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What Three Ships?
I've long been intrigued with the carol, "I Saw Three Ships," wondering what three ships have to do with Christmas. How can three ships sail into Bethlehem which has no seaport? When Leroy said the choir would be singing this carol during this service, I decided to preach on the three ships, thereby discovering the meaning of the carol in the process. What three ships? One of the children in our Sunday School knew what they are. He said, "The Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Marie!" I am happy to report tonight with the sermon at hand, that I still don't understand what the three ships have to do with the Christmas story, and I still don't see how three ships can sail into land locked Bethlehem!
Evidently there is an ancient legend behind the carol which has something to do with the remains of the three wise men being retrieved by the Empress Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. Later, they were transferred to Milan. And still later, in 1162, three ships carried their skulls to Cologne. Then, as time passed, the three skulls became identified with the baby Jesus and his mother, whom the three ships sailed in to Bethlehem on Christmas morning.
I suspect that an English poet, surrounded by water, did not have a clear picture of Bethlehem's geography; or the poet was fantasizing as all good poets do, and having a grand time recreating the joyous celebration that occurred when ships sailed into London. Especially when loved ones had been absent for months, the arrival of ships was a time of rejoicing and reunion.
According to the carol, three ships came sailing into Bethlehem on Christmas Day in the morning carrying our Savior Christ and his mother. The three ships symbolize whatever mode of transportation brings Christ to this earth. However Christ enters our world today, however Christ comes to you, is symbolized and dramatized by the three ships.
How does Christ come to us today? By what ship? Warships? We've sailed triumphantly into Panama, or have we? I'm afraid I have a difficult time understanding what we were trying to do by invading another country. Especially when communism is crumbling all over Eastern Europe, with people now taking charge of their countries, why are we trying to turn back the clock and act like the Soviet Union invading Hungary or Afghanistan? I grieve for those who have lost their lives, and wonder how our government will interpret their deaths to their families. What were they fighting for? What did they die for? It's a strange way to celebrate Christmas--to send warships to Bethlehem, via Panama.
By what ship does Christ come to you? Friendship? The love of Christ often experienced through the love of friends and family. Stewardship, as you practice wise management of the resources you've been given? Salesmanship? Do you need to be convinced?
Well, the good news this evening is your ship has already come in! Jesus Christ has come to this earth. When Niels Bohr, the eminent Danish atomic scientist, visited Kronborg Castle, he commented, "Isn't it strange how this castle changes as soon as one imagines that Hamlet lived here? Suddenly the walls and ramparts speak a quite different language. Kronborg becomes a different castle for us." It is equally strange how this world changes when we remember that Jesus lived here. How differently our community looks, our homes look when we remember that Jesus not only came to the earth at Christmas, but lives here now. When you look at world events, when you look at your family, when you look at your life through the eyes of faith, you get quite a different picture.
A children's story has a little fish swim up to its mother one day and ask, "Mom, what is this water that I hear so much about?" Laughing, she responds, "You silly little fish. Why, water is around you and within you and gives you life. Just swim to the top of the pond and lie there in the air for awhile; then you will find out what water is."
Another time, a little fawn walks up to its mother and asks, "Mother, what is this air I hear so much about?" Smiling, she answers, "You silly little deer. Why, air is within you and around you. Air gives you life. If you want to know what air is, stick your head in the stream, hold it under the water; then you will find out what air is."
Some folks today ask where is this Jesus we hear so much about--this Christ of Christmas, who came sailing into Bethlehem in three ships! Like water to a fish, like air to a deer, Christ's spirit is all about us, within us and around us, giving us life. If you want to know what life is like without Christ, imagine a world without Christmas.
Imagine a world without beautiful decorations, lighted trees, shimmering candles, and tastefully wrapped gifts.
Imagine a world without the great music of Bach and Handel, music that was written in praise of Christ.
Imagine a world without good will, where people do not respond to earthquake tragedies, where people do not share food, clothing with the homeless.
Imagine a world without churches.
Imagine a world without hope, with only despair.
Then, like the fish in air, and the deer in water, you will find out what Christ is, and has done for humankind.
Arthur Bryant, in The Illustrated London News, has expressed the truth of Christmas beautifully,
But the truth is, He is still us today--He's here among us. How?
When we think of all that has come out of his teaching in the impulse to human freedom and dignity;
the challenging of ignorance;
the relief of suffering;
the conquest of disease;
the growth of humanitarian concern for the weak, the destitute, and the helpless;
the inspiration to great art and literature, architecture, and music;
the enlarging of personal horizons;
the incentive to more sensitive and concerned moral living;
the stabilizing of the lives of millions of Christians through the ages and around the world;
the fostering of prophetic attack by even a determined minority on such giant evils as race prejudice, human exploitation, and war--when one simply enumerates these things, it is to recognize that Jesus and the spirit of Christmas is ever present and growing and, in the final analysis is the one great hope of this world.
Glory to God in the Highest.
Yes, your ship has come in! Christ has come. Christ is here. His spirit is around you, within you, embracing you. The world is the better for his coming, and the future is bright. Oh, what might happen if only more could see Jesus Christ through the eyes of faith, would believe in him, and trust him with their lives. If all of you here this evening would join his ranks, unite with his church, and serve with all that you have are, imagine the convoy of ships--Christmas ships, ships of good will, ships of justice, peace, and love--sailing not only in to Bethlehem, but to Berlin, Prague, Bucharest, Panama City, San Francisco, and Palo Alto.
© 1989 Douglas I. Norris