Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent. Four weeks later, we will have Christmas Day. For some, the time will pass in a frenzy of shopping and wrapping– the time will fly by! For some, the time will pass in meditation and reflection– it may seem to crawl. For some, the time will pass with no difference from any other time of year. For most of us, there is a sense of anticipation…we are waiting for something: the “Christmas Spirit,” the festivals and events, the time spent with loved ones far and near…
Christmas, more than any other day, brings this sense of expectation. We sing songs, listen to stories, reach out to friends and neighbors– all in anticipation of a single day. And sometimes, the anticipation and expectation exceed the realities of the day. We feel disappointed in the gifts, or the weather, or the circumstances. But our anticipation shouldn’t be about the single day on the calendar. Christmas is so much more than just a day, or even just the “spirit” of the day.
We don’t know the actual, historical day when Christ entered human history as a baby. As the Gospel of John relates– “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word WAS God.” (John 1:1) But this Word, this Only Begotten Son of the Father, this second person of the Trinity, DID enter human history as a member of the human race. He came and dwelt among us, His creation. He walked and talked, ate and slept, worked and wept, lived and died as a man. The Lord of All Creation tasted freshly baked bread and felt the first raindrops of Springtime. The King of the Universe wiggled His toes in the sand, and wiped sweat from His brow. The Lamb of God shared belly-laughs with His friends over a shared joke. The Lion of Judah wept over the death of His friend. The Author of Life knew what it was to die, abandoned and betrayed.
None of this is anticipation for us, as it was for the prophets of old. It is history. Christ has already come. He already lived a life of compassion and grace, wonder and weariness, agony and anticipation, and, most of all, Love. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that Whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting Life.” John 3:16 Christmas for us is not about anticipating Christ’s arrival. Christmas is the celebration of what that arrival means for us all these years later and forevermore. And we can celebrate all the wonder of Christ on any day of the calendar year. But there IS real anticipation at Christmas– the anticipation of Eternal Life and Christ’s triumphant return. Just like the prophets waited and wondered, we wait in Hope of a glorious reunion.
Christmas, December 25, 2022, may be a disappointing day–it may be dreary, gloomy, lonely, or disappointing in its circumstances. It may bring us bad news, or heartache. But it will also bring us another opportunity to rejoice– to rise above whatever circumstance brings to focus our thoughts forward and upward, where Christ, who once came as a baby, now reigns and rules and waits– anticipating the same reunion that brings us hope and healing.
Bible teacher and author Chuck Swindoll is credited with saying, “I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent of how I react to it. And so it is with you. We are in charge of our attitudes.” When I was younger, I liked this quote, but I quibbled with the numbers. Surely, we are in control of our reactions and attitudes. And our circumstances don’t determine our lives completely. But 10%?! What about those whose circumstances are overwhelmingly tragic?
I thought of my father’s experiences, and it seemed as though what happened to him in four short years should have had a greater impact on his life. During the four short years that my father was in high school (1945-1948), his family experienced at least three tragedies. Dad grew up on a farm. His dad was a dairy farmer, as was his grandfather. Dad grew up expecting that he would, along with his father and brothers, spend the rest of his life as a farmer. But then, everything changed. First, Dad’s oldest brother was drafted into the Army at the very end of World War 2. Though my uncle was not in combat, he was badly wounded in Germany, as his unit was sent in to find unexploded bombs and land mines, and ordered to clear out rubble. Dad had lost one cousin in the war, and several others had come home wounded or changed, but this was post-war, and unexpected. It meant more work for my grandfather and the two younger sons, even as they were still in school. It meant uncertainty, as they waited for word from thousands of miles away over several months.
Uncle Jack recovered and returned to the farm. But then, on Christmas Eve, there was a house fire. While the family escaped without major injuries, the house was a total loss. Furniture, clothes, pictures, heirlooms, farm records and financial papers– all gone. Dad moved in with his aunt and uncle to continue his education. But two weeks before graduation, his father died suddenly from complications from emergency gall bladder surgery. My father’s world had been turned upside-down in just a few short years and at a critical juncture in his life.
However, as I’ve matured and thought about it over the years, those events, among other tragedies and triumphs in Dad’s life, really DID only amount to a small percentage of his life. Even numerically/chronologically, those four years were less than ten percent of Dad’s time on earth. Dad couldn’t control the events of those years. He couldn’t have predicted them, and he couldn’t erase them or go back and undo them. But he chose how to respond and react to those events. He learned from them.
Circumstances in our lives, whether tragic or terrific, present us with choices. Will we turn to God, or away from Him? Will we become better, or bitter? Will we seek to assign blame, or seek solutions? My dad and his brothers were not able to continue the dairy farm their father had built up. Without the records and registration papers for the various cows, without their father’s experience and acumen, without money to upgrade their facilities and equipment, they had to sell most of what their father had built up. Uncle Jack kept the farm land, but he took a second job. Dad was drafted and sent to Korea for his own post-war odyssey, and came home to work at the local feed mill, and later in a factory job. He passed away several years ago, partly as a result of complications from his own gall bladder surgeries.
My dad’s life was impacted and shaped in part by tragic circumstances. But Pastor Swindoll is right– at least 90 percent of my dad’s LIFE was shaped by his attitude and character. My father was a man of faith and integrity. He cherished his family and his role as a father– partly because of the loss of his own dad; but also because of the lasting legacy his father had passed on. He spoke often of his wonderful memories growing up on the farm. But he also made wonderful memories– picnics and vacations, family reunions, family devotions, watching baseball on television, sharing laughter and tears, and making sure we knew we were loved and protected. He ministered to people in the community, mowing lawns for widows, or visiting shut-ins. He taught us to love music, baseball, and animals. He taught us the value of prayer, reading the Bible, and living a life of faith.
As I get older, and look back on the circumstances of my past, I am encouraged and challenged to think that they represent only a small fraction of my life. I can’t control many of my circumstances– health setbacks, financial struggles, accidents and tragedies. But I can control my attitude and my response. My dad could have been bitter, angry, ungrateful, resentful, and self-pitying– regardless of his circumstances! But he chose to put his faith, his heart, and his attitude in the hands of a loving God. And I choose to do the same– after all, He controls 100% of my future!
7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
9 “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
I have heard many sermons using this passage, and the sermons always focus on our (active) end of the directive–Ask! Seek! Knock! But what does this passage say about God?
God is omnipresent, and He has revealed Himself in creation, and through the lives of His people. But God is also reserved– He does not give us all the answers; He doesn’t spoil us by catering to our every wish; He keeps certain things behind closed doors.
“Knock, and the door will opened to you.” There is no mention of a key or key card, a pass code, or any need for ID– just knock. God will open the door. I imagine thousands of (figurative) doors in my life– opportunities, blessings, challenges, relationships– each beckoning. But the doors cannot be opened from the outside. I can strain and push, yell and shake my fist at the closed door in front of me, kick at it, even try to break it down. But if I knock, the door will be opened.
This doesn’t mean that I have no choices or free will as I go along. I can find hallways, roadways, even freeways on which to travel. And there are opportunities along those paths and roads that are not waiting behind a door. But just like the questions we need to ask, and the quests for which we seek, the closed doors cause us to make a choice– will we knock or walk on? Will we try to open the door in our own power, or knock and let God open the door from His side?
Ask, seek, knock– God desires that we take steps toward Him. He will not walk away, or reject those who sincerely desire His presence. He will not give us “bad” gifts– though He allows us to walk through “the valley of the shadow of death”, He will not leave us there with no comfort or hope. He will not “lock us out” of His goodness or His Grace. In fact, HE stands at the door and knocks– waiting for US to open the door, as well.
Someone may say– “I turned away from the door, walked down my own path, and now I’m trapped behind a wall of doubt and guilt and bad choices. There are no doors left for me”. Jesus stands ready to change all that. There are no walls or dungeons He cannot enter– He will make a door, if that’s what it takes– just ask! You may have to climb over some of the debris, but He will pull you up and over any obstacle you can imagine.
Someone else may say, “I have prayed and prayed, and God hasn’t opened the door for me…” I don’t have an “easy” answer for you, and I don’t want to give a canned response– God isn’t a “one size fits all” God– His ways are good, but they are not always comprehensible. I can only give an example from my own life. I prayed for years that God would “open the door” for me to be married and have children. I met several wonderful men, some godly, others just really nice guys who don’t follow Jesus. I could have fallen into, or schemed my way into a marriage or sexual relationship with one of them– I could have tried to get pregnant for years before I found out I was barren. I might have made a marriage work, might have adopted children, might have…But I kept knocking on THE door– the one that God set before my heart and soul– the door that called me to enter and be close to Him– to do it His way or not at all. For over 25 years I knocked– sometimes faintly and with fear that the door would stay closed– sometimes with a sort of desperation. And one day, the door opened– God’s door, God’s way. I have no doubts or regrets about knocking at that door, or waiting for it to be opened from God’s side. I had imagined what was on the other side of that door–what I have received is perfectly sufficient, even as it is totally different from what I imagined. I never had children of my own– but as I waited for God’s timing, He led me to work with hundreds of children who blessed my life beyond description. And in waiting, He led me to opportunities I would never have had if the door had opened in MY timing. All I can say is this– God led me to desire something worthy and good and to His Glory. I believed it was marriage and family–but even if I were still unmarried today, I would not stop praying; not stop knocking; not stop trusting in God’s goodness and His wisdom for my life.
Another may say, “I knocked on a door, and God opened it, but it only brought me pain and misery.” Once again, I don’t have a quick or easy answer for you, and there is no answer that will magically take away pain and misery. I don’t want to invalidate or deny your experience, and I don’t want to claim that I know why God has allowed you to go through such an experience. I would only challenge you to be like Jacob, who wrestled with God and would not let go until he got a blessing. I don’t know why God withholds some answers and allows pain that seems needless and senseless. And even though I know of many instances where God has brought resolution and healing out of tragedy, I also know that it doesn’t erase all the tears and questions. My own experience brought years of depression, bitterness, and isolation even as it brought incredible growth and opportunity– I still have memories that bring tears and painful thoughts–but I know that healing is possible, and I still believe that God is “good”– I believe that God is with us even in our pain and sorrow. I believe that Jesus suffered greatly, not only on the cross, but throughout His earthly life– He faced rejection, betrayal, frustration, misunderstanding, hatred, bigotry, injustice, loneliness, homelessness, poverty, hunger, and more. Pain is intense, but it is not eternal. Evil is real and it is miserable, but it is not victorious.
Keep knocking. Your door may seem like the ultimate barrier, but God wants to open it for you.