At the risk of sounding like a bumper sticker, let me repeat a saying that for some has become cliché: “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.” This year, as we go through all the trimmings and trappings that have become Christmas to us, it is worthwhile to pause for a moment of devotion. Christmas is not about presents or trees or pretty lights. And although carols and angels and shepherds and stars have all become fixtures for us, it doesn’t hurt to have a reminder that Christmas is Christmas because of a birth.

This birth was normal in the respect that the mother carried the child in her womb as the baby developed his fingers, his toes, his eyes, ears, and nose. It was typical because a hard travelling trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem most certainly put a strain on both mother and child during pregnancy. It was unassuming since the mother dreamed about what her baby would look like, how healthy he would be, and what kind of man he would become (although this mother already had an idea because of the circumstances).

But Christmas is about a birth that was anything but normal. The setting was difficult at best—away from home, no room at a traditional stopover place, makeshift shelter and a makeshift bed, all after long, arduous travel because of governmental interference with normal, everyday life. It was beyond typical because the child was the Son of the Living God. It was more than perfect since He would grow up to provide salvation for all the world (including yours and mine). Like our traditional Nativity Scenes, let us make Christ the focal point of our Christmas this year.

 “And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”  —Luke 2:12

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Recently, on social media, I noticed many of my friends complaining because they were hearing Christmas music being played in stores and on radio stations in mid-October. Granted, the reason for seasonal music was probably to start getting customers in the “giving” mood. Retailers are notorious for trying to commercialize on the spirit of generosity that washes over us during Christmas. But let’s don’t blame the music for getting us in the mood. After all, songs have been part of the story of Christmas as long as there has been a story of Christmas.

Some purists will tell me that in the story the wording does not suggest singing, but saying, “Glory to God!” Personally, I would err on the side of angels singing when the worship of the One born King of kings and Lord of lords was being announced. I have noticed that whenever I worship God, either alone or corporately, music just becomes a natural part of the process. It sort of wells up and overflows—leaking out of me as if I could not hold it back. And music at Christmas does this for multitudes of people.

Perhaps you’ve seen some of the “flash mob” videos that are popular around this time of year: in the middle of a crowded shopping mall, a lone shopper with clear, bright voice begins to sing the first strains of the “Hallelujah Chorus,” quickly joined by another voice, and another (this is part of the plan), but by the end of the song almost everyone in the crowd is either singing along or else listening in rapt attention to the worship of God. What a great Christmas song.

“Sing a new song to the Lord; let the whole earth sing to the Lord.”  —Psalm 96:1

With Thanksgiving behind us, most Americans are now in full-swing Christmas mode. We are listening to Christmas music, watching Christmas movies and television specials, shopping for the perfect gift for this friend or that family member, getting the decorations up and fluffy, and dreaming of all manner of Christmas goodies to eat.

According to the calendar, the Advent season begins four Sundays before Christmas and the celebration of Christ’s birth. Often this happens the Sunday immediately following Thanksgiving (although in years like this one, the official start is not until next week), and we really start counting the days until Christmas.

This year, I would like to suggest that you take a few moments to truly savor the story of the Savior. Read, re-read, listen to, and contemplate the famous passages from Luke chapter 2. Consider the opening verses that teach us that at the right moment in time, for the right reason, and in the perfect season, Jesus was born. Pause in your traditions of family visits and Christmas tree lighting, of present wrapping and eggnog drinking, to consider the moment. It probably wasn’t in the middle of the night on December 25 (although there are indications that it was at night). It probably had little or nothing to do with snow on the ground (although the sugary icing makes a beautiful picture). But in the perfect moment, tucked away in a stable behind someone’s house (because there was no room at the inn), the Savior of all the world was born. Let’s celebrate His timing all month long.

While they were there, the time came for her to give birth.”  —Luke 2:6

Books and music albums are a big part of my life—work, leisure, and spirit. One of the things I like to look for is the “Acknowledgements” that are included in many books and album covers. The artists who create these works of art take time to thank all the people who made them possible. Thanks go out to editors and producers, to research assistants and interview sources, to family and friends who have been supportive during the whole process. Sometimes I think it is good to add an “Acknowledgements” statement to our on-going lives . . . just as a reminder that we don’t go it alone, there are supporters and friends out there who help make life livable. What better time than Thanksgiving to develop a Personal Acknowledgements Page. Here, let me start:

I’d like to thank my family of origin. Mom and Dad gave me the right foundation for living. My brothers and sister helped me develop character—by both positive and negative influence. And my family of choice—certainly, my Blushing Bride has given me cause to live a life filled with Thanksgiving, and my children (all FIVE of them) teach me to face challenges and expand my capacity to love every day.

To my families of faith (especially those who have trusted me to be their pastor), specifically Zion Hill Baptist Church outside of Linden, Texas, who trusted an unpolished young man to be their pastor, giving a start to me when I was still single, and to First Baptist Church of Mulberry Grove, Illinois, who took in this stranger and made him one of their own, loving me even when it’s sometimes difficult.

Most of all, I give thanks to God for giving me life . . . twice. He is my Maker and my Redeemer. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; for His steadfast love endures forever!”  —Psalm 118:1

Last week, as our church (along with numerous churches around the country) conducted business as usual, carrying on our regular Sunday morning worship services, one of our sister churches was attacked by an armed man intent on disrupting and destroying lives. This is not the first time such a tragedy has occurred in recent days. Not long ago, a church outside of Nashville, TN was visited by a gunman, before that is the record of a Wednesday prayer meeting in North Carolina attended by and then shot up; only eight years ago, a beloved Baptist pastor in our own state was murdered in his pulpit, and the list goes on.

“What can I do?” is the question that hounds those of us who watch the terror unfold in our country.

Other atrocities also face our modern society: human trafficking, domestic abuse, and abortion to name a few.

“What can I do?” we repeat again, because we feel alone and overwhelmed. “I am just one man/woman.” We reason.

And today, a day that has been designated as a day to bring light to the needs of thousands of orphaned children around the world, we continue to cry out, “What can I do?”

Perhaps I can suggest that we start on our knees, praying for the kinds of needs mentioned, but don’t let us assume that this is adequate. Continue to pray, after praying for the comfort and healing of those affected by these tragedies, and ask God to open your eyes, my eyes, to a tangible response that I, you, we can do to address the hurt, the need. Then having pray, do what God has opened your eyes to.

Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.—Isaiah 1:17

Godliness is wrapped up in a package: beginning with faith, adding goodness, to which is added knowledge, then self-control, perseverance, godliness, and mutual affection. The bow with which the package is tied is love. (Note: 2 Peter 1:5-7) Not just any love, but the best kind of love.

From the Greeks we learn that there are levels of love. At the lowest level is a purely physical kind of attraction which is included in our desire to fulfill our own wishes. This is what spurs on statements like, “I love chocolate or bacon (maybe chocolate bacon?),” or “I love the Astros.” It bears no depth at all, and those who camp out at this level of love usually have shallow relationships with others.

Stepping up, we find what we would call brotherly love. It is the same attribute we added to our faith that we called mutual affection. At this level of relationship we place aphorisms like, “Blood is thicker than water,” reminding us that those who are close to us (family, intimate friends) deserve more than a passing nod on the street.

But the love that unifies all of the other attributes of a godly life is a self-sacrificing love. It is the kind of love that drills down to the core of our being making us willing to give up preference, comfort, and even life for the welfare of another—even another who might prove to be ungrateful or unresponsive to that act of sacrifice. The love that Christians aspire to is this selfless kind of love that embodies what real love (the love of choice). It is our goal.

Let us raise our level of love.

“No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends.” —Jesus, John 15:13

Okay, so it’s a beer commercial. And it’s from years ago. But there’s something that happened because of this ad campaign: it legitimized the option for men to show affection to one another—“I love you, Man!”

My big question is: why did it take the beer industry to make mutual affection between brothers legitimate? Mutual affection (or brotherly love, if you prefer) has been in the DNA of the church since its inception in the first century. We are not talking about the purple dinosaur singing, “I love you, you love me . . .” to the tune of “This Old Man” but about the genuine concern that the family of Christ has for one another.

Sadly, the church has slipped out of the habit of openly loving one another. It seems that we (the Bride of Christ) are developing a reputation for back-biting, distrust, and negativity, when we should be building a reputation of mutual love, admiration, and joy.

Today, let us make a conscious decision to be positive with one another, to express love one to another, and to lift one another up. If we can do this we may begin to show the world a life that is worth their attention, their time, and eventually their acceptance.

 

“Let brotherly love continue. Don’t neglect to show hospitality, for by doing this some have welcomed angels as guests without knowing it.—Hebrews 13:1-2