What is the first Christmas you remember?
The first Christmas I remember was when I was four years old. It was also the first time I went to church after being invited by my childhood best friend and her family. I think it was a Christmas Eve event for children, complete with a children’s pageant and nativity scene. I don’t remember all of the details, but I do remember Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Amazingly, I also remember what we sang that night: “Silent Night”. And of course, I remember getting gifts and goodies.
Going to a church on Christmas Eve wasn’t a tradition for my family at that time. Even though there were tons of churches around us in Seoul, South Korea, my dad and his family were strong Buddhists. My mom was a Christian, but she couldn’t go to church or even tell anyone that she wanted to go. The culture was male dominant and the father’s religion was the primary one to be observed by the family. However, I was able to attend church with my friends during my early childhood, although I didn’t know much about faith until later, when I was in upper elementary school. I remember I started praying for my family’s salvation around that time, especially for my dad and grandma. My mom started sneaking out to the early-morning prayer service each day and because I was an early riser from a very young age, I started following her to the service. As Christmas approached, we would often see beautiful morning stars on very cold, clear winter mornings. I used to ask my mom which star was the one directing the Magi to baby Jesus. She always pointed to the brightest star in the sky and told me that one must have been it.
I still regularly go to the early-morning prayer service and look up at the sky as soon as I get out of the house, just like I remember doing in my childhood. Especially this time of year, the memory becomes more alive when I see bright morning stars.
As we have been learning more about the God of Surprises through this Advent, the idea of God as Emmanuel fills me with wonder. It’s amazing that God would even think of coming down to earth as a baby and being born in a manger in the small town of Bethlehem through a virgin named Mary. But this surprising story doesn’t end with an unexpected birth. As we all know, it leads to the Cross and the even more surprising resurrection. However, I think there is one more surprise that came just before Jesus ascended into heaven. He reminded his disciples that he came to save the world and told them what they needed to do. If I had been one of his disciples, I would have panicked at hearing the great commission: “Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
Because the disciples were all Jews who didn’t associate much with gentiles and because they also grew up in local, small towns, they must have been shocked and maybe even a little frightened at the thought of doing what Jesus was asking. What would the great commission mean for them? What exactly was Jesus talking about when he said “all nations”? They didn’t have a globe or map of the world. But they all accepted the great commission, as evidenced in the book of Acts. And because the disciples obeyed, the Holy Spirit opened doors and expanded their vision and understanding of all nations. What if they hadn’t obeyed Jesus? Perhaps I would have never heard about Jesus in Seoul, South Korea.
Between today’s media and the Internet, we live in the most connected era of all time. Our physical view of all nations is truly global. However, I feel that our hearts’ view of all nations has rather shrunk. Even though I get news from all over the world from my tiny laptop, I hardly feel for any of the people I hear about, even those in my own country. Especially in the busy hustle and bustle of Christmas, I hardly think of anything other than my church, family and friends (and if there is any wiggle room, maybe my neighbors).
When I was preparing last summer for this year’s Christmas cantata, God strongly reminded me what truly needs to be celebrated. Jesus came to earth to save the world. John 3:16 clearly tells us that, “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” Have you thought about what God really wants for Christmas? I have, and I truly believe that he wants all of us who live on earth to have a relationship with him, calling him Father through the salvation in Christ Jesus.
I pray that this year’s Christmas cantata worship services will help open our hearts to receive the meaning of Christ’s humble birth. You will hear carols from all over the world. I would like to invite you all to be a part of this celebration and to invite your neighbors, particularly those from countries where Christianity is not the primary religion. I also want to encourage you to go beyond the invitation and open your eyes to see who they really are. Who knows if there is another Yoon for whom this could be the first Christmas experience and who will grow in faith through this simple invitation? This could be our first step in following the Great Commission.