Christmas – The Characters

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mangerWe are all familiar with the Christmas story, maybe too familiar. In our over saturation of Christmas, the meaning of the message sometimes gets lost because of the season. It doesn’t make sense, but we see it over and over again. Sometimes when we’ve heard a story over and over through the years we get a little distracted because we think of it as a review. We don’t really listen because we know where it’s going because we’ve heard it before. In a Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown exclaims, “Doesn’t anyone know what Christmas is all about?” We then hear Linus reciting Lu. 2:8-14 and he concludes by saying, “That’s what Christmas is all about.” Every year we hear preachers preach Christmas sermons, but do we really know the Christmas story? This Christmas, we’re going to take the time to walk through Luke’s telling of the birth of Christ. I encourage you to take the time to read it at home too.

I really encourage you to take the time to read Luke 2:1-20 for yourself.

Here’s the overview. When you study the Bible, you need to take a view from above. Too often, people want to get right into it and find all the answers they seek, but are not willing to do the work necessary to get it. Shortcuts may be awesome for computers or other electronic devices, but there are no shortcuts in understanding the Bible. When people take shortcuts in life, it rarely results in good things. Sarai tried a shortcut in Gen. 16 when she helped God make Abram a great nation. It didn’t work. Satan tempted Jesus in Matt. 4 to take three shortcuts. Satan came to Him when He was tired and hungry. He offered Jesus immediate satisfaction: fresh bread, a miraculous delivery by jumping from the Temple’s pinnacle, and then promised to give Jesus the kingdoms of the world. That was at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Satan was trying to get Jesus to bypass the heartache, pain, and suffering that He was destined to endure. You can’t watch A Charlie Brown Christmas to get an understanding of Christmas.

There are several characters introduced to us by Luke. Many of us can name the players. Mary and Joseph and the inn keeper. Of course, there is baby Jesus.    There is the angel of the Lord and the shepherds. There is the multitude of the heavenly host.  So let’s look at these people. Mary is a very holy figure to some people, but what do we learn about her from this passage? Mary was with Joseph. They were traveling from Galilee to the City of David which is called Bethlehem. They were traveling because of the decree sent out from Caesar Augustus that said a census was to be taken. The census applied to men so they could be taxed by the Roman government. The number of people to be counted included, “all that inhabited the earth.”  In order to do that, everyone had to go to their hometown to register. The phrase City of David is used 45 times in the Old Testament and it refers to Jerusalem. It’s used twice in the New Testament and it refers to Bethlehem. Joseph was of the house of David and David was born in Bethlehem. Mary has a very unique condition that never occurred before or after. It wasn’t just that she was with child. We find out how Mary finds herself pregnant in Luke 1:26-35. That’s pretty exciting stuff. And then in Matt. 1:25 says Joseph, “Kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.” By any account, the journey from Galilee to Bethlehem would have been very difficult even in ideal conditions. The conditions that Mary and Joseph found themselves in was anything but ideal. Given Mary’s condition, they likely would have walked the easier of the routes. It was about 90 miles from Galilee to Bethlehem. Think about how fast you can walk. Now think about walking on unpaved paths, carrying your gear, with a pregnant woman. They could have walked about 20 miles a day so the journey would take them four or five days. Have you ever thought about where they stayed each night? Did they camp or stay at inns along the way? When they finally arrived at their destination, imagine how they felt. Tired, hungry, dirty, smelly. All they wanted to do was find a room, get a bite to eat, and go to bed. Although the text doesn’t say anything about how they were feeling, think about how you feel after a long trip.

After they arrive in Bethlehem, “The days were completed for her to give birth.” We don’t know how long they were in Bethlehem before she went into labor. That’s one of the nice tidbits we put in the story. They got there just in time for Mary to start the delivery process. Perhaps all the walking helped Mary go into labor. Wait Pastor Ian, God orchestrated all of this to ensure the prophecy of Micah 5:2 was met. “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.” No one can choose to be born and certainly cannot choose where they are to be born. Luke very casually says, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Lu. 2:7) Did you know that the first gender reveal party ever held was for Jesus? Gen. 3:15 tells us, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.” We quickly gloss over the first part of that verse in Luke and focus on the second part. Before He was laid in the manger, have you thought about the actual birth? With our modern medicine and technology, you really don’t even have to wait until it’s time. When the doctor feels as though the baby is ready or a certain number of weeks has passed, a woman can be induced into labor. No more inconvenient middle of the night births. Babies can now be born to fit into a more convenient time. For many women, gone are the days of waiting until the baby determines it’s time to make an entry.

This must have been a challenging birth. Notice Jesus was Mary’s firstborn giving insight that there would be other children. This birth was free from the numerous choices available today that can sometimes complicate the process. There was no talk of medication for Mary. There were no birthing suites and no swimming pool births. Luke doesn’t go into any details of the birth. How long was she in labor? Today when women choose natural child birth, it’s nowhere in the same ball park as what Mary endured. There’s typically someone close by that can help. A mid-wife, a doula, or mom. If something goes wrong today for someone that chooses natural child, EMTs and paramedics are only a phone call away. Not in our story. One minute Mary was pregnant, and the next minute she was wrapping Jesus in those swaddling cloths. I think this is interesting given that Luke, a doctor who desired to write with significant detail, left this part of the story out.

The picture portrayed in our modern day nativities do not accurately portray the scene. The beautiful pictures of the little manger is nothing close to reality. The manger or feeding trough is nothing more than a box or platform that was used to feed animals. I want you to picture this because it’s important to understand what God was willing to do to offer us redemption through this little human. If you have pets, think about what their food dishes look like. Hair, slobber, nose juice, bugs, and all sorts of unseen germs, and bacteria are around the dish. Into that environment was laid our Savior. I’m sure Joseph did the best he could with what he had. He probably scraped together the cleanest hay he could find. If he had a coat or covering, he probably laid it down. And Jesus was placed in the manger where we assume he gently drifted off to sleep without making a single noise.

I’m going to leave Jesus in the manger with Mary and Joseph watching over Him. Next week we’ll see how the other characters in the story responded to the birth of Jesus. Stay tuned as we continue to take a different look at this very familiar story.

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Can You Hear the Angels Singing?

AngelsYou can listen to the podcast here.

Take a look at the familiar Christmas story found in Luke 2:8-14.

Apparently angels are scary beings. The angel told Joseph, “Do not be afraid.” Gabriel said to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” And the angel told the shepherds, “Do not be afraid.” Put yourself in the shepherd’s place. All of a sudden, an angel appears and tells them that Jesus has been born. “And there appeared a multitude of the heavenly host praising God.” The sky was filled with more angels than you could count. They were singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

This is the way it typically happens. The key word in that text is the word suddenly. God always works in His own time and I think we wish there were more of these types of moments. Suddenly means without warning, it means quickly and unexpectedly. The angels weren’t there and all of a sudden, they were and they filled the sky. The shepherds were out in the field taking care of their flocks by night, but could the angels be seen in Bethlehem? What about in Jerusalem eight miles away? Did the angel’s praise reach across the miles? These are questions to get you to think. Of course, we don’t know the answers, but I can tell you one thing for sure: the angels filled the sky and the shepherds saw them.

Are angels real? Of course they are. 2 Ki. 6 tells the story of Elisha and his servant when the Aramean army surrounded them in the city of Dothan. Seeing the enemy on every side, the servant cried out, “What shall we do?”  Elisha responded by declaring, Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.” And the Lord opened the servant’s eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Ki. 6:16-17) The angels were always there, but the servant simply could not see them. When his eyes were opened, he saw what had been there all along. There are skeptics all around us so how should we respond to someone like that? It is a matter of faith. Just because you cannot prove something does not automatically disprove it. That was part of my journey to recognizing that God is real. There are things all around us that people take by faith, or I think a more applicable term is take for granted. How can you see the beauty of nature or the beauty of humanity and not see God? You cannot ignore the supernatural element of Jesus’ birth. Angels are a huge part of the story. An angel tells Mary she will give birth to Jesus. An angel tells Joseph not to dump Mary. That angel would then tell Joseph what was going on and that the baby would be called Jesus. An angel warns Mary and Joseph to flee to Egypt. An angel tells them when it’s safe to return to Israel. And in Lu. 2:11, an angel tells the shepherds that the Savior has been born and then the sky is filled with angels. Later, we have the mysterious star that led those far away Magi all the way to the very house where they found Jesus. And the Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod but to go home another way. Angels and stars and dreams. Crazy supernatural stuff throughout this story. I think these are some things we know, but really have forgotten how incredible they are. When you reduce Christmas to good feelings and family time, you miss out on this incredibleness. This story helps us solidify that there is a heavenly realm. This world is not eternal. We look forward to the day when we join God in our eternal home. This world is not our home – that’s why we’re strangers and aliens here. Our citizenship is in heaven. We are pilgrims on a journey from this world that is passing away to a world that will last forever. We are looking for a city with eternal foundations, whose builder and maker is God.

The end is coming. What we know today will be gone soon. Those things that many feel are so important will pass away. 1 Jo. 2:17 reminds us that, The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.” We are here today and gone tomorrow. Jesus said, Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.” (Matt. 24:35) Rev. 16:18 says, “There was a great earthquake, such as there had not been since man came to be upon the earth, so great an earthquake was it, and so mighty.” That earthquake destroys all that we know. All the incredible architecture gone. The great masterpieces of the ages gone. All the earthly treasures held so dearly are gone. There is nothing we can do to save any of it including ourselves. Our salvation comes from another source. That’s why Christmas is so important. Miracles surround Christmas: the angels, the star, the dreams, the prophecies, and most of all, the virgin birth. But those miracles are just signs pointing to the greatest miracle of all. Since we get a play by play of events from Scripture, it’s only fitting that we look to the Bible to see why. Jo. 3:16 tells us that, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” Tit. 2:11 says, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men.” Gal. 4:4 says, But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law.  Phil. 2:6-7, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and being made in the likeness of men.” One of my favorites is found in Jo. 1:14, The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The birth of Christ is the incarnation of God. It is the unity of deity and humanity. The infinite became finite. The immortal became mortal. The Creator became the created. The omnipotent lived inside a young girl’s womb. The Almighty became helpless. The Deity was wrapped in rags. The King was born in a stable. The incarnation is essential in our faith. Without the incarnation, there can be no birth. Without a birth, there can be no sinless life. Without a sinless life, there can be no atonement for sin. Without atonement, there is no need for the crucifixion. Without the crucifixion, there can be no resurrection. Without the resurrection, there is no hope. Without hope, there is nothing.

I don’t want you to miss the main point. Having a biblical worldview is supernatural. When you take the supernatural out of Christmas, you’re left without the miraculous. You’re left without hope. You’re left in your sin. As Christians, why would we want to do that? The central point, the main thing, the primary focus, the theme, the moral of the story is all summed up in two words: “I am.” Christmas without Jesus is like a computer with no operating system. It’s like an iPod with no music. It’s like a phone that doesn’t make calls. It’s like cooking without food. It’s like Face Time with no face. Those things just don’t make sense.

Anytime we see angels in Scripture, I think they appear suddenly. Even though we might say we want God to work suddenly, I don’t think we really do. Especially when you consider how long you’ve prayed for lost family members and friends. Or when you consider that loved one that is dying. I think we often pray for more time. Right now we have some time, but who knows how long.

We have the time this moment to share the truths that the angels sang about that first Christmas. Today, we sing those same songs. Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her King! If you listen with all your heart, you can still hear them singing: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth among those with whom he is pleased!” “Hark the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King! Peace on earth and mercy mild God and sinners reconciled. Joyful, all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies with the angelic host proclaim: Christ is born in Bethlehem. Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

No Crib for a Bed

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Lu. 2:7 says, And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

As you may know, my wife Kari loves nativity scenes. We have them in almost every room in the house and some remain out year round. Those scenes are generally the same give or take some animals, wise men, or shepherds. They show Mary holding baby Jesus with Joseph lovingly looking down on her. Maybe Mary and Joseph are standing looking adoringly at Jesus as He lies in the manger. Nativities have Jesus wrapped tightly in white linen swaddling clothes lying in a pristine manger on fresh hay. Put that same manger in front of a City Hall or public park and watch a few very vocal people have a conniption fit screaming separation of church and state. There’s always going to be someone offended by this peaceful, wonderful depiction of the birth of the Messiah, but I wonder why people aren’t offended at the liberties taken with the scene.

Gal. 4:4 says, But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law.”

There was no room at the inn. This is a something we hear all the time and probably don’t give it much thought. What’s wrong with this picture? When I was growing up, I liked to look at those cartoons that show two seemingly identical scenes and you have you figure out what’s different about the two. In the manger scenes of today, what’s different about the scene portrayed in Scripture? If you’re God, why would you make it happen like this? Think about it, if Joseph and Mary had hurried along, maybe they would have gotten that last room. Can you picture Joseph, “Come on Mary, hurry up, it’s late and we want to get a room.” God could have ensured there was room at the inn. He could have spoken it into existence. It’s like He planned for it to happen. Bethlehem is located about eight miles south of Jerusalem. Today, it could be classified as a tourist trap. It’s very commercialized and very anti-Israeli as it is controlled by the Palestinians. Back in the first century, it was a no nothing town, hardly a blip on the map.   The only thing of note was that it was the hometown of King David. The whole reason Joseph and Mary were there was because of Caesar Augustus and his decree. He ordered a census be taken so that taxes could be collected throughout the Roman Empire. In order to do that, you had to go back to the place of your birth and be counted. Joseph was a descendant of David. It just happened that Mary was in the final days of her pregnancy. I’m sure you women can imagine what a fun journey that must have been. So they end up in Bethlehem at just the right time for Mary to deliver. But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.” (Mic. 5:2)

This was not your typical inn. No room at the inn brings up all sorts of connotations. We have a hard time separating ourselves from our modern conveniences. Maybe we picture a quaint bed and breakfast. Nobody was leaving the light on for you in the Roman Empire. There were no global leaders in hospitality. There was no choice of pillows or free breakfast. The best the Empire had to offer pales in comparison to even our mediocre hotels. The only thing travelers wanted back then was a place to lie down and not be attacked by bandits. The inn was a building without the creature comforts we would expect. Luke uses two different words for inn in his writings. One word refers to a small building dedicated to serving travelers. At one end of the building, you tied up your transportation. For an additional fee, the innkeeper allowed you to sleep on a rough mattress on the floor. He also kept the fire going and provided food for the animals. This is the kind of inn mentioned in the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Lu. 10: 34.

When Luke told the story of Jesus’ birth, he used a different word for inn in 2:7 that basically means a guest room. This inn would be smaller and simpler than the one in Lu. 10. The animals would be kept in a stable that was often nothing more than a cave in a hillside with low rock walls to keep the animals from getting out during the night. This was the kind of inn where there was no room. Why was the place full that night? Why were they told there was no room? There were lots of people traveling due to the census. Maybe they didn’t have any money. We really don’t know. From our perspective, there’s something wrong with the picture. Jesus deserved better and God could have done better. If you want to play the sovereignty of God card; that was the way it was meant to be. There was no room at the inn because that was part of God’s plan.

Why was it that way? Let’s back up the story a bit. Mary and Joseph had to return to Bethlehem as part of the census. Mary was pregnant and they arrived in the little town of Bethlehem in the very last stage of pregnancy. It was a difficult journey because of the route they took. They would have avoided Samaria because it was Samaria and they would travel about 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It would have taken about a week because Mary was pregnant. Have you ever traveled with a pregnant woman? Even today, traveling by the quickest mode of transportation is made impossible by pregnancy. Several major airlines refuse travel to women in the last days of pregnancy. The most restrictive is American; you can’t fly within 30 days of your due date unless you have a note from your doctor signed within 48 hours of traveling. All the airlines require you to consult with your doctor prior to flying. So Mary and Joseph would be taking the slow route – driving today. They arrive in Bethlehem tired and most likely hungry to find a place to stay, yet there was no room at the inn.

In writing about this text, Charles Spurgeon answers the question “Why would God allow it like this?” in three ways. He asks, “Would it have been fitting that the man who was to die naked on the cross should be robed in purple at his birth?” He says that Christ would be a peasant His whole life. Nothing is more fitting since He laid aside His glory to take on flesh. Second, He was born like this because he was the King of the Poor. The poor and the outcasts knew Jesus was one of them because of the way he came into the world. Spurgeon goes on to say, “In the eyes of the poor, imperial robes excite no affection, a man in their own garb attracts their confidence.”  The poor of the earth know that in Jesus they have a friend who cares about them. Third, He was born like this in order that the humble might feel invited to come to him. The whole scenario of there being no room at the inn, born in a stable to relatively poor and unmarried parents is an invitation to those that are rejected by society, the abused, mistreated, overlooked and forgotten people of the world that desperately need a savior. In His flesh, Jesus was like us. Jesus had to be born like this. If you look into Jesus’ future, you can even see why. Is there a hint here of his upcoming death? Sir Francis of Assisi said, “For our sakes he was born a stranger in an open stable; He lived without a place of his own wherein to lay his head, subsisting by the charity of good people; and he died naked on a cross in the close embrace of holy poverty.” This baby lying forgotten in an exposed stable, resting in a feeding trough is God’s sign to humanity. God has come to the world in a most unlikely way. Phil. 2:7 says, “But emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” On the surface, there was no glow around baby Jesus. There was nothing about Him that seemed super natural or God like. At the time of His birth, there were no choirs singing the Hallelujah chorus. He was just a little baby born to ordinary parents. And this was exactly the way God wanted it.

What do we learn from this? When we stand back at look at this aspect of the Christmas story, some really incredible truths emerge. We learn that God uses adverse circumstances to accomplish His purposes that make no sense to us. No room at the inn is really an insignificant detail that few people take time to evaluate, but since it’s part of the story, we have to ask ourselves why. Put yourself in Mary and Joseph’s place. It wasn’t some minor detail, but a huge obstacle. Even though an angel had spoken to Mary and to Joseph, there still must have been doubt. I think of all we have available to us, and we still doubt. Sometimes we don’t see things clearly until years later. We also learn that the world really has no room for Jesus. Jo. 1:11 says, “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.” He came to the people who should have known him best. He came to the people who knew He was coming. Even those wise men, the Magi from the east recognized the sign that God gave them. But His own people rejected the Christ Child. We also learn that His humiliation started early and continued to the very end. He was born outside because they wouldn’t let Mary and Joseph come inside. In Matt. 8:20 Jesus told a scribe, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” When He went to the cross, He had nothing except what He was wearing and the soldiers gambled for His coat. When He died, He was buried in a borrowed tomb. Jesus was an outsider. He was born outside and He died outside. Finally, we learn that as His followers, we share His fate. We live with Him, we suffer with Him, we die with Him, and we will reign with Him. What happens to Jesus happens to His followers sooner or later.

One verse has so much packed into it. There was no room at the inn is more than a minor detail – it was there for us. Every detail of the Christmas story is there for us. The sequence of events, the timing, the census, the journey, no room at the inn, no crib for a babe are all details for us to recognize Emmanuel – God with us. Will you make room for Jesus in your life?

Christmas Perfection

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Last week we were reminded that Immanuel is God with us. We were challenged to tear down the idolatry of commercialism and consumerism and to expect a miracle. This morning we’ll get a reality check as we seek out perfection at Christmas.

The great gospel of Luke 1:30-31, 34 says, “The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’”

In the classic Christmas movie “Jingle all the Way”, Howard Langston attempted to make the season just right for his son. Howard, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, was a procrastinator and tended to put his job ahead of his family. All his son Jaime wanted for Christmas was the Turbo Man action figure and Howard promised him there would be one under the tree. Turbo Man was the hottest gift of the year and every kid wanted one too. Of course it was Christmas Eve before Howard thought about the gift. Howard was trying to make Christmas perfect for his son. To make things worse, his neighbor Tim played by Phil Hartman looked like he had planned for the perfect Christmas. He had a picturesque house filled with decorations and all the presents neatly wrapped beneath the tree. The search for that perfect gift – that perfect Christmas – led to a frenzied search mission to find Turbo Man that included fights, deception, theft, burglary, racketeering, assault, police obstruction, as well as numerous violations of traffic laws. And of course, what Christmas movie would be complete without the perfect neighbor making a play for our main character’s wife? Howard tried to make Christmas perfect, but the reality is there is no such thing. For many people, Christmas is a reminder of heartache, tragedy, and suffering. Clever marketing and Victorian Christmas traditions have replaced the biblical principle of Immanuel – God with us.

Today we have a sanitized nativity scene. Our nativity scenes often portray the parents lovingly looking down over the holy Child lying in a hay lined cradle, not a manger. In our pursuit of the perfect Christmas, we forget that Mary and Joseph were spending the night in barn – a place where animals live. Where there are animals, there’s poop. Where there’s poop, there’s insects, and smell. There was no medical treatment available and Joseph was the only support Mary had and if he’s like most of us first time dads, he didn’t have a single clue. We want this clean, picture perfect nativity with no complications, no heartache, and no trouble. We have this idea that if we sincerely love God then He will grant us serenity now. No fuss, no muss in our dainty, clean, sanitized, Christian lives.

Luke tells us it was anything but perfect, anything but simple. Lu. 1:26 tells us it was the sixth month of Mary’s pregnancy before any answer to her dilemma was made evident. “Do not be afraid, Mary,” the angel tells her in Lu. 1:30. Easy for the angel to say. Mary faces an unwanted teen pregnancy. This was different from pregnancies today. She had never been with a man. It’s easier for us to understand because we know how it ends. How easy would it have been for her parents? Joseph? The town’s people? Put yourself in Mary’s shoes; she knew the truth that no one else knew. The angel says, “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.” This is where it starts for all of us. We are favored because of God’s great love; His unconditional sacrificial love. This is where Christmas begins. Not just that Christ came, but that He is still here.

Mary was favored, not perfect. It’s hard for us to comprehend unconditional love. God wants a relationship with you even if you’ve been naughty or nice. Why? Because you are highly favored. It’s easy to understand when you consider your children. You favor your kids over someone else’s kids simply because they’re yours. It doesn’t have to do with their abilities, or their aptitude, or what they look like. You favor them because they’re yours. It’s the same way with God. The favor He shows you is because of Him, not you. Being favored does not mean bad things won’t happen. Look at Mary again. As far as relationships, she had done right; had kept herself pure and she finds herself with child. Interestingly enough, nothing is mentioned of Mary’s righteousness. Even after the angel’s explanation, Mary is left asking, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lu. 1:34) I’m pretty certain the theological implications of the baby she carried were not fully realized for some time. How many of us have been in similar situations of uncertainty where we are called on to exercise our faith? You have done all you can to remain true and pure and faithful to God and then that suddenly hits.

Think about Mary’s emotional frame of mind. God’s favor would bring a significant measure of pain and suffering to her life. We read about this miracle of life knowing that the stone was rolled away and the tomb was found empty. We look at this event through the sanitized lens of knowledge. Mary didn’t have the luxury of knowing. She shares the story with her fiancé who would obviously put her away certain she is lying after all; he had never seen or heard of any virgin becoming pregnant. She faces death by stoning for the sin of adultery. The walk of faith provides no guarantees for a neat and orderly life free from life’s suddenlies. Nowhere in Scripture does it say everything that happens to us will make sense. As a result of Jesus’ birth, King Herod ordered the execution of all male babies under two. Hebrews 11 is known as the hall of faith. Stories of great faith abound in this chapter.      What are the results of this great faith? Abel was murdered. Noah suffered 120 years of ridicule and the earth was destroyed by a flood. Abraham was ordered to sacrifice his only son. In fact, I encourage you to take the time and read Heb 11:35-12:2. How about Paul? Surely he escaped problems. Look at 2 Cor. 11:24-27 and you’ll see what he endured for the cause of Christ. Paul warned Timothy that even a desire to live godly will bring persecution. (2 Tim. 3:12)

Do any of us really count the cost of an authentic relationship with Christ when we choose Him? In his book The Present Future Reggie McNeal concluded that, “church culture in North America is now a vestige of the original movement, an institutional expression of religion that is in part a civil religion and in part a club where religious people can hang out with other people whose politics, worldview, and lifestyle match theirs.” We have rewritten the original Christmas story of pain, suffering, and loneliness to one of unrealistic perfection with a hint of cinnamon and ginger. Mary asked, “How can this be?” The angel provides the answer in Lu. 1:35, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.” After that triumphant declaration – silence. No bells and whistles, no warm gooey feeling, just silence. In that silence, I wonder if doubt crept in? We can face the same thing. The Holy Spirit is with you always and particularly in life’s suddenly moments.

When we seek perfection where it does not exist, we’ll be left feeling empty and unfulfilled. We want a “G” rated Christian life in an “R” rated world. Why did God choose Mary? Look at what she said in 1:38, “And Mary said, ‘Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.’ And the angel departed from her.” When faced with this seemingly impossible situation, Mary chose to trust and obey. May it be the same for us.

Expect a Miracle

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And so it is Christmas. We begin our Christmas series for this year. Every year seems Christmas seems to come earlier and earlier. American retailers capitalize on our materialism, our over spending, our overeating, and our overwhelming urge for self indulgence. I hope it will be a Christmas like no other for you and your family as we cut through all the distractions of the season.

Is. 7:14 says, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” What does God look like?

We know from Genesis that we are created in His image. We know he has hands and he hears and sees. Would we know God if He walked in or when He showed up? Over the years artists have sculpted God, have painted God, have drawn images of what they think God looks like. Would we recognize God or would be like people in the old west that asked, “Who was that masked man?” Centuries before the Messiah came, prophets proclaimed, “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.” (Is. 9:6-7) This soon coming king would suffer, would be rejected by his own people; He would know heartache and pain. This King would hang out with the ones society deemed low class and poor. People had been told about this King and they had different expectations about what he would look like, what he would act like, what he would be like. Some thought this king would be a political leader that would turn the world upside down; someone that would return the world to the time of King David.

When we talk to loved ones or friends on the phone, you have the mental picture of what they look like. When you pray, what mental picture of God do you formulate? Is it the condemning judge that sits on His mighty throne waiting to drop the hammer on you? Is He like that parent that never says no? That never provides guidance or discipline that lets you do whatever you like? Is He a God that rewards obedience with material wealth or physical health? Or is He a God that is present with you regardless of your circumstances? Immanuel – God with us.

When describing God we use adjectives like all-mighty, all powerful, majestic, consuming, liberating, rich, and infinite. And yet, not one of these words would describe Jesus. Jesus was not at all what people expected. His life is a contradiction of worldly values and ideals. He was not born in power in strength, but in weakness. He was born to a poor family in a poor town filled with marginalized people. He spent his early years as a refugee in Africa where He escaped political genocide. He spent his childhood in a blue-collar, working class family. As He grew into a man, he faced opposition from religious leaders. He resisted the world’s obsession with money, power, and recognition. He had compassion and empathy for the weak, the orphans, and the destitute of society. What does God look like? He looks like Jesus – God with us!

Is this today’s Jesus? We often view Jesus as the genie in the bottle. He exists to grant our every wish. We have redefined Jesus into our own image who promises to give us everything we want. He has become an idol of consumption, materialism, and self indulgence. He has become Santa Claus Jesus. We know the familiar song . . . He knows when you are sleeping, he knows if you’d been good or bad. In this same way, we have reduced God to a heavenly watchdog that judges what we do or don’t do and then grants punishment or reward. This is not the God we see in Jesus. He doesn’t come bearing gifts to give to good boys and girls. God’s gift of Jesus cannot be neatly wrapped in a box with a pretty bow on it. If you’re picture of God is distorted, your view of life will be distorted. We have this commercialized idea of Jesus as the magical gift giver sent from above and as a result, we have certain expectations for Christmas, but Jesus doesn’t do magic. Magic is trickery, sleight of hand, it’s an illusion, it’s for our entertainment; our enjoyment not for our transformation. God doesn’t do magic; He does miracles. That magical, wonderful, ideal, storybook Christmas is unattainable. We get all the new and improved decorations, holiday recipes, and latest gifts to create a warm, fuzzy experience and we’re left wanting. The fuzzy feelings pass and we’re left exhausted, stressed, and overwhelmed at the shopping, spending, school programs, cooking, entertaining, and wrapping of gifts we don’t need or will never use. In the hustle and bustle of the holiday festivities, we miss Immanuel – the gift of God with us. The idolatry of consumerism is tough to knock down. John Wesley said the wallet is the last thing converted in a person’s life. Jesus said it Himself in Matt. 6:24, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

Get ready for a miracle. Christmas is the celebration of a miracle. A young girl conceived a child without the participation of a man and yet we push the miracle worker out of the celebration. Merriam Webster defines miracle as “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.” Every salvation is a miracle of God’s love, of God’s involvement, of God’s desire for an intimate relationship with His ultimate creation. Do you feel like you’re not worth it? In John 7:38 Jesus said, “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, from his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.” The same Holy Spirit that conceived the Miracle that Mary carried within her lives inside of every ordinary believer. Our Messiah was ordinary too. Is. 53:2-3 says of Jesus, “For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.” Not quite the leader the world was looking for. He would not have been one of the cool kids at school. He was from the wrong side of the tracks of an insignificant little town where one person asked, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (Jo. 1:46) He was ordinary looking, probably plain, nothing that would draw people to Him. That’s the way most of us are yet God chooses to use us, to work in us and work through us.

Scripture is filled with ordinary people that God used in extraordinary ways. Moses was not eloquent in speech and had anger issues. Jonah was disobedient.    David was an adulterer, a conspirator, and a murderer. Peter spoke without thinking. Thomas was a doubter. Paul was a persecutor of Christians, but God had plans for each of them and He has plans for you. “For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.” (Jer. 29:11) Are you willing to pay the price? The angel greeted Mary and said, “You have found favor with God.” (Lu. 1:30) Mary faced certain rejection, criticism, and ostracism because of her unwed pregnancy. While grace is free, it’s not cheap. It was not culturally acceptable to be pregnant out of wedlock and Mary had to be thinking, “Wow, if this is God’s favor, I don’t want to be on His wrong side.” What about Joseph? I’m sure life was tough for him too. His wife was pregnant and he wasn’t the father.

Jesus came to this earth not just to die sacrificially on our behalf, but also to demonstrate sacrificial living. How far has our modern Christmas diverted from the original Christmas? We want to be warm and fuzzy surrounded by family and friends with the gentle sound of Christmas carols playing softly in the background. Mary and Joseph were alone in a strange place and of that night we sing, “The cattle are lowing the poor Baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” Their Christmas was full of poverty and anxiety, not mulled cider, turkey, ham, and peppermint sticks. And let’s not forget the reason Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt was to escape government sanctioned genocide. I’m not sure how Mary and Joseph would describe their memories of Christmas, but it was probably not a silent night where all was calm and all was bright.

Christmas is about the sacrificial gift of Jesus that we want to leave in the manger. But you cannot separate the child in the manger from the message of Christ on the cross. The meaning of life is not found in material possessions or personal comfort. The meaning of Christmas is not found in endless debt and getting gifts not needed. I agree with Paul is saying the meaning of life in found in, “know[ing] Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.” (Phil 3:10) Expect God to perform the same miracles in your life that He performed in Mary and Joseph’s lives.

The Leaders who Missed Christmas

You can listen to the podcast for this message here.

Here we are in the Christmas season again. I wonder how many will miss the reason we celebrate Christmas? Even Christians who are pressed to the max with school parties, work parties, church parties, neighborhood parties, decorating, baking, and shopping for presents are prone to miss Christmas. In the classic movie A Christmas Carol, we find the tyrannical and unlovable business owner Scrooge complaining every step of the way because poor Bob Cratchet wants half a day off on Christmas. If the story was written toady, the roles would likely be reversed. We would see Scrooge looking forward to Christmas because as a business owner, he would see profits rise. He’d begin advertising before Halloween and offer ridiculous store hours on Black Friday maybe even opening at midnight. Maybe the story would follow how Bob Cratchet developed his complex shopping plan camped out hoping to find those trendy, state of the art gifts for his kids. He probably scanned the 102 million results found on Google by searching Black Friday 2011. Bob would come to despise the Christmas music that begins just after Halloween. Scrooge would love Christmas, Bob Cratchet? Not so much. In the ever increasing commercialism and materialism that is Christmas, can we change the pattern? Do you want to?

Missing Christmas is nothing new. Since the very first Christmas 2000 years ago, people looking for the real meaning of Christmas missed it. In the first century, the Temple was one of the busiest religious centers on the planet. Sacrifices were constantly being offered on behalf of people’s sin. Priests, worshipers, and the religious crowd were ever present. The religious crowd sat around and “discussed” the finer points of the Law. They evaluated the 613 rules they supposed people ought to follow as they interpreted the Law. Somewhat different form the 10 that came down with Moses from Mt. Sinai. They read from and memorized the Torah, they talked about the prophets. They looked for the Messiah. Messiah is born just about 5 miles from where all these religious leaders were. He was born in Bethlehem and not a single Jewish leader made it to the manger. Jesus was laying in the manger for just over a week and probably no one came to see this little boy.

So let’s look at the story that occurs eight days after Jesus was born. Grab your Bible and read Luke 2:21-38. According to Jewish law, male babies are taken to the Temple on the 8th day and circumcised because He was born under the law according to Gal. 4:4. Mary and Joseph take baby Jesus to the Temple. The reason for Christmas is taken to the Temple, the very place you’d expect to find Messiah. Christmas nearly comes and goes from the Temple just like it comes and goes for many people today. There were two people at the Temple that day however, that were eagerly anticipating Christmas. The religious leaders at the time who earnestly searched for Messiah did not find Him. Even as Messiah hung on the cross 33 years later, the leaders looking for mankind’s deliverer missed Him. How could anything good come out of Nazareth after all? (Jo. 1:46) How can people miss something so obvious? How could they miss something that is apparently so obvious to us? If we were in Jerusalem that day, we would see the hustle and bustle of Temple life. We’d see the steady stream of religious people doing religious things. We’d smell the smells of the sacrifices, hear the animals, hear people laughing and crying – we’d see all the activity. We’d see people so consumed with life and they’d miss Christmas because they were just too busy. These leaders would remain busy for the next 33 years. They missed the miracles, the teaching, the love, the authenticity, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension. The religious leaders were so busy doing God’s work that they missed the most important work God ever did for mankind. They had the Law, the prophets, the very Word of God and yet they missed what all of these things pointed to.

It’s not a stretch when we consider what the holiday season has become. Children so excited about what they will receive that they can barely get to sleep on Christmas Eve. Sleep doesn’t last long as many families are awakened by their children in the wee hours of the morning to open presents giving little to no thoughts as to why they’re getting gifts. Christmas has been replaced with consumerism and materialism, with the rush to find a bargain on an item we don’t really need. It shouldn’t shock you to know that few people know the real reason for Christmas. We’ve lost the simplicity of the manger, of the shepherds that were watching their flocks by night. I wonder if we should spend some time in the Temple looking for Christmas.

Did everyone miss Christmas? If we were flies on the wall in the Temple mount, we’d notice two people. The first is a man named Simeon. The second is a woman named Anna. The Pharisees and the Sadducees and most of the religious leaders of the day missed Christmas. I want to focus on these two people that give us some clues on how to avoid missing Christmas. If you want to find Christmas, you must be willing to wait. Simeon is described as, “righteous and devout.” He was upright, just, and God-fearing. He was, “looking for the consolation Israel.” The Messiah was born of very humble beginnings. He didn’t come as the religious leaders thought He would come. The Christ child did not come as royalty, he didn’t come as a major league political figure. He came as a baby, born of a virgin.

Look at Luke 1:68-75. Simeon waited. Luke 2:26 tells us that, “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” Simeon was apparently an old man that had been looking for that consolation of Israel for a long time. He waited because the Holy Spirit revealed to him that he would not see death until he saw Christmas. Luke 2:28-32 says, “Then he [Simeon] took Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said, ‘Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, A LIGHT OF REVELATION TO THE GENTILES, And the glory of Your people Israel.’” Can you imagine waiting for something for so long and then holding Salvation in your arms? Simeon offers a blessing to Mary and Joseph and then disappears from the pages of Scripture.

Then we come to Anna. 84 years old and she spent all of her time in the Temple area. She served, “Night and day with fastings and prayers.” Compare her to the religious leaders who argued the finer points of the Law, offered a life time of sacrifices and yet still missed the sacrifice for all life. The priests were engaged in continual sacrifices for the people. When you look at God’s design for the Temple, you’ll find the lamp stand, the table of showbread, the basin, the alter – all the materials needed to make sacrifices to God. Did you ever notice that there aren’t any chairs? There was always sacrifices to make; never time to sit. Heb. 10:11-12 tells us, “Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, SAT DOWN AT THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD.” The priests were so busy making sacrifices for the people that they missed the sacrifice made for them. Many people in today’s church have bought the same lie that the priests of old did. Busyness equates to spiritual maturity and that is just not true. Simeon and Anna were purposed to find Christmas – to find Messiah, the Christ Child, the consolation of Israel, the redemption of Israel. They waited – they were patient. What part of Christmas today is patient? Is it the packed shopping centers and the traffic jams? Is it the pushing and the shoving in the lines to get into the stores at midnight on Thanksgiving Day? Is it the after Christmas sales that now begin before Christmas?

What will you do to avoid missing Christmas? How will you reconnect with the original Christmas? You’ve heard of the still, small voice of God? I wonder how well you can hear that in a crowded mall? I encourage you at some point very soon, get alone with God and listen to Him – and wait until you hear Him. If you want to embrace what that first Christmas was like, you’re going to have to wait like Simeon and Anna did. And it doesn’t matter if everyone around you misses it.

You must trust that God will keep His promises. Simeon waited a lifetime to see God’s promise. When he saw Jesus, Simeon knew the promise had been kept. Anna waited decades. It’s significant to note that she was a prophetess. That means as she waited for the redemption of Israel, she told others about the Christ. I’m sure that included telling people of the promises of God. The promises that include telling people that God will never leave you nor forsake you. That is comforting considering that Christmas is one of the most stressful times of the year. Maybe this holiday season will be filled with new normals. A new marriage. New babies. Maybe your children were married this past year. Maybe this is the first year without that loved one. We can stand on the promises that God will not leave you; He will be with you to help you as you go through this time of year. Contrary to popular opinion, this time of year produces 40% fewer suicides than at other times. He will be there with you, will you trust Him?

You must be willing to proclaim what God has done. Simeon and Anna never considered keeping the good news to themselves. Simeon tells Mary and Joseph what Jesus’ future holds. As soon as she saw the child Anna, “Came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Don’t neglect to tell people what God has done in you.

At the center of Christmas is this gift that has been prepared for you. Don’t miss the gift of God among the gifts of men. Don’t miss the center of Christmas and that is the Christ child that was sent to save mankind from themselves. God willingly sent Jesus just for you. He came as the King of kings and the leaders of His days missed Him. Don’t miss Christmas this year.

Give Me Some Clarification!

You can listen to the podcast here.

Last week we learned that we should pray for a Christian brother that is involved in a sin that doesn’t lead to death. Remember, authentic Christians cannot be engaged in habitual sin. John’s not saying we won’t ever sin, but sin cannot be the pattern of our lives. We should pray for the salvation of that person engaged in habitual sin instead of praying that they’d stop. This week, John provides some clarification of sin.

Take a look at 1 John 5:17-21.

Just in case you missed it earlier. John says, “All unrighteousness is sin.” There is not one sin that is so insignificant that it doesn’t matter. “The wages of sin is death.” Even just one. Just in case you were wondering, John makes it clear. “All sin is unrighteousness.” Earlier in 1 Jo. 3:4 he said, “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.” Lawlessness gives us the idea of rebellion against God while unrighteousness is contrary to what is right in God’s eyes. But they’re both sin. “All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.” Don’t get hung up second phrase. John is not emphasizing the sin, but what we are to do when we see it. He’s not providing a list so that we can live life on the edge. John has been clear that God doesn’t want us to sin. 1 Jo. 2:1 says, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.” We are to pray for restoration of that person according to v. 16.     John’s closing arguments. John begins a series of statements about what we know. There is nothing new here, but he feels that he needs to review. So what do we know? The first big one is in v. 18. “We know that no one born of God sins.” Our relationship with Christ began at some point in the past, but the results of that relationship affect us every day. This applies to everyone, there are no exceptions. No one born of God – a Christian – can continue sinning after this new born event. We have a God given, supernatural ability that helps us not to fall into a long-term lifestyle of habitual sin. How does this happen? Because, “He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.” “He who was born of God” must refer to Jesus. This is consistent with other Scripture. In John 17:12 Jesus said, “While I was with them, I was keeping them in Your name which You have given Me.” Peter referred to the Christians scattered throughout Europe and Asia and said they, “. . . are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Pet. 1:5) Jude 24 says Jesus is able to keep us from stumbling. It is Jesus Christ that keeps the evil one from even laying a finger on us. We also, “Know that we are of God and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” We can have confidence that we are Christians. No need to wonder or hope. We can know.

The whole world is under control of the evil one. This is a reminder of what John said in 2:15-17, 3:1, and 4:4-5. This should not be a shock to you. The world’s system is in opposition to God. We can see that just in recent events. You can’t pray in Jesus’ name at public events. The idea of gay marriage. The ordination of women. The falling away from Scripture. People leaving the organized church. Abortion. Divorce. Satan is at war with God and with His children. John’s final assertion is that, “. . . we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.” What a concluding verse.

We know the historic Jesus came. He was born of a virgin in the little town of Bethlehem. He lived a sinless life, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, and was buried. Three days later, He arose just as He said He would. He was seen by the multitudes and ascended to heaven where He sits at the right hand of the Father. Jesus has given us understanding. In all the Bible, only John uses this word for understanding. It means the ability to reason which leads to perception. What has He given us understanding in? “So that we may know Him who is true.” John is careful to avoid wording that people may find theoretical rather than physical or concrete evidence. The object of this God given knowledge is us – it’s personal, not limited to a select few. It was the Gnostics that claimed to have this enlightened knowledge. “And we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.” Jesus makes it possible to have fellowship with God. In Jo. 14:6, “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”  Jesus Christ is the true God and He is the source of eternal life. This echoes John’s opening verse in Jo.1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

John offers up an interesting closing verse. This seems a pretty strange way to close this letter. Why didn’t he just leave it at v. 20? In John’s gospel, he concluded by saying, I could write more, but the books of the world couldn’t contain all that Jesus did. He offers the warning, Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” This is a nice contrast from what he said in v. 20b: “This is the true God and eternal life.” We must reject what is false and hold on to what is true. Whatever you place before God is an idol. It was the Thessalonians that, “Turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God.” (1 Thes. 1:9) Be on guard against false teachers that claim Jesus is not the Christ. Be ready to refute those that says Jesus is not the One and only true God. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who provides eternal life to anyone who comes to him in faith.  He is the true revelation of God. Anything else is a counterfeit and a false substitute. It is this truth that we know. It is this truth that we stand on. It is on this truth that everything else hinges on.

John finishes the way he started. He declares the true God is Jesus Christ. What was from the beginning John saw and heard and touched. John knows he has eternal life and the central theme is we can have confidence in the very same thing.