God is here for us

art 08Dale Carnegie, the great self-improvement author of more than a half-century ago, claimed you can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you. That’s good advice for the church, too. I think it even works with God.

The good news of Christmas is that God is interested in us. We no longer need to hope God notices our plight, answers our prayers, and eventually comes to our help. God’s Christmas message to us, wrapped up in the story of Jesus’ birth, is that the day we’ve been waiting for has arrived. The restoration of our relationship with God is accomplished. Heaven is at our doorstep, and all we have to do is open the door.

Opening the door, it turns out, is the hard part. Remembering the birth stories of Jesus gives us a warm feeling as we look back nostalgically. It’s easy to look forward in hope to a time in the future when life will be right. To truly hear the Christmas message and open the door today to the fulfillment of our hopes is difficult.

It’s difficult, I think, because then we’ve got to come to terms with the possibility that what has been fulfilled is not exactly what we expected. Because we might have to recognize that our favorite dreams are merely illusions, and we have to make room in our thinking for something we’re not prepared for.

That includes me as a pastor and preacher, one whose profession is to interpret and apply God’s word. What my years of training and study have taught me to expect may be nothing at all like what swoops out of heaven to stare me in the face on Christmas. I’ve got to open the door onto God’s Incarnation – all of us have to open that door – without being certain what’s on the other side. And that can be a frightening prospect.

It’s no wonder the first thing the angel said to the shepherds and says to all of us is, “Do not be afraid.” What’s on the other side of the door between here and eternity is a manifestation of love that transcends anything we’ve known, and that indeed is “good news of great joy for all the people.” The only thing we need to do to hear it is open the door.

That’s what one church in Manhattan did. They opened their doors to complete strangers, and members and friends of the church paid $100 each to have dinner with the homeless. Catered by The New York Palace and The Waldorf-Astoria hotels, diners enjoyed a fine candlelit meal served by formally dressed waiters to the accompaniment of live piano and saxophone. Here’s how the story was told in one report:

 

One noteworthy guest, sportswriter Peter King, sat with a man who’s been homeless for ten years. At one point, while eating his fourth piece of turkey, the man announced, “Tonight, I’m not homeless.” What a moment—a beautiful glimpse into the power of fellowship in a setting of equality and dignity! With nearly five hundred patrons, the meal brought a bit of heaven to earth. “Artie Stone, 58, another guest, said: ‘The idea of well-to-do and struggling people side-by-side is like having the lion and the lamb lay down together.’” Indeed, experiencing this event must have brought the kind of joy that is a gift from our Creator. (Ministry Matters, 23 December 2014)

 

That’s seldom what we experience when we encounter the poor. Often when we meet the needy, we feel caught off-guard and find it easier to turn and look the other way, as if the person doesn’t exist. Christmas invites us to respond differently. In Christ’s coming, God asks us to love our neighbor and care for the poor, the stranger, and those in need. Just imagine what it would be like if you knew the names of most of the poor living in your area. What a joy to be able to engage in conversation, to offer friendship simply through the dignity of acknowledgement, and possibly even pray for one another, remembering that we all are equal in God’s eyes, and that we all have a place at God’s table.

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