It is the season of Christmas, the 12 days between December 25th and January 5th when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. The problem is we know very little about the birth. The Gospels are unique in that they tell us about Jesus’ life but each is markedly different, even the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) which supposedly tell the same story, but target different audiences and use different approaches.
The Gospel of Mark does not even have a birth story. Mark has a very short introduction but essentially begins with John the Baptist calling the people to repent of their sins as he baptizes them in the Jordan River.
The Gospel of Matthew begins with the Genealogy of Jesus tracing him from Abraham, the father of the faith to his earthly father Joseph. The birth of Jesus is mentioned but Matthew immediately moves to the story of the three wise men and the flight to Egypt by Joseph, Mary and the child Jesus.
John’s Gospel begins with an introduction which equated Jesus to the power of the Word and takes him back to the beginning of time when God called the cosmos into being. Following this 14 verse introduction John follows Mark’s example and moves directly into the story of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus where Jesus begins his ministry.
The Gospel of Luke is the only book which gives us a birth narrative starting with Zachariah and Elizabeth and the background story of the birth of John the Baptist. Luke tells us how the angel Gabriel visited Mary and how she and Joseph travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of the tax roles. Jesus is born and the angels appear before the shepherds who come to witness the birth.
On the eighth day Mary and Joseph take the child to the temple for circumcision and to offer the requisite sacrifices and while they are there they meet Simeon.
We know Simeon is an old man who is frequently at the temple, perhaps one of the priests or scribes. We have been told that Simeon has been visited by God and God has told him that he will live to see the one God sends to sanctify and save the Jewish nation. When Simeon takes Jesus from Mary and Joseph, there is instant recognition of the destiny of Jesus. Simeon joyfully announces that his life has been fulfilled. This is the one who will redeem humanity.
The same happens with the prophetess Anna. She is has been staying at the temple for decades since the death of her husband. As she approaches Mary and Joseph she hears Simeon’s words and she also affirms that Jesus is the one who is going to save Israel, and apparently tells the news to everyone who will listen.
Mary and Joseph are amazed at these prophesies about their son. They complete their duties at the temple and return to Nazareth where they raise Jesus for the next 30 years.
It is the Christmas Season when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. There are several directions this message could take but what I’d like to do this morning is focus on the gift God gave to us that morning 2000 years ago.
We have all received gifts. I’m sure all of us have received a gift which we cherish above all the other gifts.
I’d like you all to think about that special gift you received for the next few minutes, and while you do that let tell you a story about my special gift.
It started in the summer I turned 10. We had moved to the home farm that spring and Mom and Dad celebrated by buying Joe and I a horse. Black with a blaze on her forehead Black Beauty was a 6 year old mare half Hackney (the prancing cart horses) and half Welsh which is a good strong disciplined breed.
She stood just under 14 hands and was well trained. Kid Broke is the term and her job was to train Joe and I how to ride horseback. I asked about a saddle. Mom told me when I learned how to ride I could have a saddle. Until then I was to get to work and learn how to ride.
We rode her everyday, usually out to check the cows in the pasture every morning and evening. Joe did better than I. He would walk up to Beauty’s left side, jump up and grab her mane and in kind of slithering tree climbing way crawl up her leg and side and throw his leg over her back and pull himself up. A click of the tongue and they were off, most of the time galloping across the yard.
I didn’t do as well. I needed a mounting block. Once I was on her back I was kind of scared. We walked everywhere we went. After a while I managed to work is up t slow trot, but a trot is really rough and it was all I could do to keep my seat by squeezing with my legs and holding on to Beauty’s mane.
Mom noticed my hesitation and she was the one who finally convinced me to work Beauty into a canter. It was on the flat in the horse yard and after we got past the fast trot into the canter it was the most incredible experience. It was like sitting in a rocking chair. Beauty’s head would rise up in front of me and then drop back down as I felt the rear rise up behind me. I could feel the power and the energy. I was hooked.
But we only cantered uphill. The thought of cantering downhill I just knew it was going to throw me completely off balance and I’d tumble to the ground.
One morning Beauty and I were checking the cows in the southeast 40. The cows were at the far end of the field and as we headed back to the building lot I kicked her into a gently canter. We went up this long valley and then started up a gentle hill. I don’t know what came over me but as we topped the hill and started down the other side, I leaned back and let myself flow with the rhythm of Beauty’s canter.
Suddenly we were at the bottom of the hill going through the gate into the lane and up the hill toward the top yard. I stopped Beauty and just sat there. I think I was more amazed at myself and what I had just done than anything else.
Moving forward six months and it is Christmas Eve. I woke up about 2:00 AM. As quietly as I could I went out of my room and down the stairs. The stairway opened into the dining room. In the far corner I could see the Christmas tree. It was a small evergreen which we had dug up that fall down by the Little Sioux River and planted in a big wash tub. After Christmas the tree would go out on the covered porch and be planted in the windbreak next spring. Right now it filled the room with the pine scent and literally glowed with twinkling lights.
Underneath and around the tree were presents. I had never seen so many presents and one caught my attention. It was a big brown burlap bag tied with a ribbon. It has a nametag tided to the ribbon and it said Rob and Joe.
I touched it. Under the burlap I could feel a saddle horn and a smooth seat. I undid the ribbon, and pushed the opening back. It was a saddle. A real live saddle. I was so excited.
I unwrapped the ribbon, pulled the burlap back and lifted the saddle out of the bag. I put a broom between two chairs, set the saddle on the broom and sat down in the seat. It was like being in heaven.
Mom and Dad had talked to Mom’s cousin who was an auctioneer and told him if he came across a saddle in reasonably good condition at one of his sales to pick it up. They probably gave him a limit of about $25. So that is how the saddle ended up in our house. Mom cleaned the leather with neatsfoot oil working the leather to regain its suppleness. Finally they wrapped in a burlap bag and placed it under the tree. It had to be one of the best gifts I have ever received. Many saddles and thousands of dollars of equipment later it remains the best saddle we ever had in the tack room.
Let’s substitute the word event for gift. Priscilla and I have been through quite an event in the last month. Our apartment burned early in the Thomas Fire. For the last four weeks, we have been filling out insurance forms, looking for a new place to live and in many ways evaluating our lives.
First, the most important thing is that we have each other. It is that connection which has carried us through this event and allowed us to work together for the common good of our relationship.
Second, while we realize that it was not God’s intention to burn 950 family homes and 440 square miles of California, we also understand that God works in all situations. We have seen him at work in department stores which gave us discounts because we lost our home. We have seen him in the generosity of friends here and in Nevada who reached out to us. We have seen him in the programs and efforts of the cities of Ventura and Santa Paula and Ventura County as they continue to reach out to those who have been displaced.
And from the ashes God gives understanding. He gives us an opportunity to look into our lives, and sometimes a glimpse of our future. The past is always past but the future belongs to us and we have the opportunity to live the path God wants us to take.
Many years ago I was told the way to determine God’s path for our lives was to be open to the opportunities he sets before us. But we also have to be willing to act on those opportunities. Sometimes events collide which allow us to revaluate where we are and what we feel God wants us to do.
It is going to be hard. There is the grief process which is very similar to losing a loved one. Issues and situations arise which are never dreamed of, such as changing a driver’s license address or replacing a lost wedding ring. All these things take time and a ton of patience, but we know in the end if nothing else there will be an incredible learning experience and a great story.
What makes a gift special?
For me a beat-up old saddle told something far beyond the fact that we no longer needed to ride bareback. What it meant was that Mom and Dad felt we had become proficient enough riders to earn a saddle. We had earned that gift in their eyes, and their approval meant that Joe and I had crossed a threshold in our lives.
The result of that gift was that we spent the next 20 plus years in the horse business. (Joe and Mom are still raising registered Pinto/Tennessee Walker horses.) What I personally received was 20 years of some of the most exciting and incredible experiences, which have become stories even I find hard to believe at times.
What Priscilla and I have received from the Thomas Fire is still in the process of sorting out, and will be for several years. We do know that our lives will never be the same again. We are looking at how we lived and we are making decisions for the future. We have decided that instead of furnishing the new apartment we will be bringing the household furnishings from Hawthorne. We have put the Hawthorne house up for sale and will eventually be relocating to Ventura. A major factor was that for the last year and one half I had been trying to do support work in both Hawthorne and Ventura. In the running back and forth there has not been enough time to help out in either. That along with the drain of the seven hour drive each way and the knowing that we were always going to move to California has led us to making the decision that this is the opportunity to move.
The result of the fire (I refuse to call it a gift) is that we are starting from scratch on a whole new adventure in a whole new place. It is going to be difficult and demanding but it is always going to be exciting.
For Simeon and Anna what made the Christ Child special was that the child was the fulfillment of the Prophesy that God would send a savior to the Jewish people.
The result is that 2000 years ago our God came to dwell among his people teaching them how to interact with each other, lifting and supporting each other, and in the end providing that sacrifice which allows each of us to stand sin free before our God who in turn welcomes each of us into the community.
I do know we never understand gifts until we have a chance to look back through time at them and understand their results.
I know that the gift we received over 2000 years has changed and saved lives since the day it arrived.