Category Archives: Christmas

Christmas Peace

Christmas Children and PresentsI normally add a picture after I write my post, but today is different. The picture above became my inspiration. I was struck by the serene, peaceful aura of each child as they opened a Christmas present. This is obviously a stock photo of an idealized Christmas morning, especially how the little girl is observing her brother as he opens his package. It is what families hope for, but somehow it is appears too surreal to be true.

None of my siblings did that with me when I opened a present and I don’t remember it happening with my children either. We did take turns; it was not a free for all. Still the rapt attention the girl gives to her brother is off the charts. I bet they ate their Christmas oatmeal and made their beds before they started opening presents.

But there is something else that caught my attention. It is the bookshelf behind them. I always like a well-stocked bookshelf. That made me wonder if the children know the Biblical story of Christmas: the birth of Jesus, the shepherds in the field, the angelic announcement.

“Behold I bring good news of great joy for all people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior.” (Luke 2:11).

What troubles me is that this idealized picture does not need a savior. The kids are angelic already. Now it is simple a moment caught in the lens. Who knows if chaos erupted immediately after the present was opened.  I wonder if there is a Nerf gun inside.

Now I hope your Christmas morning is peaceful and joyous. I pray that your children, grandchildren, cousins, or siblings experience a special moment of Christmas love and cheer. But remember, even if chaos reigns, a Savior has been born. One who comes to rescue us from our self-centered ways. And that might be the best gift of all.

Lord Jesus, come.

Rushing towards Christmas

Santa racing on a bicycleChristmas is fast approaching. On my way to work this morning, two people asked me if I was ready. It seems like Christmas has become an invasion that requires complex preparation, sort of like the D-day invasion of Normandy beaches during World War II. There are the gifts to buy and wrap, the cookies to bake, the programs and parties to attend. Each is good in itself, but the intensity and high expectation surrounding each piece puts a crimp in the holiday season. Some people just seem to go crazy with the stress of the holidays.

Of course, the first Christmas was a very simple affair: a mom, a dad, and a baby. The setting was a lowly stable, nothing fancy. There was a great sound and light show with angelic choirs, but the family only heard about it second-hand. Mary and Joe kept their focus on the baby. Later Mary pondered the shepherd’s words (Luke 2:19).

As a pastor, my Christmas celebration revolves around the worship services on Christmas Eve and Day. With the familiar carols and Gospel story, it is hard to deliver something new and spectacular. Many have told me that their deepest, most joyful Christmas memory is lighting candle in a darkened church and singing Silent Night, Holy Night. Tradition has depth that builds intensity year-by-year. The new and spectacular is overshadowed by the old and familiar.

I pray that you will have time to ponder, to reflect, to simply embrace God’s love for you. It might be late at night after the packages are wrapped, or early in the morning before you run last set of errands. The Prince of Peace is coming. He is coming for you.

Lord Jesus, break through the complexity of my life and grant me peace, your peace.

 

Looking Backward and Forward

The last verses of the Old Testament have both a backward and forward orientation. Malachi instructs the reader to Remember the past and to Anticipate the future.

Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. (Malachi 4:4)

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents. (Malachi 4:5-6)

Malachi reminds us that God has worked in Israel’s past. Look back and remember how God worked at Mt. Horeb (Sinai). It calls us to remember how God has worked in our own past, to instruct and teach us.

I remember making a pilgrimage to Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Port Angeles, Washington, to remember the place where I first learned the Bible stories, acted in Christmas plays and sang the familiar carols. Christmas has so many specific memories for many of us. It can be simple nostalgia, but it can also become a deep spring of joy, light and love that calls us back to our spiritual roots. Where and when do you remember hearing the story of God’s statutes?

Yet Malachi also pushes into the future, that God is not simply an ancient figure of distant history, but a God who will act in our future. The prophet Malachi recycles the ancient prophet, Elijah, to describe the messenger who is coming. (Elijah had not “died” but was taken up into heaven on a chariot of fire, 2 Kings 2:11). The future return of Elijah will cause our hearts to turn to one another, to bring peace and harmony to God’s family. And God’s family is much larger than our own households; Jesus redefines family in the New Testament.

Looking at those who sat around him, Jesus said, “Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, sister and mother.”

Further, Jesus, the Son of God, turns the hearts of God’s children to their heavenly Papa. The future is so much brighter than our present reality. To what do you look forward in God’s glorious kingdom?

As we read scripture, we need to be mindful of how the past, the present and the future all intertwine.

Lord Jesus, be thou my vision, backwards and forwards.

See, the Day is Coming

Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament in the Christian Bible yet it points beyond itself.  It is not the final chapter in God’s dealing with Israel, but rather points to something yet to come.

See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.  But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. (Malachi 4:1-2)

Malachi assumes two things.  First, the future day of God’s judgment has not come yet.  God is not finished with God’s creation.  The second assumption is that you and I, the readers of this text, will receive mercy and healing, not burning judgment.  There is hope for you in this world.

As Charles Welsey wrote in  the third stanza of the Christmas carol, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, quoting Malachi 4:2.

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and Life to all he brings,
ris’n with healing in his wings.

God’s day will come with Jesus Christ.  He is the true climax to the story of the Old Testament as well as our human story. Are you ready to leap?

Lord Jesus, come quickly so I can leap with joy and justice.

The Fiery Furnace and Christmas

The book of Daniel challenges the “normal” perspective of the Old Testament. Throughout the Old Testament, God addressed the people or culture of Israel as a whole. From the exodus, through the wilderness wanderings  up to the divided Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, God interacted with a unified culture: kings and prophets, merchants and farmers. “You shall have no other god before Me.”

In the book of Daniel this changed. The Jews who are in exile in Babylon are not the dominant culture, but rather a small minority. A king like Nebuchadnezzar might come to recognize the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego when God delivers them from the fiery furnace, but he does not force the whole of his society to conform to Jewish culture. Instead the stories of Daniel show how the Jews resisted the religious rules of the dominant culture, even when it might cost them their lives. The Jews in exile had entered a multicultural world.

I wonder if this has a lesson for Christians in the season of Christmas. I know that some Christians are upset that the dominant culture gives only token acknowledgment to the religious basis for Christmas, replacing the manager and baby Jesus with the Christmas tree and Santa Claus.  There are some Christians who long for a more “pure” holiday, when school concerts could sing “Silent Night”” and public prayers could refer to Jesus Christ as Lord. But our current reality is more like the Jews in exile in Babylon than as citizens in the Kingdom of Judah. We might long to live in a monolithic culture in which society promotes our spiritual vision, but we do not.  We live in a multicultural world, with competing worldviews and behaviors.

What this means is that Christians need to do an even better job of telling the great true story of God and Christmas. The book of Daniel was written for the discouraged, scattered Jews to encourage them in the exile and beyond.  The story stated that God still ruled in Babylon, even when kings and other officials denied Him.  The story continues to proclaim that God still rules in America, even if our officials remain silent. And like Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego, we can serve in government, schools, or media, knowing that they are not “god,” and that we may have moments to bear witness to the God who can deliver, Jesus the Christ.

Jesus, let me bear witness to you as my deliverer.

Gloom, Doom and Light

My nephew, Andy Young, an avid photographer, snapped this gripping photo of Seattle on a gloomy afternoon. I immediately thought of both the prophet Jeremiah and the season of Advent.

First, Jeremiah spoke to the people of Jerusalem of the impending disaster that was coming. The people had forsaken their covenant with God and so God gave them a real wake-up call.

But my people have forgotten me, they burn offerings to a delusion; they have stumbled in their ways, in the ancient roads, and have gone into bypaths, not the highway, making their land a horror, a thing to be hissed at forever. Like the wind from the east, I will scatter them before the enemy. I will show them my back, not my face, in the day of their calamity. (Jeremiah 18:15-17)

In 587 BC Jeremiah’s “Word of the Lord” became reality. The Babylonian army march into Judah and conquered Jerusalem. The temple of God was destroyed. The leadership and skilled laborers were taken as prisoners into Exile in Babylon. It was a day of calamity.

But Jeremiah continued to speak God’s Word and so streaks of light and hope came to the people. Jeremiah promised a new covenant, a new relationship between God and God’s people.

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

This promise is one reason Jeremiah fits so well in the season of Advent. Though we may wait in the dark gloom of winter, praying for spiritual light, we lean towards the coming light of Christmas. A new covenant that will be born in Bethlehem. Alleluia!

Lord Jesus, let your light shine bright through me.

Shepherd or Magi?

I was struck today on the similar yet distinctive reactions of the shepherds and the magi to Jesus’ birth.  While both are notified by heavenly objects – angels for the shepherds, a star for the magi – and both respond with joy by searching for the baby, their response has some sharp contrasts. The shepherds leave their flock that very night and immediately go in search of the baby (Luke 2:15-17).  Of course, Jesus is in their local community and they share the news with all.  Meanwhile it takes the magi up to two years to plan and accomplish their journey to Bethlehem (Matthew 2: 1-12).

Shepherd?

I think the two reactions help us understand how many of us respond to the good news of Jesus Christ.  Some of us respond immediately to the message of God’s love and embrace it with all joy at the outset.  We see Jesus in our neighborhood and we respond right away.  We always sense that Jesus is close by.   I would place myself in this camp.  I grew up knowing Jesus as my Lord.

Or Magi?

Others need more time, more thought, and the journey is much longer.   In a metaphorical way, they have to leave their own country to find Jesus in a new land.   But when they do, they embrace him fully as their King.  The journey and the encounter has changed them.  The author Frederick Buechner describes such a spiritual odyssey in his book, The Sacred Journey (1982).   

Neither the response of the shepherds nor the response of the magi is better or preferred.  God uses a vast array of messengers, visions, experiences, relationships and ideas to call us to himself.  I delight in the wonder of each path and journey.

Would you describe yourself as a shepherd, a magi or some other character in the Christmas story?

Christmas Journeys

The Journey to Bethlehem

The Christmas story is filled with journeys:  Mary’s and Joseph’s trek to Bethlehem, the magi’s visit to the child, the holy family’s escape from King Herod into Egypt.   Even the shepherds had a night hike from the fields to the stable in order to see the baby.    Perhaps we all need to do a little traveling to discover Jesus.

This week my two daughters are traveling home.  Christina flew in Saturday after her first semester at college.  Suzanne will arrive tomorrow from her new home in Bloomington, IN.   I will be glad to have them under our roof for a time; it will certainly add to the Christmas joy.  Yet I know it is temporary; their life-paths are taking them on new adventures that may or may not be in close proximity to Carolyn’s and mine.  I guess that is part of trusting Jesus to guide the way.

I am also remembering one snowy December evening when I was flying home to Washington state for Christmas.   I had been gone a whole year, having worked the summer near my college in Philadelphia.  I had to change planes here in the Twin Cities and a snow storm had shut down the airport.  I was sitting in the terminal, waiting for my Seattle flight, feeling homesick and very much alone.  I wondered if I would ever get home as the snow piled up outside.  As the night got deeper and longer, I thought about Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem.  How lonely they must have felt, yet God was right there with them.  It slowly dawned on me that God was with me that night as well.  Emmanuel, God with us, is the intimate message of Christmas.   Little did I know at the time, that I would invest more than thirty years in the Twin Cities, discovering God’s presence and power among its residents. 

In what ways have Christmas’ journeys impacted your life?

Entering the Story

Children's Christmas Program

Sunday afternoon was Resurrection Children’s Christmas program.  In spite of the snow and cold, families made the trek to our “Bethlehem Marketplace” and then participated in the retelling of the Christmas story.  Children were dressed as angels, shepherds, stars, sheep, wise men as well as Mary and Joseph.  The stable of Bethlehem was filled with life.

Families have been attending Christmas programs for generations. I remember being a wiseman as a child (some might joke that it was my one-time experience); I hope someday to see my future grandchildren being shepherds or sheep. Christmas programs allow all of us to enter into the story of Christ’s birth and to experience the wonder and surprise within it.   Too often we treat the stories of the Bible as abstract history lessons that are dusty and dull.   To act out the story helps it come alive and fresh, filled with truth, hope and love.

 Haddon Robinson, a noted evangelical preacher, did many of his sermons as a first person narrative.  He said recently, “You can take that story from the point of view of one of the characters and tell it. You don’t have to be a great actor. It’s amazing how interesting it is for people to hear somebody who as a character relives that story. In our day it can make a great impact.” http://www.preaching.com/resources/articles/11565763/page-4/

This Christmas eve I will be retelling the Christmas story in a first person narrative.  It will be my first at Resurrection, but I rejoice that the children have prepared the way.