First preached November 29, 2015
Christmas approaches, and with it comes a flood of memories, including memories of the promises given in Scripture, such as Isaiah’s here. Israel’s long wait for Messiah was finally rewarded, but nobody much noticed. And we are still waiting for the final outworking of the promises given here – of peace, and reconciliation, and for the earth to be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah references little children several times in this passage, and I believe that God speaks to us even in our childhood – even before we know who it is who is speaking to us – and his word is only later confirmed to be his as we grow up. But part of the promised “knowledge of the Lord” is surely what the Holy Spirit whispers to us even before we know we are hearing it, and some of the lessons we learn in childhood, unbidden, stay with us for the rest of our lives.
Now, my childhood had its Ins and Outs, church-wise. We were pretty regular church-goers until we weren’t, suddenly, and I had a lot of questions I had to wait until I was much older to find answers for. But even when we were regular in church and Sunday School I found very few people who would give me the answers I asked for. People talked around the gospel a lot – like they were embarrassed about it – or didn’t know themselves – or thought I was getting ahead of myself for asking what I was asking. So I learned not to ask, much. I kept my own counsel, even as a child. But there were things I learned through Christmas that I learned nowhere else, and they stuck with me. Let me share just a few of those memories, and what I believe God was teaching me in those experiences.
***As a young child, I was about as greedy for gifts as any kid is. You know how it is. You start getting really worked up as you see gifts begin to appear under the tree. You try to figure out what’s in them. (Shake, listen) Christmas seems a long way off, and waiting is so very hard.
Now, in my home, we didn’t open any presents until Christmas morning, and everybody had to be up before you could tear into the goodies. That was our tradition, and tradition has the force of law in the home. Well, one year when I was about eight or nine – one of the two Christmasses we lived on Indiana Ave in Spencer, which is how I can date it so exactly – I was just about consumed with gift-greed, and I begged my mother over and over to be allowed to open a gift early, thinking that would soothe the agony of waiting for the big day. Each of us three kids had two big packages and a number of small things (socks and the like, probably) under the tree that year, and I was jonesing for toys like you can’t believe.
Well, my mother finally got tired of hearing me whine, and said, OK, you may open one gift tonight, Christmas eve, and the rest tomorrow. Eagerly, I grabbed the biggest package with my name on it, and ripped off the wrapping paper. And there, to my joy, was a big, plastic warship; must’ve been a destroyer, ‘cause it had little detachable depth charges and so on. (My parents were both World War II vets, and nobody worried about violent toys in the early ‘60s.) It was beautiful. It was mine. But even as I began to play with it, a sense of loss swept over me. I suddenly realized that I would have one less gift than everybody else to open in the morning. And that knowledge took all the joy out of the gift I held in my hands now.
Sure enough, the next day, I felt vaguely cheated. My jumping the gun on opening gifts had left me feeling empty in the midst of plenty. That whole Christmas was kind of a letdown. I never did play with that warship much. And I realized, even at that age, that I had learned something important: however hard waiting is, it makes the finally having better. Life is full of waiting – for all kinds of things – and I notice a lot of people snatching and grabbing at things because they want them so much, and then wondering why the payoff is never as big as they thought it would be. Perhaps it’s because they never learned that there’s a right time for everything, and grabbing too early is as great a danger as waiting too long. Some people never learn that; but I learned it as a little boy, one Christmas.
*** Another of my vivid Christmas memories – a collection of memories as it turns out – concerns decorating the Christmas tree. I was mostly a kibitzer as a little kid. My harried father was in charge of dragging in the tree and getting it to stand up – back in the day before metal tree stands (not that they help all that much, sometimes). I couldn’t help with that. And then my older sisters always criticized my placement of ornaments and the way I clumped tinsel in big shiny blobs. But I wanted to help so much – and after the tree was all set up, I would sit under it for hours, and play with my toys in its branches. The Christmas tree was just about the most wonderful thing I ever experienced as a piece of home furnishing.
Later on, as my sisters grew up, I inherited the job of setting up the tree and decorating it. By the time I went to college, it was mine almost exclusively. And certainly, when we got married, I was always most concerned to find the right tree and get out all the ornaments and decorate it just right. Now, we have only a small, potted Norfolk Island pine that we hang a few ornaments on, but that’s because we have the only two cats I’ve never been able to break of the habit of destroying Christmas trees, and I still long to put up the tree with all the ornaments.
Now, I don’t care much about other household decorations, just Christmas trees, and to look at the trees we’ve put up over the years, you might think we didn’t put a lot of effort into them. We never went in for “theme” trees, with all the matching decorations. No: our ornaments were a motley collection of this and that, bought at different times, with many a piece being a survivor of previous sets (all others having been broken). Likewise, a number of our ornaments didn’t start out their service as Christmas ornaments. They were other doo-dads that one kid or another stuck on the tree, so that they became part of the tradition, and just had to be put back on, year after year. So what was the attraction for me?
Well, I remember sitting underneath the tree, with those big ol’ lights we used to have shining off all the different gaudy ornaments, and it moved me, somewhere down deep where I couldn’t talk about it. I think my earliest vision of what “beauty” was must have been those little glass and foil balls. I get the same kind of feeling even now from walking out on a clear night, with all the faraway, unattainable stars burning like jewels in the black, silken sky: I shiver at the sight, and raise my voice in praise to God, every time.
Also, because those ornaments were so fragile, they helped define for me the meaning of “precious” – something to be treasured, and protected. Odd as it may sound, my earliest, vague understanding of what “holy” meant must have been come from my wondering gaze at the carefully stored and handled ornaments we only got out once a year to hang on the Christmas tree. The experience of trimming the tree taught me reverence, before I had a word for it, and that is no mean revelation, especially to be given to a child.
*** Well, I mentioned that mine was a household where talk of God was kind of awkward. Looking back on church in the 1950s and '60s, I think even the preachers I knew found it awkward to talk straight-on about God. Preachers, I have found since, sometimes talk in a kind of code; and sometimes, when you parse out the exact meaning of what they said, it adds up to a lot less than it sounded like. Talking in that code to kids, of course, is impossible – they don’t get it, ‘cause they lack the sophistication to be oblique. So if you’re embarrassed about what you’re saying, it’ll show. And if you’re faking faith behind a screen of words, your falsehood will be plain for all to see: one reason, perhaps, that so many grown-ups are rattled to talk about God with the young.
So, I had questions about God – and about how Jesus fit into what we believed about God – and I couldn’t get anybody to explain it all to me, nor did I know how to ask, myself. I found church – at least, the talky parts -- dry and boring, and I found the Sunday School and VBS classes for my own age dull and incomprehensible. In Junior High, I would sneak out of my class to sit in the adult class with my parents. It was incomprehensible, too, but I figured that it had to have something worthwhile to it, since I thought, You can’t make grownups do something they don’t want to do!
It wasn’t until I went off to college that somebody explained the gospel to me. In the meantime, the only theology I knew was contained in the old Methodist hymnal we had in the house, and the only songs that I was familiar with that actually said something that seemed important were the Christmas songs. It was in that old hymnal I found the only words and phrases that pierced the fog of religion for me.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail th’incarnate Deity!
-- that was Jesus it was talking about.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
That sounded important.
Come and behold him, born the king of angels
-- that’s Jesus again – who seems to be much more than either the great human teacher the sermon mentioned or the guy in the pink nightgown in the corny pictures. No, this is somebody much more significant. This is
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.
Even in "We Three Kings," you find this bedrock, creedal theology that makes all the pious nothings of the social gospel utterly irrelevant.
Glorious now behold Him arise,
King and God and Sacrifice.
I didn’t necessarily understand all this – with my head – but I knew it was far more real than all the blather I got when I asked about God directly, and this was all that I really knew about Jesus Christ until about the time of my 18th birthday. And when it was finally explained to me who Jesus was, and what he had done for me, I knew it was the truth because it told me what I already knew, but didn’t quite understand. It confirmed for me the words God had already told me as a young boy, in my mother’s hymnal.
*** I have a profound respect for children. They know far more than they know they know. But I have the utmost respect for God, who speaks to us all through our lives – even before we understand who it is who is speaking to us -- in ways that sink deep. And always, he testifies to the truth:
That waiting is hard, but he makes it worth the wait;Amen.
That he is beautiful, he is precious, he is holy, and to be desired before all else in our lives;
And that Jesus Christ is not only the Son of God, but God the Son, and he is the little child born at Christmas who will lead the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion and all, and who fills us with the knowledge of God.