December 2007


Christmas has been a wonderful time of year for me. It always has, and I’ve always tried to keep up with the spirit of the season. This year I’ve been thinking a lot about the season. Not just because the media constantly keeps me abreast of the fighting over whether to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings.” That’s pretty much taken a backseat in my thought processes. Nor have I been too distracted by the “Reason for the Season” crowd who make it a point to point out that writing X-mas takes Christ out of Christmas. I understand the early theological and linguistic reasoning behind the abbreviation. (X is the Greek letter chi which in the early days of the church was an abbreviation for Christ—being the first letter of His title “the Christ.”) I do find it interesting that some of these people find it offensive to even mention Santa Claus (a variation on St. Nicholas) while others have the red-suited, jolly old elf kneeling at the manger in their crèches.

 

No, today’s ponderings center on the inn where there wasn’t enough room. For years I’ve been in the camp that says, “Stop making the inn-keeper out to be a villain. He made room for the Christ to be born, didn’t he?” I’m still very much on this side of the fence because it’s good news! Good news, because when no one else was willing to open up even a dirty square on the floor for this refugee of a young man and his pregnant wife to bed down for the evening. Yes, it’s good news that even amid the hustle and bustle caused by the forced tax registration, this inn-keeper was able to carve out the most meager of accommodations for this young couple. And it was in his stable that God—the Creator of the universe—became a man in the form of His Son, the God/Man Jesus. Good News!

 

The trend today, though is to turn it into bad news. Bad news, because he could certainly see the condition of the young mother—ready to give birth at any moment—and all he could find was a stable out back. “Here, isn’t it magnanimous of me to provide a roof over your head?” The focus is on the place that was offered (not in the offering at all). It was most assuredly smelly, dark, noisy, dirty, the last place any modern mother would dream of giving birth. I’m not in total agreement with these people who have decided to re-vilify the inn-keeper for his choice, assuming that he could have possibly had a room, but the young couple most likely had no funds to pay for it, or that he should recognize that Mary was carrying the Savior and should have therefore unsettled one of the other clients to his little inn to make a comfortable spot. No, but there is value in the understanding of what the inn-keeper did and seeing that it is indeed bad news. You see, this is the same thing that we offer to Christ on a daily basis—our leftovers, the squeezed out spaces for Him to squeeze in. We offer to Him (who deserves the best of what we have) the least of what we can get away with giving. Church nurseries are filled with cast-off toys donated by people who wouldn’t let their children play with the broken things at home. Let’s get something better for the kids and give this worn-out plaything to the church—they can use it there. Church halls and educational buildings abound with pianos that won’t hold tune, but were given (after Aunt Suzy died) in honor of someone. Be sure to plaster it with a plaque so that it can never be removed from the premises, never mind that no one can worship to its off-key melodies. We have an example in Solomon who built the Temple of the Lord, all the while building a palace for himself that was much grander in its appearance and trappings. So daily we give to Christ the last instead of the best. Such Bad News.

 

Even so, it is good news once again. Good news, because the Christ to whom we offer our measly leftover lives takes what we do give and turns it into something spectacular. We give Him the stable out back and He makes Christmas. He blesses it with a Star, announces it through angels, and opens the world for centuries of worship. As this year draws to a close and we look toward 2008 with great anticipation, determine to give of your best to the Christ of Christmas and of the Cross. And remember that He brings good news because even the best that we have to offer may be nothing more than a stable with a straw bed. And that’s Good News again!

Read Matthew 16:16, then light the center candle.

 

The night before Christmas has become an icon for Americans. We quote and re-quote Clement C. Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” every year. He gave us the red-suited “jolly old elf” in a sleigh driven through the sky by “eight tiny reindeer.” Families build traditions on the night before Christmas: from opening gifts to decorating the tree, to sitting around the already decorated tree to read or re-tell the Christmas story. Many churches have a traditional Christmas Eve service which includes carols of the season, devotional thoughts, communion, and candle lighting.

 

This year, on this eve of the birth of the Christ child, let us turn our thoughts to the true meaning of Christmas. The true meaning of the holiday is not about family, though we often find it easiest to understand Christmas in the midst of our family, enjoying traditions that say “Christmas” to us. The true meaning is not giving, although God gave the gift of His son, the Magi gave gifts fit for a king, and we practice giving to family and charity even more than at any other time of the year. Christmas is not simply about love, though it is during this time of year, more than any other, that we turn our hearts to love and loved ones.

 

Christmas, instead, is about the Christ—all that He is and all that He was. He is God come to earth as a man. He came in the form of a child. He came so that He could sacrifice Himself in the place of everyone. The true meaning of Christmas is wrapped up, not in gold and silver paper, but in the moment of Easter. Christmas is about the change that is brought to us because the Christ intervened on our behalf. Let us celebrate the resurrected Christ who is the Babe of the manger.

Read John 3:16 and light the fourth candle.

 

At one point Jesus told the disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13, NIV)

 

It is for this reason that He came to earth in the first place: to share love with those that He does love. During this time of celebration we must first remember the love that was shown to us, in Bethlehem at the lowly beginning of the King of kings, and then again at Calvary in the greatest act of sacrifice ever witnessed by humanity. Jesus embodied love. The great cantata writer John W. Peterson put it this way, “Love came down at Christmas.”

 

After we have sufficiently pondered the love that Jesus showed, it becomes our responsibility to let that same love live in us. We are responsible to the world to make Christmas love a reality to the world for all the year. Sharing our life with those who surround us, even to the point of giving up our own life and comfort for the sake of the lives of those in our sphere of influence.

 

When love becomes a major part of our life because of Christ who lives in us, then that love should demonstrate itself in real ways in our own lives. Especially at the season of Nativity, should we remember to give the gift of love in all our celebrations.

Read Luke 1:41-44 and light the third candle.

In the final moments of the game your team makes the final—the winning—goal! The crowd goes wild and you are right there with them, live and in person.

 

You stand at the front of the church facing the doors. Your hands begin to sweat, but then she appears. The most beautiful woman you have ever seen. You don’t know how she did it, but she is more beautiful today than you have ever seen her before. And your heart swells awaiting the moment that you have been anticipating for months—your wedding day.

 

You hold a baby in your arms. Not just any baby, but your baby. Perhaps this is your first grandchild. They coo, and they wriggle, and they grin their toothless grin.

 

All of these scenes, to some degree or another elicit within us the same feeling: JOY. Joy, that wellspring of emotion that rushes up and burns in our chests as it bursts through our eyes and often shouts from our lips unhampered—because joy is something to be shared.

 

What is it that makes joy well up so strongly? It is Jesus. When Jesus comes close enough for us to sense, joy begins to build. We want to jump, we want to shout, we want to sing. This is why Christmas is such a time of joy. This is why joy is used to describe the holiday, because we feel it before we know it, and then we want to share it with all who come within shouting distance. Share the Joy of the season that wells up at the sound of a favorite Christmas hymn, story, or thought. As we go through the traditions that have attached themselves to our holiday-making let us revel in the joy that is represented in the presence of the One who comes in the manger.

Read John 14:27. Then light the second candle.

 

Isaiah prophesied that Jesus, the Messiah, would be called Prince of Peace. The angels that announced His birth proclaimed, “Peace on earth, good will to men on whom His favor rests.” And still it is difficult for us to believe in this peace. Why is it so difficult?

The answer to this ageless question lies in the arena of belief. When we picture the baby lying in the manger, peace overwhelms us. When we think about the love that is represented by that lowly scene in the manger, peace fills our hearts. Consider this Christmas Carol:

 I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

(“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

And now, consider peace this season.

Early in the course of higher education for ministers you take courses in sermon preparation. From the very beginning you are taught two major words that relate to this subject. The first word is eisegesis. This is “reading into the text what you’d like for it to say” (my loose interpretation). In my classes we were told, “Don’t do this–it’s bad . . . bad . . . ba-a-a-a-d.” Sadly, this is the approach that most Christians take when reading and studying the scripture. Even worse, this is the approach that many pastors and preachers take in sermon preparation.

The second word that issues from the mouth of our professor is exegesis or “reading out of the text what is already there.” Here we have the proper study and preparation for scripturally-based sermons. Here we also have the basis for a favorite among the jokes of Bible College and Seminary students. Upon hearing the word exegesis the preacher proclaims loudly, “Extra Jesus? We don’t need no Extra Jesus!”

And now to get to the point (sort of). Knowing my love for the Christmas season and especially for nativity scenes, my blushing bride went to the market (in July, mind you) before leaving Egypt to return to America for our wedding. She had in mind to purchase some sort of Egyptian souvenir for me. What she found was this handmade clay nativity.

In the process of bartering for the exchange, the vendor decided to “give a special gift to the American” so he threw in another piece. Look closely, and you see it.

That’s right, there’s an Extra Jesus! I love this nativity. Not only is it a precious gift from my wife, not only is it a nativity from foreign lands (Biblical lands, as it were), but it is also a reminder.

First of all, it reminds me to properly do my exegesis as I study the scripture–especially for presentation in sermons. But even more so it reminds me that “We don’t need no Extra Jesus!”

Jesus said, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6, NIV)

(Excuse me for a moment while I pause in my Christmas revelings for an aside.)

In my blogsurfing lately I’ve been reminded of the reading that has made me consider whether I’m really all that good a witness or not. The current trend is for Christ-followers to assess their abrasiveness by finding out what nonBelievers think. I think part of it has to do with our propensity to judge even though we’ve been told not to do so. It is so much easier to point out the shortcomings of others than it is to deal with our own faults and failings.

 So here, let me prod you into correcting your own errant life. Be kind, be conscious of the other guy, be real. Please take no note of the fact that the forty-foot stick that I’m prodding you with is protruding out of my own eye. (Thanks to on-line friend Monk-in-Training for the imagery here.)

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