And the Word became flesh and lived among us… (John 1:14)
This past Sunday, I preached on today’s scripture at a church that was 8 miles away from where I had once served 30 years ago. I started the sermon by sharing how Lucy and I had gone on a life-changing trip to the Holy Land six years ago. I mentioned some highlights of the trip—being in Jerusalem, renewing our marriage vows at Cana, reclaiming my baptism in the Jordan River, and then sharing how disappointing it was to visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
The church that commemorates Jesus’ birth is in Palestine. This is contested land, occupied land, land that has been fought over, bled over. All that complicated background is immediately manifest when the bus drives up to the parking lot, and there’s security everywhere. There were also about 10 tour buses ahead of us.
After waiting in line for a long time, we were huddled into a quick-moving stream to get a glimpse of where Jesus was traditionally born. This spot is marked by a 14-point silver cross on the floor, where we were given seconds to pray, kneel, or genuflect and then we were pushed onto the vendors selling overpriced religious articles outside.
I walked away from this “unholy parade” and wanted to reconnect and recenter on what happened when Jesus was born by reading the beginning of John’s gospel. As I reflected on how “And the Word became flesh,” I asked Jesus to reveal, once more, how His love, His grace, and His courage had already been made flesh in my flesh and how I needed His flesh in every aspect of my life moving forward.
My worship experience didn’t happen as I got a glimpse of the silver star on the floor. It happened when I desired that my life become the star—that is, the new place, the current place, the actual place where and how Jesus can be born again.
I shared these reflections in the sermon, and I then asked members of the congregation to think and pray about how their hearts, minds, and souls could become the star that marks where Jesus could be born again in them. I said that if we only celebrated Christmas by looking back, we’ll be missing how the hope of Christmas can be ours now. A memory of Christmas isn’t enough to carry and guide us through all the losses, needs, worries, and challenges that we are and will be facing. No, it’s the current reality of Christmas that we most need.
At the end of the service, the pastor of the church asked me to stand with him at the front doors to greet folks. I felt a little self-conscious standing next to him—I was just a guest preacher, so I stood a few steps behind him. As people streamed by, I noticed one man standing to the side, waiting to talk with me.
He came up, introduced himself, and said, “My father used to talk about you in the 1990s.”
I said, “What was his name?”
He said, “You probably won’t remember him, but his name was Ray….”
I said, “I remember your dad. He was a fisherman, and he could sometimes be rather difficult and opinionated.”
The guy smiled and said, “That’s an understatement.”
I said, “I will always remember your father because I will never forget the day when your dad showed up in my office and told me he had been carrying around a burden for years that was killing him.
I then asked Ray’s son if he was a parent, and when he said that he was, I went on to say, “Then you may know how parents can sometimes take on burdens for their children—burdens about how they live or don’t, burdens about how they take care of themselves or don’t—that isn’t actually theirs to carry.”
When Ray’s son said that he understood, I said, “Your dad had been carrying around the burden that he had not kept one of his children, your sibling, alive—a child who had died with sudden infant death syndrome.”
“He said, “What did you say? Did he drop that burden?”
I said, “I asked your dad if he had loved that child—if he had and would always have wanted the best for that child—if he would have given his own life for that child, and he said yes to every question asked.”
I then shared with the son the next thing I had said to his dad: “Ray, although you may always carry the burden of the grief for not having more time with your child, please drop the burden that you were responsible for not keeping that child alive.”
Ray’s son then said, “No wonder my father talked about you.”
I said, “And no wonder I will always remember him.”
As I was getting into my truck a few minutes later, I said to myself, “What a remarkable coincidence.” And then the reality of what had just transpired hit me.
The words that I had recounted with Ray’s son from a conversation his dad and I had had many years ago were exactly the words I needed to hear from Jesus and say to myself.
I will carry the burden of losing Anna all the rest of my days, but if I carry the burden that somehow I was responsible for her death, that I could’ve been a better father, that I had let her down, that I hadn’t fully equipped her for life, that I should’ve better understood her mental health issues or seen just how enmeshed she was to her addiction, I will die to hope and joy and love.
In the sermon, I had invited the people to see and claim how the Word of Jesus could be made flesh in their flesh. I talked about the pilgrimage not of us going to Bethlehem but of Bethlehem coming to us. I talked about the birth of Jesus marked not by a star in a place far away but by the star of our own lives.
What I had invited them to consider happened to me as I was talking with Ray’s son. The words that I had once shared with a distressed father grieving for his son were the Words of Jesus being made flesh in my own broken heart.
But those words aren’t just for me. They are also true for you. I don’t know what burdens of grief or loss or shame or pain you carry around, but Jesus wants you to trust that some burdens you need not carry alone, for He will carry you, and some are simply not yours to carry, for you are already covered with His grace.
Whenever we turn to Jesus, asking Him to carry us when we can’t carry on with the burdens of grief or pain that come to us all, or whenever we ask Him to help us to drop the burdens of guilt or shame that we should have dropped long ago, then the words of today’s scripture—The Word of God made flesh—become real and true in our own flesh. When that happens, we will know that Christmas isn’t a day we commemorate but a reality we celebrate.
- What burdens might you be carrying around right now?
- What burdens do you need Jesus to help you to carry?
- What burdens is Jesus asking you to drop and give to Him now and forever?
I invite you to hear a most beautiful song: Click on this video above.