If you've ever been to Washington, D.C. at this time of year, you know how cold it can be as arctic winds surge and blow around the monuments and expansive walkways there. It was to avoid the biting temperatures on a December day close to Christmas that Marion Brenish, a native Californian, sought refuge in the warmth of Union Station. In recent years, that old railroad terminal has been restored and houses all sorts of shops and restaurants.
Marion stopped at a bench across from the upscale American Restaurant. A few moments later, she saw a homeless man, who seemed to have positioned himself for catching an occasional whiff of the aromas wafting through the restaurant entryway. Marion was sure it had been awhile since the man last ate.
With that thought in mind, she secretly resolved that if he approached her for a handout, she would give him something. After all, it was the Christmas season. But the man never came up to her.
Marion then wondered whether she should be proactive, approach the man herself, and offer help, unbidden. The very thought made her heart race. She didn’t know if she could be that bold. What if the man were just some mooch who would squander what she gave to him on booze? Of what if, having met Marion, he might follow her to some darkened place on the Washington streets and do her harm?
While Marion debated all of this within herself, a younger couple, leaving the restaurant, walked up to the homeless man. The husband told him, “Excuse me sir, but my wife and I just finished eating and our appetites weren’t as big as we thought. We hate to see this good food go to waste...We were wondering if you could help us out and put it to good use.” They gave the man a container filled with good food.
“God bless you both,” the man said. He sorted all the food out, positioning each item before him to appear how they might had a waiter placed the food on a table for him. He looked at the club sandwich and, slowly, took the plastic cover off the soup and then with deliberateness, picked up the soup spoon.
But then something else happened to interrupt the man's reverie. Marion watched as this homeless man looked up and caught sight of an old man, wearing threadbare clothing that couldn't have insulated him against the cold. He too, had come into Union Station to get warm. Clearly, he'd been out in the elements for a long time.
What Marion saw next was stunning. The homeless man, who had a moment before been ready to dig into his unexpected feast, put it all down, got up, and helped the frail, cold old man to the bench where he had been seated. He put the old man’s hands between his own and rubbed them, the way you or I might for a child just in from playing in the snow.
Then Marion heard him say, “Pop, my name’s Jack, and one of God’s angels brought me this meal. I just finished eating, and I hate to waste good food. Can you help me out?” He placed the cup of hot soup in the old man’s hands. The old man looked at Jack and said, “Sure, Son, but only if you’ll go half-way with me on that sandwich. It’s too much for a man my age.”
After Marion Brenish watched this, she sprang into action. Wiping away tears, she went to the Union Station food court. Not long after that, she walked up to the two men and gave them enormous containers of coffee and a huge assortment of pastries. And she told them, “Excuse me gentlemen, but my appetite wasn’t as great as I thought…”
Folks, you’ve heard me say that love isn’t always what you feel; sometimes, it’s what you do in spite of how you feel.
Well, here’s another truth I’m only starting to learn: Faith, trust in God, isn’t the absence of fear; real faith in God is seen in what we’re willing to do in spite of our fears.
Marion Brenish militated against her fears to commit an act of loving faith there in Washinton’s Union Station.
It’s the kind of faith to which the God we know in Jesus Christ calls us all the time. Often though, we allow our fears to override our faith in Christ. When that happens, evil gets the upper hand in our lives and in our world.
How many of you have things of which you feel afraid today? I know that I do.
To tell you the truth, I live with the daily fear that if you knew me from the inside-out as I do--flawed, sometimes insecure, sometimes judgmental, sometimes lured by sin, sometimes angry, sometimes self-satisfied--if you knew me from the inside, you wouldn’t want to have anything to do with me.
I sometimes get afraid that after fifteen years in this place, you may no longer hear me when I say that you and I need to avoid the perilous hobby of navel-gazing. I’m afraid that you’ll tune me out when I say that we need to look up to God and look out to our unchurched neighbors, making growing in our dependence on God--what the Bible calls discipleship--and praying for and asking our nonchurchgoing friends to worship with us--outreach--our absolute highest priorities in life.
I also sometimes fear that by following the course I have in life, I won’t have enough money in my older years to provide for my wife and me or to avoid being a burden to our kids.
And I fear doing or saying things that might cause people to discredit Christ or the Church.
So, I have fears.
When the angel Gabriel visited a young girl named Mary in the tiny village of Nazareth some two-thousand years ago, he said to her, “Do not be afraid.” Then he told her that in spite of her virginity, she would give birth to the Savior of the world. Mary had to have felt fear! Here she was, a girl of only fourteen or fifteen, betrothed, and yet she was going to give birth to God in the flesh!
But how does she respond to Gabriel’s news? “Here am I," she says, "the servant [or more literally, the slave] of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word [your testimony.]”
Lots of challenges and heartache lay ahead of Mary, not the least of which would be watching her son die on a cross. But, Mary knew that faith, trust in God, isn’t the absence of fear; real faith in God is seen in what we’re willing to do in spite of our fears.
Of course, Mary’s faith was more than just a feeling. A baby would soon stir within her womb, confirming Gabriel’s announcement that she would have a son, conceived in her by the Holy Spirit.
Mary was the first to know for certain what Martin Luther, the founder of the Christian movement of which we at Friendship are a part identified. “Christmas,” he said, “is God deep in the flesh.”
Like Mary, we who live on the Easter side of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection know how God can reach deep into the recesses of our lives and give us the capacity to face any situation and help us trust Him in spite of our fears.
The writer of our Bible lesson for today, Luke, underscores God’s willingness to reach into the micro-moments of our lives in the very way he tells the story of Gabriel’s announcement--or, what has traditionally been called, annunciation--to Mary. Gabriel, Luke says, went to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin named Mary, betrothed to a man named Joseph. You can just picture Gabriel, sent by God, plunging down from heaven into the very guts of life, can't you?
No matter what our fears, God can reach us where we are.
We learn a truth to which an eight year old girl once pointed: “Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.”
Philips Brooks was a pastor and humanitarian back in the nineteenth century. He once took a trip to the Holy Land, a trip that found him on Christmas Eve, 1865, riding a horse from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. He saw the field where the shepherds received the news of Jesus’ birth in a stable not far away. As he looked around, he could see real-life shepherds watching their sheep in the very same place. It all made him think about the first Christmas and the gift of God Himself come to us.
Once he returned to his hometown of Philadelphia, Brooks wrote a song for his church. It’s a song that you and I have sung many times before.
It came about because there in the Holy Land, Brooks contemplated the closeness of God to us even in the most daunting of situations and how the God Who died and rose can turn every heartache, every grief, every sorrow into eternal joy, endless hope, and unending life with God.
Think of all that the next time you sing the words:
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie,Sing it with me:
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by...
Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light,Whatever your fears today, do not be afraid. Act on your faith in spite of your fears and your fears will be banished.
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
Ask a friend to worship.Whatever your fear, act on faith instead.
Reach out to someone you’re sure hates you.
Give more than you’re capable of giving. (That one’s hard for me.)
Tell somebody that you’re sorry.
Offer to pray for someone at work.
God is near. He is with you. He is for you, just as He's for every person you'll meet this week. He will receive the sinner who turns from sin and make them brand new. He will receive the hopeless who fall into His arms and He'll give them hope that never dies. He will take those of only small trust in Him and turn them into giants of faith!
Like Mary, allow yourself to be God’s servant and let Him have His way in your life!
[The true story of Marion Brenish was brought back to my memory by Pastor Michael Foss' sermon on this text. Foss retold it in his words and I retold it in mine. All the facts remain true. The story appeared in Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul.
[I've read the story of Phillips Brooks' composition, O Little Town of Bethlehem, many times. Most recently, I saw it in Christmas Is...A Treasury of Meditations, Stories, and Quotes.]