Walking With Us In Love
Familiarity breeds complacency.
When William O’Dwyer was serving as the mayor of New York City, he frequently welcomed distinguished visitors to that place. On one occasion he greeted two dignitaries from South America. He asked them how long they would be staying in New York. The first man said that he would be there two weeks. “That’s good,” said the mayor, “you will see a lot.” The second man then stated that he would be in New York for a year, whereupon Mayor O’Dwyer frowned and said: “You probably will not see very much at all.” The mayor was simply making the point that familiarity breeds complacency—it tends to blunt our perceptions.
We need to remember that today, because the truth is that we know the Christmas story so well that we may miss what Christmas is all about. We have become so familiar with every trifling detail of the story that sometimes we miss the essence of it. Today then, I want us to zero in on the real heart, the real essence of Christmas. Mind you, I don’t want to argue about it. This is not the time or the place for an argument. Instead, it’s the time and place for an announcement. I don’t want to debate it; I simply want to declare it. The real meaning of Christmas is not just the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, but also the birth of Jesus in your heart and in mine.
When Christ is born in our hearts, then we know that the love of God is the most powerful thing in life.
I know that it seems absurd to talk about love when bombs are raining down upon Iraq and stones are being thrown at Israel and shots are being fired in Korea. And it seems absurd to talk about love when our own national debate has turned acrid, acerbic and antagonistic. It seems absurd to talk about love when we know that there is even more evil hidden from public view—that vice which still parades as virtue, those insinuations which are not yet indictments, that gossip which has not yet begun to burn and crush. Yes, when we think of the hidden evil in our world, it is not very conducive to thoughts of love. But make it more personal still. Look at what is down inside of you and me, if we dare. I came across a letter written by a little boy to Santa before Christmas. It read like this: “Dear Santa: There are three little boys at our house. Jeff is two and he is good part of the time. Philip is four and he is good some of the time. Norman is six and he is good all of the time. I am Norman.” Well, we would all like to write a letter like that, but if we are honest, we know that it is not true. We know that if Jesus shines His light into the deepest corners of our hearts, He will find those things of which we are ashamed.
The comedian, Groucho Marx, once was invited to join an exclusive club, but he replied: “I wouldn’t join any club that would have a member like me!” We all belong to that club. The words of the Christmas carol ring true: “The hopes and fears of all the years” are met in us right now. So we look at the ugliness in the world, both that which is obvious and that which is hidden, and we look at that of which we are ashamed in ourselves—and in the face of all that we wonder, what could be more powerful than all of the world’s wrongness? Love. The love of God in Jesus Christ.
You see, the wrongness of the world was just as visible and violent that Christmas as it is this Christmas. There were the cruelly oppressive political machinations of the Roman Caesar. There was the power-mad craziness of King Herod. There was the spilling of innocent blood among the baby boys of Bethlehem. There was the near-paralyzing fear of the Holy Family as they ran for their lives across the desert into Egypt. There was the complacency, the apathy of so many people who could not have cared less about the birth of a baby in Bethlehem. And yet the love of that baby remains the single most shaping and transforming influence in our world. Love. The love of God in Jesus Christ.
When Toyohiko Kagawa, the great saint of Japan was still in his pagan life, he became seriously ill physically. In his room, alone, he heard a knock at the door. He cried out: “Do not come in for I have a contagious disease.” The immediate response was: “I am coming in anyway, for I bring the love of Christ, and it is more contagious than any disease.” That sentence won Kagawa to Christ, and Kagawa changed Japan. The contagion of the love of God in Jesus Christ, that love that came down at Christmas, continues to move out across this world, greater than any wrongness the world has ever known. That love, Christ’s love, is the most powerful thing in the world.
And when Christ is born in our hearts, we know that the love of God is the most personal thing in life.
I read about an older woman who lived in a retirement home. Every Sunday her daughter would come to see her. The woman would always be waiting on the porch. One day, it occurred to the daughter that her mother had no calendar and that her mind had become sufficiently confused to be unable to keep up with the days. The daughter finally asked her how she knew to be on the porch just that day each week. The mother replied: “I wait for you on the porch every day.” Dear friends, that’s a group picture, and we are all in it. We all go out onto the porch of our experience longing for someone who will love us and whom we can love in return. Furthermore, we long for an experience with God which is so deeply personal that we will know Him in our hearts and be known by Him in His. Yes, we long to love and to be loved.
To be sure, there are those who declare that the love of God is so great and grand and glorious that it is completely beyond our understanding and equally beyond our experience. I don’t buy that for a moment. When I go out onto the porch of my experience, longing to know the love of God, I soon discover that I find in the love of my wife and family that which teaches me about the love of God. The love I feel for my children speaks to me of the love of my Father in heaven. That’s why I rejoice when the Bible says: “Like as a father loves his children, so the Lord loves those who worship Him.” That’s why my heart sings when the Bible says: “God loved us and gave Himself for us.”
That’s why you’re here today. That’s why I’m here too. Not because of the calendar. Not because of some sense of obligation. Not because of social pressure. We are here because we want love. We are here because we want Jesus Christ to come down this Christmas and fill us with love and transform us into something more wonderful than we ever dreamed we could be. That’s what Christmas really is all about. Our great sovereign, transcendent, all-powerful God comes to us personally to live with us and to live in us; to love us and to let us love Him. The hinge on the stable door in Bethlehem is the hinge on the entrance to our hearts—and it is those people who are truly wise who open the door. They understand that the love that came down at Christmas is the most personal thing in the world.
Well, you know that I believe that Christmas is a time for stories, and I think that all I am trying to say today is captured in a story given to me by Kristin Gautsch …
It seems that there was a widowed father who had an only son. The two of them shared a great love for each other and also a great love for the world of fine art. The two of them became accomplished art collectors, securing priceless pieces by artists like Picasso, Van Gogh, Monet and many others. The valuable paintings adorned the walls of the family estate. Then war engulfed the world. Eventually the United States was drawn into the conflict and the young man was called up to serve his country. There came a day when the father received the telegram that any parent with a child in combat dreads receiving. His son had been killed while rushing a wounded soldier to a medic.
The older man was devastated. The light had gone out of his life. Distraught and lonely, he faced the upcoming Christmas holiday with anguish and sadness. He and his son had always loved Christmas, but now the joy of the season would visit his house no longer. Even the glorious masterpieces now left him cold—they simply reminded him that his son was not coming home.
On Christmas morning, the depressed old man was awakened by a knock at the door. When he opened the door, he was greeted by a soldier carrying a large package in his hand. The soldier introduced himself and then said: “I was a friend of your son’s. In fact, I was the one he was rescuing when he died. May I come in for a few minutes?” The old man mumbled a response and motioned him in. The soldier began to recount stories of the man’s son—stories of how the young man had rescued dozens of wounded soldiers before a bullet had stilled his caring heart. As the old man listened to these accounts of his son’s gallantry, he felt just a slight easing of the pain of his grief.
Then the soldier said: “Your son and I hit it off so well because I am an artist, and I want to give you this.” He handed the package to the old man. As he pulled the wrapping paper away, there he saw a portrait of his son. Though the world would never consider it the work of a genius, the painting did capture his son’s face in startling detail. Overcome with emotion, he thanked the soldier and promised to hang the painting above the fireplace. True to his word, the painting went above the fireplace, pushing aside paintings worth a fortune. Then the old man sat down in his chair and spent the rest of Christmas gazing at the gift he had been given. That painting of his son soon became his most prized possession, eclipsing the other pieces in his possession for which museums around the world clamored. He told people that it was the greatest gift he had ever received.
The following spring the old man became ill and within a short period of time he died. According to his will, the old man decreed that all of the artworks in his possession were to be auctioned off on the next Christmas Day, the day he had received his greatest gift. The art world buzzed in anticipation, and on Christmas, art collectors and museum curators from around the world gathered to bid on some of the world’s most spectacular paintings. The auction began with a painting that was not on any collector’s list. It was the painting of the man’s son. The auctioneer asked for an opening bid. The room was silent. “Who will open the bidding at $100?” asked the auctioneer. No one spoke. Finally, from the back of the room someone spoke out: “Forget that painting. It’s just a painting of his son. Get on with the good stuff.” More voices echoed in agreement. The auctioneer said: “No, we are required by the terms of the will to sell this one first. Now, who will take the son?” Still no one spoke.
Finally, a friend of the old man said: “Look, all I’ve got is ten dollars, but I knew the boy and so I’d like to have the painting. I bid ten dollars.” The auctioneer called: “Will anyone go higher?” Silence. “Going once. Going twice. Gone.” The gavel fell. Cheers filled the room. Someone cried: “Now we can go on to the real treasures.” The auctioneer said: “The auction is over.” Stunned disbelief swept through the room. Then someone jumped up and said: “What do you mean it’s over? We didn’t come here for a painting of some old guy’s son. There are millions of dollars of art treasures here. How can the auction be over?” The auctioneer replied: “It’s very simple. According to the will of the father, whoever takes the son gets it all!”
My beloved, that’s the message of Christmas. There was a father whose greatest joy came from His Son—a Son who went away and gave His life rescuing others. And because of that Father’s love, whoever takes the Son gets it all …