The other day I asked a friend to share his favorite thing about the Christmas story. He thought silently for a moment, and then a huge smile appeared on his face. He looked me square in the eye and with a great sense of satisfaction said, "Red Rider BB gun."
That was not exactly the answer I was expecting. I learned a little something that day: namely that we live in an age where the birth of Christ is no longer the first thing associated with Christmas. As a pastor, I take that as a challenge to those in my field that we have our work cut out for us.
Somewhere along the way, the day that ranks among the highest and holiest in the Christian faith has become little more than a retailer's dream and a consumer's indulgence. Christmas has lost its theological significance, and many people will celebrate without giving pause to what the season has to offer humanity.
I have not always had a good understanding of Christmas. As a child, I knew the church "story" of the birth of Jesus. Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem to be counted in a census. King Herod didn't like it. Wise men came from the east to see him. Jesus was born in a cattle stall, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger. It was a lowly start for the One who would be Lord of Lords and King of Kings.
My real understanding though came from a family tradition. For the first 11 months out of the year, the formal living room was off limits. But in the 12th month that room came alive. The tree, the lights, the garland, the presents all made for a pretty room. For me, the Christmas experience was seen most clearly in the open access I had to that living room.
Now, with the wisdom of adulthood and a faith that has grown much since those early days, I am awed by a different kind of open access during the Christmas season. The openness of God's grace makes this a time of great hope. More than the presents we exchange or the food we will enjoy, it is the presence of a loving God as seen through the incarnation - the birth of the Christ child - that makes this celebration come alive.
Unlike any other season, the Christmas season reminds us that no matter who we are or where the road of our choosing has taken us, God greets us with wide open arms and a love that peels away the past. It marks the most significant event in human history, and it provides the means to a more fulfilling and selfless way of living.
For the last few months, I have had the joy of working with a group of people to form a new faith community in Columbia County. The result of our efforts is the formation of Covenant United Methodist Church. Together we have experienced God's grace. We have watched with amazement as God has drawn together an eclectic group of people with a rich variety of faith experiences. Some have been in the church all their lives. Some have never been in the church. All seek to have a deeper and more meaningful relationship with the God who entered into humanity to give us open access.
Along the way, we have been tempted to get caught up in the planning and the details of all that it takes to start a new church. It would have been easy to do that. Throughout the process, though, we have repeatedly lifted up our first core value: We will be Christ-centered. Being Christ-centered prevents us from getting lost in the hustle and bustle of church work.
In the same way, I invite you to make Christ the central part of your Christmas celebration. Be intentional about this so you do not become distracted by the busyness of the Christmas season. Look for a deeper meaning and resist the temptation to see only the glittery commercial side.
Take time to include a worship service in your celebration. If you don't have a place to do that, Covenant will be at Greenbrier Elementary School from 5:30-6 o'clock this evening. You are more than welcome to join us as we celebrate our very first Christmas Eve together as a new church. Wherever you are, take time to give God glory for the free gift of grace through Jesus Christ.
Randy Monk is pastor of Covenant United Methodist Church.
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