Merry Christmas everyone!
I LOVE Christmas! The gift-giving, the good food, the pretty lights, the joy, the smiles, the Christmas cheer that goes from ear-to-ear. Family and friends, Christmas dinner, cookies for Santa, tree-trimming, and singing Christmas songs at the top of your lungs. It’s ALL great. I love Christmas! But I can’t stand the song “The Christmas Shoes.” The truth is I think the song is beautiful. But I just can’t listen to it without tearing up. Cassie asked me if I was going to play it during worship and I told her, I don’t think so. I don’t think I could go on with the sermon after that. If you’ve never heard it or it’s been a while, just watch the video below
That one line in the chorus gets me every time. “I want her to look beautiful, if mama meets Jesus tonight.” You can’t help but feel empathy for this little boy. You can’t help but put yourself in his place, hoping for some sort of Christmas miracle. His only wish is to buy these shoes for his mom to give her one last gift in case she passes away on Christmas Eve.
The reason that song gets to us is because human beings have a great capacity for empathy.
The reason we tear up when we hear the words of the song is because we can imagine putting ourselves in this little boy’s shoes and feeling what he must have been feeling. Even without having experienced that kind of loss and desperation, we can mentally place ourselves in his situation and the emotions we experience are real. This ability to relate to one another on a deep and emotional level is a gift from God. God wired into us this capacity to connect with others. Some scientists even believe they have found physical evidence of this God-given ability in something called “mirror neurons.” They first found proof of these neurons in monkeys. Researchers were charting neuron activity in a monkey’s brain as it reached for food and found that if someone else reached for the food and the monkey observed it, the same neurons in the monkey would fire as if they had reached for it themselves. The monkey seemingly experienced the sensation of reaching for the food as if he had actually done it. Studies in human beings have shown that people also have these “mirror neurons,” and some believe that these mirror neurons hold the key to understanding human empathy. But all of this science only goes to validate biologically what we already understand, that empathy is a gift from God that helps us connect and communicate with one another. It’s an ability that God gives us to help break down the walls that exist between us and better understand the human condition.
We know it’s a God-given gift because God has already shown great empathy for us.
And the best example of that can be seen in the event we are celebrating tonight – the birth of Jesus Christ. Because it is in the birth of Christ that God is made flesh, that God truly adopts the name Immanuel – God with us – and walks among us. It’s the most significant event in human history because it is when God humbles himself to become one of us and to experience life as we do. We’re going to read this short passage because it sums up beautifully the wonder and importance of this singular event.
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
No other faith in the world claims to have seen God in the flesh.
No other faith believes that God came down from the heavens to be amongst his creation. In other faith traditions, God seems distant or uncaring or uninvolved or unknowable, but in the Christian faith, we believe that God is the exact opposite! God cared so much for us that he came to be with us. God was not distant, but entered into human history. God was not uninvolved or unknowable, but revealed himself to us all. And that is why this event is so utterly significant in all of the breadth and depth of time, because only in Jesus is God made both fully human and fully divine. And because God did this, we know he understands us in a way that only someone who has walked in our shoes could understand. That’s why the author of Hebrews writes, For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. And because of God’s empathy we can feel confident when we lay down our struggles before him that he understands us. It helps us to believe that a God who understands us can find the mercy and grace within to also forgive us for our failings.
We then must show the same mercy, grace, and forgiveness to those around us.
If Christ’s life is to mean something to us as his followers, we need to find a way to show empathy to those around us. As Christ gave this gift to us, this is perhaps the greatest gift we can give to those around us. Everyone has a need to be understood. Christian and non-Christian alike, we all have a deep-seated need to feel like people “get us.” We want people to KNOW us, to intimately and truly know our inner workings and love us for who we are. But too many of us suffer from what one psychologist calls EDD. Not ADD or ED, which are totally different things, but EDD – Empathy Deficit Disorder. Empathy Deficit Disorder. You won’t find it in any official book or manual, but we seem to suffer from it nonetheless. We often find it hard to pull ourselves out of our own narrow view of the world to be able to see how another person feels. We generally look at life with our own lens and never think to take it off and look at it from a different perspective and that can cause serious trouble in our relationships at home, work, church, and everywhere we encounter other people. Our failure to step outside of ourselves, even for a moment, can lead us into deep trouble. What we need to do is look at the world through the lens of the people around us. When we get into a disagreement or an argument with someone, stop for a moment and consider why the other person might have said what they did. Don’t look at it from YOUR point of view, but instead look at it from theirs. More often than not, it will not only help you understand them better, but will ease the situation. I like the way Will Rogers said it in the 90’s musical Will Rogers Follies. He said, “I guess I met a whole lotta people in my lifetime. I always try to approach ’em the same way my Indian ancestors would. You see, an Indian always looks back after he passes something so he can get a view of it from both sides. A white man don’t do that. He just figures all sides of a thing are automatically the same. That’s why you must never judge a man when you’re facing him. You’ve got to go around behind him, like an Indian, and look at what he’s looking at and then go back and face him and you’ll have a totally different idea of who he is. You’ll be surprised how much easier it is to get along with everybody.” In his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey put it this way, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Seek first to understand, then to be understood. He said, usually we do it the other way around, and I think he’s right. Certainly, it’s the kind of life God calls on us to lead.
As I was preparing for our time together tonight, I came across a story I wanted to share with you.
It’s about a farmer who had some puppies he needed to sell. He painted a sign advertising the four pups available and set about nailing it to a post on the edge of his yard. As he was driving the last nail into the post, he felt a tug on his overalls and he looked down into the eyes of a little boy. “Mister,” the little boy said, “I want to buy one of your puppies.” “Well,” the farmer said, rubbing the sweat off the back of his neck, “These puppies come from fine parents and cost a good deal of money.” The boy dropped his head for a moment. Then reaching deep into his pocket, he pulled out a handful of change and held it up to the farmer. “I’ve got thirty-nine cents. Is that enough to take a look?” “Sure,” said the farmer. And with that he let out a whistle. “Here, Dolly!” he called. Out from the doghouse and down the ramp ran Dolly followed by four little balls of fur. The little boy pressed his face against the chain link fence. His eyes danced with delight. As the dogs made their way to the fence, the little boy noticed something else stirring inside the doghouse. Slowly another little ball appeared, this one noticeably smaller. Down the ramp it slid. Then in a somewhat awkward manner, the little pup began hobbling toward the others, doing its best to catch up. “I want that one,” the little boy said, pointing to the runt. The farmer knelt down at the boy’s side and said, “Son, you don’t want that puppy. He will never be able to run and play with you like these other dogs would.” The little boy stepped back from the fence, reached down, and began rolling up one leg of his trousers. In doing so he revealed a steel brace running down both sides of his leg attaching itself to a specially made shoe. Looking back up at the farmer, he said, “You see sir, I don’t run too well myself, and he will need someone who understands.” With tears in his eyes, the farmer reached down and picked up the little pup and gave it to the boy. Sometimes in our lives we just need someone who understands. Thankfully, we celebrate tonight the birth of our savior who entered into our world to do just that. So let us take his example and walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 From Will Rogers Follies, “Never Met A Man I Didn’t Like”