A larger purpose

A National Geographic article about the migration of arctic terns teaches us an important lesson about Christmas.

Joel C. Gerlach

Terns migrate from their arctic breeding grounds to the Antarctic each year. It’s 12,000 miles one way. Incredible!

In a National Geographic* article about animal migration, writer David Quammen says, “Migrating animals maintain a fervent attentiveness to the greater mission, which keeps them undistracted by temptations and undeterred by challenges that would turn other animals aside.” He provides an example: “An arctic tern on its way from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska, for instance, will ignore a nice smelly herring offered from a bird-watcher’s boat in Monterey Bay. Local gulls will dive voraciously for such handouts, while the tern flies on. Why? . . . The arctic tern resists distraction because it is driven at that moment by an intuitive sense of something we humans find admirable: larger purpose.”


It’s easy to get distracted in the Christmas season. Distracted from what? From a “larger purpose.” The distractions may cause us to forget that Jesus is the reason for the season. He is God, yet “he became fully human” (Nicene Creed) like us to reconnect us to his Father. That, briefly put, was his “larger purpose.”

Jesus knew from early on what that larger purpose” meant for him. “When the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship” (Galatians 4:4,5).

And then “when the time was come that he should be received up, he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51 KJV). Jesus refused to be distracted. What he started when he was conceived in Mary’s womb, he finished as our perfect substitute.


Our identity with Mary’s Child also gives us a “larger purpose” in life. From Genesis to Revelation God’s singular intent is to keep us mindful of that purpose. At a critical moment in Israel’s history, God told his people, “I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16). That was then, this is now. Except for the scope of God’s plan, nothing has changed. Our purpose remains the same.

“You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8), Jesus says to us who claim him as Savior and Lord. “You are the salt of the earth. . . . You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13,14)– two metaphors for what it means to be his witnesses. Salt can lose its “saltiness” and light can end up “under a bowl” because of distractions. Jesus intends that we, like terns, “maintain a fervent attentiveness to [our] greater mission . . . undistracted by temptations.” He wants you to remember that you are an instrument “for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work” (2 Timothy 2:21). Your Savior’s singular determination to save you is now the motivation for your singular determination to serve him.

So instead of being sidetracked by all the distractions of the season, let them be reminders to us of our “larger purpose.” Perhaps we could even adopt the arctic tern as another appropriate symbol for the season.

God bless you and yours in this Christmas season with a renewed appreciation for that larger purpose to which he has called us all.

Joel Gerlach, a retired pastor, is a member at St. John, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.

*“Mysteries of Great Migrations,” National Geographic, November 2010.


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Author: Joel C. Gerlach
Volume 102, Number 12
Issue: December 2015

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