As the year winds to an end, it is natural for us to want to look back and remember what happened. We think about the people in our lives and the gift of love they are to us. We may review what we were able to accomplish and evaluate whether we worked to the best of our abilities. We will feel regret over the mistakes we have made, the people we have let down, and resolve to do better in the coming year.
It is also natural during the Christmas season with all the festivities to take a broader view of our lives. How is it that we are blessed with so many beautiful people who love us despite our weaknesses and faults? How is it that despite all the bad choices we have made, good things still happen to us? Why are we so blessed?
We might be tempted to attribute everything that is good about our lives to ourselves and our own efforts. But if we are honest, we would have to admit that it is only part of the story. We had no say in when or where we would be born and what talents we would possess. They were a pure gift given to us along with which parents we would be born to. If we are honest, we would have to admit that all that we are and all that we have accomplished is a pure gift from an all-loving God.
This God is not just sitting on some throne in heaven light years away from us. He is not a disinterested observer of what goes on here on Earth. He did not just wind us up and then sit back to see what would happen. Not at all. God is here among us. While respectful of our free will, He whispers into our heart words of encouragement, guidance and challenge. He brings people in and out of our lives to give us joy and to teach us how to love. At every moment, He is by our side. Any joy we have experienced in life, any consolation, any peace has come because He has led us to places of refreshment.
This is what our yearly celebration of Christmas is really all about. The all-powerful God came to live among us. In Jesus, the baby born in Bethlehem, God becomes man. He learns from the inside out what it means to be human. He shares our joys and sorrows, our victories and defeats, our pleasures and pains. The birth of Jesus on Christmas day reveals to us a God who is not warming a bench on the sidelines watching the game from a distance but who is in the thick of the struggle with each and every one of us.
At this point, it is natural for us to ask, “What about the difficult times of our lives? What about the times when we lost loved ones tragically or when we suffered illness? If we give God credit for all that is good in our lives, should we not also blame Him for what is bad?” This is the mystery of human suffering. How is it that an all-loving and all-powerful God can allow so much bone-crushing pain and misery?
That is not something we can answer in a ten-minute sermon or really ever hope to understand in a lifetime of searching. What we can say is that God is with us in our suffering, carrying our cross with us every step of the way.
We see it in the baby whose birth we celebrate this day. He was born homeless in a stable. During the first years of His life, He lived as a refugee in Egypt because King Herod wanted to put Him to death. Most of His life He eked out a living as a laborer in Nazareth. He knew what it was like to get paid less than He deserved or to not get paid at all. He knew what it was to go hungry and to wonder how He would be able to support Himself. Whatever we have experienced, He has also experienced.
Therefore, on this Christmas night, as we reflect on our lives, God makes an offer to us. If our lives are not all we hoped they could be, we can turn to Him to find new purpose and meaning. If we are bent over with pain and grief, struggling to shoulder our cross, we can turn to Him for consolation and relief. If we are confused, not sure of what direction we should head in, we can turn to Him for guidance and inspiration.
There is a reason God appeared among us as a baby. He wanted us to approach Him without fear. He did not want to impress or intimidate us. He did not come to judge and condemn us. He came so that we could love Him. He came so that we would not be afraid to turn to Him in our need. That is really all He asks - that we stop trying to find fulfillment and purpose in earthly things that can never satisfy our longing hearts and look to Him for everything we need.
What He asks of us this night is that we gather around Him not out of a sense of tradition or obligation, but out of love - love for the God who became Man so that we could know and love Him in return. Love for the God who brings joy into our lives and strength to bear our burdens. Love for the God who became poor so that we might become rich.