Three Christmas Gifts for Everyone – December 27

A sermon based on Matthew 2: 1-12
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 27, 2020
by Rev. Scott Elliott

There are twelve days of Christmas. Most of us are probably only aware of that because of the song that goes on and on listing gifts for each of those twelve days. Today is the third day of Christmas. And in case you are wondering, in the song the gift for today is three french hens, which is thought to refer to foreign hens (in England “french” was funny shorthand for non-English things). But I also found a suggestion it was originally fat hens, not french hens – which makes more sense to me . . . But enough about the chickens, they run “a fowl” of what I planned to be “talon” you in the sermon this morning.

The lesson we heard is about the Magi who brought gifts to Jesus. The Magi are thought by some scholars to represent Gentiles entering into the Jewish Jesus movement. In the story they comprehend Jesus’ Christ-ness from afar and follow a star to pay homage to him as King of the Jews. When they find Jesus, they provide gifts – and then show courage and kindness while protecting him from Herod.

The story does not tell us the number of Magi involved, but tradition matches their number to the three gifts that are mentioned, gold, frankincense and myrrh. So, we have the three Magi–which tradition also claims were kings and wise men, but the Greek word “Magi” doesn’t mean they were necessarily either. While some Facebook posts point out it’s more likely they were women evidenced by their being wise enough to stop and ask for directions, there are actually serious academic works indicating that Magi consisted of both men and women.

Whatever their gender, the Magi are said to have brought three gifts that were freely given with no strings attached. Which got me to wondering if on the Third Day of Christmas I could name three gifts that Jesus gives like that– gifts for everyone with no strings attached. Here’s how I boiled down the question: What about Jesus’ arrival on Christmas ends up providing gifts for everyone with no strings attached?

Many Christians might list John 3:16 as the go-to-answer, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not parish, but have everlasting life.” But most who quote that verse on a regular basis usually make sure to point out it’s not an outright gift since you have to do something for it. Usually, they argue that you must believe in Jesus as God’s begotten son or go to hell. I have preached before that John 3:16 doesn’t say or mean that non-believers are going to hell. I have also mentioned that the “begotten Son” refers to God’s incarnation throughout the world since the beginning of creation – therefore any belief in God incarnate seems to meet the prerequisite.

But the Magi handed over gifts without a prerequisite, there wasn’t a single “whosoevereth” catch. What I wondered as I wrote this was, does Christmas provide gifts like that– you get them without a whosoever believeth or doeth. I am talking about gifts that are just ours unconditionally– like gold and frankincense and myrrh were given to the baby Jesus with no strings attached.

I can name three such gifts. They are all interlaced but have a distinctness of their own. The first gift is grace. It was not until after the first Easter that this gift was fully unwrapped and named, but it was hinted at by the angels on the first Christmas Eve when they mentioned the good news of great joy for all, and peace on earth good will to all. Despite what we might hear elsewhere, when God incarnate arrived with the birth of Jesus, the idea of salvation for all began its gestation and had its birth which the Apostle Paul named grace. Paul, like many throughout history, had this sense that all humans are born in a deplorable state of being. We still hear this today. People were thought to be wretched, so much so, they were unworthy of God’s love. We still this today. Some argued the first sin in the Garden of Eden corrupted all of humanity throughout history with sin. We still hear that today too.

But Paul and other early church founders argued that from Christmas to good Friday Jesus’ unfolding life and death served to alter ANY wretchedness humanity may have had– Christmas began the righting of any such innate sinfulness. Easter proved it. In other words, if Adam’s sin tainted and condemned us by nature, Jesus’ life and death and resurrection changed that and saves us.

That’s grace. Only most of us probably were taught that grace is only for those who follow John 3:16, but that’s not what Paul seems to have taught. Paul is pretty certain that humans cannot do anything to work grace into their lives, it is a God-given gift. Paul saw grace as a gift that no one has to – or can– do anything to receive. Humans can’t get grace by their own works, including work on faith. Faith is a response to the gift of grace; it is not a prerequisite to getting the gift of grace. Grace is the salvation that arrived as a gift for everyone by way of Jesus’ atonement. (His At-One-Ment with God) Basically whatever Adam was thought to have done to mess it all up, Jesus fixed.

The metaphor I often use to explain grace is, it’s a Christ inflated life raft in the deadly “Sea of Sin” and every single human being has been lifted out of the sea and put aboard the raft and is now and forever saved from drowning in that sin. No human is thought to be wretched anymore. As God told Peter in Acts 10 (28) we are to call no one profane or unclean. This fits with Jesus idea that we are to love everyone and tend to least among us, even enemies and aliens and prisoners. While this no-strings-access-to-grace idea may counter some religious ideas of grace that have developed over the years, it nonetheless gibes with Paul’s idea of grace, as well as Jesus’ teachings. It matches up with the Biblical notion that God is love and loves us unconditionally all the time forever. Notice how that also matches up with God so loving the world!

See no matter what anyone may tell us grace is gift that arrived that first Christmas and it has always been free and unconditional. Which leads us to the second gift. If we are ALL saved no matter what, why behave in that life raft? The answer is because it is the best thing, the right thing, the loving thing to do in response to the grace and salvation. The goodness and love in right behavior brings more of heaven to the raft and its inhabitants, saving them all from a lesser way of being above the unforgiving Sea of Sin. Good behavior is evidence of the unwrapping, gratitude, and use of the gift of grace.

And how do we know what that behavior should look like? Well, there just happens to be a host of free teachings given by the man who once was an infant Magi found and honored. That man, Jesus, gave the world the gift of lessons that have never been copyrighted or trademarked. They have always been public domain and free. The gist of the gift is actually now so embedded in how we live that with or without beliefs much of the world aspires to follow them. You don’t have to go to church or read a Bible to know that good behavior is doing to others what you want done to yourself, that good behavior is loving your neighbor and loving your enemy. Good behavior is tending to the sick, the poor, the stranger and the imprisoned, to anyone thought to be the least among us. Boiled down Jesus’ teachings– Christianity– is about being love in the world. It’s something everyone can do and the means to do it are freely given by Jesus. Gratis.

Finally, the third Christmas gift given to everyone with no strings attached is what I mentioned all during Advent and here again at Christmas! It’s that every year an amazing thing happens with no strings attached. The Christmas season arrives and offers hope and joy and peace and love and it makes the world better – if only at the intensity it should be for a few weeks. You do not have to do anything to experience it. There’s more love in the world because of Christmas.

So, on the first day of Christmas Jesus’ arrival gave to everyone free grace, free lessons on love and more love in the world most freely given this time of year. The trick, of course, is to not put those gifts away anytime soon and for us to add more and more gifts of love each day so that there are not just twelve days of Christmas, but twelve months of it.
May it be so . . . AMEN

ENDNOTES:
1. I was inspired by much of this section on grace by Prof. Paul Laughlin’s book Remedial Christianity, Chapter 6.

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2020 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Bright Light in the Shadow of the Cross

A sermon based on Luke 23:33-43
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on November 24, 2019 * 2010
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Our lesson today is a difficult one. Jesus is a criminal being executed. We tend to think of Jesus as perfect, a good, law-abiding man of peace, but, that’s not how Jesus was understood by many at the time that He lived and died and arose and ascended, and even for a long while after. Some thought Jesus was odd, crazy . . . a rebel who broke the law. He died a criminal but also had an unflattering reputation in some quarters when he was alive. The Gospel of John tells us that “Many [were] were saying, “He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?” (10:20). The Gospel of Mark reports Jesus’ was gathering a following and curing people and casting out demons; and “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” (3:21). In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus himself had this description “‘the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (11:18-19).
In addition to a sort of “crazy party animal” reputation, Jesus also did stuff that Biblical and secular laws prohibited. He broke such laws– touching untouchables; working on the Sabbath; usurping powers reserved for Temple elite. He cured and healed people and cast out demons. He criticized those in power. He fraternized with shady people and outcasts. He claimed people were forgiven outside of the law. Today we’d even say that when Jesus overturned tables in the Temple he criminally trespassed, disturbed the peace and destroyed property.
Jesus rebelled against Rome and challenged it’s rule and leaders in unlawful ways. I know that we believe that Jesus was doing what was right even if it was unlawful, but it is still an inescapable fact that Jesus was a criminal. He crimes were not petty, they were capital. He was arrested, tried and convicted for acts of sedition. He got the cruel sentence Rome reserved for those who rebelled against it: Crucifixion.
Our Lectionary lesson casts a long shadow of a disreputable conviction and death, and counter-intuitively it was intentionally selected in the Lectionary for today, “Reign of Christ Sunday.” Which is also known as “Christ the King Sunday.” It is the day that mainline churches traditionally celebrate the end of the Christian calendar year. Next week we begin a new church year with Advent, the beginning of the hope that leads to the promise of the Christmas Season. That promise, that hope, is the Reign of Christ. On the surface our lesson seems like a very peculiar text to commemorate the Reign of Christ. It lifts up what is called in Christian theological circles “the scandal of the cross.” It is scandalous that Jesus was an enemy of the state, a rebel outlaw who broke laws in such ways that he was arrested and convicted and given the death penalty, and hung to die in shame in public. Christ the King died the death of a culturally reviled criminal.
So why? Why is this text chosen for “Christ the King Sunday?” It’s true that Jesus IS called king in the reading; but it’s a very mocking “King of the Jews, ” paired with a very mocking “Messiah.” As we heard
the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”
The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’”
Those mocking Jesus meant “Some king you turned out to be hanging here a powerless naked dying a lowlife.” But the author of Luke and the early Christian community – and God– are smart. Jesus the humble nobody who is mocked is a king who can do nothing, ACTUALLY turns out to be the King who IS Lord over everything. The joke (Macabre as it is) is on those who mock Jesus, those who side with earthly institutions that oppress humans and made Jesus a criminal for preaching, teaching and acting love out. The mockers mock that so low a man could be king. But we know the end game. Which is – for Christians– that the greatest of all royalty; Lord of lords, King of Kings is Jesus the Christ.
See, the early church experienced Jesus as Messiah and King and they found a way to embrace the scandal of the cross and turn it completely around. The early church made a mockery of mocking and killing Jesus that has endured for 2,000 years! God vindicates Jesus crowning him King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Jesus the Christ. The scandal becomes a catalyst for God’s coronation of Christ as King. Out of the dark shadow of the scandal comes the blazing bright light of God which far, far outshines the darkness. From the worse possible place Jesus delivers love and compassion to enemy and neighbor, to the culture’s highest, to the culture’s lowest. Against the powerful who hung Jesus up to die neither God nor Jesus seek vengeance. Jesus does not call down armies of angels to destroy or defeat them. He makes the opposite power move invoking the mightiest tool in the universe, love – which is God.
Jesus uses love to forgive the doers of the heinous acts in the lesson. For those who are torturously killing him on the cross, Jesus mediates the Sacred and Holy by praying this astonishing prayer in our lesson: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” For what should be enemies, Jesus has love, demonstrates love and offers prayers of love. Jesus has no enemies, all are loved and offered forgiveness. Jesus embodies love . . . God on earth. Jesus is God incarnate at that moment in those very acts on that awful cross.
We are called to strive to be God incarnate too. Jesus as a fully human being showed that it can be done. Yet the story indicates that our salvation is not dependant on our doing it as well as Jesus did. We can be saved from our lesser selves just by our efforts to love. This lesson can be found in the kind criminal who on his own cross has compassion for Jesus, who strives to side with the oppressed and shows that he recognizes and turns away from his old ways of sin. Jesus exchanges his last words to another kind and caring human on a cross of their own. The other person rebuked the other criminal who was mocking Jesus and pointed out
we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
[Jesus] replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Two types of humans get to paradise in our lesson One is Jesus who embodies God and the full potential of humankind. The other, an imperfect person who turned toward God and love, and strived to be better. I dare say like each of us and those we are remembering today. All that the kind criminal on the cross did was repent and show love toward God, self and others. That’s enough to get to paradise. And you know what? There is no hellish consequence in the story for anyone, even those who mistreat Jesus. Jesus forgives them, loves them without them asking or even changing their ways. Jesus’ love has absolutely no strings attached. Even those who are up to no good are loved and offered forgiveness. That’s Grace, the no-strings-attached-love we talk a lot about here.
Some Christian argue that Jesus must be “believed in” (as the they tell us to believe) or horrible consequences will unfold for eternity. They claim Jesus’ love has strings attached. But that is belied by our lesson. Conditions on Jesus Way to God’s love are manmade. They are not made by Jesus who on the cross loves all steadfastly and offers forgiveness without condition. Access to paradise is also not narrowly limited to right belief in the story. One means of access is, of course, perfect incarnation of God as Jesus managed toward everyone even his executors. Another means is repenting and showing love toward God, self and others as the kind imperfect person next to Jesus did. The promise of the story– the Good News– is that on Jesus’ Way humans strive to love, value and forgive one another and when we do, the Reign of Christ becomes what rules our lives . . . and it breaks in.
May the Reign of Christ rule in our lives. May it break in more and more.
AMEN.

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2019 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Joy in Darkness Overcomes the Blues

Magnify the Spark to Get the Fire Going

A sermon based on Acts 2:1-21
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on Pentecost May 20, 2018*
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Growing up I had a wonderful Great Grandfather around. Grampa Lou was actually in 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and told us stories going way back about that and the Bay Area. I loved Grampa Lou. He was a gentle man, tender and kind. He passed away in my late teens, and I have missed him all these years.

Grampa Lou was married to my great grandmother, Nanny, another sweet soul. They were not rich in material things but they had a wealth of love that they showered on us when they drove down for visits from Oakland to San Jose where we lived. Their loving presence was enough for us, but they found a way to bring us little presents.

One of my favorite gifts was a magnifying glass. It’s one of the few things I still have from my boyhood and I treasure it. Grampa Lou handed it to me when I was about eight. It’s a simple thing really. But it has meant a lot to me, and vibrates still with the loving hands that gave it to me half a century ago. As a kid I used IT to examine leaves and sticks, and bugs and rocks, and my skin and lots of other things. It was fun to see what the world looked like magnified. There’s a fascinating beauty in the details of creation.

If truth be told, though, at eight years old my fascination with that tiny stuff made bigger lasted five or ten minutes. What I actually loved about the magnifying glass back then was the joy of focusing sunlight into a beam to ignite smoldering sparks which with breath or a bit of wind could be fanned into flames. I am not sure Grampa Lou knew I’d be using his retired fine print reader to joyfully melt and burn stuff, but that’s what I did.

When I started writing this sermon I went outside and burnt something for the first time in years with the magnifying glass. I was hoping to maybe insert a funny note about reliving my childhood. But something unplanned and wonderful happened. I saw something I never noticed as kid. As I focused the beam I could see on the paper the sky, the sun and the clouds moving across the it. How I never noticed that before is beyond me. I was so surprised that I suddenly felt one of those thin places where God’s presence seems more palpable.

Obviously I am not pointing out I like to ignite things with a magnify glass for fun. See the metaphor in the story for the Spirit’s flames of love, is fire, right? Well, wind and fire. We are told

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit . . . (Act 2:1-4 NRS)

You know how when we focus the sun with magnifying glass, and get a spark and with a bit of breath it can turn into a flame? That’s what we can hear the Pentecost story to be like.

Only the son is Jesus and the flame is bigger– it’s love (God is Love, right?) And the wind is the Spirit stoking, breathing on us, until our spark of God – of Christ in the world– bursts into flames of Love. We know the flames and wind are metaphors because the story indicates they are: “a sound like the rush of a violent wind . . . Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them . . .”

Theologians call an appearance of God a “theophany” it’s a Greek word that translates as “God appears.” We don’t have an equivalent word in English, but that’s okay I like the sound of the word theophany and what it means . . . “God appears.” And God does appear in the Bible often in images of wind and of fire. The world begins in Genesis with a theophany of God as wind, the breath of God, “ruah” a feminine part of Yahweh, sweeping over the dark void and creating the world. Perhaps the most famous theophany in the Hebrew texts is when God appears to Moses in the flames of a burning bush. And the flame theophany motif continues in the Exodus story with God appearing as a pillar of fire at night before the Hebrews as they roam through the desert. God is also experienced in the Bible a number of times on mountaintops in fire as we hear in some of the songs and Psalm today. 1

The New Testament has flames in stories of God appearances. Obviously in today’s text but there’s a more subtle one we might not even think about. It is John’s story of Jesus beside a fire preparing to feed his followers. I love that image of Jesus tending to the flames that nurture us.
Flames in camp fires, fireplaces, even candles can be meditative and open up portals to the Sacred, and carry us to a thin place where we are more aware of Christ’s presence. Fire can inspire awe and fascination. And that is, in part, why it is a really good metaphor for how we experience love. Love – as we have recently discussed– is God.

And as we also discussed how God is the awe we find in every bit of creation. And fire, like love, provides comfort when we are cold or in the dark. Fire like loves warms us. And love like fire heats up our passion. The flames of love motivate us to not only be enamored with a spouse or partner, but in the broader agape sense of love, to have passion for others, those who are in need of care or protection.
Fire can also symbolize the Light that God is in our lives. The light of fire, like the Light of God, glows and attracts, lights pathways, makes our way safe. It can act as a beacon both warning us and guiding us. And we are, of course, supposed to be shining lights ourselves, lights that are not kept under a bushel.

And fire can temper, that is make strong. Love does that to our faith. Love can also burn away that which troubles us in the faith, even hate we may arrive with or have been taught or think religion is supposed to be about. Jesus tells us that all of scripture hangs upon the commandments to love God and others, and that unequivocally there is no greater commandment than to love. We can hear that to mean that anything that is not love can be consumed by love, so any– ANY– hate talk we hear in Christianity can be placed to the test in the flames of love. If anything in scripture is interpreted to be unlovingly that interpretation will not survive that test. It must turn to ashes in flames of Love. Jesus’ teaching is that Scripture hangs upon love, that means it does not hang upon hate . . . EVER!

That’s the testing ground not only for Scripture, but for Church doctrine and tradition, for televangelists, for churches for any sermons – including mine, and actually for all of our conduct. If it’s not love oriented, it’s not God oriented. If it is not love it is not God!
I have mentioned before that I don’t believe in a torturous hell created by God. I reject the idea that there are awful flames of hell for anyone. But what if the flames of hell that we hear about, are metaphorically the flames of love surrounding and comforting, guiding and calling, thawing cold hearts, tempering loveless or hateful lives. A God who is love might just create that. A soul in need of love being surrounded by God’s comforting flames of love fits my experiences of God, who is not just as we say each Sunday, good all the time, but is also love all the time. A God who is good and love all the time, that God’s flames of “hell” could be flames of caring compassionate love like those in the story that alight on Jesus’ followers on Pentecost.

There is a story in the Hebrew Scriptures where the Prophet Elijah does not die but ascends to heaven, caught up in a fiery storm. I am struck by how Elijah’s story is both sort of like the Pentecost story, but also the opposite of it. Second Kings tells us that Elijah was out walking with Elisha as “ they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.” (2Ki 2:11 NRSV). Elijah’s goes up in a whirlwind firestorm. The wind and fire of God goes with him.

Jesus we are also told goes up, but instead of the wind and fire of God taking Jesus away never to be seen again, the story is that Jesus sends something like fire and wind down in theophanies experienced by, and resting upon, his followers. Jesus’ body can also be understood to also return as of the Body of Christ, the Church.

One of Christianity’s gifts to theology is said to be centralizing the idea of the incarnation of God in humans in us alone and collectively. And the Pentecost is about just that. We are to be theophanies in that God appears through us. The flames of God are not just for the likes of Elijah in heaven after death. The flames of God can grow from sparks of God in each of us as they are fanned by the breath of the Holy Spirit into flames.

Every year we begin the Christian calendar with an Advent discussion pretty early on about Mary’s song “The Magnificat.” The Magnificat, as the name sounds, is about magnifying God in our life. Mary sings that her “soul magnifies the Lord. . .”Another common Advent lesson is John the Baptist in Luke portending that the One who’s coming will “baptize . . . with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

As I mentioned last week the author of Luke wrote the Book of Acts where today’s lesson comes from. And he begins Acts with Jesus’ followers being baptized with the Spirit and with fire just like John the Baptist predicted. And the incarnational part of the story can get lost sometimes in all the flash and whirling, but, the reading today is in a very real sense a second coming of Christ in and through us. The Holy Spirit fans the spark of God in us to a flame of burning love and in so doing our souls – like Mary’s– magnify the Lord. Christ is incarnate in us. Like Jesus we are to burn with desire to help others. We are to be Light in the world. We are to help Christ save the world literally, not just later in heaven, but now on earth.

Pentecost is the birthday of the church. But we do not blow out flames like we do on our birthday cakes, God huffs and puffs and makes the flames of love glow and grow in us– and stay lit and burn bright. Let us go and magnify the Lord, magnify the sparks of God within to keep the fire going, letting our sparks be fanned to glow and grow as flames of love now for as long as we live.

AMEN

ENDNOTES

* based on a sermon I wrote in 2012
1. Some of the information on fire in the Bible was derived from a website called Biblestudytools.com. Which can be found at this link: http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionaries/bakers-evangelical-dictionary/fire.html

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2018 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED