1354) Christmas Peace

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Luke 2:13-14  —  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

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CHRISTMAS MORNING by Larry Kiewel

I awoke.

Always a surprise, actually.

I lay quietly

As first light began its progress.

Precipitation was chased against

My window by a gale force wind.

The dog lay quietly on the floor.

My partner slept loudly beside me.

I did an inventory.

I was warm and dry.

I knew where all my children were.

I knew that their children were

Safe and warm and as

Happy as young people can be.

What a blessing to wake on a

Blessed morning to peace

In my miniature world.

Perhaps every morning

Is a Christmas morning.

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Not everyone awakes this morning to such peace in their ‘miniature world,’ but we can, as the poem expresses nicely, be grateful for the blessings of whatever temporary peace we do have in this life, for however long it lasts.  And because ‘a Savior has been born to us,’ we can rejoice in the promise of that eternal peace in God’s eternal home.

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Colossians 1:2b  —  Grace and peace to you from God our Father.

James 1:17  —  Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father…

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A PRAYER FOR CHRISTMAS MORNING
By Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933), from A Treasury of Christmas Stories

The day of joy returns, Father in Heaven, and crowns another year with peace and good will.

Help us rightly to remember the birth of Jesus, that we may share in the song of the angels, the gladness of the shepherds, and the worship of the wise men.

Close the doors of hate and open the doors of love all over the world.

Let kindness come with every gift and good desires with every greeting.

Deliver us from evil, by the blessing that Christ brings, and teach us to be merry with clean hearts.

May the Christmas morning make us happy to be Thy children, and the Christmas evening bring us to our bed with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

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1351) Feeling Sorry for the Shepherds

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Dutch painter Govaert Flinck (1615-1650);  Angels Announcing Christ’s birth to the Shepherds (1639)

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     I have often wondered about the shepherds in the Christmas story.  Luke 2:20 says that after they saw the baby Jesus “they returned glorifying and praising God,” and they “made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child” (verse 17).  I wonder how that went.  Verse 18 says “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.”

     But then what?  Perhaps after such an announcement everyone was expecting more angels, more announcements, and more fanfare.  But there was nothing.  Mary and Joseph and the newborn Savior were not escorted to the palace or even the temple.  The baby was given no special honor.  In fact, when Herod heard about a newborn king, he sent soldiers out to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem under two years old.  That probably made everyone a little less amazed and a little more skeptical of the shepherds’ message.  Was the baby even still alive?  Joseph and Mary escaped to Egypt before Herod’s massacre, so they were safe.  But did anyone in Bethlehem know that?  Did the shepherds even know it?  Probably not.  Matthew 2:14 tells us the Holy Family left during the night after Joseph was warned in a dream of Herod’s intent.

     So nothing out of the ordinary happened after that extraordinary night; nothing for the next 30 years that would publicly confirm the angel’s message on that first Christmas night.  There was no further indication that the young couple in the stable that night was anything more than just another poor family going through a bad time.

     When you think about it, you have to feel sorry for the shepherds.  I do.  Some of them may well have died over the next thirty years without ever seeing anything else come of the angel’s message.  Can you imagine how it might have gone for them after the initial excitement wore off, and the skepticism began to set in?  The shepherds would go into the local café for a donut and coffee, and one of the local big mouths would yell out, “Hey boys, were there any angels singing to you last night?”

     Perhaps the shepherds themselves began to wonder.  After all, they saw angels on just one night, and then nothing else for all those years.  Then, of course, they would have seen something.  Then, with Jesus being famous all over the nation, the shepherds would have been celebrities with their inside story of that awesome night three decades earlier.  This would have been especially true when Jesus entered Jerusalem as a king on Palm Sunday, and rose from the dead one week later.  Bethlehem was just a few miles down the road from Jerusalem, so then finally, the shepherds would have been vindicated.

     But until then, there was nothing of the sort.  Thirty years must have seemed like a longtime of silence.  What great excitement on the night of Jesus’ birth, and then such disappointing silence for so long.

     For me, this makes Christmas story all the more real.  This is a silence we all have experienced.  Have you ever wondered where God is, what he is doing, why he is taking so long to answer your prayers, or why he doesn’t show up when you need him?  Does it ever seem to you like God is silent?

     And isn’t it true that this silence of God is, for some, felt most of all at Christmas-time.  For those who are lonely, those who are depressed, those who have recently lost a loved one in death, and those who are troubled in any way– for all of them, Christmas can be the very worst time of year.  The loneliness is worse because this is the time everyone is getting together with loved ones.  The despair is worse because this is the time when everyone is supposed to be jolly and singing ‘Joy to the World.’  The troubled spirit is even more troubled because this is supposed to be the time of peace for all.  And the grief over lost loved ones is worse because the empty place at the table is all the more painfully felt when everyone else is there for Christmas.  We can imagine how the shepherds must have felt, seeing God and feeling his presence so profoundly, and then not seeing anything for so long.

     God can seem so very close, like at a Christmas Eve candlelight service, with everyone singing “Silent Night” by the light of a hundred candles.  But God can also seem so very far away and silent.  God acts and reveals himself when and where he pleases. 

     God may have seemed absent, but was not silent, in the Christmas story.  He sent his angels to the shepherds, and the shepherds went to the stable, and there they told their story, giving Mary plenty to ponder in her heart (Luke 2:19).

     In the story of Jesus’ birth we see both the nearness of God and the silence of God.  When it seems to you that God is silent and far away, remember how the shepherds heard that great announcement, and then faced 30 years of silence.  And remember how Mary and Joseph heard such wonderful promises, and then had to endure such a difficult night.  Perhaps when it seems God is most absent or most silent, He is, in fact, most active and present; as in the Christmas story.

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Psalm 6:3  —  My soul is in deep anguish.  How long, Lord, how long?

Psalm 22:1a and Matthew 27:46b  —  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Matthew 28:20b  —  (Jesus said), “Surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

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Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay, close by me forever, and love me I pray.

Away in a Manger (verse three)

1349) Christmas Insights

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When we give each other Christmas gifts in His name, let us remember that He has given us the sun and the moon and the stars, and the earth with its forests and mountains and oceans; and all that lives and move upon them.  He has given us all green things and everything that blossoms and bears fruit, and all that we quarrel about and all that we have misused.  And to save us from our foolishness, from all our sins, He came down to earth and gave us Himself.  –Sigrid Unset, Norwegian novelist (1882-1949)

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When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time.  Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?  –G. K. Chesterton

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Christ was born in the first century, yet he belongs to all centuries.  He was born a Jew, yet He belongs to all races.  He was born in Bethlehem, yet He belongs to all countries.  –George W. Truett

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“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
Maybe Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more!” –Dr. Suess, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, 1957

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Despite the most earnest and vigorous efforts, it has proved impossible entirely to separate Christmas from Christianity.  –G. K. Chesterton  (1874-1936)

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I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys…  And so as Tiny Tim said:  “A merry Christmas to us all, my dears.  God bless us, every one.”  –Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

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Ask your children two questions this Christmas.  First: “What do you want to give to others for Christmas?”  Second:  “What do you want for Christmas?”  The first fosters generosity of heart and an outward focus.  The second can breed selfishness if not tempered by the first.  –Anonymous

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And, while on the topic of selfishness:  Christmas is the time when kids tell Santa what they want and adults pay for it.  Deficits are when adults tell government what they want and their kids pay for it.  –Richard Lamm

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How many observe Christ’s birthday, how few, his precepts!  O! ’tis easier to keep Holidays than Commandments.  –Benjamin Franklin

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Let the children have their night of fun and laughter.  Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play.  Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and the formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.  –Winston Churchill’s Christmas Eve Message, 1941, in the early years of World War II 

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It is here, in the thing that happened at the first Christmas, that the most profound unfathomable depths of the Christian revelation lie.  God became man;… the Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless human baby, unable to do more than lie and stare and wriggle and make noises, needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child…  The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets.  Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as this truth of the incarnation.  –James Packer

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A scientist, making a plea for exchange scholarships between nations, said “The very best way to send an idea is to wrap it up in a person.”  That was what happened at Christmas.  The idea of divine love was wrapped up in a Person.  –Halford Luccock

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A prison cell– in which one waits, hopes, and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside– is not a bad picture of Advent.  –Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from a Nazi prison in WWII

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One response was given by the innkeeper when Mary and Joseph wanted to find a room where the Child could be born.  The inn-keeper was not hostile; he was not opposed to them, but his inn was crowded; his hands were full; his mind was preoccupied.  This is the answer that millions are giving today.  Like a Bethlehem innkeeper, they cannot find room for Christ.  All the accommodations in their hearts are already taken up by other crowding interests.  Their response is not atheism.  It is not defiance.  It is preoccupation and the feeling of being able to get on reasonably well without Christ.  –Billy Graham
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John 3:16-17 — For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

John 1:10-12 — 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 received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

II Corinthians 5:19 —  …God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself…

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Let every heart keep Christmas within. 

Christ’s pity for sorrow,
Christ’s hatred for sin,
Christ’s care for the weakest,
Christ’s courage for right.
Everywhere, everywhere, Christmas tonight!  

–Phillips Brooks

1348) One Thing Never Changes

     Every year brings changes into our lives, but then at the end of the year, on Christmas we are brought back to the old story that never changes: “For unto you is born this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  I hear those words and my mind goes back forty-five years to Sunday School programs and Christmas Eve candlelight services.

     I can’t hear that old story without thinking about Christmases back then when things were so much simpler.  Jesus said, “Unless you become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  At Christmas we can feel a bit like little children again—hearing the familiar old story and singing the old favorite songs about a Savior born for me.  We even see that things really can be that simple again.  When I was a small child I trusted my parents for everything.  Life was simple because it was all in their hands.  And now, by faith I can trust my heavenly Father in the same way.  It is all, still, in the good hands of another.

     The questions and cares and troubles of life remain.  Things are always changing, and oftentimes it is in ways we don’t want.  I was talking to a friend of mine after a year of several heartbreaking changes in his life, and he said to me over and over again, “Why can’t things just go back to how they used to be?”  There were too many changes for him that year.  We all feel that way sometimes, perhaps even much of the time.  But in the Christmas story we learn that what really matters never changes, because in that story we find our future story with a promise of a time and place that there will be no more unpleasant changes.

     There is something about that old story that speaks right to the center of our heart and soul and all our deepest longings.  We are drawn closer to God in this season of faith.  We are drawn closer to each other in this season of peace and good will.  It is wonderful how a story can do that.  Even church can at times get to be a part of the daily grind, as we have to always be taking care of things like bills and budgets, programs and schedules, and conflicting views of what church and worship should be like.  In the midst of all that, we may find ourselves drifting farther and farther away from Jesus.  But the Christmas story has the power to draw us back to what is real and most important: “And she brought forth her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

     This can be our anchor and stability amidst all the changes.  We have a Savior who will restore all that has been lost.  My friend wished things could go back to how they used to be.  The coming of Jesus opens up for us a future far better than anything we have ever experienced in our past.

     Until then, the changes will continue.  Who knows what we will yet have to endure, even in this coming year?  You and I may not even be alive to hear the story next Christmas.  But we need not live our lives in fear of change or even death, because we have a Savior, and that will not change.

     Near the end of his life Martin Luther wrote: “When I die, I shall see nothing but black darkness, except for this light; ‘To you is born this day a Savior.’  That light will remain in my eyes and will fill all heaven and earth.”

     August Stier, my great-great grandfather, experienced in 1875 an extraordinary year of change.  The biggest change was leaving his home in Germany to emigrate to Minnesota late in the summer.  From then on everything would be different.  There would be a new community of people to get to know, a new way of farming with land to clear and fields to plow, a new language to learn, and a new wife, with which to share life in his new home.  But just a few weeks after he arrived, he gathered with other Christians in a little country church to hear the same story he heard the previous Christmas on the other side of the world.  That much was still the same.  In the years to come he would go through many more changes, including that biggest change of all, death.  His death was almost 100 years ago, and now, all that August has left is the promise of that Savior of whose birth he heard each year.  God’s loving care of him has not changed.  It is still there for him.  Jesus still has a hold of my great-great grandfather, and won’t ever let him go, and will one day raise him from the dust of the earth.  Jesus stays with us.  He holds on to us.  That will never change.

     “Do not be afraid,” the angel said to the shepherds, “I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

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Adoration of the Shepherds, Rembrandt, 1646

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Luke 2:11  —  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

I Corinthians 15:52  —   In a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

James 1:17  —  Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

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Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see—
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

–Henry Lyte, 1847

1339) Jungle Christmas Carolers

By Joseph Degi, Copperas Cove, Texas, in Guideposts magazine, December 1988.

     None of us sailors in the 119th Construction Battalion were in the mood for Christmas.  No wonder!  Two hundred of us had been stuck for months right in the steamy middle of the tropical jungle, installing fuel tanks that were supposed to figure, somehow, in the last stages of this war with the Japanese.  It was so hot we pitched our tents on platforms and slept in hammocks to catch any passing breath of air.

     The lonesome, muggy, homesick days were far removed from the traditional Christmases we remembered.  We didn’t even have a chaplain on hand to help us celebrate.  In fact, the only regular visitors we saw were jungle tribesmen who haunted the fringes of our camp.  Dressed only in loincloths, the small bronze-skinned men would suddenly materialize in the undergrowth, staring at us from the shadows of the New Guinea rain forest, vanishing as noiselessly as they appeared.  Short and stocky, with flat faces and kinky hair, they were said to have been ferocious warriors before the coming of the missionaries.  Even now, the sight of them made us uneasy.

     Certainly that was our reaction on that unforgettable Christmas Eve of 1944.

     Shortly before dusk that day, they were there again, peering from the forest edge.  We were standing around the mess tent in our fatigues, not doing much, not saying much, just hanging around, sweating and brushing away the insects, trying hard not to think about what day this was.  Suddenly from all around the clearing they began to advance, scores of scowling, nearly naked tribesmen.  Never before had they ventured beyond the cover of the Jungle, and instinctively we Seabees moved closer together.  There was nothing to fear from these solemn-faced unarmed men, but we couldn’t talk to them and we didn’t know what they wanted.

     The natives began to circle us.  Then they stopped and stood still.  The forest itself became very, very quiet, as if even the jungle was on alert.  Then, incredibly, the little men began to sing.  The words were strange and harsh-sounding in their native tongue, but the tune was unmistakably… “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…”

     Blinking back the sudden moisture in my eyes, I mentally supplied the familiar English lyrics.  When the former warriors finished, they launched into more songs in their deep guttural voices.  For half an hour these men sang us the songs of home, carols they must have learned from some unknown missionary in the brush.

     That night after our guests slipped back into the rain forest, I lay in my hammock, sweating, uncomfortable as ever, but no longer quite so melancholy.  Through their music and through their caring, these strangest of strangers had made us feel the familiarity and warmth of home.

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Psalm 68:32  —  Sing to God, you kingdoms of the earth, sing praise to the Lord.

Isaiah 66:18-19  —  I…  am about to come and gather the people of all nations and languages, and they will come and see my glory.  I will set a sign among them, and I will send some of those who survive to the nations, …and to the distant islands that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory.  They will proclaim my glory among the nations.

Luke 2:10-14  —  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 Savior, 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.”  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

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O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie;
above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight…

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in,
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
o come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel!

–Phillips Brooks  (1835-1893)

1331) “Bah! Humbug!”

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Ebeneezer Scrooge and his nephew Fred  (1938 movie A Christmas Carol)

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From “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens  (1812-1870):

     “A merry Christmas, uncle!  God save you!” cried a cheerful voice.  It was the voice of Scrooge’s nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.

     “Bah!” said Scrooge, “Humbug!”

     He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrooge’s, that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again.

     “Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge’s nephew.  “You don’t mean that, I am sure?”

     “I do,” said Scrooge.  “Merry Christmas!  What right have you to be merry?  What reason have you to be merry?  You’re poor enough.”

     “Come, then,” returned the nephew gaily.  “What right have you to be dismal?  What reason have you to be morose?  You’re rich enough.”

     Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, “Bah!” again; and followed it up with “Humbug.”

     “Don’t be cross, uncle!” said the nephew.

     “What else can I be,” returned the uncle, “when I live in such a world of fools as this?  Merry Christmas!  Out upon merry Christmas!  What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you?  If I could work my will,” said Scrooge indignantly, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.  He should!”

     “Uncle!” pleaded the nephew.

     “Nephew!” returned the uncle sternly, “keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine.”

     “Keep it!” repeated Scrooge’s nephew.  “But you don’t keep it.”

     “Let me leave it alone, then,” said Scrooge. “Much good may it do you!  Much good it has ever done you!”

     “There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew.  “Christmas among the rest.  But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round— apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that— as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.  And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

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Luke 2:10-14  —  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 Savior, 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.”  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

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Joy to the world!  

The Lord is come.

Let earth receive her King.

Let every heart

Prepare Him room. 

–Isaac Watts, 1719

990) Joseph (part two of two)

Father and Son, by Corbert Gauthier

Father and Son, 2002, Corbet Gauthier (prints available at http://www.artbarbarians.com)

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     (…continued)  It was at that point that the angel appeared to Joseph and said, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save the people from their sins.”

     On one level, this was very helpful and Joseph, without hesitation, did the right thing and obeyed God.  He decided to take Mary as his wife and be the earthly father of this child.  But on another level, this still wasn’t going to be easy because the angel’s story, while convincing enough to Joseph, might have been a little hard to explain to the guys at work.  In those days, as well as today, people could count up the number of months from the wedding day to the birth of the first child, and the angel probably did not appear to everyone in town to explain the whole situation.  Can you imagine Joseph at the cafe eating a donut and saying, “Look guys, it’s not what you think.  Mary is a good girl, and it wasn’t me; but there was this angel that appeared to Mary, and then the angel appeared to me, and it was a miraculous conception– you see?…”  My guess is Joseph didn’t even try to explain.  He and Mary probably just bore the embarrassment quietly until… Until what?

     This is another place you need to read between the lines.  WE have the entire New Testament ahead of us.  We have always known the whole story from beginning to end, from the birth to the childhood to the manhood of Jesus, including the miracles, his crucifixion, and his resurrection from the dead.  We have the whole miraculous story to see and believe in.  But think about it.  That did not happen all at once, but took thirty-three years to unfold.

     The angel spoke to Joseph on four different occasions.  Mary told him of the angel’s message to her.  The shepherds appeared after the birth of Jesus with their news of a sky full of angels, singing and proclaiming that a Savior had been born.  And the Wise men were led to this child by a star in the sky.  But then, that was it for Joseph.  There were no more signs from God, and what followed were many years in which nothing at all happened out of the ordinary.  Joseph was there yet when Jesus was twelve years old, but then is not mentioned anymore.  Mary is mentioned often during the public ministry of Jesus and in the days leading up to his crucifixion, but Joseph is not there.

     It is assumed that Joseph died sometime between Jesus’ twelfth and thirtieth year.  That is to say he died before any of Jesus’ public work, before any miracles, before any public talk of Jesus being the Messiah, and before the conclusive proof of Jesus divinity came in his resurrection from the dead.  Joseph died before there was any further validation of the angel’s message.  That Jesus had, in fact, a normal childhood without any fanfare is clearly shown in Luke four when Jesus, as an adult, went back to his hometown.  He read an Old Testament prophecy in the synagogue, and then Jesus said it applied to himself, saying he was the one promised by God in Isaiah to come and save his people.  But the people were shocked at this, and accused him of blasphemy, saying, “This is just the son of Joseph, the carpenter! Who does he think he is?”  There had been nothing that special about Jesus as a child or young man in Nazareth.

     Therefore, it looks like Joseph lived out his entire earthly life without any further validation of the angel’s message, and therefore without any vindication of his honor before his neighbors.  Joseph always treated Mary honorably, he obeyed God without hesitation, and throughout the story of Jesus’ birth Joseph acted righteously.  He served God in a most amazing way by providing an earthly home to Jesus, God’s own son.  He was a good and godly man.  But in the eyes of all the world he had acted dishonorably and shamed himself, and there was no way to ever undo the inevitable misunderstanding.  Yet, he was obedient.

     God chose a good man to be the earthly father of Jesus.  Joseph deserves our respect and our admiration.  His job was not an easy one, but he acted well his part in God’s plan.  His life can be an example for us.  It is an example of obedience to God’s Word in difficult circumstances.  Have you ever found obedience difficult?  Joseph’s life is an example of enduring misunderstanding nobly and graciously.  Have you ever been misunderstood?  And, his life is an example of quietly and patiently accepting the silence of God.  Have you ever wondered why God doesn’t seem to come through for you?

     When we hear the Christmas story we hear of many miracles.  When we read between the lines in the rest of the story, we see long periods of time with no miracles and no vindication by God.  We see, in fact, the same silence of God that we often, even most of the time, experience.  God gave Joseph a few words from angels, in the early days of his relationship with Mary, and that was all Joseph had to go on from then until the end.  It was certainly not all he could have wanted.  God must have seemed to him to be silent for a very long time.

     We too have been given a word, God’s Word, in the Bible.  But it is still only words for now.  Oftentimes we will want more.  Sometimes, even when we study God’s word, it raises more questions then it answers.  God doesn’t give us all the knowledge and all the answers and all the proof that we want.  But God gives us all that we need for life and for salvation.  He gives us enough, as he did for Joseph.  He gives us His Word, and, His promise of a most wonderful eternity.

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Luke 4:22b  —  …“Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.

Mark 6:3  —  (They asked), “Isn’t this the carpenter?  Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon?  Aren’t his sisters here with us?”  And they took offense at him.

Micah 7:7-8  —  …As for me, I watch in hope for the LordI wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me.  Do not gloat over me, my enemy.  Though I have fallen, I will rise.  Though I sit in darkness, the Lord will be my light.

II Corinthians 5:7  —  For we live by faith, not by sight.

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I ask not to see; I ask not to know; I ask only to be used.

J. H. Newman  (1801-1890)

989) Joseph (part one of two)

File:Rembrandt Dream of Joseph.jpg

Joseph’s Dream in the Stable, 1645, Rembrandt van Rijn  (1606-1669)

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     There are four Gospels in the New Testament, four accounts of the life of Jesus Christ by four different men.  But only two of the four tell the story of Christmas.  The Gospels of Mark and John don’t even mention it.  Only Luke and Matthew tell of the birth of Jesus, and they, from two very different perspectives.  Matthew and Luke do not contradict each other, but they do tell different parts of the story.  For example, Matthew tells us all about the visit of the three Magi, whereas they do not even appear in Luke.  Luke, on the other hand, tells us all about the shepherds and the angels in the sky and the baby lying in a manger, and not a word of any of this appears in Matthew.  But the primary difference I want to describe is the different personal perspective each takes in the telling of the story.

     Luke tells the story of Jesus’ conception and birth entirely from Mary’s perspective, and Matthew tells the story entirely from the perspective of Joseph.  It is Luke that describes the visit of the angel to Mary, and Luke records Mary’s words of obedience, and Luke tells the story of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.  When the shepherds appear in Luke, it is Mary who ‘ponders all these things in her heart.’  Twelve years later, when the boy Jesus, who was missing, is found in the temple, it is Mary who does all the talking, and Mary who again, ‘treasures all these things in her heart.”  Throughout the first three chapters of Luke the focus is on Mary, and Joseph is in the background.  Even the other characters in the story seem to ignore Joseph.  When Mary and Joseph take the 8-day old Jesus to the temple, the old man Simeon takes Jesus into his arms and blesses him and then turns and speaks to Mary.

     Not so in Matthew, where the focus is on Joseph.  In Matthew, Mary has the baby, but that’s about it.  Matthew 1:18-25 tells of the same incredible situation as in Luke:  Mary is found to be with child even though she is still a virgin.  This needs some explanation, and so an angel appears to Joseph.  Luke tells about when the angel appeared to Mary and how she obeyed.  Matthew tells about when the angel appeared to Joseph and how he obeyed, agreeing to take the pregnant Mary as his wife.  In Matthew, Joseph is the one given the responsibility to give Jesus his name.

     Then comes the visit by the Magi, followed by the threat of Herod, seeking to kill all the newborn boys in Bethlehem.  God warns the Holy Family to flee, and he does so through a dream in which an angel appears to Joseph.  So Joseph protected the family by taking them and fleeing to Egypt.  After two years there, Herod died, and they are finally allowed to return home.  Again, it is Joseph who is informed of this in a dream, and Joseph who leads his family home, and Joseph who receives yet another dream warning him of dangers along the way.  None of this is mentioned by Luke.

     Let’s look closer at the story from the perspective of Joseph as described by Matthew.  Sometimes the Bible will give more details than most people are looking for, as in the descriptions of Old Testament ceremonial laws and long lists of family histories.  Other times, it would be nice to be told a bit more.  The story of Joseph is one of those times.  He was clearly a godly and noble man who obeyed God in a difficult situation.  But there is not a single word spoken by Joseph in any of the Gospels, not even in Matthew.  We can only wonder what he thought about all what happened to him.  Let’s read between the lines a little bit and imagine Joseph’s situation.

     Joseph was no doubt a respected man in the local synagogue.  The Bible notes how carefully he observed all the ritual laws for temple sacrifice and ritual purification, and, the circumcision and naming of Jesus on the prescribed eighth day.  In fact, Matthew calls him a “righteous man.”

     Then, through no fault of his own, Joseph finds himself in a very difficult and painful situation.  The woman to whom he is engaged to be married tells him that she is pregnant, and he knows that he is not the father.  In those days, the man’s word and authority were absolute and so he, by law, could have had Mary stoned to death for adultery.  But Joseph did not want to expose her to public disgrace, much less execution.  However, to continue the relationship under those circumstances was unthinkable for an upright Jew, so he decided to divorce her quietly.  They were at this point still only engaged, but in those days, an engagement was also a legally binding pledge, and the same word, divorce, was used when even this pledge to be married was broken.  And so Joseph would simply end the relationship quietly.  Joseph was wronged and deeply hurt and he could have said much around Nazareth, increasing the difficulty for Mary and to her family.  But he chose to say nothing and do nothing to harm anyone.  That was the kindest and most gracious thing that a good man could do in that situation.  Joseph was a good man, kind and forgiving.  (continued…)

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Matthew 1:19  —  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

Matthew 1:20-21…24  —  But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins…”  When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.

Matthew 2:13  —   When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.  “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt.  Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

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Lord, let your glory by my goal, your word my rule, and then your will be done.

Charles I, King of England,  (1600-1649)

987) Where is Bethlehem?

From The Word for Every Day, by Alvin Rogness, Augsburg Publishing House, 1981, page 365.

     Bethlehem can be in our hearts.  Jesus came to this little village.  He can come to us too.

     His coming to the earth centuries ago was a part of Gods gigantic maneuver to get into our hearts.  In fact, if people are not captured for him, there is a sense in which Bethlehem and Calvary will have failed.  God’s objective is not the conquest of nations, but of people, you and me, one by one.  It stretches the imaginations to their limits to believe that God would bother with this tiny planet and with us who despoil it and who too often ignore him and one another.

     He did not come because great hosts of people awaited him.  On that first Christmas night only a few scattered shepherds took note.  The rest of the world, and even the little village itself, carried on as if nothing eventful had occurred.  Even during Jesus 33 years on earth, there was no surge of interest and loyalty.  At Calvary virtually everyone had deserted him.

     Only in the wake of the Easter resurrection did things happen, and even then rather quietly.  Not until three centuries later did he find a place in the courts of the empire.  But since that time the name of Jesus has become the most honored name in the world.  Hundreds of millions have acclaimed him King and Lord and Savior.

     God’s objective remains the same as that Bethlehem night.  Not nations, not civilizations, not cultures, not the planet itself (all these are passing away), but people, one by one, are in his eye.  And he wants to take up residence within us, to hold and keep us now and forever.  We are his Bethlehem, as Phillips Brooks says in his beloved hymn:

How silently, how silently,
The wondrous Gift is giv’n!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

O Little Town of Bethlehem, verse 3

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Luke 2:15  —  When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

Matthew 22:37-38  —  Jesus replied:  “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’   This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it:  ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

Romans 10:9  —  If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Philippians 4:7  —  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

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Come Into My Heart, Lord Jesus  by Harry Clarke (1888-1957)

Come into my heart, O Lord Jesus,
Come into my heart, I pray;
My soul is so troubled and weary,
Come into my heart, today.

Refrain:  Into my heart, into my heart,
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus;
Come in today, come in to stay,
  Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.

Come into my heart, O Lord Jesus,
I need Thee through life’s dreary way;
The burden of sin is so heavy,
Come into my heart to stay.  Refrain.

Come into my heart, O Lord Jesus,
Now cleanse and illumine my soul;
Fill me with Thy wonderful Spirit,
Come in and take full control.  Refrain.

Listen at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCJuFt_cHzE

982) Too Ordinary? (2/2)

     (…continued)  We see in the Bible that God chooses to do his most extra-ordinary work in very ordinary ways…  

     There are a couple things to be said about that.  First of all, there can be a problem with this method of working through the commonplace and ordinary.  But secondly, there is a great blessing for us in this remarkable way that God works.

     First, the problem.  The problem with God working in such ordinary ways is the danger of people missing the whole point by seeing only the ordinary.  The innkeeper did not know that by turning away that ordinary looking young couple he was playing a part in the greatest story ever told.  If he could have seen that it was the Savior of the world who would be born that night he would have given them his own home and bed.  But it was all so ordinary.  How could he have known?  Or take for instance Jesus’ first sermon in his home town of Nazareth 30 years later.  He read from the prophet Isaiah about the coming Messiah and then said, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing;” or in other words, “The Messiah is here, and it’s me.”  But the people were angered by such arrogance, and ran him out of town.  “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?,” they asked.  He was too ordinary for them.  People often missed the point like that when they saw Jesus.

     Despite that risk, God still chooses to do great things by ordinary means.  Baptism, for example, on the surface seems like such an ordinary procedure– a few words said, a little water on the head, and on to the next hymn.  But in that ordinary ritual, says the Bible, God is giving that child an eternal promise.  In the Sacrament of Holy Communion also, there are just a few words, a little wafer, and a sip of wine.  It is all so ordinary.  But, says Jesus, in those few words you receive the forgiveness of all your sins and the promise of eternal life.  And there is the worship service itself.  It is a weekly ritual, always pretty much the same, with an ordinary sermon by an ordinary minister, a few hymns, and prayers.  There is nothing extraordinary about any of it.  But that is how God speaks to us, and how faith is nurtured and sustained over a lifetime.  It is no ordinary meeting, God says, but what goes on when we worship is holy and is of eternal value, even though carried out by ordinary people doing ordinary things like talking and singing.

     For us also then, there is a danger in God’s use of ordinary methods.  We might despise such means and miss the whole point, just as when Jesus was right ahead of people and they turned away saying, “Nope, it can’t be him; too ordinary.  He’s not the one we are looking for.”

     But there are also great blessings in the ordinary ways that God works.  We may not always appreciate the common blessings in our lives or the ordinary ways God works, but it is with the common-place and ordinary that we feel most familiar and most comfortable.  Family life, for example, can be difficult and frustrating, but it is within the family that most people experience the most love and acceptance of their lives.  Underneath the day to day tensions and disagreements, there is love and concern.  It is there in the ordinary and the familiar that we experience some of the best life has to offer.  

     And as God offers his companionship to us, he comes in the ordinary and the familiar.  In fact, most of the Biblical images having to do with our relationship with God come from the ordinary images of family life:  father, son, children, bride, bridegroom, a mother’s love, a father’s care, and so forth.  In the same way, at the very center of this central story of the birth of Jesus is a holy family.

     So it is that the very ordinary and down to earth simplicity of the Christmas story has always had a great appeal to all kinds of people.  In that story of a little baby born to poor parents in a stable there is a wonder and a beauty that can charm us all.  God could have come to us in anger and judgment, but instead came as a baby.  Even those who have stopped believing in the extraordinary aspects of the story, still find themselves each year drawn back to the story itself.  And that attraction keeps them in touch at least a little bit, and the old, old story may again, one day, lead them back to the belief that it was indeed God in that manger.

     That is the appeal of the Christmas story– God comes as a baby.  And that baby grows into a man– a man who works, who laughs, who cries, who prays, who was once a teenager, who has friends; a man who goes to worship each week, who gives advice on fishing, and who suffers and dies.  In Jesus, God lived a life like us, and now knows what we go through because he himself experienced it all.  This is not only the omnipotent, almighty God.  This is Jesus we pray to, a human like us, and a friend we can talk to.  He is certainly much more than human, otherwise he would not be able to save us.   That other perspective is still always there, woven in a through the story just as in relationship with him.  But this is a God we can get close to.  We can be grateful God chose to work in such ordinary and familiar ways.

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John 6:41-42  —  At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”  They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph,whose father and mother we know?  How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”

Acts 4:13  —  When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.

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Gracious Lord, you created a real world as a place for us to dwell, and ourselves as physical creatures. We thank you that you come to us through earthly, natural means, to confirm your Word and accomplish your will. We ask that you would help us appreciate and honor the Sacraments as the tangible evidence of your promise, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

–Steven King for:  www.solapublishing.org