I still remember my first Christmas away from family. It was 1990, and the world was caught up in the machinations of what would become known as the first Gulf War. Security was at an all-time high at airports around the globe, with military tanks very visibly stationed around London Heathrow. Ticket prices plummeted, and I was taking advantage of this to take my first trip across the Atlantic, along with some friends accompanying a young pastor who had speaking engagements in several countries of Europe.
Suffice it to say that the trip didn’t quite go as planned. The young pastor had previously traveled with a well-known author and evangelist, and somehow thought that he likewise would be welcomed at the airport with an entourage and car service. Instead, no one was waiting for us at our first stop, London. We took the train into town, then the “Tube” underground to our destination, lugging our luggage up and down countless flights of subway stairways. Tired, cold and each nearly $100 poorer for the day’s transportation costs, we huddled around a heater in the library of the mission dormitory where we were to spend the night. Stunned, we listened as the discouraged pastor announced his decision to give up and go home. We hadn’t even started.
The next day he was on a flight back to the homeland, but my friends and I decided we would find a way to make it on our own. We volunteered at a Christian ministry in exchange for room and board, waking up early in cold London mornings to fix food for hundreds of hungry people. We had tickets on the Eurail to Norway, so we decided to use them. Another ministry there agreed we could spend 10 days in their facilities, mostly emptied now by the Christmas holidays.
Norway is a wonderful place at Christmastime, but being a teenager so far away from family, that Christmas was hard. The sun didn’t rise until nearly 10 each morning, and set again around 2 p.m. I was in a situation I hadn’t planned or anticipated, dependent upon the hospitality of strangers in a foreign country.
And then there was the food. A group of Germans was renting part of the facility for a retreat, and they invited us to join them. When the meal began I looked and all I saw was a big bowl of cabbage salad and some bread and spreads. Being that I was gluten intolerant (this back in the day when most people didn’t know what gluten was and thought Celiac was a type of perennial flower) I quickly ascertained that I was going have to eat a lot of cabbage salad. After my second plate one of the matriarchs commented, “Ju really like cabbage!” After stuffing himself with cabbage this uncultured American had his first lesson in meals with multiple courses: next came the soup, then the entrées, and ultimately the desserts. Why couldn’t they have told me there was more on the menu than cabbage and bread?
But the loneliness, homesickness and culture shock of that Christmas pales into insignificance when I think of the experience of the Babe of Bethlehem. He who was adored by countless angels in the heavenly courts came down to hostile earth to be born in a barn as a helpless baby, hunted by insecure monarchs, rejected by his own countrymen, misunderstood by his family and crucified by the ones he came to save. Sometimes I wonder why didn’t Jesus just show up at Jerusalem’s temple in a flash of light, submit to die in behalf of humanity, and make a beeline back to the friendly territory of heaven? Was it really necessary for him to go through the agony of a lifetime living in our world? Was it really necessary that he become human and experience the culture shock of life on a fallen planet?
Ahhh, but it was. “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest…. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.” (Hebrews 2:17-18).
The Christmas story is the story of the eternal, self-existent God becoming man, to walk “in our shoes” and understand our world. It’s the story of divinity coming inextricably close to humanity, suffering as we suffer and living as we live. It’s the story of the Son of God becoming the Elder Brother of a fallen race, that those who so choose may receive the inheritance that rightfully belongs to him. It is the story of the I am leaving his home to be with us — the Creator forever tied by incarnation to his own creation. Yes it truly is the story of Immanuel: “God with us.”
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:23).
May Immanuel find welcome abode in our hearts, God with us, this holiday season. Merry Christmas!
Chester Clark III is pastor at the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Dalton. His column runs on the third Saturday of the month.