Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
I have had many requests for my Christmas sermon, which is about the importance of the donkey and how many of us relate to the donkey that carried the Virgin Mary.
Last year on Christmas Eve, I gave a sermon that included a chart giving the name and the role of nine figures from the Nativity Story—Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the magi, the angels, the Gospel writers, Herod, the innkeeper and the Bible scholar. The challenge I gave was for people to take on one of the six positive roles—not Herod, the innkeeper or the Bible scholar—and see what your 2023 would be like if you adopted one of these roles. I even said if someone wants to write me a paragraph, I’d include it in the December Messenger. Well, only one person took me up on this, and they wish for their story to be anonymous, so there was no article written by them in the Messenger. In fact, I won’t reveal anything else about them except that they are a member of our parish who is not here tonight. And the role they chose was not one of the six positive roles or even one of the three negative ones. They chose a role I had not really thougth about. Because as they told me shortly after Christmas last year, “Father, I feel like I am the donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem.” So tonight’s Christmas sermon is about the donkey.
We know that the job of a donkey was to carry things. And in order to not be injured, the person in charge of the load needed to make sure that the donkey had three things—1) not too much weight so as to be injured, but obviously the donkey would be expected to carry a decent amount of weight; 2) the weight needed to be balanced on either side of the donkey. Too much weight on one side or the other might injure the donkey; and 3) the donkey needed adequate water, food and rest.
Many of us can actually relate to a poorly treated donkey—it feels like we are carrying too much weight, we are out of balance and we aren’t getting adequate rest or relaxation. And sadly some of us, unknowingly, and even worse, knowingly, are like donkey owners who overload our donkeys with unreasonable expectations, keep them unbalanced with stress and don’t make sure that they are adequately cared for.
Think of things from the donkey’s perspective. I’m sure that Joseph was not an abusive donkey owner, and Mary wasn’t mean and cruel. But I’m not sure even Mary and Joseph told the donkey where he was going, or how long it would take to get there. I’m sure they didn’t tell the donkey “we’ll rest in an hour.” In some sense the donkey just had to keep walking, putting one leg in front of the other, not knowing where he was going, and trusting that he would be kept fed, watered, rested and balanced.
The donkey is important in the Nativity story because for those of you who have been pregnant, there is no way someone about to give birth was going to walk many miles, up and down over mountains and valleys. Mary wouldn’t have made it to Bethlehem without the donkey. For those who are wondering, it is over 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, so it would take six days if you walked 15 miles a day, that’s a lot.
The donkey figures very prominently in another important Bible story, the entry of Christ into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. In this instance, it was Christ who was riding the donkey. And why was that necessary—couldn’t Jesus have arrived a different way? A chariot would have demonstrated power. A horse would have demonstrated speed. Walking on His own would have demonstrated self-reliance, which demonstrated wrongly might lead to arrogance. The donkey demonstrated humility. The power of Jesus was not in military strength, or quickness, or even self-reliance. It was in humility.
So let us look at the donkey from two perspectives. First, from the perspective of the donkey. We have to examine ourselves in this way. First, the donkey carried Mary, a precious cargo if you will. We have to ask ourselves how are we carrying the precious cargos entrusted to us—family, friends, talents, and most especially our faith.
Second, because Mary was pregnant, the donkey was carrying both her and Christ. Christ tells us in Matthew 5:14, “You are the light of the world.” In John 8:12, He says, “I am the light of the world.” Light is the quality that we share with Him. Are we being good bearers of that light? Is His light shining through us to the world? Has His light gone out in your world? If so, tonight is a great chance for a restart.
Third, from the donkey perspective, do we trust our master, in our case, God, that He is looking out for us. The donkey that carried Mary and Jesus had to trust that Joseph would stop often enough for water, food and rest. He had to trust that his master would take care of him. Do we put the same trust in God when it comes to our lives?
Fourth, the donkey had to keep walking. Some of that path was certainly not smooth. There were certainly steep hills to climb up and climb down. In the desert where the Nativity occurred, days can be extremely hot and nights can be extremely cold, so there is no doubt that the donkey endured some very challenging weather. In a similar way, we have to continue walking, regardless of the terrain we encounter in our life’s journeys. Today might be a steep hill up, tomorrow it might be steep going down, there may be a vista to look over from, and there may be a valley you think you can never climb out of. Your luck may be extremely hot, or it may be extremely cold. A season of life could be smooth and pleasant or it could be difficult and miserable. We have to trust our Master, God, that He is walking with us, that He is looking out for us. And we have to keep on walking.
Fifth, the donkey needed his load to be balanced. Too much weight on one side would have made it difficult to walk and caused potentially serious injury. We also need balance in our lives. Some of this is self-inflicted—we don’t get enough rest, or exercise, we work too much, we stress out about the wrong things. And some of this is inflicted by others, who place unreasonable expectations on us, or at the very least, could help us lighten if not shift the load.
And sixth, the donkey had an important role. In Sunday school Christmas pageants, the “glamour” figures are Mary and Joseph, maybe one of the magi, since there are only three. The little kids are given the roles of the donkeys and the sheep. Think how the story would have been different had there been no donkey. No way does a woman nine months pregnant make it 90 miles walking. Then the birth can’t happen in Bethlehem, the prophecies cannot be fulfilled. Yes, Mary said yes and trusted. Yes, Joseph said yes and obeyed. Yes, the shepherds went and the magi were seeking, the star was guiding and the angels were singing. But if it wasn’t for the donkey walking, this miracle couldn’t have played out the way it did. ALL creation was needed to bring the Creator into the world. Likewise, in our world today, every role of every person is needed to bring God’s plan of salvation to completion. That means the glamour roles and the non-glamour roles, the very public ones and the very anonymous ones, the ones who get noticed and the ones who don’t, the ones that get public appreciation and adulation, and the ones who are unseen and unacknowledged. God needs each of us. Going back to last year’s sermon about the Nativity figures, there were some people who tried to thwart God’s plan, like the innkeeper who had no room for Christ, the Bible scholar who aided King Herod and King Herod, who pretended to want to worship the Lord but his intentions were sinister. But for those who wanted to help in God’s plan, all the roles, including the role of the donkey are important. In the world today, you might identify more with the magi or with Mary or Joseph, you might have an identifiable marquee role, if you will. But each role, when filled for the glory of God is pleasing, even if you are a shepherd, even if you are a donkey.
Let’s look at things from the perspective of the donkey owner. He had to make sure that the donkey was balanced and that he was properly fed, given water, and rested. Let’s look at our “donkeys.” They might be our spouses, our children, our parents, our friends, our employees, our neighbors, really anyone. Our donkeys are anyone who carries us in any way. It could be our doctors, our lawyers, our teachers, really anyone. Are we helping to keep them balanced? Are we laying undo or unreasonable weight on them? Are we making sure that they are fed with encouragement, watered with kindness, and that they have the opportunity to rest? Yes, sometimes we have to pull on a donkey, even prod a donkey to make it move. But this should be the exception, not the rule.
I am thankful that one person was impacted by something I said a year ago. This is important. Because there are many of us who struggle, wondering if we make a difference at all—in our children, in our places of business, with our friends. We expect return on our investment in work and in people and are disappointed when we don’t see it. Jesus says that we need to be okay with a satisfaction rating of 1%, that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance. (Luke 15:7) That means keep parenting, keep teaching, keep working, keep trying, keep loving, keep struggling and keep showing up. Because what you do may impact someone you’ll never know in a way that you’ll never believe.
And finally, to my friend who identifies with the donkey, I hope you are watching tonight—thank you for reassuring me that last year’s message affected at least one person, thank you for your honesty. In a world where we are obsessed with glamour, very few will admit to feeling like a donkey. Your honesty was refreshing. I’m sure there are many people who feel like donkeys out there tonight. For those who do, I’m praying that your life will feel more balanced, that the path will be smoother, that the load will be lighter, and that you’ll get the food, water and rest you need. And most of all, I hope that you know that in all that you are carrying, you are carrying Christ, His light, on you, and that He will give you the strength to get to the cave. In the hymns tonight, we sang of the cave as heaven, a grand space. The icons depict the cave as being black—it represents heaven, which has no beginning or end. It represents the dawn of time, when everything was black and the Word of God, now made flesh, was eternally present with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The cave is the origin and the destination. May the Lord guide your steps, today to the cave of Bethlehem, and tomorrow to the grand space of heaven! Merry Christmas! Christ is born! Glorify Him!