Category Archives: Advent Series

A LOOK BACK: Entertaining Angels

Read Hebrews 13:1-2

Entertaining AngelsMy family and I just got done watching a movie we watch annually during the Christmas season. If you haven’t guessed it by looking at the picture, the movie is “It’s A Wonderful Life” starring James Stewart and Donna Reed.  It is a movie about a man (George Bailey) who has given and given to people, putting others ahead of himself and his own dreams, only to have other people’s mistakes crash down around him. None of his dreams of success, traveling or any other ones are ever realized. Sure he has a nice family, a lovely wife and kids, and sure he has had moments of joy in helping those around him.  But deep down, there is a longing to have more, to be more, to finally have something he’s dreamed of come true.

But this is real life we are talking about, not some tinsel town fairy tale, and Capra means to give George a whopping double dose of reality. Instead of finding Bailey being rewarded for all of his kindness and generosity, instead of seeing him defeat the Scrooge like miser, Mr. Potter, and instead of seeing him amount to be more than a guy who nickels and dimes his way through life (literally), we find George facing fraud charges and prison time.  His uncle lost $8,000 and George is going to take the fall for it, just as he has his whole life.  It’s just not fair. So, this man, at wit’s end, finds himself at a bridge.  He’s contemplating suicide, when he runs into Clarence, who is an Angel 2nd class. After wishing he were never born, and Clarence granting him that wish, he comes to the realization how hellish life would be for the countless people George helped in those years of personal sacrifice that he has come to regret.  So, in the end he finds himself realizing what a wonderful life he has, and how happy he is to have his family.  In the end, the town of Bedford Falls comes together and donates the $8,000 to George to save him from prison.  This encounter with truth has changed his life forever.

Some might call this a happy ending. I have often heard people say how Hollywood always forces in a happy ending. But in this film, I don’t know that I would call it a happy ending. Sure, he realizes what means most to him and how valuable his life really is, and that is a happy ending in that sense.  But in terms of unrealistic Hollywood happy endings, this film does not have one.  George may have his life back, but with that “gift” comes the reality that following Christmas he will go back to nickling and diming for the Business and Loan.  The town members will go on in their poverty and need George’s help as much as they have always needed it.  And the most terrible of all the truths, Potter will continue on misering, trying to ruin George and that miserable Business and Loan that always stands in his way.

The real happiness of this film does not lie in unrealistic, sappy Hollywood endings.  The happiness lies in the fact that when we help others, when we put others first, when we value others’ lives as much as we value our own, we end up entertaining angels.  I am not one who espouses angel theology or gets enraptured by cute little cherubim. In fact, Clarence was borderline annoying to me in the film (I forgive him).  Rather, the angels are the people all around George…and in fact, George is an angel too. He helped countless people, some of them even strangers, and in the end they all end up helping him.  It is not so much that they help him financially because he has helped them all far more than they could probably ever repay.  But, rather, they helped him in being present in his darkest time.

It was in that dark time that George realized what angels they all were. It was when he thought no one knew him, when he felt the lack of everyone’s presence, that he realized that he had been entertaining angels his whole life.  It is in that moment that he realized that he had neglected to see those angels for who they were; he had neglected to appreciate them and value them.  Even in his selflessness he had been blinded by himself.  But because he had been entertaining angels, they appeared before him in his darkest hour, when he needed them most. That is the beauty of Christmas! That is the heart of Christmas: recognizing that we are not alone in this world. If we recognize that we too have been entertaining angels, we might look up and see them standing all around us.

Merry Christmas! May God bless you with the wisdom to recognize the angels in your life.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us, and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone.” – George Elliot

PRAYER
“The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us, and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone.” – George Elliot

A LOOK BACK: The Magnifying Glass

Read Luke 1:46-55

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“As for me, I would seek God, and to God I would commit my cause.” (Job 5:8)

The Magnifying GlassSo, it is the day after Christmas Day and as the angels in the heavens said to the shepherds two millennia ago, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  But before we move out of the Christmas season and into the New Year, I would like to take a moment to reflect on a psalm spoken by Mary when she first learned she was pregnant with Jesus.

Now, can you imagine the scene of this?  An angel appears to this 14 year old girl and tells her that God is going to make her pregnant. Come again!?!?  “Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin'” (Luke 1:34)?  Can you picture the horror of the idea of this, in a time when women were considered property; in a time when women were stoned for “getting pregnant” outside of marriage?  Mary must have been truly frightened, yet she answered, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Following this, she praises the Lord with an original Psalm that comes from her heart.  She starts it off with the following statement, “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46). Now if you are reading that statement carefully, it should cause you to pause and ponder. How can the soul of Mary, a mere peasant girl, magnify the soul of El Shaddai, or rather, God Almighty?  How can the soul of a lowly human being ever magnify God…shouldn’t it be the other way around. Shouldn’t it be that God magnifies Mary’s soul?

Yet, in Mary’s statement we see an inherent truth that perhaps sets her apart from most people.  Whereas, when we think of God, we are looking for something big, Mary saw something small. Where we are looking for a grandiose Zeus in the sky sitting on a golden throne, Mary saw a precious, vulnerable, and helpless baby.  To take it one step further, not only did Mary see God in her child, but she saw God in herself.  And it was in her qualities of humility, of meekness, of lowliness, of smallness, and of faithfulness that she saw God magnified.

We are so busy looking for something big, something out of this world, and something magical that we often miss the presence of God entirely. In the movie, Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee says, “Like a finger pointing to the moon…don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of that heavenly glory.” Often times, we focus so hard on concentrating on miracles…looking here and there for them…that we miss the miracle itself.

Mary did not miss the miracle.  She knew the miracle was not just around her, but within her.  That she was born in a time when many babies died…Miracle.  That she was not stoned for being found with child outside of marriage…Miracle. That Joseph accepted a dream as reality and accepted Jesus as his son…Miracle.  That anyone would see God within them…including Mary…Miracle.

Rather than looking for Kings and kingly gifts, rather than looking for dazzling parlor tricks and illusions, let us recognize the true Miracle of Christmas…that God is not only with us, but revealed and magnified within us.  If your soul rejoices in God the way Mary’s did, how differently will you begin to live your life.  Make this your New Year’s resolution: See God within you and let your soul be a magnifying glass…not only in word but in deed. Let your soul say, as Mary’s did, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“People see God every day, they just don’t recognize him.”  – Pearl Bailey

PRAYER
Lord, help me to see you within me, and help let my soul magnify you, O Lord God. I am your servant. Amen.

A LOOK BACK: The Christmas Story According to the Bible

1312298When the the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke sat down to record the birth story the Christ-Child, they saw a correlation between what the prophet Isaiah said and the birth of their Lord:

Isaiah 7:10-14

Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

Isaiah 9:6-7

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

Each Gospel writer saw the significance of Christ’s coming in different ways. For Mark, the first of the writers, Jesus’ birth was of no concern; rather, he started with Jesus’ baptism as the advent of the Christ. Matthew, on the other hand, did include the birth story of  Jesus who, for Matthew, was the KING of all kings, the new Moses, the One who came to teach and to fulfill the Law.

Matthew 1:18-2:1-23

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.

But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

For Luke, Jesus was not the KING of kings. After all, it was the kings who had been corrupted with power and greed. This Christ-child had to be more than just a KING of kings. Who did Jesus spend his time with? Who did Jesus do ministry with? Kings? Nope. Jesus’ ministry was with the poor, and when rich people came to Jesus…he advised them to sell all of their possessions, give the earnings to the poor and follow him! It was the kings of the world that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. It was the kings of the world, seeking to have power over their subjects that brought the KING to the town of his ancestor David. Jesus was a KING…indeed! He was the KING of the poor and the oppressed. He was the champion of all of those the world had shunned and turned away!

Luke 2:1-18

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. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 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. 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: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”

So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.

For the author of the Gospel of John, Jesus’ earthly birth and the details therein were unimportant. For this Jesus was indwelt by the very Word of God, the very Spark of all of Creation. Jesus preexisted his earthly form and preexisted all of Creation. For the author of John and his community, Jesus was so much more than a KING of kings, or than a KING of the poor. Jesus was KING and LORD of all Creation, who then took on flesh and made his dwelling place among us, full of grace and truth. Behold the true light of GOD as come into the world, and not even the darkness can snuff it out.

John 1:1-5, 14

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,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.

May you have blessed and profoundly meaningful

Christmas!

All Scripture passages are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

A LOOK BACK: Living Like Joseph

Read Luke 2:1-5; Matthew 2:13-15

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly, guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his faithful ones.” (Proverbs 2:6-8)

Living Like JosephA few years back a movie was released that got me thinking in a new direction regarding the birth of Jesus.  The movie is called “The Nativity Story” and it follows Mary from the point of accepting Gabriel’s message of divine conception to her giving birth to Jesus in Bethlehem. While this film certainly displays the faith of Mary, and shows just how brave she would have to have been in order to accept such a path as God had laid out for her; however, it did not only show the courage and faith of Mary. This story also showed the immense faith, and faithfulness, of her husband Joseph.

Of course, initially Joseph did not know what to make of Mary’s claim that God’s Holy Spirit had impregnated her.  Can you seriously imagine what such a claim would sound like if you were on the receiving end of it? Who can blame Joseph for having his doubts. Yet, following a dream Joseph wakes up and decides that he is going to believe Mary.  Now, he could have woken up and said, “Man if only that wasn’t a dream!” He could have woke up and carried on in his disbelief. But he believes the voice in his dream telling him to fear not.

Yet, the story does not end there. There is a census that the Romans have ordered and Joseph must travel with his pregnant wife to the city of Bethlehem. From Nazareth, that is 80 miles that he had to travel on foot.  Mary rode on a donkey while Joseph traversed on foot the dry, dangerous wilderness that lay between Nazareth and his final destination.

In the movie, there is a scene where Joseph and Mary are resting on the side of the road and Joseph is sound asleep. Mary begins to take off Joseph’s sandals, and upon seeing his broken, cracked and bloodied feet, she begins to wash them.  As she does she speaks softly to the child in her womb, “My Child, you will have a good and decent man to raise you, a man who gives of himself before anyone else.”

Those words have stuck with me ever since. It is true that Jesus is the Son of God; however, it was Mary and Joseph who had raised him.  It is true that God guided them, as God guides us all; however, it was through Mary and Joseph that Jesus learns who he is, whose he is, and what it means to be truly faithful.  What a blessing Mary and Joseph must have been to Jesus, a blessing that God knew would multiply ten-fold in the boy that they were raising.

The beauty of this revelation is that it doesn’t end with Jesus.  God has called each of us to the kind of faithfulness that Mary and Joseph were called to.  Each of us are called to be blessings in the lives of others, whether it be in the lives of our own children or in the lives of someone else’s child.  In fact, regardless of age, we are all God’s children. God is calling us to “be a good and decent people, people who give of themselves before anyone else.”

The Word did not become flesh so that we sit back and admire it. Rather Jesus came to show us the way, the truth and the life; Jesus came to show us that we can be faithful and positively impact the lives of those around us. We can be like Joseph: though he wasn’t perfect and though he made his mistakes, he never gave up on his faithfulness to God, to his family and to those around him. Let us not just remember Joseph, but let us live like him.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Success certainly isn’t achievement of popularity. Success in God’s kingdom is loving God, loving one another, and being faithful to what [God’s] called us to do.” – Gabriel Wilson

PRAYER
Lord, you are my guide.  Continue to lead me down the path of faithfulness just as you did with Mary and Joseph. Amen.

A LOOK BACK: Woken Up In a Dream

Read Matthew 1:18-25

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)

Woken Up in a DreamI would like to tell you as story of a teenage girl who lived in a very tight-knit community.  She was, like the rest of her peers, expected to attend to the daily chores that were given to her each day. She was expected to carry herself in a way that brought dignity and honor to her family.  Like all families, her family expected that she was always on her best behavior and that she didn’t do anything to hurt her family’s name or image.

Her father was blue-collar, working class man. The girl’s family was pretty impoverished and what little they had came at the cost of much blood, sweat and tears.  The family never knew what tomorrow might bring and they could not afford to take anything for granted.  In fact, an offer had come to the teenage girl’s parents, one that her family could not afford to pass up.  A man had asked the girl’s father for her hand in marriage and, with such an offer, a dowry was sure to follow.  The girl was expected to comply with her parents and to marry the man they had arranged for her to marry.

But then one day, in the midst of their engagement, the girl is seen to be with child.  The groom-to-be is astonished. He swears to the parents that he has never known her the way a husband knows his wife; he swears that the child growing in her belly cannot be his. The parents, horrified, could not believe what their daughter had done; the community she lived in shunned her as a sinner, everyone looked down at her with contempt.

This is the story of Mary, a young teenager from Nazareth, who was suddenly found to be with child even though she had not yet been married.  Can you imagine the panic and terror that must have filled her when she first realized she was pregnant. Though, the author of Matthew tells us that Mary was with child “by the Holy Spirit,” one has to wonder whether she knew it or not. The author of Matthew doesn’t exactly say.  What he does point out is Joseph’s initial reaction to the situation.  He could not believe she was pregnant and he knew the child was not his; one thing was for sure, he was not going to marry her.

When we read this story, we often pass Joseph’s reaction off because we know how the story ends. We know that Jesus is the Son of God and, therefore, Joseph just seems like a guy who has little faith, until God wakes him up in a dream.  Yet, in reality, we all need to be woken up in such a dream.  After all, how many times have we passed judgment on the actions of others without truly seeing what God has in store for them? How many times have we seen a pregnant teen, an unruly child, or some other person who doesn’t fit our understanding of pure and wholesome? How many times have we passed judgment on those people?

Often times, we are much more like Joseph, quick to let our thoughts and our judgments run wild before really pausing to listen to what God is saying to us.  We often need to be woken up in a dream that shows us that the very things we are laying judgment on are filled with God’s potential if we just show love, acceptance and support rather than scorn, contempt and judgment.

Thankfully, Joseph woke up from that dream with a changed heart and chose to embrace Mary and the Christ child she was bearing! Thankfully, Joseph laid his judgments down and, as a result, unto us a hope, healing and wholeness was born into the world. The question is, will we be woken up in a dream like Joseph? This Christmas, may the advent of that awakening be within you; indeed, may it be within us all!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” – Mother Teresa

PRAYER
Lord, help me to avoid falling into the trap of judgment. Instruct me in your ways of unconditional love, O God. Amen.

A LOOK BACK: A Carpenter’s Christmas

Read Romans 12:12-21

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you.” (Psalms 33:22)

Karen-Carpenter-Feet-830773One of my favorite bands to listen to during the Christmas season is The Carpenters. There is something to be said about Karen’s warm and inviting voice reminding us that “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” or her wishing everyone have themselves “a Merry Little Christmas”. To me, it just isn’t Christmas without the Carpenters Christmas collection.

Part of my love for the Carpenters comes from my mom, who was a huge fan. I can remember back when 8-tracks and records were still the major mediums for listening to music.  My mom had several Carpenter’s albums on both record and on 8-track cassette. I grew up listening to them all and, when it was Christmastime, out came The Carpenter’s Christmas Collection.

Of course, the Karen Carpenter story is not as warm and inviting as her voice. As many people know, Karen Carpenter suffered from a serious and devastating illness called Anorexia Nervosa. This illness is both a psychological and a physical illness in which the sufferer avoids eating and uses other means to lose weight. Though she was a thin person, Karen did not see herself that way and she starved herself with crash diets, and also took laxatives in order to keep her “weight” down.

Unfortunately, the anorexia took a devastatingly damaging toll on her body. The crash dieting had put a huge strain on her heart and, overtime, she started to suffer from irregular heartbeats. On February 4, 1983, only nine days before my 5th birthday (yes…I know I am “young” or “old” depending on who’s reading this), Karen Carpenter passed away from heart failure, which was the result of her years of struggling with anorexia.

Though nothing can ever take away from the tragedy of her untimely death, it was her death that sparked a nationwide movement to educate young people, women in particular, about anorexia. Karen, through her shocking death, inspired people to not only learn about anorexia, but to also work toward helping diagnose the disease in others as well as developing ways to help people overcome it.

The fact of the matter is that through Karen (despite her death), others found hope, healing and wholeness. It is sad that she died and did not find that for herself; however, her death was not in vain as it brought that terrible disease to light in a country that had otherwise paid it no mind. And in that, I see the hope of Christmas. It is Christmastime that reminds us that hope exists even in the worst of circumstances. It is Christmastime that reminds us that, even though our bodies die, HOPE never dies.

No matter who you are, no matter what you’ve been through, no matter what circumstances currently surround you, know that you always have HOPE. Our Hope is Emmanuel…Our Hope is “God with us” in our lives. Through thick and thin, through ups and downs, through the good times and the bad times, HOPE is with you because GOD is with you. Today’s challenge is to recognize the HOPE in your life and cling to it. If there is one thing the Karen Carpenter story teaches us, it is that HOPE never dies. Be a person of HOPE, a person who is hopeful, and a person who gives hope to others.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.” – Martin Luther

PRAYER
Lord, help me to see the hope in all things so that I may bear witness to the hope in all things. Amen.

A LOOK BACK: Keep Christ in Christmas

Read Matthew 10:37-40

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

Keep_Christ_in_ChristmasHere we are mid-Advent, fast approaching Christmas. Can you believe how quick Christmas has come this year? It feels like just yesterday I was sitting down at Disney’s Hilton Head Island Resort enjoying a nice summer vacation (and what summer vacation beats a Disney Vacation?). Yet, here we are nearing mid-December with the countdown to Christmas fast underway.

Speaking of Christmas, have you ever seen the bumper sticker or the little magnet that reads, “Keep CHRIST in Christmas.” That is a phrase that gets passed around quite a bit during this season. But what does keeping CHRIST in Christmas mean? Does it mean keeping the not-so-Christian tradition of Christmas trees and yule logs? Does it mean keeping the tradition of Santa Claus, Elves and his nine (counting Rudolph) reindeer? Does it mean, racing out to the store to funnel our money into big business in order to acquire an excess amount of gifts and Christmas-time deals? Most Christians would probably say no to all of these things.

So let me narrow the question even more. Does keeping CHRIST in Christmas mean watching movies about the Nativity story? Does it mean going to church once out of the year on Christmas Eve? Does it mean singing carols about the Jesus’ birth? Does it mean Christmas pageants and concerts? Does keeping CHRIST in Christmas mean spending time with family and giving gifts to our already abundantly blessed children?

The truth is that I do AGREE that we should be keeping CHRIST in Christmas; however, to do that we have to be open to the change that God wants to spark in us. If we are to truly anticipate the coming of Christ, and if we are to truly welcome Christ into our lives, we must first realize that ADVENT and CHRISTMAS are not a once-a-year type event; rather, every day we live is an opportunity to experience ADVENT.

Christ would much rather us keep him in our lives than in a holiday set aside for observance once a year! But in order to do that we must live into the life that Christ led. We must be willing to give everything up, to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus (Matthew 16:24; Luke 14:27-35). We must be willing to serve the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the disabled, the outcasts, the marginalized and all of those who our society looks down upon (Matthew 25:31-46). In fact, we are to become, according to Jesus, the SERVANTS of ALL (Mark 9:35)!

So, according to the standards set by Jesus himself, how do we keep CHRIST in Christmas? Clearly, buying presents, singing carols, drinking wassail, roasting chestnuts, buying presents and erecting Christmas trees is not what Jesus had in mind. While those things are nice, the reality is they are not at the heart of who CHRIST is or what CHRIST has called us toward. According to the standards set by Jesus, we keep CHRIST in CHRISTMAS by following in his footsteps…not once a year…but every day of our lives for the rest of our lives, until we go on to glory in Christ Jesus our Lord! Amen!

So, starting this Christmas season, and everyday from this point forward, begin to work toward keeping CHRIST in Christmas. Don’t just say the words, as if they are just another meaningless cliché; rather, live into those words by being all that GOD is calling you to be. Love God, by loving your neighbors. Invest yourself in the lives of others. Be present for those in need. Bring God’s gift of hope, healing and wholeness to this broken world and desperate world. Then, and only then, will you be truly keeping CHRIST in Christmas!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” – Charles Dickens

Lord, guide me toward keeping YOU, not only in Christmas, but in my heart. Transform me into your vessel of hope, healing and wholeness. Amen.

A LOOK BACK: Name It, Claim It, Live It

Read Matthew 2; Luke 2

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.” (John 10:22-23)

MenorahIt’s no big secret to most people that I am not a huge fan of winter. I mean sure, I get the necessity of having the different seasons and I can certainly appreciate the symbolism the cycle of life, but I am not a fan of the bitter cold, the snow, the ice, the howling winds and commuting in those elements. The shortened days and distant sun can be make one feel hollow and depressed.

But with that said one of my favorite times of year happens to lead up to and directly follow the Winter Solstice. Of course I am referring to the season Advent and Christmas. Ironically, though this season commemorates the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, it is almost universally accepted that Jesus was not born during the cold winter month of December but at some other time during the year where the weather would be more conducive to shepherds tending their flocks in the field.

Regardless, I believe this time of year is the perfect time to celebrate the coming of the Christ-child. Theologically speaking, the coming of Christ represents the coming of HOPE into the world. What better time for hope than when we are in the midst of the death. Winter has always represented death and dormancy, where the green of life gives way to the cold, hollow grip of death. Yet, it is in winter where we see the hope of Spring and the return, or resurrection, of life.

Aside from the symbolic nature of the Season itself, it is also around this time that those who are Jewish celebrate Hanukkah. That holiday commemorates the Jews being liberated from Greek-Syrian oppression and the rededication of the Jewish Temple to God. This was a festival that Jesus, who was himself Jewish, participated in (John 10:22-23). Following a bloody war against their oppressors, the Jews took back Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple to God. Even though there was only enough oil to keep the candles burning for one day, those candles kept burning bright for all eight days of the festival. Thus, Hanukkah (also known as the festival of lights) is forever a celebration of the arrival of HOPE and the reminder that God is always present with God’s people.

‘Tis the season for HOPE. Whether we look to the natural cycle of the season, or to the celebration of Hanukkah or to the humble birth of a small, vulnerable baby in a cruel and murderous world, this time of year will forever point people to the fact that HOPE never dies! Like the menorah burning on the last drops of oil, HOPE can never be extinguished. Like the birth of Jesus reminds us, no matter how small and insignificant it may seem, HOPE does conquer all HOPELESSNESS!

The challenge today is for you to be a person of HOPE! Instead of getting caught up in the fears and the cynicism that the world produces, never give up HOPE. God is challenging us to place our faith in God, and to be filled with the HOPE that such a faith provides. There is HOPE for a brighter tomorrow, but more importantly, there is HOPE for a brighter NOW! Name it, claim it, and live it! Have the HOPE and allow that HOPE to transform you into an agent who bears HOPE for others!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“I find hope in the darkest of days, and focus in the brightest. I do not judge the universe.” – Dalai Lama

PRAYER

Lord, fill me and transform me with your hope so that I may be a beacon of that hope for others. Amen.

A LOOK BACK: O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Read Matthew 1:18-23

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.’” (Isaiah 7:13-14)

O Come, O Come, EmmanuelIt is hard to put into words the fear, anxiety, sadness, depression and confusion that ran through most people’s minds at the close of this past Friday, December 14. By the end of the day we had learned, following spending the day watching the drama unfold on live TV, that 28 people had been shot and killed at an elementary school in Connecticut. Out of the 28, twenty of them were children between the ages of six and seven years old.

Often times, in tragedies such as this, people ask the question, “Where is God in all of this?”  After all, what kind of God would allow children to be born and grow up in a world that is seemingly as evil as this one is?  What kind of God would create “monsters” who go out and destroy those who are innocent?  What kind of God would be so cold as to not intervene when the lives of the innocent are at stake?

These are all valid and good questions to ask ourselves.  It is also safe to say that there really aren’t any answers that fully satisfy our need to understand how evil and God co-exist? I could offer a ton of Christianese clichés that sound good off the cuff, but that would only be to simplify something that is very complex; so, rather than offering easy answers to really tough questions, I will provide one of many possible ways in which we can reflect on what happened and what our response will be.

It is very easy for us to look at where we don’t see God only to miss out on where we are seeing God.  For instance, we look at Adam Lanza and see his actions as a prime example of God failing to be with us. Yet, we also fail to see that God was with the principal who lunged at Adam and was the first to be shot and killed. God was with the teachers as they did everything they could, including cover children with their own bodies, to save their students.  God was with the first responders.  God is also with those who are looking at ways to address the societal issues that end up allowing people like Adam to fall through the cracks unnoticed until it is too late. When Jesus called his disciples to care for “the least of these”, that included those who suffer from mental illness. Yet, in our society, mental illness is stigmatized and our health care system often doesn’t provide affordable ways for people suffering from mental illness to get the kind of care (not just drugs and a locked asylum door) that they need.

The fact of the matter is that bad things do happen. People have free will and choose to do all sorts of things that God would not wish for anyone to choose. But aside from that fact, we still have a God who loves us, a God who is with us, a God who provides hope even in the darkest of circumstances.  The Nativity story is a reminder of the hope of Emmanuel, or rather, the hope of God being with us. This God came to earth and became one of us; this God put others first and sought to be present with all people, regardless of their status or condition. This God was crucified by God’s own creation and resurrected back to life despite being put to death.  This God is the same God who was present with the teachers, administrators and first responders who worked desperately hard to save as many as possible, risking their own lives in the process. This God is the same God who is turning the media’s attention from labeling Adam as “the face of evil”, to looking at how people like Adam haven’t received the care they need.

While we cannot definitively answer the question of why bad things like this happen, aside from the obvious answers, we certainly can still have the hope of Emmanuel. Let us not forget that God never leaves us, nor forsakes us.  We can know that God is with us, and we can let God guide us to be instrumental in sparking the changes that are needed in the communities around us, the very changes that could protect other children and people from such acts of evil. Let us welcome Emmanuel in this world, by seeing God’s revelation in us.  We have been equipped to be the presence of God in the lives of those in need, whether they are children in distress or Adam Lanza’s slipping through the cracks. Let us be like the writer of Hebrews who with confidence proclaims, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid” (Hebrews 13:6).

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
We need not look any further than our own hearts, and the hearts of those around us, to find God.

PRAYER
Lord, I thank you for always being present with me, and thank you for revealing your presence in me. Let me witness to that Good News! Amen.

Originally written on December 19, 2012

God’s People, part 144: Magi

Read Matthew 2:1-12

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.”  (Genesis 12:3, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

TheMagiPart 144: Magi. Last year, the church I currently serve participated in a town event which was trying to promote Small Business Saturday. While my church was supportive of being involved in it, and many of our members were there singing Christmas carols (mostly Christian carols, mind you) there was some buzz from others who thought that was a bad idea because the theme of the event was Harry Potter, and the church should not be “promoting sorcery and witchcraft”. Of course, Harry Potter is a fantasy fiction, just like The Chronicles of Narnia (e.g. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings, but from the viewpoint of some people, there was “evil” at work behind the fiction.

During Advent, I raised the issue in one of the sermons I preached, regarding the Magi. In that message I said, “I find it ironic that some Christians get up in arms over Harry Potter because it is a story about wizards, sorcerers, witches, magicians and astrologers; yet, their hearts get ‘strangely warmed’ when hearing the story of wizards, sorcerers, witches, magicians, and astrologers coming to visit baby Jesus in a manger.”

Okay, so I stretched it slightly using the words “wizards, witches, sorcerers and magicians,” but I did so to make a powerful point” of which I’ll explain in a little bit. Still, the principal behind the words above is not scandalous or heretical; rather, it is the truth. In the account of the Magi coming to visit Jesus, we must realize several things in order to truly grasp the power of the account. Let me list those things off for you:

  1. The Magi were not kings, and we do not know how many of them there were. We often think there were only three because of the gifts that they brought; however, there is no evidence whatsoever that there were only three.
  2. The word magi is plural of the Latin word magus, and the Greek word magos, which was derived from the Old Persian word magâunô, which was the priestly caste that Zoroaster was born into. Also, magi is the root of the English word magic.
  3. The Magi were, thus, Zoroastrian priests who were known for their practice of astrology (reading the stars), as well as divination, both of which are forbidden practices in Judaism.
  4. The Magi would not have been sorcerers or magicians, properly speaking, because sorcery was forbidden in Zoroastrianism, and they viewed astrology and divination as a science. Still, for the Jews, astrology and divination are linked to sorcery in Judaism. Jews were supposed to steer clear of such practices and place their faith in God, not in their own ability to see the future.

What we have in Matthew’s account is amazing, then! These Gentiles/pagans from Persia traveled from the East, following the stars and divining that a great King had been born in Bethlehem. Matthew does not record this event as scandalous, though others would have read scandal into it, but as something joyous!

This story reveals two great things about God! First, God can and does work through anyone! Pagan or otherwise, Jew or Gentile, God can work through anything and anyone to bring people to Christ…to Salvation. Second, the Magi showing up that day (Jesus could have been as old as 2 years by the time they arrived) gave us a divine epiphany: God’s salvation plan does not just include one group of “special” people, but that the WHOLE world was to be blessed with Salvation through the Christ, just as God promised Abraham!

To come full circle, the point I was making in the sermon was that if God can work through divination and astrology to lead the Magi to Christ, surely God can work through fictitious novels such as Harry Potter. These things only have as much power as we put in them. God, ultimately, is the only true source of power and we should trust that God is working through us in the world. That is why I choose to participate in community events, even if I don’t agree with everything going on at them. God is the one in control, not me. What’s more, we’ll witness far more to God’s LOVE by being present in community, rather than protesting in opposition to it.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Jesus met people where they were, he did not make people conform to him before engaging with them. We ought to learn to do the same.

PRAYER
Lord, help me to operate from faith instead of fear. Amen.