Though the birth of Jesus is not celebrated by everyone, it remains true that what God did at “Christmas” was for the whole world. The Bible is clear on this. In his Gospel, John says God sent his Son into the world that “the world” might be saved. In Luke’s Gospel, the angel tells the shepherds that the good news of Jesus’ birth was for “all the people.” So the birth of Jesus was God’s gift to everyone, and therefore the best of all Christmas gifts.
This means that each of us is equally loved by God. None of us is excluded from the love God offers all people everywhere. When I reflect on this, joy floods my soul. The God who made me loves me. He knows my name. I am a person, made in the image of a Person who is the Creator of all things. And that Person loves me, even me! That, beloved, is reason to rejoice.
A miserable feeling, like a dark cloud, descends upon us when we are excluded. It hurts to be shunned, ignored or rejected, and most of us have memories of such pain. You may remember one of these painful occasions:
When captains on the playground were choosing players for their teams, you were the last one chosen.
You were an orphan, in an orphanage, praying for a family to adopt you, and nobody wanted you.
You wanted to eat in a certain restaurant, but you were not allowed in because of your skin color.
You wished to a cheerleader, but they said you were too heavy.
You had to turn around because the sign on the door read, “Members Only.”
The list is endless.
Painful exclusion, however, is not the end of your story, nor mine. Because God loves you, hopefully you have experienced the joy of being included. The angels spoke to the humble shepherds about the “great joy” God would give them when they saw the baby Jesus. And so great was their joy that they returned home praising God for what they had seen. Great joy is ours when we are accepted, affirmed and included. Few things beat the thrill of knowing you “belong” to a family, a team or a fellowship. To be denied the joy of belonging is devastating.
I arrived late for a speaking engagement in the huge ballroom of a hotel in Dallas, Texas. Once I stepped inside, I was stunned by the sight of 500 pastors and their wives seated at round tables. I knew none of them personally. No one welcomed me or offered to help me find a seat. Feeling quite uncomfortable, I saw a table with an empty seat and dared to ask if the seat was taken. “Oh yes, that seat belongs to my wife,” a man said curtly with a look on his face that meant “Move on, Buddy.”
I went to another table with an empty chair and asked if it was available. The reply was less than welcoming — “Yeah, sure; help yourself.” Neither of the men I sat between introduced himself to me; both ignored me and resumed chatting with their friends. I began eating a salad while being ignored by seven other people who were acquainted. An understandable situation — but painful nonetheless.
Then something wonderful happened. I felt two hands on my shoulders. Someone was standing behind me. I recognized the voice of my friend, Professor Elton Trueblood, as he interrupted the conversations at the table with these unforgettable words: “Please excuse me, dear friends; I want you to meet my friend Walter Albritton from Alabama. Do get to know Walter; you will like him.” After greeting me, the good doctor walked back to the head table. He left me a bit embarrassed but filled with the great joy of being affirmed, accepted and included! His gracious affirmation created for me the joy of belonging.
Such joy is what Christmas is all about — the joy of feeling God’s hands on your shoulders, making you aware that despite your sins He accepts you and loves you. It is the joy of knowing you are included in his offer of redeeming love to the whole world. It is indeed wondrous news — that God’s love excludes no one and embraces “all people”!
For many years the Hebrews had felt excluded from God’s love. Their disobedience had brought on the wrath of God’s judgment — bondage in a strange land. The prophets gave them hope — the promise of a Messiah who would come and save them.
Finally, “in the fullness of time,” the Messiah came! Jesus was born as promised! The God whose name is Immanuel, “God with us,” arrived, born of all places in a cow’s stall. And the best news of all — the “gift” of Jesus was for all people! Especially good news for those who know the misery of not belonging.
The lowly shepherds must have felt unworthy of God’s favor, having no reason to suppose they were included in the Creator’s love. The “important” people would have greeted the angel’s good news with skepticism. But the shepherds received it with great joy.
Some brilliant people are reluctant to embrace the simple truth of the biblical account of the birth of Jesus. To them the story is a lovely myth. Each of us must decide — is it a myth or good news for everyone? I pushed my doubts aside and chose to side with the shepherds. So for me the essential meaning of Christmas is that the great plan of God became a reality when Christ was born. God made salvation available to all people through the birth of Mary’s baby.
The birth of Jesus then is the best of all Christmas gifts, a gift of accepting love that all who receive it can share it with others. All around us are people who feel excluded from God’s favor. They wait to be shown they belong to God’s family. They are looking for more than a toy under a tree; they long to be embraced as brothers and sisters who are included in the Father’s family.
Put your hands on someone’s shoulders this Christmas, and experience the joy of sharing the best Christmas gift with someone longing to belong.