How’s everybody doing today/tonight? Huh? There’s only a few days left to go. Are you going to do okay? Make it through this next week without getting too stressed out? Okay, good.
“One thing we all know is that most people put up a tree – a Christmas tree – maybe yours is artificial. Maybe it’s real. Doesn’t matter. But I am struck by some of the stories I hear about the extremes some people will go to get a tree.
For instance, do you know that sometimes people steal trees? Yeah, they steal their Christmas trees. Can you imagine that? Somebody stealing a tree just to have a Christmas tree? “Hey Dad, where’d you get this great looking tree?” Yeah, there’s something wrong with that picture.
Nevertheless, I understand that a couple of years ago, the University of Minnesota came up with a rather unusual method to deter tree thieves on their campus. Yeah. In the middle of the night, some 20-year old trees were topped, while others were simply cut off at the base. So the following year, the University came up with this interesting method to deter these midnight poachers.
Their solution was to spray balsam firs, and scotch pines, and anything else that could pass for a Christmas tree – with skunk oil. Cold weather masks the smell, but warm indoor air releases it. The grounds superintendent agrees that they will probably still lose some trees, but there was also some satisfaction in knowing that it’s probably not going to work out the way the thieves think it will. “OK, Dad, where’d you get THAT tree?” Maybe spraying trees with skunk oil won’t stop a person from cutting down a tree that doesn’t belong to them, but it is highly likely that they just might give it a second thought the next time Christmas comes around.”
But this does raise the question. Folks – how do you change human behavior? Huh? How do you do it? Make the consequences so unpleasant that people never want to have such an experience again? Maybe. But we know that that doesn’t always work, otherwise why do so many people – once they are released from prison – why do they commit crimes again?
Me thinks something more is needed. Someone is needed. Someone who can come into our lives. Make a difference in our lives. And that something – that someone – more is the One whose birth we remember – and celebrate – and give thanks for at this time of year.
Our Gospel reading today is another episode in the story as we prepare for our Christmas celebration. It is the announcement to Mary by the angel Gabriel that she will have a baby. That the child within her will be conceived by the Holy Spirit. She is to call his name Jesus. And why Jesus? Quite frankly, the name Jesus was a common name among first century Jews. But still, it is a special name with a special meaning. In the Hebrew language it means, “One who saves.” So Jesus is a Savior – one who comes into the world to save.
So the first thing I want you to see is that Jesus is a Savior. But before he can be the Savior first – he must be born. Born of a woman. Born of Mary. I like how the Christian writer and pastor Max Lucado put it. He says,
“The virgin birth is more, much more, than a Christmas story; it is a picture of how close Christ will come to you. The first stop on his itinerary was a womb. Where will God go to touch the world? Look deep within Mary for an answer.”
And then he goes on to say, “Better still, look deep within yourself. What he did with Mary, he offers to us! He issues a Mary-level invitation to all his children. ‘If you’ll let me, I’ll move in.”
And isn’t that what we ask Jesus to do when we sing that marvelous Christmas carol each year? O Little Town of Bethlehem. It’s in the last verse.
O holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels The great glad tidings tell;
Oh, come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Immanuel.
And by the way, that last word, Immanuel, is another name for Jesus, and it means God with – or – God is with us.
But isn’t that what we ask Jesus to do for us when we sing that song? To come into our lives – our hearts – our homes. Some wag once said that the biggest room in our house is the room for improvement. I know you’re all doing the best you can. Me too. But there’s always room for growth. For change. For transformation. Improvement.
I like the story of the boy who was baptized at age 5. On the way home this little guy is crying in the back seat of the car. His father is trying to find out what’s wrong, when finally the boy says, “The pastor says he wants me to be brought up in a Christian home. But I want to stay with you guys!”
Hey! There’s always room for improvement, right? Sometimes the walk doesn’t always match the talk, now does it? And, quite frankly, I include myself in that. Where change is necessary – attitudes – habits – beliefs – whatever – I am here to tell you that Jesus comes to us – abides with us – in order to help make that change possible. To help make it a reality. And that’s the second thing I want us to see today.
Back to Lucado. He goes on to say “Christ grew in Mary until he had to come out. Christ will grow in you until the same occurs. He will come out in your speech, in your actions, in your decisions. Every place you live will be a Bethlehem, and every day you live will be a Christmas. You, like Mary, will deliver Christ into the world.”
Wow! Now that’s what I’m talking about. This thought – this fact – that Jesus grows in us – and that he will come out in our speech and in our actions and in our decision. Quite frankly, it all begins when we invite Jesus to come in. To quite literally be born in us.
It’s like learning to live all over again. A change of behavior – learned not from experiencing unpleasant consequences, but it’s about Jesus living within the juman heart. Your hearts, and mine. It’s like learning a new culture. Learning a new language – some might call it the language of love and forgiveness. It’s a new way of looking at the world. Room for improvement? You bet. Man, I’ll tell you, Jesus wants everything.
So what happens when Jesus comes in today, in to stay? When Jesus is born in us – when we are what the Bible calls born again – born of water and the Spirit – not only does Jesus start to grow in us – not only do we grow and change – we also take on a new identity.
Let me share with you a story. “One day when the Duke of Windsor was a boy of 8 or 9, he and his cousin the Duke of Wales were looking out the palace window at a group of street urchins who were throwing snowballs at each other. The two boys had been given orders not to go out and play with peasant children, but they couldn't stand the temptation. They dressed in their oldest clothes, slipped outside, and joined the snowball fight . . . they were having a great time until somebody broke a window in the palace.
“The group separated and ran, but one of the palace guards caught both of the young Dukes and one of the street boys. The one told the palace guard indignantly, "Let me go. Let me go. I'm the Duke of Windsor! And that's my cousin, the Duke of Wales." To which the guard replied, ‘Sure, sure,’ and turning to the street urchin, he asked, ‘And who might you be?’ The boy said, ‘I'm with me buddies. I'm the Archbishop of Canterbury.’”
So the first thing we see is that Jesus is our Savior. The second thing is that God – Emmanuel is with us to change us. And the third thing is that in Jesus, we have a new identity. And it’s a different identity from the person we once were. Why?
Jesus was born of Mary, but he is born in us. Sometimes – I know – it doesn’t look like it. Sometimes we try to disguise ourselves as someone else. But nevertheless, those who are in Christ and in whom Christ lives – belong to him. Let me finish, turning once again to Max Lucado:
“He is in you. You are a modern-day Mary. Even more so. He was a fetus in her, but he is a force in you. He will do what you cannot.
“Can’t stop drinking? Christ can. And he lives within you.
“Can’t stop worrying? Christ can. And he lives within you.
“Can’t forgive the jerk, forget the past, or forsake your bad habits? Christ can! And he lives within you.”iii
i.Max Lucado, Next Door Savior, 2003.