Illustration - For Always
In 1994 two Americans answered an invitation from the Russian Department of Education to teach morals and ethics (based on Biblical principles) in the public schools. They were invited to teach at prisons, businesses, the fire and police departments, and a large orphanage. It was nearing the holiday season for the orphans to hear for the first time the traditional Christmas story. They told them about Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem and finding no room in the inn, the couple went to a stable, where Jesus was born and placed in the manger.
Throughout the story, the children, according to one of the Americans, “sat in amazement as they listened. Some sat on the edges of their stools, trying to grasp every word.”
As a follow-up activity to the story, each child was given three small pieces of cardboard to make a crude manager.
• Each child was also given a small paper square, cut from yellow napkins which the children tore into strips the paper and carefully laid them in the manger for straw.
• Small squares of flannel from a thrown away nightgown were used for the baby’s blanket.
• From pieces of tan felt a doll-like baby was made.
As they made their way around the room to observe the children this is what one of the Americans noted, “All went well until I got to one table where little Misha sat. He looked to be about 6 years old and had finished his project.
As I looked at the little boy’s manger, I was startled to see, not one but two babies in the manger. Quickly, I called for the translator to ask the lad why there were two babies in the manger.” The observer goes on to note that Misha very accurately recalled the story that had been told until he came to the part where Mary put Jesus in the manger.
“Then Misha,” it is noted, “started to ad-lib. He made up his own ending to the story as he said, “And when Maria laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay. I told him I have no momma and I have no papa, so I don’t have any place to stay. Then Jesus told me I could stay with him. But I told him I couldn’t because I didn’t have a gift to give him like everybody else did. But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much, so I thought about what I had that maybe I could use for a gift. I thought maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift.
So I asked Jesus, “If I keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift?” And Jesus told me, “If you keep me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me. So I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and he told me I could stay with him – for always.”
As little Misha finished his story, his eyes brimmed full of tears that splashed down his little cheeks. Putting his hand over his face, his head dropped to the table and his shoulders shook as he sobbed and sobbed. The little orphan had found someone who would never abandon or abuse him, someone who would stay with him – FOR ALWAYS!”
Last weekend I was blessed to play the part of Isaiah in a live nativity production. As I was taking this particular family on a walking tour of the recreated ancient city of Bethlehem, the two small children were impatiently running ahead and peering into spots and places that really weren’t supposed to be part of the tour. The little boy impatiently chased a cat while the little girl stayed fairly close to her momma. After the cat ran off, knowing what was good for him, the little boy was darting about like a dragon fly in mid summer on an open pond. A few calls from dad brought the young lad back to the center of what at least I thought was important.
We went past the Bethlehem Inn where there was no room for the expectant mother of the Christ child. As we approached the live animal stable, I thought this would surely be where I could capture their undivided attention. The little girl stood in amazement at the gentle one month old baby goats. The little boy noticed the small eight month old donkey and they both jumped at the chance to pet the animals. Within two shakes of the goat’s tail, the little boy was off again. He proceeded to the manger scene where Mary and the baby Jesus were.
The little girl was still mesmerized at the preciousness of these little animals and didn’t seem to notice that her brother had left again. I wanted this to be the BIG surprise for the group but now he had jumped ahead of my plans yet again. I watched carefully as the little boy approached the manger. His dad and I slowly walked up behind him to take in his first impression. He walked past Mary and peered right into the eyes of baby Jesus. About half a second later he loudly exclaimed “he’s a fake, he’s not real!”
Out of the mouths of babes! It didn’t take long for this little boy to see that the baby Jesus wasn’t a real baby at all. For obvious reasons, we didn’t feel that it was prudent to put a real baby in a feed trough in the near freezing dampness of night. With the unmistakable shrill voice of a small boy, the news had gotten out – this baby Jesus is a fake!
What had we done to this little boy’s expectations? Had we promised him candy and instead given him plastic fruit? I didn’t know what to say and the dad looked at me as only a dad with an impulsive little boy could; half surprised and half embarrassed. We stared at each other for what seemed like an awkward moment or two and I quoted Ephesians 4:15, “…speak the truth in love…”
This situation got me thinking, what are our expectations of Christmas? What do we expect to see when we are looking for Jesus this Christmas? Will we see the real Jesus or some fake imposter? I’m afraid that many will not be able to see the real Jesus. There are too many distractions in the commercial hustle and bustle of the season to really notice that there really is a Jesus and that He really was born in a feed trough. This same baby grew into a man and became God’s sacrificial lamb for our sins. But do we see evidences of this in the world we live in today? Our scriptures this morning are from what many know as the “love chapter” of the Bible. I’d like to examine this bit of scripture and how I believe it is relevant to this season of Christmas.
I see so many opportunities to celebrate Christmas these days. We have a Christmas party this upcoming Wednesday. Tonight we are joining services with Bethel Baptist for a special Cantata. I have pondered in my heart why we go through such elaborate measures this time of the season. I believe that most churches would say they are trying to attract visitors to their congregation. There is nothing wrong with wanting to attract visitors when our heart is in the right place. We believe that if a visitor comes and sits amongst us they will see something that will make them want to come back for more. It may be our singing. It may even be our musicians. Maybe it’s the children’s programs or youth ministries. Or could it be something else?
When Christians get caught up with the traditions of Christmas, we have a tendency to forget the real reason behind this special celebration - LOVE. If we removed the commercialism from Christmas, would it be the same? I don’t think the world would know what to do if that happened.
The true meaning of Christmas was the very beginning of God’s most wonderful expression of love! We call it the first advent or coming of Christ and this season we are called to anticipate the second advent of Christ when He comes in final victory. God looked down on this pitiful fallen world and decided He would give us something that would provide a way to live in eternity with Him. God sent His only Son Jesus as a baby in a feed trough so that you and I cold have a hope for eternity in heaven with God. Neiman Marcus, Macy’s and Wal-Mart can’t compete with that gift! This is what Christmas is about. It isn’t about the lights, bells or carols; it’s a celebration of a Gift like never before or ever since the world has seen. What I’m afraid of is that we have entered into this Christmas season like the noisy gongs and clanging symbols. The Christmas season is about celebrating the most awesome representation of Love we have ever experienced!
During this holiday season I see so many ministries running on auto pilot and having little or no manifestation of the Love of God. We do this because this is what we always do. We do that because it’s what mom & dad always did. May I suggest something for Christmas this year? How about doing something out of the ordinary? How about doing something that represents God love in the form of a Baby? Can you think of any way that could be accomplished?
OK, lets do another Cantata! Let’s do a big production with lots of lights and music and glorious celebrations that takes up lots of our time, money and energy. When we look into the audience, all we’ll likely see are our Christian neighbors and friends that look exactly like us, think like us. It reminds me of a cartoon where the characters discover a chest full of gold and they jump into jubilant celebrations singing the chorus of “we’re in the money, we’re in the money!”
How can we “share” God’s love jumping up and down celebrating what we already know? How are we reaching those that are hurting like little Misha in our opening story? How are we reaching those that are less fortunate, those that are stricken with cancer, those struggling to put food on the table or those that have no heat in the coldness of the night? Satan has most modern day churches running without love and we have become enamored with clothing the hungry and feeding the naked!
Oh, we go and “do” stuff for the needy but is it effective? Are we giving food to those who have need of clothing? Are we giving clothing that we have discarded and giving it those that haven’t eaten in four days? No wonder most churches have more empty pews than full ones! We have become complacent in the command of God to “love one another as I have loved you.”
John 13:34-35 (NLT)
34 So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. 35 Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”
Everything Jesus did was done with one thing in mind; LOVE. He gave of Himself beyond human expectations. He poured Himself out for us as a substitute offering for our wickedness and disobedience. We somehow have comforted ourselves into believing that what we do these days celebrates the true meaning of Christmas. We need to quit living in this pipe dream and wake up to the reality that without being motivated by God’s true love, we are a bunch of clanging symbol’s and noisy bongs.
Like the little boy that peered into the hay strewn manger at Bethlehem campgrounds last weekend, the world peers through the doors of many of our sanctuaries and declares, “This Jesus is a fake!” They don’t see love in action. They don’t see the heart of a worshipful heart. Instead they see flashing lights and hear songs sang without the passion of true love. We go through the motions of Christianity hoping that someone will like what they see and act like we do. When enough of us get to acting like ‘good Christians,’ then Jesus will surely be proud of us! When we fill up our pews and meet our budgets all the while keeping the church building well maintained, surely Jesus will be happy then – right?
If everything that Jesus did was motivated by love, shouldn’t we also be heading in that direction? It isn’t what the church is doing for Christmas; it’s more about what we are individually doing to represent the love of Christ. The church is here to provide opportunities to share God’s love.
We have three children’s names posted on our bulletin board today. This is an example of an opportunity to show your love of God. We have envelopes in the entrance for a special offering to the United Methodist Children’s homes, again another opportunity brought to you by YOUR church. It is now time for YOU, me and everyone else to get out of the loveless auto pilot habits of the same old Christmas and step into something different this year. Something different that will challenge us. Something different that we won’t have all the answers for but instead will give us an opportunity to step out in faith knowing that if we do, God will provide!
An invitation is extended to anyone that would like to rediscover the true meaning of Christmas. As our musicians and song leaders come forward I’d like to offer you an opportunity to search the bottomless depths of God true love today.