“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch of their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:8-11
Today, I am going to talk about the present of Christmas, God’s presence.
I remember hearing of a cartoon of Funky Winkerbean. In it, he says, “Before we perform Claude Barlow’s Christmas classic ‘Oh Hectic Night,’ I would like to quote from some notes from the biography of the composer.
“Barlow felt that his music was the first to capture the turmoil encountered by the young couple who arrive in a strange town, can’t find a place to stay, and end up having their child born in a stable. Then as they sit there, tired, hungry, and exhausted, they have unexpected guests drop by.”
Thomas Holmes was the first to develop a stress scale. He developed a scale which helped you measure the stress in your life at any given time. Job loss was 35 points, getting married 50 points, moving to a new city 35 points, etc. He surmised that just living through a typical Christmas season produced 14 stress points. After adding up all the points, if your score was over 200 points, you were in grave danger of a nervous breakdown.
Bridget Kuhns took Holmes’ scale and applied it to the Virgin Mary on the first Christmas. She calculated that any pregnancy is worth 40 points. An unplanned pregnancy adds 20 points to that. And how many stress points do you get for having to tell your parents? Mary moved in with Elizabeth for three months. That is 25 points on the Holmes scale. Marrying Joseph produced another 50 points.
The family argument that Kuhns says must have happened when Joseph failed to make a reservation in Bethlehem during the holiday season chipped in another 35 points. Giving birth earns another 29 points. Kuhns also added points for changes in sleeping and eating habits, 31 points on the Holmes scale. And then there were all those guests during the Christmas season – angels and shepherds arriving and leaving and three kings from the East calling on the little family.
Holmes reported that people get sick at the 200 point level. Poor Mary – Bridget Kuhns calculated her stress status at 424!
We can have a lot of stress when we feel we are apart from God. But when we are with God in a stressful moment, then we can handle almost anything that comes our way.
Peace is a present God gives us. True peace and happiness cannot be found apart from God. The Divine presence is with us, no matter what is happening outside of us. It is the present of Christmas.
In Taipei, there was a tiny woman. She was so short that when she was seated, her feet did not even touch the floor. She was dressed in a Chinese costume, but she was British, very British. One day, years ago, in London, during the Christmas season, she went to a Salvation Army street meeting and was converted to Christianity. She felt, as never before, Christmastime rise up in her, as the message of God filled her.
The gentleman for whom she worked had a fine library on China. She read avidly. Eventually, her employer found her reading and said to her, “What are you doing reading my books? You are supposed to be dusting and cleaning.”
She told her employer she had a passion for China. He patted her on the back and said, “OK, after you are done, every day, you can read my books on China.”
It was when she was reading the books that she first got the call to be a missionary and go to China. She thought this was what she was to do with her life. She went to the missionary board and told them of her dreams and her call to go to China. They were all highly intellectual, highly educated theologians and they gave her an intellectual test, which she could not pass. She still felt the call and she went to China, anyway. She became a tremendous success.
So remarkable was her success in China that a motion picture was made of this tiny woman who went to China. Perhaps you have seen it. It starred Ingrid Bergman and was called “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.” In this movie, they show, in part, some of the marvelous things this tiny woman did. She was the size of a child, but she went out, every day, on the street corners and told people, in their own language, about the promise of God and what God could do in their life. She told them God was with them and Jesus Christ was with them. Through faith, they could triumph over the world.
One day, a listener to one of her street meetings was the governor. He listened, believed, and converted to Christianity. He thought that, with God, anyone could do anything, but especially this lady who had total faith and belief in the power of God with her and within her.
The governor called her to his office one day. He said to her, “We have a terrible situation here. There is a riot in the prison where only twelve soldiers guard murderers and vicious men. We can’t go in; they will kill us. One of the worst men in the prison has gone berserk. He is a huge giant of a man who is half-crazed and has a huge meat cleaver in his hand. He has already killed two men and terrified the others. We have talked about it and we want you to go into the prison and take the meat cleaver out of his hand.”
The little woman, the size of a child, looked up at the governor and said, “You must be out of your mind.”
The governor said, “I am a Christian because of you. You have said, as I have listened to you on the street corner that God is always with you. You have told me about Daniel and the lion’s den and how Jesus Christ will protect you.
She looked up at the tall governor and said, “Ah, but you misunderstand, sir.”
The governor said, “Oh, then you haven’t been telling the truth. I only heard what you said and I believed you with all my heart.”
She knew, then, if she ever wanted to have any further influence in China, she would have to go into the prison. She would have to go alone to face this giant, crazed man with the meat cleaver. She said, “Yes, I will go in.” She prayed, “God be with me, give me your presence, speak through me, help me.”
As she was approaching the prison, she had a peace come over her that she wrote about and that was told in the movie – a peace that passes human mind and understanding. She felt incredibly peaceful. People were amazed that she was not a nervous wreck. They walked her to the door of the prison. They unlocked it and opened it just a crack. They pushed her in, slammed the door, and locked it, again, because of their fear.
There was the tiny woman in the prison. She walked to the end of the tunnel and saw the madman with the meat cleaver dripping with blood, chasing another man. Suddenly, the crazed giant turned around and was in front of her. They stood facing each other. The little woman and the mad giant were there in a standoff. She looked into his wild and feverish eyes and calmly said, “Give me that weapon.” There was a moment of hesitation and then, with a docile movement, he handed it to her.
“Now,” she said, “Get in line, all of you men – get back in line.” Quietly, they lined up. Addressing them, she said, “What are your complaints? Tell them to me and I will take them back to the governor. I assure you, in his name, that where possible, they will be corrected.” The promise was kept. Once again, the power of faith in God and God’s presence, working through an individual, had overcome all obstacles.
In Isaiah 65:24, it says, “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.” That is an assurance that when you pray it is not like sending a letter and hoping it gets there. It says, “Before they call I will answer.” God has already answered. God’s presence is yours to unwrap. Listen to the next line; this applies to your life, whatever you are facing: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together. . . .” (Isaiah 65:25) Not the wolf feeding on the lamb. They will become calm and peaceful. “. . . ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,’ says the Lord.” (Isaiah 65:25)
God’s holy mountain is everywhere you are, when you are in the presence, and when you accept it.
People, exactly like you, have found God’s presence and God’s peace, and have used them in their moment of need.
An exchange of gifts is happening all the time because God continually gives. What God gives to you is God’s presence. His present is His presence.
Diane Rayner, in Bellevue, Washington, tells this story, in her own words.
It is an inspiring story for the holiday.
“I grew up believing that Christmas was a time when strange and wonderful things happened; when wise and royal visitors arrived riding; when at midnight, the barnyard animals talked to one another and in the light of a fabulous star, God came down to us as a little Child. Christmas, to me, has always been a time of enchantment and never more so that the year when my son, Marty, was eight years old.
“That was the year my children and I moved into a cozy trailer home in a forested area just outside of Redmond, Washington. As the holiday approached, our spirits were light.
“Throughout December, Marty had been the most spirited and busiest of all of us. He was my youngest, a cheerful boy, blond-haired and playful, with a quaint habit of looking up at you and cocking his head like a puppy when you talked to him. Actually, the reason for this was that Marty was deaf in his left ear, but it was a condition that Marty never once complained about.
“For weeks, I’d been watching Marty. I knew something was going on with him that he wasn’t telling me about. I saw how eagerly he made his bed first thing in the morning, took out the trash, and carefully set the table and helped Rick and Pam prepare dinner before I got home from work. I saw how he silently collected his tiny allowance and tucked it away, spending not a cent of it. I had no idea what all this quiet activity was about, but I suspected something was going on and it had to do with Kenny.
“Kenny was Marty’s friend, and ever since they’d found each other in the springtime, they were seldom apart. If you called to one, you got both of them. Their world was in the meadow, a horse pasture broken by a small winding stream, where the boys caught frogs and snakes, where they’d search for arrowheads or hidden treasure, or where they’d spend the afternoon feeding peanuts to the squirrels.
“Times were hard for our little family, and we had to do some scrimping to get by. With my job as a meat wrapper and with a lot of ingenuity around the trailer, we managed to have elegance on a shoestring. But not Kenny’s family; they were desperately poor, and his mother was having a real struggle even putting food on the table and clothing her two children. They were a good, solid family; but Kenny’s mom was a proud woman, very proud, and she had strict rules.
“How we worked as we did each year to make our home festive for the holiday! It was a handcrafted Christmas of gifts hidden away and ornaments strung about the place.
“Marty and Kenny would sometimes sit at the table and make cornucopias or weave little baskets for the tree; but then in a flash, one would whisper to the other and they would be out the door, sliding cautiously under the electric fence into the horse pasture that separated our home from Kenny’s.
“One night, shortly before Christmas, when my hands were deep in dough, shaping tiny, nutlike Danish cookies, heavily spiced with cinnamon, Marty came to me and said in a tone mixed with pleasure and pride, ‘Mom, I’ve bought Kenny a Christmas present. Want to see it?’ So that’s what he’s been up to, I said to myself. ‘It’s something he’s wanted for a long time, Mom.”
“After carefully wiping his hands on a dish towel, with a pride I had never seen in my eight-year-old boy before, he pulled from his pocket a small box. Lifting the lid, I gazed at the pocket compass my son had been saving all those allowances to buy – a little compass to point an eight-year-old adventurer through the woods.
“’It’s a lovely gift, Martin,’ I said, but even as I spoke, a disturbing thought came to mind. I knew how Kenny’s mother felt about their poverty. They could barely afford to exchange gifts among themselves, and giving presents to others was out of the question. I was sure that Kenny’s proud mother would not permit her son to receive something he could not return in kind.
“Gently, carefully, I talked over the problem with Marty. He understood what I was saying.
“’I know, Mom, I know. But what if it was a secret? What if they never found out who gave it?’ I didn’t know how to answer him; I just didn’t know.
“The day before Christmas was rainy, cold, and gray. The three kids and I were excited beyond belief. We fell over each other in the tiny trailer as we elbowed our way about our little home, putting finishing touches on Christmas secrets and preparing for family and friends who might be dropping by.
“Night settled in. The rain continued. I looked out the window over the sink and felt an odd sadness. How mundane the rain seemed for a Christmas Eve. Would wise and royal men come riding on such a night? I doubted it. It seemed to me that strange and wonderful things happened only on clear nights – nights when one could at least see one star in the heavens.
“I turned from the window, and I checked on the ham and bread warming in the oven when I saw Marty slip out the door. He wore his coat over his pajamas, and he clutched a tiny, colorfully wrapped box in his pocket.
“Down through the soggy pasture he went, then a quick slide under the electric fence, and across the yard to Kenny’s house. Up the steps on tiptoes, shoes squishing as he walked. He opened the screen door just a crack; placed the gift on the doorstep; then with a deep breath, he reached for the doorbell and pressed on it, hard.
“Quickly, Marty turned, ran down the steps, and across the yard in a wild race to get away unnoticed. Then suddenly, he banged into the electric fence.
“The shock sent him reeling. He lay stunned on the wet ground. His body tingled and he gasped for breath. Then slowly and weakly, he was able to stand up. He was confused and frightened; he saw the light of his mother’s trailer and began the slow, grueling trip back home.
“’Marty,’ we cried as he stumbled through the door, ‘what happened?’ His lower lip quivered, his eyes brimmed, ‘I forgot about the fence, and it knocked me down.’
“I hugged my little boy that night. He was still dazed and there was a red mark beginning to blister on his face from his mouth to his ear. Quickly, I treated the blister and with a warm cup of cocoa, soothed him.
In a few minutes, Marty’s spirits returned as brightly as ever. As she tucked him into bed, just before he fell asleep, he looked at me with his bright eyes and said, “Mom, Kenny didn’t see me. I’m sure he didn’t see me.’
“That Christmas Eve, I went to bed unhappy and puzzled. It seems such a cruel thing to happen to a little boy while on the purest kind of Christmas mission, doing what the Lord wants us all to do, giving to others and giving in secret. I didn’t sleep well that night. Somewhere deep inside was the disappointment that the night of Christmas had come and it had been just an ordinary, problem-filled night, no mysterious enchantment at all. But I was wrong.
“By morning, the rain had stopped and the sun shone. The streak on Marty’s face was very red, but I could tell that the burn was not serious. We opened our presents, smiled, and enjoyed each other in the joy of Christmas. Soon, but not unexpectedly, Kenny was knocking on the trailer door. He was eager to show Marty his new compass and tell about the mystery of its arrival. It was plain that Kenny didn’t suspect Marty, at all. While the two of them talked, Marty just smiled and smiled with a pride I had never seen in him.
“Then I noticed that while the two boys were comparing their Christmases, nodding, gesturing, and chattering away, Marty was not cocking his head. When Kenny was talking, Marty seemed to be listening with his deaf ear. Weeks later, the report came from the school nurse, verifying what Marty and I already knew. Marty now had complete hearing in both his ears.
“The mystery of how Marty regained his hearing and still has it remains just that – a mystery. Doctors suspect, of course, that the shock from the electric fence was somehow responsible. Perhaps so, but whatever the reason, I remain thankful to God for the good exchange of gifts on that Christmas Eve night.
“So, you see, strange and wonderful things still happen on the night of our Lord’s birth. And one does not have to have a clear night, either, to follow a fabulous star.”
Christianity, my friends, is a “come as you are and go as you become” religion. We go up the mountain to get inspired as we do when we worship. Then we go back down the mountain and we go to worship through serving. We must always be willing to give of ourselves and define the magic within ourselves. It is the magic of the first Christmas night. To never allow the stress of the holiday season, to overcome the beauty of the holiday season, no matter what is happening to you. To look to God, remember God’s presence and remember even though your human eyes and your human mind may not be able to perceive what is going on, God’s promise is with us all.
“God said, ’My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’”
Let us pray:-
Dear God, what a joy it is to know that your presence is with me, and wherever I go, it will be with me. No matter what I face in my life, you will give me rest. I can look to something higher than the mountain in front of me. I commune with You with an open heart and a receptive mind. I know I am in the presence of God and that I have received God’s present. Such a blessing assures me that my good unfolds in Divine order. The benefit of prayer is a timeless one. God, Your ideas concerning my total well-being can be put into operation as I need them. I bring every need to You, God, in this time of Prayer. Knowing that I ask, I will receive. As I knock, the way will be opened. Then I act with strength and with confidence, for Your presence is with me, providing the help I seek. Thank You for giving me Your promise: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (Exodus 33:14)
In the Christmastime presence of Jesus Christ, we pray, thank you, God.
God bless you!