“Christmas Around the World – Family Around the World” with John Burke

At Gateway Church in South Austin we continued our series called “Christmas Around the World”!

Christmas is best celebrated when we are surrounded by the ones we love. Through Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection, we are invited into the family of God. That means we are chosen. That means we belong!

Digging Deeper:

Work through the following questions and scriptures on your own, and get together with your running partner,  life group, or friends and family to talk through what you are learning.

Digging Deeper

Message Video:

Message Audio:

Message Notes:

As we lead up to Christmas, we are looking at how Christmas is celebrated around the world. And all around the world, Christmas is about family. People will gather around a table, maybe like this one, or maybe a Table like Jesus gathered around—low to the ground. There will stories told, laughter, great food and drink, catching up as family members come back together from near or far. Christmas has always been about family. And families will post their Merry Christmas photos for all to see.

 But family and Christmas are not always the pretty picture we’d like to post. Have you ever noticed family Christmas pics are usually this perfect picture of the whole family plus the dog (notice cats are seldom in happy Christmas photos)—Gathered together, shoulder to shoulder, dressed in some color-coordinated, unified way—Christmas onesie PJs have been trending it seems.  Everyone looks happy, smiles on their faces—and you look and think—what a wonderful, happy Family.  Right?

Have you ever been a part of trying to get that perfect picture?  It’s usually a perfect mess. [CPs insert a CHRSTIMAS FOTO FAIL Story] I remember when our family tried this little routine when our kids were really young.  We were going for that natural “outdoor” look.  So Kathy directed the choosing of clothes for all the kids to make sure we looked unified—make sure and no one grabbed clothes out of the dirty clothes with Jelly stains or dirt streaks.  So after Kathy dressed me…along with Justin and Ashley.  Which was a messy process in itself, we were going to be late.  It was a very stressful morning, get us all dressed and to the place the photographer had decided to try the nature shots.   Due to the stress of the morning, things were said that made someone hurt—someone was crying—which created more stress because perfect pictures can’t have red teary eyes.  So we had to work through the hurt feelings, mop up the red eyes with Visine, get all the hair combed and out onto the landscape.  We got there, and it was a beautiful, crystal clear blue-sky December day with North winds gusting between 30 and 65 mph.  We went from pose to pose, trying to get the perfect picture—but it kept looking like the Perfect Storm—we looked like we were in a wind tunnel—hair back, cheeks flapping in the wind. We had to abandon the original plan, and start over—another way another day. We did get a great pic, just not as originally planned.

God’s plan for family turns out to be a lot like that.  God created the idea of families. From the beginning in Genesis 1, God said “It’s not good for a person to be alone—and he set them in families. Family was God’s plan to show his love, nurture, care and development of people from parents to children, and His desire was that parents created a family Table—a family culture that reflected God’s will and ways—people grow up around this Table feeling loved, secure, valued, championed, and developed—believed in. But something went wrong—we all secretly scoff because that’s not how things often go.

Genesis 3 and 4 reminds us how people rebelled against God’s plan.  We choose our will and ways over God’s will and ways, and the first family suffered the consequences. Instead of a loving, supportive family Table, Adam and Eve rebel against God, and soon their son Cain becomes jealous of his brother Abel to the point on wanting to murder each other—now we call it “sibling rivalry” but their’s was a case of “sibling homicide.”  And this pattern has continued causing strife and division within individual families, and within all the people God created to be his children.  And this is what’s critical to understand about Christmas and Family—God cares deeply about individuals and about restoring families.  Despite the breakdown of the Family as it was meant to be, it says of God:  “Father to the fatherless, defender of widows— this is God, whose dwelling is holy. God places the lonely in families…. Psalm 68:5-6

            Maybe you have not had the family God intended, or maybe you’ve been through a heart-wrenching family breakdown, maybe you’re feeling isolated and alone this Christmas—I hope you hear this.  God’s plan is for you!  He’s your Father if you felt fatherless. He’s your defender if you felt attacked and left alone, he’s your guide if you’re lonely—He wants to help you find a New family.  Turn to him in this Christmas season, let him be your Hope and Guide.  Whether it’s to help you seek reconciliation and restoration of a broken family, or whether it’s to help you love your family when they’re hard to love, or whether it’s to find a place in His new family—He cares for you, and he cares about families.

            You may not realize this, but God began a family restoration plan back in Genesis 12 that would culminate that first Christmas.  In Genesis 12 God creates a family that would grow to become a blessing for all families on earth.  Gen 12 says: “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and…All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” Genesis 12:1-3.  Through this one family, God would create an entire nation, the nation of Israel for a particular purpose.  You know, you always hear Israel was God’s “chosen nation.” But chosen does not mean more loved, or better than, chosen means “set apart for a purpose.” Israel was set apart for the purpose of blessing all families on earth—how? 

In two ways: first God created a “set apart” people through whom he would raise up prophets to write down His self-revelation–so we would know how much he loves and cares for each one of us, and so we would know his character and his will and ways—he was creating a family culture different from how the world typically goes.  And that would bless us all by preserving God’s history and words in the scriptures.  The second way he would bless every family was through his Messiah, who would come as the Savior of the world through this chosen nation.  Savior means rescuer and restorer—Messiah would come to rescue us from a life apart from God, the Source of healthy families that produce whole healthy people.  We need restoration to God, the Father of all people and all families.  The Messiah would come to pay for all our wrongs, so we could all be restored into right relationship with God, our Eternal Parent, who could then lead us to restore what’s broken in our families, and also create a new family for God.

            Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus the Messiah.  It was foretold by many prophets, David, Micah, Isaiah, and the very last prophet to write before the first Christmas, was Malachi. God said to Malachi:  “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty…He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents….” Malachi 3:1, 4:6. Do you see God’s heart in the coming of Messiah—to turn the hearts of parents back to their children and children to their parents—and by the way, he doesn’t say only “Little children need apply, Teen children are a different case, adult children get a pass.”  No–God’s heart is to restore what sin and hurt and evil have done to divide and separate families who should gather in love around this Table.  God cares deeply about each person, even if we don’t know or care about God—and he cares how we treat our families first and foremost.

            You know, I had the privilege this week of interviewing Santosh Acharjee for this new book I’m writing Imagine God. Santosh grew up in India, his father was a Hindu sanscrit scholar, so Hinduism was all he knew.  Santosh became a successful manufacturing engineer, traveled the world, kind of became agnostic.  But then Santosh clinically died—gallstones exploded into his pancreas, elevating his heart rate to 200 beats per minute, and he coded. No heartbeat, no brainwaves.  I’ll save the entire amazing story for later, but as he left his body, he could see his body in the hospital room and this Brilliant Divine Light he knew was God was there.  This God of Light then took him to a place where he was looking out over what he called “The most beautiful, huge compound—inside were homes, he called mansions, and beautiful landscapes—he said it was a huge compound surrounded by large walls, and it had 12 gates he could see looking down into it. He knew “I’m looking at the Kingdom of Heaven.”  And like other near death experiencers—his eyesight was expanded where he could see details miles away—and he could see people and angels inside the walls.  He perfectly described the New Jerusalem, the City of God, John describes in the book of Revelation.  He said he knew that beautiful place is where he belonged, and he wanted to find a way in, but those 12 gates were closed to him.  Then he sees God, not as a brilliant light, but on a throne—and he has a Life Review, and he realizes he needs God’s mercy and forgiveness. God says “It’s not your time, I’m sending you back.”  Santosh felt so much kindness, love and mercy from God, he asked “When I come back—how can enter this beautiful Kingdom of Heaven?” He saw what he called “A very narrow door open to me—and through the Narrow door I could enter Heaven.”  When he resuscitates, he knows this God is not like the Hindu Gods, he was personal, loving, merciful, like a best friend, yet also authoritative and powerful. He keeps seeking and is invited to hear his daughter sing in a church choir at Easter—and the Pastor’s teaching on Jesus as the Narrow Way and door into God’s kingdom.  Santosh becomes a Christ follower.  But when Santosh asked the Lord, what must I do to get into Heaven—He said “I want relationship—not one day a week, 24/7 365 day a year—honest, truthful relationship—walk with me.”  Then he told Santosh “When you go back, love your family.  That Santosh knew was very important to God. Love your family, and the Lord said, “especially your daughter—she needs you right now.”  Santosh told me, that’s what I’ve been making my priority—to love my family with the unconditional kind of love God gave me—though my sins do not deserve that kind of love at all.  God cares a lot about how we love and treat our families—he placed us in families for a reason.

            When you think about your family of origin, or your extended family, or your current family sitting around the Table this Christmas—what thoughts come to mind?  Maybe you can’t wait for the Table—the fun, the laughter, the reunion. Thank God for that—He’s at the Table celebrating with you. Or maybe for you, a chair be empty because of broken relationship. God’s At the Table, He cares, He wants to guide you to know what you can do to try to restore relationship.  Maybe a family member strayed from God and they’re running from you? God’s At the Table to give you wisdom to know how to pray, when to wait or when to pursue. Maybe you dread the thought of the Family Table because there’s that Uncle—that loud, obnoxious, politically zealous war-monger Uncle coming to the Table?  God’s at the Table—ask Him to just Silence that obnoxious person. No, ask Him to give you patience, wisdom and the ability to love even your enemies. You don’t learn to love unconditionally when people are lovable—you learn God’s love when you actually NEED a Love of another kind because it’s so difficult on our own.  Maybe the Table causes deep sadness and grief, because someone is missing? God is at the Table—he knows your grief and sadness, will you let him comfort you this Christmas season?  Or maybe you’re single, or single again, and you want a family Table. God’s there at the Table—you’re not alone—He has a family for you, will you let him to guide you toward what that looks like?

            Because God is not just building your family—God is building His own family. That was also what Christmas and the coming of Jesus was all about.  Maybe you don’t have a family now, or your nuclear family is more like a nuclear explosion, well God has a New Family for you—for all of us. His plan in this New Family is to help us all start over, so we can learn around a New Table—God’s Table where He’s the Good Father teaching us new ways of relating.  So Paul explains how God’s promise to Abraham connects to Christmas and the coming of Jesus to create God’s Family: The real children of Abraham, then, are those who put their faith in God.What’s more, the Scriptures looked forward to this time when God would make the Gentiles [non-Jewish nations] right in his sight because of their faith. God proclaimed this good news to Abraham long ago when he said, “All nations will be blessed through you.”[c] So all who put their faith in Christ share the same blessing Abraham received because of his faith. Gal 3:7-9.   And what is that blessing?  The blessing is that all people from all nations can become children of God by faith—by trusting in God’s forgiveness and restoration of us to our heavenly Father because Jesus paid the costly price to forgive and restore us to God. Are you in His family—God has paid the price of adoption, but He won’t adopt you unless you want in his family: But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. John 1:12. Accepting God’s offer by telling God “I want what Jesus did to count for me—I want your forgiveness, your love, your guidance daily.” That’s all it takes to be in God’s family forever.  Have you told Him that—tell him right now in your heart if relationship with God is what you want. 

When you accept God’s offer, God’s Spirit is in you, and you’re in God’s family:  “Those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption.  And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”  The Spirit himself assures our spirit that we are God’s children.”  Romans 8:14-16 In this passage it says if we are children of God, we can call him “Abba” which means “Daddy.”  It’s a picture of loving intimacy between a child and her dad.  God has revealed his heart as that of a parent.  This is so important to understand.  God is not primarily a general giving orders to his troops, or a cop busting people who break the moral rules, or a dictator looking for subjects to serve him.  God is primarily a parent who wants a loving relationship with spiritual children 24/7 365 days a year like Santosh discovered. He wants to guide us to love each other as brothers and sisters.  It’s a parental kind of love that primarily motivates God. Then he wants all of us to live together as His children following His family ways. He’s at the Table as we gather together—and what we missed or what was damaged from our families of origin, he can restore through His New Family.

A woman in our church told me and Kathy about growing up—how her parents would lock her in a dark potato cellar when she was a child. For any little thing she did wrong, she’d spend hours or even nights locked alone in the dark. She never really knew love or learned to trust people because they had always hurt her. Her first husband cheated on her, she forgave him, he lied and did it again and again. She came to our church an atheist, but six months later, opened her heart up to Christ.  And she told me she never really believed there was a God who loved her, until she began to experience that kind of love from a small group of people at Gateway. She felt loved, accepted with all her anger, doubts, smoking and cussing—but they saw past all that and cared for her like God does. That led her to faith in Jesus. That’s how God wants his family to function. We sit at a Table with God at the Head of the Table, teaching us how to related together in healing, caring, other-centered ways. And it heals us all.

Many of us need the parental love of God.  Where we missed out on that lavish love and acceptance growing up, God wants us to get it through His family, his church, as we remind each other of the Father’s love.  As we learn to live out all the “One Anothers” of scripture: love one another, be devoted to one another, forgive one another, accept one another, encourage one another, share with those in need, speak truth in love to one another, don’t let the sun go down angry with one another—be reconciled one to another.  This is the New Table we sit at if we have accepted Christ.  We. are brothers and sisters following our Father’s heart for his New family. And obviously, we can’t live like that with One Another just watching online or sitting on Sunday—we have to find a Table. Connect to a smaller Community Group, or Restore Group, or Serve Group so we can both receive that but can also BE God’s Family to one another.

And let me just say COVID got many of us isolated, or in new habits of just doing church online—But we can only be what God intended when we are together—connected and learning to be His New Family.  Eugene Peterson who translated the Message Bible said this: There are Christians who say, “I love God but I hate the church.” But they are members all the same, whether they like it or not, whether they acknowledge it or not. For God never makes private, secret salvation deals with people. His relationships with us are personal, true; intimate, yes; but private, no… No Christian is an only child. – Eugene Peterson Jesus came to restore us not only to God, but to one another. We cannot follow Jesus in isolation. When we enter God’s family, we belong to one another.We can’t say we are following Jesus if we are not connected to his family, learning to be his family together.  That’s why is says,  Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. 25 And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another…. Hebrews 10:24-25. So I want to challenge you this Christmas—God sent Jesus not just to forgive humanity, but to restore humanity, all of us, into His family—and to teach us together in smaller communities how to act like this new, supportive, loving, serving, healing and growing Family.  That’s what Christmas was for—for Family—restoring and enjoying your Family around the Table.  Being a part of God’s New Restored Family that helps us all become better versions of our selves…together as His children.  So join with us.

As we close, we’re going to celebrate Communion together.  Jesus sat around a table his last night on earth—he had communion with his friends. He said “This bread represents my body, broken for you. This cup represents my blood shed for you—to forgive us, but also to restore us—to God, and to each other.  So search your heart—what needs restoring—will you let the Father lead you this season?  Tell him so

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