Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Luke 1:26-38
at St. John's Presbyterian church in Houston on December 21, 2008 (Advent 4B)
at St. John's Presbyterian church in Houston on December 21, 2008 (Advent 4B)
Once upon a time there was a little Catholic boy who was very poor. He and his brothers and sisters lived with their widowed mother, who was barely able to feed them all. He worked in a store every day after school and on the weekends. All his clothes were patched and worn. He had only one toy—a little Matchbox car. Even that one plaything was broken: the roof was smashed in on one side, all but one of the windows were gone, and two of the wheels were missing. The little boy loved it very much. Since he had nothing else to play with, it became everything: a race car when he was a sportsman, a tank when he was a soldier, an ambulance when he was a doctor. Almost every moment of happiness he remembered had to do with that car.
It was Christmastime. The family was so poor that there would be no presents, but the little boy was excited all the same. He had always wanted to go to evening mass on Christmas eve, and this year, for the first time, he would be allowed to stay up for it. Everyone had told him how splendid it was: the candle lights and Christmas carols, the fine vestments. And before the mass itself began, there would be the blessing of the creche. It was a very large creche, a representation of the Nativity scene, similar to our living Nativity scene last week, except this one was made of plaster. There were plaster figures of Joseph and Mary, of the wise men with their camels and donkeys laden with gifts, of the shepherds with their sheep and sheepdogs, of the herald angels hovering overhead. And a plaster figure of the baby Jesus, with a halo still more glorious than Mary’s and Joseph’s, lay on real straw in the center of it all. (We have all seen him: He always wears the same bland beatific smile and lies with his arms spread wide, both welcoming his adorers and prefiguring his crucifixion.)
In this parish, it was the custom for everyone who came to evening mass to bring a gift for the Christchild. Before taking their places in the pews, people would lay some offering at the plaster child’s crib. Often these gifts were very fine—splendid chalices for the altar, new clothes for the poor, envelopes full of money. On Christmas morning, it seemed as if the baby Jesus had been visited by many caravans of wise men. The little boy wanted very much to give the Christchild a present.
But what could he give? He gave all the money from his after school job to his mother. He had nothing else. He decided that he would find another job and save enough to buy a present for the baby Jesus, and he did just that. All through Advent he got up before dawn and worked at another store until it was time to go to school. By the time Christmas Eve arrived, he had enough money to leave a good present at the creche. He sat at the table in the kitchen of his tiny house, counting what he had earned. While he was trying to decide whether he had time to buy a gift or should simply leave the money at the creche, his mother returned home. “Oh son,” she said. “What a good boy you are! Now we can have a real Christmas dinner!” And she scooped up the money and hurried off to shop before all the stores closed.
The little boy was heartbroken. He went to his room, trying not to be angry at his mother. He thought of what he had been taught to do whenever he was hurt or disappointed: “Offer it up to Jesus.” On the dresser, he saw his broken toy car. He had not had much time to play for weeks, but it had been waiting for him. And then he realized what he had to offer up to Jesus, and when he had combed his hair and dressed in his best clothes and was ready to set off for mass, the car was in his pocket.
He was going alone because his mother had to stay with the younger children. When he arrived the church was already filling up, and he was almost lost among the adults in their bulky coats. He felt very much alone, for almost everyone else seemed to be with family and friends. He walked up the aisle, genuflected just as he had been taught, and turned to the creche, which was set up before one of the side altars, the one dedicated to St. Joseph. Most of the plaster figures had been in place all week, but tonight, for the first time, the baby Jesus was in his manger. Gifts were piling up before him. Some were splendidly wrapped—perhaps toys for poor children whose mothers were not as fiercely proud as the little boy’s. Some were unwrapped, so you could see how expensive they were. The little boy stood shyly before the creche and laid his car amid all the treasures.
The organ had been playing preludes; soon the service would begin. The little boy squeezed into a pew close to the front so that he could see the prist bless the creche. Almost everyone was in place, and an usher took a last look at the creche to see that everything was ready. What the usher saw made him very angry. “Who would leave a piece of trash like this at Our Lord’s crib?” he said, loudly enough for the little boy to hear, and he picked up the car and threw it across the church, so that it came to rest at the far end of the sanctuary. The little boy could see it, lying on its roof with its two wheels spinning, looking like a wreck indeed. But he could not retrieve it, for the procession had begun and everyone had stood up to sing the first hymn.
The little boy was crying, but he stood up, too. The procession advanced down the aisle. The priests were in their fines robes, and before them were crosses and banners and a swinging censer filling the church with incense. But the procession came to a dead stop when it reached the crossing, and all the singing died away into awed silence. At first the little boy could not tell what had happened, but he wiped away his tears and looked to see what everyone was staring at: the baby Jesus had come to life and was crawling across he cold stone floor of the church. He crawled until he reached the far end of the sanctuary, tucked the broken car under his arm and crawled back to his creche. By this time all the people had fallen to their knees. At last the priest rose, and approached the manger: there, just as before, a plaster child with a bright halo was lying in the straw, but now he smiled like a happy child, and his arms were folded tight around a broken toy car.
That story was told by Brian Ragen, professor of English at Southern Illinois University. He says his father told him the story when he was a child. Mr. Ragen, a devout Catholic, used to think his father was a great hypocrite. He says: ”We went to mass with my father every Sunday morning. He also went to confession every Saturday afternoon. It was just what we were taught to do in our catechism classes. It was, everyone would have agreed, a good thing. I hated him for it. I knew that when he was not passed out, dead drunk, he was often a mean, foul mouthed terror. I was afraid of him and I despised him. I hated the idea that the ogre who darkened my life would be forgiven—and so easily, too.“
But the Professor’s opinion of his father changed over the years. He writes: ”As I think of my father’s Christmas story now, I realize that I cast him in the wrong role. My father was, indeed, not the good little boy who gave his last plaything to the Lord. My father was the smashed Matchbox car with a couple of wheels missing. He had failed in his public life, and he knew that his family considered him an enemy. I often wish I could know all the things that had made him what he was and sort out what was his fault from what was the result of the war and his other misfortunes. Whatever had darkened his life, it had been enough to break him: failure was the essence of his existence. He was a wreck. But despite—or because of—all this, he clearly longed to be cradled in his Saviour’s arms, to have Christ still seek him after he had been rejected by everyone else. And in the end, perhaps he was like the good little boy after all: he kept dragging himself to church and laying that sorry offering before his God, trusting that it would not be refused.
That story leaves us with a question. What will we give to the Christ Child this year? It’s hard to choose a gift for a giggling little baby who is the God’s Son, Light of Nations, Messiah, King of Kings and Lords of Lords, God in human flesh. What do you give him—a Bible (he helped write it)? A crucifix (don’t remind him)? A gift to charity in his honor (that’s a possibility)? But that’s not enough.
What will you give to the Christ child? Your choices are simple and extreme. You can give him nothing. . . Or you can give him everything (your heart, your bank account, your career, your family, your dreams, your sins). We know the choice that Mary made. As we read in our scripture reading this morning, "Then Mary said, 'Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.'"
Follow Mary's example. Give Jesus that part of you that no one else knows. Or give him that item that you most cherish. Give him everything (I dare you). He will take you as you are. Bring your broken life and place it by baby Jesus. If you can’t find the courage to get close to the crib, just stand in the barn where he lies. Stand there in the corner, in the shadows and don’t you dare move. Just stand there and pray and wait. When you are ready to give him everything, He will crawl to you. He wants you and loves you that strongly. The greatest gift you can give to Jesus is the gift of yourself: Your soul, spirit, heart. That is what Jesus wants from you this Christmas.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, on this Sunday before Christmas, receive the gift of our lives, the good and the bad, for we come to you just as we are right now and offer ourselves to you. Thank you for accepting the sacred gift of ourselves that we give you today, for the gift of ourselves is the greatest gift we may give to you. In Christ's holy name we pray. Amen.