Millions of people packed themselves into a 3-block radius, while thousands of New York City’s finest corralled them behind rows and rows of metal bars. Giant searchlights flooded the area, bouncing off buildings, illuminating the clouds against the velvety night sky. Old and young, the people strained and craned, pushed and pressed to see and hear the festivities at “30 Rock.” The air was positively pummeled with roaring helicopters overhead, while below police dogs barked at the hoards of people still flowing up out of the subways. Security was on high alert. The police seemed nervous . . .

It was the night of the giant Christmas tree lighting at Rockefeller Center. I happened to be in New York City, teaching our Jews for Jesus missionary trainees. I was glad for the timing. I had never been to this event and it was a great opportunity to go and hand out gospel tracts together. (Click here for the tract we handed out, as well as other holiday tracts you can download and use for free.)

Despite the heightened security that is now part of a post 9-11 mindset, the mood was festive as we fanned out around the area. I stood on the corner of 50th Street and 5th Avenue right in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, across from Rockefeller Center.

Preparing for the cold, I’d layered up with a Jews for Jesus sweatshirt pulled over my jacket and a woolen cap emblazoned with “Jews for Jesus” pulled over my ears. I’d left my hands bare, figuring gloves would make my fingers clumsy and slow me down. It was a good thought, except that my fingers were soon numb. Have you ever tried to hand out tracts with numb fingers? Numbed fingers are at least as clumsy as gloved fingers. Unfortunately, I didn’t need much agility to hand out literature that night.

“Oh, is that about the tree lighting?” people would ask.
“No, it’s about Jesus. He’s the one this is all about,” I replied, many times over.
“Oh, never mind, not interested,” one person said.
“I don’t want that,” another announced, with a dismissive waive of the hand.

A professional choir began singing holidays songs, their powerful voices filling the air. Everyone lifted their heads to listen to the beautiful sound, but few, it seemed wanted to hear about Jesus. Some gladly took the tracts, but most did not. Still, at least we knew we were planting some seeds. After two hours of standing in the cold we slowly inched our way out of the crowds and back to our Jews for Jesus office.

Joan was one of the people who did take a broadside; she was so happy about it that she called to thank us the next day. She was not a believer in Jesus yet; in fact she didn’t quite know what she believed. She only knew that our simple gospel tract had greatly touched her. She was not ready to speak further about it, but something had begun in her heart. God knows.

I can’t help contrasting the Rockefeller Center tree lighting spectacle with that of the first Christmas. Instead of searchlights, there was but one star that shone brighter than all the rest. There were no skyscrapers of concrete and steel—just a simple rural setting. Who cared to come see that poor little hovel of a cave there in impoverished Bethlehem? No noisy, rushing throngs of city people, certainly not anyone as well heeled as a Fifth Avenue shopper. Just a few country shepherds who’d responded to a choir of angels that no modern day ensemble could rival. But angels aside, I have no doubt about who witnessed the better spectacle. It wasn’t those who pressed against the cold steel railings to gaze up at the glitz and glamour of a lavishly decorated, brightly lit eight-ton, 72-foot Norway spruce.

No, it wasn’t those who heard Tony Bennett, Harry Connick Jr., Faith Hill and the Jonas Brothers perform for TV audiences as well as for those who attended the tree lighting. They were only seeing and hearing the best entertainment that a wealthy and prosperous populace could employ. And to what purpose? Seemingly to distract themselves from the pervasive poverty of soul and spirit that permeates so many hearts. Meanwhile those impoverished shepherds who’d made their way to a cold dark hovel stood peering into a rough manger—and got to gaze into the eyes of the One who created all of heaven and earth, the One who could offer the riches of true hope, eternal life, and everlasting joy.

So many today choose glitz over glory. They want to see a Christmas spectacle; some hope to be distracted from the tedium of their lives, others want to forget their fears about the future. Some just want a little consumer narcotic to ease the inner emptiness. And yet perhaps some who approach Christmas in hopes of seeing a spectacle are hungry for something greater. Maybe some, like Joan, will catch a glimpse of the beauty and simplicity of the Savior, Jesus the Christ.

Each of us has a choice in these next few days. We can allow ourselves to become distracted by the press of the crowds, the glitz of the lights, the pretense of wealth, the distractions of plentitude—the illusions of a Christmas spectacle. Or we can stoop to quiet our hearts and ponder. We can wonder at the simple yet profound spectacle of this truth: that the Creator of the Universe humbled Himself to come to us as a newborn child, that we who believe might also become children of God and heirs of His eternal life. All the best of Madison Avenue bids us gaze at the glitz that is soon to be dismantled and packed away, useless until the following December. Meanwhile, the quiet call of the Spirit woos us, moves us to ponder the glory that transforms lives, and will never ever fade. Let’s choose wisely.