2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


Always Almost

Luke 1:26-38

II Samuel 7:1-11,16

 It may have seemed a little odd to read a story about King David on this last Sunday before Christmas and yet David's story weaves in interesting ways into the gospel lesson that I just read. If you remember the story, David suddenly announces to his court prophet, Nathan, that he intends to build a temple—a house—for God. Perhaps David is feeling guilty. He has established his kingdom. He has captured Jerusalem. He has built a magnificent palace for himself but the Ark of the Covenant of God still is in a tent up on Mount Zion. Perhaps David, when his head hits the pillow at night, thinks about how comfortable he is and how breezy it is up there in the tent where the Ark is and it enters into his mind that perhaps it is time or past time that he built God a house. So he announces to Nathan his intention and Nathan did what court prophets are supposed to do. He said, "Sure, King, go ahead, do anything you want." It's in the job description of court prophets to tell the king they can do anything they want! Later that night, Nathan had a vision—a word—from God. This word was that he was to return to David the next day with a different response. It is a response that in interesting ways turns David's intention upside down. For it was David's intention to build a house—a temple—for God. But Nathan is to tell David that he will not build God a house but rather God will build David a house. It is a wonderful play on the multiple meanings of the word house. David is not to build a house, as in a dwelling for God, but God will build a house as in a monarchy, as in an ancestral house, for David and promises David that his descendants will always reign.

Well, it didn't quite turn out that way. David's house did reign as king of Jerusalem for almost four hundred years—one of the longest monarchies by a single house in the history of human­ity. But eventually the time came when the monarchy was overthrown and David's sons and grandsons no longer reigned in Jerusalem. It was almost, but not quite. David thought he was going to build a house for God—almost but not quite.

So it is in some interesting ways with this story of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary. Gabriel comes to her and announces that she is to have a son and call the son Jesus. And then he goes on to say things like, "He will be called great and his throne will be established like his ancestor David and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever." We're not told how Mary understood all that. But it would have been perfectly understandable if she would have heard Gabriel’s words as being words that promised that her son would be a monarch, would be some sort of earthly king reigning over a worldly kingdom. It didn't turn out that way, either, did it? Almost, perhaps, but not quite.

It seems to me, my friends, that this "almost not quite mess" is the story of our lives. Here on the fourth Sunday of Advent, it is almost Christmas but not quite. Oh, we sing the Christmas carols, we say "Christ the Lord is born today" but it's not "today" yet. And it is only our eagerness to get on with it and our unwillingness to wait that causes us to sing the carols today. It's really too early. Several people have asked me already today if I was ready for Christmas. Well, almost but not quite. Are you ready to be away from work for two or three days this week? The answer is probably almost but probably not quite. Indeed the whole story of our lives seems to be a story of almost—ALMOST but not quite.

One of the most important questions, one of the most profoundly religious questions, which we could ever be asked is, "For what are you almost ready?" For what are you spending your time and energy, your treasure, your effort? For what are you preparing? What is it that's almost there? What is it that you are reaching for but can't quite grasp? What is it you are dreaming for but can't quite make come true? For what do you strive and wait?

Almost but not quite. Oh, there are a lot of little things like Christmas presents to buy and cards to send. A lot of little things about getting things ready at work in order to be away for a while. A lot of little things in life that clutter up our lives and frankly make our lives smaller by, their own smallness.

I suppose most of you, like me, go to St. Louis occasionally and probably you take Interstate 70 -, Next time you take 1-70 to St. Louis, I would ask you to participate in an important religious observance. As you drive through Wright City, you should genuflect a little bit. Now, if you've not seen anything in Wright City worth being grateful for, worth honoring in any respect, notice next time you drive through Wright City, that on the north side of 1-70 -there is a rather large and fairly depressing looking brick church. It' s a church of the reformed tradition and it was out of that church that arguably the, two best theologians that America ever produced came. Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr were little boys in the Sunday school of that church. What does it say about a church that produced two of the greatest theologians in our history? What does it say about that Sunday school? Every time you drive through Wright City, look at that church and ask yourself, "How can we be like that?" Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the two brothers that were products of that church and that Sunday school, would say frequently, "Nothing worth doing can be done in one lifetime."1 Almost, not yet. Nothing worth doing can be done in one lifetime. Niebuhr understood the great religious truth that if our lives are completely absorbed with getting ready for little things, our lives will be little. But that if we use our lives for things infinitely bigger than we, if we spend our lives for the sake of things that are Godly, things that we will never see fulfilled and completed in our lifetimes, then our lives grow immeasurably.

Almost—always, always—almost. Nothing worth doing can be done in one lifetime. But those who attempt to do things big enough that they cannot be done in one lifetime are the people that make a real difference in the world. I have a couple of Christmas stories. One is about a man and a family that got that message and another about one who didn't get it. For that's the way it is. Some people get it and some people don't. The first story is told or retold by Nancy Gavin about her own family. It seems that her husband—in fact the little article she wrote was entitled "The Man Who Hated Christmas"2—hated Christmas. Now, it wasn't Jesus that he hated, it wasn't the Christian faith that he hated, but he hated what our culture had done with Christmas. He hated trees and he hated presents and he hated "Jingle Bells" and he hated all that stuff. And he was a grouch every year at Christmas. Not because of Jesus and the manger but because of the way we observed it. One December when their son, Kevin, was twelve years old, Kevin was wrestling on his Junior High Wrestling Team. During that month of December, they had an exhibition match against a church team. This church team was from a church in the inner city. A team made up of the poorest of the poor of their city. When the day came for the wrestling match, Kevin and his team came out in their sparkling wrestling uniforms and everything was as high tech and glorious as it could be. The team from the church league came with sneakers that weren't really wrestling sneakers and Nancy was a little aghast to see that they didn't even have the helmets that wrestlers wear to protect their ears from being pinched and pulled and scraped during wrestling. As the match went along, Kevin's team whipped the church team in every match. Mike, Nancy's husband, leaned over to her and said, I wish they could win just one match. They have talent but they don't have any coaching. Somehow in the process of that wrestling match, a light bulb went off in Nancy's head. The next day she went down to the local sporting goods store and bought wrestling headgear and wrestling shoes and sent them anonymously to the church whose team her son had wrestled the day before. Then on Christmas Eve she wrote a little note to Mike. "Dear Mike, I know how you feel about Christmas. You remember that wrestling team from the inner city church. This Christmas, they have headgear and proper shoes in your name as your Christmas present." She put that note in an envelope and stuck the envelope up in the branches of the tree. When morning came, the children unwrapped all their presents and there was the usual festivity. Then one of the children spotted this envelope up in the tree and they said, "Look! What is that?" Mike took it down and opened it and read the note. With tears in his eyes, he looked at Nancy and said, "This is the best Christmas I have ever had."

It became a tradition in their family. Every year there would be an envelope. No name on it just an envelope in the tree. One year Nancy sent a group of mentally handicapped kids to camp. Another year she sent some funds to a family whose house had burned down during the month of December. Year after year after year some sort of gift like this was Mike's Christmas present. Then, Nancy wrote, there came the fall, about the time their children were grown, when Mike died of cancer. When Christmas rolled around, she could hardly put up the tree. But she did and somehow in his memory, she felt that she ought to once again put an envelope in the tree to make some sort of gift in Mike's honor just as she had during his life. The three grown children came home and Christmas morning came. There were four envelopes in the branches of the tree. For, unbeknownst to each other, each of their three children had also made a gift in honor of their father. And that too has become a tradition in their home. Nancy Gavin writes, "For generations ahead as my children become adults and have their own families, there will be an envelope for Mike in their tree." And when her grandchildren have families of their own there will probably still be envelopes for Mike in their tree. For the Gavin family was the family who "got it." The Gavin family was a family that understood and Mike was a person who knew that nothing worth doing in this life can be accomplished in one lifetime. But life is best when it is used, when it is spent for those causes that are too big to do anything more than make us larger in the pursuing of them.

There is another Christmas story about someone who didn't "get it." This too is a story about a Dad who didn't "get it." One night on Christmas Eve, Mom and the children were getting ready to go to Christmas Eve 11:00pm services. Dad, as usual, wasn't going. He didn't have much use for that church stuff. So, as Mom and the kids left that Christmas Eve, it was starting to snow as it's supposed to on Christmas Eve. Dad sat down in his recliner and began to read the paper. Then he heard a thump at the window. He wasn't sure what it was. He wasn't even sure if he'd heard anything until he heard a second and a third. He got up out of his recliner and pulled back the curtains and saw that his lawn was covered with a great flock of birds and the snow had become much heavier while he'd been sitting. He could see that the birds needed shelter He could see that they shouldn't spend the night sitting on his lawn in a storm. So he went to the front door and clicked the porch light on and off hoping it would frighten the birds to move on and find shelter. But they didn't go. So he went out on the porch and he clapped his hands and he made a lot of noise hoping to frighten them away. But they didn't go. You know how projects like this get? You get started on something that's kind of silly but you can't let it go once you get started. So he goes back in and bundles up. He has a barn across the way. He decides he'll go, open the doors to the barn, turn on all the lights and maybe they'll come to the light and get shelter for the night. He does all that and they don't come. So be goes back to the house to get some bread and, Hansel & Gretel style, tries to leave a trail of bread crumbs to entice the birds into the barn. But they don't come. In frustration he finds himself saying out loud, "I wish that just for five minutes I could become a bird so I could communicate that I'm trying to save them." Just as he says that, in the distance he hears the church bells ringing, saying for God, "for a moment, become a person so that they could understand I was trying to save them."3

Some people "get it" and some people don't. It makes all the difference in the world whether or not we "get it." Nothing worth doing can be done in one lifetime. Therefore, we must live always in the always almost Reaching, reaching for that which is bigger than we. Some people "get it," some people don't. This Christmas, will we "get it"?

Dr. Carl L. Schenck, Senior Pastor

1Niebuhr, Reinhold, The lrony of American History, p. 63, 1952 2“The Man Who Hated Christmas" by Nancy Gavin. Quoted in Homiletics, 12-22-96 3Story told in Homiletics, 12-24-95