Tag Archives: Advent

Advent fills hearts with hope; Open your heart to be filled

Today the window above my desk is filled with beautiful snowflakes drifting down with a cedar tree in the background.  The visuals match the traditional images on so many Christmas cards.  

Yes, Advent is here and Christians begin the journey to the manger—all sounds familiar to those who have been raised in the church and celebrate the holiday focusing on the story shared in the gospels and prophesied for thousands of years.  

But what about Advent season for those who are unfamiliar with the Christian tradition of Advent and Christmas?  Are they excited about a season or just about what the secular world has decided is a holiday tradition?  Are their hearts filled with hope?

Admittedly this is a simple line of thought from one who has lived a lifetime wrapped in the Christian tradition; yet, I am wondering why I have discovered how much more exciting Christmas is for me this year versus all the other years.  I think it may be from discovering the true secret to Christmas: hope, love, joy, and peace.

This is the first Advent in over a decade that I have not focused on creating a series of worship services that lead a congregation to Christmas day.  I thought I would really miss the process and the excitement that the work has entailed over the past 10 years.

But as I sit here watching the snowflakes swirling ever so gently around the house, I must admit that I am not missing the work that Advent has meant for these past years. Instead, I am experiencing Advent a bit differently.  I am sensing hope.  

Let’s consider what hope really is:

NOUN mass noun

A feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen.

  • 1.1count noun A person or thing that may help or save someone.
  • 1.2 Grounds for believing that something good may happen.

2  archaic A feeling of trust.

VERB

Want something to happen or be the case.

  • 1.1with infinitive Intend if possible to do something.

This definition comes from the Oxford dictionary on-line that is my go to dictionary because it also offers the origin of the word, too:

Late Old English hopa (noun), hopian (verb), of Germanic origin; related to Dutch hoop (noun), hopen (verb), and German hoffen (verb).

Looking closely at the various entries for hope, I see the value of opening Advent with the emphasis on hope.  For four weeks, we create an atmosphere of expecting something huge to happen.  

For Christians, that big thing is the birth of Jesus Christ.  At least that is the design of the traditional Christian season.  Sadly, the secular world has invaded the spiritual world and the hope appears to be more for a day of gift giving.

If one can lessen the emphasis on gift giving as the “big thing” of Christmas, the desire or hope shifts from fancy packages under a Christmas tree to the givingof love from one person to another.

I was saddened to notice the second definition of hopeis listed as archaic:  a feeling of trust.  Advent should still focus on that definition.  

For thousands of years, the Israelites had waited, trusted, that God would provide a messiah to “fix” the mess they were in.  They had hope.  

Do we, in the 21stcentury still have hope?  

Advent is a time to re-evaluate that idea.  At times we all experience feeling lost, depressed, alone, guilty, stranded, and the list continues.  At those times, we lose hope.  Turn hope into the verb, not the noun.

The verb places each one of us in an active state:  we want something to happen or something to be.  The Israelites continued to hope.  As bad as things got, they trusted God to provide an answer to their demise. 

Do we, in the 21stcentury hope—actively hope?

Maybe I am not in a pulpit right now, but I am discovering hope again in a new light.  I am making subtle changes in how I celebrate the entire season and finding hopealive in surprising ways.

For instance, I was reading the lectionary reading for this week and discovered an emphasis on trust.  Psalms 25 opens

O Lord, I give my life to you.

     I trust in you, my God!  . . .

No one who trusts in you will ever be disgraced,

     But disgrace comes to those who try to deceive              others.

Living in a society filled with all kinds of distressing concerns—personal, health, financial, governmental, global—we need to trust in God.  We need hope that God is with us, that he hears us, that he wants what is best for us.  

The traditions that have developed around our secular celebrations during Advent and on Christmas Day may be well-intentioned, but is in God?

Evaluating the secular traditions through the filter of my Christian faith forces me to redefine the traditions.  My hopeis that the “reason for the season” is more important in my life than the hope that I find packages under the tree just for me.

This Advent, I want to emphasize how trusting in God provides me a hope that extends beyond the worldly scope of my life.  

My hope is the traditions that demonstrate love for one another creates a joy that expands beyond a package wrapped under a tree.

Read the scriptures for Advent’s first week and see if your heart opens, too, finding how those who trust in God have hope that leads to joy:

Lectionary readings for the week of December 2:

  • Jeremiah 33:14-16
  • Psalm 25:1-10
  • I Thessalonians 3:9-13
  • Luke 21:25-36

Dear God,

Give me the strength

     to trust in the ancient words of scripture.

Give me the determination 

     to keep Advent a time of expectation.

Open my heart to be filled with hope.

Guide me in celebrating the birth of your son

     with traditions to reflect your love.

Guide me in sharing the story of Jesus’ birth

     with words and actions to share your love.

Open my heart to be filled with trust.

Thank you for the words of the ancient faithful

     that help us open our hearts to trust.

Thank you for the work of the faithful

     who open our hearts in hope of Jesus’ birth.

In the name of you, the Father, 

In the name of your son, Jesus Christ,

In the name of the Holy Spirit, amen.

P.S. Friends, the snow is still falling outside my window.  What a joy it is as I experience the excitement of the season!  I hope your days are full of the joy we feel as Christmas Day nears.

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PEACE: Christmas Presents That Won’t Break

Sermon given on Sunday, Christmas Eve 2017, based on the Advent study by James W. Moore and Jacob Armstrong, Christmas Presents That Won’t Break.  Even though Advent comes to a conclusion with Christmas Day, the study will be followed for the next week or two.  Many thanks to Moore and Armstrong for publishing this study so others may find the gifts that won’t break:  Hope, Love, Joy and Peace.

Scripture: Luke 2:1-6 (NRSV)

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.

 

Luke 2:8-11 (NRSV)

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

 

Luke 2:8-11 (NRSV)

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

 

PEACE: The Christmas Present That Won’t Break

 

Life at this time of year sometimes feels like total chaos. There has been all the shopping, the baking, the extra events on the calendar and all this is on top of our typical daily life routines. No wonder everybody becomes exhausted. The idea of peace seems impossible.

Yet, peace is possible. And today, Christmas Eve, in the midst of all the seasonal chaos, peace is possible and it is a gift that won’t break.

Chaos is a permanent state around us and that is no different throughout human history.—even since creation, as John 1 reminds us:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5, NRSV)

 

At no time in our lives are we immune to chaos. The key to peace is knowing that God is with us, or as one of our members has said repeatedly this year, “God’s got this.” And that testimony has carried her through the chaos of a medical crisis.

God is with us. Since the beginning, God has existed and continues to be a very real presence within our lives. Have we opened this gift? Today is the perfect time to open this last gift, God’s gift of peace.

[Light the Peace candle.]

Peace is difficult to define especially when our world is in such chaos, but I always have hope that we can reach the ultimate goal of peace. The key is finding peace with God first, then finding peace with one’s self, and that makes finding peace with others possible.

This morning we awoke to find the magic of a white Christmas.   The snow really completes the mental image of Christmas for us in the Midwest. Seldom, though, does a white Christmas become real. I hope that as you stepped out into the natural world you heard the peace.

As I tried to figure out a way to explain what the gift of peace was to the kids, I could only come up with one idea—the way the world is when snow falls. There is nothing like it. When snow falls, there is a pureness that one experiences.

  • The visual shows a world with no flaws as the snow covers the dulled yards, turns leafless trees and bushes into white, sparkling gardens if even for a few moments.
  • Snow even has a unique smell, almost absent of odors but also refreshing. We notice that when we go into the stores and see candles and scents with snow as the descriptors. One might think that snow should smell like rain, but it has its own unique scent.
  • And who admits that snow does have a taste. As kids, I am sure we have all ran out into the snow, stuck out our tongue and tasted it. Why snow even serves as the base ingredient for an old fashioned treat—snow ice cream (even though we always add extra taste elements to it).
  • Touching snow may begin with the taste on the tongue, but snow brings out the kids in all of us as we run and play, scoop it up to make snowmen, or fall into it to make snow angels. Even the gentle feel of the snow on our face seems to calm our very anxious souls.
  • Finally, the sound of snow is the key to knowing what peace is. Step into a world where snow has coated the ground, especially as the day begins. The sound of snow is peace. It quiets us, it soothes us, it wraps us up like a warm blanket on the coldest of days.

This mornings gentle snow fall can serve as a real example of what peace with God is like.   (I know, the cynics might try to twist the magic of the white Christmas into the negatives, but I choose to focus on the snow as an example of God’s gift of peace.)

James Moore uses the story of the angels being taught to sing the one hymn to announce Jesus’ birth to the shepherds as a one-time public event. The angels were told that this was the only time that they would sing this one song as a performance. That may seem like a silly story, but thing about how the Christmas carols delight us as we look forward to Christmas.

The story concludes with God explaining to the angels that once they perform this majestic hymn, their job was done. Moore writes God’s response: “Because,” God said, “my son has been born, and now earth must do the singing!”

The Christmas story is told and retold every year in hope that all people can find peace with God. Moore adds:

The Good news of Christmas is so awesome, so full of wonder, that it’s not enough just to talk about it. We have to burst forth in song, we have to sing it. (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 85)

The gift of peace begins with knowing God and accepting the gift of his son Jesus Christ as our savior. With that we can also find peace within ourselves even if chaos swirls around us like the tornadoes we know so well.

Accepting God’s gift of Jesus in our life makes it possible for us to find a sense of calm in our lives. Consider all those around you and that you have heard throughout history who demonstrate calm despite the chaos that surrounds them. I can list a few of the most historical examples : Mother Teresa, now Saint Teresa, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi.

Placing God first and then turning one’s life over to him creates peace within one’s own life. Moore states, “The only way we can be right with ourselves is to be made right by him [God].” (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 89)

Finally, the gift of peace expands into peace with others. By accepting God’s gift of Christ, we turn over the chaos to him. Remember our own example this year as we heard the personal testimony in the battle with cancer, “God’s got this.”

Because God has accepted our chaos, we can find peace with ourselves, and that makes it possible for us to find peace with others. Moore explains the tradition of the mistletoe to demonstrate how important it is that we find peace with others, too.

The ancient tradition of northern European Druids is far different than what we may expect. Moore explains:

They believed mistletoe had curative powers and could heal lots of things including separation between people. So when two enemies happened to meet under an oak tree with mistletoe hanging above them, they took it as a sign from God that they should drop their weapons and be reconciled. They would set aside their animosities and embrace one another under the mistletoe.

When Christian missionaries moved into northern Europe, they saw this mistletoe custom as a perfect symbol for what happened at Christmas—that Jesus Christ came into the world to save us, to redeem us, and to bring us peace, healing, forgiveness, love, and reconciliation. (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 90)

Today we can just imagine what it was like to live in the cold, frigid regions of northern Europe. The environment might be comparable to our lives without God, without peace. The mistletoe of God in our lives gives us the power to find peace with others, too.

Give the gift of peace this year. Follow Moore’s advice:

If you want to have a “peace-full” Christmas, go in the spirit of love and fix the broken relationships in your life. If you are alientated or estranged or cut off or at odds with any other person, go in the spirit of Christmas and make peace. Don’t put it off any longer. Drop your pride,your resentment, your grudges, and go set it right. With the help of God, go make peace today. Christmas offers us the gift of peace with others, but it’s up to us to accept that gift. (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 90)

Christmas is the annual reminder that God loves us and gives us the greatest gift of all: Jesus Christ. Accepting that opens us to a world that is peace-filled.

Merry Christmas to each of you. I pray that you have received the gifts that won’t break: hope, love, joy and peace.

Closing prayer: (in unison)

Dear God, thank you for the gift of peace.

Help us put peace into practice

            in our lives and show others

            the path to true peace.

Remind us to serve as peacemakers

            and to share the love of God

            with those in need. Amen.

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JOY: Christmas Presents That Won’t Break

This is the 3rd of the Advent series based on James W. Moore’s and Jacob Armstrong’s Advent study, Christmas Presents That Won’t Break.  As always, I am very appreciative for the work these two have done and making it available to others for their Advent.

 

Scripture:

Matthew 1:22-25, NLT

     22 All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet:

23 “Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,[a]
which means ‘God is with us.’”

     24 When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus.

 

Luke 1:28-38, NLT

     28 Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings,[a] favored woman! The Lord is with you![b]

     29 Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. 30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 And he will reign over Israel[c] forever; his Kingdom will never end!”

     34 Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”

     35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God.36 What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. 37 For the word of God will never fail.[d]

     38 Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her.

 

Notes for lighting the advent candle for JOY:

Looking up ‘joy’ in the index and concordance of my Bible, I find some interesting pieces:

 

Joy is defined as “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortuned.” The first reference in the concordance is in Deuteronomy and the last one is in 1 John; but during Advent, the focus is on the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Just in the gospels, the concordance lists 14 entries of which only five of the verses are included in the traditional Christmas story. The others are primarily either later in Jesus’ ministry or as the end of his life.

In the index, there are fewer listings. In fact there are only a total of 11 of which seven are from the gospels. Psalms includes two, Philippians have three and Romans only one.

Key to all, though, is the emphasis on the emotion of joy comes from being faithful and in relation to God, especially through acceptance of Jesus Christ as your savior.

Mary’s role in the Christmas story helps us to understand this emotion of joy because she delivered the baby Jesus to the world and that human role is something we understand. The gospel of John [16:19-24, NLT] completes the explanation in Jesus’ words as he tries to explain what he meant when he said, “In a little while you won’t see me, but then you will see me. . . “:

19 Jesus realized they wanted to ask him about it, so he said, “Are you asking yourselves what I meant? I said in a little while you won’t see me, but a little while after that you will see me again. 20 I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn over what is going to happen to me, but the world will rejoice. You will grieve, but your grief will suddenly turn to wonderful joy.21 It will be like a woman suffering the pains of labor. When her child is born, her anguish gives way to joy because she has brought a new baby into the world. 22 So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again; then you will rejoice, and no one can rob you of that joy23 At that time you won’t need to ask me for anything. I tell you the truth, you will ask the Father directly, and he will grant your request because you use my name. 24 You haven’t done this before. Ask, using my name, and you will receive, and you will have abundant joy.

 

 

JOY: The Christmas Present That Won’t Break

 

            JOY: What a packed word! This small word has immense power to take a gloomy day and turn it around. Yet in today’s world joy is evasive. The climate in which we currently live is so full of political and human turmoil due to so many factors that finding joy could be a chore. Yet, joy is one of the very best characteristics of Christians.

Take a minute to reflect on the people you know that you feel exhibit a Christian attitude. Do you not see them as joyful or joy-filled? I contend that a solid understanding of one’s faith in God and living the Christian lifestyle transforms our human lives into joyfilled lives rather than cynical, embittered, and miserable lives.

As a cook, I can see the recipe for a joy-filled life begins with the basic ingredient of God as introduced to us through Jesus Christ. Maybe that why I find joy in preparing a meal for family and friends; and no time is better than during Advent and Christmas time to realize that the mere act of preparing a meal with all kinds of special dishes is exactly what the gift of joy is. Preparing a special holiday meal is a gift that does not break and is one of encouragement, of thoughtfulness, and of graciousness. The satisfaction that it provides the guests as well as the cook(s) is joy!

In James Moore’s study, he writes that joy has three types: encouragement, thoughtfulness and graciousness. He argues that when God is with us, we provide the very ingredients of those three qualities. He states:

. . . the great truth of Christmas, the great message of Christmas, the great promise of Christmas, the great joy of Christmas, all wrapped up in that one word, Emmanel, which means God is always with us! (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 63)

When we prepare a meal, we demonstrate the very idea that God is always with us. (For instance, how else can we be safe with knives and hot stoves and liquids all around us.) God is with us when we realize who we hope will come to our table and when we show love to the guests. The invitation itself is a gift of ‘encouragement’ as you include them in your life and pray for their joy, too. As guests, they are encouraged to join in your life as family and/or friends—what an opportunity to share God’s story, also:

That is part of our task as Christians, isn’t it? We need to say to a scared, anxious, confused, fretful world, “Boy, have we got good news for you!? The good news is that we can share it because God is with us and will see us through. Our part of that good news is saying to people near us, “I care about you,” “I believe in you,” “I trust you,” “You can do it.”

Maybe the best gift we can give someone we love this Christmas is a gift that will not break: the joy of encouragement. (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 64)

 

But back to the meal, we plan the meal, knowing the guests’ likes and dislikes as well as knowing the traditions the guests enjoy sharing. From the minute the decision to serve a meal is made until the final dish is put away, the cook(s) are operating with love. Love guides each choice and step of the meal’s preparation. Planning and preparing the meal is also an exercise in ‘thoughtfulness’ which Moore identifies as another type of way to give joy.

Deciding to host a family and/or friends dinner takes thoughtfulness when considering what to prepare. We know the guests well enough to know the likes and dislikes, the allergies, and the traditional expectations. But consider if the meal were being prepared for strangers. The mere act of serving a meal to strangers is an example of thoughtfulness, but Moore had another example of taking that to even another level tell the story of the First United Methodist Church in Shreveport, LA, who decided to serve dinner on Christmas Day for anybody who might be hungry or lonely. The meal offered not only a complimentary meal but also fellowship and Christmas carols:

Moore said, “Just after lunch on Christmas afternoon, I drove to the church to see how things were going. . . . As I went inside, I met several members of our outreach committee coming out the door and heading for home. ‘What happened?’ I asked. ‘Is it over? Didn’t anybody show up?’ A committee member answered, ‘Oh, they are in there for sure. About 300 are eating right now. The only reason we are leaving is that some new workers came in to relieve us.’ . . .

When I went into the kitchen, I was moved to tears by what I saw: There was my good friend, a rabbi, along with 14 members of his temple, who had told our people, ‘This is your special day. Go home and be with your families, and we will work for you.’ (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 65)

 

Just imagine the joy Moore experienced. The thoughtfulness of the rabbi and his volunteers delivered joy in so many ways. In a surprising way, the story of Christ came to Shreveport and it was a gift that cannot be broken.

As a cook, preparing a meal for my family and friends at any time of the year provides extra prayer time for them, too. Serving a meal and joining in conversation can provides special, non-stressful times to talk out issues, provide words of encouragement, and demonstrate Christianity.

Cutting up the vegetables for the salads, becomes a practice of thoughtfulness, too. Each one who sits at my table gets a salad that is unique for their own tastes. Even the menu takes thoughtfulness to make sure that it is appropriate for the eaters. And then, for those special events, the preparation includes the traditions that match those at the table. The meal is a gift filled with thoughtfulness in hopes of bringing joy to each one seated.

Moore’s third form of the gift of joy is graciousness. Preparing a meal may seem a bit of a stretch to explain graciousness, but it comes with two views. First, consider the graciousness of the meal as the host/hostess. There is a level of selflessness demonstrated by the cook(s) and the host/hostess to prepare for the meal. The joy of graciousness is demonstrated by the work that goes into the meal—a form of sacrificial love.

Secondly, there is a gift of graciousness that the receivers give, too. Acknowledging the work of the cook(s) and/or the host/hostess provides a level of joy to them, too. Giving the gifts that do not break whether it is hope, love or joy, also has a return for those who are doing the giving. The doers end up receiving joy from witnessing the effect of their efforts. The guests, too, return the gift of graciousness in expressing their joy openly.

The essence of Christmas is the joy or gracious, sacrificial love. Christ came to show us what God is like and what God wants us to be like, and the word is love: love came down at Christmas, and the joy it brings is the best and most unbreakable gift of all! (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 67)

During the next week, we will continue to listen to the news and hear of all the challenges to life whether it is the wildfires in California, the hurricane victims still trying to rebuild their lives, or all the individuals who have been abused or harassed or bullied in one way or another, God calls us to give the gifts that won’t break. Those gifts are to provide hope to the hopeless, love to the unloved, and joy to those who are joyless.

Jacob Armstrong adds to the study how we can gift the gift of joy when tragedy strikes, we lose a loved one, or we simply feel unhappy with our lives. He writes:

. . . Can there still be joy?

Yes, God says. There can be joy. That’s what Advent is all about. It’s about our hoping, believing, waiting for God to come and make something out of our mess. We wait for God to step into what appears to be impending doom and save us. Advent hold out the belief that in the midst of that kind of waiting, God brings the gift of joy.

  • God often uses the most impossible thing you can think of as the very sign that God is with us. And in the impossible being made possible, we find
  • The Jesus story teaches us that we can find joy even in scary and impossible situations.
  • Knowing God is with us is the gift that brings joy. (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 72, 74, 76-77)

 

So, Merry Christmas! As you begin the final week of preparation, remember that the story we celebrate provides the gifts that won’t break. The gifts of hope, love, and joy are worth all the efforts we put into loving one another as much as we love God and as much as we want to be loved. With these gifts, will come one more—the gift of peace.

Closing prayer:

Dear God, thank you for the gift of joy

And for the way it brightens our days.

Help us give joy to others

Through what we say and do.

Show us how to make this Christmas

A true season of joy. Amen

Work Cited

Moore, James W., and Jacob Armstrong. Christmas Gifts That Won’t Break. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2017.

 

 

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LOVE: The Christmas Present that Won’t Break

This is the second in a series based on James Moore’s and Jacob Armstrong’s Advent study, Christmas Presents That Won’t Break.  Again, I want to thank them for their work and allowing churches to use their ideas.

John 3:16

16 “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

 

UMH 242     Love Came Down at Christmas

Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, Love divine;

Love was born at Christmas; star and angels gave the sign.

 

Worship we the Godhead, Love incarnate, Love divine;

Worship we our Jesus, but wherewith for sacred sign?

 

Love shall be our token; love be yours and love be mine;

Love to God and all men, love for plea and gift and sign.

 

Luke 2:8-20

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep.Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

15 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. 17 After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. 18 All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, 19 but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often.20 The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them.

 

LOVE: The Christmas Present That Won’t Break

 

            Love is a word that may seem almost overused or bantered about so much that the true meaning of it loses significance or importance. Consider how easy it is to say we “love” this or that. For instance, consider some of this times we use the word:

  • I love sunshine.
  • I love chocolate chip cookies.
  • I love the Royals or the Chiefs.
  • I love the color green.
  • I love summer.
  • I love snow.
  • I love. . . . and the list just grows.

 

Do we use the word love to describe so many different things in our lives that the value of love as found in John 3:16 loses value?

Hear the words of that verse again:

 

16 “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

 

In Moore’s Advent study, Christmas Gifts That Won’t Break, he writes:

 

. . . What puts the meaning of Christmas deep into our souls? What writes the Christmas spirit indelibly on our hearts?   Well, of course, the essence of Christmas is love. God’s incredible love for us, expressed when he sent his only son into the world to save us. “Love Came Down at Christmas”—that’s how the hymn writer puts it. That’s the answer to our question. Whenever and wherever we receive God’s sacrificial love, whenever and wherever we pass it on to others, whenever and wherever God’s love is accepted and Shared, Christmas comes once again! (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 39)

 

The answer sounds familiar, especially for Methodists, as it echoes the John Wesley quote once again:

 

Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can. (Wesley 2017)

 

This places each one of us in a responsible position to act as the arm of God in so many ways that it might even cause us to become numb to the very way we can put love into action.

Moore provides three specific scenarios that makes it easier to identify how we can put love as the essence of Christmas, yes, but also for each day of our lives:

  1. When we love God, there is Christmas.
  2. When we love our families, there is Christmas.
  3. When we love other people, there is Christmas. (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 39, 41, 42)

 

Consider Moore’s first answer to how we demonstrate love. When do we love God? This may be the toughest of the three times to show how we love God. God is an abstract idea for most, and to share that love with others so they can fully identify love as a viable factor in their own lives can be so difficult that we avoid even trying to sharing it with others.

I suggest that when we love God, we also do not feel comfortable sharing our love of God openly in our daily lives. We can easily just live quietly loving God not wanting to interfere with others and their own opinion of God. At Christmas, though, we join in the outpouring of the holiday festivities. Are we openly showing how we love God at these times or are we just trying to fit in with all the traditional practices, not making waves about what the essence of Christmas truly is—love?

            Personally, I have to admit that loving God openly has not always been easy. Just doing what everybody else does at Christmas is easy. It does not really mean investing into the story and deciding how God wants us to live. Instead, we put up the tree, decorate, bake, and shop.

On the outside, others might think that we believe because we join in the celebration of Christmas, but are we celebrating because we love God? Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. I know that life circumstances have challenged my enthusiasm for Christmas as a special holiday. I have had to go through a range of emotions from fun to hurt to loneliness to uncertainty and even to anger.

But, despite all the real-life experiences that altered the Christmas expectations I thought were so important from my childhood through to even today’s vision of Christmas, I had to discover something. Without loving God, there is no Christmas. The way we celebrate Christmas must begin with our love of God.

Reaching that understanding did not come quickly; rather it came from living life managing all the challenges without giving up on God. Despite everything, God has walked my journey with me just as he walks the journey with any one of us. Christmas begins with loving God and that makes it possible for us to love our families and to love other people, too. This is the love that is the essence of Christmas as Moore puts it:

Whenever and wherever we receive God’s sacrificial love, whenever and wherever we pass it on to others, whenever and wherever God’s love is accepted and shared, Christmas comes once again! (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 39)

 

Giving the gift of love is one that never breaks. Even when we give gifts that can break, the foundation of the giving is the love we feel for God, demonstrated in the love of our families and of all other people that come across our life’s path.

Loving God and living the lifestyle that Jesus taught, we can manage to show love to all others even when the life experiences we have cause pain and heartache. For instance, consider all the families who have been broken through death or divorce.

That experience can make one question what love is; but I believe that when one lives with God as the foundation of life, love continues. In fact, that very love of God makes it possible to continue loving one another even when heartbroken, lonely, and yes, even angry. Moore makes this statement that helps explain this:

Unfortunately, in many homes this Christmas there will be a chill in the air. You see, there is a big difference between everybody being at home. . . and being at home with everybody. (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 41)

 

With God as the foundation of one’s life, it is possible to be at home with everybody—family, friend, neighbor, strangers and even enemies. I know this because I have been broken at Christmas, yet somehow God’s love still makes the Christmas story, the carols, and the decorations soak through all the pain to remind me that Christmas is about God’s love—a love so unconditional, so unbelievable, that he decided to step down on this earth as a man Jesus.

Moore puts into words what I have learned:

Whenever and wherever there is peace and harmony and tenderness and respect and thoughtfulness and caring in the family, Christmas comes once again. When we love God, and when we love our families, there is Christmas!

 

And what we learn about loving our families, expands as we step out of our homes and meet others in our daily lives. God’s love fill us up and we see all people as equals with their own stories struggling to find love in their lives. We see people who do not know how to love others with pain in their own lives.

God loved all people pain and all. He wants us to love all people too just like we know he loves us. Accepting Jesus Christ as our savior, we have a responsibility to freely give that love away. This giving does not mean that we run out to the local store to buy gifts that can break or not fit, rather we are to give the gift that won’t break, the gift of openly loving one another. Moore writes:

. . . When we see Christ in other people and love them, then at that precise moment Christmas comes once again. . . . When we love other people, there is Christmas. The Christmas gift of love is surely a Christmas gift that won’t break! (Moore and Armstrong 2017, 42, 44)

 

Just what does the Christmas gift of love look like? Jacob Armstrong wrote in the devotions that the gift of love is not an object but it can be identified by what it provides:

  1. . . . love casts out fear
  2. . . .love comes to where we are
  3. . . . love means that we aren’t alone.
  4. . . . love leads us to long for more. . .

 

What is it that we long for? When we discover God’s love, we discover that we long to share God’s love. God’s love leads us to live life with a drive to learn more of God and to find ways to love one another.

Celebrate Christmas this year knowing that God loved us so much that he sent his only son so that we might open the gift of God’s love and transform our lives. Let us be like the shepherds who left the fields and found the baby Jesus. Let us go back to our homes and give this gift through stories and actions that God’s love is a present that will not break.

Closing prayer:

 

Dear God, thank you for the gift of love.

May we share this gift with others

and learn how to love unconditionally.

Help us during this Christmas season

to practice love in action

with family, friends, and strangers. Amen.

(Moore and Armstrong 2017, 46)

 

 

Works Cited

Moore, James W., and Jacob Armstrong. Christmas Gifts That Won’t Break. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2017.

 

 

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It’s Advent Eve!

Sermon for Sunday, November 26, 2017

How many of you know that today is the last Sunday of the church year? When considering the Sunday calendar, today is like “Advent Eve”. Therefore, what better time is there to write our Christmas card letter.

The custom of sending Christmas cards has really changed over my lifetime and with the addition of personal computers in our homes, one change has been to include a holiday letter to share your life experiences with all those family and friends you are accustomed to exchanging Christmas cards.

My experience with the year-end letter is that it is a list of the high points in a family’s life. No one really mentions too many negative or sad experiences, yet I admit using the letter to let others know of some such changes in our family. Sometimes I feel like I do not have anything worthy of sharing as the year is just filled with the day-to-day activities of work and household chores. Those are the toughest ones to write.

Yet, time is getting away, so let’s get started:

 

Dear Family and Friends,

            Blessings to each of you this holiday season. The years are certainly racing ahead, but we are blessed with good health and a comfortable home.

            Sadly we have to report that we lost two of our family this year: Mary Ellen and Ms. Bonnie. Their passing leaves empty space in our pews, but we know that they have continued their faith journey to meet Jesus Christ himself.

            Joyfully, though, we can share that two have chosen to be baptized as Christians. Two young ladies made this personal decision and it was a joy to share in the sacrament with them. . . .

 

            These Christmas letters are ways to share with others the basic facts of the closing year, but sometimes they become an opportunity to share something that has influenced our lives in profound ways. My brother includes a list of favorite books, movies, and music that he has read, seen or heard through the year.

If we choose to include something like that in our church’s letter, it is difficult, especially if we are not participating in a small group study or even accustomed to the practice of reading scripture. Each week, the common lectionary is included on the bulletin. That is just one way to practice John Wesley’s act of piety of reading scripture.

Reading through the lectionary this week, I found the four readings all related to the same metaphor: the shepherd separating the sheep and the goats. The parable in Matthew is familiar and we have reviewed or referenced it repeatedly, so that makes it difficult to hear God’s message for today, Advent Eve. Of course, put the choice of these verses into the perspective of the Christian year’s conclusion one may discover something in these verses that does fit.

The common lectionary is based on a 3-year cycle. With this week, Year A concludes. But the lectionary for Year B is already available, as is Year C. Commentaries are available, and during the course of the year, a variety of on-line sources are available to help understand the significance of these verses in our lives.

How they are interpreted depends on real-life circumstances and how God uses the words to speak to us depends on a broad range of things—whether it is good sheep behaviors or troublesome goat behaviors.

Let’s consider the parable Jesus tells in Matthew 25:31-36

 

     31 “But when the Son of Manco mes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.

     34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. 36 I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

 

Jesus is addressing the Pharisees who were testing him, but Jesus was a well-trained Jew and his answer directly referenced the scripture from the prophet Ezekiel as written in the Old Testament book Ezekiel 34:17:

 

17 “And as for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign Lord says to his people: I will judge between one animal of the flock and another, separating the sheep from the goats. (emphasis added)

 

As the church year closes, considering the metaphor of God’s judgment as separating the sheep from the goats does help us to evaluate the church’s adherence to Jesus’ teaching. Before we can finish the year-end letter, we need to honestly determine how we have followed Jesus’ commandment to love God above all else and to love one another as we want to be loved.

But, let’s get back to the job of writing the annual Christmas letter:

 

            The church continues to hold weekly worship services and offer Sunday School for the kids and the adults. There has also been a Maundy Thursday service and a Community Christmas Program.

            Two events continue to be provided for the community kids and those are the Easter Fling and the Halloween treats. Through one member’s extra efforts, the local kids have also had movie nights and a summer food program.

            Members worked together to create food packs for delivery at Annual Conference in June, and school kits and hygiene kits for the annual Festival of Sharing in October.

            When school began, the church hosted one of the teacher work-day lunches. And no year is complete without the Chilhowee Community Fair and the church’s concession efforts. . . .

 

The Christmas letter conveniently packages up the year in a way to tell a positive story to all those reading it. But one might wonder what the letter does not say. There is no need to add more, God already knows.

The prophet Ezekiel goes on to tell how God will not abandon his faithful and despite the failures of the leaders at that time, he would send a “perfect shepherd.” This promise from Ezekiel 34:22-24 develops the metaphor of the Good Shepherd taking care of his flock:

 

22 So I will rescue my flock, and they will no longer be abused. I will judge between one animal of the flock and another. 23 And I will set over them one shepherd, my servant David. He will feed them and be a shepherd to them. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David will be a prince among my people. . . .

The Christmas letter is almost done, but what is left out is probably the very reason that we need to continue reading scripture and meeting in community to work together loving one another.

Wesley repeatedly demanded accountability from his congregations in weekly class meetings. His focus on mission came from his understanding of Jesus’ message. Jesus’ use of the parable becomes a checklist for how we are living out the commandments. We must ask ourselves the very questions included in the parable from Matthew 25:37-39:

 

37 “Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? 39 When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

 

Before we can finish this year’s Christmas letter, we need to ask ourselves these questions. We need to be accountable just like Wesley expected the early Methodists. We need to hear the King tell us:

 

I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!

 

Today we must reaffirm our efforts to serve one another as God asks us to serve. We need spiritual wisdom and we can find it in the words of Paul’s prayer:

 

. . . I pray for you constantly, 17 asking God, the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God.

 

18 I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called . . .

 

19 I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him.

Believing in God’s incredible power is not easy as we face the daily challenges of our life, but as we close out the church year we need to honestly ask the very question the Pharisees asked:

 

‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’

 

God is all-powerful.   God is mighty. God never gives up on us, so we must not give up following him. The resolution we have to add to our Christmas letter should be quite simply:

 

. . . In closing, we return to the most basic commandment that Jesus gave us: Love one another. How we live that commandment needs to look like the work that Wesley did—doing all that we can for all we can in any way we can. This is our new year’s resolution.

            The wish we share for each of you is the blessings that come from being part of the God’s family. We invite you to join us each week during Advent as the new year begins. Join us in learning how God’s love was so strong that he gave his son so that we may be saved.      

                                                Love,

                                                Your brothers and sisters in Christ

 

 

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The Wonder of a Promise

The advent series this year is based on Ed Robb’s and Rob Renfroe’s publication The Wonder of Christmas available through Abingdon Press.  Many thanks are owed them for making this available.  The opportunity to share their work is a delight.

The Wonder of a Promise given on Sunday, December 18, 2016:  Week 4 of Advent series

Sharing the Christmas Story: Matthew 1:18-23 (NLT)

18 This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph, to whom she was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement[a] quietly.

20 As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus,[b] for he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet:

23 “Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,[c]
which means ‘God is with us.’”

24 When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus.

Reflecting on The Wonder of a Promise by Rob Renfroe

The very sight of a Christmas gift all wrapped up in pretty paper and wrapped in ribbons and bows triggers our curiosity. What is hidden in the box? The mere box suggests a promise of something very special just for you.

Wrapped gifts surround us in the stores, on the cards in the mail, and under the Christmas trees, and all suggest a promise. They also represents a relationship from one person to another, one family to another, one friend to another friend, and even one co-worker to another. The practice of giving gifts reflects the value we place on maintaining relationships with one another.

God wanted a relationship with us so much that he decided to join us in the package of the baby Jesus, born under the light of a star, announced by the angels, and named Immanuel. But, he was not wrapped up as anything special, rather he was wrapped up in swaddling cloth and laid to rest in a manger. What a wonder that God would go to such an effort to be with us, to do all that he could to establish a relationship with us.

Our very creator desires an intimate relationship with us. For generations God worked through the faithful in an effort to deepen the relationship; but then decided to be with us. Rather than waiting any longer, God joined us as the gift of the baby Jesus to demonstrate how to be in an intimate relationship not only with God but also with each other. What a wonder that God’s gift continues to be unwrapped generation after generation, by one people after another.

Have you unwrapped God’s gift to you?

Have you shared God’s gift with others?

The wonder of Christmas is that sharing gifts with one another is one more opportunity to affirm relationships we have with one another. Yet, God asks us to live our lives in such a loving manner that our relationships with each other reflects the behaviors demonstrated by Jesus Christ.

The wonder of Christmas is that God’s love is infinite and available to all people. For those who accept God’s gift, unwrap it, and use it, the transformation is truly wonderful. The gift of a relationship with God evolves into the one true gift that keeps on giving and gives us a new name—Christian. The wonder of the name Christian transforms our lives.

God’s gift of Jesus Christ wrapped up in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger is the promise that God is always with us. It is a promise that establishes a relationship with God that we demonstrate in all the relationships we experience in our own lives. Accepting God’s gift turns us into a gift too.

Opening up God’s Christmas gift comes with instructions how to give that gift to others. We just have to follow God’s instructions on living in relationships with people rather than live as though we are against each other or above each other or simply living among others. As Christians we are to live with each other just like God did as Jesus.

Stop and consider the importance of that one small word ‘with.’ The Old Testament stories tell us how the ancient faithful understood the relationship of God to man. In the Advent study, The Wonder of Christmas, Rob Renfroe explains:

The Old Testament reveals that God’s people ‘believed in God.’ First and foremost, they believed in God above us. When they sinned, they believed in God against us. And when they thought they were doing everything right, they were able to believe in God for us. But they did not believe in God with us—at least not in the ways we need most. Not with us as a mother or father is with a child. Not with us as a person who understands what it is like to be human—a tiny being in a monstrously large universe. Not with us as one who knows what it’s like to give your best and see it do no good, to give your heart only to be rejected, or to cry at night because those you love are hurting and you can’t take their pain away.

 

Even today we can know those same perceptions. We can understand how the Israelites and even so many today still express those same beliefs that God is above us, against us, and even for us. Yet, God made a promise through the prophet Isaiah:

The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’). [NLT]

 

In that promise, there is that small word with. In the wonder of a name, God promises that in the birth of a baby, God is with us not above, not against, and not simply for us. God promises to be with us.

Unwrapping God’s gift at Christmas we must read the instructions in order to make sure that Isaiah’s prophecy is a reality. We find the instructions in the scripture, especially in the New Testament that records Jesus’ ministry, the teachings, and the modeling of God being with us. The instructions are quite simple: Love one another, as you want to be loved.

First to live in a Christian relationship with God, we must understand the people with whom we live—not only just our own families but in our community.   We cannot be in a positive relationship unless we live with others. We cannot live as though we are above, against or for others. Maybe we do not co-exist in the same circumstances, but as Christians we have the capacity to with others through empathy.

Secondly, remember that we, too, had to accept God’s gift of Jesus Christ. There are times in our lives that we allow something or someone to separate us from our intimate relationship with God. Once we are separated from God, we slip into the mindset that God is above us or against us. We might be able to say that God is for us; but at those times we are separated from God, it may be difficult to even see that. The wonder of God’s promise is God is with us at all times.

Even as Christians, there are times in our lives that we become separated from God: God does not separate from us, but we make decisions that do separate us from God. Remembering our own human stories gives us the compassion to relate to others who have not accepted God’s gift.

The third set of instructions that comes with God’s gift is that we are to care about others. God knew that living with us as Jesus Christ establishes the intimate relationship that creates a bond of trust. Renfroe states:

When we tell people that God is with them and they can trust their lives to Jesus, we are asking them to trust us. Essentially we are telling them that we can show them how to create a different ending to their story. We are saying and promising, “Trust us with your lives; trust us with your stories. We will take you to the One who loves you. Trust us; we will not disappoint you.”

You don’t earn that kind of trust by telling people how badly they have lived or by acting superior. You earn that kind of trust by caring enough about their stories that you want their hopes and dreams to be redeemed. You earn that kind of trust by demonstrating humility and compassion as Jesus did—who was willing to leave the comforts of heaven and be born in a manger, disappointed by friends, rejected by the masses, and crucified on a cross—so that you can make the lives of others better.

. . . What enables people to trust us is our genuine care for their lives and their stories. And most often, what changes people is love. Most people are not argued into the Kingdom, lectured into the Kingdom, or guilted into the Kingdom. Most people are loved into the Kingdom.

 

The wonder of Christmas is as exciting as all the pretty packages sitting under the tree promising new and wonderful things. As Advent season begins, we experience the hope of God’s promise. Then we get busy in all the preparations and we seek relief from the hustle and bustle of the holiday, and ask for peace in our hearts and in our world. In the third week of Advent, we practice love in all that we do with one another. Each week of Advent we sense the joy of the season as we wait to unwrap God’s ultimate gift—a son to show us how to be in an intimate relationship with one another and ultimately with God forever.

Closing Advent prayer:

Lord Jesus,

Today I stand in awe with a heart full of gratitude at the wonder of your promise to be Immanuel—God with us today, tomorrow, and forever.

You are a God who truly understands our struggles, because you lived in our world and experienced life in the same ways that we do. You have compassion on us, recognizing that we are sheep in need of a tender shepherd.

Help me to have that same compassion for others, reaching out to love them just as you have loved me. With your help, I will seek to “keep” the promise of Christmas—not only this season but all of my days. Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Wonder of a Manger (Week 3)

The advent series this year is based on Ed Robb’s and Rob Renfroe’s publication The Wonder of Christmas available through Abingdon Press.  Many thanks are owed them for making this available.  The opportunity to share their work is a delight.

The Wonder of a Manger given on Sunday, December 11, 2016:Week 3 of Advent series based on The Wonder of Christmas by Robb & Renfroe.

The Wonder of Christmas: Questions for week 3

  1. What does the humble birth of the Christ-child reveal about God and God’s plan?
  2. How does thinking of Christmas as a “quiet invasion’ or a ‘sneak attack’ enrich your understanding of the meaning and significance of Christmas?
  3. How would you describe what the wonder of the manger means for you personally?

 

Sharing the Christmas Story: Luke 2:1-16, NLT

 

            2 At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census.       And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child.

                 6 And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.

            That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

                 13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

15 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

                 16 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger.

 

Reflecting on The Wonder of a Manger by Ed Robb

 

The Wonder of Christmas is filling our homes. The Advent season is half way over and my guess is that most of us still have Christmas shopping and baking to do. It is so easy to lose the wonder of the season to all the hustle and bustle. In perspective, the Christmas we have packaged in our society is far, far from the first Christmas when Jesus was born.

Christmas began in a manger under conditions that certainly were not newsworthy and certainly not with pomp and circumstances one might anticipate in light of all the hype of a new leader being born. No, Jesus was born under all the worst conditions one could imagine.

And what is amazing, the birth of this baby under such uncomfortable circumstances lead to a movement that continues today. Why would we even doubt the reason for the celebration of this baby’s birth over 2,000 years later? This baby changed the entire course of humanity and he began life lying in a manger. This is newsworthy today and the headline reads: The Wonder of a Manger.

As a trained journalist, I struggle with the twisted reporting that permeates the media now. I was trained that the story had to be substantiated three different ways and before it could be published, I had the responsibility to review the final story with the sources, and through this advent series, I can report the Wonder of Christmas.

First, we met the wise men who identified a star that they pursued in order to determine its purpose. The wonder of the star caused these wise men to travel far distances to locate the baby they believed would be a world-changer. In fact, they were so sure after seeing the baby that they refused the political leader Herod’s order to return to him. They chose to return to their own homes protecting the baby, at least for the time being.

Next, an analysis of the pre-birth literature and reports about the coming of Immanuel, meaning God saves, was reported under the headline The Wonder of a Name. The twists and turns of this research kept pointing to an amazing conclusion: Jesus Christ, the apparent human baby of a Jewish couple Joseph and Mary did meet all the predictions filling the Old Testament literature and the Jewish tradition.

Yet, before publishing all this information, a third piece really needs to be added to confirm the possibility that this baby really is the long awaited Messiah of the Jewish people. How can a baby born in a manger possibly fulfill the Jewish prophecies?

Well, let’s take a side step and put this ancient story into a more contemporary setting. No, I am not saying that we are going to report a new messiah has been born and we should all take note. Rather, let’s put a contemporary perspective into the picture that makes sense to us, right here in 2016.

Consider the birth, life and death of John Glenn. At no point in planning the Advent series did I know that one of America’s heroes would conclude his life journey. Yet the biographical stories being shared help put a perspective on the significance of someone’s birth and the difference it can make in the annuls of history.

When Glenn was born, the path of his life was not defined, but the trajectory of his life began in an insignificant manner, in a quiet community. The world did not know that this tiny baby who would orbit the earth, serve his country as a Senator, and even return to space at the age of 75. John Glenn quietly began life just like every single person does.

Jesus was born under circumstances that certainly did not announce the significance of his birth. The family had an idea of its significance especially in talking about the angel telling them to name the baby Immanuel meaning God Saves, and scholars were alerted to the possibility by the sighting of a new star. But most of the Jewish people did not know; and certainly the other world cultures did not know.

Then in the midst of the months of anticipation, the proclamation that a census was being done suddenly meant traveling to the community of one’s heritage. Now Joseph was head of the household so he had to go to Bethlehem. Mary was a Levite but as Joseph’s wife, she now is counted as part of Joseph’s family of the Davidic tribe.

Just imagine how miserable she was. At least eight or nine months pregnant and having to travel the miles by foot or on the back of the donkey, she made the journey to Bethlehem because the civil government said it had to be done. Today’s society cannot really relate to such a difficult journey; but Mary and Joseph were compliant and managed the journey giving us insight into the personality of these two Jewish faithful living in a Roman culture.

One thing we do understand is that finding a hotel room in the middle of a major travel event is tough. Isn’t it a wonder that under these circumstances that Mary and Joseph were able to even find a space! There was no way to plan ahead and reserve a room, they simply had to travel to Bethlehem, be counted, and then they could home.

Unfortunately, their trip ended with the birth of a baby and the only place they could find shelter had a manger that could serve as a bassinet: a manger, not a hospital room with a bassinet; a manger not their own home where they were prepared for the baby’s birth. Instead, a manager served as a temporary crib for a newborn baby.

God had to be in control because how else could the circumstances of this birth end in such a world-changing movement. God did not follow the expected pattern of sending a military leader, or a monarchy’s heir to change the world. God joined humanity through the birth of a baby in a simple manger under complicated circumstances.

The wonder of a manger is that God arrived in a completely unexpected way to save us. God used the most unconventional method to make the most amazing difference in our world. What a wonder that we can celebrate Christmas knowing that anybody who accepts Jesus as savior is saved. Jesus Christ, Immanuel, saves us and grants us life eternal.

The reporter may not believe the news of Jesus’ birth, but the Wonder of Christmas keeps providing more and more confirmation of the news. The wonder of a star, a name, and now a manger continues to be newsworthy even 2,000 plus years later.

What is even more newsworthy is that over and over again, the birth of a child is so important that the news is shared by word of mouth, by one good deed offered to another, by one kindness given to another, by giving a drink to the thirsty, by preparing a meal for the hungry, by sharing clothes with those who need them, by being the shoulder for someone in tears, by doing a chore for someone who can’t.

When baby John Glenn was born, no one announced that he would be an astronaut and one of America’s heroes.   No on announced the important of others who changed our world like Martin Luther King or Sister Mother Teresa or even John Wesley. God chose to arrive as a baby Jesus who was first laid down to rest in a manger.

The wonder of Christmas is that each one of us is saved by our belief in the birth of the baby Jesus in a manger. We have seen the star, we have read the reports, and we understand the message of a name. God was born Immanuel and gave us the gift of salvation and life eternal. We see the light of God’s star, we chose to accept the name Christian, and we share the story of a baby born in a manger. Is it any wonder that we get so wrapped up in Christmas because we want to share the wonder of a promise?

 

Closing Advent prayer from The Wonder of Christmas:

Lord Jesus,

I stand in awe that you would humble yourself and come to earth to live among us—to love us, serve us and fight on our behalf, being willing to give your very life so that we might truly live. How grateful I am for your surprising and wonderful divine plan! Open my eyes this season to the wonder of a manger—an unlikely crib that heralds your humble and eternal reign. May this beautiful picture of your love profoundly change me, and may I follow your example by humbling myself to love and serve others in your name. –Amen

 

 

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