40. Great Festival of Heaven

December 26, 2022 - Roger W. Lowther

Merry Christmas everyone! Welcome to the Art Life Faith podcast, where we talk about art, what it has to do with your life, and what it has to do with the Christian faith. And I'm your host, Roger Lowther.

Every month, I send out newsletters telling stories of missions through the arts—what's happening here in Japan, how the arts are playing a role in church planting, and how the arts are connecting us to people in the city. You can sign up for these newsletters by going to my website, www.rogerwlowther.com, and clicking Contact at the bottom of the page. In these podcasts, I try to tell other stories, the ones that usually don't make it into the newsletters. In the last episode, I began to share some stories from a Christmas event at a gallery I visited. I told you a little bit about an artist who was so thankful for the opportunity to share her faith publicly for the first time when she led one of our Art Life Faith discussions, which is what this podcast is named after. Because of that experience, she's been sharing her faith with more and more people.

And guess what? Last week, I got a message from her. She was sharing the gospel with the owner of that gallery, and then the owner of the gallery became a Christian. What a tremendous Christmas present, right? The artist told me how excited she was. It's just so cool that all she was doing was sharing the love of God in her context, which was an art gallery. It was not out of place at all because that particular exhibit was about the love of God and Christmas.

I also want to tell you about another artist who was exhibiting at that gallery. Her name is Ayaka Uchida. She paints in the traditional Japanese art of nihonga, which uses crushed minerals and glue to paint layer after layer over each other and create a beautiful effect you really can't get any other way. The whole painting sparkles in the light, especially under the bright lights of the gallery.

I was particularly drawn to a series of paintings she calls Immanuel Sky. One in particular showed her house surrounded by what you usually find in a neighborhood in the suburbs of Tokyo—lots of other houses, power lines, streetlights, etc. They were all painted with a beautiful blue color, which Ayaka explained was a particularly expensive mineral. These were all placed under a broad golden sky. The artist told me that she painted this scene after a really difficult day to show that God is always with us.

IMMANUEL: WITH ME by Ayaka Uchida
"God became human to be with us in every moment of life"

God is Immanuel, “God with us.” He is not only present in beautiful scenes of nature, like mountains and ocean and starry skies, but he is also present in the cities and the neighborhoods where we live. Under the lights of the gallery, her ordinary scene came to life with a magical glow. Our drab, ordinary world shined with expensive minerals to show the value of our lives and the things in our lives. It was nothing less than a picture of heaven come to earth.

And in that sense as well, it was a picture of the Christmas story. This message of the presence of God and the glory of heaven shining through into our ordinary world is exactly the message I'll be sharing in a solo organ Christmas concert this weekend where I've been asked to give a Christmas message. I'll be sharing from a passage of the Bible not usually associated with Christmas, from the Book of Leviticus 23:1–2.

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them these are my appointed festivals, the appointed festivals of the Lord which you are to proclaim as sacred assemblies.’”

It's fascinating to me that God gave the Israelites festivals. There are seven festivals listed in this chapter: the Sabbath, the Feast of Passover, the Feast of First Fruits, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Booths.

Let’s consider for a moment. What is a festival? In festivals, people celebrate together using the best of their art and culture. The festivals are celebrated with their own distinctive foods music, dress, decorations, gifts, and games. Sometimes balloons or fireworks fill the sky. There's excitement in the air. And so by giving the Israelites festivals, God was forming the identity of the nation and the people of that nation.

Every nation on the planet has festivals. Probably every person has strong memories of some holiday or celebration they had as a child. These kinds of celebrations are an important part of who we are as humans. They're part of our identity as families and as communities. In America, perhaps the biggest festival of all is Christmas.

I have so many fond memories of Christmas. The lights, the decorations, the presents, the food, and, of course, the music. They're all tied to art in some way, aren't they? Every year when I was in junior high and in high school, I participated as a musician in a play our church put on. It was a pretty big church, and we had about twelve performances every year, always completely packed, every seat taken. And everyone loved it. Christmas was always a day off from school. Since Christmas falls on a Sunday this year my kids are really happy they don't have to go to school on Christmas this year.

My dad had a really nice train set, not a toy one made for children that he'd spend much of Christmas Eve setting up, so that when my sister and I woke in the morning, the room was magically transformed. There was the moving train and a mountain of presence and stockings full of goodies above the fireplace. We had special clothes like a silly red sweater with reindeer or snowmen or snowflakes and hats like Santa and his elves. We played special games. We watched special movies on TV. And a sense of wonder and magic surrounded everything.

Growing up in Boston, we almost always had a white Christmas. My dad told me it's already been snowing this year in Boston! So after opening my presents, I'd go outside and play in the snow and then come back in for hot chocolate or eggnog. My grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, cousins, and guests would all come over later for lunch and dinner. It was a whole day event.

I'll be sharing some of these stories in the concert because people here in Japan are really fascinated by the American way of celebrating Christmas. It's just not a big deal here. Some people go and get Kentucky Fried Chicken…I guess Colonel Sanders does look a little bit like Santa…and there's a special white Christmas cake you can buy. Children still go to school when it's not a Sunday, and people still go to work. From the window of my living room, I can see the living rooms of probably 100,000 people, and we are the only apartment with Christmas lights on our porch and window. Yet, with all these memories, we never forget the real meaning of Christmas. God came to be with us. He came as a little child.

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light on those living in the land of deep darkness, a light is dawned. For to us a child is born. To us a son is given. And the government will be on his shoulders, and he will be called wonderful Counselor, mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:2, 6)

Then in the first chapter of the New Testament, Matthew connects the birth of Jesus to the prophecies when he writes,

“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel,’ (which means ‘God with us’).” (Matthew 1:22–23)

God came as a little baby to be with us, to share his presence with us. The All-Powerful became vulnerable. The infinite became finite. The transcendent became imminent. Heaven itself came to earth and the government was on the shoulders of this child, bringing heaven itself to the earth.

Everything is being made new. Every tear will be wiped away. You see…Christmas doesn't just celebrate the coming of Jesus. There is a deeper meaning to Christmas, what I like to call the “magic” of Christmas, where the glory of heaven peaks through into our drab and ordinary world. This is the beauty and wonder and excitement that leaks into our lives and communities.

Light into darkness. Hope from despair. Life from death. Everything sad is going to come untrue and will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost. Christmas is not just about Christmas. When we celebrate the festival of Christmas with our favorite food and favorite music and favorite clothes, we're celebrating something big, a place where Christmas will never stop and will never grow old. Christmas is a picture of heaven. Heaven is a festival, a feast for the senses.

There will be a feeling of excitement with crowds of people we've never met before, as we share special foods, listen to special music, and wear special clothes. There will be dancing, gifts, and games. There will be decorations with lights and glass balls and bells beyond our wildest imaginations. And so in this season, we celebrate this amazing God, the giver of every good and perfect gift. God gives festivals to point to the kingdom he is bringing. He's giving us the means to celebrate him.

Everything we delight in now in the festival of Christmas is but a taste of that ultimate beauty and joy we find in the Great Festival of Heaven.

This is Roger Lowther, and you've been listening to the “Art Life Faith” podcast. Check out my website www.rogerwlowther.com for a transcription of this podcast and various links. As we say in Japan, “Ja, mata ne! See you next time.”

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