Christmas: God came to us
Senior Pastor John Lestock is new to the community and to Bethel Lutheran Church, but like all Christians, he views Christmas as a defining moment in the history of mankind.
"God came to us," Lestock said. "God was so crazy in love with us that he was willing to humble and lower himself to our level."
Jesus came to earth take on the sins of all men and women so that mankind had a path to get to heaven.
"It was a dangerous, risky plan that the creator would become vulnerable in the hand of the creation. He had to live the human experience and die at the hands of the creation -- all for our well-being."
He likened the Christmas message to a story told by 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard. The story, titled "The King and the Maiden," is about a king who loved a humble maiden. The king was so powerful that everyone feared him; he had the strength to crush all opponents. The king, however, faced a problem -- how could he declare his love for her? If he brought her to the palace and crowned her head with jewels and clothed her body in royal robes, she would surely not resist. But would she love the king?
If he rode to her forest cottage in his royal carriage, with an armed escort waving bright banners, that too would overwhelm her. He did not want a cringing subject. He wanted a lover, an equal.
The king, convinced he could not elevate the maiden without crushing her freedom, resolved to descend to her. Clothed as a beggar, he approached her cottage with a worn cloak fluttering loose about him. This was not just a disguise -- the king took on a totally new identity -- he had renounced his throne to declare his love and to win hers.
"That story reflects exactly what God did for us," Lestock said. "At his own risk."
Like the maiden, of course, it is up to us whether or not we want to accept God's love.
Lestock said he sometimes thinks people in the western culture sometimes minimize the Christmas story.
"There is a bit of irony in the fact that we've turned the Christmas story into a Disney-like story," Lestock said. "If you scrutinize the Biblical account of Mary, Joseph and the birth of Jesus, it's a really earthy story. It is no accident that the angels kept saying 'be not afraid.'
"They had reason to be afraid. We sometimes lose sight of that, and make everything happy and sugary. In reality, the events were cause for real concerns, real anxieties and real problems. God did a great thing -- he had the master plan and was behind it all -- sometimes we lose sight of that and also lose faith."
The good news, of course, is that mankind is the beneficiary.
Like many religious leaders, Lestock thinks the church can recognize Santa Claus as a part of the holiday traditions, but reminds people to articulate "the reason for the season."
"It does get a bit troubling when people pay more attention to Santa than Jesus," Lestock said. "But, Santa does not necessarily undermine the message of Christmas. St. Nicholas existed and he was motivated by his faith and practiced a social ministry."
He said Christians actually did not celebrate Christmas for a number of years in the early days.
"In the early days, the only observance was Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter Sunday," Lestock said. "But it eventually became apparent that you needed the birth to get to the resurrection."
Lestock said the story of Christmas can easily be summed up in John 3:16: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
"Martin Luther called it the Gospel in a nutshell -- the story of Christmas," Lestock said.
He also noted that "a sense of good will, generosity and helping the poor" is all part of the Christmas story.
"Mary and Joseph were strangers on the road and needed help along the way. The Son of God became a peasant and was at the mercy of many factors poor people have to deal with: food, lodging and traveling the roads."
Bethel Lutheran Church is a two-point congregation. The traditional church is located at 920 Third St. in downtown Hudson; Bethel Highlands is located at 504 Frontage Road.
Five services are planned on Christmas Eve and one on Christmas Day. At Bethel Highlands Christmas Eve services are at 2:30 p.m. (children and their families) and 5:30 p.m. (candlelight, carols and communion with the New Song Band). At the downtown church services are at 4 p.m. (candlelight), 7 p.m. (candlelight, carols and communion) and 10:30 p.m. (candlelight, carols and communion; music by Bethel Chorale). The Christmas Day service is at 10 a.m. at the downtown church.
"The services are open to anybody and everybody," Lestock said. "We invite all to hear the story of Jesus."
Lestock took over leadership of the Bethel congregation from the Rev. Dennis Nelson in an Aug. 12 installation service. Nelson served as Bethels' senior pastor for 23 years before his summer retirement.
Lestock, 58, grew up in Lakewood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. He was the oldest of three boys in the family. He attended Cleveland State University, where he majored in communications and religion. In 1976, he came to St. Paul to attend Luther Seminary and work with a Young Life ministry in the Forest Lake, Minn., area.
For the past 22 years, Lestock served the large Trinity Lutheran congregation in Owatonna, Minn., first as youth and family pastor, and then as senior pastor for more than 15 years.
Lestock and his wife, Janet, have purchased a house in Hudson. She is an admissions counselor for the graduate nursing program at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. The couple has two sons. Marty is a recent graduate of Augsburg and a substitute music teacher. Jake is in his senior year at
the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is studying political science.
Bethel Lutheran Church dates back to March 15, 1873. In the early days, services were held at the Olson Hall, (Harris Hotel) on First St. The first church was built at 920 Third St., the same location of the current Third Street building. The first church opened in October 1876.
The current Third Street building was first constructed in 1958-59 and several additions built later.
The Bethel Highlands church at 504 Frontage Road in the town of Hudson was completed in 2007. The 28,000-square-foot facility is located on a 40-acre parcel above Interstate 94 at Hwy. 35. The church current has approximately 3,000 members.
In addition to Lestock, Bethel is pastoral team includes: Pastor Van Bredeson (Youth and Family Pastor); Pastor Robert Bipes (Visitation Pastor); Alicia Hilding (Luther Seminary Student); and Ben Hilding (Luther Seminary Student).