Los Alamos Church of Christ
For years now whenever Christmas pageants are talked about in a certain little town in the Midwest, someone is sure to mention the name of Wallace Purling. Wally's performance in one annual production of the Nativity play has slipped into the realm of legend. But the old-timers present in the audience that night never tire of recalling exactly what happened.
Wally was nine that year and in the second grade, though he should have been in the fourth. Most people in town knew that he had difficulty in keeping up. He was big and clumsy; just a bit slow. Still, Wally was well liked by the other children in his class, all of whom were smaller than he, though the boys had trouble hiding their irritation when Wally would ask to play ball with them… especially if winning was important.
Wally fancied the idea of being a shepherd with a flute in the Christmas pageant that year. But the play's director, Miss Lumbard, assigned him to a more important role. After all, she reasoned, the innkeeper did not have too many lines. Wally's size would make his refusal of lodging to Joseph more forceful.
And so it happened that most of the town gathered for the yearly extravaganza of cardboard sheep, fake beards, plastic crowns, halos, and a whole stage full of squeaky voices. No one on stage or off stage was more caught up in the magic of the night than Wallace Purling. They said later that he stood in the wings watching the performance with such fascination that from time to time Miss Lumbard had to make sure he didn't wander onstage before his cue.
Then the time came when Joseph appeared, slowly, tenderly guiding Mary to the door of the inn. Joseph knocked hard on the wooden door, set into the painted backdrop. Wally the innkeeper stood inside, waiting.
"What do you want?" Wally said, swinging the door open with a brisk gesture.
"We seek lodging."
"Seek it elsewhere." Wally looked straight ahead but spoke vigorously. "The inn is filled."
"Sir, we have asked everywhere in vain. We have traveled far and are very weary."
"There is no room in this inn for you." Wally looked properly stern.
"Please, good innkeeper, this is my wife, Mary. She is with child and needs a place to rest. Surely you must have some small corner for her. She is so tired."
Now, for the first time, the innkeeper relaxed his stiff stance. Wally looked down at Mary. There was a long pause, long enough to make the audience a bit tense with embarrassment.
The prompter whispered from the wings. "No! Be gone!"
"No!" Wally repeated automatically. "Be gone!"
Joseph sadly placed his arm around Mary. Mary laid her head upon her husband's shoulder. The two of them started to move away. However, the innkeeper did not return inside his inn. Wally stood there in the doorway, watching the sad couple. His mouth was open, his brow creased with concern, his eyes filling unmistakably with tears.
And suddenly this Christmas pageant became different from all others.
"Wait, don't go, Joseph," Wally called out. "Bring Mary back." And Wallace Purling's face grew into a bright smile. "You can have my room."
Some people in town thought that the pageant had been ruined. Yet others, many others, considered it the most Christmas of all Christmas pageants they had ever seen.
Over the years the characters in the Christmas story have been stereotyped. The issues seem so clear cut. Herod was a villain. The wise men were heroes. The shepherds are the good guys and the Innkeeper, the poor innkeeper has gone down as one of the bad guys in the story. We envision him as a grouchy old man with a night cap on his head sticking his head out a second story window shouting: “There is no room in the inn,”
But, perhaps, the innkeeper has gotten bad press. Preachers over the centuries ragged the poor fellow pretty hard. But was it his fault that the inn was built with twelve rooms instead of thirteen? Was it his fault that Caesar Augustus had issued a decree that all the world should be taxed? Was it his fault that Mary and Joseph got there too late? Or that Mary was pregnant with the Son of God? The innkeeper may have wanted to do like Wally and give him his room… maybe Mrs. Innkeeper won’t let him.
In reality, the Bible does not even have an innkeeper. Luke just says…
Luke 2:7 And she gave
birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in
a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
None of that matters… the reality is this one line, “There is no room in the inn,” has gone down as the innkeeper’s legacy. Every time the Christmas story is told he will be remembered as the guy who was responsible for the Son of God being born in a barn… his heritage.
On the other hand, in that same drama, Mary will be remembered as one of the greatest people in history.
ESV Luke 1:26-35 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." And Mary said to the angel, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?" And the angel answered her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy- the Son of God.
I suppose Mary could have said "No." It was a tremendous sacrifice that Gabriel was asking. This young Jewish virgin sees an angel, who tells her that she will miraculously conceive the Son of God who will reign on David's throne. She is told that the Holy Spirit will descend upon her? What does that even mean? If she had any sense she would have said no. There are just too many unknowns to agree to a deal like that.
After all nobody around town is going to believe her.
--Joseph, had to be told by an angel to marry her.
--It was unlikely her parents bought the “Holy Spirit” story.
--Her friends and neighbors and relatives in the small town of Nazareth would have scorned her. There must have been lots of reproachful looks; judgmental stares. “Who is really the father?”
But Mary said “Yes!”
ESV Luke 1:38 And Mary said, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her.
Mary, this remarkably strong person who is full of faith in God, gets to sing the Magnificat…
ESV Luke 1:46-49 And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
Mary certainly has left an amazing legacy.
Let’s jump about 300 years into the future from Mary. Let’s talk about a man named Nicholas, the bishop of Myra. Myra was an ancient city along the Mediterranean coast of what is now Turkey. Other than his living in the fourth century, as a real person, very little is known about him historically. But here are lots of traditions. There all kinds of fabulous stories about St. Nick.
When Nicholas was a little boy, a plague struck the town where he lived. Both his parents died. Nicholas went to live with his Uncle who was a monk in a monastery. His uncle, the abbot, taught him all about Jesus. Nicholas decided to become a monk like his uncle.
But Nicholas’ parents were wealthy when they died and monks are supposed to be poor. So, Nicholas resolved to give away all his money to help those who were needy. He especially wanted to help other children. He determined to be discrete, so the people he helped would not who gave them the money.
For example, a man was selling rugs to pay his debts. His wife and children had no food. Nicholas bought some Turkish rugs from the man, paying him much more than they were worth, then making an excuse, gave the rugs back to the man’s wife.
The most famous story about St. Nicholas explains the custom of hanging up stockings got started! There were three girls, who could not get married because their father had carelessly spent their dowries. In those days, a girl had to have a big sum of money - a dowry - if she was to marry. The only option for these girls was slavery or prostitution! Nicholas heard of this and came up with a plan.
Late at night, he tossed a stocking full of gold coins through the bedroom window of the oldest daughter. People were surprised when soon after this the girl married a good husband. She said she had a dowry "hid away in a sock". Soon after this, Nicholas again tossed a sock full of money through the window of the second daughter. She too soon also married.
But when Nicholas crept up to the house with a third sock full of money; for the third daughter. He found all the windows were shut. He did what has made him famous --- he climbed up on their roof, and dropped it down the chimney. The sock of money landed in the girl’s shoes, which were beside the hearth. When she too married, claiming her dowry was in her shoes, people were amazed and said to one another - "It’s some kind of miracle!"
One story tells of him helping some sailors that were caught in a dreadful storm off the coast of Turkey. The storm was raging around them and all the men were terrified that their ship would sink beneath the giant waves. They prayed to St. Nicholas to help them. Suddenly, he was standing on the deck before them. He ordered the sea to be calm, the storm died away, and they were able to sail their ship safely to port.
There were other stories, but the point is that he was a generous person who made a tremendous difference in the lives of the people around him.
St. Nicholas was exiled from Myra late in his life and put in prison during the persecution by the Emperor Diocletian, before his death on December 6th …345 or 352 AD. December 6th became a feast day for him which gradually became part of the celebration of Christmas.
But the story of what became of him after his death is more fantastic than the works he did during his life.
Back in the day, the bodies of holy men were of immense value, for both religious and commercial reasons. So on May 9, 1087, over 700 years are St. Nicks death, pirates stole his bones and moved them from Turkey to Italy. The heist effectively transferred the mystery and magic of the stories of Nicholas from the East to the West. It was the first step in the transformation of a godly man into a superstar.
It didn't take long for the Westernized Nicholas stories to assume a place in many country's traditions.
--In England, he became 'Father Christmas' or 'Old Man Christmas',
--In France, he was then known as “Père Nöel”.
--In Germany, the 'Christ Kind' is 'Kris Kringle'.
--Dutch settlers brought St. Nicolas stories to the USA who 'Sinterklaas' or as we now say 'Santa Claus'!
--In Holland children leave shoes out on the 5th December (St. Nicholas Eve) to be filled with presents. They also believe that if they leave some hay and carrots in their shoes for Sinterklaas's horse, they will be left some sweets.
--In 1823 the famous poem 'A Visit from St. Nicholas' or 'T'was the Night before Christmas', was published by Clement Moore. This poem formed many of our own Santa Claus traditions.
Certainly St. Nicolaus of Myra left an amazing legacy.
I first preached this sermon 16 years ago… at Christmas of 2000. The point I made then was…
The Innkeeper, Mary and Nicolas each left a heritage. Each is remembered by history. Each made a mark in time. I then asked… What will change as a result of your life? Why will you be remembered? 1600 years from your death, or 160 years, or 16 years after you are gone will you be remembered? Will you have lived the kind of life that makes a difference to those who come after you? What will be your heritage?
I suppose that was a good point. Are you living the kind of life that will have an impact after you are dead?
I think that point is a little shallow. After sixteen years of reflection on that point, perhaps, that question is a bit self-centered. After I am gone I want to be remembered… is focused on me. I think there is a better point to be made from the Wallace Purling, Mary and Nicolaus of Myra…
The three of them offered themselves in service to others despite the cost…. With little thought about themselves.
--Wally didn’t care that he was messing up the play or even that he would be laughed at for being ridiculous. His motives were not to go down in legend.
--Mary did what was right… despite the fact that she was going to be ridiculed by the people she loved, although she did mention all generations will call me blessed.
--Nicolaus was even imprisoned because of his faith.
I doubt any of them did what they did solely because they thought it would leave a great legacy. I think they all would be surprised to find out what impact they actually left. They did what they did because it is right to help others; especially others who are oppressed.
It is unlikely any of us will be remembered long after we are dead. Perhaps, there will be one or two among us who ends up being famous enough to be remembered… Cora or Harvey. But that doesn’t matter… we do kindness for others because it is the right thing to do.
Listen to the rest of the Magnificat, before we sing it.
ESV Luke 1:46-55 "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. (Perhaps a bit self-focused… but notice the rest) And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever."
It is a God thing, a right thing to help the oppressed.
December 11, 2016
Los Alamos Church of Christ