Christmas Eve Sermon
John 1: 1-17
I want to tell you a story that I heard on the news lately. Tiare Dunlap tells the story on people.com. “ Georgia Mom Tara Wood was grocery shopping with her 4-year-old daughter Norah when the young girl hopped up in the cart and shouted, “Hi, old person!” at a man passing by.
“Before I could tell Norah, ‘Please use kind words,’ the man stopped and said, ‘Well, hi little lady! How are you today?’ ” Wood tells PEOPLE.
Norah and the man, 82-year-old Dan Peterson, chatted for a few minutes and then went their separate ways. Then Norah asked her mom if she could take a picture with her new friend.
Because it was Norah’s fourth birthday, Wood agreed and the pair went back to find the man and ask him to take a photo.
“When we found him and asked him, he took a step back and put his hand on his chest and said, ‘You want a photo with me?’ ” the mom of seven recalls. “He was shocked and sort of delighted and Norah said, ‘Yes, sir, for my birthday.’ ”
After taking the photo, Norah and Peterson chatted for a few more minutes. When it was time to go, Wood told Norah to thank the man for being so friendly and agreeable.
“So she thanked him and he said, ‘No, thank you! You’ve made me the happiest I’ve been in a long time,’ ” Wood says. “He was kind of tearing up and it was very sweet.”
Tara was so moved by this encounter that when she returned home she posted a picture of Norah and Dan on facebook. It turned out that one of Tara’s friends knew Dan. It turned out that Dan had lost his wife in March and he had been in a deep depression ever since. Tara was touched by Dan’s story. So she got his contact information and gave him a call. Dan was delighted to hear from them. So they set up a lunch date. But it didn’t end there. Norah and Dan began to make weekly visits. To quote Tara, “We’ve seen him every week since,” she says. “We always visit even if it’s just for 15 or 20 minutes. We even celebrated his 82nd birthday with him – we took him balloons and a cupcake the size of his head.” Tara goes on to say, “Seventy-eight years separate these two people in age,” she wrote. “Somehow, their hearts and souls seem to recognize each other from long ago.” To quote Dan, “I was having sort of a down period as days go sometimes and was feeling sorry for myself because my wife died in March, and I am still hurting from that,” “Norah just lit up my life.”
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”
This obscure passage from Titus has been on my mind of late. And the amazing and moving actions of Norah shows someone who even at the age of four is, “ zealous for good works.” Kids at their best remind us of the potential for goodness in human nature. They give us hope that there can be purity, goodness, innocence and uprightness. Their honest statements like, “hey old person,” shocks us out of our complacency, embarrassing us, but also reminding us to be honest with ourselves. Their love and compassion brings light into our lives. That is why Norah and Dan’s story feels like a holiday story. That is why we celebrate the birth of Christ in December, even though we are not sure when he was born. Because children give us hope. And in the waning darkness of winter we need hope.
Tis the season for giving we are told. We have to have holidays to give because if we are honest with ourselves we are not zealous for good works. We are not zealous for grace because frankly we have our own problems to deal with and rarely do we stop to deal with the pain of strangers.
But the life of Christ from the manger to the cross was defined by zealous grace. By a zealous desire to serve his Father and to set people free. Peter sums up Jesus’ ministry well in Acts 10:38, “ He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the Devil.” Decades after the birth of Christ Paul sums up the Christmas story well to his friend Titus, “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” That’s one of the characteristics of grace. It appears when we least expect it. We know when it appears that we don’t deserve it. But when grace appears she changes our lives and she causes us to raise our heads from or sorrow and give worship and praise once again. Grace isn’t just about being nice to people. It isn’t just about accepting people. It isn’t just about good feelings. Jerome Quinn in his Anchor Bible Commentary on Titus says this about grace, “ Grace is the tangible power of God at work in believers.” ( Quinn, 150). That is why Christ had to come in the manger, why he had to live a life of Grace, why he had to die on the cross, rise from the grave, and send his Spirit. Because Grace requires action. God isn’t a God of Grace if He only sits back and watches the world turn.
Grace is a gift. Grace is when you receive a gift you didn’t ask for but the person knows you so well that the gift is better than what you could have asked for. Our God is the perfect example of this. For our God is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us.” (Ephesians 3:20). The same power that overshadowed Mary and placed our savior in her womb is at work in the lives of believers today. That same power of the Holy Spirit can overshadow us today if we allow Him to. If we believe this. If this is as real to us as the air we breathe, the sun that lights our path, should we not be zealous for good works? Should not our Lord’s zealous grace make us zealous to give that grace away?
When I think of someone who is Zealous for Grace I think about my mom Deborah Roberts. My mom can make friends with just about anyone. It’s actually a little awkward for me to be in public with her because of how deep and intimate she can get with perfect strangers. She carriers with her bags of toys just so she can give them to random children. One person that is particularly significant to her is her friend Daisy. Daisy is a young Hispanic woman my mom met in Harrisonburg several years ago. My mom always encouraged her to continue her education and become a nurse. For a couple of years Daisy and my mom lost touch just because life gets busy. But she and Daisy happened to run into each other when my mom was at the hospital getting her knee implants checked out. They reconnected and my mom helped Daisy apply for a community scholarship for Latinos to continue their education. She got that scholarship and is working her way through a nursing program. Recently, Daisy got married to her long term boyfriend. I was living at home in Harrisonburg at the time and my mom asked me if I wanted to go with her to the wedding? Did I want to go to a Mexican wedding? Sure why not I thought. Of course, when we got there I felt out of place. Some folks didn’t speak English and me my mom were part of a handful of gringos that were invited. If you have never been to a Mexican wedding you should definitely try it. They got lots of food, lots of family, a live band, it is totally awesome. But I am going to be honest. I really didn’t know how to break the ice with folks sitting at my table. I didn’t even know if we spoke the same language. But my mom, being my mom, broke out her bag of toys. I honestly, was a little embarrassed. I thought here my mom goes again making a scene, embarrassing me around strangers. But as the children began to stream towards the toys the dynamics began to change. One of the younger girls, who spoke perfect English, began to mediate a conversation between us and her parents, who were from Mexico and Guatemala. My mom was zealous more for good works than she was for social conventions and because she was we were welcomed into a world we would not have otherwise seen. That is what happens when we are zealous for grace. We are welcomed into worlds we might not otherwise see.
But when that fire comes, when that zeal of the Lord consumes us, when our hearts are broken for what breaks the heart of Christ, let us not forget to stop and listen. Let us remember to be slow to speak and quick to listen. I am particularly reminded this Christmas Season that the Holidays while a time for celebration for many can also be a time of sorrow for many. As many of you know my sister recently got married. And for Thanksgiving my family went to Culpeper, VA to spend the Holiday with my brother in law’s family, which still is a little weird to say, I have a brother in law. This should have been a time of celebration. But for me Thanksgiving and my sister’s upcoming wedding reminded me of my ex girlfriend, we broke up in may. It reminded me of the dear friends I left in Indiana. It reminded me of the hurt and heartache that sometimes comes as you pour out your heart and love people as a minister. Maybe you have been have been a similar situation. In a season of celebration you find yourself in a season of mourning. Surrounded by family you feel alone in a crowd and yet no one notices. We have to be attuned to how people actually are before we can know how to help them. God meets us where we are. He cannot meet us where we want to be because we are not there yet. God meets us where we are and thus we must go with God and meet people where they are. And to be honest during this holiday season I have been feeling a lot of grief. I have been feeling like a failure. Maybe you know the feeling.
But after Thanksgiving I stopped by the church I was a member of when I lived in Richmond. During the prayer time a woman I knew stood up and asked prayer for a young girl who her and her husband had taken in. The girl was only ten but had gotten into legal trouble and because of that would have to move out of her and her husband’s house. I could sense the pain in her voice. The feeling of rejection. The feeling that her best wasn’t good enough. I knew those feelings. And I felt the Lord speak to me. I felt the Lord tell me to tell her that she was not a failure.
So after the service I went up to this woman and I told her I knew how she felt. I knew what it felt like to pour your heart out in ministry, to love people as best as you could and not to have that love appreciated or returned. I knew what it felt like to do your best, to have the best intentions in a relationship, but not to have things work out as planned. And I told her she was not a failure. The woman was very appreciative of my words. She needed to hear those words. And afterwards when I got in my car I realized those words were for me as well. Those words are for anyone who has been zealous for good works but has been hurt and rejected. Those words are for anyone who has done all they could but felt helpless at the end of the day. Tonight I swear to you, the Lord isn’t done with that young girl and He is not done with any of you who are here tonight or those whom you love who are not here. And he is not done with those who tonight no one loves, and I guarantee you there are those in this world who no one loves who need to be loved. Tonight I have good news for you and I have even better news for you. The good news is there is a Messiah. The better news is that it isn’t you and it isn’t me. Our good works are only part of the story. Grace goes beyond our abilities and just because we have reached the end of our abilities doesn’t mean we are failures. Jesus knows how we feel because he chose to come to this Earth as a helpless child, completely dependent on the love of his parents. As Hebrews 4:15 tells us we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weakness, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, but without sin.” Jesus is love incarnate and his love was not without rejection. To quote the Gospel of John,
1”The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.” (John 1:9-11)
My friends, my message for you all tonight is let us be zealous for grace because His zealous grace has claimed us and made us His own. Let us remember that though we may reach the end of our rope there is one who can catch us when we let go of that rope. We may have failed but we are not failures for His love never fails. Jesus, from the manger to the cross lived a life of zealous grace. And now that He reigns in heaven his zealous grace lives in us. He has ordained a path for us full of good works, full of Zealous Grace. And tonight the time has come, the time has come, for us to walk that path.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.