Last Christmas I went and bought our church’s staff and choir members my favorite chocolates from Belgium. I also bought a package of Merci for Doug and I to share with others during special holiday times Week by week, as time went by, I would either say to myself that it was not “special enough” of a time to use the beloved chocolates, or I would forget that I had hid them in a spot that I or the kids would not find and indulge for indulgence sake. Yet, you know what happens to candy over a long period of time? It dries out and becomes less of a good treat. After a while, it becomes a mess of a treat, a wasted treat, if you wait too long.
Have you ever held onto something too long? Tried to keep it pristine but then never used it, until it either was out of date, out dated, or simply turned bad? I can also think of my mother and her best china. Now, the china she had as a wedding gift is neither microwaveable, nor a pattern anyone in the family wants, so she finally is using it like every day china and as nothing really special. Otherwise, it will go to Goodwill and never see much use except for holidays.
Faith is the theme of the second week in Advent, as we prepare for the Lord’s birth, but faith, like anything else that we try to save away and not use until a rainy day or a special moment, has a way that it becomes less special and less sacred. It is very similar to the chocolates I thought of as almost holy and did not take in and enjoy for too long of a time.
You know, most people love to hear the Christmas stories from the Gospels and to sing Christmas songs. I used to. Now though, I have to admit that because it is hard during Advent and Christmas season, to think of what to say in sermons which encompass the same few chapters of the Gospels every year, I sometimes feel as if there is nothing left to say and that I should be able to put the stories to the side. Yet, where would our faith be and where would the next generation be if we did not recite these stories which are among our faith’s most precious stories?
“If the stories of faith get filed away in the special drawer labeled “sacred” , they become distant. They become hard to relate to. They become removed from the real world and lose their connection with real people and situations. They become less real,” says Mark Villano is his book, Time to Get Ready. (p31) Villano relates stories of the Bible and of faith to being more like fairy tales, the less they are used.
I had to ponder this statement. Unfortunately, it hit me immediately as a correct statement, yet it slugged me even harder in the gut, when I thought of how few stories of the Bible people even seem to know these days. Are we Christians less relevant because we packed our family Bibles away and we saved them as I did my chocolates or my mom did her china, to use them only on special days? Is that why we decrease daily in numbers of believers and of knowledgeable faith-holders?
It bothers me to no end that sometimes people are just looking for a reason to disbelieve in God. Other times I understand that it may seem that God allows bad things to happen to good people, which then undermines the faith one has and needs to continually be growing, but I would like to share a story with you that may help you out. I have read that it is a story that Rabbis have been telling for centuries.
“Once there was a rabbi named Joshua Ben Levi who diligently studied the Scriptures. He could quote and argue them better than almost anyone. However, he knew he still lacked wisdom and understanding about the world, so he began to pray. He had heard legends of the prophet Elijah coming and visiting other scholars to help make sense of things, so he began to pray that he might be able to travel with Elijah throughout the world and hear his explanations.
God sent Elijah to him in answer to his prayers, but Elijah was reluctant to have the young rabbi accompany him on his journeys. Elijah sighed saying, “You will see strange and terrible things when you travel with me”. Rabbi Joshua quickly replied, “But I want to understand the ways of life on earth!”. Elijah conceded with one stipulation, “You must not ask questions about what you witness, you must keep your thoughts to yourself. If you speak to me about anything that you see, your journey will come to an end”. Rabbi Joshua agreed, overjoyed that his request was granted.
They walked all day and as night grew cold, they arrived upon a small cottage. They knocked on the door and a farmer and his wife welcomed them, warmly feeding them a simple meal of soup and bread. They even gave up their bed for Elijah and Joshua and slept outside in their barn. In the morning, they fed them a bountiful breakfast and bade them farewell. Just at the gate of their home, Elijah prayed, “May the cow in the barn die tomorrow”.
Rabbi Joshua found this so odd. “Those people were so kind to us, why would you pray for their cow to die?” Elijah gave Joshua a stern looking and said, “Remember what I told you. You must watch and listen. You may think what you wish, but don’t ask questions, or you may no longer travel with me”. So Rabbi Joshua remained silent and they traveled on.
In the late afternoon they reached the mansion of a wealthy landowner. They knocked on the door and a servant sent them out to the yard to sleep in a small shed with no dinner. So there they rested and noticed that the wall next to the shed was cracking. As they rose to leave Elijah prayed, “May this wall stand for generations to come!”. Instantly the wall straightened and the cracks disappeared.
Rabbi Joshua was about to protest that this inhospitable landowner should receive such a reward after treating them so rudely, but he remembered Elijah’s stipulations and said nothing.
The following day they arrived to a bustling town. They entered the town hall with the prosperous and wealthy citizens and one of the townspeople asked, “Who will feed these rabbis who have come to our town tonight?”. His neighbor replied, “Why should we feed them? Let them feed themselves!”. At this remark, all of the townspeople burst out laughing. Elijah nodded and began to walk out with Joshua following him. As they passed the town gate Elijah prayed, “May everyone in this town become a leader!”.
In his mind Rabbi Joshua was about to explode in disagreement with Elijah, but he bit his tongue. Rabbi Joshua’s thoughts raced within him as he continued to follow Elijah. Tired and hungry, they meandered on towards the next village. Upon arriving, one of the villagers greeted them saying, “Good evening travelers. You look tired and hungry. Our homes are small, but we always have room for anyone who needs a place to rest.”
In the morning all of the villagers came to bid them farewell, giving them a basket of food to take with them on their journey. Before they came to the main road, Elijah prayed, “May the people in this town only have one leader!”
Rabbi Joshua could not stand it one more minute. “This is too much! You must explain the meaning of your strange actions! The couple who gave us their home ended up with a dead cow. The rich and selfish landowner miraculously had his wall repaired. The rude townspeople were granted many leaders and these kind villagers were granted only one. What in the world is the meaning of all this!?”
Elijah set down his walking stick and looked Rabbi Joshua in the eye, “You have studied all the holy books. You say you wish for wisdom and understanding of life on earth. The first key to wisdom is to realize that all that you see is not what it seems.”
Elijah sat down and explained. “When we visited the farmer, it had been decreed in heaven that his wife was to die, so I prayed that God would spare this kind man the love of his life and take his cow instead. When we came to the wealthy landowner’s house, I knew that under his wall lay a giant treasure chest full of gold and diamonds. Because he is a selfish man, I prayed for the wall to remain secure, so that he will never reap the greatest reward from his land. Instead, his humble servant, who will inherit it after his death, will be the one to receive it. As for the townspeople, have you not heard the proverb, ‘A ship with too many captains will surely sink?’. In that town they will never find peace and harmony. There will be arguing and discontent among them, until they learn humility. As far as the last village, they will have one honest and wise ruler to guide and help them. In days to come, they will prosper and will have peace for many generations. These are the things, Rabbi Joshua, that cannot be learned from any book. Only by asking your heart to look beyond what you see, will you come nearer to the knowledge and understanding that you seek. Things are not always what they seem. Remember these words and learn from them what you can.”
Rabbi Joshua was left alone with his thoughts yet again, but began to understand the ways of the world were bigger than his eyes were able to perceive.
Unlike the prophet Elijah, Jesus accepted His followers’ questions about suffering. When Lazarus died his sister Mary demanded an explanation from Jesus as to why He allowed this tragedy to happen. Jesus answered her question with another one. “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”. In other words, “Martha this appears to be a tragedy, but through these circumstances you are going to see the goodness, kindness, compassion, and mercy of God in a way that you would never experience without walking through this!”. Jesus did not shame her nor become exasperated by her question. Instead, He reminded her that God was bigger than this circumstance.” https://ericawiggenhorn.com/holding-on-to-your-faith-in-the-midst-of-suffering/
Our faith stories are not fairy tales with a small little message of the day attached to them so we feel good about them or ourselves. Our faith stories are for learning about God, about how great and big God is, and that we are but pebbles in the sand of time to God, yet of utmost importance to God. Our faith stories at Christmas are not about historical revelations that when heard 50 even 100 times in a life, should bore us, like that millionth time your dad has watched a WWII documentary. They do not serve mankind in that way. Our faith stories are to tell us where we come from as Christians, why God came to earth as the Christ, and to show us, like the Rabbi that traveled with Elijah, that we are not wise enough to see all that the world really is about and understand it all.
Mary pondered all of this that happened to her on and before Christmas day. She pondered it all and probably pondered it all over and over until she understood even part of Jesus’ death and resurrection for humankind.
Brothers and Sisters, faith is not to be blindly followed, even when taught by those who seem in control or have more wisdom than ourselves. Faith is to be pondered, questioned, carefully prayed about, and yet held closely, with the knowledge that God will teach us what we need to know and understand in this lifetime, and the rest is for our wonderment, especially in the season of Advent; where hope, faith, joy, and peace should abound. May we each day of this Advent season, see our faith in a new and more meaningful way, through God’s eyes, and may we not treat it as something to only be taken from the shelves, dusted off, and used in times of crisis…but instead, leaned upon and trusted, every day. Like the Rabbi though, may we understand that God and God’s ways are not all to be understood in this lifetime. That is part of the mystery and amazement of God, our Lord and Savior, forever and ever, but especially seen during at Christmas. Amen.