Sermon by Bill Chadwick | December 22, 2019
Meditation I Bethlehem
Bethlehem, the little town about six miles south of Jerusalem, was normally not a prominent city bustling with commerce or government buildings.
But 1000 years before Jesus, it was the home of the shepherd boy, David, and the place where he was anointed by the great prophet Samuel. David became Israel’s greatest king and it was from his lineage that the Jews expected the Messiah to come.
The word comes from “beth,” which means “house,” and “lehem,” “bread.” The “house of bread,” the birthplace of the Bread of Life, immortalized in Phillip Brooks’ lovely poem, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
The story is told of some missionaries who were visiting an orphanage and shared the Christmas story with the children, who heard it for their first time ever. The kids sat enthralled, and then were given materials to recreate for themselves the manger scene. All was going to plan until one of the visitors spotted the efforts of six year-old Abu. He had placed in the manger, the wooden feedbox, not one, but two babies.
Instead of correcting him, the missionaries waited until everything was done and then they asked Abu to tell the story of the birth of Jesus. And he did so perfectly, in the way we all know and which the children had just been taught. Right up until the end…
And then Abu went on: “And when Mary laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had anywhere to stay. I told him both my mamma and my papa are dead, so I didn’t have a home of my own. Then Jesus told me I could stay with him. But I told him I couldn’t because I didn’t have a present to give him like everybody else did…But I really wanted to stay with Jesus…Then I thought, ‘Maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift.
So I asked Jesus, “If I keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift?’
And Jesus told me, ‘If you keep me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me.’ So I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and he told me I could stay with him…for always.”
As little Abu finished his story, his eyes filled with tears. Then he slumped down on the table and began sobbing deeply. This precious little boy had found someone at last who would never abandon him or let him down, someone who would stay with him, as he put it, “for always.” That promise is for you and me as well. (Adapted from Simon Guillebaud, Choose Life: 365 Readings for Radical Disciples, December 17)
In our typical children’s Christmas pageants, there are any number of pieces that are indeed biblically accurate. And then there are a number that are not. Perhaps the most egregious adaptation we make is to cast the littlest girls in the production as the angels. For in the Bible, as some of you have heard me say many times, in the Bible angels are not cute and cuddly. Not ever. They are fierce and frightening. (And they are always male.)
We know they are terrifying because virtually every single time an angel appears in scripture the very first thing he has to say is, “Fear not!” It’s what the angel had to say when he appeared before Zechariah to tell him that his wife Elizabeth, even in her old age, would have a son who would later become famous as John the Baptist. Likewise, when the angel Gabriel appeared before Mary to tell her that God had selected her to bear the Messiah. First thing he says is, “Fear not!” And now when the angel appears to the shepherds they were, according to the King James Version, “sore afraid.” That’s really afraid: “sore afraid”!
And the angel says, “Fear not!”
My friends, it is the message throughout the Christmas story. It is the message Jesus gives to his disciples at the last supper, just before his arrest. It is the message of the Risen Christ in the Revelation to John. It is the message throughout the biblical story—from Genesis to Revelation. More than 80 times: “Fear not!”
These are frightening times, but not more frightening than biblical times.
This promise from God is for you and for me: “Fear not. For I am with you…always, to the close of the age.”
Meditation IV “The Rabbi’s Gift”
The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, as a result of years of persecution of monks and a long time when people just weren’t very interested in religion, the order had lost all of its branch houses and it had shrunk to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over the age of seventy. Clearly, it was a dying order.
In the deep woods surrounding the monastery, there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again,” they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.
The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him.” I know how it is, he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me…that would help me save my dying order?”
“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is among you.”
When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well, what did the rabbi say?”
“He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving — it was something cryptic — was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”
In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. He is a very faithful man. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light and a man of prayer.
Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people ‘s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.
Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn·to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.
Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality.
(From The Different Drum by Scott Peck.).