“More than White Elephants”

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 1:26-38

The Rev. Dr. Seth Weeldreyer, First Presbyterian Church of Kalamazoo

December 17, 2023 – Third Sunday of Advent

This past Tuesday, our staff went to Amber’s house for an afternoon holiday Jewish-Christian Chanustmas party. We savored Chinese food, apple crisp, cookies, and cheesecake, then we got to the white elephant gift exchange! We know how it goes—culled household items deemed to have little value / no longer desired / better than going in a landfill, or something acquired for under $15. A light-up moon, car cup holder expansions, puzzles. I drew number one and opened a floppy pink flamingo to drape on a bottle of favored libation with a triangular Santa straw cup. It’s all so me, right?! And no one coming after me ever stole it. That honor repeatedly belonged to Logan. Three, four, maybe five times he opened a gift and next person promptly stole it.

The white elephant pictured on our cover, a cooperative “defeat the zombies” board game with Noah’s Ark tree ornament … a few others got to open a second present, too. Many exchanges, much laughter. At the end and, as number one, I had the chance to steal-swap with anyone else. Yes, I envied several others being cuddled / swaddled to hide from my roving eyes. As it was all great bonding, often tear-inducing fun, I didn’t have the heart to disappoint anyone else. Just kept stroking my floppy flamingo. And I am sorry to say when it came to guessing who gave what, others recalled who the flamingo lady was – I didn’t. In the end, someone else did want the flamingo. So as often happens, exchanges kept goping. I went home with a puzzle of Rome. A bit more me!

While laughing non-stop joy-fully at each new revealed wonder and a human story inside every paper-thin package, here’s the connection I made. Mary received a gift from the angel Gabriel. She was a kind of ultimate white-elephant in society. Young, barely becoming a woman from girl, poor, in a backwater village on the fringe of the mighty Roman empire—powerless, penniless, at that point relatively purposeless—a person deemed to have little value. Except by God. First, Gabriel (whose name means “strength of God”) came to Zechariah, the aged powerful high priest at the top of the food chain, in what was believed to be in the holiest place of Jerusalem, God’s very throne room. After he and Elizabeth receive a long yearned for but thought impossible gift, his skepticism gets him silenced. Now Gabriel comes to Zechariah’s physical, social, religious opposite and gives her an even better gift. You see, she, the very white elephant, bears the promise of Holy Love to be born; she embodies living faith like no other. Chrissy and I joked: yeah, she probably wanted to say something like, “Ahh God, can I trade this gift for another? Will anyone come to steal it and relieve me? This blessing(?) … this responsibility? That flamingo or cup-holder or holiday towel set looks a lot better than this scary hard million-piece puzzle of life in my Roman world.” Pondering, perplexed, expression enough for Gabriel to say: do not be afraid. As Mary moves from “how can this be?” to “let it be with me?” I wonder what tone of voice we hear. Totally passive acquiescence? Defiant resistance? Curious interest? We don’t really know … anymore than how we feel when confronted with hard, possibly holy, often unsought / unexpected twists and turns of life. Lord, how shall we meet you, welcome you aright?

If raised in a Catholic or Orthodox tradition, we might be inclined to revere Mary and pray to her as the supreme extraordinary, special-unparalleled-never-again, theotokos God-bearer as many paintings, icons, sculptures portray. If raised more protestant like Presbyterian, we’re likely inclined to appreciate Mary as an ordinary human, much like us, who models who we could be in living faith. I’m just going to say, friends, I don’t really care to argue about it, as many have over centuries.

Here’s what I believe. We all bear gifts of Holy Love inside yearning to be born in our world. He texted late one night this week, feeling lost in a place of life-crisis. When we met the next day, amid the struggles, he shared that he walks the dog and comes to a Catholic church and often cries out in his heart to Mary (as tears flowed down his face). I heard a deep yearning arising inside us all, maybe like what arose in Mary herself – yearning for life full of joy. He, too, maybe feeling a bit like a white-elephant with regrets for words spoken and choices made, with grief for loss of one beloved and life meaning, purpose. Luci Shaw imagines Mary wrestling with shame, uncertainty, anxiety, maybe the burden amid blessing. And still, the soft, inward flutterings of Spirit with flesh … is it too much to ask for us to risk being part of heavenly hopes and serve God’s glory?[i] You see, friends, Gabriel brings God’s good news to Mary: that every one of us however much we may feel like a white elephant or most gorgeous gem-studded treasure for a wedding … inside us all is God’s gift of Holy Love just waiting to be born into the world. A gift to others that brings life like those green shoots sprouting out of the elephant’s back on our bulletin.

Because you see, that’s what Mary’s white-elephant-son-Jesus gifted to others throughout his ministry. Whatever details we may debate about things like Mary’s literal virginity, let’s not lose the literary point. Luke’s not giving a biology lesson. He’s conveying deep faith. The Hebrew word from Isaiah from which this all comes can means “young woman.” But the Roman emperor was said to be born miraculously of a virgin—he’s special, even though we all know his mom and dad were so and so. For Luke, for God, for Jesus, ordinary humble people like Mary and her carpenter son are just as important. They’re special. You see, in this annunciation scene, as in Mary’s Magnificat we’ve been singing, Luke’s tries to convey: this is what the rest of the gospel will be about. Here’s the sacred theme of all the human stories we’ll hear about Jesus on every paper-thin page, as the leitmotif for our lives. White elephant people debilitated, devalued, disenfranchised on fringes of society – a blind man on the roadside, a woman bleeding fourteen years, enemy Roman soldiers or Samaritans cherished – all these people get healed, accepted, raised to new life, flowing from love into joy, as gifts of grace keep getting exchanged.

Later that afternoon, I left our staff party for a little minor surgery at Bronson. Nothing like biblical Jesus-miracle proportions. Though I always see miracles of modern medicine as God’s grace, and practitioners as miracle workers in a way. My bristly hair has a few synthetic strands stitched in where a small cyst was removed. I tried to take a nap through the whole procedure, but the P.A. and nurse kept kindly talking to me! Joking about how I received this cystic genetic bequest from parents, she said at least 2-3 times: “It’s the gift that keeps on giving!” Okay, God, I thought, I’m getting the message!

The gift that keeps on giving … across generations. More than cysts that’s God’s Spirit of Holy Love. And I believe it’s as genetic in us as Jesus was Mary’s son—the very core / sacred code of who we are. Conflicts, insensitivity, grief and regrets, bias and inequity … these irritants can cause cysts of fear, diminished self-esteem, and any other variation of not-good-enoughness to grow in our heads and hearts. Make us feel devalued, disempowered. That’s when we need to hear and open our heart to receive Isaiah’s good news. “The Spirit of God is upon me, the Lord has anointed me.” Friends, do we believe it?

Isaiah was trying to get his people to live that faith. He’s doing a little spiritual surgery on his people’s heads and hearts. They’ve been captive exiles in Babylon, white-elephant servants of the lowest order—under a huge cyst of oppression across generations. Now they’re coming back home to rebuild life in Israel. And truth is, it’ll happen when they give their hearts to trust, envision, feel the Spirit’s power rise within them. They’re ordinary people called to be special, to do extraordinary. Brokenhearted bound up. Captives released to liberty. Those who mourn anointed with oil of gratitude and gladness. How do we know it, friends? Ruins and devastation rebuilt. Robbery, wrongdoing, violence of all kinds restored by justice to God’s way of flourishing for all. How do we yearn for that promise as we hear and see the news, as we face the realities of our own lives and communities?

You see, here’s what Isaiah echoes in line with all of scripture. Ordinary humans who feel life is limited seemingly impossible find ways by Grace to receive and reciprocate blessing. I will bless you, Abraham and Sarah get told when they have a child, so you will be a blessing to all nations. Surely Jacob and Joseph, David and Solomon, Deborah, Ruth and Naomi, Esther didn’t have a perfectly unblemished life – just be good and get rewarded. That’s not the morality tale some want to read back into scripture. Quite the opposite. They’re flawed, frail, forlorn humans … still imbued with the Divine. And as Isaiah affirms, God makes an everlasting covenant promise we proclaim here and now. Steadfast Love endures forever, Divine faithfulness to all generations, even through and despite our imperfections. And God declares in the voice of Isaiah, “descendants who live this way of grace and peace shall be known among all nations, clothed with garments of salvation.” Like earth bringing forth shoots, a garden growing from the good soil inside every white elephant … yes, you and me.

As we read this Isaiah text today, it helps us get Mary’s Annunciation – the Spirit of the Lord God is upon me. And Luke tells us that when Jesus goes to his home synagogue to preach his first words in public, he takes out this scroll and proclaims: the Spirit of the Lord God is upon me. And you see, friends, as early Christians felt the Pentecost power receiving the covenant of blessing from ancient Israelites, they tried to live it, passing it down generations to all like us who inherit this blessing today.

Here’s the promise we celebrate in Advent. God’s Spirit is upon every one of us. More true, this life has been conceived and arises from deep within us … already there just waiting to be born anew. God’s gift of love, acceptance, affirmation … “God is with you, Beloved one,” Gabriel says to white-elephant-Mary, “Do not be afraid.” And so, in the strength of God, friends, believe that each one of us is favored, as well. No matter how much our families and personal lives meet some supposedly acceptable cultural standard or not. No matter how unimportant, inexperienced, uncertain we may feel about what’s ahead. Sure ask: “how can this be?” It shows we’re taking seriously whatever call seems to be coming to us.

In this sacred way, friends, we’ve known so many ordinary-white-elephant people come alive and be a blessed gift to the world. We’ve known children who just don’t seem to fit, frustrated because they don’t learn the same way / can’t do the same things suddenly blossom and grow in ways of beauty with gifts unimagined. “The Spirit of the Lord God …” We’ve known young adults feel horrible because college just doesn’t fit until they learn a trade and express artistic vision and flourish; or the same for people with clear capacity but little to no access to higher education who get a chance. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon us …” We’ve known adults who for whatever reason of substances, divorce, mental health, and myriad other traumas or loss yearn to begin again … and now we’re teachers, peer navigators, nurses, electricians, business owners, steady laborers of all kinds. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon us, and has conceived in us new life …” We’ve known people more aged frustrated they can’t do or read or even remember like they used to, still find ways to give generously in smiling compliments, listening encouragement, meals made, whatever other resources offered for others. “The Spirit of the God is upon us, conceiving new life and we say how can this be?” We’ve known refugees and immigrants come to our community so lost, wary looks, unable to communicate effectively let alone navigate housing, schools, health care, driver’s tests, and all kinds of legal hoops in a foreign land, now hold steady jobs, raise a family whose children now attend college and work, blessing others through blessings they’ve received. “The Spirit of the Lord came upon Mary and from “how can it be” she came to affirm “so may it be with me.”

Dear friends, however, we may have felt or may feel now like we’re not good enough – devalued by ourselves or others, debilitated or disenfranchised in society, we are so much more than white elephants. We are children of God. Blessed to be a blessing as the gift exchange of grace and peace keeps going and going. Maybe we know someone else who needs to receive the strength of God, to find joy … that all people shall see the salvation of our God. God’s gift of love that comes to us and never will leave, the gift of Christmas. How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given as God imparts to human heart the blessed gifts of heaven that keep on giving.

A day or two after our party, Amber shared another story about what was relatively maybe the white elephant of white elephants in our gift exchange. A small toy, about the size to be held in a child’s hand – a thin dowel with tiny metal or plastic ribbons hanging down linked at the bottom. So when it spins in your hands or fingers, the ribbons rose with centripetal force into a bit of a bowl shape. While it was not one stolen from the recipient, one of Amber’s children adored it so and wanted to sleep with it at night … crying if not. When she told the giver, the giver explained it was in mother’s house growing up until she died and was a sibling favorite at that time, too. Mother would have loved that it found another home.

Thanks be to God. Amen.













[i] Luci Shaw, “Too Much to Ask” in Accompanied by Angels: Poems of the Incarnation (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006). 14.