Tag Archives: Christmas

God’s People, part 143: Shepherds

Read Luke 2:8-21

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep.”  (John 10:11, 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.

ShepherdsPart 143: Shepherds. We all know the nativity scene, right? Set on a starry night, fairly dark with the exception of the bright star shining down on a basic looking stable. In the stable, there’s Joseph along with Mary hovering over a manger (or feeding trough) with baby Jesus serenely lying in it.

Also in the manger are some sheep, a cow and a donkey. Just at the door of the stable are three kingly looking figures kneeling and giving gifts, while their camels await them outside. Above the door floats an angel pronouncing Christ’s birth. Finally, and no nativity scene would be complete without this, there are shepherds with their flocks, staring in a the babe with awe and wonder.

Seriously, we love the shepherds don’t we. We love that scene where they are outdoors tending to their sheep (a major sign that Christ’s birth was not during the week of the Winter Solstice) and the choir of angels appears to let them know that the son of David, the Messiah, was born that day in Bethlehem! We can imagine the glory of it all; however, the glory is where we end up getting lost in this story.

Shepherds were not a favored group of people in society. They were often viewed as outsiders because they lived apart from societies and were mostly nomadic. Almost always, shepherds were hired hands, tending to the sheep of others. What’s more, it was single men without children who became shepherds.

In some families, the shepherd was a part of the family. In those cases, the shepherd was usually either a youth or an elder who was not able to do harder work. The best Biblical example of this is in the story of David, who was out tending to the family’s sheep when Samuel came to anoint one of Jesse’s children as king. David was almost passed over because he was the youngest and out in the fields when Samuel arrived.

The point is, the Shepherd was pretty low on the totem pole in ancient Israel. As outsiders, they were viewed with suspicion and often with disdain. They often appeared like beggars, wearing dirty clothes and smelling to high-heaven of the pasture, if you know what I mean. They were not the folks one would invite to a kingly birth. Yet, the angels announced to the shepherds: “Behold! Born to you this day in the City of David is the Messiah. You will find him laying…how?…wrapped in rags! You will find him…where?…lying in a feeding trough.

This king was the SHEPHERDS’ KING. And like the Shepherd, this king would be despised and distrusted. The challenge for us is to shift our understanding of God’s glory. It is not about kingly riches, a bright light show, and exquisite music. It is not Christmas as we know it; rather, God’s glory comes looking poor, beggar-ish, dirty, and smelling to high-heaven of the pasture. Let us shut down our over-the-top expectations and turn on our awareness of the REAL glory of God: Jesus Christ, who is LORD of all!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“He who has not Christmas in his heart will never find it under a tree.” – Roy L. Smith

PRAYER
Lord, heal my blindness so that I may see from your perspective and not my own, for your glory and not mine! Amen!

God’s People, part 142: Baby Jesus

Read Luke 2:1-7

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“[The wise men] entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”  (Matthew 2:11, 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.

Iesus Christi, Filii DeiPart 142: Baby Jesus. So, here we have it. We’ve arrived at the birth of the Christ-child, and the delivery of Baby Jesus into the world. For those of you who have been religiously (pun intended) reading all 141 devotions that have led up to this point, you probably have been wondering what would be said about baby Jesus. Perhaps it is a surprise to you that I am talking about Baby Jesus as opposed to just Jesus himself.

If the latter is the case, put that question on hold for just a moment and bear with me. Yes, Jesus will be addressed more detail; however, it is important the 8-pound (give or take) baby Jesus gets his due so that it is possible to move beyond him. That may sound calloused, but I assure you it is not meant that way. I have nothing against the actual baby Jesus; however, sweet baby Jesus often becomes a distraction as to who Christ actually is and what Christ actually calls us to do. This is especially true within the church in America.

So, let’s talk about baby Jesus. It is important to note that the earliest Christians did not observe Christ’s birthday. To them, that was irrelevant because the Good News was not that a baby was born, but that God’s Word became flesh and made his dwelling place among us. The Good News had nothing to do with an innocent baby, but everything to do with Jesus Christ who “though he was God…did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being” (Philippians 2:6-7a, NLT).

The earliest Christians did not view Jesus’ birth as special, but rather his life. More importantly, they viewed his death and resurrection to be the event worthy of observance. Thus, Lent, Holy Week, and Easter were always observed in the church from the Lord’s Supper onward through history; however, Christmas did not become an established feast day until Constantine and his successors in the 4th century.

In fact, only two of the four canonical Gospels even included a birth narrative. What’s more, while both narratives are in agreement as to Jesus divine conception and identity in God, they do not agree on many of the minute details surrounding the Birth. Matthew seemingly has Mary and Joseph living in a home in Bethlehem with no mention of any sort of census or journey from Nazareth. Luke, on the other hand, has Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth, and he has them traveling to Bethlehem for the census.

Matthew has the Holy Family living in a home when Jesus was born, Luke has the family in a manger because there were no guest rooms available to them. Matthew has Jesus visited by wise men and chased after by a megalomaniacal king, whereas Luke has Jesus visited by poor shepherds. You get the idea. The two accounts differ in such ways and, again, there are only two accounts out of the four that even bother to mention Jesus’ birth at all.

This is not to knock Christmas, as I happen to love that holiday and I look forward to celebrating it every year.  With that said, we need to come to a place of recognition that if the baby Jesus is the only Jesus we really pay attention to, we’re in error to say the least. Let us be challenged to seek out the risen King Jesus who is our sovereign ruler.

For it is that Jesus, not the cute baby we would rather not have grow up on us, that calls us to follow him. It is the risen Jesus who commands the direction of the Christian’s life and who we ought to worship. Anyone else and anything less is an idol. This Christmas and all Christmases, reflect upon the risen Christ who is Lord, and turn your hearts over to him who died for you so that you might live.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“There would be no Christmas if there was no Easter.” – George B. Hinckley

PRAYER
Lord, help me to move past your birth so that I might be consumed by your resurrection. Amen.

A LOOK BACK: A Carpenters Christmas

dsc05349“It is the week of this Christmas and all through my mind,
Came the need for a holiday and some time to unwind.
I have written so many devotions with love and care
In hopes that you’ll discover the Christ that I share.”

While I have taken some time off of writing for the holidays, here’s a look back at a devotion that is no doubt as relevant today as it was when I wrote it. Click here to view today’s devotion.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

What Have You Done?

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)

131212-immanuelEvery day over the last few weeks have been filled with reminders that this world is just not right, that things are just not as they should be. We have Christians, Jews and Muslims who are losing their homes and their lives as the result of religious extremism and intolerance. We see the tension and division over racial inequality in the United States growing ever more stark in the light of the tragic events of Ferguson, Missouri and now in Staten Island, NY. We see people going missing, active shooters in schools and public buildings, and other horrific events jumping out our TV sets and into our very own communities. All of this in time for Christmas.

In times like these, and perhaps in general, people enter into the Christmas season a bit on the cynical side. What’s this Christmas holiday? You see signs that read, “Keep Christ in Christmas”, but that just leaves most people with a BAD TASTE in their mouths. After all, where is God? Where is Christ? What good is a Christ or a Christmas that masks the pain of others and celebrates the advent of BIG BUSINESS and the pursuit of abject materialism of the haves over and above the abject poverty of the have-nots? What good is Christmas?

As I have written in the past, so I still maintain, there are really no answers that can adequately satisfy us when it comes to why God and evil coexist. Then again, the non-existence of God does not eliminate the reality of evil, so that really isn’t much of an adequate alternative either. What’s more, these questions also remind me of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” by John Lennon. In it he starts the song off with these lyrics, “And so this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over and a new one just begun.” The fact of the matter is, we can ask what good is God, or what good is Christ, or what good is Christmas; however, the question we really should be asking is, what good are we?

That is not to say that we are bad and to interpret the question that way is to miss the point John Lennon is making. We can look to God or to Christ or to Christmas and wonder where the magic is, all the while continuing on living our lives separated from the hurt of the world. But what good is that? How does that disconnected, finger-pointing approach help make this world a better place? Not to mention, it also mischaracterizes Christ/mas and shows that we have a deficit in our own understanding in what it means for us to experience the nativity of Christ in our lives.

The Nativity story is not only a reminder of Immanuel, of “God with us,” but it is also a reminder of the fact that through Christ, “God is in us.” The nativity for us is not the birth of a baby 2,000 years ago; rather, it is the birth of Christ in our very own hearts. And that birth, that nativity, changes us to reflect the light, the love, and the goodwill of Christ in the world. To translate that to words that actually mean something, we are to be the Christ we wish to see in the world. That is what God is CALLING US TO DO.

And so this is Christmas, what will you do? Will you watch the year expire only to continue on disconnected all the way through? Or will you, to quote Gandhi, be the change you wish to see in the world? Will you stand up against inequality? Will you be the ushering in of Immanuel, of God with us, of Christ who is the lgiht of the world? Each and every day we are called to make a difference. We may not be able to change the entire world and we may not be able to eliminate evil, let alone explain why it exists; however, we can be living proof in the lives of others that God is real, that God is love, and that God is working through Christ in us to bring about hope, healing and wholeness in the world. Game on!

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 preset me, and thank you for revealing your presence in me. Let me witness to that Good News and strengthen me to actively work for change in the world around me! Amen.

A Carpenters 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.

 

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.

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, observed (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 only 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.

 

God’s Concert

Read 1 Corinthians 12:14-27

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:15-16)

ChristmasConcertThis week I am working on putting the final touches on a Christmas Concert that will be happening at my church this coming Saturday evening. As a person who loves the arts and loves singing, I can think of nothing better than planning and hosting a Christmas Concert. Last year’s concert was amazing, for lack of a better word. We had people performing who had performed on stages throughout the world, including places like The Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

In last year’s show, we had talent ranging in age and experience. As I mentioned above, some of the performers were professionals and had performed on world-class stages. Another person who came is a folk musician and did a rendition of the “Little Drummer Boy” that has since become my favorite version of the song. Still yet, we had a people playing music on the flute and guitar, and even my daughter participated and sang “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.” It was a truly wonderful concert filled with a little of everything.

If you were to ask different people what they thought was the best part of the concert, I guarantee each of them would have a different response as to which part moved them the most. Perhaps, for some it would be the operatic performances of “O Holy Night,” “Panis Angelicus,” “Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” or “Gesu Bambino.” For others, perhaps it was the acoustic rock performances of “Do You Hear What I Hear,” or “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” The fact of the matter was that the concert offered a little bit for every kind of taste.

The reason that was possible is because everyone who was a part of the concert, in one way or the other, came together to make it all happen. My Church hosted it, my good friend and vocal coach Chip helped me recruit many of the performers, my good friends Eugene, Andrew, Becky, Martha and Will came out to deliver solid performances. Another good friend of mine, Adam Glibert, provided the accompaniment for the show. My daughter committed herself to learning her song and sung it with great energy. In reality, the concert itself would have not been what it was if it weren’t for all of the people who dedicated themselves to it.

The same is true for us as people of faith. There are many people who come together to be the witnesses of Hope, Healing and Wholeness that God is calling us to be. By ourselves, we are not the concert that God is calling us to be. Solo acts are great in tandem with other surrounding acts; however, even solo acts are supported by other players. There is truly nothing that we absolutely do alone, which is why Paul focused the Corinthians on recognizing the importance of the other “parts” of the body of Christ.

Not one part is greater than the others. Each part serves its purpose and plays a vital role in the community of faith. Christ is challenging us to lay aside our desire to be solo acts at the cost of everyone else. Instead, be a part of the whole, working together with others to make the kind of music that God is calling you to make. Sometimes that will involve singing a solo, other times it will involve providing the harmony as a back up. Regardless, it will always involve others supporting you and you supporting them for the betterment of the whole. It is then that people will look at us and say, “Wow! Now that moves me! I want to be a part of that!”

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“United we stand, divided we fall.” – Unknown

PRAYER

Lord, teach me to work together with others for the good of the whole. I want to be a part of your body, working with the other parts to witness to your hope, healing and wholeness. Amen.