Emmitsburg Council of Churches


"Where Are You"...with Christmas?

I would like to begin this Christmas devotional by posing a question that will provide a starting place for preparing ourselves for Christmas. The question is certainly not a new inquiry, it is anything but original, for it comes from none other than God–God's self! To be precise, we know this question all too well. From the book of Genesis we find it in the third chapter, after Adam and Eve have disobeyed God's command not to eat the fruit of the tree of life (Gen 3:5), the Lord asks Adam, "Where are you?" Sounds like an innocent and simple enough question doesn't it? However, if God or someone else were to ask you, "Where are you with Christmas?" this would not necessarily be a short question to answer.

The original question, "Where are you?" allows that one need only identify where they are regarding a particular geographical location relative to the position of the inquisitor, however, upon further examination the question can solicit a deeper response. There is more required of Adam and Eve to explain in terms of what they have learned about themselves and the state of their relationship with God after their act of disobedience. New questions could arise such as where have you been? and/or what have you done? Here is the place where God's simple question begins to have an effect upon the man, Adam, and his wife, Eve. In actuality, the scripture only has Adam answering to God, but from the story, we know the original couple are implicated together when they hear the Lord's voice calling to them in the garden, and it seems to me Adam is not at ease in answering the Lord as he replies, "I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself" (Gen 3:10). I hope you are not having this much trouble contemplating where you are with Christmas! But if you are thinking deeply, which is my purpose here, then perhaps you also will become more deeply involved with the significance of the babe born in Bethlehem, the child of the Most High, born of Mary, who is Christ the Lord.

Contemplating one's position or place of reference with regard to the question, "Where are you with Christmas," entails that we think about our position with Christmas in a number of differing aspects. Most of us will acknowledge that Christmas is a religious holiday that takes place in a wider culture, a culture that, for us in America, is driven by a system of values relating to how much material goods one can gain for themselves. Returning to the original setting of Adam and Eve finds them hiding from God, the Creator, behind some trees and shrubs. Re-examining or re-positioning the Original Story to our place and time finds us hiding beneath too much stuff! Lest you think I'm being self righteous or anything near resembling superiority in this matter, please understand that I have a lot of stuff too and am a full-fledged participant in the material culture, though I have thought on this deeply and do my best to justify my stuff. . . . best get back to our premise . . . Where are you with Christmas!

Thinking more critically about where we are with Christmas gives rise to additional considerations. I think that some categories may serve to continue the discovery and mapping of our position. Let's try thinking more deeply on the question with relevance to: Emotions, Spirituality, and Expectation. I thought to list emotions first, because for a majority of American families, Christmas finds us gathered with family and friends and by the very nature of gathering with familiar and persons we like to be with, we find ourselves filled with feelings of safety, security, or a sense of well being. To remain with our guiding question,"Where are you with Christmas," it seems safe to say that, the idea of Christmas places one in the realm of comfort. We are comfortable with Christmas in our culture because it invokes an idea about goodness. There's something fundamentally good or kind about a holiday wherein the central premise is celebration by gift giving, which, for better or for worse, has become the secularized agenda of the day. The presence of presents has a tendency to dominate our emotional connection with Christmas. This is not intrinsically a bad thing, to the contrary, there is a good feeling to be had in both giving and receiving and, legitimately within the Christian faith we can connect our gift giving with God's gift giving in that Christ is God's gift of himself to the world and this is certainly exemplary for us. Certainly the attributes of positive emotion that one may experience at the time and place of Christmas, even if only in a materialistic benefit, is a place where it makes perfect sense for us to want to be. On the other hand, we also know that some persons are sad in the place of Christmas, because they don't have family or friends to surround and to cheer. One who is alone during any holiday may realize that he or she cannot feel joyful as a single person. Here is an important connection for us to note. God was feeling lonely when he looked for and did not readily find his friends Adam and Eve. "They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?'"(Genesis 3:8-9). Does this resonate for you? Where are you with Christmas?

Sometimes due to human problems and circumstances beyond our immediate control, the place of Christmas can be a lonely and a desolate place in our homes. In this we do well to remember that God calls to us, not to condemn us but because God longs to be in relationship with us. The desire of God is to be with all people – this is the ideal place where we want to find ourselves emotionally connected with Christmas. Wherever your emotional place is–don't be afraid to answer God's call and step into the reality of the Christmas story–it's not about bows and wrappings unless the wrappings are the swaddling clothes of the baby Jesus. One of the names of Jesus is Emmanuel, which means, God is with us and this is a strong emotional connection we can have with God at Christmas.

Contemplating our place in the Spirituality of Christmas entails a distinct link to Christmas' connections with what we believe about God. There are any number of mysteries within the Christmas narratives that can capture our attention. I suppose Christ's virgin birth may be one of the most interesting questions we want to know more about. But even if you feel doubtful about this part of the Christmas story or some other part of the Bible, I would suggest that you lay your skepticism aside and allow the Gospel's presentation to speak on its own–the story about God as God enters into the world of humanity is told for our benefit. The story of the Savior's birth is not made up according to the designs of men, unless we focus on the presence of jealousy and treachery exemplified by Herod's paranoia. But God's ways dominate the story, there is a Savior that has come into the world who is Christ the Lord, concieved of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary and in the plot to destroy the Savior God continues to protect the plan of salvation. We learn this as Joseph obeys the Angel's voice in a dream, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him" (Matt 2:13b).

When we want to explore our spiritual nature we need to allow that it may not fit with our scientific brain. One might do well to acknowledge that certain things are not possible based on reason and experience, but with God, all things are possible. And if we are to come out of our hiding place into the presence of God's mysteries, we need to lower our defensive shields enough to allow God's presence to come in–this is the beginning of realizing that we ourselves are more than just bodily existence and mindful intelligence. Not that we deny these powers we possess, in fact, we are encouraged to utilize these faculties to the utmost. Recall again from Genesis that God asks Adam, "Were are you?" and "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?" (Genesis 3:11). It is critical that we not neglect our reasoning faculties while entering into the spiritual world, but it is also important to recognize that we are each made up of something more than our intellect. Every person has a soul, though not all of us have awakened to this fact of our existence. Some might use the language of re-birth, or that we must be "born again." I would like to suggest that part of being born again is the realization that you are a unique being, a character whom God has authored, but that you alone have control of. Even as a person finds new meaning in the privilege of their individual existence, so there is a subsequent realization that God exists. This could even be realized from a conception of parallels: God has come seeking me and I am seeking God. Something congruent is at work. I was lost and God is finding me. As I realizing my own state of being then I am finding God. Such exercise and questions can surely play a part in locating our spiritual self. The message of Christ's birth is a simple answer to our complex problems. "For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6).

I think the spiritual connection with Christmas can best be realized when we get in touch with the idea that God felt the world and all people were worth saving and God wanted to make the connection happen between himself and his creation. We catch a glimpse of this message when we pay close attention to the proclamation of the angels to the shepherds. The angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord" (Like 2:10-11). Do you hear the good news presented here? Rather than get tangled up in technical questions, one can do well by God to place one's-self within the narrative. Imagine yourself being one of these shepherds. Keep in mind there's no such thing as electric lights! Can you see the vastness of a starry sky uninhibited by modern day light pollution? Can you place yourself in shepherd's garb and see yourself quietly walking with sheep through the night, alert for possible danger, but also very relaxed with only thoughts of your faith in God, your love of spouse and children? Then into your simple but beautiful life an angel of God appears and the glory of the Lord flashes around your grazing flocks of sheep and you are terrified!

We might label such an experience a spiritual awakening. But for the shepherds, it was a revelation – a God thing was happening to them and for them. Once again, God had acted first, like the primary mover in most spiritual programs and theories, God sent the angel messenger to tell the humble shepherds about the birth of the Messiah–the Savior of the world. Where are you with Christmas from a spiritual point of view? Does this story stir your imagination? Could it really be possible that God would care enough about simple shepherds with no college degree, no citizenship papers and no particular standing in society (other than that they were considered to be at the bottom of the cast system of their day), if God sent the heavenly messenger to the shepherds he surely meant for you and I to receive the message about Christ's birth–God incarnated in a human baby boy.

At this point I hope you will read or listen to the Christmas story from one or several of the Gospel narratives, especially Luke or Matthew will be most helpful. Our need of a Savior, Christ the Messiah, could take us in an entirely overwhelming set of directions, however, we can also find a quick answer back with Adam and Eve in the garden. They realized something went wrong as soon as they ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And though the tree itself was not a bad thing, the thing they had done was against God's command, and so there was a breaking of the trust or a riff in their relationship with God. We note that they had sewed fig leaves together in order to hide their nakedness. Again, there's a theme here in that we too often seek to hide ourselves from God and in a general sense, nakedness aside, we often hide ourselves from one another. We hide from God and each other often because we are angry, embarrassed at our own actions or frustrated with our lives–where do you suppose this leaves us with God?

The angel told the shepherds, "fear not, I've got great news, God is sending the Savior, he'll be born in the City where your beloved King David was born, this child is destined to be the one who will deliver you from hopelessness" (my own translation). What about our spiritual connections with the Christmas story? Could it really be true that God cares about all people? Does "all" include you or me individually? And, oh yea, if the message really is for "all people" . . . does that mean we have to relate to other people who believe the angel's message? All I can answer is read the story, the shepherds did not waste a lot of time, they obeyed the angel's message and they went to check out the baby! God has come into the world through Christ in order to find us. Let us now consider the final avenue proposed in our guiding question, "Where are you with your expectations of Christmas?" Does the story make a difference in your life? Does Christ's birth make a difference in world history? Does the Messiah's appearing change the ways that men and women relate to one another – or how nations cooperate or retaliate in these progressive days we live in? Maybe, maybe not . . ., I think it all depends on where we place our expectations. If we have a strong expectation that Christ works in tangible ways to save us from the original alienation from God then it is reasonable to believe that God's presence with us, by Christ's birth into the world makes all the difference. On the other hand, if we don't expect that a Messiah can cause a lasting significant change in the world, then our expectations are set too low . . . and low life expectancy will certainly not change the way we're prone to think and act.

Lacking belief in God's presence with us, it stands to reason that negative things will remain as they are–neither justice nor mercy would be active without expectancy. Without the expectancy of a Savior, and the resulting salvation he will bring to pass, we are destined to think and act from the limited place of our knowledge of good and evil. Without higher moral reasoning, we're prone to destroying those whom we perceive as different from or inferior to ourselves. We're prone to feel entitled to things that make our way of life comfortable, worse yet, we're prone to think we deserve to have and own certain property because we have the power of death at our disposal. If you won't give me what I want, I have the ultimate weapons of motivation to make you give me what I want. Greed has a way of robbing us of our spirit. For it is in our spiritual connections that we can find our most human attributes and expectancy is the result of an informed spiritual life. God intended that Christ's birth would awaken the world to it's need of the Savior. Frankly, the way of the world is, as the Bible puts it, sin and death, where as the way of the Spirit (that is found to be at work in the life of a Christian) is life and peace. To put it more succinctly, as Paul states in Romans 8:6 "To set the mind on the flesh (our old nature) is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit (our new nature found in the Messiah, Jesus) is life and peace."

We can have increasingly higher expectations about what God can do in and through us as we seek a greater understanding of our place with God in light of the Christmas story. Of course, we must follow the Christmas story beyond its annunciation that the Savior is born, we must go on to read and learn how Jesus fulfills this salvation plan and we must embrace the holistic nature of God's desire to abide with us in every area of life – not just in the after life. This is probably the greatest stumbling block for Christians at Christmas. We have a tendency to book-end our faith. We celebrate the birth of Christ with great joy. The innocence of the story may or may not cause us to ask, "how much could a baby boy do to cause me to shift my thinking or behavior?" Let alone, that our culture has corrupted Christmas to only be manifested in forms of commercialism. Then when Christmas is over, we're back to salvation of our souls, so that we can get to heaven when we die. Surely you know the Christ child was not born just to save you from eternal hell? But God came into the world by his Son to save us from a brutal selfish existence here on earth! This is where God invites us to come out from behind our wrappings and stand completely vulnerable and exposed to God and to the world. Perhaps as Adam and Eve were tempted to turn and run further into the trees of Eden, perhaps they wanted to go and consult the snake for further instructions. Fortunately, they did not do either of these possible courses of action but chose instead to speak with God from behind the bush . . . and then God went and got them some acceptable coverings. God provided what Satan had taken away. God's loving action and sacrifice enabled what was necessary for restoration of relationship. Covering for what had been exposed. The Christ child comes in the place of Christmas to healing our lost relationship and to repair that which was broken.

Finding our place with God and one another is the real story about Christmas. It is not too difficult to grasp. Just ask God, "Where are you?" and be sure to listen closely for his reply . . . . May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, born on Christmas Day be the Place where you find the greatest fulfillment and may you be filled to overflowing with God's love, joy and peace. Now and forever. Amen

Elias' Candle Light Christmas Eve service, begins at 7:30 p.m. on December 24th. All are invited to attend.

Read more writings of Pastor Jon