One of the great privileges of being a pastor is that you get to be a part of some very personal and sometimes very emotional times in people’s lives. I have had the chance to dedicate many people’s children to the Lord. I have had a front row seat at many people’s baptism services (where they make a public professions of their faith in Christ). I have watched couples say, “I do” literally 18 inches away from me. I have also presided over people’s funerals, and cried with families as they lost loved ones. It is perhaps one of the most rewarding parts of this work. You really do get to walk the path of life with people.
But, what I have noticed (and I wonder if you have taken notice of it as well), in each of these life-altering moments there is always a physical touch (of some kind) associated with each moment. There is the laying on of hands at the baby dedication. There is the post-baptismal embrace. There is the moment where the bride and groom kiss at the end of the wedding ceremony. And I have yet to be at a funeral service where family members aren’t holding hands or having their arms around each other as a means of support and comfort.
Sometimes the best way – and maybe in some instances the only way – to show love, is to show it (and experience it) through some kind of physical affection. Even the least touchy-feely person among us understands that much. And at one level it shouldn’t surprise us, because we are physical people. We have flesh and bones. We have emotions and a spirit, but we also have a body and if love is to be known in all its fullness it should have a physical component. If love is the most important thing humans experience, it will include every dimension of who we are.
Now, why am I making such a big deal out of this – especially on Christmas Day?
For the last few days, leading up to our Christmas celebration, we have been looking at the Christmas story through the lens of a book written by Gary Chapman called the Five Love Languages. And in that book he talks about the five different ways by which people prefer to give and receive love
- Acts of service
- Words of affirmation
- Quality time
- Thoughtful gifts
- Physical touch
My premise has been that if it was God’s ultimate objective to show love to the world through the coming of his son then we would see all five love languages in the story of Christmas. And we have! Jesus came as a servant king – which was a totally different picture than what people at the time were expected. He also understand the power of words, and was the “word made flesh”. The angels used words to describe the significance of his coming. They said, “We have come to bring good tidings of great joy that today in the city of David a savior has been born.” He gave us quality time. He didn’t just make an appearance – he lived among us. He was called Emmanuel “God with us” and then there were gifts brought from afar through the three wise men. Gifts worthy of a king!
But, today we celebrate the fact that Jesus took on human flesh and touched our earth. He walked on real sand. He dressed in clothes that had to be washed. He needed help from his parents in learning how to walk. He went to school to learn. Then, in his ministry he embraced sinners. He touched the sick. He wept with those who grieved. He was God, but he wasn’t untouchable. Quite the opposite, he was very much touchable and approachable.
There is an old proverb that states,
Don’t judge a man, until you have walked a mile in his shoes…
My dad always like to add a second part to the it,
…because then when you do criticize you will be a mile away and you will have his shoes…
But, the real point, obviously, is that it would seem presumptuous for anyone to know how to critique a life until that person had spent some time trying to understand what that life was like.
Many of us grew up learning about a vengeful God; a God who was just waiting to find a way to punish us. You heard about hell and its fire, and how much God loved sending us dirty rotten sinners there.
So, you might look at the statement I just referenced and put the emphasis on the first part of that statement. God is going to judge us when all this is said and done and so the reason he came to earth was to justify his judgement. He walked the earth and did his thing SO THAT when it came time to judge he could legitimately say, “Look I was there and I did it perfectly – why couldn’t you get it right? You are such a screw up! Go to hell – the place you truly deserve.
We could look at it that way and given how some of you were raised around the church, that would make total sense. But, that isn’t the only way to see it.
It’s true a day of reckoning is coming. We will all have to give account for our lives – and there is some appropriate humility that is associated with that reality. But, what if his coming wasn’t about finding a reason to condemn us, what if it really was about finding a way to save us?
What if it was about his wanting us to know that he understood how hard it is to the right thing? What if it was his way of saying, I worked with some pretty messed up and confused guys when I was on the earth? They often didn’t get what I was trying to say. They were often selfish and mean and I had to bring them correction. And even after all I did for them, they still abandoned me at the end… But, I never stopped loving them. I never stopped wanting to walk with them. So, after the resurrection, even after they all took off, I again appeared to them, and when one of them finally decided he could trust me (after putting his fingers in the nail holes and hand in the pierced side), I said to him,
“You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.”
Blessed are those who without the actual physical touch of God can still believe in me!
That puts us at a bit of a disadvantage – doesn’t it? At least they got to see him. We don’t get that! How are we supposed to be believe without it? It’s true – its harder – and maybe that is why those of us who do believe without that physical touch are especially blessed. But, then on the other side, we aren’t without certain signs and signal of his presence and love. We can and do get to experience his “touch” if we know where to look for it.
Yesterday, I got a text that one of my dear friends passed away after a six-year battle with cancer. When Carol and I got the text from his wife, we were standing together in the kitchen and we both wept. What a loss for both us and his family. And you know what my first instinct was? I wanted to find his wife and his sons and give them a big hug and tell them that things were going to be OK. We would stand by them and walk through this difficult season with them.
Carol and I wanted to extend ourselves with a physical touch to express love and bring reassurance in an otherwise difficult season. Why was that our response? You could say that it was all about human friendship – that is what friends do – and maybe that was it. But, it also felt like something way more than that. Could it be that God was prompting us to be that and to do that as his extension of physical love to that family?
You see so often I will hear people say, but I don’t feel God. I have needed his touch, but nothing came my way. I never felt him! But, the truth is he did come… and he still comes to those of us who readily share our hands and arms for the sake of another. God uses our arms as his modern day extension of physical touch – and you don’t even have to be a believer to know that or feel that. And isn’t that such a compelling picture of just how much he loves you – right now, wherever you are.
His heart is not to damn you for the first thing you do wrong. His heart is to draw you in and let you know he is the one who has been with you through the love of friends and family – especially when life gets its hardest. And that is just the first signal of his love – once you come to know him on a personal level there are all kinds of other ways we see the truth of this!
I know Christmas is such a mixed blessing holiday. For many of us it is a time of great celebration. We love being with our kids or grandkids. We love going home to be with family. We love relaxing and hanging out with our friends. We love the break from school. All of which is good!
However, there is another side to Christmas. There are those who are missing loved ones. There are those who had a really hard college semester. There are those who aren’t sure about all this talk about Jesus – and aren’t really sure they want to talk about it.
But, even for you (the ones who feel furthest away) there is a way that you can know he is never far off. If someone grabs your hand (in a non-creepy way) you can feel a little love from that. If someone hugs your neck and with genuine love in their eyes says, “I am so glad to see you!” You could feel love from that. In my own Dutch tradition there was the practice of kissing each of your aunts and grandmas and even cousins three times on the cheek – I said I hated it as a kid, but I really did feel loved by it. And my guess is that these kinds of expressions of physical affection will happen a lot for a good many of you this Christmas. You will get hand-shacks and hugs and kisses on the cheek. And I am wondering if every time something like that happens, can you not see that as more than the love of a friend or family member. Could you bring yourself to see it as the hug and kiss of God? Giving you hope that he is never far away!