The audio of my Christmas 2C sermon is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.
As both a parent and a preacher, I really hate to admit this, but I think that Christmas presents are a lot like sermons: most of them are easily forgotten. I’m almost afraid to ask, but how many of you remember what I preached about on Advent 3? Truth be told, I had to go back and look up my sermon from three weeks ago, and “The Kingdom of God for Kindergarteners” was a fairly decent sermon. How many of our children were wandering around bored on December 26th? I got some really great Christmas gifts this year, but honestly, there are things that got opened, admired, and put away before I processed them into long-term memory. With the pace of life coming at us all so quickly, and the average human attention span now shorter than that of a goldfish, it is nearly impossible to make lasting memories unless you take a photo or write it down.
Thankfully, we have Matthew’s account of the Magi so we will never forget the first Christmas presents ever given, even if they were really, really late. Despite what the crèche in the Narthex might show, the Magi didn’t arrive with the Shepherds that first Christmas night. Given the distance they had to travel, they probably didn’t arrive for months, maybe even years, after the birth of Jesus. Still, these astrologers from the east knew that the star they saw meant that a new King of Israel had been born and no matter the distance, they would come to pay him homage bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. No matter when they actually arrived, I suspect that Mary was still in the business of pondering things in her heart, and surely she never forgot these amazing, extravagant, and foreboding gifts. Some say the gold made it possible for Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus to flee to Egypt, protecting Jesus from Herod’s slaughter of every boy under the age of two. The frankincense was a gift befitting a deity, and anointing a newborn with frankincense oil was one way of dedicating the child’s life to God. The myrrh was a well-known embalming oil, and a fragrance with which Mary would, in time, become all too familiar.
Mary never forgot the gifts of the Magi, and thanks to Matthew, neither will we. These gifts remind us that the birth of Jesus was an event which impacted not just Israel, but the whole world. These gifts, and the men who bore them, show us that it is God’s desire for the whole world to see and know the saving love of Jesus. As Christmas winds down, what gifts might we offer to God to build the kingdom? As a new year begins, what resolutions might we take on to support the spread of the Gospel and deepen our relationship with God?
For months now, Keith and I have been talking about four practices that will shape our common life in 2016. We’ve talked them over with the vestry, and they will make up the backbone of our upcoming vestry retreat. They’ll shape our Lenten conversations and the Great 50 Days of Easter. They are, we believe, the most important gifts we can offer Jesus. They certainly aren’t gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but Prayer, Worship, Service, and Sharing might just change the world, or at least our little corner of it here in Foley, Alabama.
The first gift we can offer God is the gift of Prayer. We’re not asking you to become monks, mind you, we’re just asking for 10 minutes a day. You might consider reading the four short prayer services called “Daily Devotions for Families and Individuals” that start on page 136 in the Book of Common Prayer. You could download the Daily Office app from Mission St. Clare, the Forward Day by Day app from Forward Movement, or the Stop and Pray app from my friend Jay Anderson. You could spend your shower time or workout time or lunch prep time in prayer, quietly listening for God’s will for you. Maybe you already pray for hours on end, that’s great, keep it up, but if you find prayer to be a hard habit to start, then start small, and deepen your relationship with God by praying for 10 minutes each day.
The second gift we can offer God is our worship. Worship was the first and most important gift the Magi offered Jesus. Here again, we aren’t asking for you to come to church three times a day for Morning and Evening Prayer and a daily Eucharist. Let’s simply shoot for an hour of worship a week. The easiest way to accomplish this would be to show up here every Sunday, but there are alternatives. If Sunday is out because of travel, guests, or work, you could come to our service on Wednesday at noon. Barring that, you might listen to your favorite Christian music channel while you walk the dog, wash the dishes, or mow the lawn. You’d be surprised at how quickly you’ll find yourself humming those songs throughout the day; praising God all the time. When life is lived through the lens of worship, contentment and joy are soon to follow.
The third gift we can offer God is service. Here’s where things get a little more difficult, as we’re upping the ante to five hours a month of service to the Kingdom of God. Of course, many of you are already doing this and a whole lot more. Whether it is serving on the altar guild, as a Follow the Word volunteer, driving for meals on wheels, or working on a Habitat for Humanity build, the time of service quickly adds up. What’s more important than the time given is the impact made, and you’d be amazed by how large an impact a small gesture can have. After taking two years off from volunteering at Foley Elementary School, I’m back in a kindergarten classroom this year. Each Thursday at 9am, I join Mrs. Davis and Ms. Debbie for Game Day. We play simple games like Chutes and Ladders or Hi-Ho Cherry-Oh, and it seems like not much is happening, until you realize that some of these kids have never played a game in their lives, and they are learning life skills by taking turns, counting to ten, and problem solving. A simple action is opening up a new realm of possibilities for a child, and just like that, through the simple gift of service, the Kingdom of God is growing in new places and new ways.
Finally, the fourth gift we can offer God is sharing, which carries a nice double meaning. We can share our financial resources with God and we can share the love of God with those who might not know him. Here again, we’re not asking you to do anything crazy or miraculous. While I hope that you’ll work toward the biblical model of the tithe, or giving 10% of your income to the Kingdom of God, I realize that the average Episcopalian gives only about 1.5%. You might not be able to jump to 10% right away, and that’s ok. Let’s start small, and let God do the big things. If you’ve never done percentage giving before, try 2 or 3 percent. If you’re already giving a percentage, consider bumping it up by a percentage point or two.
Even more important than your money is your passion. If you’re praying daily, worshipping with regularity, serving the community, and giving to the up-building of the Kingdom, then your love for God and neighbor will be palpable. Others will see the love, joy, and peace that are in your life and want to have it for themselves. Be ready to share the love of Jesus with those around you. When people ask what has made the difference in your life, tell them about the love of God. Who knows, you might offer them a gift they will never forget, a personal relationship with a God who loves them more than they could ever imagine.
Pray – 10 minutes a day.
Worship – an hour a week.
Serve – 5 hours a month.
Share – a percentage of your income and the love of God.
These are gifts that we can all offer God, gifts that will build the kingdom, gifts that will change the world, and will never be forgotten. I hope you’ll join us in 2016 as we commit to these practices, four simple gifts that each of us can offer Jesus Christ, our newborn king. Amen.