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Christ The King

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Edward F. Markquart

The long walk is the gift!

Christmas Eve     Matthew 2:1-12

From the Bible, the Word of the Lord is:  “Thanks be to God for his inestimable gift!!!” Inestimable. Invaluable. What gift is inestimable?

At Christmas time, one of the most memorable stories of Christmas is that of the three wise men.  On many Christmas cards, you see images of the three kings.  The three kings are very easy to visualize as they elegantly march across our Christmas cards.                                        

Or, you may think of those Sunday School Christmas pageants that you attended in your childhood. You watched those three kings come marching into the sanctuary, and you heard the sounds of the bass drum, and the bass tones of the organ, and you saw the kings (sixth grade Sunday School boys) marching down the center aisle, sashaying back and forth to the melody of “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”  The kings, the sixth grade boys, would be dressed up in their fancy emerald greens, in their royal blues, and in their crimson reds.  The grand kings of childhood pageants would carry their paper mached gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Then we would hear the story of the three wise men bringing their invaluable gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We would hear that the three wise men walked for hundreds and hundreds of miles; yes, a thousand miles.  We also heard that the wise men walked for two whole years, while walking for a thousand miles, searching for the Christ child, carrying their invaluable gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Were those gifts real gifts, the glittering gold, frankincense and myrrh?  Was the glittering gold the invaluable gift of Christmas? Was it not the walk for hundreds and hundreds of miles that was the real gift?  Was it not the walk that lasted for more than two years that was the inestimable gift?  Isn’t this when the wise men gave of themselves, when they walked for hundreds of miles for more than two years?  Isn’t this what Christmas is all about, discovering what it means to truly give of oneself, as the wise men did?  Isn’t that what being wise is?  Discovering what it means to give of yourself in love to another?  The way that God did at Christmas time and the way Jesus did all the time? 

You see, the inestimable gift is always the gift of one’s self, and on this first Christmas Eve, God gave of himself in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Tonight, God once again comes to give us that inestimable gift.  God comes to give us his Spirit, the Spirit of his Son, the Spirit of his peace and love whereby we are taught to walk in the paths of peace.  Are not these more valuable than gold, frankincense and myrrh? Can’t material gifts be a substitute for truly giving of yourself to another person? 

This theme of giving gifts, of giving inestimable gifts, then continues in our Christmas tradition, and we move to the year of approximately 350 AD. We hear the story of “Jolly Old St. Nicholas, Lend your ear this way.”  Jolly old St. Nicholas was actually a real person, the Bishop of Smyrna, and he was a kind, loving, gentle old man who went around on Christmas Eve and gave presents to poor children.  The poor children would then open their gifts on Christmas Day.  St. Nicholas was very much like St. Francis of Assisi; that is, he was such a gentle, kind, giving man. 

That is what Christmas is all about.  Christmas is about the time in human history when God gave himself to us in the person of his Son, Jesus, and tonight God comes to us on this particular Christmas Eve to give of himself once again.  That is, God gives us his Spirit, the Spirit of his Son, the Spirit of his kindness, whereby we begin to walk in the paths of peace.

This past week, I have been thinking of stories where people gave of themselves to me.  I thought of the many years I have received Christmas presents.  I have now arrived at the age where I “much older” and I have received numerous Christmas gifts through the many years, but I can vividly remember only one gift.  I would like to tell you the story.    

It is the story of the red sweater. A long time ago, way back in the Holy Land of Minnesota and the Holy City of Minneapolis/St. Paul, there was a young man and a young woman who were very much in love.  She was a beautiful blonde, so I recall,  with blonde hair and bright blue eyes, and we were madly in love.  This was going to be the first Christmas Eve that we spent together. We were at her home, with her family, and with her parents, and we were engaged. I had this very special present and I just didn’t want to give it to her at her house, with her parents present, with her family watching.  Who wants to give a special present with her family and parents around to watch?  So, I said to her, “Let’s go for a little drive,” and we drove one block away where we pulled the car off to the side of the frozen road with Minnesota ice and snow all around us.  We smooched a little bit, not much being from Minnesota and all, and then I gave her this special, romantic, perfect gift. Do you know what that gift was? Neither do I. I have no idea what the gift was.  I have completely forgotten the gift but I remember clearly the situation.  She then gave me my special gift, just for me, and she asked:  “What do you think it is?”  I guessed, “A red sweater. A red sweater that you have knit for me.”  Her face dropped, like perhaps I had guessed correctly.  I slowly unwrapped the paper and sure enough, it was a homemade red sweater that she had knit herself.  This is the red sweater that I am wearing tonight.  It is more than four decades old.  It is a little baggy now, but even then, the sleeves were six inches too long.  The sweater is almost unbearably heavy and warm, made with number fourteen or twenty-four knitting needles. But maybe, just maybe, I treasure that red sweater because it became one of my most valuable possessions. If the house burned, I would try to save the sweater and no other article of clothing.  It is the only piece of clothing that I still have after forty years. Maybe I treasure that first Christmas sweater but I knew  that I was marrying a woman who understood what it was to give of herself.  It wasn't the red sweater but the hours of loving with her knitting needle. She had discovered the wisdom of the wise men.  She had discovered a quality more valuable than gold, more valuable than frankincense, and more valuable than myrrh.  As she made that sweater, she had given herself in love. And that is what Christmas is all about.  It is about the time in human history when God gave himself to us in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. It is about the time in human history where the Lord came came down the stairways of the stars and made a long journey to earth to give himself to us in the person of his son, Jesus.

Christmas? Christmas is about that night when God gave himself to us.  He gave us his Son, Jesus.  Tonight is Christmas Eve, and once again God comes to us with that inestimable gift, the gift of himself, his Spirit, the Spirit of his Son, the Spirit of love.  When the Spirit of God’s Son lives in our heart, we begin to walk in the paths of peace, and that is being wise.  The wisdom of the wise men is finally discovering the Christ within, the Spirit of giving yourself in love as God did on that first Christmas Eve.

There is a story about an African missionary who worked in a country by the name of the Belgium Congo. The missionary had taught a group of native people about the Christmas story and about the wise men.  The pastor told them the story of how the wise men traveled hundreds of miles on foot from Babylonia and how they had searched and walked for more than two years in their search for the Christ child.  He told them about the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but he explained that the real gift was the walking for hundreds of miles for two years.  One young man by the name of Cungo heard the story.  One day, Cungo disappeared from his tribe and was gone for more than two weeks.  He finally returned with a gift for the missionary.  His special gift was a beautiful necklace, and at the end of the thong of the necklace was a gorgeous shell. The missionary asked Cungo where he found that shell.  “I have never seen such a shell my whole life.”  Cungo replied, “I have walked to the Great Sea, and it is only in the Great Sea that this shell is found.  The long walk was part of the gift.”

Similarly, God took the long walk from the heavens down the stairway of the stars to earth, … and Mary and Joseph took the long walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem… and Jesus took the long walk from Jerusalem to the cross at Calvary… and the long walk is part of the gift.  The long walk is where you give of yourself to another person in love, and that is what Christmas is all about.  That’s what wisdom is all about, the wisdom of the wise men that they finally discovered in the Christ child. 

This past year, a group of us were visiting our sister church in Haiti, and we were back in a very remote village, located way up into the mountains of Haiti.   We had ridden a mule train high up into the remote mountains of that land.  It was incredibly beautiful, and from the mountaintops, you could see the blue sea in the far distance.  It was gorgeous. We stayed for four days, and we met the pastor of the congregation.  His name was Pastor Berjae who had one eye that had been injured and destroyed many years before.  You tried to look at Pastor Berjae without looking at his damaged eye, but it was difficult not to notice and glance at his prominent facial feature.  Pastor Berjae was also a very shy man, and didn’t speak to us very much.  One day, on our next to last day in the village, before we got up in the morning, Pastor Berjae disappeared.  He was nowhere to be found.  Where was Pastor Berjae?  No one knew for sure, but we heard that he had gone to Kais, a small town some eight hours walk away. We heard he left at four in the morning, walked to Kais, did his business, and then would return after another eight hour walk, negotiating the goat trails in the darkness, arriving back in our remote village by midnight.  That’s a long day.  On the next morning, the morning of our departure, there was Pastor Berjae, looking as sprite and alive as could be, like he had done nothing yesterday.  As we gathered together for closing prayers, he presented us with his gift:  a wrapped, thin rectangle.  We unwrapped the gift, and there was this simple picture, a painting, a water color, with pictures of large trees, a stream, and two colorful Haitian women standing by the stream with water pots carefully balanced on their heads.  The picture is now located in my office.  In your mind, it may not be the finest of paintings. It may not be worth much materially.  But, the picture, you see is not the essential gift.  The long walk is the gift.  Pastor Berjae gave of himself with sixteen hours of walking, many of them in the darkness of night. Nowadays and constantly, people give material things as a substitute for giving of themselves, but not Pastor Berjae.  He had discovered the wisdom of the wise men.

The long walk is the gift of one’s self.  It was the long walk of God, coming down the stairways of the stars to earth.  It was the long walk of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  It was the long walk that Jesus took from Jerusalem to Calvary.  The long walk is when you give of yourself to another, for that is what happened when God gave himself in his Son.  And that is the wisdom of the wise men.

Let me tell you a Christmas story. It is about Curt C., a member of our congregation. I tell this story with his permission. Curt is very sick with cancer, stage four, lung cancer. According to the statistical charts, he was supposed to die two years ago, but C is some kind of a survivor. Curt is fifty-five years old, lives with a room mate, goes to bed every night by 7:00 PM because he needs to get up early and go to work. Even though he is fighting cancer and is exhausted by his treatments, he must go to work every day. That is the way his insurance does not work for him. I telephoned him the other day, as I do weekly to all the "really sick" people in our parish, and a woman's voice answered the telephone. I thought that it was his sister who was visiting. No, it wasn't. The woman's voice was the voice of his daughter. Now a young adult about thirty, she and her two young adult brothers had flown to Seattle from the Midwest and East coast to be with their dad during this Christmas season. Not only that, Curt's ex-wife from twenty-seven years ago had also come. Curt and his ex-wife had divorced a long time ago but remained friends. She wanted to be with Curt this Christmas as well. So the whole family had flown in to be with Curt for this Christmas. I suppose they brought their Christmas presents, maybe a gold necklace and some sweet smelling after shave lotion that smells sweet like myrrh. But were those material gifts the REAL gifts? No, not at all. The real gifts were their gifts of love, the journeys from the Midwest and the East coast to be with their dad. It was the long journey which was the gift of themselves to their dad this Christmas season.

Another Christmas story. This happened last Christmas to Claire and Agnes Tronson had have been married for sixty-five years.  Agnes was now confined to home due to Parkinson’s Disease which crippled her.  At Christmas time last year, for the twelve days of Christmas, some unknown person slipped onto their front porch very early in the morning and left a “theme” Christmas present for the Tronsons. The theme gift matched the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” and each gift matched a verse of the song. So the twelve golden rings were twelve pineapple slices; there were two turtle-doves, and even a partridge in a pear tree.  This gift giver was very clever and secretive.  Tronson got up at the crack of dawn and slyly peeked out the crack in his living room curtains, but old man Tronson was seen and outwitted and outfoxed by the givers.  Finally, on the eleventh day of Christmas, Tronson got lucky and found out that the giver of gifts was his early-morning paper man. On the thirteenth day, Tronson left a batch of his famous carmel-corn for the giver of gifts who had come in the wee hours of the morning.  What a gift!  What wonderful twelve gifts!  What a wonderful heart to give so joyfully to the Tronsons.  What a wonderful heart was living inside the early morning paper man.  That is wisdom, to discover what it means to give of one’s self. The paper man had discovered the wisdom of the wisemen.

During this and every Christmas season, I love the Christmas stories, the Christmas songs, the Christmas TV specials. One TV special I really like is the animated cartoon, entitled, THE GRINCH WHO STOLE CHRISTMAS by Dr. Seuess. It is such a fun story; its message is so true. In particular, I like one poem that goes like this:  “Christmas came from Whoville without ribbons or tags. Christmas came from Whoville without boxes or bags. Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas means…a little bit more.”  How true that is: maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store; maybe Christmas means a little bit more.”

I would like to tell you one more story that illustrates the same theme.  There once was a little boy by the name of David.  It was during World War II, and David’s father was a soldier fighting in Germany. It was September, and the father wrote to his little son, David.  He asked, “What would you like more than anything in the whole wide world?”  David wrote back:  “Daddy, I would love to have a puppy. I would love to have a puppy more than anything else in the world.”  Well, on evening of December 24th, there was a knock on the door.  David answered, and there was Santa Claus who questioned:  “Is your name David?”  “Yes, my name is David.” “What would you like more than anything in the whole wide world?”  “I would like a puppy.”  Santa reached down into his big bag, opened it up, and there was a little Pekinese puppy.  David was so happy. … The months passed; the war was still on; and soon it was September.  The father again wrote to his son and asked:  “And what would you like for Christmas this year?”  The son wrote back:  “Daddy, I wish you would come home but mom says that you can’t, so I would like an aquarium with angel fish.”  Soon it was Christmas Eve and there was a knock at the door and sure enough, it was Santa Claus who asked:  “Is your name David?” “Yes.” “And what do you want more than anything else in the world?”  Santa soon brought out an aquarium and a bag full of angelfish and David was pleased. … Life passed; months passed; and David’s father was still in Germany. He wrote to his son in September, “Son, I am in the war and can’t come just now but what would you like more than anything else in the world?”  David wrote back:  “I want you, Daddy.  I want you to come home and be with me.  That is what I want.”  the father replied in his letter, “I can’t come home, but what thing do you want for Christmas more than anything in the whole wide world?”  David wrote back reluctantly, with an inner sadness, “cowboy boots.”  Time passed; it was soon Christmas Eve and there was the traditional knock on the door, and the Santa knelt down to the little boy and asked, “And what can I give you for Christmas this year?”  David finally broke down and cried on Santa’s shoulders, “I want my Dad.  That’s what I want.  I want my Dad to come and be with me.”  Santa said, “Is there anything else?  Like cowboy boots?”  “OK.”  As David was tugging at his cowboy boots, trying to pull them onto his feet, he glanced up and Santa was taking off his white beard and his red had and his white hair, and…and…it was his Dad!!!  David ran over and threw his arms around his Dad, hugged him, squeezed him saying over and over again, “You’re home. It’s you. You’re home.”  His Dad said:  “It was a very long trip, but I had to come to be with you this Christmas Eve.” 

You see, more valuable than puppies; more valuable than as aquariums; more valuable than cowboy boots; … more valuable than gold, diamonds and rubies; more valuable than all of this, is the gift of one’s self in love.  What is gold compared to that?   Compared to the gift of giving one’s self in love.  That is wisdom, the wisdom of the wise men that they discovered when they found Jesus.

That is what Christmas is all about.  Christmas is about that night when God came down the stairway of the stars to give himself to you in the person of Jesus.  Tonight God comes down the stairway of stars to give himself to you and me once again, to give us his Spirit, his Self, his love, his peace.  What is gold compared to that?

Thanks be to God for his inestimable gift!  Amen.

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