It was the nametag.
The first time I put on my nametag at Disneyland was when I believed I actually had a job at the Happiest Place on Earth. Up until then, it didn’t seem quite real. To be sure, I went through the hiring process, got assigned my first area, went through Disney University, and attended Traditions like every single cast member to walk through the doors of a theme park. But it was when I was given my nametag and put it on in the upper left corner of my shirt that it all clicked into place. I was a cast member of the Walt Disney Company. In life there are many moments when something suddenly becomes real for us, like putting on a nametag. But other times life unfolds over a series of small moments, each one leading to the next until we come to realize we are living in a new reality. That’s how it was for me when I started to attend UCLA. I remember waiting to hear back from all the schools I applied to and was ecstatic when my acceptance letter came in the mail, but it wasn’t quite real yet that I was about to attend UCLA. When I went to orientation on campus and had the chance to buy my first UCLA sweatshirt, it still wasn’t quite real. I think it all crystallized in my mind when my parents left me at the dorm for the first time and I was completely on my own. Then it became REAL! Many mini-moments leading up to the realization that I was a student at UCLA. Pretty amazing.
It’s in those moments when life seems to change.
A new reality sets in, a new perspective, a new way of looking at things. Becoming a cast member was incredibly meaningful to me. That nametag meant something when I put it on. It meant I was part of something bigger than myself. It meant that I belonged to a community that stood for something, that believed in something. “We create happiness.” I was part of that now. Becoming a Bruin was the same way. I was there for an education, but at the same time I now belonged to a community and shared something in common with everyone around me. Together we were part of something bigger. For all the brochures I read about the school, for all the information I gathered from books and magazines, it was a different feeling than actually becoming part of the student body. I was a Bruin! And that meant something. Becoming a follower of Christ is like that too. When you GET IT, when Jesus becomes real to you, you realize that you are part of something bigger than yourself. That you are part of a much larger community. That being Christian means something. It stands for something. It shapes you and changes you in ways it’s hard to describe, and I’d have to say in even more profound and deep ways than you can probably imagine. But like those other moments, it has to become REAL for you. It has to become more than just words on a page or an hour of your life every Sunday. Because if the words on the page don’t make it into your heart, the Bible is nothing more than a book of interesting stories. If the words on the page don’t make it into your heart, the Bible is nothing more than a book of interesting stories. And to be honest, not all that well written. Not a lot of character development, no climatic build-up, no dramatic tension, GREAT overarching theme and some pretty amazing events happen, but Matthew, Mark, Luke and John weren’t exactly J.K. Rowling.
But I think the Bible is one of the most amazing books ever written.
If you have a Bible or a Bible app and want to follow along, please go to Luke chapter 2 beginning with verse 8. Luke 2:8. I feel like maybe what makes the Bible so brilliant is as much what is NOT said as what IS said. Exploring the Bible for me is like an archaeological dig right in the comfort of my chair. The more I dig, the more I find. And for me that’s because the Bible is more than just words on a page. When I read it, I get something new from it almost every time. I feel like in some ways, God is talking to me through the words on the page, giving me new insight into my life and the world I live in. But I don’t think any of that would have happened if my own faith in Christ didn’t become real for me. And I can be slow on the uptake at times so this was a long process. It started probably from birth, but my first recollection of someone helping to make Christ real in my life was my mom back when I was 8 years old. From there it wouldn’t be until college when I met Lisa who really made an impact on me and got me thinking again about God. Then it was Mark and Steve and Andrea who I met while working at Disneyland who kept inviting me to church and exemplified to me what it meant to be a Christian. And then of course my wife, Cassie who then was just my girlfriend. Along the way there were many other people, too, but I don’t want to make this a Christmas Day sermon and I’ve told you about them before. But just to say there wasn’t one particular moment where Christ became real in my life but it really was a series of events that lead up to a moment where my whole life changed. And that was when I went through my own crisis of faith. I had a period of time in my life where I really questioned God and Jesus and the whole reality of what my faith was built on. And through the blessing of many different people who reached out to me or made time for me during those days, I came out on the other end KNOWING that Christ was working in my life. I decided then and there I wanted to share the good news of Jesus to others who also had doubts or who didn’t believe. I knew there were others out there like me who didn’t grow up in the church or who felt distant from God and I hoped that my experience would help them connect, too. I figure that’s what it must have been like for those shepherds nearly 2000 years ago when they first heard the news.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
I don’t know about you, but I think I would have collapsed on the spot.
We tend to think of angels as these chubby little dudes with harps who float around playing sweet music, but that isn’t at all the image the Bible gives us. We read about seraphim and their six wings; two covered their face, two covered their feet, and two helped them to fly (Isaiah 6:2). Sounds a bit creepy to me. The Bible tells us about cherubim too, and they aren’t nice and cuddly either. They had four heads, four eyes, and four wheels and all of it was covered with eyes (Ezekiel 10:11-12). They were the guardians of the Tree of Life in Eden and carried flaming swords. So imagine you’re one of the shepherds and suddenly this vision of an angel pops up out of nowhere. Immediately, terror probably sinks into your heart. But the angel says 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.” And then after giving them this pronouncement an entire army of these scary, powerful beings appear right around them. But as impressive as that was, that moment didn’t make Jesus real for them. It was when they saw him in person lying in the manger. When they encountered Christ for themselves was when they believed and they went out and told everyone they knew. Only then did it go from being just words to becoming a reality. When they encountered Christ for themselves was when all of it went from being just words to becoming a reality.
We call that the incarnation of Christ.
The incarnation of Christ. It’s a fancy word meaning that Christ becomes real for us in this life. For the shepherds, for Mary and Joseph, for the early disciples, Jesus literally became real. But today, Christ becomes real for us through the love of other people. Jesus knew this would happen. He knew that people would have a difficult time believing and he knew he wasn’t always going to be here for us in person. But that’s why he spent time with the disciples training them to spread the Gospel. That’s why he sent the Holy Spirit, to embolden and empower those early followers. That’s why he said to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed (John 20:29).” Jesus was talking about us. But in a way, we have seen him. We may not have seen him directly, but for each of you who experiences the reality of Christ in your heart, for those of you where Jesus isn’t just some guy in a book, but a living, breathing being, this stuff is REAL. Christianity isn’t a religion based on blind faith, but on faith based on our experience with Jesus through the world around us. The love of a friend, the kind words of a stranger, the tough love of those closest to us; those are the things that make Christ a reality for us today. We may not have burning bushes or witness the resurrection of a friend, but we can’t say God isn’t active in the world because he is. Christ is alive in us. Christ is alive in us.
Many of us don’t yet experience that reality.
We know that the world is only about 1/3rd Christian as it is, which means the vast majority of people don’t live with this view of life. And of that part of the world that is Christian, not all of them live with that feeling of assuredness either. I don’t. There are times when I worry or question where God is in the world. There is too much cruelty and evil and greed and selfishness in the world not to experience moments of doubt. But for the most part, the love of God is just too evident in my life to turn away. That’s not the case for everyone. There are many people who turn away. There are many people who never experience God’s love in the first place. There are many who are overwhelmed by doubt or anger or pain and who cannot reconcile that with a loving God. Then there are those who feel they don’t need God. They don’t necessarily believe or not believe, but Christ isn’t a reality for them in a way that makes it evident why they need to do anything about it in their lives. It’s up to those of us who believe to make Christ real for them, too. It’s up to us to make the reality of the love of God so evident that they can’t help but believe. It will take humility. It will take perseverance. It will take patience. And most of all it will take love. I want to challenge you to think of someone in your life who could really use a good dose of God’s love and spend time thinking how you could make Christ a reality for them. Think about what they need, who they are, what’s gone on in their life that might have distanced them from Christ and pray about what you could do for them. And if you ARE that person, if you are the one for whom Christ is not a reality, please simply open up your heart to the possibility of God’s great love. Ask questions. Explore your doubts. Challenge yourself that maybe you need God in your life more than you are willing to admit. And see where it leads you.
At the church I have a nametag.
It says “Craig” on it. And I wear it because I hope that others will feel more comfortable around me by knowing my name and knowing that I like to be called “Craig” instead of “Rev. Yoshihara.” That’s just way too formal for me. But when I put my nametag on, I hope and pray that I do something or say something that allows them to see Jesus through me. Wouldn’t it be great if the whole world had on those blue nametags that simply said, “Hello, My Name Is” and in place of our name all we could see was “Jesus?” What a great world that would be.