A Guiding Star

I have to confess, I was a little worried yesterday about how this message might come together. All I ate—almost all day—was sugar. I made homemade caramels with a recipe my favorite 103-year-old patient gave me late Friday afternoon, and of course I had to try some of those. I dipped all the peanut butter balls in chocolate and decorated them, and well, you know, I got that all over myself. I made oatmeal cranberry cookies again and dipped them in white chocolate and made my Grandma Libbert’s mysterious four-egg chocolate and walnut bars; they are so light and airy you wouldn’t think for a moment they are 300 calories each—and that may be on the low end. And then of course, you dip them in powdered sugar. So.

But, glucose-altered or not, my day was unfolding with joy, and my mind and heart were full of loving thoughts–thoughts about our cookie exchange last weekend and how fun that was, about all the family members and neighbors I’d be giving all the cookies to. I felt sweetness and gratitude for the patients who had shared with me their favorite Christmas memories this week, and really, grateful for all the true goodness I experience—and not just when I have sugary syrup coursing through my veins—but all the true goodness—the true Godness–I experience and enjoy every day.

And what a better way to start a Christmas message, actually, than full of joy, and the happy anticipation of love so close now we can almost taste it. For our God—the one who loved us enough to come right here and become human with us and within us—is all about love and giving. God wants to give us so much; but in our normal, non-Christmas frame of mind, we can get so caught up in the world, that we miss most of it.

Since the time 400 years before the birth of Jesus, when Plato and Aristotle were writing and teaching, philosophers have suggested there are three primary values—transcendental desires—that draw us toward living a good life: truth, goodness, and beauty. Human beings have, deep down, an innate yearning for these qualities that lift us above our daily struggles and worries and turn our minds toward the values of eternity. In fact we might think of the qualities of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty as guiding stars in our lives, helping us remember what’s lasting and important, helping us once again find and follow the promise of God’s love, whatever might be going on in the world around us.

Think of how the beauty of Christmas lights softens our mood and soothes our hearts. Or how a simple act of kindness—no matter how small–can change the whole course of our day. That’s goodness at work, drawing our spirits upward, reconnecting us with the goodness of life. And when we can for even the tiniest moment remember the truth about God’s presence—that God is eternally here—our problems seem to shrink, and their solution feel near and possible.

Because if we’re looking for it, there is always a star, always a guide to help us along. God makes sure of that, and Jesus came into this world to make it possible in very real, experiential way. Christ comes to teach His people Himself.  It’s the fulfillment of a promise God made to us long before the story of the first Christmas began. In our Old Testament reading we heard from the book of Jeremiah, where God expresses covenantal love, His intention to heal what divides us and reconcile us to Himself:

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the LORD.

What a promise that is! God’s plan for each of us is goodness and truth, beauty and hope. When we call, when we get quiet and pray, we can be sure that God is listening. I think of something Quaker Bayard Rustin said here, “To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true.” And also there is this affirming word from Early Friend Isaac Penington:

“There is that near you which will guide you. O, wait for it, and be sure to keep to it…”

As we come to trust this promise of God more and more, we gradually learn to recognize the answers that come in so many different ways. We might, in prayer, feel a shift in the way we’re looking at something, as our mind opens to new possibilities. We could, going about our day, just have a feeling that things are working out, that “God’s got this.” We might witness a problem simply untangle itself like it was never there at all. People who were once difficult are now friendly; things that worried us just evaporate. In each circumstance, in answer to every prayer, God is listening and responding, bringing truth, goodness, and beauty—and all the love we can be open to–into our lives. As we learn and grow closer—taking baby steps toward the manger—our hearts grow humble and quiet. We allow ourselves to be God’s children once again. And God is glad—as God promised so long ago—that we have found him.

Our New Testament reading today of course is the beautiful story of Jesus’ birth—it’s a passage most of us know and love. I still hear it in my head the way Linus said it in A Charlie Brown Christmas. He was quoting from the King James Version:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

I love how God’s joy simply must break through—into a still night where shepherds were resting with their flocks on the hillside. Suddenly an angel appears to deliver the news and then almost instantly a great chorus surrounds them—a multitude, the scripture says, and in Jewish tradition, a “multitude” is 10,000—so 10,000 angels, the heavenly host, all praising God together. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be one of those shepherds, so accustomed to quiet nights, suddenly in the presence of a 10,000-member angelic praise choir?

The word beautiful wouldn’t quite cover it. Certainly awe-inspiring, miraculous, and out of this world would all be appropriate and accurate terms to use. But I think the change within their hearts must have been as great a miracle as any experienced that day—to be filled with such perfect and radiant wonder and joy would be a completely life-changing, life-renewing, life-invigorating experience. And that is why we each make the trip to Christmas each year ourselves. It is Hope that draws us. We yearn once again—maybe once and for all—to really know God’s truth in our heart of hearts: The truth that He is with us still, leading always toward pure Love, pure Goodness, pure Beauty. When we seek Him with our whole hearts, “I will be found by you,” He tells us.

And so it is as we each take our own eager but hesitant steps toward the manger in the stable. With tender, humble, childlike hearts we make our approach. What will we find when our eyes finally see the baby lying there? Purity, essential goodness, and a love so big—a love SO big—it is everywhere, always. And the fact that this unlimited Love is also so personal—so perfectly fitted to our individual hearts—that’s the Christmas miracle we can each experience for ourselves this year.

It’s like what the great Gospel singer Shirley Caesar, says in her song “This Joy I Have,”

This joy I have, the world didn’t give it to me…
This joy I have, the world didn’t give it to me…
This joy I have, the world didn’t give it to me…
The world didn’t give it
The world can’t take it away

This Christmas, as we each approach the manger in our own personal ways, let’s remember we’ve been guided there by the stars of truth, goodness, and beauty God continually present in our lives. God has promised us that when we seek Him with all our hearts, He will be found. This is the path. Now is the time. And the Light we’re following, this Light we love, the world didn’t give it to us. We know where it comes from. And it is guiding our steps, every day, on purpose, toward a hope and a joyful future, safe in the arms of God.

Merry Christmas, Friends!

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