Sermon: Advent 3 RCL A – “The Invincible, Irrefutable Gift”

Little Johnny sat on Santa’s lap and gave him the entire list. When he was done, Santa handed him a candy cane. When he only stared at it, his mother asked, “What do you say to Santa for your candy cane?” Johnny thought for a moment and as he was hopping down, said, “Charge it!”

The world’s wisdom tells us that when you come to the realization that money can’t buy happiness, its time to get some credit cards. I suppose there are times when we all feel the financial pinch, but Christmas, with all the gifts and parties, can really test the limit.

After receiving a rather expensive gift the receiver of the gift wrote the following thank you note to the giver:

I must express my gratitude
for such a lovely gift.
Your thoughtfulness and taste is matched
only by your thrift.
It’s clear that you spared all expense,
if you catch my drift.
Remove the anti-theft device
when you again shoplift.

One penny pincher sent a gift and included the following note:

This Christmas time I give to you
a book that isn’t mine.
So give it back before it’s due
or I’ll have to pay a fine.

Exactly how expensive has Christmas become? Have you heard of the PNC Christmas Price Index? It’s an index that measures the cost of the items to be purchased in the Christmas carol, “The Twelve days of Christmas.” “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…,” and on and on. At the end of the twelve days you end up with 364 gifts. On the first day you get a partridge in a pear tree, as well as, on days two through twelve. It’s a bit crazy, but you do end up with 35 golden rings and more maids a milkin’ than you have cows.

The PNC Christmas Price Index for this year shows the cost of these 364 gifts comes to $156,508, a modest increase over last year of less than one percent. The economist who put the list together tells us that the most expensive gift are the seven swans a swimming. I’m not sure why that is true, but I would suggest to you that these economist have far too much time on their hands.

I would imagine that so many gifts and extravagance would produce a great deal of joy, but I would also imagine that this joy would quickly fade, especially after a month of cleaning up after the 180 some odd birds that you would now have on your hands. Please forgive me for this, but this would be quite a foul business. Most likely you’ll turn to the person who gave you all this and ask for a gift card next year.

This third Sunday of Advent is always set aside for joy, which is why we have the rose candle. It is a reminder that things are a bit different and that the Season of Advent is half over. Yet the joy that we look for on this day is not the kind that comes in 364 gifts all wrapped up in ribbons and bows. Of that type of joy, that great German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “A sort of joy exists that knows nothing at all of the heart’s pain, anguish, and dread; it does not last, it can only numb a person for the moment.”

All 364 gifts in the carol can only numb a person for the moment, but what if the author of The Twelve Days of Christmas didn’t intend for them to be literal gifts that cost umpteen thousand dollars? What if he intended something all together different? For example, take that first gift, “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree.” What if the “true love,” instead of being some worldly romance was actually speaking of God the Father and the “partridge” was Jesus and the “pear tree” the Cross? What would you end up with? “On the first day of Christmas, God the Father gave to me, his one and only son as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.”

No, I’m not smart enough to make this sort of thing up, but there is a credible myth that suggest that this Christmas carol was written to teach children the Catholic doctrine in England when the protestants were in power and when you could be burned at the stake for teaching such things.

If true, then not only is the partridge in the pear tree Jesus and the Cross, but each of the gifts represents – not an earthly gift that will fade away – but an eternal gift from God that “can never perish, spoil or fade.” The three French hens become the Holy Trinity. Four calling birds are the four gospels. Eight maids a milking are the eight beatitudes. The ten lords a leaping are the Ten Commandments. The twelve drummers a drumming are the twelve articles of the Apostle’s Creed.

If this is the case, then the carol is not talking about a gift that can be bought, a gift that knows nothing of real life, or a gift that passes. Instead, the carol speaks of a sustaining gift. A gift that produces the joy of the Lord that can come only from God. Bonhoeffer writes, “Joy abides with God and it comes down from God and embraces spirit, soul, and body, and where this joy has seized a person, there it spreads, there it carries one away, there it bursts closed doors.”

The joy of the 364 gifts fades, but the joy of the Lord bursts closed doors. That’s a pretty powerful joy. It can burst the closed doors of broken relationships. The closed doors of loneliness, sin, sickness, and even death.

As Bonhoeffer further wrote, “The joy of God has gone through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross, that is why it is invincible, irrefutable.” From the incarnation of our Lord to His death and Resurrection on the third day, it all declares this invincible, irrefutable joy of the Lord. Why? Because in the midst of all tribulations, disappointments and even death itself, this joy speaks life. Life eternal.

Theologian Robert Hotchkins wites, “Christians ought to be celebrating constantly. We ought to be preoccupied with parties, banquets, feasts, and merriment. We ought to give ourselves over to veritable [madness] of joy because we have been liberated from the fear of life and the fear of death.” But there is a catch to experiencing this joy.

Two friends, one was always filled with joy and had a smile, the other a Negative Ned. One day the joyful friend decided he had found a good way to pull his buddy out of his continual negativity.

How? He went out and bought a hunting dog that could actually walk on water. His plan? Take Negative Ned and the dog out duck hunting in a boat.

When they got out into the middle of the lake and shot a duck, the dog immediately jumped out of the boat, walked out across the water, retrieved the duck, and walked back to the boat.

Smiling, the dog owner looked at his negative friend and asked, “What do you think about that?”

Negative Ned replied, “Not much of a dog if he can’t swim.”

Through his birth, life, death and resurrection, the Lord has given you permission and the means to take off your sackcloth and cleanse yourself of all ashes. You have been given freedom to be joyful. We may not all be offered the 364 gifts from the Christmas carol, but this gift of joy – which comes from God – is ours. All we need do is receive it.

Upon visiting her cousin, the Blessed Virgin Mary declared:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.”

Let us “rejoice and be glad in it” for the Lord our Savior had done great things for us. And Holy is His name.

Let us pray: Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, ever faithful to your promises and ever close to your Church: the earth rejoices in hope of the Savior’s coming and looks forward with longing to his return at the end of time. Prepare our hearts and remove the sadness that hinders us from feeling the joy and hope which his presence will bestow, for he is Lord for ever and ever. Amen.

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