Every year Mrs. Cynthia Valleau, an 8th grade teacher at Hurricane Middle School in West Virginia puts up a Christmas tree in her classroom, and decorates it with angels. Each angel represents a child in need. Early this December, her homeroom class took an angel from the tree that represented a little girl who asked for a bike and clothes. The kids in the class decided to bring in $2 each to buy clothes, having agreed the bicycle was more than they could do.
A day or two later one of her students came in when no one else was around, and anonymously left a brand new bike for the little girl. This little story appeared on Yahoo Online early in December, was picked up by several other websites, to be viewed and shared by millions of people.
You may have seen this news story, about something that happened on Christmas Day, on the Canadian prairie. As someone who lived and worked for years in rural Manitoba, not far from this small Saskatchewan town. I can imagine the scene, and the willingness of folks to be of help.
These are good news stories, and it does our heart good to hear them.
The Gospel story for today describes the day the infant Jesus was brought to the Jerusalem temple by Mary and Joseph. They followed the religious law and custom of the time, and made a sacrifice of a pair of doves or pigeons, and had the child blessed.
Simeon, a faithful and prayerful man was in the Temple that day. The story says the Holy Spirit had shown him he would see the Messiah of God before he died. When he saw Jesus, he took him in his arms, and said,
“God, you can now release your servant; release me in peace as you promised. With my own eyes I’ve seen your salvation; it’s now out in the open for everyone to see: A God-revealing light to the non-Jewish nations, and of glory for your people Israel.”
The story goes on: “Anna the prophetess was also there, a daughter of Phanuel from the tribe of Asher. She was by now a very old woman. She had been married seven years and a widow for eighty-four. She never left the Temple area, worshiping night and day with her fastings and prayers. At the very time Simeon was praying, she showed up, broke into an anthem of praise to God, and talked about the child to all who were waiting expectantly for the freeing of Jerusalem.”
Anna and Simeon each had a hunger, a thirst, a craving for Good News, of tangible reasons for hope. A newborn child often has that effect.
We were at the annual Chamberlain Christmas this week. It’s a gathering of my wife’s sisters, their father, and their families. The star of the show was our niece’s son Evan, who is about 3, and full of energy, and smiles, and enthusiasm for tearing wrapping paper, running in circles, cheesies, and climbing.
Anna and Simeon, when they encounter Good News, in the living form of the newborn Jesus, see cause for hope, and want to share it. Passing it along may be even more important than hearing it in the first place.
When we share Good News, it gives an opportunity to bring light and love and hope to another person. This can be incredibly healing and inspiring to the giver, as well as to the receiver.
Our saint for today is Nicholas of Myra. He was born in the 3rd century in a village in what is now the southern coast of Turkey. He was born into wealth and privilege, but sadness struck when his parents died in an epidemic while he was still young. They had raised him as a devout Christian, and their influence lived on in him, in a powerful way.
Obeying Jesus’ words to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man.
Perhaps the most famous story about Nicholas is about a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman’s father had to offer prospective husbands something of value—a dowry. The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry.
This poor man’s daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry.
This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas.
Anybody get an orange in their stocking this Christmas?
Through the centuries St. Nicholas has continued to be venerated by Catholics and Orthodox and honored by Protestants. By his example of generosity to those in need, especially children, St. Nicholas continues to be a model for the compassionate life.
Our next hymn, “I am the light of the world”, has its origins in a poem by Howard Thurman, an American philosopher, theologian, teacher, and civil rights activist. Thurman taught a theology of radical nonviolence that influenced and shaped a generation of civil rights activists, and he was a key mentor to leaders within the movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr. Thurman was also one of the founders of the first intentionally inter-racial church in the United States, called The Church for The Fellowship of All Peoples, which had its inaugural service on October 8, 1944.
Here is the original poem by Howard Thurman:
The Work of Christmas
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.
At this time of year people put energy into creating resolutions for the New Year. Eat better, quit smoking, get to the gym more often. Resolutions are often about self-improvement. I would like to suggest a different kind of commitment for the coming year.
What if in the coming year we made a concerted effort to not only pass on Good News, but to make Good News happen in people’s lives? This needn’t be about giving them material things or money. You can pass on Good News with a kind word, or lifting a hand to help, or inviting a lonely person for a meal, or taking the risk to speak to someone who looks like they need a listening ear.
Take some today to think about what you might do. Howard Thurman, whose poem I read earlier offered some good advice. He said,
Don’t ask what the world needs.
Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.
Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. Amen