First Congregational Church
December 23, 2018
Fourth Sunday in Advent
“The Power of a True Story”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. I say a story is worth a thousand pictures. Our brains naturally formulate pictures as we hear them read. So much of what we celebrate at this time of year is the direct result of the story of Jesus’ birth - all the prophecies and accounts and reactions of so many individuals. Perhaps more than any other time in the liturgical calendar, this Fourth Sunday in Advent, right on the doorstep of Christmas, is best suited for true stories. Geno Sloan is responsible for the first story today, Michael Schlagle penned the second, and God Almighty continues to write the ending of the third.
My husband Sherman and I lived in central Mexico for several years while his construction company worked on a project for General Motors. We enjoyed our stay there and spent our free time exploring the country’s historic sites and places where the locals vacationed instead of Americanized resorts and beaches. We were especially fond of the mountainous city of Guanajuato, with its colorful and unique adobe homes built on steep hillsides. Eventually, we purchased a large painting of that beautiful city to display in our living room after retirement. Following years of travel and adventure, we moved back to our home, a small town on the North Dakota prairie.
Fifteen years later, my husband died of a massive heart attack. Several months after that, I put an ad in our local paper offering to give away our six foot Christmas tree, complete with lights. Since my husband was gone, the Christmas spirit was not the same for me. I didn’t want to decorate the large one that we had enjoyed as a couple for so many years, and I purchased a very small tree instead.
One Sunday the phone rang and a woman with a very pronounced Latino accent asked about the tree. She and her husband worked for a rancher almost 60 miles away, but decided they would drive to town for the tree. I agreed to save it for them, and they arrived an hour and 1/2 later. They walked in the front door and immediately zeroed in on the very large painting above my coach.
“Is that Guanajuato?” the man asked excitedly. “That is our home!” He explained that when they were not working for the rancher in the US, they lived very close to that city in Mexico. I told him we had lived in Mexico for a couple of years and explained about the project. He was very familiar with it.
“Oh, I know the factory. It is very large and covers the valley below Guanajuato.” They were so pleased to talk about the area, and I told them all about the construction projects we had done throughout the years, and how much we had enjoyed living in Mexico.
The couple had small children, and this was the first time they would not be in Mexico for Christmas. He said they had looked in the local store, but the large trees were all too expensive. I was so happy to give them our tree, and I added some extra strings of lights and a large bag of ornaments. As they left, I said, “Feliz Navidad.”
The spirit of Christmas was back in my heart. My husband would’ve been so pleased that the tree would now shine for this family. I like to think that he nudged me toward placing the ad for the tree. Why else would a couple, so far from their country, find such a coincidental meeting on the prairies of North Dakota? Geno Sloan Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Wonder of Christmas
On Christmas Eve, when most people set aside a plate of cookies for Santa Claus, we have a different tradition. We make him a nice bologna and cheese sandwich. For our boys, it means they get to leave something special for old St. Nick. For my wife and me, it is a tradition that dates back to our first Christmas together and reminds us that the true spirit of the holidays is found in the simplest of miracles.
It all started on Christmas Eve 1982. Sharon and I had recently moved to Colorado and we were spending our first holiday away from family and friends. We were living in an old motel outside of Denver.
Snow started falling lightly on Christmas Eve morning. The prospect of a white Christmas brightened our spirits. We went to the Cinderella City mall for some last-minute shopping. When we emerged with our packages, we were greeted by a raging blizzard. Luckily, we were able to catch the final bus home. It was snowing so furiously that the driver had to stop every block to clear off the windshield. Darkness had fallen by the time we reached our motel.
Once inside, we realized that we had forgotten to get food for our Christmas dinner. Once again, we bundled up and ventured into the stormy night, hoping to find a store not closed for the holiday or by the snowstorm.
Outside, the night was an incredible flurry of snowflakes and howling wind, obliterating all but the faint glow of street lamps and Christmas decorations. The roads were deserted except for the cars buried in the mounting snowdrifts. Chilled to the bone by the bitter wind, we had all but given up hope when we rounded a corner to see a deli shop owner turning off his lights and closing up the store. When we drew closer, we realized he was dressed in a Santa suit, beard and all! As we approached, he called out “Merry Christmas!” and explained he was off to surprised his grandkids.
We explained our plight, but he shook his head and told us that the storm had completely emptied the shelves. Then he thought for a moment, invited us inside, and led us to a back room where he had a small fridge. Inside were two big hunks of bologna and cheese which he placed in a sack, along with a loaf of bread, a bag of pistachio nuts, and a bottle of ginger ale. We laughed when he quipped, “Santa’s favorite snack,” and patted his belly.
He accepted only our heartfelt thanks and gave us each a warm hug. Once outside, he reached into his pocket, handing us each a candy cane. With a hearty laugh, he wished us Merry Christmas once again and disappeared into the night.
That night, as we feasted on bologna, cheese and pistachio nuts, we marveled at the Christmas gift the kind store owner had bestowed upon us, for when we walked back into the night and he had faded into the storm, we realized we had never gotten his name. It was when we turned around to see the name of the deli that we realized we had experienced a touch of Christmas magic. The name of the deli was Nick’s Place. To this day, our family shares the story around the Christmas tree to remind each other that it is indeed the wonder-filled moments that bring treasured meaning to the miracle that is Christmas. Michael J. Schlagle, Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Wonder of Christmas
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.” 38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
Mary Visits Elizabeth
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
Thank you, Dale and Donna. With some 31.5 hours before we once again celebrate the Annual Candlelight Christmas Eve Worship service, one may not think there would be much room for a miracle of any sort, much less one that could find its way into a Chicken Soup for the Soul Christmas edition book. But there are miracles all around us, just waiting for us to “see” them. Even if it is nothing more than the gathered body of individuals - here and tomorrow evening - that will never be gathered with exactly the same personnel again, there are miracles that surround us, enfold us and beg for our attention as signs of God’s love.
As each of us prepares for the birth of the One expected from so long ago, may each of us be extra aware, more open to, and extraordinarily desirous of the miraculous ways that God catches our attention and draws us into the embrace of God’s love, that will take place in the coming hours and even into the rest of the week. Toward that end, let us pray.
God of every potential and promise and possibility, we thank you for all the gifts and miracles you have bestowed on us. Help each of us to take off any Negative Nancy or Nathan glasses and don the expectant attitude of the angels and shepherds and kings and even Joseph and Mary. May we not become so entangled in despair or sorrow or depression that it inhibits our ability to see you and the gift of love that you sent as a representation of your love for us - that love that never changes regardless of our earthly and human circumstances. For all the blessings, gifts, love and miracles that you constantly offer us, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.