Tag Archives: Christmas

smaller and less

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Recently there has been talk about making Christmas bigger and better than ever. And something about this just hasn’t set right with me. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas and big family gatherings and all the festivities around the church. But bigger and better than ever? I’m not quite sure those are the values that should qualify Christmas. It almost seems like more and more this is how society is trying to shape what began as something very different. You need to buy this better gift or your friend, spouse, kid, coworker, etc. won’t have a Merry Christmas. You need to make sure your debt ratio is getting bigger and bigger or Christmas won’t be complete. We have to make sure we capitolize on this season in our churches with as many activities to draw people in because this may be the only time of year we get to see them (well at least until Easter). We need to make sure everyone around us knows how big and important this holiday is because otherwise they’ll never understand the true meaning of Christmas.

To me it just all feels a bit off. The idea of shopping and planning and stressing and exhausting schedules seems so far removed from Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. One of my favorite versions of the Christmas story in scripture was actually written by Paul to the church in Philippi. “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human.” – Philippians 2:6-7 The Christmas story is best categorized by words like emptied, slave, less, weak, humility, frail, fragile, etc. Not words like bigger and better. When God stepped into our world He became less. God became small. In fact, if you weren’t a shepherd or a magi (I’m not sure if I ever got to be one in one of the kid’s Christmas pageants) you probably didn’t even know about the first Christmas.

You may ask yourself though, why am I taking such issue with this? Because Christmas should represent our values as Christ followers and not as economists. Perhaps we should seek to embody the shepherds and seek out those who appear to be weak, vulnerable, less, frail and fragile this season. And when we find them it might be an opportunity for us to practice a Christmas value as we seek to enter into their situation with them. Perhaps Christmas is more about becoming like the broken, outcast, unloved, untouched, smaller and weaker because that is what God did for us at Christmas. So maybe for a moment this holiday season we all might find a way to try something different. It doesn’t have to be a huge gesture or anything massive, but maybe the smallest thing might become the most Christ-like as we seek to emulate the God who emptied Himself and became smaller and less for our sake.

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the most wonderful

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I don’t know about you, but I love Christmas music. And I’m definitely not a purist when it comes to when one is allowed to listen. I’ve been known to listen to Christmas music all during the season of Advent. I’ve been known to even begin listening to Christmas music before Thanksgiving (I just told my students recently it was because there were no good turkey songs). I can even tell that I am truly getting into the spirit of the season when I bust out the Carpenter’s Christmas album. For me it truly is the most wonderful time of the year…and yet for some. Well they struggle with this season more than any other. Often times issues of grief or family drama or financial stress become even more prevalent during holiday seasons. For some this season even becomes the least wonderful time of the year. In a season that is meant to be marked by joy, peace, love, and hope, some find themselves struggling to find these very things in the midst of all the other issues that become more transparent as the holidays take hold.

And on some level I think it all hinges on that last aspect of the Advent practice…hope. The season of Advent, for those who aren’t aware, begins this Sunday and marks the beginning of the church year. Advent is the four Sundays leading up to Christmas and it is both a celebration of the initial coming of Christ and an anticipation of His return. And yet, we so often struggle with finding hope in the midst of this season. Many find themselves placing their hopes in things like the economy, politicians, national defense, etc. and as they often discover; this is no place for hope. When it comes to Advent, our hope takes on an incredible shape. Hear these words from the prophet Isaiah, “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” – Isaiah 2:4 The Advent hope of Christ return almost seems too wonderful when we read it in the context of our current situation, but this is what true hope should look like.

In a world of shopping malls, black Friday sales, twitter feuds, international diplomatic escalation, racial unrest, cancer, and the like we struggle to take comfort in the story that Advent ushers in. Sometimes it is too much to find ourselves marveling at the story of a young Jewish mother giving birth to a son in the midst of a small town in Judea. Sometimes we struggle to find hope in the shepherd’s vision or the Magi’s quest or the angel’s songs. These stories are too wonderful and too far removed from our present situation for us to take hold of hope in the midst of a competing narrative. Perhaps what is needed is for us to look forward to the coming Advent that will take hold of the broken systems of this world and redeem them. The hope of Isaiah the prophet becomes realized in the words of John the apostle in that concluding hope of scripture. “He 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.” – Revelation 21:4 May we come to find ourselves caught up in THIS wonderful season and hopeful promise as we anticipate the Advent of Christ once again.


a stranger

Since roughly about the 4th century Christians have celebrated the four Sunday season before Christmas known as Advent. Advent, which means welcoming, is a season of preparation for both the commemoration of the original coming of Christ to earth and a celebration of Christ coming again. For many Christians it is sometimes hard to connect these two events. When Christ came to earth as a baby in Bethlehem much of the world went on without noticing. When Christ comes again every knee will bow. How could these two events be more different? The writer of Matthew helped me to find a rather poignant connection this Advent season and it speaks to our world now more than ever. At the conclusion of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew he shares a parable about what His return will be like. In that parable Jesus speaks of the final judgment and those who are judged worthy and he has this to say to them, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For…I was a stranger and you invited me in” Matthew 25:34-35

The story goes on to say that those who performed this kindness were not even aware that it was to Christ himself that they bestowed this kindness and Jesus’ response to them, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” – Matthew 25:40. The Greek word for stranger in the passage above is the word xenos, which best translates as foreigner or alien and it’s where we get terms like xenophobia. But Jesus’ not only speaks of His love for the least of these in His response; He also speaks out of history and experience. If we simply turn back the pages of Matthew’s gospel we read this in the conclusion of the visit of the Magi, 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.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt” – Matthew 2:13-14 Part of Christ’ original coming to earth resulted in His earthly family becoming refugees, aliens, strangers in Egypt who were fleeing political persecution from an evil political force.

I don’t know about you, but it sounds like our world today very much resembles the world the Savior was born into. Just yesterday a report came out about the fall of Aleppo and how 20 Syrian women chose suicide over the impending rape of the Syrian army. Europe has been overwhelmed in attempts to respond to one of the greatest refugee crisis in human history. And we are concerned as to whether or not we will be able to find a Hatchimal for our kids.

I’m not sure I know what the answer is this Advent season. Right now…pray. Pray for Christ to return. Pray for every hurt, every tear, every pain to be wiped away. There are also ways you can give.

1. Nazarene avenues for donating to anything happening inside seem to not exist at this time. But, Nazarenes are working with Syrian children and families who flee the war and are in Lebanon and Jordan. This is a powerful option for helping: http://www.ncm.org/phone/christmas.html

2. There is also and organization that some of our Nazarenes have looked into called Preemptive Love that seems to be responding well: preemptivelove.org They help people who are still trapped in Syria.

3. You can also consider donating to Central Europe Refugee Response: https://give.nazarene.org/donate/f/125967 which is the Nazarene Courage for the Journey response across the Balkans and Greece to refugees in transit or resettling.

I guess my prayer for all of us in the midst of our world and this season of Advent is that we don’t forget what this season is really about. It reminds us that our God took on flesh and came into the world to show us that life is most Holy when we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, invite a stranger in, clothe the naked, care for the sick and those in prison. May we all embrace that calling this Advent season.



with abandon

As I sit here in the stillness of the morning I find myself transported once again. I can’t seem to get away from the Bethlehem hills this Advent season…

The night is still and shrouded in darkness while the smell of sheep surrounds you. It’s been a long day and you know the night has potential to be even longer. You and your fellow shepherds get to exchange watch throughout the night to protect your charge against potential threats. So you strain against the darkness not knowing what is out there, but being completely on your guard. Suddenly the darkness is broken by a violently bright and unfathomable light.Everyone is on their feet and yet cowering as well, not knowing what this new danger may be. Out of the light you make out a figure that is both lovely and terrifying and you suddenly hear a voice, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” – Luke 2:10-12

Then it is as if the remaining darkness explodes into thousands of points of light as the messenger is joined by scores of other heavenly beings who burst forth in song, ““Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” – Luke 2:14 It seems as if time is standing still and then all of a sudden it’s over. You and your comrades are left speechless in the cool night air wandering what just happened. Then someone speaks up, “Could it be true? If so, what are we waiting for.” Quickly you make your way into town completely forgetting about your responsibility in the hills and you find everything just as the messenger had said. Here he is…a newborn baby…wrapped in cloths just like your family did with you. The promised Messiah…David’s own descendant and you are some of the first to lay eyes on him. The joy and energy bubbling up inside of you is uncontrollable. As you and your fellow shepherds prepare to leave you know it is going to be a noisy exodus, but you don’t care. Everyone you bump into is going to hear about this story. Friends, strangers, pharisees, tax collectors, drunkards…even the sheep are going to hear all about the miraculous event that you have just been included in. With abandon you become the first witnesses to the redemption of God for all mankind.

I wonder where you find yourself today, 2,000 years later? Do you need to experience the in-breaking of Heaven again? Do you need to be reminded that there is nothing to fear? Do you find yourself caught up in praising and glorifying God as witnesses to God’s redemption brought about through the birth of Jesus? Or do you find yourself fearful of what others might think or whether or not this story could even make a difference in the world around you. Take heart! The angelic announcement still rings true today and we are now ambassadors of that same gospel announcement, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” May we find ourselves proclaiming this same message with abandon for the sake of the world that God has not abandoned.

 

 


versions

In 1992 there was a film released starring Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise that received a lot of notoriety known as A Few Good Men. Although I am sure many of you, like me, may not have seen the entirety of this film, we are all on at least some level familiar with it…or at least one scene. The plot deals with a Marine Colonel Jessup who ordered a code red on a fellow marine that ended up costing his life. Tom Cruise’s character Attorney Kaffe is trying Jessup on this account and it all culminates in one of the more famous dialogue exchanges in all of cinema. “Col. Jessep: You want answers?” “Kaffee: I think I’m entitled to.” “Col. Jessep: You want answers?” “Kaffee: I want the truth!” “Col. Jessep: You can’t handle the truth!” You can’t handle the truth…wow. And yet on some level he was right. Kaffee, like many other characters in the story and many of us have a version of the world that exists in our minds that if it gets challenged could really upset the balance.

I wonder if this is ever something we struggle with when it comes to our living out the life of Christ? I especially tend to think on this during this season in the life of the church known as Advent. It’s a season of preparation and expectation for the coming of Christ. But all to often it becomes a season of stress, busyness, economic abundance and distractions that couldn’t be further from the truth of what the Christmas story was all about. Even though the book of John doesn’t formally retell the Christmas story, the writer does give us a testimony as to what this story was all about. “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.” – John 1:14 The Word of God himself, Jesus, took on flesh and came to us full of grace and truth. I love this last phrase. Full of truth…what is that truth? That we are hopelessly lost without God. What is that grace? God has made a way for us to be found.

Sometimes I think we haven’t been able to handle this truth. I don’t care if you are a brand new believer, still seeker, or someone who has been in the church all your life. To think you have a chance at making it without God’s grace daily being poured out into you and through you is another version of the truth altogether. Even the apostle Paul, towards the tail end of his faithful ministry had this to say, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” – 1 Timothy 1:15 I wonder if we live out of this truth or if we somehow have started living into another version. A version that says, ‘I’m okay’. A version that validates our comfort, our possessions, our indifference towards others, our embracing of ideologies not of God or our piety. Jesus himself said that He was the truth and here is someone who was called a friend of sinners, prostitutes, drunkards and tax collectors; a blasphemer and the son of the devil. How often does our truth align with Him? Or has our version of truth aligned us so well with society that we don’t subvert the selfish norm anymore?

Maybe during this season of Advent we might find that we can’t handle the truth…but that through the grace offered to us through the Word made flesh, we just might try.


prepared

Don’t you just love it when someone tells you there are only 48 days left until Christmas. The countdown to Christmas used to be so exciting as a kid. But as an adult, well…it’s still fun, it just comes with a little baggage. There are even those moments where you almost seize up a bit because you know you aren’t prepared (admit it, when you saw the day tally above this was you). And you would think it might be easier in the church because we have an entire season dedicated to preparation, but this holiday and all it entails still seems to take us by storm.

In the church calendar the time we are entering into is referred to as Advent (It begins November 30th this year). And Advent is the season of welcoming/ushering in God’s Kingdom through the celebration of Jesus’ birth. It is a season literally built around preparation…and yet it is often the season where we feel the least prepared. On Wednesday nights our youth group is going through a series on the three parables found in Matthew 25. These parables are all about Advent and the ushering in of God’s present and coming kingdom. The first of these is the parable of the Ten Virgins; five wise and five foolish. The difference between the two is that the five wise had framed their lives around preparation and had brought with them extra oil in their anticipation of the bridegrooms arrival. The foolish virgins, although ready and excited for the bridegrooms arrival found themselves ill-prepared and shut out of the wedding feast. The parable ends with the verse, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour”. Matthew 25:13

I think this speaks to the idea of being ready versus being prepared. Here’s a little personal illustration to further elucidate. I recently ran the Detroit Half Marathon for Team World Vision. And although I considered myself ready (I had registered, bought nice shoes, got there on time…) I was far from prepared. I had not put in the adequate training time to make the experience all it could have been. I think it’s that way with the five foolish virgins. They were ready for the Bridegrooms return, but they weren’t prepared. It wasn’t a part of their DNA. They didn’t think to buy extra oil because it wasn’t a part of everything they did. Anticipating the Kingdom of God should be a part of who we are and not just something we “get ready” for.

So I’m thinking a bit different about Advent this year. Is the celebration and enacting of the present and coming Kingdom a part of me every day or is it something I just celebrate once a year? And I think that if we are constantly being prepared we will start to see the Kingdom ushered in a lot more often than just during Advent. After all, The Kingdom of God is at hand.


there’s Jesus

I’m a Christmas Spirit junkie….there I said it. After all, the first step is admitting you have a problem, right? But man do I get wrapped up in the trees, presents, warm drinks, holly and ivy, carols, nativities, Santa visits, cookies, garland, mistletoe ;), pageants, decorations, smells, sights, and sounds of Christmas. Even last week during our kids performance at the church I found myself fighting back tears as these children sing about Jesus and Christmas (confession again….tearing up slightly now). And I love the fact that my kids are at the perfect age to get excited about all of this stuff!  This year we have even been visited by an Elf on a Shelf and my kids think its the most magical thing they have ever seen! But one of my favorite things that happens takes place while we are driving in the car. If we pass by an outdoor nativity scene, yes they still have those, one of my kids, without fail, will yell out, “There’s Jesus”. And I promise this was not prompted by me at all. I don’t even know where it comes from. But all of a sudden, “There’s Jesus”. And I love it. It warms my heart a little more each time.

But it got me thinking; wouldn’t it be something if whenever someone drove by our church (feel free to place your respective church here), they looked out and yelled, “There’s Jesus”. Without a nativity scene, or a giant sculpture like that church between Dayton and Cincinnati on I-75, they still felt compelled to shout out, “There’s Jesus”. Not because of our facilities or our programming or our music or our preaching, but because they as a community knew that this church embodied Christ to them. Jesus was a man of compassion, grace, love, and truth. What if this is what our communities came to chiefly identify our churches as? After all, Jesus said in John 13, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Love. Love is what characterizes us as Jesus disciples.

This season is also known as the season of The Incarnation; God becoming flesh. As disciples of Jesus it should be our goal to become incarnations of Jesus as well. One of my favorite passages that talks about what it means to be Jesus incarnate to the world around us is in Matthew 25. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” When we as a church feed, give water, practice hospitality, clothe, heal and visit the imprisoned we become Jesus to those around us.

Maybe then, if these become our chief characteristics, people will find themselves driving by and declaring, “there’s Jesus” for in our church we find the Spirit of Christ defining everything we do. This is my prayer as we move throughout this Advent season and into the years to come.


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