Christmas Gifts

“When we succumb to believing that we are victims of our circumstances and yield to the plight of determinism, we lose hope, we lose drive, and we settle into resignation and stagnation.” ~Stephen Covey

I remember going with my brother when I was younger to see Santa at Park Meadows Mall. In matching red sweater vests, we’d wait with dozens of other screaming kids for our chance to have our picture taken with the man in red. Of course, the picture isn’t what we were after. We were waiting to answer the all-alluring question, “What do you want for Christmas?”

As I’ve gotten older, my answer to that question has changed. I’m not disappointed by clothes anymore. Money is always nice. Sometimes going out to dinner with a friend is a gift in and of itself.

But 2012 has been a rough year. I’ve had medical issues, along with academic struggles, work/life balance, all on top of some scary and tragic family events. About mid-September I started seeing a therapist, but I still haven’t found the magic wand to get my life back on track.

So this year, when I was talking with a few of my friends about what we wanted for Christmas, the only thing that really came to mind for me was “Hope.” It’s a good Christmas word, isn’t it? Jesus was born, bringing hope to humanity, right?

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over 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 that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:8-14)

Ironically, if you re-read the words the angel shares with the shepherds, you will see that the word “hope” is nowhere to be found. We see “joy” “glory” “peace” but no “hope.” In fact “hope” is not used once in the biblical narrative of Christmas. I searched Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. “Hope” is never mentioned to Mary, Joseph, the shepherd, the kings, or anyone else associated with Christ’s birth.

And yet there is hope in the story. The angel tells the shepherd’s that Christ’s birth is “a sign” and that that will bring them “great joy.” But this begs the questions: what was it a sign of?

Of course, we—here in 2012—know that it was a sign that God had come to save humanity. That the word had become flesh, the prophecy was being fulfilled, the greatest story ever told was moving into one of its most powerful chapters. But the angel isn’t that specific. All that is said is that it is a sign. To me, this implies that the shepherds knew more than we are lead to believe.

It reminds me of when Mary and Joseph meet Simeon and Anna in the temple, several days later. Simeon was old and preparing to die, but had waited his whole life to see a sign that God was going to save Israel. Anna had lived a hard life, widowed and devoted to serving in the temple. When they saw Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple to be blessed, they understood that it was the sign they had been waiting for. Their faith was confirmed and it gave them hope. (You can read about it in Luke 2:21-40)

So when the angel tells the shepherds that Christ’s birth is a sign, that message is only hopeful, because it confirms what they believed. Faith has to exist in order to have hope.

Another revelation I’ve come to reading this story is that I would make a very lousy shepherd.  I am not a patient person (this too is something I am praying about this Christmas season.) I like to look at situations, find the problems, and rush in with a solution. If I saw an angel, I would not have been content with just “go to Bethlehem.” I would have wanted to know what to do when I got there? What should I do after I’d been there? What was the goal and how was this fitting into the new strategic plan and what committee could I be the chairmen of and do we get t-shirts?

I bring this impatience up because I’ve come to conclusion that faith alone isn’t enough. I can’t handle just sitting around waiting for a sign in the heavens. And there’s a lot of stuff that shakes faith. Mortgage payment. Medical results. Relationship issues. Final exams (not to make this about me.)  Sitting on faith and just waiting seems like a waste. Faith gives us a connection to God, and that connection brings so much energy and life, shouldn’t we be out there doing something with it?

In my mind, there is the rub. Not only does faith give hope, but hope leads to love. The great, selfless acts of love that are done in Jesus' name—from Paris Elementary, to The Gathering Place, to Open Door, to Nicaragua, to Haiti, to Habitat for Humanity, to Salvation Army, to Doctors without Boarders—all come not from us, but from a deeply felt connection to God. In many ways, love is the only solution worth rushing in with.

So not to be greedy, but if I could name three things I want for Christmas this year, I would go with Faith, Hope, and Love. I’m not sure you can have one without the other two (like forgetting to install batteries before you’ve wrapped the gift.) And luckily, this advent story of Christ’s birth has them all. Mary and Joseph show us a couple with great faith. Shepherds, kings, and angels remind us of hope. And a baby Christ is a symbol of a God whose love is mighty, powerful, and eternal.

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love…” (1 Corinthians 13:13). They might be just the thing to get life back on track.

Zach Herzog

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