Christmas Faith For The Faithless
A decade ago, in 1987, I spent the summer studying at the Jerusalem Center for Biblical Studies in Israel. It was a thrilling thing for me to live and work and study in the land where our faith was born.
I remember one white-hot day that July when I decided to walk the six miles from Jerusalem down to Bethlehem. I wanted to have a little something of the experience Mary and Joseph must have had at the end of their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. I wanted to have an experience of Christmas, not in December, but in July. As I hiked alongside the Jerusalem-Bethlehem highway, I found myself humming the tune “I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked” and I sensed something of the impact that songwriter must have felt when he first penned those words.
I shall never forget rounding a bend in the road and seeing the little town of Bethlehem in the distance, set like a priceless jewel in the midst of the low hills undulating toward the horizon. Dotting those hillsides were bands of shepherds keeping watch over their flocks. It was a perfect picture for a Christmas card. I was deeply touched and inspired by the simple, serene splendor of that sight. With building anticipation, I then picked up the pace, eager to get to Bethlehem and the spiritual experience I was convinced would be waiting for me there. I must tell you though, that when I entered the little town of Bethlehem it was anything but “serene splendor.” It was a madhouse; uncontrolled chaos—loud music, gaudy signs, crass commercialism, peddlers hawking their souvenirs as if there were no tomorrow, people milling and pushing and shoving and begging, machine-gun-toting soldiers staring menacingly at the pressing crowd, tour directors warning their clients to watch out for pickpockets, policemen blowing whistles trying to direct an armada of tour buses in and out of the twisting, narrow streets. I found myself wanting to scream: “This is Bethlehem, not Bourbon Street! This is Bethlehem, not Time’s Square!” It was indeed Bethlehem, but the place was absolute bedlam. I came wanting Christmas, but what I found was confusion. I hoped for an inspiring touch of heaven. What I encountered was a depressing slice of hell. My heart sank. I felt let down, disappointed, disillusioned. Even the Church of the Nativity, built over the spot where Christ was born, was awash with hucksters selling trinkets and T-shirts, pictures and postcards. In that moment I wondered why I had bothered to make the journey to Bethlehem.
But then something happened to change all of that. As I and others were jammed into the subterranean space where the stable once stood and where we were gazing at the large silver star embedded in the ground to mark the spot where Jesus was bom, there was a little girl who looked to be about six or seven years old standing there with her mother. The mother was explaining that this was the place where Jesus was born on that first Christmas. Suddenly that little girl did a beautiful thing. She dropped to her knees, on the spot, bowed her head, and right out loud she said: “Thank you, God, for sending us Jesus. Amen.” In that moment I felt Christmas in my heart. Once again, Christmas had come through a little child. Bedlam had given way to Bethlehem. In that moment, I realized something we all need to think about: that child found faith in the midst of faithlessness. Christmas happens in the midst of confusion. God breaks through the bedlam of the human experience to make Himself known to us in Jesus Christ. It took a child to show me that. That little girl’s pure, open, honest, winsome faith brought Christmas into my heart! It can happen in December. It can happen in July. It can happen anytime, anywhere—even right here right now. Whenever and wherever we experience and accept in faith the love of God in Jesus Christ, then Christmas comes once again.
Here is the Good News of Christmas: God meets us where we are! He breaks into our chaos, our confusion, our bedlam, our business and makes Himself known as the King of kings, as the Light of the world, and as the gracious Lord who loves us, forgives us, cares for us and saves us. That little girl in the midst of the bedlam of Bethlehem had faith enough to understand that. My sermon today then has just one point: the best thing in life is not a thing—it is faith, faith in Jesus Christ.
Let me try to hammer that point home…
When we, like the shepherds, fall down in awe, wonder and commitment before the manger of God’s love, there is Christmas. When we, like the Wise Men of old, give our best to the Master, there is Christmas.
When we, like Mary and Joseph, trust God and do His will, there is Christmas. When we, like the little girl in the Church of the Nativity pray: “Thank you, God, for sending us Jesus”, there is Christmas.
Mark Trotter, a Methodist preacher out in San Diego, tells about an uncomfortable experience he had a few years ago. A certain man was a member of Trotter’s church, but the man was a member in name only. He never attended worship. Furthermore, he was a loud, boisterous, overbearing fellow, and on many occasions, he embarrassed Mark Trotter in public. Every time he saw Mark in crowded cafeterias, in busy hotel lobbies, in noisy sports arenas, in congested supermarkets, in quiet libraries, even in elegant restaurants, the man would rush over to Mark, clap him on the back and shout out: “Here comes the man of God! Look everybody, the man of God is here!” Now Mark Trotter is a bit shy and reserved and he hated that experience every time it happened. It’s not that Mark Trotter is ashamed of being a Christian or of being a minister—he isn’t. It’s just that this man’s obnoxious way of calling attention to Mark was very distressing. Then one day, after once again embarrassing Mark in public, the man spoke directly to him. He said: “So how is the man of God today?” Mark Trotter replied: “Just fine, thank you.” And then Mark added: “But let me ask you, whose man are you?” The boisterous man was struck silent. He didn’t know what to say. It is a good question, isn’t it? Whose man are you? Whose woman are you? Whose child are you? Whose disciple are you? There’s only one answer to that question that is right. There is only one way to put your life together and make it work—and that’s in faith through Jesus Christ.
I suspect that a parents’ worst nightmare on Christmas Eve is to encounter a box with these words emblazoned on the top: “Some assembly required.” I heard about a father who ordered a treehouse for his children one year. The time came on Christmas Eve to assemble the treehouse. He got out the instruction booklet and spread the parts out onto the floor of the garage. To his dismay, he found that the instructions were for a treehouse all right, but that the parts were for a sailboat. After Christmas, he sent an angry letter to that company about the mix-up. Back came this reply: “We are truly sorry for the error and inconvenience. However, it might help to remember that somewhere there’s a man out on a lake trying to sail your treehouse!”
The point is clear. To assemble something you have to have the right parts and the right instructions. That’s where faith comes in. The way to properly assemble your life and make it work is to root it in Jesus Christ through faith, to tie it to Jesus Christ, to ground it in Jesus Christ. The best known verse in the Bible is John 3:16, and it deserves to be the best known. It’s actually all we really need to know. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” When we accept God’s love and receive God’s only Son into our hearts and commit our life in faith to Him, then we gain the gift of true life, life here and life hereafter.
Let me speak plainly to parents and grandparents. Aunts and uncles and cousins, you need to hear this too. You can give your children a Princess Bear Beanie Baby or a Tommy Hilfiger sweater or Air Jordan or Air Penny athletic shoes or a snowboard trip to Colorado or a shiny, new sport utility vehicle if you want to. But let me tell you something. Those gifts don’t matter if you don’t give them the best gift of all—the gift of faith in Jesus Christ. If you want to do something good for your children, if you want to give them the gift that keeps on giving, then introduce them to Jesus Christ. Get them completely involved in His church. Show them how important your faith is in you. Help them to discover the power of the Christian faith for themselves. You can’t do anything better for them than that. Faith is the best thing there is in life—and it’s not even a thing!
By the way, Christmas is a great time for the telling of stories. In fact, last Christmas and this Christmas one of the things I have tried to do in my Christmas sermons is to share with you some of the heartwarming, faith-building stories, legends, and traditions surrounding Christmas so that you can share them with your children or with other people’s children. Today I want to send you into Christmas on the wings of one of my favorite little stories. It is called “The Gift of a Child”, and it was written by a man named M. A. Matthews. It goes like this:
“The day was frightfully, terribly, bitterly cold. Swirls of snow danced in the air. As I was looking out my living room window which faces our church, I noticed that workmen had just finished constructing the annual Nativity scene in the churchyard. Just about then the school bell rang and children headed home for the day. When they saw the Nativity scene, they gathered excitedly around the creche, but they didn’t stay long. It was far too cold for lingering. All of the children took a quick look at the manger scene and then hurried away—all of them, that is, except for one little girl who was about six years of age. The wind lashed about her legs and caused her coat to fly open, but she was oblivious to the weather. All of her attention was riveted on the clay figures before her. Which one? I couldn’t tell. Was it Mary? The shepherds? The Wise Men? The animals? I wondered. Then a beautiful and poignant moment occurred. Suddenly she removed her blue, woolen headscarf. The wind quickly knotted her hair into a wild tangle, but she didn’t seem to notice. She had only one thought. Lovingly, she took that scarf, leaned over into the manger and wrapped the scarf around the statue of the Baby Jesus. After she had secured the scarf, she patted the baby and then leaned down again and kissed the baby on the cheek. Satisfied and happy, she skipped on down the street, her hair frosted with tiny diamonds of ice. As I watched that I realized that suddenly Christmas had come again.”
I began today with one little girl kneeling before the star in the Church of the Nativity; I end with another little girl kissing the baby Jesus in her church’s Nativity scene. The lesson I learned from both little girls is the same: that no matter what chaos or coldness we may encounter, it is faith in Jesus Christ which makes sense of our world and which makes sense of your life and mine.
Merry Christmas, my beloved—Merry Christmas!