GOD’S GIFT AT CHRISTMAS
Matthew 25: 31-45
It is Christmas Day! How rarely we are in this place on Christmas Day. When our children were growing up, Mary Ann and I thought it was only right to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. So we would come on Christmas Day even when it was not on a Sunday, and give everyone else the day off. From 1986 -1999, our family left presents at home, put on some of our new clothes, and came to greet, read a Christmas story, be the “choir,” and be fellowship hour hosts. A volunteer pianist joined us.
Well times have changed and here we are on a full service Christmas! But the tradition of sharing a Christmas story has not left me. Last week I told the story of the Legend of the Poinsettia. Last Christmas I told the Story of the Candy Cane. Last night I shared the book “Three Christmas Stories” and read one of the stories. And today for the children I read the short children’s book “Starry, Starry Night.” Last week Lester Holt’s Inspirational story on NBS was about a librarian who, every week, would pack a bag with different children’s stories, and go to places in his community just to read stories to children. He believes it fosters their understanding of language and fosters their imagination. And they hear a good book read to them! Now I want to share a story with you today, a story that encapsulates God’s Gift at Christmas. Before we turn to Matthew 25, I want to reference Luke chapter 10. There was a man of the law who asked Jesus: “What should I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asked him back: “What do you read? And he answered: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said, “You have answered right; do this,” Jesus said to the man as he says to us, “ and you will live.” Do this and you will live. Then Jesus launches into—what else?—but a story. It was the story of the Good Samaritan and how a man who was not expected to care for a beaten man at the side of the Jericho road actually took care of him. “This is your neighbor too,” Jesus was implying. Love God; love neighbor. In the First Letter of John, chapter 4 verse 8, we find, in fact, that God is love. And John, in his gospel, said that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Word that came into the world was Jesus Christ. Professor Emeritus Dale Bruner from the College of Wooster put it this way: “The Word became flesh and moved into our neighborhood.” How, or where, might we see Jesus around us? This Christmas I have a story that illustrates that point. In the later half of his life, Russian author Leo Tolstoy—famous for huge works like War and Peace and Anna Karenina—had a spiritual awakening and began to write faith stories. Perhaps you wonder how Tolstoy could write such a gospel story, but he did. This, in summary, is it. It is found in the original form in a book called Where Love is, There God is Also, and in the children’s book Martin the Cobbler.
Once upon a time there lived a man who, as he grew older, wanted to get his spiritual life in order and get closer to God. He had had two death experiences that made him bitter for years: the death of his dear wife and then the death of his only son. Martin was a cobbler, a shoemaker by trade, and he had lived in his town for years. He knew nearly everyone in town and could even recognize them by the shoes they wore! You see, he had made or repaired most all of them. His little shop was in a basement room that was below street level. The only way he could look outside was through a high window, and then he could only see the shoes of those who walked by. One day he complained to a friend saying: “I have no desire to live any longer. I only wish I could die. I am a man without hope.” “You don’t talk right!” his friend chastised. “We must not judge God’s doings. The world moves not by our skill, but by God’s will. And you are in despair because you wish to live for your own happiness.” “But what should I live for?” asked Martin. “We must live for God,” his friend replied. “He gave you life, and for his sake you must live. When you begin to live for Him, you will not grieve over anything, and all will seem easy to you.” And then, like the lawyer confronting Jesus, Martin asked, “But how can one live for God?” His friend said, “Christ has taught us how to live for God. You know how to read; buy a Testament and read it; there you will learn how to live for God. Everything is explained there.” Well, Martin took his friend’s advice and began to read the Gospels. God changed his life as he read about Jesus. He felt joy and peace; the only thing he wondered was if he might know and recognize Jesus one day. He fell asleep fitfully, Bible in hand, and awoke in the night. “Martin, Martin!” he heard a voice cry out. He awoke with a start, but saw no one. “Look for me tomorrow Martin, for I am coming!” the voice said. Martin still saw no one. In the morning he awoke. It was just another day. He got up, said his prayers to God, had a breakfast of Cabbage soup and gruel, and went to his shop, not thinking much about what he heard. Soon he heard the sound of scraping outside, and he looked out the window. Stephan, the street cleaner, was shoveling snow off the street outside his shop. “Oh,” Martin thought in dismay, “It’s just Stephan … not Jesus.” Then he noticed Stephan was looking particularly old and worn out as he stopped and rested from his heavy work in the bitter cold. Martin went to the door. “Stephan!” he called out. “Come inside for a bit and warm up! I have some hot tea and food I can share with you!” Stephan gladly came in and felt better sitting by the small fire, drinking tea, eating a bit of salted beef, and talking with Martin. “Thank you Martin!” he said. “I’ll be on my way now.
After awhile Martin heard a commotion outside. Soldiers were walking by. Then he noticed a shabbily dressed woman and her infant daughter, neither of whom had enough clothes to keep warm. “Here dear lady!” he called from the door of his shop. “You and the child come in for a minute. You look frozen!” “We are,” said the woman as she and her baby came in. The child seemed to have a cold: coughing and shivering. “I haven’t eaten in a while,” the woman said as Martin give her some tea, and then reached his pantry to give her some food too. She then added, “This is all I have to wear.” The woman started to nurse the baby. Martin remembered an old coat he had in his closet. He went and got it, then wrapped it around the woman and her child. Tears’ filled the woman’s eyes as she said: “God will bless you for such an act of kindness. Thank you! Thank you sir!” Soon she left too. “It’s been a busy day so far,” thought Martin. He noticed he was behind in his work. He went about catching up. Late in the afternoon he glanced out the window. He noticed a woman across the street carrying a basket of apples she had apparently just bought from a vendor. As she walked by, a young boy started to run past her and he grabbed one of her apples. The woman caught his sleeve. “A tussle ensued, but the woman held fast. Martin dropped his tool and ran out the door. “You young thief!” the woman said to the boy. “You’ll not get away! I’m taking you to the police so they can arrest you!” “Just a minute,” Martin said, a bit out of breath. He turned to the boy. “Young man you were stealing ;stealing from this poor woman I saw you do it. Tell her you are sorry and ask her to forgive you!” “No!” the woman said, “He’s going to the police!” Martin said gently to her: “Please? If he apologizes, won’t you forgive him this time? I will take him with me and talk with him about what he did.” Just then, the boy burst into tears. “I’m sorry lady. Real sorry.” The woman still wanted to press charges, but Martin said: “God has forgiven our sins; we are to forgive the sins of others.” The woman started to give in under Martin’s insistence. As Martin was ready to take the boy with him, the boy said: “Lady, you are old and that basket is heavy. Let me carry it for you and we’ll walk together. I am really sorry. What do you say?” As they walked off, Martin watched as the woman began teaching the boy about his choices. She seemed to take him under her wing. Martin went back to his shop.
Ad the end of the day before he left for home, he opened his Testament and read one more time. He was wondering about the voice that had awakened him the night before. Suddenly he heard a commotion behind him. He looked, and an image of Stephan appeared. “Martin!” a voice said. Didn’t you recognize me? It was I.” “And it was I” said another voice and the woman stepped forward with her child. “And it was I” continued a voice and the boy stepped forward with the old woman. Then the images vanished. Martin wondered about what he had just seen. His eyes fell on the page where he was reading: Matthew 25: Suddenly he understood, and his heart rejoiced! The words on the page said: “For I was a hungered, and ye gave me meat; I was a thirst, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and ye came to me …. Then his eyes fell on the last line: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, ye have done it unto me.” Love is God’s gift at Christmas. We love, because God first loved us. Love one another with hearts and eyes opened. You may be meeting angels, or your Savior, today.
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 25, 2016