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Christmas Break

December 10, 2006

Luke 2:1-20

A little boy, only five years old, had a part in a Christmas pageant. He was to play the part of a wise man. His parents were thrilled. They were so proud of him. His one line was, “We are the wise men. We bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” His mother worked with him to be sure he could say all the words. On the night of the pageant, the child wore a bathrobe and a paper crown as his costume. When it was time for him to speak, he said, “We are the wise men. We bring gifts of gold, common sense, and fur.” I do not know where the fur comes in, but I do know how much we need common sense.

How do we find a common sense way to approach this season of the year? On Tuesday of this week, I talked with a young man who is a student in the Divinity School at Gardner-Webb University. He has only been a pastor for a few months. He told me, “I am so busy. I work all the time and must complete a lot of schoolwork. I need a break.” That same afternoon, I talked to a man who grows Christmas trees in the mountains of North Carolina. He told me about the stressful year he has had. He said, “The rain in the fall has been fine. Back in the summer when it was so hot, I thought I was going to lose many of my trees. Now, we are working twelve hours a day just to cut, load, and ship those trees. I need a rest.” Two people in the same day told me that during Christmastime they needed a break. That is probably true for most of us.

A young single mother is working very hard to rear and provide for her three children. She apparently gets little or no child support from her ex-husband. She said, “Christmas is such a busy time. I love celebrating the season with my children, but it just wears me out.” I have heard the same statement from a grandmother who has the primary care of her grandchildren. Schoolteachers are ready for a break, and so are the children. The parents might be ready for a break when school starts again in January. The truth is that the pace of this season creates a desire in all of us to relax.

While stopped at one of Spartanburg’s many railroad crossings, waiting for a very slow-moving freight train, I noticed a familiar sign: Stop. Look. Listen. If we are to get the most out of this season, we are to heed the instructions of the railroad sign.

Clare and I went to Nashville, Tennessee, on Wednesday of this past week. After driving through the Smokies, we stopped at Newport, Tennessee, to eat at one of our favorite restaurants, Cracker Barrel. I had begun the trip with a splitting headache, so when I finished lunch, I told Clare, “I am going outside to sit in one of those big rockers on the porch.” I sat down in a rocker, leaned back, closed my eyes, and rested my feet against a big post. I had just gotten settled in my chair when I heard a voice say, “That’s right, sir. An elderly gentleman like you needs to take a rest.” I really appreciate his calling me a “gentleman.” I opened my eyes and spoke to him. He came over, sat down in the chair next to me, and started witnessing to me, telling me the plan of salvation and the need to accept Christ as my Savior. I just listened to him. It was rather stimulating to hear someone tell me about the importance of acknowledging the lordship of Jesus in our lives. When he asked me if I had ever asked Jesus into my heart, I told him that I had done so as a child and that I believed with all of my heart that Jesus Christ is my Savior. He asked, “Are you sure? There cannot be any doubt about it.” I assured him that I am a Christian.

Once content that I was indeed a Christian, he asked me if I would like to contribute to his ministry. When I asked him what kind of ministry he has, he answered, “I do personal evangelism.” I knew that he did because that is what he had been doing with me. I then asked, “Are you connected with any kind of church?” He replied, “No, I just believe the Lord has called me to share the gospel with people as I encounter them.” I felt so convinced of his sincerity that I actually gave him a little money to help him with his ministry.

I had several options during my encounter with this man. I could have ended the conversation early by telling him I am a Baptist pastor and know the plan of salvation quite well, but I did not do that. I decided to allow him witness to me. Listening to another person telling me that Jesus is the most important aspect of this season was a refreshing experience. How many times do we see the words, “Jesus is the reason for the season”? We all know that we are supposed to keep Christ in Christmas. The problem we have during the Christmas season is our pace. We are just moving so fast.

We need to stop, look, and listen, paying attention to the wonders around us. We need to take the time to enjoy watching the birds eating at a birdfeeder. During our drive, Clare and I enjoyed seeing the light snow that had fallen in the Smokey Mountains. Those mountains are beautiful any time; but when dusted with snow, they are gorgeous. Riding through the Pigeon River Gorge and seeing snow on the rocks was lovely. Most of all, we need to pay attention to other people, to the people around us. We need to look them in the eye, hear their joy, and hear their sorrow. We need to understand that this season of celebration is not a “season to be jolly” for many people; it can be very difficult. If we have eyes to see, we will encounter people who need to hear a kind word, people who need to feel a tender touch, and people who need to know that we care about them.

We need to listen. There is so much to hear. Silence makes us very uncomfortable though. When we fall silent, we get a little edgy. Carols tell us of the importance of silence: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence.” They remind us “how silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.” In this season of the year, it is important to turn off the radio. It is important for us to turn off the television. We must stop, get still, be silent, and pay attention. I have told you before that I have difficulty when I try to enter into a time of silence. I have trouble turning off the noise in my own heart, the noise in my own mind. That internal noise interferes with my ability to be quiet before the Lord. If we are going to worship Jesus Christ during this season of the year, we must take the time to stop, look, and listen.

We have here on our Lord’s Supper Table a manger scene. You probably have one in your home, too. I want us to think just a minute about the Christmas break of the individuals in that manger scene. Mary’s break was imposed upon her. She did not choose to be pregnant out of wedlock, but she did have a choice about what type of attitude she would have. She, of course, submitted to God’s will in her life, declaring, “I am the Lord’s handmaiden.” Joseph, on the other hand, had several choices. He could have quietly left her behind and not taken her as his betrothed wife. Joseph was convinced, however, that he should take Mary as his wife and that this child was, indeed, a child of God. Joseph’s life included a break because he made a decision to accept that interruption. The shepherds, minding their own business on a hillside, were startled. I like the way Fredrick Buechner words the appearance of the angels: “All heaven broke loose.” Seeing what God had done interrupted their lives. The wise men, on the other hand, had a real sense of guidance. They felt the star, divine guidance, was leading them to the child.

Yesterday during the funeral service here for Hugh Eberhart, I said to Agnes and her family, “For you, Christmas now comes at a time of grief.” My family had a Christmas with fresh grief. Some of you are going through that experience right now. Grief at Christmastime does not have to rob you of your joy. A wonderful line appears in Philip Brooks’ carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” He says that the hopes and fears of all the years meet at Christmastime. Think about that statement. Think about the people in this manger scene. Every single one of them started their journey to Bethlehem in fear. The first statement the angel made to Mary was, “Don’t be afraid.” The angel told Joseph, “Fear not.” The shepherds on a hillside, we are told, were “sore afraid,” scared to death, until the angel assured them, “Fear not, I bring you good tidings of great joy.” The wise men, once they discovered Herod’s plans, were also afraid. Every single person in the manger scene allowed their hope to prevail over their fear. They came to worship. We need to do the same.

We have a custom at our home of displaying manger scenes. We used to keep the fragile displays out of the reach of children. My daughter Betsy has often said, “A manger scene is meant to be handled, touched.” When our children were younger, we displayed a rather cheap manger scene on our coffee table year after year so that they could play with the plastic figures.

One Christmas, I came down early in the morning and saw, lined up next to the shepherds and wise men, many Fisher-Price figures. Firefighters, police officers, paramedics, and construction workers surrounded the manger scene. I thought, “That’s appropriate. Everyone ought to come to the manger.” Another year, I thought I was in some sort of a time warp. As if from a galaxy far away, Star Wars figures had come to Bethlehem. My children had surrounded the manger with Luke Skywalker, Hans Solo, Chewbacca, and OB-1 Kenobi. I thought, “Anybody can follow the star.”

I will never forget the morning I came downstairs and found G. I. Joe and his buddies in the stable’s perimeter, facing out with their guns aimed. One of my sons explained, “Dad, Herod wants to hurt Baby Jesus. G. I. Joe and his buddies are not going to let him do it.” The army figures stayed that way all day, guarding the Baby Jesus. I sat alone on our couch that night, looking at that manger scene, and thought, “I suppose we do need to protect Jesus from anything that would displace him from Christmas, anything that might assault his lordship; but we must do something much greater than just protect Jesus.” In an act of unilateral disarmament, I removed all the soldiers’ weapons and turned the faces toward the manger. I bent those little pliable knees so that the soldiers could kneel beside the shepherds and wise men. Of all the things we need to do, we need to come to the manger. We must stoop and look into the face of that baby. He is the spitting image of his Father. He is God Incarnate.

A single mother, struggling to rear her children, needs to come to the manger. Schoolteachers and schoolchildren, a young pastor who feels beleaguered, and a man who grows Christmas trees need to come to the manger. A woman who wonders if her business is going to succeed past the holidays, a weary physician, all of us, in fact, need to come to the manger. “O come, all ye faithful…come, come to Bethlehem… O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”

Have you acknowledged Jesus Christ as your Savior? If you have never done that, we extend to you an invitation to accept him and make him Lord of your life. Perhaps you have another decision to make, a decision regarding church membership. You know what God has laid on your heart. We invite you, in the name of Christ, to respond as we sing together a hymn of invitation, “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne.”

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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