“Well, it’s that time again,” thought Sean to himself. The morning was grey and overcast with mist hanging in the air. As he peeked out the window he could tell that the day was just plain cold and wet.
“Why do I always do this,” Sean asked himself as he put on his coat. Every year since becoming a teenager, he always waited until the last day to go Christmas shopping. This year was no different except that there were fewer gifts to buy. For one thing, the money just wasn’t available this year. He had to take on a second job just to keep up with the expenses. It just seems like the cost of everything nowadays was so much higher. The other reason for fewer gifts was that there were fewer family members to buy for this year.
Last spring, Renee’s father had passed away. In September, Renee had a miscarriage of their first child. To top it off, her mother decided it would be better to spend the Christmas holiday with her family in Texas. The rest of Renee’s family, who didn’t live in Texas, decided to go with her. Sean and Renee couldn’t afford to do that. Renee’s mom insisted that no gifts were to be exchanged between Renee and her this year. She knew money was tight and it just didn’t make any sense to waste it on her since she wouldn’t be around anyway.
Renee cried for days after her mother informed her of this decision. Just like she cried when the baby died, and just like she did when her father died. She told Sean she never felt so lonely in her entire life. Sean told her he understood but he really didn’t have a clue what Renee was going through. So we’re not going to see your mother for a week or two. You’ll see her when she gets back, is what Sean wanted to say but knew better, so he kept his mouth shut.
As Sean drove away from his house heading for the local mall, the rain began to descend in earnest along with a sour mood. Soon the roadway was drenched and traffic slowed to a crawl. The stress in Sean’s life was getting to him. “Why did I wait to do this!?” he screamed at himself as he searched for a station on the radio that didn’t play that blasted Christmas music. For two months that’s all he heard and he didn’t want it any more. In fact, he never wanted it. It just comes every year and is played in every shop, store, office and home so one can’t get away from it. And last night at church was the last straw. How could they mix Santa Claus songs with baby Jesus songs? It just wasn’t right!
With the heavy traffic and the unrelenting rain, along with Sean’s sour mood, finding a parking space was the last thing he wanted to deal with. Who invented this holiday anyway? Sean muttered to himself. He should be shot!
Sean knew that he had crossed a line with that thought so he took a deep breath to calm himself down some. He figured there would be no parking spaces toward the front of the mall, but he couldn’t believe even in the outer portions of the lot, there were no spaces available. As he drove around and around and around, his temper flared up again.
I only have a few dollars to buy anything anyway! I just want to find a stinking parking place so I can join all the stinking shoppers in that stinking mall to buy some stinking gifts that I don’t want to buy so that we can have somewhat of a stinking Christmas!! Is that too much to ask for!?
With that last thought, Sean saw a space open up and he headed for it. But just before he got there another car pulled in, almost clipping Sean’s car in the process. Grrrrrrr! Sean just sat there glaring at the driver. He was tempted to honk his car horn. Someone behind him beat him to it, and when Sean looked in his rear view mirror to see who was honking his horn at him, he saw a red-faced man, waving his hand for him to move on.
That was it! Sean hit his accelerator and peeled away. As he fishtailed through the soggy rows of parked cars, he screamed out in frustration! Sean headed for the exit. He was breathing heavy and he could feel the beating of his heart pounding so heard that it seemed to be trying to jump out of his chest. His vision was blurry. He didn’t know if that was from the weather or his heavy breathing, but he didn’t care. In fact, Sean just didn’t care anymore about anything.
When he got to the parking lot exit, he hurried quickly into the oncoming traffic on the street. He heard car horns as he maneuvered around the heavy traffic to get away from the mall. As he worked his way through the slow moving congestion, he saw out of the corner of his eye, a coffee house that he liked to frequent. With no warning or signal, Sean cranked the steering wheel, moving over to the left turn lane, and turned his car in front of oncoming traffic, on a red light no less, without once slowing down. He just ignored the blaring car horns.
Parking here was not a whole lot better, but Sean finally found a spot on the far end of the lot. When he opened the door to leave his car, his first step included a wet puddle. There was a pothole hidden by the rain, right where he had to step out of his car. Sean looked down at his foot and growled.
Inside the coffee shop, Sean found an empty booth, which was the only luck he’d had all day. The restaurant was mostly full, even though the hour of day would make it a late breakfast or an early lunch. Sean ordered coffee, and when it came he decided to make it a late breakfast. But Sean really wasn’t all that hungry. His breathing was just now slowing down to just above normal. The pounding in his chest was also slowly going away. He glanced outside the window and watched the downpour of rain soak everyone and everything in sight. Is Christmas worth all this?
The coffee warmed up Sean’s body to the point he could take off his coat. When breakfast did come, he hadn’t realized that he truly was hungry after all. He attacked his food and was surprised how quickly he finished it. As he took the last bite of his pancakes, he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, two words. Each was hanging on the wall of the restaurant as part of the Christmas decorations.
Noel and Immanuel.
Sean knew that Noel meant Christmas or birthday. He believed that the only time one ever even heard the word used was at Christmas time. He has seen the word used endlessly in Christmas cards and songs. It made sense that he would see it on the wall of the restaurant the day before Christmas.
Immanuel. That means God with us. Sean knew that because one of the actors in the play at church last night read Matthew 1:23 which gave the translation of the word. Sean thought the passage was a quote from Isaiah.
God with us. That’s what Christmas was supposed to be all about, wasn’t it? Christmas is not about driving in the pouring rain on Christmas Eve, fighting for a parking space at a faceless shopping mall, was it? Spending money, that he didn’t have in the first place, on gifts that will probably be returned or recycled?
Sean thought to himself, “My family doesn’t even believe in God let alone Christ. But they want me there at the house every Christmas day.”
God with us. What does that mean? Sure, Jesus was born thousands of years ago in a manger in Bethlehem. But he’s gone now, right? Where is God with us now? Where was he when Renee’s father got sick all-of-a-sudden and died? Where was he when they cut back his hours at work so he had to get a second job just to survive? Where was he when the car needed new tires but there was no money to buy them? Where was he when Renee had her miscarriage? Where!?
God with us.
Sean didn’t know if it was someone in the restaurant or a voice in his head, but he heard it as clear as anything.
God with you.
God with me? Are you kidding me? I don’t think so. Sean reached for the ticket the server had left on the table.
God with you, Sean.
Sean was having trouble seeing the ticket he had in his hand. His vision was getting blurry again.
I’m with you, Sean.
God, how are you with me? My world is out of control! Heck, the whole world is out of control and has been for some time. I can’t buy what I want to get for Renee. I can’t give her our baby back. I am so tired of working and working and not getting ahead! I can’t even find a stupid parking space, and when I do, there is a pothole waiting for me!
Sean, the Father and I love you so very much that I came to be with you; yes, once as a baby, but now through my Holy Spirit. Sean, I will never leave you nor forsake you. Though you may be faithless, I will always be faithful. I am with you for all eternity.
Now Sean couldn’t see at all. The tears were flowing beyond his control. I’ve been such a fool.
People in other booths started to notice the young man by the window sobbing. It took awhile before Sean could control himself as he fought back the tears. There was an uncomfortable silence in the restaurant until the server came over to Sean and put her hand on his shoulder. Sean’s head was lowered but he could tell whose hand was there.
“Sir? I know how it is sometimes. You just need to let yourself have a good cry. God knows I do it all the time.” Customers in the restaurant chuckled at that. Some even said out loud, “Heard that!” or “Yeah, been there.”
“What did you say?” Sean looked up now into his server’s face. She was in her late forties or early fifties with blond hair and kind eyes.
“Go ahead and cry all you want. No one’s going to stop you. We’ve all been there.”
“No. You said something about God knowing?” Sean’s tears were still flowing but the sobbing had subsided.
The server looked straight through Sean’s eyes, right into his heart and replied, “God knows you. God is always with you. Like the decoration over there on the wall, Immanuel, God with us.”
Sean, without thinking, looked over at the wall and saw the word Immanuel as if for the first time. Others in the coffee shop also looked over. Many smiled nodding their heads in agreement.
“Don’t you worry about this, dear. This meals on me.”
Before Sean could reply she had turned away with his meal ticket in hand. How did she get that without me knowing? Sean tried to say thank you but the sound of chairs being moved and people getting up from their tables drowned out his words. It seemed that over half the customers in the restaurant were all leaving at once.
Sean felt a tap on his shoulder from behind. An elderly woman handed him a twenty-dollar bill and said “Merry Christmas. God is with you.”
Sean tried to get up and return the money to her, but another hand was on him, keeping him from getting up. “Merry Christmas, son. Immanuel.” More money was being dropped on the table where he sat.
“Wait. No.” But people weren’t listening. “You don’t understand.” Sean tried to get up and explain that he wasn’t asking for any money. “That’s okay, son. God has put this on our hearts. You don’t need to worry about it.” People kept coming over to him. They wouldn’t listen to his objections. Almost all of them said Immanuel or God is with you.
Sean was in shock as he left the restaurant. He couldn’t believe what just happened. All he wanted was just to know that God was with him. He never expected the gifts on top of hearing God speak to him.
When Sean got back to his car, he was now ready to face the same shopping mall he couldn’t face an hour ago. His attitude had changed. But more than that, Sean was changed. He left the coffee shop knowing that God was, indeed, with him.
Currently on disability, Brian has been a pastor since graduating from San Diego Christian College in 1986 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Biblical Studies. In 1994, Brian earned a graduate level paralegal degree from the University of San Diego. Since 1984, he has been very active in the AWANA clubs serving as a commander, pastor and missionary advisory board member. Brian has worked on pastoral staffs of churches in Colorado and southern California. In 1997 he began a church in his home which currently meets in its own building located in Desert Hot Springs, California. Brian and his wife, Beth, who he met in college, currently live in the Palm Springs, CA area. They have two grown children.
Brian Whiteside has served the Lord and the Church as a pastor, teacher and conference speaker for around 30 years, preaching and teaching God’s Word to all ages. He is the author of two books (The Discipling Church and 2002 Bike Odyssey, My O Canada to Ole Mexico Border to Border Bike Trip) and has written numerous articles for Christian publications. He has been very active in AWANA ministries serving as a commander, pastor and missionary advisory board member. He is currently a co-host on the Alive in Christ radio network.