Sermon for December 24, 2020. Emory Presbyterian Church. Christmas Eve. Matthew 2:1-12
Fifteen years ago, while I was serving as an associate minister at a Presbyterian church in Silver Spring, Maryland, on a Saturday morning in December, Elizabeth and I saw an online advertisement for a Christmas tree farm located an hour away from our apartment:
“7-FT FRASER FIRS, $50.
PICK OUT THE ONE YOU LIKE.
BRING YOUR OWN SAW.”
We were instantly amazed by such a great deal, considering that most Fraser firs cost two to three times that much at chain retail stores. There was even a picture of an enormous tree located on the farm.
However, we also looked at each other with skepticism and laughed: “This can’t be for real. There’s gotta be a catch. I bet they only have one really good tree that’s already been claimed and the rest are scrawny or missing limbs. Or they’re going to con us into buying extra stuff we don’t need like a stand and lights.” But we decided to check out the farm, anyway, thinking it might be a fun adventure and a good laugh.
When we arrived at the farm, we were thrilled to find the truth as advertised: rows of 7-ft Fraser firs with the price tag of $50. We picked out the one we liked best, cut it down, tied it carefully to the top of our car and headed back to the entrance to pay for the tree.
As soon as we pulled out the check book, the owner of the farm said politely, “I’m sorry, but we don’t take checks. Only cash.” Unfortunately, we didn’t have any cash on us and worse, it was 4:30 pm on a Saturday, out in the country. We asked the owner if there were any ATMs nearby that we could quickly visit while they held the tree for us. The owner thought of one that was 10 miles away and began to give directions when he stopped and said, “You know what, it’s going to be after dark by the time you get back. Y’all just take this tree home and send me the money later.”
Now, we really were surprised and also feeling a guilty for previously believing some hick farmers were going to pull a fast one on us. The farm owner had no reason to trust that we would ever send him money for the tree, nor would he have ever been able to find us if we hadn’t. But trust us, he did. Humbled greatly by the farm owner’s generosity—feeling ashamed that we had misjudged him—we returned home and put a check in the mail for more than $100 for the tree.
We were overwhelmed that Advent and Christmas with unexpected hope, peace, joy and love of Christ in our midst. There have been other Christmases since then that we’ve felt just as moved by what occurred around us during the holidays. The outpouring of care and support from family, friends, and the church in Duluth where I was serving as an associate pastor, when my father-in-law died on Dec. 19, 2012. The abundance of kindness that came in the form of diapers, onesies with puffy-paint messages and cards that came with the arrival of our second child, Davis, on November 29, 2013.
As parents, we are always elated to watch our children receive their yearly Christmas tree ornament that is representative of something they enjoyed doing a lot that year—a favorite TV show or extracurricular activity. We beam when Katie and Davis’ eyes and smiles grow wide, gazing at the lights in the neighborhood from the backset of the minivan. We relish their exuberance when they make cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve and then discover they’ve been eaten the following morning. And those squeals of delight upon opening presents rings in our ears throughout Christmas Day.
We are overwhelmed, and, truth be told, I’ve never not been overwhelmed at Advent and Christmas. I’m almost 45 years old and I have as much trouble sleeping now on Christmas Eve as I did when I was 5 because I’m so excited for Christmas Day. The glee that bounds from my heart at this time comes from not knowing quite what to expect.
Often what we receive is too good to be true, more than what we expected and greater than any particular material gift wrapped in shiny paper and bows.
I’m not sure exactly what those magi, the great scholars from the East, were anticipating when they set out on their camels to visit the child, Emmanuel. But Matthew’s gospel indicates that when the star stopped above a home in Bethlehem, “they were overwhelmed with joy.” And when they walked through the doorway, “they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.”
The magi were overwhelmed by the holy mystery that sat innocently before them. And their magnificent encounter reminds us that God becomes incarnate as a poor, vulnerable infant during a period of great suffering and political tumult. As soon as their visit ends, the magi return to their own country by another road because they are warned in a dream to not return to King Herod who wishes harm on Jesus. Herod’s maddening fear of losing his throne, of course, causes Joseph, Mary and Jesus to flee to Egypt for refuge and prompts the king to kill all the children of Bethlehem who are 2 and under.
We too live in a world of suffering and brokenness and mad rulers. We don’t ever know precisely what to expect on any given day. It’s made many of us skeptical, cynical and fearful. When we learn of something new and potentially wonderful coming on the horizon, we can choose to scoff, be afraid or feel threatened. Or we can allow ourselves to be humbled, captivated and transformed. We can become filled with anger or we can be overwhelmed with delight.
The idea that God would enter the world as a vulnerable, defenseless child is too good to be true. There’s got to be a catch. And yet there isn’t one. The surprise of the unexpected gift that we prepare for and celebrate every year is so good, it is astoundingly true. Even though we don’t deserve it and have done absolutely nothing to earn it, Emmanuel (God-with-us) comes into each and every one of our lives, overwhelming us with the hope, peace, joy and love that we are to embody for the rest of our days.