When I was a pastor in Louisville, the church I served had a nursery school, like the preschool here at Eastminster. One of the things I looked forward to every December was telling the story of Christmas to our nursery school students. The children would file quietly into the sanctuary and sit in the front pews. I brought our nativity scene from home, and as each character entered the story, I placed the figure on the table that was set up where they can see it. One year was especially memorable because of a boy I’ll call Scot. I knew Scot from Sunday mornings when he would come join me for the Children’s Message in worship. He was a sweet little boy, but on this day he was showing another side of his character. As I was trying to tell the story of Christmas to all the polite, well-behaved children, Scot kept butting in with his commentary: “How do you think Mary and Joseph got to Bethlehem?” I asked the children. Scot yelled out, “On a motorcycle.” I ignored him and got the holy couple to Bethlehem properly, on a donkey. When it was time for the figure of the Christ child to appear, I said, “There wasn’t a crib in the stable so Mary laid the baby Jesus in a…” “Jacuzzi!” shouted Scot, full of himself. It was downhill from there. He started crawling over the child sitting next to him, and I was becoming more irrelevant to those children by the second until a teacher gently led Scot out the door for a quiet talk.
If you’ve been around children very much, you’ve seen your share of kids like Scot. He wasn’t a bad child. He just wanted what we all want. He wanted to be noticed. If he couldn’t get noticed for sitting quietly and raising his hand, he’d get noticed for being a smart aleck. The Psalmist speaks for Scot and for all of us when he cries out, “Do not let the flood sweep over me, or the deep swallow me up, or the Pit close its mouth over me.” (Psalm 65:15) In other words, Notice me.
Yet as much as we want to be noticed, one of the things we fear most is being noticed. What if we are noticed and it doesn’t matter? What if everyone sees you and concludes, “She’s worthless, not even worth noticing?” One reason the movie It’s a Wonderful Life resonates with us is because it speaks to our fear that we don’t really matter. George Bailey is convinced he’s not worth a thing. He’s ready to throw himself off the bridge when the angel Clarence shows him what the town of Bedford Falls would be like if George had never lived.
We need to be reassured, like George Bailey, that we matter. Deep down inside we know none of us has to be here. If certain things hadn’t happened just the way they did, we might not have even been born, and who would notice our absence? On more than one Hiroshima Day, that day in August that marks the anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb, my father told me, “If it weren’t for the atomic bomb, you probably wouldn’t be here.” In August 1945 he was a Marine in the Philippines training for the invasion of Japan. Now, historians have recently discovered evidence that indicates that Japan might well have been ready to surrender before we dropped the bomb, but Dad’s point is well taken. After he got home from the Pacific Dad went to visit his uncle in Maxton, NC. He met a young woman who was boarding there while working at the local air base, and she just happened to join them for dinner. What if Mom had been out that day and they had never met? Would it have mattered?
And the things we accomplish in this life – how can we be sure they really matter? We work hard to achieve success. We might acquire money and fame and knowledge, but what if it all amounts to no more than the achievements of Ephraim? Those ancient people of the Bible worked hard to build up their treasures of wealth and knowledge, but the prophet Isaiah’s judgment on them was this: “’Precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little there a little;’ in order that they may go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.’” Those ancient Israelites thought they were doing great stuff, but what they were doing didn’t matter to God. (Isaiah 28:13)
We long to be noticed, yet we’re afraid. We fear we’ll be judged not worth noticing. We’re like Adam and Eve after they ate the forbidden fruit. When they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil their eyes were opened and they saw what an awful thing they had done. They sewed fig leaves together to hide from each other. When God passed by they ducked behind the bushes so God wouldn’t notice them.
We need to be noticed, but we need to be noticed and found worthy. We want to be noticed the way our parents looked on us in the delivery room. They didn’t think of the long nights that lay ahead, the midnight feedings, the anxiety we would cause them as we explored the world by putting things into our mouths and toddling into dangerous places, the rebellions of adolescence. They looked on us in sheer joy and wonder. We want to be noticed by that mother, that father who looks at us and judges us worthwhile. It’s in that unconditional acceptance by someone who truly matters that we get confidence to face life.
Parents or other important adults give us what we need to get started. Their acceptance and love give us courage to face the world. But they can’t do it all. One of the hard discoveries of growing up is realizing your parents aren’t perfect. Their judgment is sometimes suspect because they have so much invested in you. Every time my mother heard me preach she told me what a good sermon I gave. I loved to hear that, but I know it wasn’t true all the time. She heard me preach some duds. We need to know we’re noticed and judged worthy by one who is impartial, who without bias judges right from wrong and good from bad. That’s why we need to be noticed and found worthy by God. God gives us the ultimate assessment of who we are, the objective opinion on whether we’re worthy or not.
In the Old Testament priests offered sacrifices to make sure God noticed the people of Israel and judged them worthy. Day after day, week after week, year after year, the priests would go into the temple and offer grain or roast a lamb on behalf of Israel. Did God need those sacrifices? Of course not. God wasn’t going to starve to death if the priests didn’t slay a bull on the altar. We can’t make God love us by what we do or don’t do. But in any healthy relationship there must be two sides. When a child disobeys a parent, the parent isn’t going to stop loving the child, but it sure helps restore the relationship if the child apologizes and offers to do the dishes after supper. Sacrifices were Israel’s way of keeping up their side of the relationship.
But what kind of a relationship would it be if you had to keep proving yourself over and over to your friend? You don’t buy a nice Christmas present for your spouse as a payment to keep the marriage going. You give them something special because you love them.
That’s how it is with our relationship with God. God showed us once for all that we are noticed. We are important to God and we are worthy of God’s friendship. One night about 2000 years ago God came to live among us. Jesus showed us what a perfect life is. He lived just as we do yet without sin. There was nothing about Jesus that was unworthy – no selfishness, no greed, no impure thoughts. By showing us a perfectly worthy life, he also showed us how far we fall short. So in an act of perfect love, Jesus died for us. Whatever price there is to pay for disobeying our maker, for striving after things that don’t really matter in the end, for hiding from the one who loves us, whatever punishment we deserve, Jesus took on himself. He died on the cross and made the perfect sacrifice once for all. Through him we know that God notices us and loves us. God loves us so much that the Almighty One wants to spend eternity with us.
We don’t have to keep working to get God to notice us. That’s why we Presbyterians don’t have altars in our churches. That furniture where we lay out the Lord’s Supper is called a communion table. An altar is where you make a sacrifice, and the sacrifice was made once for all on the cross. We don’t have to prove to ourselves or anyone else that we’re worthwhile. Jesus has already proven that for us. That frees us to do what is truly worthwhile. Instead of working to prove ourselves, we can join Jesus in the work of justice and love and peace that he has called us to do.
We put forth our best for him every week when we gather for worship, every day when we visit the nursing home or comfort a friend or write our Senator urging justice and peace. God continually gives us the strength, through the Holy Spirit, to live up to God’s expectations.
The very best
gifts we’ll receive at Christmas are the ones that say, “You matter to me. You’re important. I value you enough that I’m
thinking about you and you mean something to me.” That’s the gift God gave at Christmas. In Jesus God shows you just how much you
matter. You’re worth so much that he
left the splendor of heaven to live here, with us. God would not have done that if you weren’t
worth it. You’re worth the perfect gift
 Craig Dykstra, Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices (Louisville: Geneva Press, 1999), p. 89.