few years later my sister gave birth to a baby daughter. My aunt was one of the first people to come to the house and greet the baby. She brought a beautiful quilt that was handmade and treasured still to this day. But she also brought her world famous advice. “Do you realize that giving birth was the easy part? Now you have to care for this baby, and raise this child. And parenting is so hard these days. There are so many obstacles and temptations out there!” You sort of get the feeling that my aunt is like Debbie Downer of Saturday Night Live fame.
Then came the day that my niece, now all grown up, graduated from Olivet College. Of course my aunt had some advice for her then also. “I know your parents are proud of you but you aren’t done yet. What kind of job are you going to get? There are plenty of others like you just getting out of school and looking for work. You’ve got to make yourself special. You just can’t expect to get any job you apply for.”
I think as we got older, we just came to the conclusion that my aunt was showing love by her advice. But we also came to the conclusion that if you wanted a good party, you didn’t invite her. She would just bring you down with a good hard dose of reality. And you should hear what she said at funerals!
Regardless of whether or not you appreciate my aunt’s practical advice, it seems as if some situations in life don’t always give us much time and space to celebrate and rejoice. Even our most fulfilling times are often tempered with a hearty portion of realism that keeps our emotions in check. We have all experienced the disappointment of a promise unfulfilled. We have all reveled in the good news only to find a different side to the picture days later. We have all been encouraged before, only to have the rug of hope pulled out from under our feet. We might allow ourselves a smile and a cup of eggnog on Christmas Eve, but late on Christmas evening when we start picking up all of the old wrapping paper, we are quick to bring ourselves back to hard reality.
I recall a few years ago that Laura received a digital camera from her employer as a holiday bonus. We were thrilled because back then digital cameras were unique. We were looking forward to the wonderful pictures we would have of Maren and Amelia opening their presents around the Christmas tree. But then I began to read the operator’s manual. It seemed so complicated. Trying to get that camera to work was more of a hassle than I wanted to have on Christmas morning. I have a feeling that one or two of us have received presents like that on Christmas. They looked good on the store shelf or in someone else’s hands but when we take them out of the box, we can’t even begin to figure out how they work! Anyway, I finally got the camera to work but then tried to download the software on my home computer to store the lovely photos I had taken. The computer crashed. It took two weeks and hundreds of dollars to fix it. Joy turned quickly to anger and frustration.
I heard a few people talking about how hard it is getting to celebrate Christmas. The economic picture is still uncertain. Jobs and paychecks are no guarantee. The stock market tumble right before Christmas brought no joy. The political situation of government shutdown, angry words, and lack of compromise paints a dismal picture. The New Year is about to arrive with possibilities but also with concern. Once all of our holiday events are over, we are still faced with the coldest days of the winter, with the credit card bills in the mail, and with the uncertainty of our world. Perhaps many of us thought about these things even as we shopped, ate, and sang our favorite Christmas carols.
How is it then that we can really celebrate the gift of Christmas? How is it that we can be glad in the birth of Jesus the Christ? The ancient story itself calls for us to rejoice. After centuries of waiting, the time was fulfilled. God came in the flesh. A baby was born in Bethlehem. Angels sang of glad tidings. Wise men brought gifts and worshipped the babe. We read in Scripture of a promise kept, of hope renewed, of unbridled joy for all of creation. And yet just five days later reality has moved back in. Christmas joy is put away like a box of tree ornaments. Any sense of Christmas joy is overwhelmed by real world sobriety.
But on this Sunday after Christmas, we need to reflect on how we can celebrate the birth of Christ after Christmas. We are to remember that joy- pure joy- is still what the season is supposed to be about.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul speaks of us being “slaves to the ruling spirits of the universe.” Paul’s words seem to describe what we may see as fate, controlled by things much bigger than us and beyond our control. Then in the words of today’s lesson he writes, “When the right time had come, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his own Son.” Time before Jesus was a time of yearning, waiting, and wishing. For Paul, the crucial event that would change humanity was the birth of Jesus. From that moment on, human beings were no longer slaves to sin, to the fates, and to inevitable death. Because of Christ we are free to live life in all of its fullness. There is still struggle and there is still strife but we are no longer slaves to it. God promises something better and brighter.
The gospel lesson this morning is the story of the infant Jesus being presented in the Temple. At the Temple there were many who had been praying and waiting for God’s deliverance for many years. Simeon, an old man held Jesus in his arms and suddenly sang with joy because he saw salvation in the eyes of that little child. Anna, an old woman who had been fasting in grief and disappointment, saw Jesus and began to sing and to praise God. These joyless people without hope suddenly recognized the power of God to act in the reality of human life. All that they had waited for had finally come to be. Expectations were over. The gift had arrived. It was time to celebrate living with the gift.
I remember when living in Utah and then returning to Michigan to visit my Dad. My visits always required a stop at the tavern in McBrides, Michigan. They made the world’s greatest cheeseburger. I would anticipate the taste even on the plane ride to Michigan and after one bite there was always the joy of fulfillment. I remember as a young boy, making the long drive to Detroit to see the Tigers play. There was great anticipation once I saw the light towers and knew that the magical scene was only moments away. Simeon and Anna must have felt such joy of the fullness of time completed, and recognizing what they had been waiting for was now in their midst. We might allow ourselves a smile and a cup of eggnog on Christmas Eve, but late on Christmas evening when we start picking up all of the old wrapping paper, we are quick to bring ourselves back to hard reality.
Joy. That is what this first Sunday of Christmas is all about. It is about the joy that comes when we have waited so long, when we have discovered the time has arrived, when our deepest longings are fulfilled and when our earnest prayers are answered. It is about the feeling we get when we suddenly are aware that we have received something not of our own making, but as a gift of grace. We have received a gift, a gift unexpected and special that can change our lives. It is joy that can only come as a gift from God. No matter what our situation is today, this is a day to rejoice in that which God has done for us. God has set us free from the inevitable and opened for us the door of great possibility.
Garrison Keillor once put it this way, “Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted, but in getting what you have, which once you have it you may be smart enough to see it is what you would have wanted had you known.” This may be a rather convoluted way of saying something bit I think it speaks the message of Christmas joy that Paul and the gospel refer to. We have received a gift this Christmas, a gift that can change our lives and our world if we are willing to understand the possibilities. It is a gift of joy if we are wise enough to understand what it truly means. Jesus has come in the fullness of time. Because of his coming, we can see that what we have and know that with God what we now have is enough. Because of Christmas, the world is full of possibilities and signs of hope.