A Meaningful Virtual Birthday Party
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, December 6, 2020
Reading: Mark 10:35-45
In a drugstore this past week, I heard a woman opine about the problems that she was having about buying the right toys for Christmas. She seemed rather agitated and concerned, when was expressing it to the checkout clerk. Initially I thought, “Oh, this woman is being just a little overly sensitive” until I realised she had a good heart. She was concerned about what she couldn’t buy for what is known here in Toronto as “Toy Mountain” a place where you can take toys that are then given to children who are poor. She was not able to do that this year, and was frustrated at not being able to give what she wanted to.
Now, this is, as I mentioned in my welcome, White Gift Sunday. Normally this place would be filled with toys and gifts. We would have many trees and there would be a procession with children coming forward, bringing gifts that would then go, along with envelopes full of money, to help charities in our neighbourhood. We can't do that this year. We do have this wonderful tree and our Hearts & Hands Together Group has knitted over three hundred items that will be delivered. They're sanitised and will go to help people in need. We’re also financially supporting those charities by giving them funds in lieu of gifts, but it’s not quite the same. The mitts, maybe, but not being able to bring the toys to the church and present them in the house of the Lord, is certainly something we miss.
I think it was the Rolling Stones who said, “You can't always get what you want.” While in this case, you can't always give what you want, and we’re feeling that inability to reach out in the same way. I was facing that this week, when I'm not able to go to the shelters that I normally go to, to help the homeless and having to find another way of doing it. I can't give in the same way that I want to give and this is certainly a source of concern.
So, while there are certain things we can't give, there are still some that we can. I found out this week about a family who have offered a virtual birthday party for Jesus. The idea is that while the children and their friends can't attend, they can nevertheless join a Zoom meeting and have a virtual party for Jesus. This family has sent out to the friends of their children, a little package of goodies and things that they can use to celebrate. Our own church director of children and youth ministries, Nupur James, has actually done something similar. She put together Advent packages with some scriptures to read, some gifts, and other goodies. This family arranging a virtual birthday party for Jesus. What a wonderful and imaginative way to do something to celebrate Christmas for young children.
Now, we have to use our imagination, or think about what we can do and should do this Christmas season to celebrate the birth of our Lord. I think there are a couple of ways we can do this, and one of them is to ask the question: “Whose birthday are we really celebrating?”
To answer that, I’ve taken a rather obscure text from the Gospel of Mark, and I’ve chosen Mark, because unlike Matthew and Luke, he does not give any of the Christmas story or the early narrative of Jesus’ birth, not a prologue like John’s Gospel. Nevertheless, Mark gives us a clear picture of who Jesus Christ was, and that he was born to become, to reveal, and to show the power of God in an incarnate way.
There were moments of revelation, when Jesus tells us who he is. One of those moments is in this encounter in Mark’s Gospel, when James and John, the sons of Zebedee, the more wealthy disciples, take Jesus to one side and ask him, “When you come into your glory, can we sit on your right side and your left side? Interestingly, in Matthew’s Gospel, it is their mother who asks that question, “Can my sons sit on your right and left side? This is a family who wanted to be important and powerful, and they were anticipating Jesus coming into glory, and wanted to be special and have a place within it.
As the great New Testament scholar, Tom Wright says, “There is a way the disciples consistently misunderstood the nature of Jesus’ ministry, and this is one example.” They were probably expecting a leader who would set up a military-like kingdom, that he would reign over Jerusalem, like David had, as the new Messiah. That he would initiate a new Israel that would be powerful in the face of their enemies, such as the occupying Romans.
James and John were vying for a cabinet position, as it were, in this new glory-filled Messianic kingdom of power in Jerusalem. They were thinking that the kingdom would be more like something that Oliver Cromwell tried to establish in his new parliament, or something like what people are vying for now in the US cabinet. James and John wanted a special place in this great cabinet, and they wanted to sit on the right and left side of this great Messianic Lord. What an ask.
But Jesus turns it all around. What they thought was the kingdom that they would inherit with him, turns out to be very different. If you look very carefully at this text – and I encourage you to go back and read it and what comes before and after it. Remember, context is always important with the Gospels. You will find that the stories that precede this moment involve Jesus talking about his own crucifixion, and death. He is predicting what is going to happen to him. He knows that his fate will be a difficult one. He also talks about children, and the disciples that shun the children. Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.” Not the kind of kingdom that James and John were thinking of, surely.
He also addressed the issue of the rich man who came to Jesus, who again, wants to understand how the Kingdom works. Jesus said, “It is difficult for you, as a rich person, to go into the Kingdom, like a camel going through the eye of a needle.” But then he gives some hope: “But what is impossible with humanity, is possible with God.”
He’s painting a picture of a different kind of reign or rule than that which James and John are thinking about. He’s talking about one that involves the cross, one that involves bringing in little children, and giving grace to those who might otherwise not receive it. It is a powerful message. James and John, they hadn't been listening. They were caught up in something else. Jesus gets really concrete with them, and with the disciples as well, because the other disciples were really angry with James and John for being so elitist. Jesus then says to James and John, and to the other disciples, “If you're going to follow me, you have to have my cup and drink of my cup.”
What Jesus is saying is, the cup of my experience, of my life. The cup that is going to be a difficult cup, one that we celebrate in the sacrament being poured out for us. Jesus uses similar language in the garden of Gethsemane, when he says, “Take this cup of suffering from me.” He’s saying to the disciples, and they would understand the language now, that if they take on the cup, they take on the life experience of Jesus.
He also uses the word “baptism” and as they would understand it to mean, being submerged into the death of Christ. Baptism is a mysterious understanding of the way that God, in his hiddenness, nevertheless reveals his identity with human suffering, and with the sinful and brokenness of the world. Jesus takes on that. His baptism is a submersion into something that is very costly and difficult. This must have shaken the disciples, and for James and John, who are elitist, it must have really put them in their place. This was not what they were expecting; they did not expect to come, in a sense, to celebrate the birthday party of someone who was like that.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there was a wonderful writer and priest named John Donne, who was brought up as a Roman Catholic. He went to Oxford and Cambridge, but could not receive degrees there, because he was Roman Catholic. Eventually he became a member of the Church of England. He studied law at Lincoln’s Inn, and then finally became a priest in what we know as the Anglican Church, or the Church of England. He became the Dean of St. Paul’s in London. He was also a poet, a writer, a romantic. Some of his stuff makes you blush when you read it. He was a remarkable person. He wrote a poem called The Nativity, and he captures the essence of what Jesus was saying to James and John. Listen to these beautiful words from The Nativity:
“Immensely cloistered in thy dear womb, now leaves his well-beloved imprisonment. There he hath made himself to his intent, weak enough now into the world to come, but oh, for thee, for him, hath the inn no room, yet lay him in the stall, and from the Orient, stars and wise men will travel to prevent the effect of Herod’s jealous general doom. See thou my soul, with thy faith’s eyes, how he, which fills all place, yet none hold him, doth lie. Was not his pity towards thee wondrous high, that would have need to be pitied by thee? Kiss him, and with him into Egypt go with his kind mother, who partakes thy woe.”
That’s the One who came, that’s the One who was born. Not the one that James and John thought was powerful, and that they could sit on either side of, but One who has come in a humble form and in the form of something much more.
So, if that is the One that we are going to celebrate, if that is the birth that we are going to acknowledge, what do we bring to such a party to celebrate His life? I think the answer lies in the fact that we are not the ones who set the tone for the party. The party’s tone has been set by the way that God decided to reveal himself and his Son. It’s not for us to determine Christ’s place in the world, it is for Christ to determine our place within his Kingdom.
This is what Jesus is saying to the disciples; they were trying to form Jesus into a mould or a model that suited them, and Jesus would have none of that. “You do not know, it’s not even for me to say who sits where and what form this Kingdom is going to take.” This is something that God does, this is God’s Kingdom, this is God’s reign. He is God’s Son, the one who sets the tone.
So, the type of gift that we bring him is actually given to us by God and is not for us to determine. That’s why sometimes I think we get our gifts wrong. We get our gifts wrong. I read a wonderful story. I think it was in The New Yorker. It might have been apocryphal, who knows – about a woman who was very professional and very, very busy and had to work right to Christmas Eve. She got home on Christmas Eve and realised that she had not bought a gift for her husband. Feeling enormous stress, she realised there was nothing she could do about it. So humbly, on Christmas morning, she said, “Dear, I'm sorry, I have just been so busy, I haven't been able to buy you a gift.”
The husband, fully understanding, said, “That’s fine. How about this: tomorrow is Boxing Day, why don’t you go out and buy me something that can go from zero to two hundred in 2.9 seconds, and leave it in the driveway?
She says, “Oh, okay, fine, right.” She was just relieved.
On Boxing Day she went to one of the sales, bought the gift, came home. He wanted it in the driveway, she put it in the driveway. He came out with a blindfold, great expectations, zero to two hundred in 2.9 seconds, wow. There in the middle of the driveway, was a set of weigh scales. Not exactly what he had in mind.
Sometimes our gifts are not what we expect, and the gifts that we give to Jesus are not what we expect.
I'm going to say something now, and I know that it might sound very strange, but for all our religiosity, for all the things that we do to celebrate him, all the great moments that we have, there’s something that he wants far more than any of that. He wants us; he wants our hearts and our lives and our commitment, that’s what he really wants. In his lowly form, he doesn’t expect anything great and glorious and spectacular. He wants a heart that is moved and open to him.
The great theologian, Karl Barth, who I admire immensely, once said this about the Christmas story:
“What we see in the Christmas story is a God who is courageous, a God who is willing to come into the most difficult and dangerous situations, in the most vulnerable form, in one of the poorest outcasts of the Roman Empire, and He comes courageously, vulnerably, as a refugee for the sake of humanity.”
What then, do you give to a humanity that needs that kind of gift? Again, Jesus gives us the answer. This is what he wants. He says to the disciples, “I don’t want you to be like the Gentiles, I don’t want you to be like their tyrants who lord it over people and put on a big show and feel that they're important. I don’t want that. I want you to take on the form of a servant. I'm not just asking you to take on the form of a servanthood, but I am doing that, for the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Here again, we get insight into both the purpose of God, and the person of Christ.
Here we come to the very gift of Christ as God’s servant, who comes to us and for us. It’s not for the James and Johns of this world to decide who he is, or what he is. It is how he comes to us in the form of a servant, in a courageous way, that’s how God’s come to us, in His Son, Jesus of Nazareth.
How do we serve and how do we bring that service before Him?
Well, COVID-19 is a tough time to try to think about how we do service in our normal conventional ways, but it’s nonetheless an important thing for us to think about and to reflect upon. We can give in many ways. I think – and I know there’s debate about this – that churches themselves are giving of themselves in a servant form for the sake of the greater good. I think there are people in our society who think that the Church in general terms, is strong. We often have big buildings, we’re ubiquitous in Canada, we have many things going for us and people think that we’re strong.
There are others who think that we're weak, that in fact, we don’t have any backbone. Nietzsche used to say that his great problem with Christianity was its weakness, not its strength. Here’s what I think: I think that we’re at our strongest when we’re at our weakest.
I think not having our worship services where people could be harmed, where we could contribute to the spread of the virus in society, is laying down itself for the greater good. Never mind all the other arguments, it’s not a decision about the state dictating to the Church, it’s the Church responding to a need and saying, “Here we are, we are going to be the servants of the world, as we think the crucified Christ would be.” That’s what we’re doing.
I think in our hearts and our souls that is the attitude all of us should have right now. We are at our strongest – you at home in this difficult time, you are at your strongest when you are at your weakest, because what you're doing, you're doing for the greater good.
This last week, in a Formula One race in Bahrain, a driver nearly lost his life in a ball of fire. Grosjean, the great Formula One driver, went up in flames. He managed to extricate himself from his car, was taken to a hospital by brilliant medics, who risked themselves in the fire and who burnt his hands and ended up in hospital. I decided after seeing this, to reach out to a friend of mine, who is a doctor in Edmonton, Alberta, and he happens to be one of the world’s leading people when it comes to safety in Indie car and in Formula One racing. He’s a paediatrician, an anaesthetist, and a brilliant scholar who teaches.
I reached out to him and asked, “How are you doing?” We looked at the race in some detail, because we’re both interested in it, and he told me about his life. He is on the frontlines, dealing with children and their families during the pandemic. He talked about how his own home church had an online service, and how that service kept him going in a difficult time. It was a beautiful statement. I was touched by it.
One thing he didn’t say or complain about – I found out from another colleague of his that he has been working sixteen hours a day, putting himself on the line for the sake of others. He has been passionate in an environment that we know right now in Alberta, is very difficult. He has committed himself to caring for people. Here is a person who could withdraw and lord it over everyone for all his accomplishments, knowledge, and international reputation. But he is there on the frontlines, caring for those in need. I was touched by that, very much so.
I thought, “This is actually a gift for Jesus for his birthday. It’s an act of service, it requires some suffering, but it’s the giving for others.” Many stories like that are happening right now across our country and the world. These are the kinds of gifts that Jesus wants.
So, you might not have toys for Toy Mountain, you might not be able to bring them here. You might not be able to celebrate in the same way you would normally celebrate. There might not be the pomp and circumstance of Christmas that you normally have, but Jesus – Jesus would understand, for he did not come to be served, but to serve, and that’s what a birthday party for Jesus should look like. Amen.