Christmas Eve is never a time when pastors can lounge with the family, take a deep breath, and just enjoy the season. We're working. We're like police officers at the Rose Bowl Parade. We can't spend much time looking at the floats because we have work to do.
Our three adult sons were here over Christmas. Which was just an amazing gift! There is something sweeter than words about having your children sleeping under the same roof, at home, you know? It's like things are back where they are supposed to be.
Our two young granddaughters arrived, with their parents, after I had left for church on Christmas Eve. Right before the 9 o'clock service Ella, the 27-month old, was walking through the lobby with her Grandma. Ella looked lovely and when she saw me she leaned her head over with quiet delight, and I nearly bounced off the carpet.
That night, after worship, the family headed home. I helped shut down the church and followed. When I came through the door, Ella came to me and said, "You came back for me! You came back for me!" I smiled. Said, "I will always come back for you."
Saturday morning, after Christmas, I led a funeral service. By the time that was over, and I had returned from Goshen where the burial service had been, most of the morning was gone. When I walked through the front door, Ella came running towards me with a smile. "You came back to me! You came back to me!"
Love means we come back.
The Christian faith talks about a God who comes back. Jesus appears in the garden outside the tomb where he has been buried. He slips into a room in Jerusalem, through locked doors, to visit with his friends and followers. The risen Christ is standing on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, in John 21, and has some fishing advice for his friends. The New Testament talks at length about the return of God to begin a new age on the earth. We call this "the second coming."
Ella says, "You came back to me." But we can't always come back. I think of that, on this first day of 2010, with the news of the deaths of service personnel and CIA officers in distant lands. There are men and women who won't come back to the ones they love, but that failure to return is not a sign that the love was imperfect or partial. Things happen to pull us away from the ones we love more than words can say.
There will be a day when I won't come back for Ella. I'll leave and not come back. Time and death will do that. They'll pull me away from her.
Paul, in 1st Corinthians 13, talks about love lasting forever. Faith, hope and love remain, he says. I take great comfort in that.
"You came back to me," she says. I'll keep doing that as long as I can. And when I can't come back to you, I hope you'll be on a first-name basis with the God whose love outlasts time.