Welcome to the December Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
Scripture quotes taken from the American Standard Version
A WORD FOR TODAY, December 2010
December 1, 2010
"But thou, Beth-lehem Ephrathah, which art little to be among the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall one come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting." Micah 5:2, ASV
Phillips Brooks was a clergyman who lived during the time of the American Civil War. He supported the dissolution of slavery. Despite his desire to be nothing more than a parish priest, Phillips Brooks was an author, an Episcopal Bishop and a man whose character and eloquence made him highly respected. He spoke about Abraham Lincoln's life as the dead president's body lay in state in Philadelphia, powerfully sharing the feelings of those who loved the man and the president.
"It is the great boon of such characters as Mr. Lincoln's, that they reunite what God has joined together and man has put asunder. In him was vindicated the greatness of real goodness and the goodness of real greatness. The twain were one flesh. Not one of all the multitudes who stood and looked up to him for direction with such a loving and implicit trust can tell you to-day whether the wise judgments that he gave came most from a strong head or a sound heart. If you ask them, they are puzzled. There are men as good as he, but they do bad things. There are men as intelligent as he, but they do foolish things. In him goodness and intelligence combined and made their best result of wisdom. For perfect truth consists not merely in the right constituents of character, but in their right and intimate conjunction. This union of the mental and moral into a life of admirable simplicity is what we most admire in children; but in them it is unsettled and unpractical. But when it is preserved into manhood, deepened into reliability and maturity, it is that glorified childlikeness, that high and reverend simplicity, which shames and baffles the most accomplished astuteness, and is chosen by God to fill his purposes when he needs a ruler for his people, of faithful and true heart, such as he had who was our President." Phillips Brooks in Philadelphia, April 1865.
The Civil War was a difficult time for America, and the death of President Lincoln was a thorn in the already scarred flesh of the country and the man, Phillips Brooks. In December 1865, just months after Lincoln's burial, Brooks visited the Holy Land in the hope of finding spiritual renewal. On Christmas Eve, he rented a horse and traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. He was refreshed by the spirit of the first Christmas in that place. Three years later, as he wrote his Christmas Eve sermon, he wrote the hymn "O Little Town of Bethlehem."
Two lines from that hymn stuck out as I read it this morning, both pointing at the reality of what Christmas has become for us. I know there are many Christians who have difficulty with the holy-day, knowing that so many of the customs and traditions that we love have older, pagan roots. After all, we do not know the actual day of Christ's birth, the date Decemeber 25th was selected as a way of overcoming the continuing Christian celebration of Saturnalia, a pagan holiday. Until the fourth century, Christians were not allowed to celebrate the birth, and they were discouraged from participating in the fun, Roman celebrations. However, human nature as it is tended toward the excitement and joviality of those pagan celebrations. So, the leaders allowed for the immersion of Christian thought into those traditions, making what was old new again.
We might think that there is no place for these connections, but Jesus constantly took the things of the earth and gave them new and sacred meanings. Fishermen became fishers of men. Farming became an image of the Kingdom of God. Baptism takes ordinary water and makes it holy. We use everyday bread and wine in the Eucharist as a foretaste of the Feast that is to come. Jesus did not say we had to throw away the old; instead we are to embrace the old with a new heart.
Phillips Brooks wrote, "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." Human nature may tend toward the fun and frivolous, but we are also created with an inbred spark of God's light. If we look at those pagan traditions that have become a part of Christmas, we'll see why they were so easily adapted to our faith: they stand for many of the same things. In a later verse, Brooks wrote, "The dark night wakes, the glory breaks and Christmas comes once more." The pagan traditions might have had a spark of truth, but they were buried in the darkness of the world before Christ. Christmas sets those sparks free, brings the glory of God into the world and offers the true peace and joy of life in God's kingdom.
"Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good. In love of the brethren be tenderly affectioned one to another; in honor preferring one another; in diligence not slothful; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing stedfastly in prayer; communicating to the necessities of the saints; given to hospitality. Bless them that persecute you; bless, and curse not. Rejoice with them that rejoice; weep with them that weep. Be of the same mind one toward another. Set not your mind on high things, but condescend to things that are lowly. Be not wise in your own conceits." Romans 12:9-16, ASV
In December 1932, King George V of England took advantage of the newest technology of the day, radio, and gave the first Christmas Royal Christmas message, a tradition that has continued ever since. He was hesitant to use the technology, but he was convinced that it would be good for the entire realm to hear a message of hope in day of uncertainty. They'd survived World War I. They were experiencing, with the rest of the world, the affects of the Great Depression. Who knew what was in store for the British Empire in the future. King George was concerned about the rise of Adolph Hitler in Germany, and humbled by the circumstances of his people around the world.
The speech was written by Rudyard Kipling and was relatively short, but powerful. King George spoke of the marvels of modern science that allowed him to speak to the entire empire, which had reached the climax of its territorial rule during King George's reign. However, in 1932, Iraq gained its independence, just the first step of the slow loss of power. With the rise of Germany and the United States, England was a declining empire.
For the first time ever, radio made it possible for everyone around the world to hear the voice of the king, and on that day the world became a smaller place. No matter where they were, all the people were connected, and though nothing was changed in that moment, they were joined together by the hope of tomorrow. Our circumstances are different, but we suffer from much the same doubts and concerns today. With the financial crisis looming, and many families unable to afford a decent holiday, a message of hope is desperately needed. We are afraid of too many things, but it is not very easy to find a reason to rejoice and be thankful. What we need is a voice of hope.
Perhaps King George V's message is exactly what we need to hear today. "It may be that our future may lay upon us more than one stern test. Our past will have taught us how to meet it unshaken. For the present, the work to which we are all equally bound is to arrive at a reasoned tranquility within our borders; to regain prosperity without self-seeking; and to carry with us those whom the burden of past years has disheartened or overborne." King George wasn't promising his people that the bad times were past. He knew the threat of Adolph Hitler was not good news for the world. But he also knew that his people were strong and ready to face the future.
His call was for peace among his people, hard work without greed and generosity to others. Sounds like a good message for us today. Perhaps radio is no longer a new technology, but our world gets smaller and smaller by the minute. Now we can send a message around the world in seconds, to millions, with just the push of a button. How are we using our voice? What message are we sending to a world that is filled with fear and uncertainty? Or are we sharing a message of hope in word and deed that will help our neighbors get through this day and face tomorrow with faith?
"Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross. Wherefore also God highly exalted him, and gave unto him the name which is above every name; that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things on earth and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Philippians 2:5-11, ASV
Today's devotion in "Everything Christmas" talks about Christmas dinner in Poland. The traditions of other nations are often strange to us. Though Americans do not necessarily have a specific meal for Christmas celebrations (as we have turkey for Thanksgiving) we can tell by the offerings at the grocery store that most families will have some sort of meat with all the trimmings. I have to admit that I can't remember what we did for Christmas Day, though I'm sure we had an excellent meal.
It is interesting that I can remember Christmas Eve much better than Christmas Day. We always had lobster tail and shrimp on the night before Christmas, although after having had the measles at Christmas during second grade, I disliked the shellfish and had steak for many years. What makes these memories interesting is that in Poland the main Christmas meal is eaten on Christmas Eve, and is fish rather than meat. They do not cook anything at all on Christmas Day; I'm assuming they eat cold leftovers or something that was prepared beforehand.
The people in Poland fast all day Christmas Eve, and are not allowed to eat until the first star appears in the sky. They use the day to prepare for the holiday, anxiously waiting for the twelve course meal that evening. The youngest child is given the responsibility of watching out the window and as soon as he or she sees the star, candles are lit in all the windows. Then they can sit down for the feast of fish (usually carp), mushroom soup, borscht, siedzie (pickled herring), cabbage rolls, boiled potatoes, beans and sauerkraut, dried fruit compote and kutia (pudding.)
They also have pierogies. This particular item surprised me because it doesn't seem like a particularly special dish. I love pierogies, and I could eat them every day. So many of our food traditions at the holidays are special dishes that are pulled out just once or twice a year (do you make green bean casserole in July?) I can't imagine waiting until December to have pierogies! Of course, I just buy the Mrs. T's pierogies at the grocery store, and they probably make them from scratch, but it seems strange that something so common might be a Christmas tradition. We never had lobster, except on Christmas Eve, which is what made it so special.
Nazarene pastor C. Neil Strait is quoted as having said, "The coming of Christ by way of a Bethlehem manger seems strange and stunning. But when we take him out of the manger and invite him into our hearts, then the meaning unfolds and the strangeness vanishes."
We might think that the traditions of other nations are strange and stunning, but they probably think the same about us. We are in good company, because the entire story of Christmas is odd, especially to those who don't believe. How is it that a king, the King, can be born in a tiny, insignificant town in a stable? How can he have been given nothing but a manger for a bed? How is it that the incarnation of God Himself would choose to arrive within His creation in such a humble and silent manner?
"Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; through whom also we have had our access by faith into this grace wherein we stand; and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only so, but we also rejoice in our tribulations: knowing that tribulation worketh stedfastness; and stedfastness, approvedness; and approvedness, hope: and hope putteth not to shame; because the love of God hath been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit which was given unto us. For while we were yet weak, in due season Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: for peradventure for the good man some one would even dare to die. But God commendeth his own love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, shall we be saved from the wrath of God through him." Romans 5:1-9, ASV
I messed up. I guess I'm so used to not doing any writing on the weekends that it didn't occur to me to sit down at the computer yesterday to do so. I didn't even ready my own reading for the day! But isn't that what Christmas is really all about? After all, we are constantly failing to live up to the expectations of our Creator, so unable to do so that He sent His own Son to atone for our sins? In the beginning God gave us a way to experience His forgiveness, through sacrificial offerings in the Temple. But those sacrifices were not enough to completely restore us to a right relationship with our Father. It would take something extraordinary to make our holiness real and lasting: Christ. The only way to make things right was for God Himself to determine and offer the sacrifice. A cow or goat or lamb would not be enough: only His Son would be suitable. So, on Christmas Day Jesus was born to begin a life that would end in setting us free from our failures forever.
Perhaps it seems odd that we'd go to all this seasonal trouble to celebrate the birth of a man who was born to die. As a matter of fact, most people prefer to stay in Christmas, keeping Jesus as a baby in a manger. We love to joy and peace that we find in that stable, the story of Mary's faith, the trust of the shepherds and the wise men. We embrace the giving spirit of the holy day and the atmosphere of love and hope. There is something very special about light breaking out in the darkness of our world, and we'd rather linger there than move on to the reality of Jesus' life: His death.
We can linger in Christmas while still experiencing the truth of Jesus' life, because we have been saved from ourselves to live in the freedom to be like Jesus. We will still fail, but we fail with the knowledge that we don't have to wait until a certain moment of time to be forgiven and reconciled to God. We are forgiven and reconciled to God by virtue of Christ's work. Living in that forgiveness means that we can go forth in faith, doing exactly what God means for us to do: to share His love with others.
The story in yesterday's reading in "Everything Christmas" was about a mother and son that were forced to be far from home at Christmastime. The four-year old boy had a severe asthma attack and was taken to a hospital to recover. There were few children in the ward, and the hospital seemed cold and harsh to this mother whose dreams for a beautiful Christmas were shattered by the sudden pain of her child. The family had decided to wait to experience Christmas until they returned home, so the mother did nothing to remind him that it was Christmas. She didn't expect Christmas to come to her.
She thought she was going to be all alone, waiting by the bedside of her son, angry and frustrated by the whole experience. But on Christmas Eve she was surprised when visitor after visitor came to their room and wished them a Merry Christmas. One guest dressed as Santa Claus brought the boy a cowboy hat that fit him perfectly, as if it had been purchased with him in mind. Another guest gave him a brightly wrapped package with a cowboy rifle and spurs, as if the two gifts had been planned. A group of children caroled around the halls and a man played the flute for the two lonely people.
The woman writes, "Slowly, but clearly, I began to realize that none of the people who had shared their love and gifts with us knew us-or had even told us their names. We had done nothing to earn or deserve their gifts. While my own hurts and needs had created a cold barrier around my emotions, these simple acts of kindness had caused the walls of neglected feelings to come tumbling down." That hospital became a place of healing and peace because a few people follow the prompting of God to share His love with those in need. They weren't angels or saints, although it might have seemed that way in the woman's eyes. They were people like you and I, living in God's forgiveness and taking His grace into the world.
So, when we fail to do what we should, or even what we promise to do, we can remember that Christmas is not just about a baby in a manager. It is about a man born to die to set us free to be what we were created to be: children of God designed to live like Him in this world.
John Jacob Niles, folklorist and singer, was in Appalachia when he overheard a young girl singing a few lines from an old folk song. He took those words and expanded them into a song for Christmas in 1933. "I Wonder as I Wander" is a haunting melody, which draws the listener into the wonderment of the reason for Jesus' birth.
I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
When Mary birthed Jesus 'twas in a cow's stall,
If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing,
I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
It is so easy for us to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of holiday preparations. I was thinking about my schedule for this week, all the things I have to get done, and I don't know how I'm going to get everything done. Oh, I'm sure that a few things on that list can wait, but I'm sure I'll push myself into a frenzy until it is all complete. I'll forget to spend time in wonderment, considering all that Jesus gave up to be my Savior. He left heaven for a stable, the glory of God for the company of men. Isn't this an amazing thing to ponder? Shouldn't we stop during this Advent season to think on these things?
All the while, however, we are also reminded by Bing Crosby of the beauty of the season. His song "White Christmas" has been a favorite for generations. Yet, in the midst of the hustle and bustle, let's remember that it is not just about the stuff we do or the stuff we buy or even the stuff we make: it is about the people with whom we get to share those blessings. Bing once said, "Unless we make Christmas an occasion to share our blessings, all the snow in Alaska won't make it 'white.'"
So, let us wonder as we wander through the holidays what it means to be a Christian. Who is Christ, what has He done, what is He doing and what will He do in the future? What did He give up for our sake? How can we follow in His footsteps? I don't think that Jesus was thinking that our holiday schedules should be filled with things to do. Instead, let's take time this advent to just wonder and wander, to commune with God in silence and prayer, and then let's share what we've heard God say with others.
"And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Matthew 27:46, ASV
Janet Miriam Reback was an American novelist who wrote under several pen names including Taylor Caldwell. She wrote satire, romance and historical fiction, including novels about important and famous characters. Her books include, "Dear and Glorious Physician" (1959) about Saint Luke; "Great Lion of God" (1970) about Saint Paul; and "I, Judas" (1977) about Judas Iscariot. As you can see from these titles, her novels often reflected her Christian belief. Her most famous stories include, "Dynasty of Death" (1938), "The Captain and the Kings" (1972), "Glory and the Lightning" (1974), and "Answer as a Man" (1981).
"Everything Christmas" includes a story about her most memorable Christmas, the Christmas when she discovered the very reason for it all. She was having a difficult time in her life. Barely in her twenties, with a child of six, newly divorced, Taylor could not find a job to pay her bills. She managed to find some temporary work, but none lasted very long. Early in that year she'd had an encounter with a woman whose heirloom, silver-handled umbrella she found and returned. Despite her need, she refused to take a reward, happy that the woman was so excited to have her property returned.
It was Christmas Eve, her latest temp job was over and she didn't have enough to pay the next month's rent. She had managed to save $8 through the year and she used what she could to buy presents for her daughter. They had a meager meal waiting and a tiny tree to decorate, and despite her daughter's joy over the Christmas they had, Taylor was miserable. Then the doorbell rang. A messenger came with piles of presents, all sent by the woman Taylor had encountered a few months earlier. She had other surprises, too. In her mail was a check from one of the companies for which she had worked during that summer, a year end bonus for the work she did--just enough to pay her rent. Another envelope contained an invitation to a full time permanent position, to begin two days after Christmas.
Taylor thought she was alone. She was hurt and afraid, disappointed and frustrated. She was angry with God. But on that special night so long ago, Taylor Caldwell realized that she was not alone. She writes, "I am not alone at all, I thought. I was never alone at all. And that, of course, is the message of Christmas. We are never alone. Not when the night is darkest, the wind coldest, the world seemingly most indifferent. For this is still the time God chooses."
It is interesting to me that "Everything Christmas" does not mention that today is St. Nicholas Day, the day of gift giving in many countries around the world. St. Nicholas, of course, evolved into what we in America call Santa Claus. The joy and excitement of Christmas for children often revolves around this character and the gifts he brings to them. But for most children, a day of disappointment comes when Santa does not live up to their expectations; the day comes when they realize he is not real. For Shirley Temple Black, that day came when she was just six years old. She is quoted as saying, "I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six. Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph."
I suppose we all come to the point in our life when we stop believing in Santa Claus. But we also have points in our life, like Taylor Caldwell, when we wonder if we are alone. We forget that God's grace is not always found in the time or ways we might expect. We get hurt and afraid, disappointed and frustrated. We get angry with God. Even Jesus cried out at His lowest moment, that moment on the cross when He felt alone and abandoned by God. But as we continue through this Advent, anxiously awaiting the birth of our Savior, let's remember that He's as close now as He's ever been. His answers might not come in the way or the time we expect, but He will answer. He will come.
"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of Jehovah of hosts will perform this." Isaiah 9:6-7, ASV
There is a running debate that gets heated at this time of year: real or artificial. Since I tend to put up multiple trees in my house, the answer I give is "Both!" But I understand the passion of those who think one is better than the other. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, and everyone has good reason for their choice. We like to have a real tree in the house, but we've had years when a real tree was not possible.
Take, for instance, the year we were moving from England back to America. Our household goods had already been packed and shipped so that they would arrive in Arkansas by the time we did. We were living on borrowed furniture and just enough stuff to get by. I kept just a few Christmas things: a nativity and some old cards. We bought a large roll of plain green foil paper, cut it into the shape of a Christmas tree and taped it to the wall. We cut up the old Christmas cards and glued them on the tree. I used colorful wrapping paper as 'curtains' on my windows. It was a unique, but very special Christmas.
The year we bought our first artificial tree was also in England. We lived in a very small house, a house that was barely big enough for our furniture, let alone a tree. We found a six foot tall pencil thin tree at the Base Exchange. It was perfect because the circumference of the bottom was just a few feet, so it fit nicely into a corner of our living room.
The artificial Christmas tree was invented in the 1930's by the Addis Brush Company. Using the same technology as is used for making toilet brushes, the company adapted a tradition from the 1800's in Germany of using wire frames covered in green-dyed feathers instead of a real Christmas tree. I found a website from a natural Christmas tree growers association that made a big deal out of the fact that those artificial trees could be used after Christmas to scrub the toilet. They certainly want you to reject the artificial option!
Isn't it amazing what we go through for one guy's birthday party? Of course, that party is for more than just 'some guy.' We celebrate Jesus on Christmas, and He's worthy of every beautiful thing we can do to celebrate, even though we don't even know the actual day of His birth. We do know the birthdates of other people, and some of them were even born on Christmas Day! Isn't it fascinating that Isaac Newton, the 'father of modern science' was born on December 25, 1642? Perhaps science and religion can co-exist! Others that celebrated Christmas birthdays are Clara Barton (1821), Helena Rubinstein (1870), Conrad Hilton (1887), Humphrey Bogart (1889), Cab Calloway (1907), Anwar Sadat (1918), Jimmy Buffett (1946), Rickey Henderson (1958), and Alicia Keys (1981).
Everyone has a birthday, but some days seem to stand out more than others. I know that for having a birthday around Christmas is difficult, especially for children, because so much energy is put into the holiday that there isn't much left for the birthday. If we consider the number of people born over the history of man, about sixteen million people have probably been born on December 25th. But we prepare and celebrate of someone more than a man; we celebrate the birth of our eternal King, Jesus Christ.
"For the grace of God hath appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us, to the intent that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly and righteously and godly in this present world; looking for the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a people for his own possession, zealous of good works." Titus 2:11-14, ASV
Today's devotion in "Everything Christmas" included a lengthy story by Christine Whiting Parmenter called "David's Star of Bethlehem." The story was about a couple whose eleven year old son died on Christmas Eve three years earlier. After the tragedy, the husband refused to celebrate Christmas. Even worse, he became angry with every mention of the season. The wife was also heartbroken, but she knew that they needed to get back to normal, to find healing in the joy of the season. He just wanted to avoid the world.
So, they decided to go to a camp in the mountains, far from civilization. The weather was horrible and the trip was difficult, but they managed to get everything arranged and they arrived safely just in time to be snowed in for the holiday. The people at the farm down the mountain ensured that the cabin was warm and ready for them. A young boy, about eleven, was the one who lit and watched the fire until they arrived, and he did other things to help them settle in. It was a difficult encounter for the man, especially when hearing the excitement of the holiday activities in his words. Unfortunately, his parents were cruel and forced him to work rather than go to help with the school holiday event. As a matter of fact, the boy was left home alone on Christmas to take care of the cows and the couple in the cabin.
The man was so upset by the parents' lack of care for the boy that he decided to make a Christmas for him at the cabin. He trekked into town to find decorations for a tree they cut in the forest, but he found something even better. He learned that the boy was not the son of the couple at the farm. He'd been orphaned, and the farmers took him in not to be their son, but to be their slave. The man worked through the legalities and the couple adopted David.
The man passionately avoided everything Christmas because he didn't want to be reminded of his son, but it was in the very act of giving Christmas to another boy that gave the man the healing and peace he so desperately needed. And in giving joy to the boy, the man discovered a joy he could not have expected. David will never replace his own son, but he saved the man from his anger and hurt. A family was created out of the tragedy. The man could have continued to wallow in his pain, to hold on to his passions and ignore the reality of the world in his reach. But he let go for the sake of another, to share a brief moment of joy in the midst of his pain, and he came out of it with peace.
The holidays can be a very difficult time for many people, especially those who have lost a loved one. We are tempted to wallow in our pain, to ignore the reality of the world around us, to reject joy for the sake of our passions. But God has freed us from temptation and called us to find healing in the opportunities to share God's grace with others. Instead of passionately holding on to pain, let us be passionate about Christ, loving others and sharing God's salvation with them. You never know, the greatest blessing might just be found in doing the things you would rather avoid; there we might just find healing.
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him; and without him was not anything made that hath been made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness apprehended it not. There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for witness, that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light. There was the true light, even the light which lighteth every man, coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and they that were his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he the right to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth." John 1:1-14, ASV
It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas in our house and in our neighborhood. Slowly, but surely, the signs of the holiday are popping up everywhere. The streets are bright with colored lights and blow-up decorations, lines of candy canes along the driveways and twinkling 'icicles' hanging from the roofs. We love to decorate and enjoy seeing the displays of our neighbors. I have to admit, however, I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to the Christmas displays.
As I was driving down the road the other day, I thought to myself, "Those blow-up decorations are the twenty-first century version of the lighted, molded plastic decorations of the seventies." Ok, some of them are cute and I get that they are perfect for a home with small children. But I'm having a hard time with the blow-up Jesus and the lawns covered with a dozen cartoon characters wearing wreaths around their necks. Whoever thought of putting Santa on a tractor needs help.
But then, I'm sure that there are those who look at my display with disdain. Some people just don't like the lights or the way Christmas has become so secularized and commercial. They ask, "What do pink flamingos have to do with Christmas?" I personally love the small lighted birds we've added to our display this year, and I love that flamingos have become a part of the Christmas décor!
How did it all start? What do these lights have to do with Christmas? Well, we are reminded by today's scripture that Jesus is the Light. Advent is a season of light, as we move from darkness in the beginning to the birth of the Light on Christmas. Winter is a time of darkness and for many it is a time of pain, but the Christmas lights bring us joy and a sense of hope.
I read in "Everything Christmas" the story that the first lighting of a Christmas tree is often attributed to Martin Luther. It is said that he once noticed the stars in the sky and he wanted to reproduce that beauty on the evergreen they had placed in their home for the holiday. So, he took some candles and glued them with melted wax onto the tree. The tradition developed as others used candleholders, lanterns and glass balls to hold the candles. The first electric lights were created by a co-worker of Thomas Edison in 1882. Within a decade, strings of lights were being mass produced and used by retail stores for their displays.
Another lighting tradition for this time of year is the Advent wreath. The wreath, a ring of greenery with four colored candles in the circle and a white candle in the middle, is lit during the weeks leading up to Christmas. The first candle is lit on the first Sunday of Advent, the second on the second Sunday and so on. The white candle is then lit on Christmas Eve, to welcome the Christ child. The Advent wreath shows the growing light as we draw nearer to the birth of Christ.
In Canada, people use a similar wreath, but with twenty-five candles, one for each day in December leading up to Christmas. On Christmas Day, a central candle is then lit for Christ and "Happy Birthday" is sung for baby Jesus. In Southwest U.S. and Mexico, light is brought into the celebration with luminarias. Luminarias are small paper sacks with a candle inside. Sand is used to keep the candle upright and stones to keep the bags from flying away. The bags are placed along pathways and lit to welcome visitors. Sometimes the sacks are decorated with cut-outs or silhouettes.
So, as we go about viewing the lovely Christmas decorations, whether we think they are tacky and inappropriate or beautiful and inspiring, let's remember why we do this. We are bringing light into the darkness, just as God sent Jesus to be our Light in the darkness of this world. Even a blow-up Santa on a Tractor can remind us of Jesus, if we remember He is the Light who came to dwell among us, to bring the glory of God into our presence.
"But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for there is no man who shall do a mighty work in my name, and be able quickly to speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us. For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink, because ye are Christ's, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward." Mark 9:39-41, ASV
We have, for as long as I can remember, chosen an 'angel' off an angel tree, to share a bit of our blessedness with a child whose family can't afford Christmas. When we were able, the children each chose an angel, a child approximately the same age, and they were given the responsibility of choosing the right gift. We were sometimes limited in the amount we could spend, but we always felt it was important for the children to be involved with helping others have a wonderful holiday. And as best we could, we made sure that we were giving those families gifts that we would appreciate receiving, things that we liked.
Of course, we never saw the faces of the kids. We never experienced the joy of those parents. We never knew whether they liked our gifts, if the clothes fit or if we found the very thing that child wanted more than anything in the world. I often wondered how my small gifts could make a difference. While my children received brand new bikes, those children got a truck or a doll worth a fraction of the price. In recent years we have been able to afford to be more generous, buying bikes or V-Tech laptops for the kids. Even with those gifts, I still wonder how we could possibly be making a difference for those kids. We have dozens of wrapped gifts under the tree: is there joy in just one or two?
I read a story by Bonnie Compton Hanson called "The Tiniest Miracle" in "Everything Christmas," in which this author shared her own Christmas story. She was thirteen years old and her family had experienced very rough times. She called that year "The Year of the Big Nothing," because as the children went to bed, there was no hope whatsoever for a Christmas. They had a tree that they cut down in the forest near their farm, with homemade decorations. The only presents under the tree were pictures drawn with pencils and papers. Even the food was unlikely to satisfy.
Bonnie desperately wanted something, anything, to make Christmas special, if not for her, but for the smaller children. She wanted the presents she'd seen in the Sears "wish book," but she knew it was impossible. Despite her sadness, she realized that remembered that God is capable of miracles. After all, He created the miracle of Jesus' birth. Couldn't He provide something for the younger children for Christmas morning? So she prayed. ""Please, dear God, I know it's probably impossible, but could You please bring us some Christmas gifts this year? Or at least something wonderful to eat--you know, like in the old times before we became so poor?"
She didn't want to get out of bed in the morning, but she was awakened by the excited screams of the little ones. "Santa came!" Though she knew it was impossible, she went to the living room and discovered that there was, indeed, a miracle. Presents were piled under the tree, wrapped in newspaper comics and used wrapping paper saved from another year. The packages were filled with new dresses or wooden toys made by their mother and father. Their parents had stayed up late night after night using whatever they had to create gifts for their children. She recognized this as a miracle, not because the gifts came out of nowhere, but because God gave her parents the strength and patience to work night after night to do something special for the children.
I wonder how many of the children whose names are found on an angel tree go to bed Christmas Eve with the same fears: that this will be "The Year of the Big Nothing." Do they pray that God might bring a miracle? Do they hope for something, anything, to be under the tree? Do they see God's hand in those presents and that Christmas dinner that graces their table because of the kindness of strangers? I've learned not to worry about what I give to the angel tree children; because when I give that gift I am putting it into God's hand. Now I realize that I'm helping God create a miracle, if only a tiny one, for someone.
What kind of miracle will you help God create this year? Can you share a bit of food with the food bank? Can you give a new dress for a little girl? Can you spare enough of your Christmas budget to buy a bike for a boy who needs to play? Can you make something or bake something that will brighten someone's Christmas? It might not seem like much to you, and might just be a fraction of what you will spend for your own family, but it might be something extraordinary for that someone else. Give yourself and your resources to God, for He can make nothing given in the name of Christ into something miraculous.
"Everything Christmas" for today included this quote: "Until one feels the spirit of it, there is no Christmas. All else is outward display, so much tinsel and decorations. For it isn't the holly, the snow, the tree, not the firelight's glow. It's the warmth that comes to the hearts of men when it returns again." (Anonymous) I thought it was interesting that it would begin with this quote and then go on to talk mostly about outward displays. There is a story from Washington Irving about a Wassail Bowl. There are notes about Santa Claus. There are recipes for deliciously sinful desserts.
And there is a joke. "Two little girls went to their grandmother's house for Christmas. At bedtime, the youngest one began to pray at the top of her lungs--I want a Barbie for Christmas. I want a Barbie for Christmas. I want a Barbie for Christmas. Her older sister exclaimed, "Why are you shouting? God isn't deaf." Her sister answers, "God's not deaf, but Grandma is!"
Is getting drunk on punch, stuffed with sweets and receiving all the right presents under the tree what the spirit of Christmas is all about? Christmas doesn't have to be all piety and seriousness. It doesn't have to be strictly religious. There's a place for humor and silliness in our Christmas celebrations.
As a matter of fact, as I was researching the anonymous quote, just to make sure it was anonymous, I found some other quotes that made me laugh. Johnny Carson is quoted as saying, "The price of Christmas toys is outrageous -- a hundred dollars, two hundred dollars for video games for the youngsters. I remember a Christmas years ago when my son was a kid. I bought him a tank. It was about a hundred dollars, a lot of money in those days. It was the kind of tank you could actually get inside and ride in. He played in the box it came in. It taught me a very valuable lesson. Next year he got a box. And I got a hundred dollars' worth of scotch."
Here's one from Jay Leno, "The Supreme Court has ruled that they cannot have a nativity scene in Washington, D.C. This wasn't for any religious reasons. They couldn't find three wise men and a virgin."
And from Phyllis Diller, "What I don't like about office Christmas parties is looking for a job the next day."
And I saw this the other day, apparently adapted from a quote from Bob Phillips, "There are four stages of man: he believes in Santa Claus; he does not believe in Santa Claus; he is Santa Claus; he looks like Santa Claus."
These jokes are funny, and it is so good to laugh, but is that what the spirit of Christmas is all about? Harlan Miller says, "I wish we could put up some of the Christmas spirit in jars and open a jar of it every month." What is this Christmas spirit? How is it defined? How can we recognize it when we see it? What is this 'warmth that comes to the hearts of men'?" Maybe that's the quest of Advent, finding the reality of Christmas in the midst of all tinsel and decorations. Have you felt the spirit of Christmas, or are you still chasing after glitz and glitter?
"He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth Jehovah require of thee, but to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God?" Micah 6:8
We spent Christmas in Austria in the year 2000. It was our last month in Europe, after living in England for four years. Our household goods were already on their way back to America for our new home, and we were living on borrowed furniture. We kept back a few things, a nativity and a few old Christmas cards, and used wrapping paper to create decorations so that the house would not seem too barren. We couldn't buy too many presents, either, because we didn't want to carry too much when we flew away from England the last time.
We knew it would be hard enjoying Christmas without all the glitz and glitter, and we hadn't visited the European mainland very much during our stay in England. The base offered the perfect trip, with prearranged tours and opportunities to experience a different kind of Christmas. We were very excited. The trip went well; the weather cooperated, although it wasn't very snowy considering we were in the Alps. We had a wonderful time enjoying the markets, celebrations and food. The kids did a little bit of sledding, and we attended a midnight worship service at the local church. It was a most wonderful way to spend the holiday.
Now, the trip home was a much different experience. Though there was little snow in Austria, we were greeted by a blizzard when we crossed the English Channel. The roads were horrible with traffic jams. Our bus driver checked his map and thought he'd found a way to slip passed the trouble, and so he turned into a neighborhood with a cocky smile on his face. It didn't take very long before we realized this was probably a mistake. What the bus driver couldn't see on the map was that although the road did go from one neighborhood to the next, the road was not designed for use by a double-decker bus. It was narrow and steep, barely a road at all. The tree branches scratched the top of the bus and the wheels had difficulty holding on to the ground.
Then we got stuck. The bus hung precariously on the side of this snow-covered hill. It took every man on board pushing to get the bus out of its rut. We cheered when the bus driver managed to get over the top. Unfortunately, we also didn't know that at the other end of this hill was a new problem. As we approached the bottom and could see the next good roads of the next neighborhood, we also saw that a car was stopped in the middle of the road. There was no way we would get by. There was no way we could go back up. There was no other road on which to turn.
By this point we were all very tired. We'd been driving for almost a whole day, all the way from Austria. We only had two hours left to go until we were home again. The bus driver was not going to let a little car stand in his way. So the men departed the bus and picked up that car. They moved it to the side of the road. Even while they were doing it, a neighbor came running out of his house yelling, "Don't move that car! It was stolen and abandoned there. The police are coming!" We didn't care. The men moved the car, the bus drove by, and the men moved the car right back to where they found it. They got on the bus and we managed to find the highway again. The rest of the trip was relatively uneventful, but the weather was still nasty, the snow continued to fall, and it was very late at night. We were happy when we finally arrived home.
Do you have any exciting travel stories from holidays past? Do you have stories of broken down vehicles or traffic jams? Do you remember ever having to face a blizzard while you were trying to get over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house?
The story in today's devotion was about a boy named Bruce. He was to be a wise man in a play, and he had to be the school-house on time. The family was not wealthy. The boy did not have good shoes or a warm coat. The family car was unreliable. The father and son were not very far on their journey when the car gave out. They could not start it again. They could not get to the school for the play. But the boy was not going to disappoint his friends; he refused to sit around waiting. So, as his dad was preoccupied with getting the car started, Bruce headed over the hill toward the school.
The dad finally got the car started and he found Bruce walking. He had taken a short cut through the fields and got there faster than expected. They managed to get to the school on time. The play was well received, and the dad realized the importance of what they did, even if it was inconvenient. But the real miracle happened later. A neighbor visited the next day with treats for the family and told them the most incredible story. She said that the families along the boy's path, both of which were dealing with difficult emotions, had seen a wise man walking in their yard. That vision inspired them, and both families had a merrier Christmas because of it. Neither family knew that Bruce had been there. They thought it was a miracle. I suppose it was, because Bruce's determination not only got him to the school on time, but it also changed a sad Christmas for some neighbors into something extraordinary. ("When the Wise Man Appeared" by William Ashley Anderson)
I like to tell the story of our adventures that Christmas, and I can't honestly tell you if we made an impact on any lives. But I wonder if somewhere in England there is a family that still talks about the day that double-decker bus came through their neighborhood and made them laugh. How might your own adventures have changed someone's attitude or made their holiday better because they were witnesses to your own faith? How is God using your journeys to impact the world around you?
"And she shall bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name JESUS; for it is he that shall save his people from their sins. Now all this is come to pass, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, And they shall call his name Immanuel; which is, being interpreted, God with us." Matthew 1:21-23, ASV
Victoria's second grade teacher was very impressed with her talents and abilities. Whenever we met for a parent teacher conference, she gushed about how Victoria was sure to get a full-ride scholarship to Harvard University. Over the years, Victoria has received awards and has been held to high expectations, which she has attained. She may not be at Harvard, but she's doing extraordinarily well at the school she's chosen and she's well on her way to a successful career. Zack has experienced different but similar expectations throughout his life. "Your children are going to go far," I've often heard.
I'm proud of my kids and I like to hear that they are getting the approval and encouragement they need to succeed. Yet, I wonder about the pressure we put on our kids with our expectations. I hope I haven't done that too much with my kids. I want them to choose their own way, but I also want them to do the best they can. It is a fine line we walk as parents. I know some kids end up going to the wrong college or career because their parents expect them to follow in their footsteps. Others push their kids so hard that the children rebel or get burned out before they even have a chance to live. You'd be amazed at how many friends and strangers try to pressure Zack, who is currently searching for colleges, to go to their Alma Mater. "My school is the best, you should go there."
If we worry about the high expectations of our kids, imagine how it must have been for Mary? Her son was not just going to be a leader, or a skilled craftsman, or a learned man. He was to be Immanuel, God with us. How do you encourage and approve of a child who will be a King that will save all God's people? What do you teach him? How do you act as a mother to God's own Son? It is hard enough to deal with the daily needs of a child; how do you do it knowing that God has the most incredible plans for him?
Fortunately for us, there are many people to help. Our children have had more than just two parents helping them through their life journeys. Teachers have been encouraging and have taught them so much of what they know. Pastors and Sunday school teachers have giving them a glimpse of God's love. Family members have been mentors and friends have helped them see what they are capable of doing. Coaches, directors, troop leaders, and neighbors have been there to help.
The tradition of the Christmas stocking is a story in helping another meet the needs of children. It is said that a nobleman lost everything: first his wife and then everything he owned. He and his tree daughters were forced into poverty. His concern was not for himself: he was frustrated by his poverty because he knew that he could do nothing for his daughters. They had no dowry and would not marry. They had no future because he had nothing to give them. The story goes that St. Nicholas knew of the nobleman's troubles. The girls had washed their clothes and gone to bed on Christmas Eve. St. Nicholas saw their stockings and filled them with gold. When the girls woke the next morning, they found the gold. The nobleman did not have to worry about his daughters.
Now we use the Christmas stocking as a way of hiding tiny gifts for our kids. I usually include some practical items as well as candy and toys. They get a toothbrush, pencils or pens, healthcare items and other necessaries. Victoria may get some items for her kitchen and Zack for his golf. These are just a few of the little things we do for our kids to help them grow up healthy and happy.
I suppose the same must have been true of Mary. Yes, she knew there were high expectations for her little boy, but she was his mother. She would encourage him the best she could and teach him what she was able. She'd provide him with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a new toothbrush when needed. She'd see to it that he did what was right and give him the freedom to discern who he was. And she'd provide him with relationships that would help him grow in grace. What will you put in your stockings? Will there be practical gifts, toys or candy? Is there anything you can give that will be a life changing gift? Can you change the course of another person's life today by giving a gift that goes beyond all expectations?
"If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And if I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profiteth me nothing. Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not its own, is not provoked, taketh not account of evil; rejoiceth not in unrighteousness, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall be done away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known. But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love." 1 Corinthians 13, ASV
Other translations of this passage use the word "charity" instead of "love." We assume that the word charity refers to the act of giving to someone in need; when we think of charity, particularly at this time of year, we tend to think in terms of dropping a few coins in those red kettles or giving some canned corn to the local food bank. But charity goes beyond kindness to the stranger. To be charitable is to be kind and lenient, forbearing with the imperfections of others. The dictionary definition includes a very broad understanding of loving one's fellow man. And while it is important to remember that love is more than just an emotional response to someone who interests us, that it is about the act of meeting the needs of our neighbors, I like the use of the word "love" here, because sometimes we forget why we do these things.
How many of us give food to the food bank without really considering the people who are receiving those gifts? I even heard someone recently grumbling about how times are tough for everyone and though willing to share, they wondered if the people taking charity really need it. The gifts are more about duty than love. But if we consider everything we do through the eyes of Christ, we will realize that charity is not simply about meeting the physical needs of the poor. If we are charitable at all, our charity will take many forms, just as love takes different forms in our relationships with family, friends and neighbors.
Are you willing to forgive the person who hurt you this year? Are you willing to admit your own failure to do what is good and right? Are you able to allow someone else to do the things you would prefer to do and take upon yourself the tasks you don't much like? These are all ways of acting charitable; they are all ways of acting out of love.
One of the problems with the word charity is that sometimes people are much too proud to accept those gifts. A story in today's devotion by Elece Hollis in "Everything Christmas" tells how one man discovered the joy of giving love rather than charity. It was during the depression, in the Midwest where the financial troubles were made worse by the drought that made the whole region a dust bowl. The people were poor and hungry. The writer's family was in better shape than the rest because her father owned the grocery store which also acted as gas station and post office. Though people did not have much money, they still needed the staples. They needed flour, milk, gas, sugar, kerosene and coffee. They needed needles and thread.
Of course, few people could afford to buy anything, but the grocer did not worry. He allowed his neighbors to take food for credit, and promised to do so as long as he could get supplies and feed his own family. He was not always paid back. Some people had to leave town to find work in other places where conditions were not as terrible. He didn't care. He could not allow people to starve. Eventually, long after the depression was over and the man had forgiven the debts, some of those families sent checks to pay their accounts. "Thank you for what you did for us. Here is the balance of our account," said the notes in those letters.
The most heartbreaking part of this situation for the grocer was seeing the faces of the poor children and the hunger in their eyes. They desperately needed a taste of candy, a touch of grace. And yet their families were too proud, they could not take 'charity.' The man didn't think of it as charity, but the children still refused. How could he give these children a treat and allow the families to keep their heads held high? He figured out a way. He prepared bags full of treats, fruit and nuts and gave one to every person who attended the school Christmas pageant. The people could see those packages as gifts, rather than charity, and they readily received what he had to give.
The story goes on to say that though we are not living in such desperate times, many Midwestern towns continue the tradition of paper bags begun by that grocery so long ago. We aren't in the midst of a depression, but I know there are many families who are having difficulty with Christmas treats this year. These are often people who will not accept charity, but who could use a little extra help. How can you give a 'paper bag' gift to those families this year? How can you act out the love you have for your neighbor while allowing them to hold on to their self-worth?
"Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should lay his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer the little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for to such belongeth the kingdom of heaven." Matthew 19:13-14, ASV
Charles Dickens once said, "It is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself." There are certainly some Christmas traditions that I continue to love despite my old age. I have this cute Advent calendar with stickers. Each day I get to find the right sticker to put onto the picture. It is silly. I'm sure the activity is far more challenging for the four year old child it is meant to entertain. But for that brief moment, I get to be a kid in the midst of the busy work I have to do.
I have one display in my Christmas decorations that I call "The Story Lady." The pieces are from one of those home sales companies that sell décor. The set includes a porcelain mamma rabbit doll holding a storybook and two smaller dolls, a boy and a girl, who are listening with wide-eyed excitement. I put these together on a brass sled filled with presents and stuff animals. It is a cute and festive way of sharing a little holiday cheer with my guests.
We also have a Christmas village, filled with houses that were hand-painted by Bruce during some long, cold winter nights. The village includes houses, a post office, movie theatre, toy store, fire station, a flour mill and a church. The streets are snow covered and lined with miniature people going about the busy-ness of Christmas. Children sled down a hill. Other children roll a wreath along the streets. Yet other children are decorating the Christmas tree in the city square. The busy-ness of children is often more fun than the business of adults.
My Christmas decorations would not be complete without my nativity. Like most nativities, mine includes figures representing Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, a shepherd, three wise men, a cow, a donkey, some sheep and an angel. The gather around a stable and gaze with wonder at the baby in the manger. We also have a nativity on our front lawn, with large figures cut out of plywood. That one only has Mary, Joseph, Jesus, a lamb and a donkey in a stable. We have a lit angel with a horn proclaiming the Good News to the entire world and a star hanging above the stable.
It is interesting to note that the first nativity was not something you could put on a table in your home. It was a live nativity, designed by St. Francis of Assisi in the twelfth century. He did it to ensure the solemnity of the occasion of Christmas Eve. The tradition caught on quick, as other towns created their own live scenes for Christmas. Eventually they were replaced with figures made of wax or wood, and they were made small enough to be taken indoors. In Italy, among other places, artists were commissioned to sculpt nativity scenes out of ivory and other fine materials. They were (and still are in Europe) often placed in intricate dioramas with entire villages and figures representing the people who live there. We visited one church in Austria that had a crèche that was built day by day through Advent, with the people 'gathering' toward the stable and Mary and Joseph moving slowly through the scene each day until they finally reached the stable on Christmas Eve.
I visited a website the other day that had some of the tackiest nativities I've ever seen. Visit any gift store and you'll find some of them on the shelves. Name the animal and they've been humanized and put into a nativity: cows, penguins, rabbits and chickens. The site included the pictures of a nativity kitchen timer, cookie cutters and a cookie jar. Some of them are adorable like the snowmen, the kittens and the marshmallows, but are they appropriate? And one of the worst, in my opinion, is the bean bag game with the nativity painted on the target board.
I'm sure that the author of that website would also find fault with many of the new children's nativities, especially the one put out by Veggie Tales. Little Tykes makes one, and there are toy nativities made of plastic, foam, fabric and resin. They may look tacky. They may seem out of place. But isn't it wonderful that we can give our children a hands on way of learning about the Christmas story? Children are tactile, and I know that I don't want my grandkids (eventually) playing with my heirloom pieces. But I want them to learn about Jesus, and to know that Christmas is about more than presents, trees, cookies and candy.
I think you can get too serious about Christmas. Some want to reject completely every secular aspect of Christmas. Yet, as Charles Dickens said, "It is good to be children sometimes." Charles Wesley might not agree. I learned in today's devotion from "Everything Christmas" that Charles Wesley originally wrote "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," in a much different way. The words were changed by George Whitefield, a friend of Wesley's. Wesley actually wrote, "Hark! How all the welkin rings." This phrase would have had more meaning to those in his day, as welkin has become an unused word. It meant "the vault of heaven."
When Whitefield changed the words fifteen years later, Wesley argued about the theology of the change. He held that though the bible does say that an angel announced the good news to the shepherds, it was a 'great heavenly host' that sang. He called that host "welkin." The difference was insignificant to Whitefield, but tradition says that Wesley refused to sing the song ever again. Perhaps Wesley could have used some of that childish Christmas spirit.
"Continue stedfastly in prayer, watching therein with thanksgiving; withal praying for us also, that God may open unto us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds; that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak." Colossians 4:2-4, ASV
If we think that the Christmas season is buy with all the tasks we need to accomplish, imagine how much harder it must be for our pastors and other church leaders. They not only have to deal with the daily work of the church, but the Advent and Christmas services, children's programs and musical offerings add to their work. The pastors and leaders are invited, and expected to attend, parties, end of the year meetings, non-profit events. It doesn't help that the people often need more pastoral care at this time of year because the holidays are a time of sadness and difficulty for many. They perform more funerals during the winter, and too many spend the holidays in the hospital or hospice. On a joyful note, many people choose to be married around Christmastime, but this just adds another event onto the pastor's and leader's calendars. At this time of year, they need our love, our support and our prayers more than ever.
They also need a sense of humor. Reverend David R. Francoeur offered a humorous look at possible Christmas gifts for the pastor from Balmy Clergy Supply. (Rev. Francoeur was consulting editor for The Joyful Noiseletter, copyright Fellowship of Merry Christians. Joyful Noiseletter can be found online.) Could your pastor use some of these items?
Praying Pants: These pants are durable, made from Kevlar for durability with airbags in the knees.
Neckband Collar Money Safes: These neckband collars have a slit where the clever pastor can store some folded cash for those pastoral emergencies.
Early Exit Alarm: The perfect gift for the pastor whose congregation tends to sneak out during the sermon. A piercing alarm goes off if a laser beam is broken.
Two-Day Clergy Shirt: This reversible shirt makes it easy for the busy pastor to make quick changes to hide food stains.
Liturgical Aerobics: This videotape is great for the pastor who needs to exercise.
Stay-Lit Altar Candles: Candles that relight by themselves provide hours of fun as your pastor watches acolytes attempt to extinguish them.
Vacuum-Tube Alms Collection System: Designed to operate like the ones at bank drive-ins. Eliminate the time-consuming offertory.
Inflatable Congregation: Pews empty? Nevermind, just blow up these congregants and the church will always be filled with interested members to listen to the pastor's sermon.
Heavenly Security System: Among the features of this system is the digitized recording of a 250 member choir singing Handel's Messiah at 170 decibels of sound.
Baptismal Gloves: These gloves have rubberized tips so that a child won't squirt out of pastor's hands.
Balmy's Robot Pastor: These robots can be used as supply preachers and to identify heretics and stingy church members.
You can't buy these items and more 'stuff' may not be what your pastor needs this Christmas season. He or she definitely needs your hands and your hearts, your patience and your prayers. Remember, they don't work just one day a week. They are on call twenty-four hours a day. They are available to pray for the sick, to encourage the down-hearted and to share the Gospel message of hope and grace to all who can hear. If you feel a bit frazzled by the busy-ness of this season, imagine how it would be if you had to do all your tasks and so many others. So, be ready to offer encouragement and a hand when possible. And share a joke with him or her, for laughter is good for the spirit.
"And God said, Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind, cattle, and creeping things, and beasts of the earth after their kind: and it was so. And God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and the cattle after their kind, and everything that creepeth upon the ground after its kind: and God saw that it was good. And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the heavens, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." Genesis 1:24-26, ASV
"Everything Christmas" included this 'Did you know?' "According to a survey, seven out of ten British dogs get Christmas gifts from their doting owners." I don't know where they got their figure or how accurate it is for this year, but I did see a report recently for pet gifts in America. According to a Petside.com pole 53% of pets will get gifts this Christmas. Dogs are more likely to be spoiled at 56%, with only 48% of cats getting gifts.
This bit of news sparked conversations about giving gifts to pets. Who does it? What do they buy? Do they wrap the gifts and place them under the tree? Do the pets even know that they are getting a present? Who opens the presents?
I can tell you from my experience (yes, I give gifts to my kitties) that they know. As a matter of fact, we've had a problem in the past with the cats trying to get into their packages. Of course, they have an excellent sense of smell, and catnip is quite attractive to the cats. Tigger managed to get into his wrapped present long before Christmas day, ripping through the wrapping paper. We put gifts in bags last year, and they all managed to stick their noses inside during the days leading up to Christmas.
It might seem silly to those who don't have pets. It might seem silly even to many of those who do have pets, but who don't think of their animals as anything but animals. But for many people, fifty plus percent apparently, these creatures are members of our family. Of course we need to buy gifts. Actually, they are cheap compared to our real kids: ten dollars worth of toys will keep them happy for months. I can't even fill my kids' stocking for ten bucks.
Do the kitties understand why there are presents under a Christmas tree? Who knows what goes on in the mind of a cat, but I doubt that they are thinking about the story of Jesus when ripping into a gift bag filled with catnip. It doesn't matter. What matters is that these delightful creatures--whatever kind of pet you have--have been given into our care. We are responsible for their well-being. If we are going to keep animals in our homes, we need to ensure that they are given food and water, a place to sleep and a little love. We need to play with them, so that they will get exercise and be happy. A toy or two will make them happy, which means they'll be healthier. And this is good.
Perhaps God meant something different when He created man to have dominion over all the creatures in this world, but I like to think that our cats are the creatures that God has given us dominion over. That doesn't mean that we are to control them or do whatever we want to them. It means we have been given responsibility for all God's creation, to be His hands and His heart in the world, even for the animals. If that means giving a few catnip mice to some kitties, then I will gladly take up that task for His sake.
How will you show God's love to all His creatures this Christmas?
"I charge thee in the sight of God, and of Christ Jesus, who shall judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be urgent in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables. But be thou sober in all things, suffer hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil thy ministry." 2 Timothy 4:1-5, ASV
I can't find any information on the author, but "Everything Christmas" published a story by Robert Pengold, which appeared in the book, "The Greatest Christmas Stories of All Time: Timeless Classics That Celebrate the Season" called "Harry the Singing Angel." The story was about a five-year-old boy who found himself in a terrible predicament with the Christmas pageant. He was a singing angel that did not want to sing.
See, Harry (Harold) was the big brother to a newborn baby boy. When Harry learned that there would be a new child in the house, he was relatively happy. He thought of all the advantages: he would be able to boss the baby around; the baby would be the one to get blamed like his older brother does to him, and the baby would be another playmate. The baby was not a problem for Harry until he was born. Then he took over. His parents cooed and awed over the baby, attending to his every need. The older boys, Harry and his older brother Billy, were ignored and even seemed to be yelled at more than usual. The baby cried all the time. And Harry found himself with more responsibility than ever: he even had to learn to tie his own shoes!
Harry was excited about being a singing angel, because the singing angels had a great part. They got to sing "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" at the center of the stage. The choir of angels was made up of the four, five and six year olds. The two and three year olds were hovering angels, and they didn't do anything but stand around looking cute. The older boys were shepherds, and the oldest children were given the responsibility of the other characters in the nativity. But Harry was happy to be a singing angel, at least for this year. That is, until he learned that his baby brother Tommy would be baby Jesus.
Harry didn't think it was fair that this intruder would get a better role in the play than him. He thought another baby would be selected, not his own brother. In Harry's mind, Tommy was a terrible choice: he cried all the time! Wouldn't he ruin the pageant with his tears? Harry was so made at the choice that he decided he didn't want to even be in the pageant. His mom and dad made him go to the rehearsals, but that didn't matter to Harry. He just wasn't going to sing. Perhaps they could make the boy be there on the stage, but no one can make you open your mouth if you don't want to.
Through the practices, the teacher tried to understand why Harry wouldn't sing. Everyone encouraged him and coaxed him to do what was right. After all, he had a terrific voice, knew all the words and stayed on key. They needed him. But he was not going to sing "Glory to the newborn king" to the child that had usurped his place as "little prince" of his household.
The night of the pageant, Harry got dressed in his costume and took his place on the stage right next to the manger. Harry's mom rocked Tommy to sleep, since everyone knew it would go better if Tommy did not realize he had good reason to cry. All was going well; everyone knew their parts and executed them beautifully and Tommy was fast asleep in the manger. But then the girl playing Mary decided to pick him up to cuddle him. Harry watched in distress as he saw his baby brother begin to whimper. "He's going to ruin the pageant" Harry thought, so he stepped forward and took Tommy's hand. He whispered, everything is going to be fine. For a moment it seemed like it might be, but Tommy was still upset and frightened by the strange sights around him. Then it was time for the angels to sing.
Harry didn't even think twice about his plan. He realized that hearing a familiar voice singing might calm his baby brother, and so he sang. He sang to Tommy, to help him be the best Jesus he could be. Tommy, comforted by the music, fell back to sleep and did not cry at all through the rest of the pageant.
When the pageant was over, Harry was afraid that he'd get in trouble for stepping out of line, but his teacher gave him a huge hug and said, "Hark, the Harold angel sang!" Harry realized that his plan had failed, but then said to his teacher, "Well, sometimes you just have to help other people act like Jesus."
I know people who have tried to make other people act like Jesus, and it isn't always a pleasant picture like we see in today's story. But in today's scripture Paul tells us how we can help others be what God has created them to be. We need to preach the Word, be ready for anything, and mentor others. I used the word mentor, because we are easy to take the command to rebuke and correct while ignoring the work encourage. Mentors don't just yell at students: they find ways that will help them learn and grow and do what is right. Harry could have become upset, could have cried, or could have exploded in frustration at the brat that was ruining the pageant. But he didn't; he set aside the pain he was feeling and did what he could to make Tommy like Jesus.
How do we react when we see someone who is ruining our own celebrations? What do we do about that family member who is determined to have that battle at the dinner table? What do we do about the greedy child who is thinking only about himself? What do we do when the people around us are not being very Christ-like during this holiday? Do we pound them with the Bible? Do we reject them? Do we blame them for tarnishing the day? Or do we do the hard thing, like Harry, and sing the song that will bring calm and perhaps even a little bit of Jesus out of them?
"And in this mountain will Jehovah of hosts make unto all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined. And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering that covereth all peoples, and the veil that is spread over all nations. He hath swallowed up death for ever; and the Lord Jehovah will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the reproach of his people will he take away from off all the earth: for Jehovah hath spoken it." Isaiah 25:6-8, ASV
I've been working on my cookies this weekend and managed to get most of my dough made. Now I just have to bake. I have also made orange glazed pecans, a new favorite treat. But my most adventurous concoction this year has been a spicy cranberry apple thing. I made cranberry chutney for Thanksgiving and had so much leftover, I put the rest into a pie. The pie was good enough that I thought, "I could use this to make gifts to give to the neighbors. I thought about ways to do it. Should I use pie dough? Should I try to use the cranberry thing to make pastries? What would work the best and last until I can share them with the neighbors?
So, I tried using phyllo dough. It took several tries. First I put the phyllo into a mini cupcake pan, added the cranberry apple and baked it. This didn't work well because the phyllo inside the cups didn't get crusty. I could barely even get them out of the pan without everything falling apart. So, on the second batch I baked the phyllo until golden brown, added some of the cranberry stuff and then baked it for a few minutes, until the filling was bubbly. These were great. Unfortunately, they did not last. I didn't get one gift delivered and when I checked it the next day, the phyllo was soft and gross. I think this year's surprise gift will forever rival the reputation of the fruitcake.
There was a section in today's devotion from "Everything Christmas" about fruitcake, the much maligned holiday treat. Since fruitcake has a long shelf-life there are those who have joked that there is only one fruitcake in all the world, and that same fruitcake has been shared from family to family for generations. Fruitcake is also very heavy, so heavy that it barely seems like cake. It is more like a brick of fruit. Unfortunately they did not include a fruitcake recipe in the book, but I suppose that the reason is because there are so many recipes, all fairly regional.
Fruitcakes are banned on airlines because they are so heavy that a weapon can be baked inside without being detected. Apparently, the recipes are so easy that you don't need more than a basic understanding of baking and a few hours. But you have to begin the process at least a month in advance, because the cake needs time to ripen. Besides, if you start early enough, you can add more liquor to the cake. I'm not sure I've ever had fruitcake myself, but I am thinking that it might be fun to try to make some. The jokes may be true when referring to that fruitcake that was purchased in the grocery store that really does look like a fruity brick, but I bet those homemade cakes are delicious.
What sort of treats are you looking forward to eating this Christmas? It is certainly a time for sharing good things, for enjoying the feasts and fellowship with our neighbors. Do you bake any special cookies or plan traditional meals? Are you thinking of cooking something new or trying something original? As you celebrate your Christmas feasts, remember that everything we do in this world is a foretaste of that feast for which we long. The greatest food we can eat here will seem like a fruitcake from the grocery store compared to that which God is preparing for us in heaven. We are God's children, and He longs to welcome us to His table on that great day.
"And we have the word of prophecy made more sure; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day-star arise in your hearts: knowing this first, that no prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation. For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit." 2 Peter 1:19-21, ASV
The "Everything Christmas" devotion for today included a story by Rachel Field about a Christmas miracle as told to young visitors by a resident at a nursing home they visited at Christmastime. The speaker, an elderly woman confined to a wheelchair, held the Christmas star in her hand and the story was about that star.
The woman, Christine, was very young when she was sent to a mansion as a servant. She was too young to be away from home and the mistress of the house was always sad because her own daughter died when she was just a child. From the day the girl died, the woman refused to believe or be happy. She never attended church. She never smiled. She never celebrated the holidays. The house was cold and sad year round. Christine missed her home and missed celebrating Christmas. One day she noticed the gravestones in the family cemetery near the estate chapel, and decided to perform one of her family's Christmas traditions, by putting a candle on a gravestone with some greenery, so that the dead might experience the light of Christ's love on His birthday, too.
In the meantime, she found a star shaped pin hidden in the crack of the sidewalk. Christine kept the pin and pinned it to her clothing close to her heart but hidden from view. She didn't want anyone to know she'd found it. This made her feel guilty and even sadder, because she knew it was wrong. On Christmas Eve, after everyone was in bed, Christine snuck into the graveyard and found a tiny stone that didn't seem as old and worn as the others. She placed a piece of greenery, a candle, and then she tucked the star pin among the greens. She heard noises behind her and realized that the mistress of the house witnessed everything.
The mistress took her by the hand into the house, called all the other servants and cried out commands to everyone. Christine was so frightened that she didn't understand what was happening. She was taken into a room that had been locked for thirty years, the one belonging to the daughter who died. Christine was given a warm bed and a cozy fire in the fireplace. In the morning, she was dressed in the most beautiful clothes and led into the most wonderful Christmas celebration. The pastor was brought in to lead a worship for Christmas.
Christine still didn't understand what had happened until the pastor explained. Field writes in the story, "And after dinner is over Pastor Lange tells me that it is indeed a miracle God has worked through me to bring faith to our mistress." The pin she had found was the daughter's pin, which had been lost 30 years earlier. The child searched for it in the winter cold so long that she became ill. The illness took her life. When the pin was found again, the mistress saw it as a sign that her daughter wanted her to see Christ, to celebrate Christmas and be happy. Christine became like a daughter to the woman, and lived a long, wonderful life in a house filled with faith. At the end of the story, Christine, now an old woman in a nursing home, gave the children a star to decorate the Christmas tree: the star pin she found so long ago.
A star led the wise men to Bethlehem to honor the baby born in a stable, so too our Christmas trees are topped with stars to remind us to see Christ. We don't have a star on top of our tree, but we have many stars all over it. We have been using a crown on top, to remind us that Christ is King. Some people use tall ornamental tree toppers. Each symbol has a purpose, a reason for being there. Sometimes the symbolism is not religious: my kids have Hallmark ornaments that we bought each year to remind us of their favorite things. I have handmade ornaments given by people I love, and made with my own hands. I have a pickle or two on the tree, said to bring blessing to the first child to find it on Christmas morning. I even have a flamingo, which has no religious purpose whatsoever, but can remind us that Christ comes to people in all places at all times, even if there is no snow on the ground!
Another typical tree topper is the angel. If you've ever wondered how that came to be, here's the story behind it. "Santa was busy with the hectic preparations for Christmas and it didn't seem like anything was going right. The nice/naughty lists were mixed up, the toy soldier assembly line was broken and the new jingle bells had not yet arrived for the reindeer. The last thing Santa needed was one more decision to make. Just then an angel came into his office carrying a large Christmas tree. She was hesitant to ask the question, but it needed to be done. "Santa, what do you want me to do with this Christmas tree." Santa answered, "You can stick it…" And that's how the angel came to sit on top of the Christmas tree.
Ok, that was a little bit of humor to make you giggle this morning, but I wonder about your own decorations. Why do you do the things you do? What are your favorite ornaments? What do they mean to you? How can they tell the story of Christ? The star shines so that we'll follow and see the Christ child, just as it shone for the wise men. And like that star pin, perhaps we do not even realize the miracles that will come as we share our own lovely things in celebration of Jesus' birth.
"Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, who, if his son shall ask him for a loaf, will give him a stone; or if he shall ask for a fish, will give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?" Matthew 7:7-11, ASV
I think I'm done shopping for Christmas presents. Of course, I thought I was done a few days ago, but when I went shopping for other things yesterday, I discovered something else to buy for my family members. I'm just going to have to be strong if I go to the store again. No more presents! It is hard when you find the perfect thing, though. And that's what happened yesterday.
See, Victoria has been difficult this year. She is older, so the toys of childhood don't work anymore. There are certainly things she needs, but in some cases those items are best bought with her present. She's been extra difficult, too, by giving few ideas for presents. But I was out and about yesterday and thought of something that is going to be a complete surprise and absolutely useful to her life. I can't post the solution to that problem here, just in case she reads this, but I know she'll be happy with the choice.
Zack is a little bit easier, although some of his presents aren't surprises. Since he's headed off the Texas Tech (probably) next fall, he's going to need transportation around campus, so we promised him a bike. I bought him a gift card for a sports place, and we'll let him pick out his own bike after Christmas. I also keep thinking of all the things he will need come August, and his list of Christmas gifts gets longer and longer. Oh well, there might be some surprises for him under the tree, too, including some fun stuff. After all, though he is nearly an adult, he's still a kid.
I'm torn on the idea of gift cards, because on one hand they are an easy solution to the problem. We live so far from Bruce's family that finding the right gift can often be difficult and it is definitely expensive to ship. Bruce's mom and dad don't need anything, especially those nick-knacks that gather dust on the shelves. Gift cards are helpful because they can use them to purchase things that we are unable to buy for them, like perishable food and medicine. Yet, they seem so impersonal. I want the gift to say something, to be an item that shows the thought that went into the selection.
"Everything Christmas" included a story by Heywood Brown about the wise men who visited the Christ child from the east. When they saw the star, they hurried to get everything together, to fill their camels with gifts for the new born king. Two of the wise men, the older two, were in a rush to get going. They knew they had far to travel and did not want to miss the event. The youngest wise man, however, was troubled by something that was missing. Sure, the camels were burdened with the finest of everything, including gold, myrrh and frankincense. But the youngest wise man refused to leave until he figured out what was wrong.
Finally, he ran to a room where he used to play as a child and found the perfect gift. When he took it to the caravan, he showed the others what he had found. It was a small tin dog painted white with speckles, the paint chipped from use. The toy had a key that wound a mechanism that made the dog jump in the air. One of the younger members of the caravan laughed when he saw it, and the youngest wise man just smiled. The other wise men were upset. "What folly has seized you? Is this a gift to bear to the King of Kings in the far country?" they asked. He simply answered, "For the King of Kings here are gifts of great richness, gold and frankincense and myrrh. But this is for the child in Bethlehem."
What sort of gifts have we purchased for our loved ones? Are we trying to impress with the biggest and best, or are we trying to give them something that will truly make them happy? Sometimes it isn't the expensive toy, but rather the box, that gives them joy. And though the baby Jesus was worthy to be honored with a king's treasure, many of our Christmas stories remind us that the best gifts are often the humblest.
"Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw signs, but because ye ate of the loaves, and were filled. Work not for the food which perisheth, but for the food which abideth unto eternal life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him the Father, even God, hath sealed. They said therefore unto him, What must we do, that we may work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent. They said therefore unto him, What then doest thou for a sign, that we may see, and believe thee? what workest thou? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, He gave them bread out of heaven to eat. Jesus therefore said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, It was not Moses that gave you the bread out of heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which cometh down out of heaven, and giveth life unto the world. They said therefore unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread. Jesus said unto them. I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall not hunger, and he that believeth on me shall never thirst. But I said unto you, that ye have seen me, and yet believe not. All that which the Father giveth me shall come unto me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. For I am come down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. And this is the will of him that sent me, that of all that which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that every one that beholdeth the Son, and believeth on him, should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day." John 6:26-40, ASV
We are just three days before Christmas. Have you eaten your share of cookie dough or finished off that bag of Christmas candy? Have you tasted all the wonderful treats brought to you by your neighbors? Are you sweeter than normal with all the extra sugar you've been eating? If not, I have the recipe for you!
To be honest, even reading this recipe in "Everything Christmas" makes my teeth hurt, but I had to laugh at the silliness of it. It seems like this recipe has been created with the sole purpose of giving someone a sugar coma. The recipe is for a Christmas Float. Take 3 scoops of ice cream and put it in a cup. Pour a can of cola over top. Add whipped cream, and then sprinkle with four cherries, two red and green gumdrops, red and green M&Ms.
The sweets and treats and special meals are a part of the holiday season. There is far more to them than just the sugar rush. The treats from neighbors are a sign of love and sharing. We gather around a dinner table full of good food not just to nourish our bodies but to experience the fellowship of those relationships. We gather around food to share memories and dreams. We join with our ancestors as we continue the traditions they began and we look forward to the future by honoring their memory with the next generations. This is important to do at Christmas time, and sometimes it means stuffing our face with delicious fare!
But let us take a moment to recall that we do not need food or drink or sweets, because Jesus Christ is the bread and the water and the life. Nothing we can create during the holidays, nothing we can share, nothing we can eat will ever compare to the food we have in Him. So, with every bite, at every gathering, remember Christ and believe, for He is the center of the season and the very reason we gather around the table.
"For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us-ward. For the earnest expectation of the creation waiteth for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but by reason of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now." Romans 8:18-22, ASV
Christmas in Provence begins on December 4th, when the children put wheat into three saucers and cover the seeds with wet cotton. They keep the seeds wet during the twenty days until Christmas Eve, when the wheat field that grows is used to decorate the manger. The growing wheat is a symbol of prosperity for the New Year.
I like this tradition, not because of the promise of prosperity, but because it brings the creation into our Christmas celebration. We do that, of course, with the greenery and cut Christmas trees, but how meaningful would it be if we planted something and watched it grow through the days of Advent? What about planting an evergreen and watching as it sprouts just as Christ is born? We can be reminded that Jesus came not just to save you and me, but also to bring fulfillment to the promises God made to all creation.
The birth of Christ is the beginning of the culmination of God's plan for restoring the world as He meant it to be. We know that we will die because sin is in the world, brought about by the sin in the Garden of Eden. But have we considered that the garden was meant to be everlasting--all of it? The wolf and the lamb are meant to dwell together, and the leopard is meant to lie down with the kid. The calf and the young lion and the fatling were created to live side by side; the cow and the bear were created to eat together. The promise is that their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. Christ comes for them, too.
We do bring creation into our Christmas celebrations. We put up trees as symbols of everlasting life and hope for the coming spring. We put donkeys and cows in our Nativities. We have ornaments and Christmas cards with pictures of lions and lambs lying. We even buy Christmas presents for our pets. In today's world, most of us try to be environmentally considerate, using energy efficient decorations and recycling our waste. But let us also remember that the birth of Christ is about something much bigger than just our own personal future. It is about reconciling the entire world to God, to bring us back the paradise that He created at the beginning of time.
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the fold of the sheep, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. When he hath put forth all his own, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers. This parable spake Jesus unto them: but they understood not what things they were which he spake unto them." John 10:1-7, ASV
The devotion from "Everything Christmas" began with this quote from an unknown author. "The universal joy of Christmas is certainly wonderful. We ring the bells when princes are born, or toll a mournful dirge when great men pass away. Nations have their red letter days, their carnivals and festivals, but once a year, and only once, the whole world stands still to celebrate the advent of a life. Only Jesus of Nazareth claims this worldwide undying remembrance. You cannot cut Christmas out of the calendar, nor out of the heart of the world."
We make a lot of noise. We sing songs and ring bells. In some places, the holidays are celebrated with fireworks. The children scream for joy when they open that perfect present. We laugh and join in a chorus of well wishes as we greet family and friends at this special time. It is a noisy time of year. Even at our worship, bells will be ringing and voices singing praises to God for His most wonderful gift!
We like to sing the song "Silent Night," but I sometimes wonder if the night was really that silent. After all, Mary had a baby, and while she was extraordinarily special, I doubt that childbirth was any easier for her than any other woman. Visitors came and went, and they were all in a stable, the place where the animals were kept. Cows are donkeys and sheep are never really silent. And no matter how much we like to romanticize the idea of Jesus being the perfect baby, He cried. The hustle and bustle on that night was probably as bad as ours! We have this image of the night being silent, but I'm sure it was nothing of the kind. There might have been moments of calm, but you try having a baby and see if you get a silent night!
But the quote from today reminds us that Jesus wasn't born to ringing bells or loud proclamations. He was born in a stable in a tiny town and the rest of the world seemed a million miles away. The fanfare was given by a choir of angels to the lowliest of the low, the shepherds. The representatives of the world kingdoms who came to offer gifts were wise men who followed a star. It is not the way a King should come into the world. It might not have been a silent night, but in that manger, God slipped into the world silently, with the voice of a baby surrounded by humble believers.
So while the hustle and bustle might not be a bad choice for our Christmas Eve, after all there's nothing wrong with singing God's praises or ringing bells with joy. There is nothing wrong with greeting our family and friends with Christmas greetings or laughing at the fun we all share. But let us take time to stop and listen, to hear the still sweet voice of God, and see that He speaks to us in the most amazing ways. All we have to do is hear Him in the midst of the clanging bells and noisy voices!
"Knowing therefore the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest unto God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences. We are not again commending ourselves unto you, but speak as giving you occasion of glorying on our behalf, that ye may have wherewith to answer them that glory in appearance, and not in heart. For whether we are beside ourselves, it is unto God; or whether we are of sober mind, it is unto you. For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge, that one died for all, therefore all died; and he died for all, that they that live should no longer live unto themselves, but unto him who for their sakes died and rose again. Wherefore we henceforth know no man after the flesh: even though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now we know him so no more. Wherefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new. But all things are of God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave unto us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not reckoning unto them their trespasses, and having committed unto us the word of reconciliation. We are ambassadors therefore on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beseech you on behalf of Christ, be ye reconciled to God. Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him." 2 Corinthians 5:11-21, ASV
Our Advent adventure ends with a final quote from "Everything Christmas," a post-Christmas prayer, author unknown.
"Long after the angels disappear into the heavens, the shepherds return to their flocks, the magi journey home, the great star sets, Jesus remains. The child in whom we discover God's great love for humanity becomes the adult Redeemer who challenges us to imitate his selflessness and compassion in order that we might transform our world in love. May we allow the miracle of Christmas to continue long after the holiday trappings have been packed away. May we welcome the adult Messiah and his challenging Gospel to recreate our lives--making peace, justice, and hope of this holy season a reality in every season of the new year."
I don't know how it is at your house at this point, but at ours Christmas is just about over. We have finished with the presents and the food, the kids have disappeared into their domains with their new 'toys'. The kitchen is clean and the paper is in the recycle bin. We are all ready for a peaceful night sleep after a hectic month of preparation.
But Christmas isn't really over. Our life in Christ begins at the manger, but it does not end there. The transforming power of Christ is eternal. What He has done in coming to us is not something to be remembered just once a year, it is an event that is meant to change us. We are now to live like Christ in the world, to share His love and mercy and grace with others so that they might also be reconciled to Him.
I pray you've had a blessed Christmas and that each new day will be bright with the light He has brought to the world. I pray also that you will live out the reconciliation that the adult Messiah, our Lord Jesus Christ, won for us on the cross. Be blessed by that babe in the manger, but remember the man He became and be like Him. Become that new creature and be an ambassador for Christ every day.
"But take heed to yourselves, lest haply your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that day come on you suddenly as a snare: for so shall it come upon all them that dwell on the face of all the earth. But watch ye at every season, making supplication, that ye may prevail to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man." Luke 21:34-36, ASV
I noticed a common theme running through the comic pages when I read them in yesterday's newspaper. It was, of course, December 26th, the day after Christmas, so many of the comic strips included jokes about life after Christmas is over. The jokes included the subjects of re-gifting and returning gifts at the mall. One comic included a reference to the mess left behind. Another the impact on the economy. Garfield talked about how the Christmas activities are over, and in the last panel he hugged John with cries of sadness. "Waaaaaaahhhh," he said.
In the comic strip called "Pickles" by Brian Crane, the old woman and man are sitting on a couch. The old woman says, "I think I've got the after Christmas blues. There's nothing sadder than Christmas decorations the day after Christmas. It's like the party is over and they forgot to go home. I love the Christmas season. It's such a magical time of year. All of the dreary aspects of reality are suspended for a while. But then suddenly it's December 26th and we have to go back to the real world. Sigh." The old man answers, "I sympathize with you, dear. I know exactly how you feel." "You do?" she asks. "Yeah, I feel the same way right after the Super Bowl."
It takes so long to get to that moment: the moment when we gather around the tree and exchange our gifts; the moment when we gather around the table to share in the food we've prepared; the moment we gather for worship. Despite a month or more of preparation, the moment is over in a heartbeat: suddenly. And we are left with only memories and a mess.
We spend a lifetime preparing for the moment when Christ will come, not as a baby but as the King of the Kingdom. We wait and wonder and do whatever we can to make everything ready for him, but we are going to be as surprised on that day as we are on December 26th. And yet, when our earthly preparation is complete, the new day will not be filled with disappointment. In that day, we'll know the joy of eternal life.
I think we experience those emotions on the day after Christmas because we try to put so much preparation into such a short period of time. We want that one day to be absolutely perfect. Then we are disappointed when it is over because we are exhausted from working so hard. We think to ourselves, "That's it?" We would do well to put a little bit of Christmas into every day of the year, living Christ-like today, tomorrow and always, rather than saving it up for just one day each year. The same is true for our preparation for the day of Christ. Don't wait until the last minute! Take time now; be prepared at every moment. Pray, study, worship, and you'll experience the coming of Christ each day until He comes in glory.
"For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it. See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil; in that I command thee this day to love Jehovah thy God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, that thou mayest live and multiply, and that Jehovah thy God may bless thee in the land whither thou goest in to possess it." Deuteronomy 30:11-16, ASV
I was looking at the home page of my internet server, and I noticed under "top searches" a link for "Aretha Franklin Dead." I clicked into it immediately, because this was such a surprise, but what I realized I wasn't clicking into a news report, but a report of what people think is the news. Apparently someone out there in cyberworld enjoys creating these rumors. Reports surface regularly that Chuck Norris has died. There were reports of Michael Jackson's death years before he actually died. Even Miley Cyrus has been the victim of that type of hoax. This is not a new phenomenon. Paul McCartney was rumored dead in 1964.
One of the articles I read explained that the Aretha Franklin rumor surfaced because there always needs to be a big celebrity story around the holidays. Since Aretha Franklin does have health issues, it made sense that someone might choose her for this hoax. The reports started on Twitter on Monday and quickly spread. It spread so fast that today people are searching on the Internet about her passing.
Why do we have such a fascination with death? Why do we chase after every report of the passing of famous people? Why would anyone want to start such a rumor?
As we are preparing for the start of a new year, this is a good time to consider the offer that God has set before us. Yes, this was given to the Hebrews as they were being sent into the Promised Land. It is a challenge for them to live according to God's ways so that they might keep the blessed promises that He had fulfilled. We do live in a new covenant, and the promises are no long for earthbound prosperity. Yet, God continues to challenge us with the choice of life and death. Do we live in the promise of life, or continue to walk in the curse of death? Do we choose to live as God calls us to live or walk in the ways of the wicked? We know the forgiveness of God. Do we not have even more freedom in His grace to choose life?
Scriptures for Sunday, January 2, 2010, Second Sunday of Christmas: Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 147:13-21; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:[1-9] 10-18
"And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth." John 1:14, ASV
When I was in high school, I was waiting for a bus to take me to band camp. It was an August morning, pleasant but with the threat of rain. Generally when it begins to rain, the rain comes slowly: first a few drops, then a few more, until it is steadily raining. The rain stops the same way. There is no particular moment when it goes from dry to wet or wet to dry. However, on this particular day, the rain came suddenly. The downpour was so immediate that I could actually see the edge of the shower as it moved down the street to me. I had no where to go, and I knew that I was going to get soaked as soon as it hit.
We were at my sister's house for Thanksgiving, hanging out in the back yard by the smoker. The weather was pleasantly warm, with a slight breeze blowing. All of a sudden, a stronger breeze kicked up the leaves on the ground and within seconds the temperature dropped thirty degrees. This is no exaggeration: one minute I was warm, the next minute I was freezing.
Those in tornado alley have probably experienced this phenomenon of sudden changes in weather. Storm clouds might be lingering on the horizon, but there's no way to predict whether or not a tornado will form or where it will go. Hurricanes can move in an orderly fashion and then suddenly change course. Lightning can strike anywhere. It only takes one degree in temperature to change a wet road into an icy road. A few minutes of blizzard-like conditions can change the landscape and hide a road.
We have tried to control the weather, or at least predict it, but most of the time the weathermen can only make an educated guess about what will happen. They certainly can not predict when a sudden downpour will fall in a specific place or the very minute the temperature will drop. Despite their sophisticated equipment and computer programs, they still get some things wrong.
It has been suggested that the world runs on its own, that one day a long time ago some divine spark or 'Creator' set into motion a machine that runs on its own, revolve through space and time on its own without any continued help. To them, the world needs no higher guiding power to get through day to day. To these folk there is no such thing as a personal God. To them God is simply the beginning and a distant power beyond our knowledge and ability to understand. Yet, in the passage from Psalm, we see that God is not only interested in what happens in this world, but that it happens by His word. The snow falls and melts, the wind blows and the rain falls because God makes it happen. He can cause a rainstorm to burst forth at a moment notice or the temperature to drop suddenly.
Not that I think God caused me to get wet or freeze on purpose, for some grand purpose that is beyond my understanding. Yet, there are those who do believe that God can't possibly be active in a world where there continues to be hate and injustice, pain and suffering. The only way they can juxtapose the idea of a loving God with an ugly world is to separate Him from that world. To them, He has to be distant, and we left on our own. How do we accept that God has had a hand in all this? How do we accept that God could have stopped the rain or the cold, but allowed it to affect me? There is no easy answer to these questions.
I'm not sure the other extreme is any better: the theology that makes God our private genie. For too many, God is like a pop machine, all you have to do is put in your prayers and out pops His answer. They pray with the demanding voice of a two year old, "gimme this and gimme that" not considering whether or not those demands are within God's will. When they don't get what they want, they lose faith, turn away from God, and insist that He can't possibly exist because He hasn't done what they expect. "What God? I'm still sick, poor, and oppressed."
I suppose the scriptures give us an image of this kind of God. The Jews certainly took advantage of Him throughout the generations. He promised them the world, gave them guidance and protection. He took them out of Egypt, gave them the Promised Land. He fed them in the wilderness and met their every need. He built them into a great nation, gave them a king when they asked and kept their enemies at bay. They only had to ask and God relented of any ill will toward His people, holding on to them as His own through their unfaithfulness.
The psalmist admits that God belongs to Israel. “He showeth his word unto Jacob, His statutes and his ordinances unto Israel. He hath not dealt so with any nation; And as for his ordinances, they have not known them. Praise ye Jehovah.” He has done great things for Israel but not for the other nations. Jeremiah also speaks this message that Israel is special to God. “For thus saith Jehovah, Sing with gladness for Jacob, and shout for the chief of the nations: publish ye, praise ye, and say, O Jehovah, save thy people, the remnant of Israel.”
This does not mean that God can be viewed as a genie, available for anyone's whim. He was speaking in these texts to a people who were in the midst of suffering, giving promises for their salvation. God may allow hate and injustice, pain and suffering, but He is never far from those who are in the midst of it. He is there to offer hope and reconciliation. He is there to overcome the world and lift His people out of the muck.
What we need to remember is that what we perceive to be evil is often just a way through which we are brought into God's heart. God does not bring upon us the suffering that we experience, but sometimes He steps back and allows us to experience the consequences of our own failure to live according to His Word. Though He is always near, we turn our backs on Him. That's what happened to the Jews. They knew God, they had His Word, but they turned to the nations and to other gods for their protection. They left their God for false gods who could not accomplish the works of His hands. Sometimes, for the sake of His people, God allows them to be cast into exile so that they'll look to Him again. This does not mean that God is far off or unconcerned with His people. This does not mean He is a God who causes pain and suffering. Sometimes the lessons we learn in times of trouble are the ones that make the greatest impact on our lives.
I love how we are looking at these texts as we enter into a new year. What better time, as we are making New Year's resolutions, for us to consider God's place in the midst of it all. When we are making those choices, have we asked what God thinks? What were our failures in the previous year? Did God have to step back so that we might see Him more clearly? Did He let the rain fall on our heads or the cold winds to blow so that we might consider how we have failed Him? Is He showing us the way to turn again into His hands and His heart?
He is not a cruel God who plays with us or a God who allows suffering for the sake of evil. He is a loving God that enters into our lives and provides everything we need, including the kick in the pants we often need to keep our eyes on Him. He is a personal God, so personal that He was born into this world, laid in a manger and sent to the cross for our sakes. He has taken upon Himself the suffering that we richly deserve, so that we might have the life for which we are not worthy. God's promises reach far beyond our troubles, and He is never far away, even when it seems like He's just a divine spark that set the world into motion.
In the beginning God spoke and there was light. The light was not the sun or the stars, but that light was the Christ who was before everything. “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth.” He became one of us, one with His creation to restore and redeem us to Himself. This is not a God that started the world revolving and then went to Tahiti on vacation. This is a God who dwells among His people with whom we can have an intimate and personal relationship.
The incarnation was not just about salvation, but it was about the revealing of God’s fullness to the world. Unfortunately, many who lived in Jesus' day missed Him. They didn't see that He was who He claimed to be. They were blind to the reality of God incarnate. Those who did see and did believe were given the most incredible gift. “But as many as received him, to them gave he the right to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Nothing is new under the sun. There are still those who can't see Him. They have rejected the reality of God's presence in this world He created, or they see Him only as they choose to see Him. They do not accept Him as He fully is, God Almighty. We want to pick and choose only the parts of God that suit us. We want a God who loves who we want Him to love and who does what we want Him to do. If a characterization does not fit our expectations, we reject it. But we should never forget that God does not fit into the little boxes we create to hold Him. He didn't fit into the expectations of His people Israel, and He won't fit ours.
That's a good thing, because if God could be limited by our will and purpose, then He could be limited by our neighbor's! Would we really want that co-worker at our job to have control of God's grace? Would we want our ex-boyfriends to determine our salvation? Would we want our in-laws to grant us the things we need? If not our neighbors, then why would we think it is possible or sensible for us to be in control?
How much better is it that God can cause the rain to fall and the sun to shine with just a word? How much better is it that God can stand back for a moment so that we can see Him in His fullness and believe? How much better is it that God's hand is in the midst of everything, including our hate and injustice, pain and suffering, so that we might be transformed into people who will join Him in the work of salvation in the world?
We were chosen and included into the inheritance of God’s great blessings when we heard the Word and believed. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit and by the promise. This seal is not one which can be removed. It is God’s hand on our life, His hand which will not allow us to be lost. We might face pain and suffering, but we can go through our difficulties with the knowledge that God is not far off, but rather He is in our midst granting us blessings we would never have thought to seek. He is indeed a gracious God, giving us faith, hope and life. This gracious God has been revealed in the life of the Christ who was born in a stable and laid in a manger and His promises were fulfilled in the death of Christ on the cross.
So, how does this Word transform us today? How will we enter into the new year differently? How will we experience God in the midst of the muck of this world? Will we treat Him like a pop machine, putting in our prayers and expecting specific answers? Will we hide Him into some box, and let Him out only when we think the time is right? Will we push Him out into some distance corner of space and praise Him only for what He did in the beginning of time? Do we see Him as the God who has come for us and for our neighbors? Will we keep Him to ourselves, or share Him with the world? Are we willing to see Him in the good times as well as the bad, in the hearts of our friends and in the faces of our enemies? Are we ready to be changed by all our experiences as we are drawn deeper and deeper into the heart of our personal God?
Even when the rain falls out of nowhere or the temperature drops suddenly, God is with us. Let us turn to Him, to follow His Word and experience His grace each day of this new year.
"I waited patiently for Jehovah; And he inclined unto me, and heard my cry. He brought me up also out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay; And he set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: Many shall see it, and fear, And shall trust in Jehovah. Blessed is the man that maketh Jehovah his trust, And respecteth not the proud, nor such as turn aside to lies. Many, O Jehovah my God, are the wonderful works which thou hast done, And thy thoughts which are to us-ward; They cannot be set in order unto thee; If I would declare and speak of them, They are more than can be numbered. Sacrifice and offering thou hast no delight in; Mine ears hast thou opened: Burnt-offering and sin-offering hast thou not required. Then said I, Lo, I am come; In the roll of the book it is written of me: I delight to do thy will, O my God; Yea, thy law is within my heart. I have proclaimed glad tidings of righteousness in the great assembly; Lo, I will not refrain my lips, O Jehovah, thou knowest. I have not hid thy righteousness within my heart; I have declared thy faithfulness and thy salvation; I have not concealed thy lovingkindness and thy truth from the great assembly. Withhold not thou thy tender mercies from me, O Jehovah; Let thy lovingkindness and thy truth continually preserve me. For innumerable evils have compassed me about; Mine iniquities have overtaken me, so that I am not able to look up; They are more than the hairs of my head; And my heart hath failed me. Be pleased, O Jehovah, to deliver me: Make haste to help me, O Jehovah. Let them be put to shame and confounded together That seek after my soul to destroy it: Let them be turned backward and brought to dishonor That delight in my hurt. Let them be desolate by reason of their shame That say unto me, Aha, aha. Let all those that seek thee rejoice and be glad in thee: Let such as love thy salvation say continually, Jehovah be magnified. But I am poor and needy; Yet the Lord thinketh upon me: Thou art my help and my deliverer; Make no tarrying, O my God." Psalm 40, ASV
If it weren't for the calendars, we would not even noticed the difference between Friday, December 31st and Saturday, January 1st. The sun will rise, the earth will revolve. We will eat, sleep, bathe, dress and spend time doing the things we do. Our celebration, based on that calendar, will be different. We'll stay up late, perhaps eat something special like black-eyed peas or pork and sauerkraut. We'll watch a parade and some football games. Despite our special celebrations, there's no real difference between Friday and Saturday. As a matter of fact, throughout history, and even in other places around the world today, the change from one 'year' to the next has been at different times. But we follow a calendar that says that December 31st is the end of something and January 1st is the beginning.
So, we take advantage of that calendar and we set out to begin anew. We make resolutions, expecting that the new calendar will mean a new us. We try to stop doing the things we know are bad for us and start doing the things we know are good. We go on diets. We start bible reading programs. We quit smoking. We promise to do whatever is necessary to build our relationships. Last year I promised to post a message on the wall of at least one friend on Facebook every day. That lasted a few weeks.
We make these resolutions, and every year the experts warn us that we'll fail. We fail not because we don't want to do these things, but because we try to force a change at that specific time rather than when we have prepared ourselves. We try to become new just because the calendar is new. Unfortunately, those diets are particularly hard because we've just spent a month overindulging. The reading gets lost in the reality of our every day life. We return to work after having vacations. We put away the decorations and our homes look bare again. We have to face the harshest winter weather and will turn to the things that comfort us as the cold wind blows.
This might just be the right time to bring about the change we truly need in our lives, but let's remember that a new calendar can not make us new. God can, however, and we would do well to look to Him for the strength and courage to make changes in our lives. It might not happen on January 1st. We may need more time to prepare ourselves. We may need to consider the right way to go about the changes: get on a weight loss program or get a prescription for a nicotine patch. We might need to find the right reading plan. It is ok if we don't start these resolutions for a week or a month. Let's let God work in our lives, transforming us day by day, not based on a calendar but according to His grace. With His help we won't fail.