While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:6-7)

A few days ago, Anne and I were dressing to head off for work. The “Today Show” was providing the background noise with the daily news, weather, financials and typical interviews.

Then they introduced a New York City psychotherapist to tell us how to “take the stress out of the holiday season.”

My ears perked up, as did Anne’s. She grabbed a pencil and jotted down five suggestions. Then I asked her if I could borrow them. It was pretty good advice. The suggestions are these of the therapist. The elaborations on each theme are mine.

Suggestion One: Have Realistic Expectations.

We all have fantasies about how the holiday should be, don’t we? We are romantics at heart. We want this to be a high-mark time for everybody involved. The family, such as it is, comes back together for this intense time.

What we forget is that our memories of Christmases past tend to be sanitized by time. What we remember are the warm fuzzies of family togetherness. We have edited out stress, conflicts, ongoing clashes of personality and varied expectations of all who are part of the holiday mix.

Suggestion Two: Avoid Perfectionism.

Women, in particular, can ruin the season for their selves and others by this perfectionism. We men, on the other hand, have a tendency to belittle this desire for the lights to be symmetrical, the ornaments perfectly placed, just the right gift for the right person, and every name and address being up-to-date on the Christmas card list, backed by the assurance that every one will arrive prior to Christmas eve.

So often our male efforts at modifying this perfectionism produce the opposite result. We ourselves have our own areas of holiday compulsivity.

Suggestion Three: Limit Family Time.

Thank God for families. But enough can be enough!

We all bring our varied psychological stuff to the holidays, don’t we? Put us all in a room together for a prolonged period of time, and that stuff will begin to leak out around the edges. Each of us has some remembered slights, hurts, or even serious offenses against us that, with one drink too many or some flippant, insensitive, offhand comment, can erupt, throwing this overly intense, crowded, stressful, artificial family gathering into total disarray. One person gets their feelings hurt and sulks. Another stalks out of the room. And the co-dependent in the midst tries to smooth the waters. Then two or three break down in tears.

Oh, I know that’s never happened to any of us here at St. Andrew’s. After all, we have wonderful families made up of followers of Jesus who love to celebrate the Christmas season together. (I say that tongue in cheek.) Although there may be variations on the theme, we Christians too have family issues, don’t we?

We need some aesthetic distance from each other. Build it into the holiday season in terms of time schedule, space, and intensity of activity. Every moment doesn’t have to be packed with family togetherness.

Suggestion Four: Encourage Creative Traditions.

We all have them. They are good. And they can change, modify and even grow over a period of years.

It used to be that Anne and I and the girls, all five of us, would go and pick out the Christmas tree together. Then the girls grew up and didn’t have time for such an activity. So Anne and I would do it together. Then she got busy with other Christmas preparations. So Janet, the youngest, left at home with sisters away at universities, joined me in the quest for the perfect tree. It was a modification of family tradition. We would borrow the old truck from the church, with its manual shift that I could never master, and Janet would laugh hilariously as we would jerk our way down the street. To this day, she won’t give me the benefit of the doubt that there was something wrong with the truck, not just my driving aptitudes. Even the memory sparks jovial family conversation. Then there were a couple of years when, as empty nesters, I searched the tree lots by myself, only to set myself up for varied observations as to the somewhat wanting physical proportions of my choice. This year, Janet jumped the gun and found the perfect tree a few blocks from where she works in Lake Forest. By phone, Anne and I bought into her choice. The tradition had taken one more modifying step.

We have these myriad of family traditions, do we not? Let’s savor them. Let’s let them change, adapt, and even realize that there is a time for some to be discarded into the category called “memory.”

Suggestion Five: Avoid Over Indulgence.

We all know what happens when we eat too much, drink too much, party too much. Already many of us are planning the diet we will begin on January 1, only to be broken as we stuff our mouths with leftover cookies, candies and other holiday desserts. Some of us already are feeling bad about ourselves for over-indulgence. This year I tried something different. I bought a pack of Slim-Fast for the office and one for home. I also bought a box of power bars for each of those places. If there’s a big evening out, there’s the can of Slim-Fast or a power bar for lunch. If there’s a big luncheon out, it’s one of the same two for dinner. For the first holiday season in my life, instead of having gained six pounds, at this point, I am actually down three, punctuating the balancing of diet with a few extra-long aerobic walks. I feel very good about that positive swing of nine pounds in the midst of this season so typically marked by indulgence.

We can also be over indulgent in gift buying. A friend of mine observed, “For 11 months I live on the edge of insolvency, and in December I step over that edge into total fiscal chaos.”

By now you are saying, “So this is the Christmas message?”

Well, frankly, I really believe the Holy Spirit has laid it on my heart to take these five specific suggestions of that New York psychologist, whose name we never caught, and embroider them with my own reflections. For, after all, they are filled with good common sense, aren’t they? By now our minds are stimulated to think of other positive suggestions that will make this season all the more meaningful.

So don’t worry. The message isn’t over. I would like to add one more suggestion and develop it with a bit more substance than we have brought to the first five.

Suggestion Six: Carve Out Some Quality Time for Jesus.

Are you already exhausted from the holiday frenzy? I imagine so! Why? Because you and I have bought into the system.

Even the government is telling us it is our patriotic duty to “SHOP! SHOP! SHOP!” How sad.

I look at how Anne and I have spent much of this time since Thanksgiving trying to live our fully-packed normal lives, and then add the wonderful Christmas stuff to those lives. We are not giving up anything. We are just adding more and more activity.

On that same day the psychologist gave the suggestions on the “Today Show,” I was reading the familiar Christmas narrative of Luke 2, and one phrase leapt out at me. It will not let me go. Luke describes the arrival in Bethlehem of the carpenter from Nazareth with his young, very pregnant bride. He describes how she gave birth to her first-born son, the baby Jesus, and wrapped him in cloths, and placed him in a manger “. . . because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).

I’m afraid it has been that way ever since.

There, from that first Christmas eve, there was no room for Him.

Now, 2000 years later, if we’re not careful, there is still no Christmas season room for Him in our lives. I’m just so busy, so harried by responsibilities, so determined to make this Christmas season the best ever, that I’ve no heart room for Jesus.

Do you know the feeling?

Let me suggest for you the “Holiday Recipe” I received in the mail this week.

Five minutes daily:

Sit quietly or lie down.

Take a deep breath and exhale slowly.

Close your eyes.

Allow God’s love to surround you and pour through you. Let His still, small voice speak to you. Try this for one week at least, and you’ll be “hooked.”

Think on your heavenly Father’s unfailing love, mercy and longing for you.

Have a peaceful, joyful and safe holiday season. Read Psalms 116, Psalms 118 and Psalms 119.

Let me add to this suggestion that, right now, you take a deep breath. Exhale slowly. Close your eyes. Allow the clutter and busyness of this Christmas season to evaporate as you center your life on Jesus Christ, carving out some quality time for Jesus right now in the midst of this worship service!

As you now carve out this quality time for Jesus, let me direct your open mind and heart to remember four spiritual realities.

First, remember that God takes seriously your needs.

When a real authentic holiday gift-giver wants to make the best possible impact, he studies the needs and desires of the one he chooses to gift.

God has done that. God sees you and me as men and women who are caught up in self-destruction. It’s a self destruction that comes from being in rebellion against God.

You know something? God doesn’t want you to self-destruct. He doesn’t want you to perish.

I remember one Christmas, years ago, when I was right in the middle of my Friday morning sermon preparation. My administrative assistant alerted me to the fact that there was a man on the phone in serious trouble. He had to talk to a pastor. I switched over to the outside phone line, talked with him briefly and invited him to come right over to the church. A few minutes later, he was in my study, and we were deeply absorbed in conversation. He was an attractive young man, 36 years of age. He had an excellent education, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. He was presentably dressed. However, he was obviously in serious trouble. With crispness of expression and a brilliance of insight, he shared with me his desperate situation. His eyes became misty as he described the events of the previous night. He hadn’t slept a wink. He had stayed up all night, fingering a pistol, endeavoring to get the courage to put a bullet through his brain.

He was a man bent on self-destruction. A man over whom life had gotten the better, knocking him out of control. Here was a man in the midst of the Christmas season without hope, a man who had come to a point of despair, a person without any place to turn in his dilemma of life.

Every one of us, in more or less sophisticated terms, is in the process of perishing. We are in the process of self-destruction. That is, we are in the process of self-destruction if we are endeavoring to handle our lives on our own without the help of God. Everyone in this room who is trying to “go it alone” in one-dimensional living, depending on self and other people to make it in life, is on a collision course with total disaster. This independent, self-centered living offers nothing but ultimate destruction.

That’s why I find tremendous help and comfort in that most familiar verse in the Bible, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

This verse alerts us to the dangers of our ways, our bent toward perishing. But it also confronts us with the fact that we need not destroy ourselves. We see our human condition. We are aware that everyone in this world is touched by the fact of sin. Literally or figuratively, we are fingering the revolver. At times, we are driven to despair. At other times, our lives are so filled with busyness that we are numb to the reality of our emptiness. But the Bible talks about sin. It tells us that “the wages of sin is death.”

God sees our need.

Second, remember that God is on your side.

He wants to give you the best gift ever given. He is literally coming after you with His love.

Some of us have the idea that God is a grouchy old grandfather. That’s probably because some of us have stretched His patience about as far as it can go. And if you and I were Him, we would be pretty fed up with ourselves.

Martin Luther put it bluntly in his Table Talk: “If I were as our Lord God . . . and these vile people were disobedient as they now be, I would knock the world into pieces.”

Luther got a little carried away, didn’t he? But fortunately, Luther was not God. God is not this grouchy old man, standing solemnly aside, staring at us with a cold, ruthless gaze. He is not some kind of cosmic despot who plays favorites with one nation, one race, one political idealogy and comes smashing down on others. He is not One who likes just good people and checks off those who are bad.

God is a loving Father. He engages himself in our predicament, endeavoring to counter our own self-destructive bent with the gift He has purchased for us in Jesus Christ.

Let me read that familiar verse once again and add to it the verse that follows: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16-17).

Did you catch that? That is the greatest news you will ever hear. It says that God loves you. He loves me. He loves all the world, every one of us in it.

St. Augustine expressed the love of God by saying: “God loves each one of us as if there were only one of us to love.”

That’s a universal love!

You have seen detective movies where hounds were used to track down the fugitive from justice. The bloodhound has an amazing capacity to pick up a scent and follow through the greatest difficulties to find the object of its quest.

Francis Thompson was a British poet who lived during the last half of the nineteenth century. He was a man whose ill health early in life drove him to opium addiction. His poverty sent him to selling matches and newspapers along the street. Later in life he experienced the love of God in a personal way, giving his life to Jesus Christ. He wrote a poem, telling about the divine pursuit of the human soul. He described God as “the hound of heaven.”

I will never forget an incident which temporarily captured the attention of the entire United States during the Christmas season of 1968. Anne and I, earlier that year, had moved to Key Biscayne, Florida. Richard Nixon had just been elected President. The Vietnam War was on the front pages of our newspapers. World events and presidential transitions suddenly took a back seat as a Miami, Florida father searched for his lost child. His name was Robert Mackle.

On Tuesday morning, December 17, 1968, he rushed from Miami to Atlanta in response to the word from his wife that his college-age daughter, Barbara Jane, had been kidnaped. He instructed the FBI and local police to avoid any pursuit of the criminals that might endanger her life. He let it be known that he would do anything to get his daughter back.

Wednesday, December 18, contact was made with the kidnappers. At 4 a.m. on the morning of December 19, a sleepless Robert Mackle drove himself to the Fair Isles Causeway, connecting the mainland with Miami Beach. He deposited a suitcase filled with $500,000 in unmarked bills along the seawall on Biscayne Bay. Several hours later, he heard that, although the money had been picked up, the alertness of the local police had broken the sequence of events progressing from the ransom to the release. He broke down and wept. He knew that his daughter had been buried alive somewhere in Georgia. There, in that underground coffin, she lay flat on her back, kept alive only by that small pipe through which she breathed surface air. I will never forget reading his front page appeal in the Friday, December 20, Miami papers, calling on the abductors to believe that he had nothing to do with the police tipoff. All he wanted was his daughter. He didn’t care about the money. He didn’t care about the arrest of the suspects. He did everything he could to hold off the public announcement by the FBI, issuing arrest warrants, in the fear that this would endanger the life of the daughter he loved.

Finally, all of us breathed a sigh of relief late that Friday night when he heard that the kidnappers had gotten their money and had notified the father where the daughter lay buried alive. Barbara Jane Mackle was released, and the Mackle family’s ordeal was over.

I am not being melodramatic, in drawing a precise parallel with the love of God, which ransomed you and me from the coffins in which we have been buried alive by Satan. The origin and the initiative for all salvation lies with God. His quest is for you. For me. He is the “hound of heaven.” It is through His Son, Jesus Christ, He accomplishes His act of deliverance.

He knows your needs. He is on your side, wanting to give you the gift of release from sin and death.

Third, remember that God wants you to receive Him into your heart and life.

He doesn’t force it on you. He simply offers it to you. He calls you to trust Him. He invites you to receive His love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

God is not an indulgent father. He is not playing games. His righteousness demands that our self-destructive bent, our involvement in sin, be punished. His justice demands the Cross. That is why Jesus came.

Jesus Christ is God become man to be our substitute, to take our place. Jesus Christ is God himself, bearing upon himself the penalty of our sins. Do you catch this? Do you realize it? The Christmas message is not one of sentimentality about little baby Jesus. It is a rugged, tough message about the God-Man who walked the face of this earth, was nailed to the Cross, who bore the heavy weight of sin, who was buried, who rose from the dead in victory over your sin and mine and who now offers you a gift, a gift which you are invited to receive.

One of the problems of spending a lot of time talking about “baby Jesus” is that we don’t have to confront the Christ of Calvary. Babies are easy to manage. Everybody loves a baby; everybody doesn’t love the bloody death scene of crucifixion.

Tell me one other birthday we celebrate that concentrates on a baby. You get a day off to celebrate the birthday of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Do you ever hear anyone talk about “baby George” or “baby Abraham?” No. We talk about the father of our country. We talk about the great emancipator. We celebrate birthdays of those who have made adult contributions to this world.

That is, for everyone except Jesus. Preoccupation with the baby removes our minds from the Cross. It frees us of having to decide whether or not to receive God’s love.

No, God doesn’t force His love on you. You are free to receive or reject the gift. He has given you a free will. He didn’t create you as a mechanical person, run as a robot from a remote control center. True love doesn’t force itself.

A lover who forces the object of his love becomes repulsive. A lover who breaks in to possess his loved one becomes guilty of emotional, intellectual or physical rape. God pursues us to the point of showing His love in Jesus Christ. Then He leaves you and me free to either believe in Jesus or to reject Him.

Some of us have an incorrect idea of what it means to believe in Jesus Christ. To believe means to have faith in Him. Faith is not inferior to reasoned knowledge. Faith is not blindly grabbing at that which cannot be proven. Faith implies a conviction and trust which arises out of a direct personal relationship. Faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is not the same as faith in some academic position that says that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord. Faith implies a personal trust in One you are growing to know in a day-by-day contact as one who is firm, reliable and steadfast in His love. Faith implies the willingness to stake your all in reliance upon God’s love in Jesus Christ.

One of the best descriptions of faith is the attitude of trust a little child has toward a loving parent.

I remember when our daughter Janet was four and five years old and we used to nuzzle her and hug her. We would play together. Believe it or not, I would pick her up by her ankles and swing her back and forth, upside down between my legs. Her hair swished along the carpet. Then, at a moment of my own selection, I would lift her forward and upward, releasing her to fly high into the air. At the peak of her upward flight, she would look down at me with the biggest, happiest, most ecstatic smile you can imagine, never for a moment dreaming of the possibility that I might jump aside and let her come crashing down to the floor. She believed in me. She trusted me. She had no thought but that I would take care of her.

Jesus said that we are to have trust in God like the trust of a little child. “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

Four, remember that God offers you His gift of eternal life.

Some of us have confused eternal life with everlasting life. Eternal life is not just an extension of this life. If that were the case, there are many of us who simply would not be interested in having it.

Eternal life is a whole new dimension of life. It is right here, right now, as well as forever. Eternal life functions in time and above time. It is in this world and in the next world. Eternal life is literally “God life now and forevermore.”

To have eternal life means that you are forever in right relationship with God. Eternal life is stripped clean of mortal limitations. If you are a person who believes in Jesus Christ, death is not a dark specter. Death is only a doorway through which you and I pass from our existence in this world into a greater dimension of fellowship with God. When you and I receive Jesus Christ in faith we can exclaim with the Apostle Paul:

‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting.’
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God!
He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)

This week, our dear friend, Dr. Lewis Smedes of Fuller Theological Seminary, died. He was simply putting up Christmas decorations when he fell, hit his head, went into a coma and, a few hours later, died. How quickly life can change. How tentative is our grip on life.

Last night Anne and I sat by the deathbed of our elder, Larry Felts, who is dying of cancer. He is only two months older than me. He is now in a coma, expected to die at any moment. His dear wife, Diane, just lost one of her adult sons, in his early twenties, a few months ago.

How sad are these losses. And how helpful are the promises of God’s Word that for those who believe, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”

During my 38 years of ordained ministry, I have presided at several hundred funerals and memorial services. I have found that one of the greatest confirmations of the validity of our Christian faith in a pragmatic, personal way is how a family responds to death when the one who has just died is a believer in Jesus Christ. Yes, there are tears. Certainly there is sorrow and grief. But, at the same time, there is the upthrust of hope and expectancy. Tears and sorrow are for those of us who remain, whereas there is joy for the one who has gone into the greater dimension of eternity with Jesus Christ. What a contrast this is to the gloomy, dismal, questioning, doubting atmosphere surrounding the death of one who gave no evidence of trust in Jesus Christ.

It is not a casual affair which gathers us together today. This is Christmas Sunday. It is the day on which we celebrate the Advent of God himself in human history.

Many of us in this room have trusted Jesus Christ and are now experiencing this new life which He promises. This eternal life is ours! Oh, we have the same old problems, but He gives us new perspective to meet them. He even gives us some new problems. Not one is above our capacity to handle. This is not escapism from the reality of life. This is facing the reality of our own inadequacy, depending on him.

Frankly, I would not remain in the ministry for one more minute if I were not personally sold on the claims of Jesus Christ. I am as big a skeptic as anyone in this sanctuary. But I have committed myself completely to Jesus Christ and am convinced that He died for my sins, rose from the dead in triumph over them, and He is the One in whom I am putting personal trust for this life and the life to come.

However, I will be the first to admit that even I need to be reminded to carve out quality time for Jesus.

It is my responsibility to urge you to know Him as Savior and Lord and to also carve out that quality time. And it is also my responsibility to invite you, if you have never received Him as Savior and Lord, to open your heart to Him for the first time, saying this simple prayer: “Dear God, I need you. I am sorry for my sins. I know I can’t save myself. I put my trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. Thank you for the greatest Christmas gift of all!”

Is there no room in the inn for Jesus this Christmas? Or are you willing to carve out quality time for Jesus? Is there heart room for Jesus? Is there room in your heart for Him?

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John A. Huffman, Jr. is the Senior Minister at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA. He is a Senior Contributing Editor to Preaching.

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