Sunday’s sermon: Gifts from the Heart

from the heart

Texts used – Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:26-38

  • So here we are on the last Sunday of Advent … the last Sunday before we celebrate the birth of the Christ child … the end of our Advent journey, and the end of our Advent story.
    • Series this year: The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree by Gloria Houston[1] → story so far
      • Met Ruthie, Papa, and Mama
      • Setting: Appalachia at the end of WWI
      • Began in spring when Ruthie and her papa picked out the perfect balsam fir for the village church’s Christmas tree
      • Papa gets called away to fight in WWI → doesn’t return home with all the other village men like he said he would → left Mama and Ruthie to make ends meet in lots of different ways, including harvesting and providing the Christmas tree for the church on their own in the dead of night
      • Because it’s her family’s turn to provide the tree, Ruthie also gets the honor of being the heavenly angel in the church Christmas pageant
        • Asks Mama for a new dress with long, flowy sleeves to look like angel wings → Mama sacrifices her wedding dress and the silk stockings Papa sent her from Europe to create the dress for Ruthie as well as a little doll with a dress to match and coal-black curls, just like Ruthie’s
    • And as we’ve walked through Ruthie’s story, we’ve also talked about some Advent themes.
      • 1st week: waiting → both the challenge and blessing of waiting
        • Ruthie and Mama: waiting for Papa
        • Advent: waiting for the birth of the Christ child and for Christ’s return
      • Last week: giving → not about what we give but about the sacrifice and generosity of giving in and of itself
        • Ruthie and Mama: giving the tree to the church and Mama making the dress for Ruthie from her wedding dress
        • Advent: glorious gift of Christ
          • Hope
          • Peace
          • Salvation
    • This week, we’re going to build on that idea of giving by talking more about those gifts and where come from.
  • Start with the story → READ PP. 24-30
  • Last week – talked about the attitude of the giving
    • Generosity vs. obligation
  • Today – talk about gifts themselves → the nature of the gifts
    • Gifts in the story: perfect balsam Christmas tree, angel doll, Papa coming home → None of these gifts are big or extravagant. None of them cost a lot of money. They don’t come with gift receipts or upgrade packages or 3-year service plans. There is nothing flashy or fancy about these gifts, but that doesn’t matter. They are priceless exactly because they are what they are. They are priceless because they come from the heart.
      • Simple
      • Gifts of love
      • Gifts that make someone’s day or life better
        • Perfect Christmas tree = made everyone’s celebration that Christmas a little bit better/brighter/merrier
        • Angel doll = made Ruthie’s Christmas a little bit merrier – book: At last it was time to call the names on the presents tied to the tree. Every child in the church received a present. Everyone, that is, except Ruthie. A tear slipped down into the dimple in her cheek. Then one of the kings reached to the tip-tip-top of the perfect balsam Christmas tree. He lifted the tiny angel down. “Why, Ruthie,” said old St. Nick, “this tiny angel looks just like you.” … Ruthie hugged the tiny angel and kissed its silky cheek, which felt just like the silk stockings Papa had sent to Mama.[2]
        • Obvious one – Papa coming home
          • Certainly Mama and Ruthie couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas present, even one that cost a fortune
          • Papa coming home definitely made Mama and Ruthie’s Christmas – and lives! – better
          • Ruthie’s prayer from earlier – book: Every night Mama tucked Ruthie into her little bed and listened as she said the same prayer. “Please send my papa home for Christmas,” Ruthie whispered. “And please have old St. Nicholas bring me a doll with a beautiful dress, the color of cream, all trimmed with ribbons and lace.”[3]
  • Scripture readings for this morning touch on this, too – just how powerful simplicity, love, and compassion truly are → how powerful gifts from the heart can be
    • OT passage from Micah makes it clear that the one coming – the gift of the Messiah – will not come from a flashy, prestigious, politically important place but from a little nothing of a town – text: As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces, one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you. His origin is from remote times, from ancient days. … He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. … he will become one of peace.[4]
      • Context of Micah : 8th century BCE (~mid 700s) → important because the first half of the 8th saw prosperity and relative peace for the Israelites, but the second half brought great hardships
        • Scholar: A succession of short and unsuccessful kingships, foolhardy efforts at rebellion, and the resurgence of Assyrian power in the region led to the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel and its capital city, Samaria, in 722 BCE. … Into this time of great change, when the fortunes of God’s people had already declined and promised to get even worse, Micah stepped forward to provide a theological interpretation of crucial events facing the nation and its people.[5]
      • So even in the face of that hardship and challenge, Micah makes it clear that the One coming – the Messiah – is coming for glory, yes, but God’s glory, not the Messiah’s own glory
        • Coming to be a gift of peace
        • Coming to be a gift of compassion
        • Think of it this way. Micah refers to the One Who is to Come as a shepherd. Shepherds are not exactly the picture of overpowering strength and illustrious authority. Shepherds are quiet, unassuming protectors and guides. They move their flocks from place to place and keep them safe. And yet this is the image that God gave Micah for the coming Messiah – not an all-powerful king adorned in gold and jewels upon a mighty throne, but a shepherd with a flock.
          • Does not mean that the coming Messiah will not be great – references both to Bethlehem and a shepherd in this passage harken back to King David, Israel’s most beloved king = inference that this Coming One will indeed be great
        • Speaking of Micah, Kathryn Schifferdecker, professor at Luther Seminary: The insignificant are exalted. The tables are turned, and the most unlikely of people are instruments of God’s salvation. From this insignificant little village, a young shepherd boy grows up to become the most beloved king in Israel’s history. And a descendant of that king fulfills God’s long-awaited promises of deliverance, not just for Israel, but for the whole world. It is not the way of the world, this exaltation of the lowliest. But it is the way God works, over and over and over again.[6]
    • NT passage makes 2 things abundantly clear: 1) that the gift of the Messiah is one from God’s own heart, and 2) that this gift will be utterly transformative – text: When the angel came to [Mary], he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High.”[7]
      • Gift from God’s heart → evident in Gr.
        • “favored one” = blessed, chosen
        • Gabriel: “God is honoring you,” literal transl.: “God has found honor with you” – honor = graciousness, gratitude, good will → The most common translation of this word throughout the New Testament is ‘’ So the angel Gabriel is informing Mary that God is both giving her grace and giving the world grace through her in this encounter.
      • And it is in this giving of grace that we see just how transformative this gift is and will be.
        • Transformative for Mary = kind of obvious → Babies change your life. Even ordinary babies alter your life … everything about your life: your schedule, your routines, your priorities, your traditions, your sleep cycle. But this baby that Mary is told she will be carrying is no ordinary baby. This is the Son of God. In a heartbeat, Mary goes from a typical girl engaged to be married to the Mother of Salvation Incarnate. This baby will change more than Mary’s life … more than Joseph’s life. This baby will change all our lives.
          • Karoline Lewis, another professor at Luther Seminary: In only three short verses, [Mary goes] from peasant girl to prophet, from Mary to mother of God, from to denial to discipleship. In a very real way, this is the appropriate transition from Advent to Christmas. Mary’s story moves us all from who we think we are to what God has called us to be, from observant believer to confessing apostle. Moreover, remarkably, impossibly, Mary’s story demands that we acknowledge the very transformation of God. It is no small journey to go from our comfortable perceptions of God to God in the manger, vulnerable, helpless, dependent. Yet, this is the promise of Christmas.[8]
  • This transformation is indeed the promise of Christmas – the promise of a gift that comes straight from the heart of God, a gift that will bring transformation – peace, compassion, and God’s unending grace to a world in need. In the midst of this season of decorations and lights and cookies and trees and packages and bows and all the hustle and bustle of the Christmas holiday, isn’t that our truest wish: peace, compassion, and God’s grace?
    • Last word today: “Grown-Up Christmas List”[9] → embodies our desire for those gifts from the heart – simple gifts of love and a better life – for the good of our own souls and the good of this world.

[1] Gloria Houston. The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree. (New York, NY: Dial Books for Young Readers), 1988.

[2] Houston, 27-28.

[3] Houston, 9.

[4] Mic 5:2, 4a, 5a.

[5] Daniel J. Simundson. “The Book of Micah: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 7. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 534.

[6] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker. “Commentary on Micah 5:2-5a” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=469. Written for Dec. 20, 2009.

[7] Lk 1:28-32a.

[8] Karoline Lewis. “Commentary on Luke 1:26-38” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=469. Written for Dec. 23, 2018.

[9] Linda Thompson and David Foster. “My Grown-Up Christmas List” as performed by Kelly Clarkson and Pentatonix from Christmas Is Here! album, released 2018 by RCA Records.

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