It was the nametag.
The first time I put on my nametag was when it hit me – I had a job at the Happiest Place on Earth! Up until then, the reality of it all didn’t quite sink in. To be sure, I went through the hiring process, went through Disney University, and attended training like every single cast member before me, but it wasn’t until my trainer gave me my first nametag that it was REAL! Holding those two inches of plastic somehow was a tangible sign of a new reality – I was a cast member of the Walt Disney Company. Realization comes to us in both subtle and sudden ways and on that day it was like a burst of light. But there are times when the changes in our life are more of a journey than a moment. That’s how it was for me becoming Emma’s dad. Emma may have been born on April 7, 2004, but the journey started much earlier. About eight months before, Cassie came into our bedroom holding something behind her back with a big smile on her face. She gave me this cute Eeyore rattle and said, “We’re going to have a baby!” From that moment on, a new reality began to unfold. I went to doctor visits. I read books. We started picking out names. And I would talk to Emma on a daily basis, even when she was just sitting around in Cassie’s stomach. She may have been born on April 7th, but I started becoming her dad months before. I just had to wait around to finally meet our bundle of joy.
It has to become real.
For something to change your life, it has to become real. It has to go from a surface level understanding to something deeper. Sometimes that happens in a moment (like getting the nametag) and sometimes it takes a while to really sink in like a good stew. But unless it goes from your head to your heart, your life will never change. And a lot of people are okay with that. They are fine living the existence they’ve carved out for themselves. They will live and they will die, BUT they will be missing out on the richness of what life has to offer. “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.’” (Jeremiah 29:11-13) Our faith gives us a chance to go deeper than a surface existence and explore the life God has waiting for us. When we allow Christ into our hearts, when we realize how much God loves us, it can transform us and transform how we live our lives for the better – for ourselves and the world around us.
But for that to happen Christ has to become real for us like he did for the shepherds long ago.
The idea of a messiah was one every Jewish kid grew up with. The prophecies make it plain that a messiah would one day come, but the prophecies were so old. They believed in them, but it’s not as if they were actively looking for a messiah to arrive any day. There weren’t any signs or symbols predicting his arrival or how he would show up. Many assumed a savior for the Hebrew people would be a great military leader who would raise them up in triumph! So when Jesus arrived as a baby in a manger to a carpenter and his wife from the small town of Nazareth, well it didn’t set off any alarm bells. You know what else was interesting? He didn’t send a birth announcement to the high priests or the Pharisees or the rich and powerful. Instead, this is what happened.
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.
Who would be afraid of a chubby little angel?
We tend to think of angels as these cute little dudes with harps who float around playing sweet music, but that isn’t at all the image the Bible gives us. The prophet Isaiah tells us seraphim have six wings; two covering their face, two covering their feet, and two they use to fly (Isaiah 6:2). Sounds a bit creepy to me. The prophet Ezekiel describes for us the cherubim, 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 10:9-14). 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. You would probably freak out! 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, they still needed to see Jesus for themselves. It wasn’t until they saw him lying in the manger that they believed.
We call that the incarnation of Christ.
The incarnation of Christ. It’s a fancy term 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 that isn’t how we experience Christ today. Instead we encounter Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. God works through each one of us to reach out with his love, hoping we will eventually turn toward him. When Jesus told Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed (John 20:29),” he was talking about us. But Jesus didn’t abandon us. We aren’t left to hope on the promises of the past. In a way, we HAVE seen him. Not directly. Not in the flesh. But for each of you who experiences the reality of Christ in your heart, for those of you whom 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.
For me, Christ came alive through friends and family.
It wasn’t a moment, but a slow burn over many, many years. I’m sure God had been reaching out to me from birth, but my first recollection of someone who helped make Christ real in my life was my mom back when I was 8 years old. From there nudges and flashes until college when I met Lisa who got me thinking again about Christ. Then God put into my life my friends Mark, Stephen, and Andrea who would regularly invite me to church with them. I think what convinced me to say yes was not only I was ready to grow, but also the evidence I could see for myself how God was working in their lives and I wanted to know more about that for myself. And of course, Cassie. Cassie would be the last to take any credit, but God kept working through her to change my life. And Emma, too. Through all these people and many more Christ became real for me.
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 to 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 Jesus?” What a great world that would be. In the name of the one whose birth we celebrate today, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.