Dec 24, 2008
Scripture: John 1:1-5, 14-18
Sermon Title: "Magnificent Simplicity"
A few weeks ago on NPR they were discussing our country’s current financial state. With things being the way they are, they assumed people will cut back this Christmas with less parties, less food, less presents under the tree.
They interviewed a pastor on what good news he would share with people in regards to Christmas and the economy. His response was inspirational: look towards the manger. The manger, he said, is the stripped down reality of life.
The manger is where the bare minimum of what is needed exists. It was just Joseph and Mary- that is how Christ came into the world.
In essence, what the pastor was saying is that we can stop looking at Wall Street for where hope for the world will come and instead look at the magnificent simplicity of the manger.
That radio interview got me thinking about humbleness and simplicity. I recalled a story I had read years ago of a Christmas day celebrated by a small family living in a little house in the big woods. It’s a story told by Laurie Ingalls Wilder.
As the story goes, Christmas was coming. The Little House in Wisconsin was buried in snow, so much so that when Pa opened the door, the snow was as high as Laura’s head. Pa shoveled a path to the barn, checking to make sure the animals were safe. Laura and her sister stood on chairs by the window watching the snow glitter on the trees.
All that week Pa worked on three pieces of wood, whittling away, carefully, patiently using his jack-knife to create flowers and circles, crescent moons and a star. It was a bracket he was making for Ma, and when he was done, he hung it up on the wall, where Ma placed her collection of figurines.
Ma kept busy, cooking and baking good things for Christmas: salt-rising bread, Swedish crackers, baked beans with salt pork and molasses, vinegar pies, dried-apple pies, a big jar filled with cookies.
Ma boiled molasses and sugar together creating a thick syrup. Pa brought in pails full of fresh snow and they showed the girls how to pour the syrup on the snow, which hardened and became candy. They could each have one piece but the rest would be saved for Christmas Day.
On Christmas Eve the ringing of sleigh bells signaled the arrival of Aunt Eliza, Uncle Peter, and their three cousins, wrapped in coats and mufflers and shawls.
The little house in the Big Woods was now filled with activity. Their dogs leapt and yipped in the snow. The children went outside, playing a game in which they stood atop a tree stump, fell in the snow, then gently got out, making five holes in the snow shaped exactly like them.
The children played until it was bedtime. They hung their stockings by the fireplace, said their prayers and went to bed. As the firelight threw dancing shadows on the walls, the adults talked as Pa took out his fiddle and played "Red Heifer" and "Arkansas Dream".
The girls slept in one bed on the floor, Peter had the trundle bed. Aunt and Uncle slept in the big bed, Ma and Pa slept in a bed made on the attic floor.
In the morning the children woke at the same time, looked at each other, then rushed to their stockings. There was something in there! Santa had come! Dressed in their red flannels they shouted to see what they got.
In each stocking was pair of bright red-mittens and a long piece of candy cane with decorative notches. They were so happy they could barely speak.
Laura, the youngest of everyone, received a special gift: a rag doll with black button eyes, penciled eyebrows and curly hair made out of yarn. Laura was speechless. "Did you ever see such big eyes?" the adults said.
Laura sat on the bed and held the doll. After some prodding by her parents, Laura let each child hold her new doll, but was thankful when it was back in her arms.
The adults exchanged gifts. Aunt Eliza gave Ma a red apple stuck full of cloves. Ma gave Aunt Eliza a needle-book she had made.
Then cousin Peter and the men stepped outside to do the chores, the girls and women set the table and made pancakes shaped like little men.
It was too cold to play outside, so the children tried on and admired each other’s mittens, took small licks of their candy canes, laid on the floor and looked at their picture Bible.
Then it was time for the Christmas dinner. Plates were kept full with food. Afterwards the Aunt and Uncle and cousins prepared for the ride home. They wore their new mittens. Baked potatoes were placed in their pockets to keep them warm, hot irons were placed at their feet in the sled.
In just a short while the merry sound of bells were gone, and Christmas was over, but what a happy Christmas it had been!
It’s been over 25 years since I read that story, but for some reason it lodged in my brain. I think one reason is just how perplexed I was at what a big fuss the kids made over so little.
Mittens and a piece of candy? Are you for real? That would never have flown in my house.
And yet, I have always remembered that story, and after rereading it I understand why: it was about what Christmas is truly about: family, time spent together, humbleness, making the most of what you have, being thankful.
As an adult I admire the story even more: the images of cooking together, Pa’s patience as he created Ma’s gift, everyone sharing chores, sharing space, sharing the moment together and not going off into their own private rooms.
How magnificently simple the story is, and how much we can learn from it. Perhaps we can even benefit from going back (just a little bit) to a way of life in which things were simpler, and love was not expressed by hundreds of dollars in gifts but by hundreds of minutes spent in relationship, in time together, in creating memories.
The economy may not allow us to express our love for one another through financial means, but it doesn’t mean we can’t find other ways to express our love.
And for guidance, all we have to do is look towards the manger, all we have to do is go back to the beginning of time, all we have to do is begin embracing the words of John, Chapter 1: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
Magnificently simple: In the beginning.
And what existed before the beginning? Nothing. Nothing but God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit living as a perfect trinity. But God has a desire for more. And so, as Genesis 1 states, God speaks "Let there be light". And there is light.
With Jesus and the Spirit present, God speaks out over the chaos of nothingness and begins the process of creating life and the world. God separates the light from the dark, God makes the heavens and the sky, sea and land, vegetation and fruit, sun and moon, God makes sea creatures, land animals, birds of the air, humans.
God takes a moment of chaotic nothingness and brings new life, new possibilities, and God calls it good.
Read the biblical narrative and you’ll hear how this happens again and again. God takes childless Abraham and Sarah and makes them the family that blesses all families. God works through Jacob’s messes, the problems his son Joseph faces, the slavery of the Israelites and brings new beginnings and new hope for the world.
And in the perfect fullness of time, when all Joseph and Mary had was a stable for shelter, God enters into human history as baby Jesus. As John states "...the Word became flesh and lived amongst us...From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace."
God does the most amazing thing: he transcends time and space and comes to us in the fragile, simple, lovely form of a baby boy. In that action God invites us to know him in a way previously unheard of before.
By becoming flesh and making himself known in the magnificent simplicity of a stable, God enters into human history, bringing with him a light that shines and puts darkness into the past tense.
In the magnificent simplicity of the stable God
becomes even more bound to us by becoming one of us, now able to identify with every aspect of life: joy and pain, suffering and loss, love and friendship, grief and death.
Perhaps most radical of all is how God chooses to come to us. Not as the son of a prince or a politician, not to a rich or well educated family. But a family that has nothing.
God gives up the magnificent otherworldliness of the heavens for the magnificent simplicity of the every day, to a man who makes a living with his hands, a young mother full of hope for her son..
Jesus who is God, who was with God when God created everything, is born in the midst of nothing. In a manger, stripped of all worldly possessions. Just the bare essentials: Mom, Dad, and God.
Not the internet, not a Wii or Guitar Hero, not even mittens and a candy cane.
Jesus, enters into the world humble, meek and mild. And we are the better for it.
By having the Word enter into our lives through the manger, we can hear, experience, and know God in ways never before possible; we are given an intimate access to the cosmic God who can be no stranger to us.
From that manger came the most profound hope. From that manger came truth and light, salvation and new life.
From the magnificent simplicity of the manger came the greatest person who ever walked the earth, bearing the greatest gift we could ever ask for: grace upon grace.
So, in the midst of all the economy is doing, in the midst of all we as a church, state and nation have been through, what we should remember this Christmas, and the Christmases to come is that the Good News is not about a multitude of gifts we can or can not afford.
As demonstrated by the manger, and seen in the Little House in the Big Woods, the Good News is that what matters most is the love we have for one another, the time we spend together and the light we bring into one another’s world.
The Good News is that in the magnificent simplicity of the manger God for once and for all showed that he can work even when there seems to be nothing to work with.
The good news is that even when it seems all is lost, God finds a way to make us found.
The good news is that even when the world around us appears at its darkest, God through the gift of Jesus Christ, is shining a light so bright it will guide us all home.
Christmas can’t be ruined because we can’t afford the most expensive things, but is enhanced by what we do have: the gifts of love, the gifts of time, the gifts of relationships.
The Good News is that God created the world out of nothing, and then, through the magnificent simplicity of the manger, God brought redemption to the world he had created.
Stripped of everything the manger welcomed new life, a New Light, the living Word. And grace upon grace blesses the world even until today.
Until that day when we return home with the sound of sleigh bells signaling our departure, may we continue to give God our praise, may the Spirit guide our steps and may the grace of baby Jesus radiate within and out of our hearts.