John Piper

To get our hearts ready for Christ’s birth, Ann Voskamp is writing for us, celebrating the holiday that’s all about Jesus. Join us as we anticipate the coming of our savior. 

The girl, she hands me this two-inch Christmas tree.

A Christmas tree made of salt-dough, painted and varnished.

She gives it to me right at the beginning, right when we meet.

The boughs of the tree in my palm, they are dough, cut and bent—these wee branches extended straight out.

How in the world do you make a tree like that? How long does it take to make a tree like that?

We were standing just south of Quito, Ecuador. And Lidia’s mother, she’s telling me they’ve waited 3 years for a sponsor for Lidia. And Lidia, she’s laying these Christmas ornaments right in my hand, one at a time.

It was the first week of November, last year, and it’s Ecuador and it’s stifling hot and I’m thinking more about July than Christmas.

“Lidia, she went all the way to the market for these.” Her mother tells us this in Spanish, pointing to the dough ornaments.

The mother tries to catch my eyes. She waits.

She waits until I am waiting on her next word—so she can frame just this: “She bought these for you with her own money.”

And with one line, the dough ornaments in my hand, they feel like gold. Like an incalculable sacrifice.

She’s waited three years for a sponsor? And she’s taken what money she has and bought me a two-inch Christmas tree? I scan Lidia’s face, trying to understand.

“I just don’t want you to forget.” It’s her first sentence to me. She says it in a whisper. Shy. I try to hold her gaze,

She looks away, looks down, down to the tree, fingering the branches of the tree.

“I just wanted you to remember me.”

Oh, Child.

I reach out and touch her cheek and say yes.

Yes, I will remember you.

I would fly away from her.

I would fly home in November and it would snow a bit in December and it would get cold.

We would decorate a big tree in the living room, one by the kitchen table.

We would hang Lidia’s picture off a branch. I would set out her salt-dough ornaments. I would remember her smile and how she looked down.

We would read the stories in the Old Testament of the promise of His Coming and we’d drive into town and walk through a living nativity, go to a re-enacted Bethlehem.

We would kneel at the manger.

I would kneel there and wonder at this God.

This God who shows up in the stench of a barn.

If God avoided red carpets and opted instead to enter the black stable, is there anywhere the hallowed presence of God won’t appear?

If the blinding holiness of God breaks into this world with the cry of a child wrapped in filthy cloths, lying in a dung heap—then couldn’t God reveal Himself anywhere?

If we can’t ever fly from God, if God could show up anywhere—then when it’s exactly most unlikely for Him to come to us—it is most like Him to come to us right then.

I would kneel at the manger and it’d be so clear, right there in that scandalously helpless babe: God steps before us—in ways we can step away from Him.

It’s possible: You can abandon a baby on some backstreet behind a mall, Christmas shoppers passing by oblivious.

You can nail God up to some tree. You can inadvertently turn your back on the beggar and the holy and God right before you decorate with the ivy and the holly and I know.

And I’d kneel there at the reenacted Bethlehem and finger along it on the wooden grain of a manger trough—The God who needs nothing, came needy. The God who came to give us mercy, was at our mercy. And He who entered into our world, He lets us say it in a thousand ways– that there is no room at the inn.

God steps directly before us in the needs we can indirectly neglect.

He steps before us in the desperate child waiting for a hand, in the misfit down the street we don’t have to invite to dinner, in the relative that’s but a loud talking, dressed up broken beggar sitting at the end of the table.

God meets us not so much in the lovely—but in the unlikely.

I would be kneeling there at the manger, thinking of our God curled like a pod between trough planks, our God who paid with Himself, incalculable sacrifice, to lay down on the bark of a tree just to pull us close.

And I would remember Lidia standing there offering me her tree, that angel.

And when we’d walk out of the living nativity, walk away from the baby lying there, walk across the parking lot looking for our vehicle to drive home to our warmth and the music playing low and the lights of our tree—

I’d almost be this moan on the wind:

“I just wanted you to remember me … ”

Oh Child.

Oh, Christ Child.

And we go home from the manger to our tree, the scent of God still on us.

And I’d stand in front of our six-foot-tree and see Lidia’s photo hanging there and that salt dough angel Lidia had handed me, wings reaching out to hold a star—

We are born in time, still, to embrace the Christ Child, we can hold Christ now in every hurting person we hold.

Did I give You food when You were hungry?

Did I give You water when You were thirsty?

Did I remember You at all this Christmas, Child who bore the Tree?

And on a spinning orb of Christmas Trees, our hearts can pound yes—our limbs and light and love reaching straight out …

It’d be insane to think it unless Christ Himself said it:

“‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for Me.’” —Matthew 25:37-39

Ann Voskamp is a farmer’s wife, the home-educating mama to a half-dozen exuberant kids, and author of One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, a New York Times bestseller, and new this month, The Greatest Gift: Unwrapping the Full Love Story of Christmas. Named by Christianity Today as one of 50 women most shaping culture and the church today, she’s a writer for DaySpring, a speaker with Women of Faith, and a global advocate for needy children with Compassion International. Ann loses library books, usually has a sink full of soaking pots, and sees empty laundry baskets rarer than a blue moon.

Santa pictures, stockings, wish lists, and a morning full of gifts. How do you keep Jesus at the center of Christmas for you and your children when everything around you beckons with glitter and flash to get you to want more, spend more, do more?

Wise parents have many strategies: pastor John Piper’s wife Noël created the Noël Calendar for her kids, an advent calendar that tells the Christmas story step by step each day. Wise children also have strategies: One of author Ann Voskamp’s sons asked her what gifts Jesus gets on Christmas one year so the family started a tradition of picking out gifts for Jesus, such as seeds for orphans or mosquito nets for those in malarial countries.

All of the best strategies center around the main one that God has given us to learn and remember who he is and what he has done: storytelling. In his Word, God has told us the most amazing story of his son, coming to earth as a baby, to be a savior for sinners like us, who can’t stop doing bad things—and who can’t even do the good things that we want to do. It sounds absurd, but that’s precisely what makes it so wonderful.

Because he was born in a manger, grew up, became a man, died, and then went to heaven, we can be forgiven for the bad things we do and given the strength to do good things for God’s glory. And we can also follow him to heaven one day. But it all started with a newborn in a manger.

Since Christmas is centered around a child, sometimes it is best to see Christmas like a child to appreciate the mystery and wonder anew. Children’s author Sally LloydJones writes in her new book of stories for children, Thoughts to Make Your Heart Sing:

The God who flung planets into space and kept them whirling around and around. The God who made the universe with just a word. The one who could do anything at all was making himself small and coming down as a baby. Wait, God was sending a baby to rescue the world?

“But it’s too wonderful”, Mary said, and felt her heart beating hard. “How can it be true?”
“Is anything too wonderful for God,” Gabriel asked?

So Mary trusted God with more than her eyes could see and she believed. I am God’s servant she said, whatever God says, I will do.

By seeing the Christmas story in a fresh way, we can then go back to the Word and see it anew as well, as a story that God wrote for us:

But the angel said to them: Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:10-12)

Who did Jesus come for, when he came to lie in a manger? He came for you.

Lindsey M. Roberts spent years writing exclusively for secular journalism, including such outlets as The Washington Post, Architect, and Gray magazine, before she first tried to write about Jesus. She’s thrilled to explore in words how everything from cleaning the kitchen three times a day to delighting in the maritime history of Nantucket is an opportunity to meet and glorify God. Lindsey lives with her husband, a pastor and U.S. Army Reserve chaplain, and two children in Wisconsin.