When I was 7 years old, I knew what I wanted for Christmas. I had my heart set on the new Johnny Lightning 500 Track Set. For those of you not familiar with the new Johnny Lightning 500, it was, in my 7-year-old estimation, a far superior option than the run-of-the-mill Hot Wheels® all my friends had. I had vivid dreams of the stunning races I would stage on that amazing track. They would be just like the one I saw on the commercials. I wanted it so bad I could practically taste it!
Confident this was the gift that would make my life complete, I put in my request to my parents and started to count down the days until the big morning. Christmas arrived and I ran downstairs to see if my dreams would be fulfilled. In my house, my parents had specific rules about Christmas morning. We were allowed to open our stockings when we woke up, but that was it until everyone was up. Even worse, there was no present opening until we had breakfast. So, all I could do in the early hours of that Christmas morning was open my stocking, size up the packages around the tree and make my best guess.
Then came the waiting — through the stockings, my mom’s healthy breakfast and all the small gifts that had to be opened (one at a time) before any of the big presents could be unveiled. Finally, my moment arrived. I took my biggest present and tore off the paper. And there, in the middle of the living room, was … not the new Johnny Lightning 500. I do not remember what I did get, but I can still recall the feeling of disappointment. I had set myself up with great expectations and then did not get what I wanted.
As I sat with my second-rate gift, I watched my siblings as they beamed with joy over what they had received. I felt cheated. I felt like maybe my parents did not love me as much as I thought they did. What other explanation was there for not getting the one thing I really wanted?
Christmas can be a stressful time for many of us. Like I did when I was 7, we so often set ourselves up with unrealistic expectations of getting the perfect present, having the perfect family celebration or hoping for a specific reaction when we give what we believe is the perfect gift. The problem with each of these expectations is that they require other people to behave according to our unspoken plans. My parents did not want me to be disappointed that Christmas when I was 7, but they did not realize I wanted that certain race track as much as I did. Or, maybe, it was too expensive. Or, perhaps, they thought it was a passing fad.
The same is true of family gatherings. We picture in our minds that everyone will be happy and grateful and cooperative. But, some years, family members show up to family celebrations stressed, depressed, angry or worried. And they do not meet our expectations. It is the challenge of all celebrations — how we feel about them is often dependent on other people behaving in ways we do not control. And, when that happens, we set ourselves up for disappointment and frustration.
However, the true message of Christmas and its deep impact on us is not dependent on how others are feeling, on how others behave or even on how we are feeling or behaving. The story of Christmas is about what God is doing in our midst.
The story of Christmas is set in a most stressful time when everybody felt out of control. In the Gospel of Luke, we read that a decree went out from Emperor Augustus demanding all the world be enrolled in a census. Everyone’s anxiety goes up when we live under the weight of decrees, whether they come from the government, our jobs or our family. None of us like command performances. Everyone in ancient Palestine was on the move and no one had the choice to stay home. It did not matter where you lived, if you had an illness or if you were days away from delivering a baby. A decree went out and you had to go.
It was in the midst of this tremendous turmoil and stress that God joined us in the difficulty of life. One of the names that we give to Jesus is “Immanuel.” The name Immanuel means “God with us.” God is not with us only when we are happy, successful or healthy. The promise of Christmas is that God is with us in every time and in every circumstance. God does not enter the world because we are ready or because we deserve it. God enters the world because God loves us and wants to be with us in all the demands and disappointments of life.
When I was 43 years old, I wanted something very different for Christmas. I wanted my wife Linda to be well. Just a month before, Linda was diagnosed with breast cancer. In early December, she had a double mastectomy and she was scheduled to start chemotherapy the day after Christmas. The doctors told us she had a good chance of being cured of cancer, but there were no guarantees. In the days leading up to Christmas, I felt like our whole family was living under a decree. We had never experienced such stress. Christmas came and went, and like the Christmas when I was 7, I did not get what I wanted. It would take another eight months of grueling treatments. Now, 10 years later, Linda’s prognosis is excellent!
But, while I did not get what I wanted that Christmas, I did get what I needed. In the birth of the Christ child, I experienced God with me. I knew God knew my family’s fear and our uncertainty and our pain. We did not know how things would work out, but we knew God would be with us, no matter what.
This Christmas, my prayer for you is that, whether or not you receive what you want, you receive what you need — the presence of God in your everyday life. When we experience that, the disappointments and frustrations of life no longer have the power to derail us from what is truly important. And we experience a deep joy that comes from being held by a God who loves us enough to become like us.
Reverend Dan Anderson-Little is the pastor of Legacy Presbyterian Church.