"Not just ‘for the Birds’"

December 26, 1999 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon  John 1:1–14

The last Christmas celebration of this century, of this millennium is now history. That is, if you buy that 2000 is the first year of something new, and not the last of something old. Regardless, yesterday is over. There are now 365 shopping days until next Christmas. Like you really wanted to hear that! Perhaps by then we’ll finally learn to write the year 2000 in our checkbooks.

The other day I learned that Christmas is a big affair in Japan, even though only about 2% of the population is Christian. There, in the far east, they have caught the commercial side of this festival in a big way, like many other western traditions they have absorbed. "It’s all about money," one person being interviewed said. Perhaps our Japanese neighbors have been watching us too well. One difference in how our two cultures celebrate it, however, is that in Japan, Christmas is a time for couples to get away for a little romance, whereas New Years is meant for quiet family gatherings...

Speaking of quiet family gatherings, how was yours? Did it meet up to your expectations? Did you open the present you really wanted? You know, as we grow older, we come to see that the presents we really want can’t be wrapped up, nice and neat, in a box. If we’re lucky, though I don’t believe luck has much to do with it, we come to realize that our checkbook can’t buy what we really desire for Christmas. That kind of holiday is for the birds.

Did you get what you really wanted? Was it worth the stress? We put ourselves through a lot at this time of year, don’t we? Probably women more so than men. Then, again, maybe not. Persons who care deeply about others want to make times like Christmas special for those they love. The warm feeling that comes with such giving cannot be contained in a box.

So, what did you receive from Christmas? You know I’m not talking about the material "stuff." Was it what you truly desired? Was it worth the stress? Or, to be honest, was it "for the birds?" It’s okay if yours was that last choice. After all, didn’t Jesus say, "Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?" (Mt. 6:26)... Even though the day has past, Christmas is not over yet. There still are a few packages under the tree waiting to be opened. Let me unwrap the first, a story. Listen.

He wasn’t a scrooge. He was a good and decent man, generous to his family, upright in his dealings with others. But as a modern thinker seeking complex answers to life’s situations, he just could not accept the simple story of Christmas, the "God born a man in a manger" story. To him, the incarnation stuff the church espoused was beyond belief. It just didn’t make sense, and he was too honest to pretend that he believed what he didn’t.

On Christmas Eve, as the family was preparing to leave for a midnight service of candles and carols at the nearby church, he informed them he would not be going. "I’d be a hypocrite!" he said. So he stayed and they went.

Shortly after they’d gone, snow began to fall. He stood by the window in the front room and watched the flakes grow bigger and bigger before retreating to his fireside chair to read the newspaper.

Moments later he was startled by a loud thunk. Then another. And still another. "Kids throwing snowballs," he thought to himself. Yet it didn’t exactly sound like snowballs. And besides, what kids would be out playing at that time of night? Going to the door and opening it, he saw a flock of birds huddled miserably in the deepening snow. They had apparently been caught in the unexpected snowstorm, and in an effort to find shelter had tried to fly through the large picture window.

What to do? He couldn’t just let them lie there. But what could he do? Then, with a flash of inspiration, he thought of the barn where the kids stabled their pony beside the house. That would provide a safe, warm place. Grabbing his coat, he walked outside to the old barn and threw open the creaking wooden doors. He turned on the light. But the birds did not go in.

"Food!" he said out loud. Food would entice them. So, running back to the house, he found some bread crumbs his wife was planning to use to make croutons for the big meal the next day. He proceeded to make a trail of bread leading to the barn.

Still, the birds flapped around inattentively. He tried catching them. He tried shooing them by walking all around them, waving his arms. But they scattered in every direction except toward the open barn door.

Then it dawned on him: "They are afraid of me. To them I’m a strange, mysterious creature. If only I could tell them I’m trying to help - that they can trust me. If only I could mingle with them and speak their language. If only I could become a bird so they could hear, see, and understand - maybe then they would follow me into the safe warm barn."

Just then he heard the church bells in the distance ringing out the tune to the familiar carol, "Joy to the world, the Lord is come!" It seemed like a message meant just for him. His doubts melted in a flame of insight, and he fell to his knees in the snow.

*********

There’s a second package under our tree this morning. It’s a bit like the first, though perhaps not as "fowl" (I’m getting as bad as Leon here). This second package, though, has already been unwrapped. Ron Webb opened it up earlier and shared it with you. You know, how often do we approach scripture as if it were a gift? Sometimes it takes someone new to us to help us see how much a blessing this thing we call "God’s Word" is to us, someone who has discovered it as if for the first time. I got a call from Norman Bollinger this week sharing his excitement over a conversation with Terri Smythe. She has recently discovered, or rediscovered, the Bible as a great treasure, and bubbled over telling him so. He just had to tell me. That call made my day!

In preparation for today, I encouraged Ron to think of this scripture from the beginning of John’s gospel as a hymn. I didn’t tell him this because music is so important to him, though that is true. No, it’s because we think that these beginning verses in John’s gospel may have been an early Christian song. When you’ve received something of great value, sometimes you’ve just got to sing. Doesn’t matter if you know how. Doesn’t matter if you understand all the words.

I must confess, I don’t comprehend everything in these verses of scripture. But what a gift! Standing on the threshold of a whole new millennium, when this world seems to be changing so quickly - oh, how we need to hear, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." ... I don’t know the tune, but I can almost sing it, this song which links the present time with that first moment of Creation, reminding us of the steadfast voice of the One who brought all things into being with a Word. What a gift!

Yes, and on the brink of a brave new world which we, in our minute wisdom, think we have created with our own hands, for better or worse - oh, how we need to hear, "All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being." ... It’s a song that puts all our efforts (and all our stress) into perspective. What a gift!

Amid the uncertainty which surrounds this transition of years, of centuries, of millennia, with all its Y2K bugs and terrorism alerts - oh, how we need to hear, "What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." ... It’s a song to sing in those hours when our fears threaten to undo us, an assurance that the One who cares for the birds, will take care of us. What a gift!

At a time when people are open to just about anything that comes along, minds crammed full of so much information, but empty when it comes to knowing who they really are and what it all means - oh, how we need to hear, "to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God." ... When I sing the song, I know where I belong. What a gift!

And as the millennia shift with a multitude of choices to make, and we flounder in storms of our own making, flying into barriers we thought were doors - oh, how we need to hear, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth." The song opens our eyes to the presence of God, the incarnation of Christ, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, not just 2000 years ago but here and now. What a gift!

Yes, the best gift under the tree this morning, is one that awaits us every morning, to be opened as if for the first time on every one of those 365 days between now and next Christmas. It is a gift from the One who cares the most about us. And our receiving of this gift brings great Joy in heaven. Untie the ribbon and unwrap the package, my friends. Open the box and receive Christ Jesus, the Word made flesh. Receive his Holy Spirit. A new beginning. A fresh start. A new birth. Available every day.

Carl Palmer shared a story about his grandson this week. It seems little Evan came to his Dad asking, "will my heart get bigger." Not knowing where this comment was coming from, Chip said, "as your body grows, so will your heart." Apparently, a Sunday School teacher had said that when God enters your heart it will explode, which Evan took quite literally. It was a somewhat frightening thought, as you might imagine.

Come to think of it, it’s not exactly a non-frightening thought for those of us of older years. "O come to my heart, Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for Thee." Is there really room in my heart and in my life for this One who will change everything? Only you can answer that question. Just remember the constant assurance of the angels: "Don’t be afraid." This gift is not just for the birds. It’s for you.

1999Peter L. Haynes

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