Some people have friends. Some people have enemies. Some people have acquaintances. But everybody has somebody you do business with.
The people you do business with -- usually, that’s not an intimate relationship. It’s a distant relationship, limited just to transactions. Everybody deals with people who may or may not even know our names, but who just do things for us, just play roles.
I go to the grocery store near my home. I see the same faces month after month at the checkout line. They are polite and I am polite. We say hello to each other and occasionally exchange little comments about the weather and the price of things. But I don’t attempt to have what you would call a close relationship with these folks. They are checkers and baggers and I am a customer, and that’s that. I don’t ask them to care about me any more than the job requires, and they don’t ask me to care about them beyond paying the bill and waiting patiently while they put it all in those little plastic sacks. That’s it. That’s all there is to it.
But every now and again something happens with one of these casual business encounters. Every now and again someone appears to break out of that distant thing and asks to be something more. Every now and then someone acts as though he or she wants to be your friend, he wants to do something special for you, he wants to care about you.
The phone rings, and it’s a telemarketer. He starts off as though he is your dearest long-lost friend. “Hey, Joseph, how are you doing? I hope you had a great holiday!” Now right away I am suspicious, because nobody but telemarketers and Jean White ever call me “Joseph”. So I use my all-purpose answer: “uh-huh.” “Uh-huh” means “I am not telling you anything, who are you, and get on with it.” And then it comes, “I want to do you a favor. I want to save you some money.” “You can trade in your Visa card for one with lower interest.” “We can give you replacement windows for 50% off.” And the real topper: “Our driveway repair crew is on your street today.” These folks act as though they want to be my friends, they make noises as if they care about me, but I know that the bottom line is the bottom line. They want to make money from me.
And there isn’t anything wrong with that. Not at all. I’m sort of with Calvin Coolidge, who said “The business of America is business.” That’s OK. But it’s not about friendship. It’s not about caring for me. It’s about business, right?
There are a lot of folks out there who may from time to time sound as though they care about us. But do they? Do they really care? How will you know, how will you find out who really cares? Most of us are thirsty for real care. We’d like to know that someone really cares about what happens to us. How do you find out who really cares?
The wonderfully rich story of the infant Jesus and those who surrounded him not long after His birth gives us some clues. A number of folks expressed interest in Him. Can we figure out who had just a passing, selfish interest in Him, and who really cared about Him?
First, there is King Herod. King Herod expressed interest in Jesus. It sounds pretty authentic. When the wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, asking at the palace where the new king would be born, the old king, taken by surprise, sent them off with a command, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” He sounds like he cares.
But of course you and I know from what happened next that that wasn’t the king’s intention at all. He had no intention whatsoever of climbing down from his throne and laying his crown at the feet of some squalling peasant infant. In one of history’s most awesome holocausts -- sadly, neither the first nor the last of its kind -- King Herod sent out a decree to destroy every child of two years or less in and around the village of Bethlehem. This massive overkill, this ruthless, heartless trick, this senseless carnage, masked by his pretense at friendship, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
You see, not everyone who pretends to care for you actually does care for you. Not everyone who makes all the right noises is going to help you. What’s going on here? Why this pretense at caring, but in reality this destructive heart? Here is the clue, right in the text: “When King Herod heard [about the birth of the child Jesus] he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” He was frightened and all Jerusalem with him.
I say again, not everyone who pretends to care for you actually does care for you. Sometimes they are frightened for their positions, and fear makes people do desperate and destructive things. If you have a fearful, threatened person operating in an atmosphere that just reinforces that fear, you have a deadly situation. If you have a fearful, threatened, challenged person, who is reinforced by other fearful, threatened, challenged people, it doesn’t matter how much they bleat about their care for you. They don’t care for anything except their own skins.
How do you find out who really cares? You know who doesn’t care if you detect fear piled on fear.
Mr. Hairston and I have been asked to intervene in a sister church which is undergoing a lot of stress. I don’t know many of the details, and wouldn’t want to report them if I did. But from what little I’ve been told, the pastor of this church is operating on an autocratic, authoritarian, lay-down-the-law basis. He is arbitrarily, on his own, removing people from offices in the church. He is demanding that the people follow his leadership. Why? Because the church is declining. Its finances are poor, two-thirds of its members have gone elsewhere, and the man knows he’s losing it. He’s afraid. And so he bears down harder than ever to try to keep his position. The pastor is fearful and frightened. But so are the people. The people are frightened too. They are running away. They are deserting the sinking ship. They are scared of conflict, even though conflict can be very creative. And so what do you have? You have a frightened leader in a frightened crowd, each one making the other more frightened. And I guarantee you that every testimony about God’s love, every sermon about God’s mercy, every song about “What a fellowship, what a joy divine”, every bit of that falls on deaf ears and is not heard as real at all. Why? Because people who are frightened, people who are caught up in an atmosphere of desperation, cannot really care for anything but themselves, and will lash out destructively. They cannot care for anybody else. And they will destroy the innocent bystanders every time.
This is where I feel for our city right now. This is what troubles me about the District of Columbia. We have leaders everywhere from the halls of congress to the council chambers to the executive suites who are frightened. They are scared out of their wits by the climate of this city. They are scared that their jobs may be cut; they are scared that the money will run out; they are scared that someone else will take over their authority. And those fears may well be justified. There is truth in those fears. But, friends, when you put scared leaders to work in a city which is already scared to death about crime and urban decay and drugs and a score of other things ... when you stir up that mix, devastating things are going to happen. And the devastation will be worked on those least able to withstand it, on the poor, the vulnerable, the aged, and the children.
I grieve for our city. I am scared of scared people. King Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. He sent and killed all the children in and around [the town]. How do you find out who really cares these days? Watch out for the folks who feel threatened and who are reinforced by a fearful atmosphere. They care only for their own power and position, and they will do harm.
But, happily, King Herod is not the central character in this story. This story does not revolve primarily around him. This is the story of wise men who came bringing gifts to the infant Jesus. Fabled in story and song, dramatized by our children this morning, these were some folks who weren’t quite sure what they were doing, who just followed a star and brought some gifts to give wherever it seemed good to give them.
These wise men, sort of part scientists, part philosophers, followed “the star they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was .... and they knelt down and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
The wise men cared, really cared. Do you know how I know this? They really cared about Jesus because they followed his star from its rising and they gave him gifts for his future. They followed his star from its rising; that means they chose to believe, from the very beginning, that there would be something worth giving to! And what they chose to give was valuable, in the long term, even though it may seem to have had no meaning at the moment.
Now what is baby Jesus going to do with gold, frankincense, and myrrh? How is this kid going to spend gold, burn incense, and splash himself with myrrh? Wise men, why didn’t you bring him a teddy bear or a rattle, a soft pillow or a pacifier?! Stuff he could use right now?
But wise people, caring people, give gifts that express their faith that there is going to be somebody worth giving to. And they give gifts that have meaning down the road. They follow the star, right from its rising, and bring their gifts.
I have vivid memories of the Christmas when I was twelve years old, and they decided I was too old now for trucks and trains. My Christmas gifts suddenly consisted of shirts and socks. In fact, my mother laughed for years about the look on my face when I opened a brightly wrapped package, in which I was so sure there was a game I wanted, only to find inside a pair of pajamas. Yuck! But that same year, I got another gift. My brother and I were the youngest of my Grandmother Smith’s nine grandchildren. She was getting on in years. That year there were identical packages for my brother and me, and each of them contained a note. The note said, “As each one of my grandchildren has graduated from high school, I have given them a Bible. I am afraid I may not live long enough to see you and your brother graduate, and so I am giving you your Bibles now.”
Do you see? At the moment, I would have preferred trucks and trains, bells and whistles. But my grandmother believed in me, in me, from the very get-go, and she gave me something that really mattered. Something with her heart in it. Now you know why I am preaching from this tattered old Bible today; this is the one!
No that’s how you find out who really cares. You find wise people who believe in you and who give you something valuable. You say you care? You say you care for children? Then give them education, not just Tickle Me Elmo. Give them spiritual guidance, not just Cabbage Patch dolls that chew on their hair. Give them a church absolutely permeated with love, not just a church where we posture for each other and look good at the expense of the daily drudgery. You say you care? Believe from the rising of the star and give something meaningful. That’s what caring looks like.
And one thing more. One more person. One more way to find out who really cares. Joseph. Don’t forget about Joseph. Poor old Joseph might have said, “This is not my fight. This is not my problem. My wife says this is the Lord’s baby, not mine. I have already trucked her down to Bethlehem, I have already endured oxen and asses, shepherds and angels. I have already been laughed at enough. This is not my problem.” And who could blame him?
But how do you know a person who really cares about others? Look at Joseph, and you’ll see one. You’ll see one who believed that he was called of God to protect the child given into his care. And he chose to make sacrifices in order to be obedient to that calling. He chose to give up his own personal preferences, his own convenience, even his own livelihood, in order to be obedient to God’s will.
How will you find out who really cares? Listen for those who will obey God’s call to set aside their own comforts. The angel said to Joseph, “‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.”
If you really want to find out who cares, find out who sets aside his own convenience in order to protect you. If you truly want to know who cares, discover who is willing to sacrifice his own comfort, spend his own resources, burn his own time, for you. Find that teacher who teaches, not for the paycheck, but because she cares about her students. Find that counselor who listens, not because he has a reputation to uphold, but because he really wants to invest his time in your life.
Do you really want to be a person who cares? Look at the danger spots of our day and put yourself there. Find a child to tutor, a child who is in danger of going down the tubes. It may not be convenient to do, but if it is God’s call, you’ll find a way to do it. Find a sick person to serve, somebody whose life is fragile. It may be distasteful to clean up after this person, but if it is God’s call, then it won’t be a burden, it’ll be a joy. Find a task to do in God’s church. It may not be one which rewards you, and it may involve getting your hands dirty and your ego bruised. But I tell you that you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you, and in obedience you can find fulfillment. You can become a caring person.
How do you find out who really cares? Watch out for King Herod, who cares only for his own position and who, when frightened, will do dangerously destructive things.
How do you find out who really cares? Discover wise men, who believe in you right from the start and who give you gifts that have meaning down the road.
How do you find out who really cares? How do you become somebody who really cares? Be Joseph. Obey the call of God to sacrifice convenience and comfort for the sake of others.
How do you find out who really cares? Come to this table, and remember that babe of Bethlehem, for He made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Himself the form of a servant. He was not afraid; He cared.
How do you find out who really cares? Come to this table, and remember that He loved us before we ever loved Him. He loved us right from the start, and gave Himself for us. He cares.
How do you find out who really cares? Come to this table, and know that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. He sacrificed everything in obedience to the Father’s will. He really cares.