Christmas Returns

And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told to them. 

Ahh, Christmas Returns.

It was all going well, our second Christmas Eve at Calvary United Methodist Church. The early service children's pageant was winding down and we had weathered the whole story without a hitch. The four-year-old shepherds had seen the baby, picked up their homemade sheep, complete with real wool, and were making their exit. Only, half way down the aisle, the third shepherd from the back paused. (What? This was not in the script.) He looked back at the manger scene, looked down at the sheep in his arm and exclaimed with a loud shepherd's voice, "I don't want to go back to these dumb old sheep, I want to go back to baby Jesus!"

What a wonderful Christmas wish. Wouldn't it be something if we could experience Christmas over and over! The joy. The sense this day's like no other. The extraordinary power to bless and renew. Christmas Returns! Not the December 26th-at-the-Mall-kind. Instead, the kind that make life over with the power to save…going back to the baby Jesus.

Christmas Returns… begin with the shepherds, long, long ago. Yes, the shepherds went back to the fields, themselves changed. We've known that all our lives. But they didn't go directly back to business as usual the way we often do. No, first they "made known the saying which had been told to them concerning this child." Translation, come Christmas mornin', they told everybody they knew and everybody they could find about this baby… "A Savior, who is Christ the Lord"! That's for sure. But I've suspected Brian Haga had it right, long years ago. First, they returned to the manger, to Jesus, Joseph and Mary, for one more look at God himself, born in an infant child, before they headed for the hills and their fabled flocks by night.

Most of us returned to this Christmas this year. It wasn't our first. Like the shepherds, we wanted another look at the child who comes to save. 'Wanted to see and feel again the miracles only Christmas brings. 'And draw strength for all the days to come. Who here doesn't have a favorite Christmas? The year it snowed, the year I got my…, the year I met the love of my life and we shared the Christmas table for the first time. The year the tree fell down. The year I sat in front of the manger and really thought about what it means that God should come to earth a child, walk on it a teacher, healer and friend; and die from it, having taken on every sin for all the ages and defeated them, not with a mighty army, but with arms outstretched on a cruel cross. Maybe the best Christmas of all, for all of us, is the one where we see that this Little One for whom there was no room, is the very One who makes room for us in the heart of God. O, what happy returns.

But, there's always something new at the manger, too something we missed. Something a little different for each of us. (God knows we all have different needs.) Christmas things happen that deepen our faith and lighten our way. Just when the news seems so overwhelmingly depressing and it seems like nothing will ever change in this sin weary world, Bethlehem Moments overtake us with "strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow". Consider on the one hand the mudslides in California, the earthquakes in Iran, the terror warnings at home and the bombings in Israel. The natural and the human world seem so untouched by the Manger Child sometimes. But then I make a call on two elder folks who've barely enough for themselves. And I come away with two bags full of groceries- carefully-saved for the needy. "Because," I'm told, "it's important no one do without when Jesus is born. Bad enough he had no place at the start, we can't let those he died to save at the end have no food." The Manger's power to save is amazing.

In the end, like the shepherds, we too return to our flocks (our lives). We may go back to the same "dumb old sheep" in the same old places, just as Brian Haga protested. But like those dear old shepherds, we can go back as new people. Oh, let us go back praising God for all we've have seen and heard that makes new, the people, places and things around us. What a world it will be if we tell everybody we can find, that Christ the Savior is born.

It's so easy to leave Christmas behind when the trees, lights carols and the cookies are all gone. But that may be just the time for us to turn around and double back to the manger, like those fellows up in the hills with the sheep. I am moved by the story of the Americans giving aid in Russian schools, prisons and orphanages. It's 1994, near the holidays. Time for our orphans to hear, for the first time, the traditional story of Christmas. The children and staff sit listening… amazed, some sat on the edges of their stools, grasping every word. Afterwards the kids were to make little cardboard mangers. All went well, except for 6-year-old Misha. He put two babies in the manger! Asked why two babies, he repeated the story perfectly until Mary put the babe in the manger. Then, he began to ad lib. "When Mary laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay. I told him I have no mamma or papa, with no place to stay. Then Jesus told me I could stay with Him. But I told him I couldn't, because I didn't have a gift to give Him like everybody else. But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much, so I thought about what I had for a gift. I thought maybe if I kept Him warm, that would be a good gift. So I asked Jesus, 'If I keep You warm, will that be a good enough gift?' And Jesus told me, 'If you keep Me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave Me.' So I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and He told me I could stay with Him — for always."

Misha finished his story. His eyes filled, his hand over his face, his head dropped to the table, his shoulders shook. He sobbed and sobbed. The little orphan had found someone who would never abandon nor abuse him, someone who would stay with him forever! Misha will never return to Christmas without knowing it's not what you have in your life, but Who you have in your life that really counts. People that "keep us warm" yes, but even more the enduring love of Jesus Christ, who keeps us warm and comes to save, in this world and for the next. Micha and Brian could be friends. They just wanna "go back to baby Jesus," day after day, year after year, Christmas after Christmas. Wouldn't you? Oh, I know it's December 28th, the 25th now three days passed. But I'd still like to be among the first to wish you "Many happy returns of Christmas day!"

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