Please note: This is the message I plan to preach at our Christmas Eve service. There's a link in the text to the Rick Reilly story I referenced, in case you want to read the entire story.
A few years ago, I came across a list of famous people who had changed their names. Did you know that John Wayne was born Marion Morrison? I guess he figured Marion wasn’t a good cowboy name. Cary Grant probably wouldn’t have become a suave leading man if he had kept his birth name, Archibald Leach. And Fred Astaire would have had a harder time making it as Hollywood’s most graceful song and dance man as Frederick Austerlitz. There are plenty more examples: Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas. Reginald Dwight became Elton John. Leonard Slye became Roy Rogers. Joe Yule, Jr. became Mickey Rooney. Richard Starkey became Ringo Starr. Wynette Pugh became Tammy Wynette. Thomas Mapother IV became Tom Cruise. Roger Nelson became Prince, who then became the artist formerly known as Prince, who then became irrelevant. And then there’s Maria Rosaria Pilar Martinez Molina Baeza. You might know her by her show-biz name, Charo.
These people wanted to project a certain image, so they chose a new name. Interestingly, the Bible says that God goes by several different names. All of them are chosen by Him not to project a certain image, but to help us understand who He really is. There are names that speak of His sovereignty, like Yahweh, which simply means “I am.” There are names that speak of His power, like El Shaddai, “The Almighty God.” And then there is the name God chose especially for Christmas, Emmanuel. It means, “God with us.” That’s appropriate, because it was that first Christmas that God truly became one of us, entering our world as a baby, destined to redeem all who would believe in Him.
That name, Emmanuel, teaches us an important lesson. There have been religions on earth since the beginning of time, and most of them have presented a very skewed perspective on who God is. He has been depicted as aloof and angry, someone who needed to be pacified, lest He strike us all with lightning or the plague. Even Christianity has often goose-stepped its way into legalism and judgmentalism, presenting a cold, unsmiling, Hell-fire and damnation deity. But when God actually appeared to us in human flesh, He turned out to be quite different. Oh, Jesus was fiery in the face of injustice, and He could get angry when He saw things that weren’t right. But it turned out that He was a friend of sinners, the very sort of people that religion had been giving the cold shoulder for centuries.
Just yesterday, I read a story that reminded me of this. It affected me so much, I rewrote this message just to fit it in. It comes from a story written by Rick Reilly (which you can read at http://http://sports.espn.go.com/espnmag/story?section=magazine&id=3789373). The Gainesville State School is a maximum-security correctional facility for boys north of Dallas. Like most high schools in Texas, they have a football team. But the Gainesville Tornadoes aren’t very good. They only have 14 players. They have no cheerleaders or band. They have no fans, either, unless you count the 12 uniformed officers who come to their games. (all of which are on the road, by the way) with their weapons and handcuffs at the ready. The Tornadoes play with ancient equipment. And they lost every game this year. Late in the season, they were scheduled to play the Faith Lions, a Christian school in Grapevine. Faith had 70 players, brand-new equipment, hundreds of involved parents and other fans, and a much better record. And so Kris Hogan, Faith’s coach, had a very unusual idea. He sent out an email to the players and fans asking if they could do something to make this game a little different for the Tornadoes.
So when the game began, the 14 boys from Gainesville were stunned to find that they suddenly had fans…hundreds of them. They made a big paper banner for them to run through. It said, “Go Tornadoes!” During the game, the Faith fans cheered the Gainesville boys on by name, with the help of the programs. The Tornadoes lost, 33-14. But considering the fact that they had only scored two touchdowns all year, it was easily the best game they had ever played. Afterward, the two teams gathered at mid-field to pray, and Gainesville’s quarterback and middle linebacker shocked everyone by asking if he could lead. He prayed, “Lord, I don’t know how to say thank you, because I don’t know how this happened, but I never would have known that there were this many people in the world who cared about us.” As the Tornadoes got back on their bus, they were each handed a bag, containing a burger, fries, a drink, a Bible and an encouraging note from a Faith player.
Here’s the best part of the story: When coach Hogan first came up with the idea, his own players at first didn’t understand what he was trying to do. Isn’t the point of football to crush your opponent? But Hogan explained it this way: “Imagine you had no home life. Imagine if everybody had pretty much given up on you. Now imagine what it would mean for hundreds of people to suddenly believe in you.” That’s the story of Emmanuel. He’s a God who came to us when we didn’t deserve Him, didn’t even ask for Him, and said, “I believe in you. I love you. I want to redeem you. And so I will do whatever it takes, pay the highest price, to give you new life, life eternal.” He’s not aloof, and He’s not angry. In fact, He promises us access to the throne room of heaven. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Jeremiah 29:13, You will seek me and find me when you search for me with all your heart.
A lot of us here tonight are religious folks. We play by the rules, pay our taxes, replace all our divots. We tend to feel awfully good about ourselves. But this Christmas, perhaps the best thing we could do is to renounce our religiosity and get back to really seeking after Jesus. Maybe that means we get involved with a small group Bible study in 2009, so we can stop just sitting in the audience and start growing in community with other Christians. Maybe it means instead of just rolling out of bed in the mornings and heading off to work, we’ll carve out some time to connect with God through prayer and Bible study. Maybe it means we’ll start looking for opportunities to show the love of Christ to people around us, using our gifts to advance God’s Kingdom. A week from this Sunday, our entire church from the youth group up will begin a five-week study called Reaching for the Prize. If you are willing to put in the work, I believe that experience will help you truly seek after God with all your heart. If you do, you’ll find Him, and it will be the best Christmas present you could possibly give yourself.Chances are, there are also plenty of people here who don’t really fit into the church-every-Sunday crowd. We’re awfully glad you’re here, and I hope you feel welcome in this place. Maybe you came because you were looking for hope, for answers. Maybe someone invited you, and you didn’t want to hurt their feelings. Maybe this just felt like the right place to be on Christmas Eve. Either way, I want you to know that the God who made you loves you more than you can ever know. You may not know what you believe about Him, but He believes in you. And He wants to be your Emmanuel. His promise is true for you too: You will find Him if you’re ready to seek Him with all your heart. If you aren’t sure that’s for you, if you are more interested in other things right now, I understand. Someday, I pray, you’ll be ready to come home to Him. But if you are ready, right now, if you want to see what God has planned for you, come talk to me. Jesus wants to reshape your life. This Christmas, the birthday of God’s son, could be the day of your second birth. Merry Christmas.