See the Face of Jesus and the Heart of God
Our December Encourager articles were supposed to be about the accomplishments of the Mid-South District this year. Let me list them: Generation to Generation is being launched; we’re doing re-plants of congregations with the assistance of the Center for US Mission; we’ve made arrangements for training more lay workers for our congregations with the Concordia University system; we’ve celebrated the 50th anniversary of the District and the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation with phenomenal events; we celebrate receiving dozens of new church workers and filling six of our six requests for pastoral candidates from the seminary; we’ve welcomed a new congregation to the Mid-South family (Beautiful Savior, Olive Branch, MS), offered Quick-Book assistance and Financial Peace University to all congregations and members; launched “Funding the Ministry” that has raised over $1.5 million for new ministry initiatives; four new church planting efforts; eight visits by Dr. Mark Wood to the District explaining Each 1- Reach 1 and Everyone His Witness; four separate times the Rural and Small Town Ministry has brought ideas on strengthening our smaller congregations; we are preparing twenty-two men for a first-ever transition in the Synod from deacons to ordained pastors; we’ve expanded our C.A.R. project, extending our COMPASS resources to more than two dozen congregations. That’s quite a list.
What’s this all about?
As I went looking for Christmas gifts last year, I was in line at one of the department store, where a woman, with arms overflowing with bulky packages about three people ahead of me, started to complain to anyone who’d listen to her. She snarled and said, “I tell you, I just can’t stand this frantic mess. There’s ornery people everywhere! Whoever came up with this holiday should have been tarred and feathered.” The man in front of me turned to me and whispered loud enough for her to hear, “They’ve already taken care of that when they hung Him on a cross.” Christmas is more than parties and decorations. Christmas means more than a gifts or plastic Christmas trees. We hear commercials saying Christmas is about family and loving friends… kindness, peace and charity… about loving and giving to others, being kind to others around us. But, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do all the time – not just at Christmas? It must be that one time when we really try to find life’s real meaning or search for real joy. It’s supposed to be when we make an effort to look into the heart of God. “Maybe this is the year,” people say.
But, is that Christmas? Think about the world at the time of Jesus: Imagine what Mary saw. Look at the dusty roads between Nazareth and Bethlehem filled with grumpy travelers, dusty roads packed with folks going to their hometowns to be taxed by Rome. They weren’t any happier than the woman in the line with me last year. Mary was one of the travelers. In fact, so many people went to Bethlehem that Mary and Joseph didn’t find a place to sleep. So, like most men, Joseph didn’t ask for directions. He’s like many of us today who was certain there was a room at the nearest Super 8. He and Mary had to make do at the Bethlehem Holiday Inn’s parking garage (stable). That’s where Mary gave birth to her firstborn Son. She didn’t plan it that way, but that was the way God saw fit to fulfill another of the many prophecies about the Savior. No one really noticed. It’s not that people weren’t interested in God. It’s just that a poor couple having a baby in a barn didn’t seem to have much to do with God.
Has the world really changed much since then? It’s still a busy place. Most folks would want to tar and feather the guy who came up with this holiday. But, does that mean they’re not interested in God? No – not really. Deep down, most folks want to look into the Baby’s eyes and find the heart of God. We speculate, try to figure out, and try to unwrap the mysteries of God in our minds. Interest in spirituality is growing. It’s never been higher. Go to “Books A Million” and you’ll find several rows of books on spirituality. If last year’s trendiest book on spirituality was too confusing, this year it’s been replaced by another Hollywood diva’s attempt to discover the “inner self.” Christmas shows on TV are nice and heart-warming, but they don’t give us a good look at the heart of God. No matter how busy we are, we’d love to be “Touched by an Angel,” see the Grinch become loving, or have a face to face visit with God. Maybe that’s why Christmas leaves some people a little down in the dumps… disappointed… looking for God. Our souls aren’t at rest until they find their peace with God. But books on spirituality and TV shows won’t do it. Society may be looking for God, but won’t find Him in the places where society has stuffed Him.
Take a trip to another time and place. Stand inside a stable – next to a young woman named Mary. See what she sees. What is it? Straw? A contented cow chewing its cud? A donkey or maybe a few sheep? Yes, those things are there, but Mary sees a Baby. She recalls God’s promise given to her by an angel. She remembers the things she and Joseph talked about – how His name would be Jesus, because He would save His people from their sins. She stares into the Baby’s face and realizes she’s looking at the heart of God. The magnitude of this moment leaves her almost frozen, afraid to move. But, listen: the creaking of the stable door interrupts the flurry of her thoughts. Total strangers cautiously peer by the door. It’s some men. Are they coming to clean the stable? No. They’re shepherds who quietly walk through the door and tell Mary in excited whispers what the angels said. They hurry their story because they want to see the Child lying in the manger.
They marvel: It is a Baby. But if He’s the promised Savior, why’s He lying in straw? Why is He in a barn instead of a King’s Castle. Because of the message that shook them from their dreamy night’s work while tending sheep, they stare at the face of Jesus and realize that they are gazing in the heart of God. Yet, we watch as they leave quietly, but with excited steps. Mary ponders these things in her heart. Everything her world needs is right there… lying in the straw – beautiful yet seemingly helpless. The key to understanding God is right there as a tiny Newborn Baby, lying in a manger.
Watch Mary go to the manger and lift her Baby and give Him to you. Stand there, your arms locked in terror over holding a fragile, precious new life. Look down at His face. You’re also looking into the heart of God. You hold what everyone in America or in the world needs. While the rest of the world hustles and bustles, snarls at the tangled confusion, channel to one the next Christmas special, or while the rest of the world reads books on spirituality and sings about chestnuts, snowflakes, and reindeer, they’re all looking for God. But, you’re holding Him.
Why did God do this? Why did God who created the heavens and the earth; the God who keeps the stars and planets in balance – stuff Himself into a 7 pound, 6 ounce baby? Look outside the stable and see a shadow coming through the crack in the stable door. It’s a bright night, but you see a shadow cast across the bluish darkness of a moonlit night. So, now, you understand why God humbled Himself to become a fragile Baby. The shadow is the shadow of a cross.
One day, this God will even stoop lower than just being born in a stinky barn. He stooped to take on human flesh, so another day He would stoop to cover Himself with all our sins and all the sins of the world. But, even in that, we also know that He rose from the dead in flesh providing our peace with God. All of our mistakes, every rotten thing that’s happened to us or rotten thing we’ve done has been taken away by Him. It’s because of this Baby that God loves us and gives us eternal life. But, before we walk away from the stable, take one last look. See God’s love for us. This night, God touched us with something better than angels. Rejoice because we know God isn’t a God who is far off, but One with us. We don’t have to drift and wander through strange spirituality, looking for some undefined god. God came looking for us and has found us in a barn. Ponder this night. Enjoy the time. Why? Because we know that we don’t have to rely on gifts, gatherings, or parties to find true blessings. God gives things to enjoy, but we can also rejoice because God came to us and to give life pure joy and purpose. Hold the Baby of Bethlehem. This is what we do in partnership with you in the Mid-South District. We look together into the face of God and now receive new life from the heart of God. A blessed Christmas to you all.
Rev. Dr. Roger Paavola
President, Mid-South District