As Advent begins tomorrow, I was setting up my personal crèche to use as an object lesson with the children during the worship service. Starting out with only the animals and an empty manger, I plan to add figurines each week until the Christ child is added on Christmas morning.
As I unpacked the nativity set, I thought of Dennis. He was a youth in my first church, who gave us the nativity set nearly 30 years ago. I think of him every Christmas as I break the crèche out of the box.
Dennis had experienced a hard life by the time he came to our church at the invitation of classmates. Both of his parents had died, and he was being raised by an older sister. Short, ruddy, quiet but quick witted, Dennis quickly endeared himself to us. After a summer youth trip to Branson in which he stabbed another youth in the leg (the truth of how that happened never came out), we had a “come to Jesus talk” and he actually did come to Jesus, that is.
Along with the other youth, Dennis spent a lot of time in our home. He was included in a number of our celebrations, with him supplying the giant cookie from the Great American Cookies store where he worked in the mall. One Christmas he gave us the Fontanini nativity set and he added other figurines over the next few years.
I moved to another church staff position in Memphis and then to Iowa, and we lost touch. I tried tracking him down through the internet and eventually found a newspaper article, touting his success in producing organic vegetables and selling them at farmers markets in Memphis. I actually emailed the business he operated, but never heard from him.
Today, my thoughts about this youth, who by now would be about 50, caused me to do a Facebook search again, and I found him. However, I quickly discovered the posts were not by him but about him. Shortly, I reached a post that expressed sorrow for his sudden death on February 15, 2012. The news was like a punch in the gut. I quickly messaged another of the “youth” from that church, who coincidentally just “friended” me on Facebook. He shared that Dennis had a heart attack and died…and “sorry, thought someone told you.” I know that I could not have prevented his death by staying in touch, but I wish that Dennis had known how I remembered his kindness every time I’ve unpacked the nativity set he gave us so long ago.
Tomorrow is the first Sunday of Advent. We will be lighting the Hope candle, as it represents the hope the people of God had for the long awaited Messiah. Foreshadowed through the curse of the serpent in Genesis 3, promised in the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 15), and prophesied in many other Old Testament passages (Micah 5:2-3, Numbers 24:17, Isaiah 9:6), God’s people were hopeful. They longed for good news to the afflicted, comfort for the brokenhearted, the proclamation of liberty to the captives, and freedom for the imprisoned (Isaiah 61:1). And they were certain that God would fulfill His promises as He had time and time, again.
With every Advent season and every communion we are reminded of the hope that we have in Christ Jesus. The Messiah came to fulfill all that God had promised and there are still promises to be fulfilled. As a lamb led to slaughter, who did not protest (Isaiah 53:7), Jesus willingly took upon Himself my sin and suffered my death, enabling me to have eternal life with Him. He continues to give hope to all who know Him as He is coming again to receive us unto Himself. And for that, I am eternally grateful for the light of hope shines upon me.
And so, it’s not that time of the year without remembering Dennis. But knowing that Dennis and I had that “come to Jesus” talk gives me the hope that I will see him again one day…the very HOPE that causes us to celebrate the first Sunday of Advent tomorrow.