1721) “Who Was That God?”

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Chinese village

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From the Open Doors Daily Devotional, December 24, 2017, at: http://www.opendoorsusa.org

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     Chinese evangelist, Brother Xi, was travelling one very cold Christmas Eve in the rugged province of Gansu.  As he came to the next village he sensed something was wrong.  He introduced himself as a bearer of good news.  A small man interrupted, “Well we have only bad news here right now.  A couple has just had their baby stolen.”  In the poorer areas of China, where couples are restricted to one child, it is not uncommon to have ‘child snatching,’ stealing babies for wealthy childless couples in the cities.

     He stepped inside the house to find both husband and wife staring quietly at him.  The couple’s grief hung heavy in the air.  He said, “I’m so sorry to hear about your plight, but I know someone who may help… God.  Let me pray to Him.”

     There was no reaction on the couple’s faces, so he went into prayer, feeling very uncomfortable indeed.  “Dear Father, many years ago at this same time of year you sent a child into the world and rescued us all; we ask today that you will send back this child to us, and deliver this village from the sadness which grips it.  Amen.”

     Suddenly the young husband spoke, “Shut up and go away.  We have prayed to our gods and nothing has happened.  Why should yours be any different?”  He was grabbed from behind by the other villagers and propelled out of the village.  “Don’t you dare come here again!” they bawled.

     Brother Xi wandered the hills in a daze of humiliation, tears, and crying to God.  Then he thought, “I went to that village expecting a hero’s welcome, or at the very least, I relied on being a curiosity, quizzed and entertained by people who live very dull and isolated lives.  Instead, I had only been treated a little like Christ was treated.”

     Kneeling there in the snow, he knew what he had to do— go back to that village, knowing for sure he would be despised.  This was to follow in the Master’s footsteps.  With a pounding heart he turned and began to walk slowly back towards the village.  Suddenly, across the still late afternoon air, he heard a baby’s cry coming from what appeared to be an old well shaft.

     Sure enough six feet down was a little baby, wrapped in a thick blanket, lying at the bottom of the dry-well.  He climbed down to hug some warmth back into it.  It was a baby girl.  Those who snatched it did not know it was a girl, and finding later that it was, left it in this old well to die.

     He walked back to the village with the precious bundle of life.  The villagers came running.  They were amazed and overjoyed as they led him to the cottage of the poor couple, and the smile on the mother’s face as he placed her baby into her lap was unforgettable.  “Come, warm yourself by the fire” said the husband.  They drew up a chair for him, and as the other villagers crowded round, he asked, “Who was that God you prayed to?”

     What an invitation.  Here he was, the honored guest, looking at thirty eager people, waiting with bated breath to hear the gospel.  “Well,” he began, “He came to earth in the form of a little baby, just about this time 2000 years ago…”

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Luke 2:10-12  —  The angel said unto them, “Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

Matthew 28:18-20  —  Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Psalm 77:13b-14  —  What god is as great as our God?  You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples.

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O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

–Book of Common Prayer

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1720) God’s Christmas Surprise for Us (part two of two)

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       (continued…)  When I was a child, it never would have occurred to me to be afraid of God.  After all, every week at Sunday School in the old church basement we sang “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  But the more I have seen of the world and of myself, the better I understand that we might well be afraid of God.  The familiar catechism phrase says “we should fear and love God,” and it is important to think about what fear might have to do with Christmas.

            As I said, as a child I did not understand why the catechism said I should fear God; but I did know what it meant to fear my father.  He was not mean to my siblings and me, nor was he unreasonably harsh in his discipline.  But when we pushed our more lenient mother too far, and she said she would tell Dad, we knew it was time to back off.  We feared getting in trouble with Dad, who always said he was from ‘the old school’ and proud of it.  And his anger and strict discipline was not because he did not love us.  Rather it was because he loved us all equally—and he did not want us older and stronger kids beating up on, or taking advantage of, the smaller and weaker ones, even if they were pests.  Nor did he want us growing up without respect for authority, be it his own, or my mother’s, or the schoolteachers.  Nor did he want us neglecting our responsibilities.  So, for all sorts of good and loving reasons, he could get very angry, and his wrath was to be feared.  Every little sinner needs someone like that to fear in that way.

            With that in mind, just think of how anger must rise within God as he looks at what humankind has done to the good world God created and gave to us; and when he sees what his children do to each other.  Imagine God’s wrath as he looks around the world and sees not one country, not one home, not one heart in the entire world that is not corrupted by sin.  Think of all the wars past, present, and in the making, about to erupt any time.  Think of all the countries where religious freedom is denied, and Christians are persecuted and killed for proclaiming the name of Jesus.  Think of the victims of crime, abused spouses, neglected children, the hungry, and the homeless.  The more we understand this, the more we might well be afraid of the wrath of God.  Christmas is the story of God coming to earth.  We have many reasons to fear such a coming and not welcome it.

            This does not just involve all the disturbing stories on the news, but also each one of us.  It is not only ‘someone else’ who makes God angry, but you and me.  How angry it must make God to see us squabble and bicker in our homes over trivialities, when he has given us so much.  How angry it must make God to see us, who have been blessed more than anyone on earth, still not be satisfied, but envy those who have more or better.  How angry it must make God to see so many who call themselves His children ignore him, approaching their faith so half-heartedly, and seeing God as an intrusion in their important lives.  How angry it must make God to see how miserable we make things for each other.  The more one thinks about it, the more we might well fear the wrath of an angry God.  We are so used to hearing of forgiveness and love and grace and all the other pleasant thoughts that we don’t even think about the wrath of God.  Both are in God’s Word, and we must remember to ‘fear and love God.’

            At Christmas time we celebrate God’s coming to us, but all common sense and logic would tell us that meeting God should be a thing to be feared and dreaded.  The high standards for life God has set forth or us in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount bear no resemblance to life as it is on this planet, and God has every right and reason to come in anger and violence.

          But the angel comes to Mary to tell her that God is coming, not in anger or wrath, but as a baby– a tiny, helpless, vulnerable, little baby, who cannot hurt anyone.  The prophet Isaiah had foretold it when he said, “Unto us a son is given; unto us a child is born, and his name shall be (among other things) the Prince of Peace.”  Years later, the angel said to Mary, “Do not be afraid.  You will give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus, and he will be great and he will be called the Son of the most high, and his kingdom will never end.”

            The Christmas story is so familiar that if we don’t pay close attention, we can miss all of its most important lessons.  And one the most important lessons, and biggest surprises, is that when God comes into this fallen and wicked world, he does not come in wrath, but says to Mary and to the shepherds and 363 other times in the Bible, “Do not be afraid.”

            This does mean that God is no longer angry about our sin.  There is as much of the wrath of God in the New Testament as in the Old Testament.  But in the New Testament we see it all dealt with on a single afternoon, on a hill outside of Jerusalem.  It happened 33 years after that ‘silent, holy night’ of Jesus’s birth; when Jesus, the grown man, was crucified and put to death.  There was even more reason for God to be angry.  But there and then, somehow, the justice and mercy of God came together, and the forgiveness of sins was won for all people, all who would receive it, all who would look to Jesus in faith. 

            And on the third day, when the tomb burst open and Jesus rose from the dead, there was again, great fear all around.  But once again, the first words of the angel were, “Do not be afraid.  He is risen.”  God comes not in anger, but rather submits himself to the anger of men, and dies, and then he rises.  And he says to you, “I have come so that you may believe in me and be saved.”

1719) God’s Christmas Surprise For Us (part one of two)

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Clarence Oddbody, George Bailey’s guardian angel

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          In Luke 1:26-38 an angel of the Lord appeared to Mary to tell her that she, a virgin, would be giving birth to Jesus, the Son of God, whose ‘kingdom will never end.’  In verse thirty, the angel says to Mary, “Do not be afraid.”  Those words are also in the next chapter.  When the angel appeared to the shepherds out in the fields tending their flocks by night, the first thing the angel said to them was, “Do not be afraid;” or, in many translations, “Fear not.”

            Why do angels always have to say “Fear not”?  When I come up to someone to talk to them, I don’t start out by saying “Fear not,” so why should an angel?  Angels are nice, aren’t they?  After all, in the movies, angels are always friendly and kind and want to help you.  So why do angels in the Bible always start out with “Do not be afraid?”  They did have to say that because verse 29 says that Mary was greatly troubled, and in the next chapter, it says the shepherds were terrified by the angels. (I like how the old King James Version put it.  It says the disciples were ‘sore afraid’— so afraid that it hurt.)  But why?  Clarence Oddbody, the guardian angel second class in the 1946 movie classic It’s a Wonderful Life, didn’t look scary at all.  He was a cheerful, funny angel, and he didn’t say to “Fear not” when he appeared to Jimmy Stewart.  So why all the fear in the Bible?

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            Well, Mary and Joseph and the shepherds were too poor to go to movies, so they just had to rely on what the Bible itself said about angels—and there we find a somewhat different picture.  They did not yet have the New Testament, but they did have all of what we now call the Old Testament, and there, angels brought the wrath and punishment of God just as often as they brought the love of God.  It was an angel with a flaming sword that stood at the entrance to the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve were cast out to make sure no one would ever get back in.  It was an angel of death what passed through Egypt in the tenth plague, taking the life of the first born in every family.  And, it was an angel that swept through the camp of King Sennacherib just as he was about to invade Jerusalem, killing all 185,000 soldiers.   In the Old Testament, you did not want to be ‘Touched by An Angel,’ like in that old television series, because that usually meant ending up dead.  And that did not happen only in the Old Testament.  Acts chapter 12:23  says: “Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.”  That’s what can happen when you get ‘touched by an angel’ in the Bible.

            So maybe Mary and Joseph and the shepherds had a good reason to be terrified at the sight of an angel, and the angels had a good reason to begin their visits by saying, “Do not be afraid; because I am bringing you good news of a great joy that will be for all people.”  Do not be afraid.  I am not here to kill you, but to tell you some good news.

            What is that good news?  Well, it had to do with birth, not death.  In Luke 1:30-31 the angel said to Mary, “You have found favor with God, and you will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.”  And to the shepherds in chapter two the angel says, “Today, in the city of David, a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord; and this will be a sign to you.  You will find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”  A baby, said the angel.

            This story is so familiar that we might miss the main point.  But think about it, the story of Christmas is the story of God coming to earth, which He created and rules, and He comes as a baby.  Of all the ways God could appear to us, who would have expected he would come as a baby?  In the Old Testament, God makes his appearances in ways we might expect—in earthquakes, whirlwinds, clouds of fire, burning bushes that do not burn up, bolts of fire coming out of heaven to ignite Elijah’s water soaked altar, and so forth.  God appears with unmistakable power and overwhelming strength—just as one might expect.  No surprises there.  So what does it mean that here, in this story, in God’s most important appearance in all human history, that he comes as a baby?

            The message of the angels to the shepherds on that very first Christmas Eve spoke of peace.  Now while a baby is not always quiet, a baby is certainly not threatening.  Therefore, at least a part of the meaning of God’s coming to earth as a baby has to do with this absence of threat or violence in the story.  “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given” we sing.  Silent.  Peaceful.  Non-threatening.  Think about holding an infant in your arms.  They are so small and vulnerable and helpless.  It makes some people (including me) nervous to even hold a baby because they are afraid of hurting them.  We want to be very careful.  But we know that a baby cannot hurt us.

            One of the blessed truths of the Christmas story is that God does not want to hurt us.  He wants us to receive him, and believe in him, and trust in him, and not be afraid.  God comes to us as a baby, in peace and in love.  “Do not be afraid.”  (continued…)

1718) Christmas Traditions (part three of three)

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“Silent Night”  1891, Viggo Johansen (Denmark, 1851-1935) 

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     (…continued)  Whether or not an evergreen tree ever grew on the spot where Boniface cut down the sacred Oak of Thor, the connection of the Christmas tree to that legend is a reminder that the birth of Jesus in that lonely stable led to a worldwide movement.  The angels’ announcement to the shepherds on that first Christmas night was that a Savior was born, and that this was good news of a great joy to all people.  That baby would grow up, and as a young man gather some disciples around himself.  He would teach them for three years, and then send them to the ends of the earth with the Gospel message of salvation in Him.  They would not get all around the world in that first generation, and some places, like the most remote areas of Germany, had to wait for seven centuries; and some are still waiting.  The shepherds were the first to spread the good news, and from then on it was people like Boniface that carried out the work, often at the cost of their own lives.

     In spite of the uncertain origin of the tradition of the Christmas tree, it has come to symbolize many different things.  There is often a star at the top, symbolizing the star in the story of the Magi.  There are the lights on the tree– electric bulbs, or, candles in the old days, symbolizing Christ as the light of the world.  And the ornaments, especially on church Christmas trees, have often been symbols of the Christian faith.

     There is one other symbolic use of the tree that is not as often remembered.  This was from the days before artificial trees.  Back then, in some churches the trunk of the Christmas tree was stripped of all its branches, and then that wood would be used to make the cross to be put in the front of the church during Lent the next year.  This would serve as a reminder that this child in the wooden manger was born to suffer and to die, years later, on a wooden cross.  This is what old Simeon declared when Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus into the temple for the first time a few days after his birth.  “A sword will pierce your soul,” he said to the baby’s mother, and we who know the rest of the story can already picture her grieving at the foot of the cross.  But Simeon also said that this child would mean the promise of salvation for all people.  Although Mary’s heart would be pierced with grief by the sight of her son’s death on the cross, the empty cross would become the symbol of our eternal salvation.  The use of a tree as a Christmas tree in a home always means the death of that tree, just as the birth of the Son of God as a human would mean that he would die a death like every other human being ever born.

     But then would come the most important part of the whole story, the main event of all history, which was when Jesus Christ would rise from the dead.  The birth of Jesus at Christmas is just beginning of the greatest story ever told. It is the story of God who became a man, entered our lives, and then suffered and died; in order that we might be forgiven and live eternally with him, in his home.

     Believe it, and you will be saved, for “Unto you,” said the angels, “a Savior has been born.”

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Luke 2:8-12  —  There were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

Luke 2:16-18  —  So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.  When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child,  and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

Luke 2:34-35  —    Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.  And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

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O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
How sturdy God hath made thee!
Thou bidd’st us all place faithfully
Our trust in God, unchangingly!
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
How sturdy God hath made thee!

–verse added in early 20th century to the 1824 German Christmas carol O Tannenbaum

1717) Christmas Traditions (part two of three)

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Iraqi Christians and Christmas tree

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     (…continued)  One of the most universal of Christmas traditions is the Christmas tree.  Putting up a Christmas tree in a public area is much safer than putting up a nativity scene; but even the tree has in many places become controversial.  To make sure no one is offended, many have taken to calling them simply ‘holiday tree,’ but even that is now offensive to the hyper-sensitive.  Actually, the history of the Christmas tree indicates that it may have had its beginning in a similar controversy between Christian belief and opponents of that belief.

     The first reliable historical evidence of the use of Christmas trees can be found in Germany in the 1500’s.  In the early part of that century there is some informal mention in letters and personal papers of the use of a live tree as an indoor Christmas decoration.  In the year 1539 there is the first official record of a Christmas tree being set up in a church for Christmas worship. By late 1500’s, there are Christmas songs appearing that sing of the tree as a part of the traditional celebration.  

     In the first half of that century Martin Luther was alive and changing the world.  This has led to speculation that Luther was the one who invented the Christmas tree.  One story is that on a clear winter night Luther was walking outside and he saw the bright stars in the sky shining through the branches if an evergreen tree.  It was so beautiful that it gave him the idea to bring a tree into the house, and put some candles on it.  This makes for a nice story, but scholars, who have for centuries been going over Martin Luther’s life and writings with a fine tooth comb, have never found anything to indicate this legend is true.  But the rest of the story about the Christmas tree originating is Germany in the 1500’s is a matter of historical record.

     To go back any farther, however, we have to read between the lines of history a bit, along with getting the help of a few old legends which may not be reliable.  First, you have to know a little bit about St. Boniface.  Just as St. Patrick is the patron saint of Irish Christianity, St. Boniface is the patron saint of German Christianity.  Both Patrick and Boniface were born in England, and both left England to spend their lives as missionaries among the pagan barbarians; Patrick in Ireland and Boniface among the German peoples.  Boniface served in what is now Germany for forty years.  In his late 70’s he was still pushing the frontier, entering new areas to proclaim the Gospel of salvation in Christ Jesus.  Though the church was by then well established in some areas, he was still unknown, or, known and opposed, in many places.  In his 80th year, during a confirmation service, Boniface and everyone with him were massacred by a mob from a hostile tribe.

     Boniface had originally gained the respect of the German people by fearlessly tackling their heathen superstitions head-on.  The most famous story from his life was when he met with hostile tribesman at their most holy site, the Sacred Oak Tree of Thor.  Thor was their God, after whom our day Thursday was named.  Boniface threatened to cut down that sacred tree.  The tribesmen said they would kill him if he did.  Boniface said that if Thor was any kind of God he should be able to protect himself and his tree.  Boniface also told them that he trusted in the true God, and did not fear Thor, and was not afraid to cut the tree down.  The people could then watch and see whose God was greater.  Admiring his courageous willingness to take on who they believed to be God; and, quite sure that Thor himself would strike Boniface dead on the spot, the tribesman allowed the test to continue.  Boniface cut the tree down, and the people saw that Thor did not intervene.  Boniface then used the wood from that tree to build a chapel.  Having won their respect and admiration, the Germans were willing to hear him preach about his obviously more powerful God, and Boniface was off to a very good start.

     The basic outline of that story is pretty well established, but the details are told in differing ways in different accounts.  There is not much of a written record, and there is probably a bit of a blend of history and legend in the story as it is now told.

     The next part, the Christmas tree part of the story, has but the flimsiest historical evidence.   Legend has it that on the spot where Boniface cut down the Sacred Oak of Thor, an evergreen tree began to grow.  In his preaching, Boniface would point to that new tree, referring to the triangular shape of the tree as an illustration of the three persons of the Holy Trinity; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  One would not want to stake too much on the historical accuracy of that story, but even as an old legend, it may have influenced someone somewhere along the line to get the idea of using a tree to celebrate Christ’s birth.  Wherever the idea of the Christmas tree came from, it certainly did catch on.  (continued…)

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A challenge similar to the one made by St. Boniface:

I Kings 18:21-24  —  Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions?  If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”  But the people said nothing.  Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets.  Get two bulls for us.  Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it.  I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it.  Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord.  The god who answers by fire—he is God.”  Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”

For the rest of the story, read all of I Kings 18 (spoiler alert: Elijah wins).

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BLESSING OF A CHRISTMAS TREE:

Dear God, two thousand years ago, you brought your son, Jesus into this world to teach us the power of love and sacrifice.  As we raise this tree, we remember his birth and the meaning of his life for us.  Bless this tree as a symbol of our celebration of Jesus’ birth and our gratitude for his sacrifice.  May the joy this tree brings and the gifts we place under it remind us of the many gifts you have given us.  We ask your blessings upon our loved ones, this day and always.  Amen.

–From Catholic On-line at: http://www.catholic.org

1716) Christmas Traditions (part one of three)

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(Belated)

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    Two old girl-friends from high school ran into each other as they were going into a high priced restaurant.  They introduced their husbands, chatted a bit about school days, and then each said they had to leave.  They were meeting some others inside for dinner.  “We are here for our wedding anniversary,” said one, and then asked, “Are you here for anything special?”  “Oh yes,” said the other, “we are here to celebrate our little boy’s third birthday.”  “Oh,” said the friend, obviously puzzled; “but where is he?”  “Well, we left him at home with the babysitter,” said the other, “he is too little to bring to a place like this.”  And the two couples went their separate ways.  “Isn’t that odd?” said the one lady to her husband; “Imagine that, not even including the little fellow in his own birthday celebration.”

     Indeed, who could ever imagine such a thing; that is, unless you count the way Christmas is celebrated by many people.  The Christmas story, of course, has always had something to do with the birthday of a very special child, but many will decorate for the holidays, buy gifts, and make many other elaborate plans and arrangements for their celebration; but at no time in any of it will the birth of the Son of God enter into their mind.  We’ve come a long way from the early days of our country, when in some colonies it was against the law to celebrate Christmas with any kind of outward celebration other than going to church (in order to prevent any distractions from the real purpose of the day).  That kind of legalism may not be necessary, but there is indeed something quite odd about the new legalism of today, which has come to mean that in many settings it is against the law to even mention the true meaning of Christmas (though no one objects to the day off).

      Historically, there have been a several interesting twists and turns in the way this day has been observed.  December 25th actually started out as a pagan holiday in the ancient Roman Empire, celebrating the birth of the ‘sun god,’ and having something to do with the winter solstice, the days starting to get longer, and all of that.  In the fourth century A.D., the Roman Empire was in the process of changing gods.  After his own conversion to Christ in 312 A.D., Emperor Constantine decided to make Christianity the official religion of the entire Roman Empire.  This reflected not only his own new found faith, but also the fact that for many years Christianity had been growing, and was now the most widespread and influential religion in the empire.  The Christian Church could now serve as a tool to unify the widespread and diverse empire; so perhaps Constantine’s religious zeal was motivated by politics (if you can imagine that).

            No longer needing a day to worship the largely forgotten sun god, Constantine encouraged the making of December 25th the day to remember the birth of the Son of God, one who brings another kind of ‘light into the world.’  The New Testament does not tell us actual date of the birth of Jesus, and before Constantine, it was not celebrated on December 25th.  But ever since Constantine, this date has been firmly set as the day to remember the birth of Christ.  It is ironic that for many people in the world, December 25th has now again become completely emptied of any Christian meaning.  (continued…)

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John 1:1-14  —  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  There was a man sent from God whose name was John.  He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe.  He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.  The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.  Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.  The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

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O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light.

–O Come, O Come, Immanuel, verse 3, 12th century antiphon, translated by John Mason Neale, 1851

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1715) What is Your Name?

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By Rick Warren at:  http://www.pastorrick.org, December 15, 2017.

     God allows a crisis to get our attention, and then he uses the crisis to develop our character.  One thing that signals we’re changing for the better is when we confess that we’re the problem.  We stop blaming other people and admit, “I am the problem with my life.”  Until we understand this, there can be no major change in our lives.  This is the breakthrough God knows we need.

     In Genesis 32, God asks Jacob, “What is your name?”  This is a very strange request, because God obviously already knew Jacob’s name.  In ancient cultures, you were always named for your character — what you really were.  Your name might be Tall or Short, or your name might be Brave or Lazy.  Your given name was your label.  It wasn’t just something that sounded nice. It represented your character.

     That was a problem for Jacob, because “Jacob” means “deceiver, manipulator, liar.”  And Jacob lived up to his name!  When Jacob says, “My name is Jacob,” it is an act of confession.  He’s admitting, “I am a manipulator.”

     Whenever I read this verse, I wonder what it would be like to be named for your greatest character fault: “Hi, I’m Greedy.”  “Hi, I’m Gossip.”  What would be your name?  Bitter?  Angry?  Uncontrollable Temper?  Lustful?  Afraid?

     Here’s what we need to understand: We will never be able to change until we openly and honestly and authentically admit our sin, our weakness, our faults, our frailty, and our character defects and confess this to ourselves, to God, and to other people.

     One of the most humbling things in the world is to go, “This is who I am.  I am a __________.”  You fill in the blank.  “I am a worrier … I am a domineering person … I am a person who runs from conflict … I am an addict.”  Just admit it.  Stop making excuses.  Stop rationalizing.  Stop justifying.  Stop blaming other people.  You’ve got to come clean about what everybody else sees but you won’t admit.

     God will not be surprised when you come to God and say, “God, I want to own up to the weaknesses and the wrong in my life.  This is who I really am.”  God already knows what you are, but he needs you to confess so the work of change can begin.  God’s forgiveness and grace is bigger than anything wrong you’ve ever done or will do.

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Genesis 32:27b  —  “What is your name?”  “Jacob,” he answered.

I John 1:8-9  —  If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

Psalm 32:3-6a  —  When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.  For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.  Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity.  I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.”  And you forgave the guilt of my sin.  Therefore let all the faithful pray to you.

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PSALM 51:1-4…9-12:

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight…

Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

1714) Home for Christmas (part two of two)

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    (…continued)  It is interesting that Jesus, born to show all the world the way home, was not even born at home.  He was not born in a house at all, but in a stable, in a strange town, a long way from Joseph’s current home.  Then, because of the threat of Herod, God told Joseph to go to Egypt to protect the life of Jesus.  Only after two years there did the young family return home to Nazareth.  

     It appears that for a time Jesus had no home in his adult life either.  In Matthew 8:20 Jesus said to the crowd, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”  But even such homelessness for the Son of God showed that he had another home in mind.

      So going home for Christmas is a most appropriate way to celebrate this time of year; home, that place of security and love we all desire.  There is much truth in the old cliché, “There’s no place like home.”

     But we do need to be realistic about these things.  Home is where the heart is, yes, but in this sinful world, home is also where a lot of other things are.  It’s where husband and wife can get into a bitter argument about some stupid little thing and end up saying things that should never be said.  Home is the place where a rebellious teenager can set everyone on edge and turn the whole place into a battleground for five years.  Home is the place where quarreling children can slowly drain a tired mother of her remaining energy and sanity.  Home is where insensitive and cruel parents can put their children through a daily nightmare for years.  Home is a place where all understanding can break down between in-laws, resulting in cold shoulders and tense visits (or no visits at all).  Home is fertile ground for producing guilt, and some are skilled at keeping that guilt alive for years.  Home is where old people, set in their ways, can irritate each other endlessly with their unbending stubbornness.  Home is where we are best known and therefore most capable of hurting and being hurt.  Home is where past wrongs can be forever remembered and all too often reviewed.

    We can’t get too sentimental about such a thing as “home.”  We know too well what can all go on there.  Some homes are, of course, happier than others.  But even the most perfect homes are, in the end, shattered by death.  We make our homes, yes, but it is always with a mixture of love and anxiety.  Every home is under the constant attack by those three enemies listed in the catechism, sin, death, and the power of the devil.  Life lived under those conditions always cries out for more: more love, joy, peace, contentment, harmony, and more time.  Jesus was born to bring us to a more perfect home, a home restored to all the goodness that was intended from the beginning; a home of love without anxiety, joy without frustration, harmony without discord, and gratitude without resentment.  It will be a home where all old wounds will be healed and all misunderstandings will cease.

     In this world of sin and death, our homes are never what they could or should be.  Our best attempts at love and care always fall short.  But imperfect as it is here, we know what it should be like, and we keep trying to get it.  Some keep muddling along, hoping that things will get better, and that’s often the best we can do.  Others leave one home after another, pursuing that elusive, impossible dream, while leaving a trail of broken hearts behind.  And others, it seems, have it made, a wonderful home; but even they know their near-perfect home can be ended at any time by death.  

      But God has promises for us of a home beyond all imagination.  While calling us to responsible living in our homes now, God reminds us of that home to come where we will find that perfect peace we seek.  Jesus came to show us the way there.

     In the last verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” we sing:

Yet in the dark street shineth

The everlasting light.

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight.

     “The hopes and fears of all the years.”  That one line covers a lot of ground.  Think of your own life— the hopes you have of things that will work out, get better, blow over, or whatever; and the fears for troubled loved ones, fears of an uncertain future, fears of a certain death.  Your hopes and fears cover a good share of what you think about in a day.  The verse speaks of the hopes and fears of all the years, of all the people who ever lived, of all the homes there ever were.  Those hopes and fears are all met “in Thee tonight.”  Jesus, the everlasting light, comes to show us the way home to that place where our deepest hopes are fulfilled, where our most frightening fears are relieved.  In his life and ministry, Jesus also shows us the way life is best lived right now, the way of forgiveness and love and contentment, that can begin to lift our homes out of their bondage to sin and into God’s light.  “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”  What a great way to describe the meaning of Christ’s birth at Christmas.

     It is a great tradition that brings families home for Christmas.  It is the ultimate gift of Christmas that God himself becomes a person, like us, to draw us into His home.  Let that promise of God’s love and care and guidance calm your fearful heart as you view your earthly home with mixed emotions.  See in that Christmas gift from God the way to that home.

1713) Home for Christmas (part one of two)

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Magazine advertisement from 1945, the year World War II ended.

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     Christmas is the time of year to go home.  Or, it is the time for families to get together.  Or, you might say, those two are much the same thing.  When you are with the people you love, the people you’ve known all your life, you feel ‘at home,’ no matter what building or what city you happen to be in.  All the better, of course, if you can be in the house in which you grew up, or, raised your family in.  But that is not what is most important.  “Home is where the heart is,” says the old cliché; and our hearts reach out to those we love at Christmas.  It is the time to go home to them.

     Families can’t always get together for Christmas.  There is the old problem faced by many married couples of which home do we go to this year?  There are those who live too far away and cannot make it home.  There are those who, because of past strife and old wounds, refuse to get together with the family.  And there are those many families that have been torn apart by death, whose loved ones will never join them for another Christmas.  For whatever reason, families drift apart or are torn apart, and at no other time of year is the absence of loved ones more keenly felt than at Christmas.

     But for those who can get together, Christmas is the favorite time of year to go home.  Turn the TV on in December and you see tear-jerking stories of families reunited, at home, for Christmas.  Turn on the radio and you will hear songs of going home for Christmas.  Many of us see relatives we might not see all year except at Christmas.  And we all have our yearly traditional rituals and foods to make us feel even more ‘at home.’

     What is it about “home” that we so look forward to at Christmas?  It is, of course, love, and the opportunity to see loved ones again.  It’s the sense of belonging that comes with being a part of a family.  And it’s the sense of security that comes with being in familiar surroundings.  We go home for Christmas to find all of that, even though we may never give it a thought. 

     Actually, we look for those same things in our whole life, and ask the same things of life itself.  We seek love and a sense of security and a place to belong.  Much of what we do in life can be seen in terms of ‘making a home for ourselves;’ not only establishing a place where our physical needs are met; but having a family and finding friends that we can know and love and share our lives with.  We work to have a place we can call our own, a place of comfort and familiarity and security.  So we go home for Christmas to find a little piece of what we look for in all of life.  We try to find our place in life, that which is right for us; our home.

     There are those for whom thoughts of home bring pleasant memories and warm feelings.  There are also those for whom thoughts of home bring sadness and frustration.  There are those who have no family or home to return to.  There are those who don’t want to return.  There are those who have not yet found their place in the world, and who do not feel at home anywhere.  They have not yet found their place of security and love and comfort.  And, of course, ours is an age of broken homes, and at Christmas the brokenness is felt all the more.

     The thought of “home” does not give rise to perfectly pleasant feelings in all people.  In fact, I would suspect that the thought of “home” gives rise in all of us to a mixture of emotions— emotions of happiness and sadness, feelings of love along with frustrations, responses of gratitude and disappointment, feelings of pride and guilt, times of comfort and times of uncertainty.  It is within our relationships with our families and our search for our “home” that we feel our most intense hopes and our most crushing disappointments.

     Home— our parents’ home, the home we make for ourselves, the home we make for our children, the home we bring friends to— there in that home is the potential for some of life’s greatest joys.  But it is also where we can be hit with life’s hardest blows.

     Our habit of going home for Christmas is one tradition that fits in quite well with the spiritual, God-given, meaning and purpose of Christmas; much better than thoughts of Santa Claus, colored lights, too much food, and too many presents.  Because of government decree, Mary and Joseph made the long journey to Joseph’s home town, Bethlehem.  And Jesus come into the world to show a lost mankind the way home.

     In John 14, Jesus told the disciples about his Father’s house, in which there are many rooms.  He then told them that he would be going on ahead to prepare a place for them in that home; and, that he would one day return to take them, and all who would believe in him, back to be with him and the Father in that home.  In the beautiful parable of the Prodigal Son, the wayward son wastes his life in a far country.  But the happy ending is that he comes home to his Father’s house, and his Father welcomes him with open arms.  That’s the way it works, says Jesus,—”Believe in me and come on home.”

     In John’s wonderful vision of heaven in Revelation (in the best chapter of the whole book; chapter 21), the loud voice from the throne says, “God’s home will be with mankind, and he will live with them.”  There is much of the same in the rest of the New Testament.  The Bible often describes us as ‘sojourners’ here on earth, on our way to our real home in Heaven.  Jesus was born into the world to seek and to save the lost, taking us by the hand to bring us home.  (continued…)

1712) An Ever Expanding Perspective

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     In Isaiah 64:1 Isaiah prayed to the Lord, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down.”  In the manger in Bethlehem on that first Christmas, God did.   It is for us to believe that in Jesus, God has indeed come down to us.

     “Well, that’s fine,” some might say, “but I’ve heard it all before.  But what I really want is for the cancer to be gone now; to get that job in what I have been trained for so I can get out of debt now; to be reconciled to my loved one now; for the pain to go away now,” etc.  God certainly wants us to bring all those concerns to him.  And it is difficult to understand what God is and is not doing in our world and in our lives right now.  There remains much to pray for, much to suffer, and much to wonder about.

     But we are given Jesus, God Himself who did come down from heaven to earth, as a baby.  Jesus, who lived a life like we are living, problems and all, and then died a death like we must die.  But then Jesus rose from the dead and gave us the promise that we too will rise from the dead, if we believe in Him.  In the Christmas story, God himself does come down to us, and in that story is the promise of eternal life.

     That promise, when believed and taken to heart, gives us a larger perspective that changes everything.  It is the promise of a time and place where there will be no more tears or pain.  It is the promise of a time and place where all relationships will be healed and we will be at peace.  It is the promise that even if the cancer gets the last word ‘here,’ it does not get the last word ‘there,’ because we can say with Paul in Romans, “whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”  Christmas changes everything.

     This is not to make light of our day to day problems right now—some of which God takes away from us and some of which he does not.  But with this eternal perspective we can say as it says in the Bible, “Our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us.”  We need that perspective.  We need to see all things in the context of eternity.

   Children have a much smaller perspective than adults.  They will have great anxiety about things that seem insignificant to their parents and other adults– a toy that breaks, or a broken arm during summer vacation, or not getting invited to a birthday party that everyone else is going to, or striking out in the big game, or not being able to afford clothes with the right kind of label.  These can be huge matters to a child.  “That’s okay,” parents tell them, “it’s not the end of the world; and trust me, someday you’ll forget all about this.”  From past experience, adults have a larger, lifelong perspective.  They know that broken arms heal, friends come and go, and even favorite toys are soon outgrown and forgotten.  They know that time passes, life goes on, and what seems to the child like big problems, are not really so big and bad after all.  They also know that those painful bumps and bruises are a necessary part of growing up.  The struggles they endure prepare them to be better and wiser and stronger.  Adults tell children all this, and adults are right.   They have a larger perspective on life that gives them that wisdom.  But if you have ever had such a conversation with a child, you know how hard it is for children to understand, and to see things from that larger perspective.

     In the same way, adults get anxious about other bigger, more unmanageable, and more long-lasting problems– things like debilitating illness, disappointed hopes and dreams that will never happen, old age, and death.  But God, in the Bible, opens our eyes to an even larger perspective, in much the same way.  “Trust me,” God says, “It is not so bad, and it will one day be better.”  Even if it is the end of the world for you, that’s not a problem for God, who has another place prepared for us.  Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid.  Believe in me and trust me.  I have gone on ahead to prepare a place for you.”

     One morning many years ago, Tony woke up and saw in the mirror the biggest pimple of his life, right at the end of his nose, and right in time for the prom, for which he had his dream date.  This is the sort of thing you see on television commercials.  Well, it really happened to Tony, and he was quite sure that was the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone.  He was in despair and inconsolable.  But now, whenever that record-breaking pimple is remembered, there is great laughter by all, even him.  He now has a larger perspective on such problems.

     When we get to heaven, I don’t think we will be laughing about cancer and strokes and heart attacks and unemployment and depression and dementia.  But we will certainly view them much differently from that larger perspective.

     It might be like a married couple talking about their 65 years of married life.  They faced many problems together over all those years:  Getting married and buying a business in the same year, constant financial pressure for years as they struggled to make ends meet, their first child in and out of the hospital eight times before he was a year old, raising four children of their own and two foster children, caring for their elderly parents, arguments about everything under the sun, the wife’s cancer which was cured, and then a stroke which left her in a wheel chair with her husband as her caregiver for the last 15 years, and so forth.  We can all make our own long list.  But as this couple now looks back now, it is with a peaceful contentment.  Many of those struggles and battles are behind them; and they can look back with a sense of quiet satisfaction, and even some pleasure, at all those things that at one time looked so sad and insurmountable.  Someone once said, “What was difficult to endure, can be sweet to remember.”  Things look much different from the perspective of being 86 years old, than when you are 36 years old. 

     Things will look infinitely different from our home in heaven.  Then we will understand more fully what it means that Jesus came down to be with us, and promised to bring us back with him to that heaven.  May you all know and believe in the joy of the Christ Child.

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John 14:1-3  —  (Jesus said), “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  You believe in God; believe also in me.  My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

Revelation 21:4  —  (God) will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

Romans 8:18  —  I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.

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Away in a Manger, (verse three):

Be near us, Lord Jesus, we ask thee to stay,

Close by us forever and love us we pray;

Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,

And take us to heaven to live with thee there.