I was out yesterday. . . but not for long. Traffic was heavy. The stores were crowded. The lines were long. And I wasn’t in the mood. I saw many people . . . mostly husbands wandering aimlessly in stores waiting for the time when they could “get out of there.”
Have you noticed that even though we have talked about simplifying life and keeping Christ at the center of our celebration . . . it is a lot easier said than done? I have. Around every corner there is something that seeks to increase the stress and deplete the joy of the season.
This is common. In fact it shouldn’t be surprising. The Devil wants nothing more than to turn our focus from the real message of Christmas. He wants nothing more than getting us all caught up in wrapping paper, parties, details and Christmas lights. He’s good at what he does.
This morning we not only want to face the inevitable distractions . . . we want to find ways to deal with them. But first, we must admit . .
Christmas has it’s distractions
The first Christmas
We have seen too many serene depictions of the manger. We have the image that this was a great and easy experience for Mary and Joseph. We think that because they were faithful . . there were no obstacles to overcome. I think we are wrong.
Now I can’t prove any of these things but may I suggest even Mary and Joseph had distractions to deal with.
- hormonal changes in her body
- an awkward and perhaps strained relationship with Joseph
- a new marriage
- the disapproving spotlight of public opinion
- the bad timing of a trip to Bethlehem
- the uncomfortable ride on a donkey
Mary faced a very difficult time with grace and truth. She is the picture of faithfulness . . but that was not because things were easy . . . it was because her heart was right.
- a new marriage (without consummation)
- a pregnancy that he did not cause . . . ego
- the responsibilities of providing for a family
- dealing with a moody wife
- the anxiety of trying to take care of mother and child
- the no vacancy signs in Bethlehem
Joseph too faced the pregnancy with many things on his mind. There is no doubt in my mind that he had lots of friends giving him unsolicited counsel on what to do with a wife who was pregnant outside of marriage. Yet Joseph too remained faithful.
Certainly we want to be known as faithful as we celebrate this Christmas season. But we will face inevitable distractions as well.
- shortage of money
- more to do than energy to do it
- expectations from others that need to be met
Confronting the Distractions of Christmas
We recognize that Mary and Joseph faced distractions and also remained faithful. However we are left to speculate as to the strategies they used. So, I take you to another who has faced many obstacles but remained faithful – the Apostle Paul. He tells us,
2 Cor. 11:24-28 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.
Paul knew what it was like to face distractions. In the book of Philippians, as he sits in jail we can see some of his philosophy of facing life’s daily grind. In these principles we can find some things to help us face the inevitable distractions that would turn us from the real meaning of the season.
Facing Distracting Situations
We face many distracting situations at Christmas. There are the many demands, the constant deadlines, tensions in relationships. How are we to handle these all-consuming distractions?
Paul says in verse 4, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” I know what you are thinking . . . this is the same kind of advice you get from people who tell you “don’t worry!” or “cheer up”. They are trite phrases that are absolutely useless in times of stress.
But please listen carefully to what Paul is saying. He is not saying, “Don’t worry . . . be happy.” He is saying we should rejoice . . . IN THE LORD. He is not telling us to pretend to be something we aren’t . . .He says we need to remember who we are and who we belong to.
In the midst of the Christmas rush we must remind ourselves that our reason for celebration this season is not the decorations, it’s not the presents, the carols or any of these surface things. Our reason for joy is the Lord.
In the distracting situations we need to
- Remember that we are loved by the Father
- Remember that He holds our hand in every situation
- Remember that He promises to lead us home
- Remember that He promises that NOTHING will separate us from His love
If we remember these things then we find our perspective changes. In these times we need to ask ourselves these questions,
- Am I setting my mind on circumstances or eternal truth? Are you looking at the ground when you could be looking to the Heavens?
- How significant is this situation in light of eternity? Have you lost your perspective on what is really important?
- Why should I allow this situation to rob me of my focus?
Facing distracting People
One of the most distracting part of Christmas is people. There are rude shoppers, surly checkout people, pushy relatives, creative “drivers” on the road, demanding children, and the ever-present Scrooge-like individuals. No matter what we say about these people, one thing is certain: they can suck the joy out of any celebration and can make us act just like them.
You know what I mean. Someone speaks a curt word to you and you respond in kind. Someone pushes . . .you push back. Someone drives like an idiot and you try to use your vehicle as a weapon. Don’t look so innocent . . . it has happened to you. I know it has happened to me. I’ll go to a sporting event and the fans for the other team are obnoxious and rude. Guess what? I begin to be obnoxious and rude in return. Someone cuts in front of me in a check-out line and guess what happens . . . I become petty and aggressive. When I go to Chicago I drive differently . . . courtesy gives way to a “survival of the fittest” approach to the road.
Where did we ever get the idea that becoming like those who annoy us will ever make things better? What makes us think that turning up the volume will help us make our point? When did “being unkind, petty or mean” ever translate into a loving act? Where did we get the idea that a person “who doesn’t take anything from anyone” is acting as Christ would want us to act?
The Apostle Paul was dealing with unkind people all the time. He faced those who rejected his message, those who disliked his style and methods, those who wished him dead. And even in the Philippian church he has two women that are fighting and dividing the church. What is his counsel in all of this? “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” (V.5)
Paul says treat the people who distract you with kindness. Be the one who says “Thank you and have a Merry Christmas.” to the one who is worn and haggard. Be the one who lets another go first. Speak softly in the angry situation. We are to be gentle and kind to everyone . . . .even . . . especially. . . those who are most distracting.
Why, you ask? Here’s a couple of reasons.1) The Lord is coming soon and that person needs to meet Jesus. We reflect Jesus most when we act with kindness, gentleness and grace. Our witness depends on our attitude
Second, we must remember 2) angry people are often hurting people. Hurting people do not need anger in return . . . they need care. The surly cashier may be wounded by a series of demanding customers. The rude person may be so filled with anxiety they aren’t even aware of others around them. The Scrooge-like person may be negative because the holidays reminds them of pain, loneliness and loss in their life. A wise person once taught me . . . when you see someone who is angry . . look for the pain. The hurting person doesn’t need someone to dig in their wound . . . they need someone to give them a band-aid. That band-aid can come in the form of kindness.
Finally, remember 3) you can make the biggest difference with kindness You have been the worn out cashier; you’ve been the stressed out shopper; you’ve been the person who was so wearied by life that you brought a cloud anywhere there was sunshine, you have felt ignored, used, unappreciated. . . .Friend, in those times what would have been most helpful to you? How would you have wanted someone to respond to you? Would you want appreciation or rudeness? Bitterness or softness? Judgement or understanding?
Do you realize that other people have pressure too? Other people are doing their best. Others are frustrated. Others get hurt and grumpy. Others feel ignored and unappreciated. Many of the people we encounter are not being difficult because that’s their nature (some of them are) but because they are worn thin. We can perpetuate the cycle of unhappiness or we can break the cycle.
I have found in tense hospital rooms, rowdy police precincts, volatile sporting events, family squabbles, the best way to bring peace to a situation is with kindness. The best way to restore order is not to swell up and bark orders . . . it is to be gentle.
Facing Distracting Problems
And what about the problems of the season: the illusive gift; the demanding relative; the depleted budget; the unceasing demands for more of ourselves than we have to give?
Paul tells us, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
The word used here for anxiety or worry means: “to be pulled in different directions” The Old English root means “to strangle”. There are those things in life that seem to pull us apart. They get a strangle hold on our life and suck the joy of Christ right out of us. In those situations Paul has a simple solution – pray.
Prayer keeps us focused. Martin Luther told people He would pray for two hours every morning . . . except the mornings when his schedule was extremely heavy . . . on those days he prayed for three or four hours! That’s the response that we need . . . . when things are most hectic we must be the most diligent to find quiet with our Lord.
Do you know what prayer is?
it is spending time with one who loves you
it is sharing with someone who understands
it is spending time with someone who can help
it is tapping into the resources of Heaven
it is finding rest in the midst of churning
Prayer makes sense. When the circumstances of life begin to overwhelm . . . it is time to withdraw and seek the counsel of the Lord. He can direct us to the right gift. He will give us wisdom for difficult situations. He will calm our racing heart. He will help us see the light at the end of the tunnel. And what is more . . . He will give us the strength to make it home.
One of my favorite movies at Christmas is “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. At one point Bing and his girl can’t sleep and they are visiting down by the fire. It becomes the setting for a song . . . “When you’re worried and you can’t sleep, try counting blessings, instead of sheep . . . and you’ll fall asleep, counting your blessings.” Paul understood this . . . in the middle of praying we should remember to be thankful.
When you feel stressed take a few moments to count your blessings. Most of the difficulties will suddenly become less overwhelming.
During this Christmas season the most resolute intentions in the world are going to encounter distractions. There will be many things that come our way that threaten to de-rail us. In those times we need to remember Paul’s advice:
Keep perspective by remembering your reason for joy in the first place.
Change the grumpy and self-centered with kindness.
And, face problems, not by running faster but by stopping to talk to the Father
You can have a Christ-centered Christmas. But it takes focus and determination. This morning we’ve looked at some practical wisdom for handling distractions. But I must close with a warning. If you do these things beware . . . things may take you a lot longer this Christmas season. Why? because people will stop you wherever you are to ask, “What’s with you?” And then my friend, you can tell them the REAL Christmas story.