Some of you may be members of Christmas Clubs around town, I never have had enough money after Christmas to join one myself, but maybe you do. There is another club around town, however, that has some appeal to me. They call it the TGCIO club: The “Thank Goodness Christmas Is Over Club”. I have an idea that’s the way a lot of mothers felt last Tuesday when the children finally went back to school. And for a lot of the rest of us, Christmas is so bogged down in the hustle and hurry that it becomes that great season to be gotten through with.
So, I hesitated to mention to you today that Christmas was really over just yesterday, Epiphany Day. You know the carol about the twelve days of Christmas, well, yesterday was the twelfth day. Epiphany celebrates a part of the Christmas story, as a matter of fact, the story of the coming of the wise men. And in fact, there is some reason to believe that not only did the wise men not come when the shepherds did (the story in Luke’s gospel). But they came as much as a year maybe two years after the birth of Jesus. The evidence, you will remember that when Herod sent out his soldiers over Judea to put to death the children, it was all the boy children under two years of age.
The truth is, however, in spite of all our joy at being through with Christmas, Christmas, in a Christian sense, is never over. It celebrates God with us, the incarnation that is always taking place.
Maybe you have driven down Central Expressway in Dallas, and noticed down along about Fitzhugh the big Gothic style church building that fronts over McKinney Avenue. It is an Episcopal Church and the name of it is the Church of the Incarnation. I like that. It strikes me that every Church ought to be a Church of the Incarnation. It ought to be a Church that reminds the world over and over about Christmas, about the Incarnation. Oh, I don’t mean that it preserves the memory of the Incarnation like some museum that preserves the memory of Abraham Lincoln by having a few of his relics around. No, I mean that it ought to be a Church where the Incarnation is always happening, where the people and the buildings and the whole style of life is like a store window that lets all the world look in and see the style of life called the incarnation.
Now what does that mean? I think it would mean that every Church ought to be the people who go around not simply saying “God is with us,” but the people whose life, both gathered in its buildings and scattered in its community is propelled by the Holy Spirit. Unless we are the Spirit people, sensitive to the leading of the Spirit, we will not be the Church of the Incarnation, and Christmas becomes a day to be gotten through.
Such things do not happen by accident. They happen only when people decide to do the hard headed job of learning how to be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit. They happen only when people decide to let the love of Christ shine through their style of life, that’s what it means to be the Church of the Incarnation. If I were to find a word to describe this style it is Love. Love is not a sentiment, not a matter of how I feel about someone. Love is a concrete concern, always; it has flesh and blood upon it. That’s what it means to be the Church of the Incarnation. Whenever that happens, their style of life will shine like a star over Bethlehem.
All of which brings us back to the story of the wise men. I want us to think for a few minutes this morning about that possibility, being the Church of the Incarnation, and what it might mean,
First of all, consider the wise men. Whatever else is being said here, sand surely there is more than meets the eye in Matthew’s telling of the story:
1Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, 2Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. 3When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. 5And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, 6And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. 7Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. 8And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. 9When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 11And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh. 12And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
At least Matthew is telling us that these were men who were of of the stars, if nothing else, who discerned that here, was something worth their gold and frankincense and myrrh. I believe that if we take the incarnation seriously, then we mean to say that life is to be understood not in terms of the relationships of blood and muscle and bone, or even consciousness, but life is to be understood as a fellowship of people who car. And if that is what life is really about, then Jesus was right, a man will trade all that he has for it.
But more than that, the wise men had not come to trade gold for anything. They had come, so they said to Herod, to worship the king of the Jews. If a man were convinced that here was such a body of people who cared, who really cared, he would surely be willing to invest his life, to bet his life, to throw in his lot with them. But the church has too often had the image of the people who don’t care, or who at best only pretend to care. I want to tell you what Mrs. Crenshaw at the Garland Welfare Association told me back before Christmas. She said that every year Churches called up and wanted a family to take some Christmas baskets to, but, she said, there is not a Church in Garland that will take a Negro family. I said to her on your behalf, there is one, St. Paul’s. You can’t pretend to care.
I believe that’s all the public relations and advertising a church would need, if it were the Church of the Incarnation, that it would be the incarnate love of God. No one would have to say, in us Christ is present. It would simply be that in our style of life, when we are gathered together under this roof, and in our style of life, when we are scattered (and we are the Church there too) we would be showing forth, God is with his world. No public relations techniques, no amount of advertising will ever substitute for the really thing. Advertising and public relations gimmicks can make the church more attractive, as a circus side show is attractive, but they cannot make it worth a life. If many wise and good men are staying away from the Church in this time, and many are, it is because the Church does not really shine with the incarnate love and concern of Christ. It is not the Church of the Incarnation.
But wait, before you say that sounds like a good idea, lets consider the rest of the story. Remember Herod? Herod came to Bethlehem after the wise men were gone, for the story says that they had been warned in a dream to go back another way. He told them that he wanted to come and worship too, but he didn’t. When he finally came, he came not in the presence of his own person, but in the presence of his soldiers. He came to destroy love made flesh. He came to slaughter the innocent children under two years old.
Yes, that is the way it is. That’s the way it is because love made flesh just can’t leave things alone. It keeps being concerned about war and poverty and race, things that appear to have nothing to do with religion, and someone is going to keep saying you aren’t just concerned, you are meddling in politics. But concern cannot end at the front door of this building or at Avenue D, or at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, or at the edge of American foreign policy. It is a style of life that embraces the whole world.
That’s the way it is because love made flesh always wants to change things, to lift up the fallen and set the prisoners free, and make the lame walk and give power to the powerless, and hope to the hopeless. So there will always be those who would rather keep things as they are, who don’t want to believe that the truth about life is caring, who don’t like the idea of love made flesh in concrete acts of people who care. So Herod stands as a kind of warning, that all the world doesn’t come flocking to the door of the stable to worship, so come with hate in their hearts. He ought to stand as a warning to any Church that even considers becoming the Church of the Incarnation.
So Christmas is not over, not even after epiphany, it is never over, for the incarnation is always happening, love insists on being made into concrete fleshy acts of men. I believe that St. Paul’s Methodist Church is called to be the Church of the Incarnation, not in name, but in style of life. Like a store window, that’s what our style of life ought to be like, like a store window where the world can look in, and see the life of this people gathered together and they will say, there is what life is all about, there is the fellowship of people who really care. So that the world can look into our scattered life; when we are on the job, and at home in the neighborhood, so that they can look in the way we vote and the way we talk in casual conversation, and even the way we think, and they will say, there is what life is all about, there is the fellowship of people who really care. Such a style of life would shine like the star over Bethlehem, and the wise men would come.
This sermon was preached by Bill Crouch at St. Paul’s Methodist Church in Garland, Texas on January 7, 1968. This was prior to the 1968 merger that created the United Methodist Church. St. Paul’s was located on Jupiter Road just north of Walnut. The church merged with another United Methodist Church in the 1990’s to form Cornerstone United Methodist Church. Bill Crouch served as the pastor of St. Paul’s from 1967 to 1972. He was also the district superintendent when Cornerstone UMC was formed.