Hugs and Laughter All Around

It is a joy to celebrate this Christmas morning with you!

Have you ever noticed that you tend to receive the best Christmas presents from the people who know you the best and love you the most?

When I was a young boy, I remember being particularly excited about opening a certain present that sounded so interesting—it had a nice rattle and I assumed it was something really cool, like a remote control car or a radio. I remember eagerly tearing off the wrapping paper, nearly laughing with excitement, only to discover that it was…lotion, something every young boy longs for at Christmas—because if there’s one thing young boys are concerned about it’s dry skin ☺. That gift was from someone who obviously did not know me at all.

A few years ago, someone who does know me very well gave me a replica football jersey of Washington Redskins Hall of Famer John Riggins, # 44, my all-time favorite player —a truly awesome present. (If only the Redskins played as well now as they did in the days of John Riggins!).

On Christmas Day, we celebrate the Ultimate Gift from the One who truly knows us the best and loves us the most: God, who gives us…himself—as we just read in the Gospel according to John: “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

During Holy Communion this morning we will sing the beautiful hymn “Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming,” the third verse of which is this:

O Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air

Dispel in glorious splendor the darkness everywhere

True man, yet very God, from sin and death now save us

And share our every load.

This morning I will preach briefly on how Jesus not only shares “our every load,” but goes beyond that.

What load are you carrying this morning?

During the holiday season the loads people carry—from external loads like financial pressure, strained relationships, or physical illness—to internal loads like grief, stress, or anxiety—tend to feel extra heavy.

During the holiday season, we tend to remember especially loved ones who have died. Last week I visited an elderly widower who asked me if I had finished my Christmas shopping yet. I told him the truth, “I haven’t even begun yet.” When I asked him if he had finished his Christmas shopping, he got a puzzled look on his face and his eyes watered up: “My wife used to take care of all our Christmas shopping, and I don’t know what to do with it this year; I miss her so much.”

About eight years after publishing A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens published another piece about Christmas—an oft-overlooked gem entitled What Christmas Is as We Grow Older (1851). Dickens poignantly describes how all of us, like the widower, remember lost loved ones especially at Christmas time:

“We had a friend who was our friend from early days, with whom we often pictured the changes that were to come upon our lives, and merrily imagined how we would speak, and walk, and think, and talk, when we came to be old. His destined habitation in the City of the Dead received him in his prime. Shall he be shut out from our Christmas remembrance? Would his love have so excluded us? Lost friend, lost child, lost parent, sister, brother, husband, wife, we will not so discard you! You shall hold your cherished places in our Christmas hearts, and by our Christmas fires; and in the season of immortal hope, and on the birthday of immortal mercy, we will shut out Nothing!”

My all-time favorite movie is a Christmas movie: the 1946 classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, starring James Stewart as the loaded down George Bailey. I watch it every December and it moves me to tears every time. At one point in the film, the load George Bailey is carrying reaches the breaking point. In addition to the never-ending stress he feels with his business and large family, he finds himself facing an insurmountable load as his business has lost a huge sum of money.

George finds himself on the verge of losing his job, losing his family, and going to prison. He is so desperate that he goes to the last person he’d ever want to go to for help, the evil Mr. Potter. Mr. Potter makes fun of him and tells him, “You’re worth more dead than alive.” George is now absolutely distraught and at a bar he’s nursing a stiff drink, contemplating suicide. He momentarily pulls his life insurance policy out of his coat pocket and glances at it, and then literally trembling with stress prays a brief gut-level prayer in what I consider to be one of the most iconic scenes in movie history:

“Oh God…Oh God…Dear Father in heaven…I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope. Show me the way, Oh God.”

And God answered George Bailey’s prayer with the help of an angel named Clarence, and at the end of the movie George returns home and is soon flooded with people from the community who lavish him with more than enough money to cover the loss and in so doing share his every load—hugs and laughter all around.

Another illustration…I recently saw an online news story about a woman named Cece Bruce, who under a never-ending load of financial pressure, lives paycheck to paycheck. She works as a waitress at a Steak and Shake restaurant in Indianapolis. One day she was being treated poorly by some customers, which was not unusual—“I was having a hard time at another table,” she said, “but I just kept smiling and going on because that’s what you have to do,” she said.

And then something entirely unexpected happened, Cece picked up a check from a customer whose order had cost $5.97 and found that the customer had added a tip of $446 (about 75 times the cost of the meal) for a total of $451.97. Cece tried to refuse the gift, but the customer insisted. Cece told the reporter, “I didn’t think I was worth $400 dollars, but apparently she felt that I am.”

Jesus, like that customer, sees the loads you carry, sees that you just keep smiling and going on because that’s what you have to do, and pays the check and lavishes you with grace and love.

And Jesus apparently feels that you are worth giving his life for, because that is exactly what he did on the cross, as he did more than share the load of our sin and guilt, he took the load entirely on himself, and when Jesus died, as happened with Charles Dickens’ friend, “the City of the Dead received him in his prime.”

And on the cross Jesus, the One “full of grace and truth” gave himself for all of us, as John writes later in his account of the gospel—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (3:16).

But the City of the Dead could not contain Jesus, who was raised on the third day, and even today he beckons all who are loaded down: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

When I was growing up, there was a framed poem hanging in our home, “Footprints in the Sand.” Some consider it to be a cliché but I have always found it to be a powerful picture of what it looks like that Jesus not only shares “our every load” but actually does much more than that:

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord

Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky

In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand

Sometimes there were two sets of footprints

Other times there was one set of footprints

This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life

When I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat

I could see only one set of footprints

So I said to the Lord

You promised me Lord that if I followed you

You would walk with me always

But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life

There have only been one set of footprints in the sand

Why, when I needed you most, you have not been there for me?

The Lord replied

The times when you have seen only one set of footprints in the sand

Is when I carried you.

One more illustration…a few years ago someone emailed me a link to a video montage of a man completing an Iron Man Triathlon. This particular man had a son with cerebral palsy, whose arms and legs were simply folded in front of him. His father loved his son so much that he actually took him along on the triathlon.

During the 2.4 mile swim he pulled his son behind him in an inflatable raft.

During the 112 mile bike ride he pulled his son in a trailer behind him.

During the 26.2 mile marathon he pushed his son in a stroller.

And all along the way, there were images of the man sharing his drinks and refreshments with his son all along the way, patting him on the shoulder, caressing his head. The son was entirely dependent on the strength of his father, who bore the load for both of them the entire race.

The video ended with the man and his son being welcomed at the finish line, family and friends celebrating with them—hugs and laughter all around.

And on this Christmas morning, this “birthday of immortal mercy,” Jesus gives himself anew to you again. For the good news of the gospel is that you are fully known and fully loved by Jesus, who is full of grace and truth. He shares your every load, and will carry you all the way to the finish line.

And at the finish line, all the external and internal loads you carry will be lifted from you once and for all, and you will see all the friends and loved ones you have lost along the way, and you will be personally greeted by the One who knows you the best and loves you the most—hugs and laughter all around.

Merry Christmas!