A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on December 30, 2012.
1 Samuel 2:18-26; Colossians 3:12-17
Thursday a week ago, Janet and I went to visit Leslie and James Godwin and their almost two-month-old twin boys Peyton and Parker. Janet had bought them some cute little outfits to wear (including licensed Razorback clothing, don’t you know). We hadn’t seen the twins since they were born the first of November, so we wanted to visit and give them their gifts.
Afterwards, we went for supper and while eating I received a text from Joni Lee announcing that their granddaughter had just come into the world at Baptist Hospital. So, we finished our meal and hustled over there. Got to the room about an hour after the birth. We were there when the attending nurse put the ink pad on baby Nora’s little feet so they could make an imprint of them.
At both places I took my camera – it goes with me just about everywhere I go – and the next morning I transferred them from the camera’s memory card over to my computer. To do that, I had to make what is called a folder. When I did, I entitled it “Baby Patrol” and put the date next to it.
The morning after Nora’s birth, I went back to see her and her proud, new parents Patrick and Jenny. While there, I told them something they already knew but at the same time had no idea – not really – what it means. I told them their lives were about to change. From now on, everything they do will revolve around this new little life that has come into their world. Baby Nora is now the center of their universe, and what they will come to understand in the time to come is what Leslie and James have been experiencing these last few weeks, and what all the parents in this room today could easily affirm.
When a baby comes, everything changes. Everything.
Well, “…a child has been born for us, a son given to us…” (Isaiah 9:6a). Christmas has come and everything has changed. Or has it? That’s the question we need to ask this first Sunday after Christmas. Is everything changed? Should it change? Let’s frame the question another way… Has this Christmas taught us anything? And if so, what lessons have we learned?
Let’s start with Samuel, the focus of our Hebrew reading this morning. Since I preached about Samuel six weeks ago, I won’t go through his story again… not that I’m taking for granted that you remember that sermon. But I do hope you have enough knowledge of the story that you are aware of it.
After years of not being able to bear a child, Hannah conceives, along with her promise that she will dedicate her son to the Lord. That is exactly what she does. Since the Lord kept his promise to Hannah, she will do the same. So she dedicates Samuel to the Lord.
We’re not talking about the kind of dedication we will be holding in a few weeks for the babies Janet and I went to visit recently. Not that those dedications aren’t important. They truly are. But we’re talking about more here than a responsive reading, a keepsake New Testament for the baby, and a rose for the mother. This is a different kind of dedication. In giving her son to the Lord, Hannah literally did just that. Hannah gave him up to the Lord for safekeeping. As soon as he was weaned, the young boy Samuel moved in with the old priest Eli and lived with him, apprenticed with him, and learned the priestly trade from him at the temple.
Hannah visited her son once every year when she and her husband Elkanah traveled to Shiloh to offer the annual sacrifice. And each year, Hannah took to her son a new linen ephod which she had made. It is unclear just exactly what an ephod was, but it was some form of priestly garment. And Samuel wore it faithfully as he carried out his priestly duties.
Once a year Hannah got to visit with her boy. Just once a year. But a promise is a promise, and she was convinced that God had great things in store for her son. Every year, Hannah would make her son’s new ephod just a little bigger, for we are told, “The boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.”
It was inevitable, of course… What year was it – when Samuel was twelve, thirteen maybe – that when Hannah fitted him with his new linen ephod she had to reach up to him, for it was in this past year that he had grown taller than she? There would have been tears each year when she visited her son, both when she saw him the first time and when she was forced to leave him yet again to return home. But when she would first spy her son – it’s been a year, remember – did they go through the same ritual?
“Oh son, how you’ve grown! I’m so proud of you. Are you well? Here, put on the garment I have made for you. Let’s see how it fits.” It was an annual thing between the two of them. Through eyes brimming with tears Hannah marveled at the man he was becoming. Yes indeed, God had something very special in store for her son.
Janet and I have experienced this, as have all you parents who are empty nesters. The parent-child relationship is the only one that is meant to lead to separation. However, for Hannah the separation began much too soon. But a promise is a promise, and every year “she demonstrated the high price of being true to God.”1
I wonder… did Paul have Samuel in mind when, about a thousand years later, he wrote his letter to the Colossians? “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,” he wrote, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”
That ephod Hannah made each year for Samuel, that garment of priesthood, signified purity and the vows that Hannah had made and that now Samuel made each day as he carried out his priestly duties.2 Samuel wore every day literally what Paul encouraged the Colossian Christians to wear in their hearts… the purity of compassion, the purity of kindness, the purity of humility and meekness and patience.
If there is indeed a lesson to be learned from Christmas, it is that Jesus has given us a new garment to wear, and it always fits perfectly if we are willing to put it on and walk in the light he has given us. That garment is not made of linen. Rather it is woven together by compassion and kindness, humility and meekness and patience.
In light of the terrible Newtown tragedy, and all the divisiveness our world is experiencing, we need new clothing. It is a Christmas lesson we desperately need to learn. How do we learn it? Each day, when given the opportunity – and we will be given the opportunity if we have the eyes with which to see it – God will bring someone our way to teach us something. Christ will come to us in many different people and in many different experiences.
Let me share just one with you…
A Methodist minister in Tennessee, who was an acquaintance of mine while we were there, told me of the time he was in his office one late, winter afternoon. There was a quiet knock on the door, and when he opened it there stood a young man dressed in a dark, well-tailored suit and a young woman in a simple print dress. “We want to talk to the minister,” they said. He invited them in.
After exchanging some light conversation, they finally told him why they had come. They were both students at a nearby university where they had met. They had been dating for over a year and had decided to get married. But there was a problem. They were different from one another. He was the son of a prominent banker and she was the daughter of a baker. His family lived in a beautiful, large home while her family lived in a small bungalow near the railroad tracks. His family was large, influential, professional, and quite well-off financially. Her family was composed of hard-working, blue-collar people. And both families opposed the marriage.
That wasn’t the only problem. She was pregnant. At that point, neither family knew it. They feared further rejection from their families and had decided not to tell them.
After thinking about their situation, the minister decided to officiate their wedding, which took place a few days later. The young man came in his dark, expensive suit, the same one he had worn before. She had washed and ironed that same print dress. A few friends attended, but, unfortunately, both their parents refused to come.
The minister said that while conducting the service, he had this gnawing feeling that maybe he wasn’t doing the right thing; that the marriage would never work. Their circumstances were so different it had to work against them. There was no parental support. They were beginning their marriage with the added pressure of having to support a child when they weren’t much more than children themselves. They had everything going against them and very little going for them.
They made their vows nervously to one another and didn’t even have any wedding rings to exchange. The minister says he pronounced them husband and wife and they quietly went on their way. There was nothing really to celebrate, not like is done at most weddings. He was certain it wouldn’t work out, but what else could he do? They had come to him for help when no one else would give it to them. How could he refuse?
Several years later he received a letter in the mail. “You probably will not remember us,” the letter said, “but you officiated at our wedding about six years ago. I was pregnant, our parents did not come to the service, and you let one of our friends play the guitar for the wedding march. I just wanted to write and tell you that my husband recently graduated from medical school and that we are having our second child baptized at a nearby church tomorrow. We are seriously considering short-term missionary service. I have never told you this, but I now want to say that when everyone was against us, the church stood by us. How grateful we are.”
I wonder how many lives were touched, were changed, by the influence of these two young people. I wonder what might have happened had that minister said no, he would not perform their wedding ceremony. But the point is, he did. He responded kindly to their need because he chose that day to clothe himself with the compassion, the kindness, the humility and meekness and patience of Christ.
Early in my pastoral ministry – and I do mean early, when I was still a college student and preached at a tiny church in the Arkansas backwoods – I was confronted with an experience that made me stop and reflect upon the kind of minister I would be and would become. It required me to decide if I would put people before rules. I chose to consider the needs of others before fulfilling the rules that others had made. I confess that I have not always done that, but have tried, to the best of my ability, to think of others and their needs. To do so requires compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Again, I have not always succeeded, to say the least, but it is a lesson I have attempted to learn from Christmas.
What did you receive for Christmas? Did you get a new coat perhaps? Maybe a suit or a sweater, a new shirt. It doesn’t have to be linen, but the garment that truly means something is the one that comes from the One whose birth we celebrate. If you will wear it, you will be like him and through you who knows how many people will be blessed.
I encourage you to learn this Christmas lesson, that it is never too late to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with others. It is never too late to clothe yourself with the garment of Christ. Do so, and see where the journey takes you.
It is our prayer, O Lord, that we will have learned the most important of Christmas lessons… that you call upon us to wear Christ’s garments faithfully. In his name we pray, Amen.
1Lawrence Wood, Living By the Word: “Dressing Up,” The Christian Century, December 26, 2006.