Atmosphere and Immanuel

Christmas is about atmosphere.

We all have the atmosphere ingredients that stir us. Cinnamon scented pinecones, or the smell of a fresh tree. Christmas music, children’s excitement over presents.  The muted glow of Christmas lights in a dark room, or the flicker of candlelight. Something warm from the oven – pumpkin pie, or sugar cookies, or the savory smell of turkey. The feel of flannel and sweaters. The noise of family and friends packed into a house.  

Creating atmosphere is an art, one we throw ourselves into as homemakers during the holidays. Atmosphere is powerful, but let’s be honest – creating it is exhausting. All those homemade goodies have me hobbling on sore feet by Christmas Eve, and following through on traditions takes a lot of planning and preparation.  

Often times come Christmas Eve, I sit in our candlelit church aching for my bed and feeling guilty that I’m not lost in the wonder of the incarnation, and that somewhere along the way we fell behind in our advent devotional.

Beyond just Christmas, life in ministry and parenting has given me lots of opportunities to discover what Mary knew perfectly well – that the presence of Jesus isn’t dependent on the right atmosphere.

When our family is gathered around the breakfast table while Daddy/Pastor leads devotions, it’s not hard to imagine that Jesus is indeed Immanuel – God with us (Matthew 1:23). But hours later when the supper is burning and the doorbell is ringing and kids are bickering, we tend to think the presence of God will return when we can recreate the atmosphere, when the house is tidy again, and I’m not sending the food budget up in smoke to the background noise of fighting. I’ve spent myself dry too many times desperately trying to recreate the atmosphere – the one that feels spiritual – because the reality of Immanuel hasn’t really sunk in.

He is here.

Right now.

Everything about Jesus’ birth was wrong. The parents weren’t married, they had to travel at the worst possible time, and there wasn’t any place to give birth but a barn. This is not an ideal child-birthing atmosphere. And yet God didn’t sit back saying, “When they get this all together, then I’ll send my Son.”

The radical nature of grace means that when your family is starched and pressed without a hair out of place and shows up to Sunday morning services 15 minutes early – Jesus is present. And when nobody can find their shoes and you’ve gotten three text messages saying so-and-so can’t teach their class and your blood pressure is rising – Jesus is present.

His grace rests on THIS moment. What would change if we could acknowledge that? If we could just say it out loud, in every tangled, messy moment, when church or family stress is churning in our stomachs, “Thank you God, that You are here, right now.”

Maybe you are too tired to feel all the Christmas feels – but you have something better – Christmas everyday.  Everyday Immanuel comes, His closeness is reality, and you can stop trying to create the atmosphere and receive the gift. Atmosphere doesn’t equal presence. What sweet relief this is. Let it settle on your soul, soak in until the truth runs in your veins, “You have…set me in your presence forever.” – Psalm 41:12

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About Sarah Johnson

Sarah has been a pastor's wife in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and in Utah County, the center of Mormonism. She can't think of two more opposite places in the US, but each has been a special joy. She has 5 children and spends most of her time homeschooling and ministering alongside her husband at Fellowship Bible Church. Sarah loves the great outdoors and feeding people and agrees with C.S. Lewis that, "you can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me."