Sermon Series: Holidays & Emotional Health

October 12th, 2011

3 Week Series

Week 1: Giving to Honor

Luke 2:8-18

Only seven shopping days left ’til Christmas! Those words bring panic to some of us. How will everything get done? How does everyone else get everything done?

During the holidays, it is especially easy to get caught up in other’s expectations—especially in the gift-giving department. We are inundated with suggestions for what we should buy, how our homes should look, what we should cook, and how we should dress. I remind you of that first Christmas—when the shepherds and the wise men showed up.

Scripture says the shepherds came in from their fields. Being good shepherds, they didn’t just leave their flocks, they brought them with them. They came and they offered their praise. They gave what they had. They gave a part of themselves, spontaneously, with no thought of the cost.

In the Native American community, gift-giving is done for only one reason: to show honor. Honor is acting on a decision we make to place high value, worth, and importance on another person by recognizing that person as a unique creation and granting him or her a position in our lives worthy of great respect. In many of the sovereign nations of North America, the giveaway is a crucial part of many of our rituals. In most of the nations, when someone dies, that person’s possessions are shared with friends and family. In the dominant society, at funerals, the women of the church plan and serve a meal to the deceased’s family. In the native culture, the deceased’s family cooks the meals for the friends and family, sometimes every meal for six days!

For many of the ceremonies on the Navajo reservation, the family works for months to gather the gifts traditionally given—material for the women, gift cards for the men, and blankets for the guests of honor. At powwows, the drums, the arena director, head dancers, and the emcees are honored. To avoid shame, gifts are given to honor the elders and as treats for the children. The giveaway is a way to share what the family has and to honor those who care enough to participate in our ceremony.

We live in a society, which, for the most part, follows Hollywood and the commercials. We buy into the idea that one of the best suggestions for buying a gift is to get the other person something we would like to have. But I suggest if one does that, one is declaring the wishes and needs of that other person to be second to one’s own desires and needs. In a manner, we have succeeded in doing exactly the opposite of what we wanted to do.

I am making the assumption that, if one is willing to spend the time and money to get a person a gift, it is to honor them. So what do we do when we don’t honor the person for whom we still must present a gift? I have worked in the secular world. I have drawn a name of an office worker to get a gift for and a dollar limit is set so no one will be unable to participate. Nor can I forget the gift exchange where you grab a gift and the next person to get a gift can choose a new one or pick yours! Are you giving gifts out of your desire to share, or a sense of duty or others’ expectations? The idea of gift giving originated, so the story goes, when Saint Nicholas wanted to help children in need, so he gave them gifts anonymously.

Now, it is not only how much a gift is worth, the number of gifts is important. What happened to the times when one gift, no matter what it was, was received graciously and happily? I remember watching a movie during which a boy opened his gift early because he had to go out in the snow. His present, wrapped in newspaper, was mittens that his mother had knit. That and an apple were the only presents under the tree. He needed those mittens, and valued them.

We have lost our way. Have the number of presents and their value become more important than the person receiving the gift?

Let’s go back to that first Christmas—the angels brought their heavenly voices to sing heavenly songs. The shepherds offered their story and their praise. The Magi offered frankincense, gold, and myrrh. Each wanted to give a gift and each gave what they had. The Magi had the resources to offer material gifts, but every gift was important.

As you contemplate the gifts still left on your list, I encourage you to think how your gift will honor the receiver. Perhaps we have gotten caught up in the competition and the standards that the world has. Bigger, better, more expensive gifts—even for people we don’t love, maybe don’t even like! So who are we trying to impress?

Seven more shopping days before Christmas. If you go to the mall, I invite you to look at the faces of those shoppers. What will we see if we look at your face? Yes, there are only four more days, but prayerfully examine your shopping list. These are the people in your life whom you choose to honor. These are the people who share your life to some degree. What you give does not have to be bigger or more expensive than last year. What you give need only please two people—the receiver and yourself, the giver, not your sister-in-law or your rich cousin, not your mother! Does the gift reflect the honor you want to give that person? Think of those first people who gave gifts to the King. They gave what they had and those gifts were a part of their own resources; they didn’t borrow! The shepherds and the angels gave of themselves. In a society where time is money and so valuable, might you consider how you can give that to some on your list? A promise to spend time will also give those procrastinators a whole year to fulfill their intentions! Whatever your choice, I ask that you give as Yahweh has given, abundantly and graciously.

Week 2: Time to Ponder

Luke 2:8-20

Christmas morning. After all the planning and shopping and cooking and decorating, the time is now. Probably most of the presents have been opened and there is almost a sense of letdown. The anticipation of Christmas morning is half the fun. Peggy Lee wrote and sang a song, “Is that all there is?”

Is that all there is? Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing.

My daughter was born on Christmas morning, thirty-five years ago, today. It was a Monday and I certainly had not planned on spending Christmas Day in the hospital. I was in strange surroundings, in a strange city with no one except my husband. I do not mean to discount my husband, but I wanted another female to reassure me. There were no presents, no decorations, and no fancy meal. All those years ago, the infant was kept in a nursery and only brought in for a feeding. I had time to think about my new role of mother during her absences. I was nervous and insecure but I thought of Mary, a teenager, alone in a strange place, a strange city with lots of strangers hanging around. Angels came, but after they sang their praises and glorified God, they left. Then the shepherds came, telling the story of how the angels had told them about this baby, and then they left. Maybe she was still a bit frightened, and amazed, and felt isolated, “but Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

In the midst of the wrappings and the tasks to still be finished, I invite you to ponder on the things that have happened so far. Psalm 46:10 orders us to “be still, and know that I am God.” If one knows how to worry, one knows how to meditate. I would imagine that we have all worried about today in some form or fashion. Will they like their gift? Did I spend too much? If the children are disappointed, what can I do to help them through this? Or perhaps in the rush to get here, words were spoken in anger and impatience. Or maybe you had to use a lot of energy to convince your family that this worship service is important.

Yes, I believe this service is important because it is at this time, with this community of faith, we echo the words and emotions the angels and the shepherds offered so many years ago. “Glory to God in the highest heaven, / and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” We, as believers, purposefully separate ourselves from the demands and expectations of the world to remember what we are celebrating: to remember the innocence and purity of a newborn child, to celebrate the gift given by Yahweh to Yahweh’s creation.

When we leave this place, I pray that any peace you find in this time together will go and stay with you for the rest of the day. Don’t squander that peace on circumstances or people you can’t control. How often, in times of stress, like trying to get a meal on the table for a holiday gathering, do we let the clock become the controlling factor? Or, worry that our kitchen won’t be clean enough when our mother-in-law arrives? Practice, to allow yourself some time to smile, to laugh, and to be part of the party. Remember that the photos in the magazines of the perfect Christmas are but single moments caught on film. No telling what else is going on behind the cameras! The shepherds arrived to see the marvelous gift; they dropped what they were doing and came as they were. They were not motivated by guilt. They came without critical eyes. They came as a group for a purpose.

What will your purpose be as you gather with friends and family? To compare or to share? To listen with compassion or to complain? To enjoy each other’s company or to control?

Too often with family, especially, we think we know each other so well. And we anticipate reactions or assume the outcome of various situations. Or maybe we even plan to head off any uncomfortable situations. It is much easier to have peace without people around us but to be a whole person requires us to learn to respect and accept people as they were created.

Today is a birthday celebration and we are thankful. So, your plans for a good Christmas may include the traditional meal with loved ones and those we don’t love as much. Another round of gift-giving and receiving may be on the agenda. For your own emotional well-being, take the time to ponder as Mary did.

Peggy Lee asked if there is more. Oh, yes there is more than just the presents and the decorations, more than the demands and responsibilities, more than the bustle and the anticipation, more than the dancing. We can have the peace if we want it.

So I invite you to sit back. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Listen to the breaths of others around you. Feel the air go through your nostrils. This is life. Think about your joy in getting your gifts, the anticipation. Acknowledge any disappointment and bless the giver. Picture a reaction to a gift you were so excited to give. Remember your favorite Christmas. Be still and think about the wee baby born in a stable, born for you and me, born to give us peace and joy. Savor it!

Week 3: Just Say No

Matthew 5:37a

A new year is upon us, and as we prepare to make those New Year’s resolutions, take a minute to think about how you can prevent some stress. I am sure you have heard this before, but I will offer you proof that if you learn to do this, you are following the example Yeshua set for us. Learn to say no!

How many times have you wondered, as you are running to and fro, struggling to meet deadlines, juggling duties as mother or father, employee, chauffer, and church member, How did I get myself into this situation? Or, do you find yourself scheduled to be in two places at the same time? Multitasking is a learned behavior. Many mothers can pick up their children at school, listen to their stories, respond compassionately, decide what is in the freezer so they can fix dinner, and remember to pick up the dry cleaning. I erroneously believed that men’s brain hemispheres were more finely separated and therefore could only perform one task at a time. Then, I watched my husband back up a truck with a trailer—he was able to gauge distances, work the gear shift, clutch, brake, and gas, think in reverse as he used only the mirrors to back the trailer and turned the steering wheel in the opposite direction that I would have—without becoming frustrated!

We, as ordinary people, want to please people, want to achieve, and want to be given credit for what we do. The pattern for success in the secular world, which now influences the church and other arenas, is to move up the ladder in position, responsibility, and authority. Of course, in the secular world advancement is compensated by a larger salary, more influence, more benefits, and even some envy. Leadership, in all areas, requires more of our time and energy, many times to the detriment to our families, our marriages, and our spiritual life. Yeshua was a leader and yet he managed his calendar of healing, teaching, preaching, mentoring and incurring the wrath of the Pharisees. He could say no—no to his family, to Satan, to the church, and to his disciples.

To his brothers, Yeshua said no. Yeshua had been walking in Galilee, teaching and healing. His brothers wanted him to expand his territory, “Leave this place. Show your disciples in Judea and all over the world what you can do” (John 7:1-4, paraphrased). Yeshua said no. He knew the world would hate him because he could only tell the truth and he knew the world was evil and he “remained in Galilee” (John 7:9). He explained his time had not fully come. This was exactly the same reason he said no to his mother when he met up with her at a wedding in Cana. The wine ran out, which would have brought shame and embarrassment. Mary came to Yeshua and told him, expecting him to fix the situation. He told her she was sticking her nose in another person’s business, he did not plan to, and his hour had not yet come (John 2:3).

Satan tempted Yeshua three times while he was in the wilderness. He was offered bread because he was hungry. Then Satan took him to a pinnacle of the holy city to tempt him to prove that angels protected him. Finally, Satan promised everything if Yeshua would only bow down and worship him. The offers of power, authority and material things were refused (Matthew 4:1-11). Satan was told no. This is a valuable lesson— learning to say no to temptation.

During this time, the Pharisees were the religious authority in the church. Yeshua told them no on more than one occasion. He told them he would not perform signs to prove who he was (Mark 8:11). The Gospel of Matthew tells when Yeshua returned to the temple after driving out the money changers and the merchants. The chief priests and the elders of the people came and wanted to know by whose authority he was teaching and healing. He responded by saying that if they answered his question, he would answer theirs. After some discussion in which the religious leaders determined that they could not answer his question without compromising their positions, they answered that they did not know. So, Yeshua told them no—“Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things (Matthew 21:27).

Yeshua was not even hesitant to tell his disciples no. In Mark’s Gospel, Yeshua and his disciples are getting ready to take a little time off. They even get as far as boarding the boat and setting across the lake. There, instead of peace and quiet they find more people who need teaching. As the day progresses, the disciples, who have not eaten, come and offer a plan. They tell Yeshua, send the people away so they can go and find food. Yeshua told them no; “You give them something to eat” (Mark 6:37). Five thousand were fed with five loaves of bread and two fishes.

We each have the ability and the responsibility to make decisions regarding time, money and our thoughts. In fact, how we spend our money, time, and energy are indicative of what is most important in our lives. We know that the church is important, yet there are times when we can be overstretched, even in the church. One sure way to prevent burnout and stress is to know your limits, and with prayer, maintain them. It would be interesting to see when Yeshua spent time in prayer in relation to the times he said no.

I invite you to value yourself this year. Avoid overextending yourself. Learn to say no. Yeshua still ministered, still made disciples, and made sure he took care of himself. He said no so he could fulfill his purpose with clear conscience and intention. May your new year and its resolutions include some noes and some Sabbath time for yourself.

This sermon series was adapted from The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2008, © 2007 Abingdon Press

The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2012 is available now from Ministry Matters.

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