Merry Christmas!

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. Gabriel appeared to her and said, "Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!" Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. "Don’t be frightened, Mary," the angel told her, "for God has decided to bless you! You will become pregnant and have a son, and you are to name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!" Mary asked the angel, "But how can I have a baby? I am a virgin." The angel replied, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby born to you will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she’s already in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God." Mary responded, "I am the Lord’s servant, and I am willing to accept whatever he wants. May everything you have said come true." And then the angel left. (Luke 1:26-38 NLV) I hope you are having a wonderful Christmas. By tonight Mary and I will be in Texas with our family enjoying opening gifts, food, and fellowship! I’ve actually had some fun shopping this year though I know that’s often that’s not the case. If you’ve ever done any shopping with your young children you will identify with the following experience.  Not long ago I saw a young couple walking ahead of us in the mall with their young daughter.  Her Dad was getting ready to get on the escalator to go down and he said, "Now hold Daddy’s hand." She apparently didn’t like that idea. She looked up at him, "That’s OK, Daddy. I’ll hold my own hand." As I recalled that moment it occurred to me that our Heavenly Father does the same thing from time to time with us. He reaches our direction and He says, "Hold Daddy’s hand." Maybe you’ve got a mind of your own, an independent spirit. And you respond, "That’s OK, Daddy. I’ll hold my own hand." Just as it is not a god idea for the little girl to ride the escalator without her father’s hand, so it is not good for us to walk through life on our own either. In our reading today we see God telling Mary to hold His hand. Now if Mary had insisted on holding her own hand, she would never have gone. God is leading her into a situation where she will suddenly be mysteriously pregnant. And who’s going to believe that God is doing it? She has a lot to lose if she takes God’s hand and goes where He wants to take her. But listen to her response to God’s plan. "I am the Lord’s servant." Those five words change everything. God’s most special assignments are for those who will hold God’s hand.  He’s always there beside us asking us to hold His hand. It is our decision whether or not to do so. He doesn’t grab us in spite of our desire.  He asks. This Christmas, take your Father’s hand and...

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Do You Believe in Santa?

It was early on Sunday morning when Jesus rose from the dead, and the first person who saw him was Mary Magdalene, the woman from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went and found the disciples, who were grieving and weeping. But when she told them that Jesus was alive and she had seen him, they didn’t believe her. Afterward he appeared to two who were walking from Jerusalem into the country, but they didn’t recognize him at first because he had changed his appearance. When they realized who he was, they rushed back to tell the others, but no one believed them. Still later he appeared to the eleven disciples as they were eating together. He rebuked them for their unbelief–their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen. And then he told them, "Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone, everywhere. Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved. But anyone who refuses to believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:9-16 NLV) It is truly heartwarming to know that millions of people around the world believe in Santa. Consider the following, which I recently found: Around the globe, today, live approximately two billion children (persons under 18). Santa doesn’t visit all of them, of course. Subtracting the number of Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, or Buddhist children reduces Santa’s Christmas Eve workload to 15 percent of the total, or 378 million children (according to the Population Reference Bureau). At an average census rate of 3.5 children per household, and presuming that there is at least one good child in each home, Santa must visit about 108 million homes. Santa has about 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west (which seems logical). This works out to 967.7 visits per second. That means that at each household with a good child, Santa has around 1/1000th of a second to park the sleigh, hop out, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left for him, and get back up the chimney, jump into the sleigh, and get on to the next house. For the purposes of our calculations, we will assume that each of these 108 million stops is evenly distributed around the earth (which, of course, we know to be false). We’re talking about a trip of 0.78 miles per household; a total trip of 75.5 million miles, not counting bathroom stops or breaks. To cover that ground in 31 hours, Santa’s sleigh moves at 650 miles per second–3,000 times the speed of sound. By comparison, the fastest man-made vehicle, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second, and a conventional reindeer can run (at best) 15 miles per hour. The payload of the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium-sized Lego set (two pounds), the sleigh must carry over 500 thousand tons, not counting Santa himself. On land, a conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. In air, even granting that the "flying" reindeer could pull 10 times the normal amount, the job can’t be done with a mere eight or nine of them–Santa would need 360,000 of them. This increases the payload, not counting the weight of the sleigh, another 54,000 tons, or roughly seven times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth (the ship, not the monarch). Six hundred thousand tons traveling at...

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Scanning the Horizon

And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:11-24 ESV) I love Christmas!  It is a time for homecoming.  All across the nation there will be many people who will travel to their homes to be with their families. Today’s reading is also about a homecoming. Perhaps you have heard of Rembrandt (1606-1669), one of the greatest Dutch painters. Rembrandt was able to combine the skill of art and poetry to create a type of portraiture, which had been untried. He gave his painting an air of mystery while combining action, drama and violent contrasts of light and dark. Yet, there were days when Rembrandt wished he were never born. Yes, he did marry a prominent Dutch girl and became wealthy as he built up a large art portfolio. But tragedy struck as his 3 young children died and his wife died 8 years after their marriage. Rembrandt withdrew from society and his popularity diminished. He made some poor financial decisions and could not pay his debtors. He married his housekeeper who helped protect his works from creditors. She died soon after, along with his son, Titus. When Rembrandt died, people had almost entirely forgotten him. However, his last painting, The Prodigal Son, depicts the true Rembrandt. It reveals a son, kneeling at the feet of the Father, crushed and repentant, seeking pardon for the life he had squandered. The Father extends a hand of love and forgiveness, while offering hope and consolation. Rembrandt was this son. He realized he was the lost son who had recklessly lavished the family fortunes away. The scene is sad, melancholy, yet tinted with an enigmatic aura of expectant hopefulness. Though considering himself a failure, Rembrandt sensed the Father’s arm of...

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It’s Broken

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,   and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. (Isaiah 61:1-3 ESV) Many, many Christmases ago I was given an electric train set.  It was a wonderful gift.  I was young enough that it completely captivated me. Hours passed while I set and reset the track into different configurations. It was such fun.  The next morning would change all of that however.  I awoke to a broken locomotive.  It had “mysteriously” been smashed with a hammer.  Of course I was promised to get another, but it would be several days before that could happen.  I was heartbroken! It wasn’t a very nice way to spend Christmas. Take it from me, it’s no fun dealing with something broken at Christmas. There are many people who are doing just that this season. Maybe you. It’s not a broken train set that puts a cloud over so many Christmases. Rather, it’s a broken heart, or a broken relationship, or even a broken dream. This season amplifies so many emotions. It amplifies the loves of your life, the joys of your life, and the pain. As we approach this Christmas, maybe you’re feeling very deeply some personal loss or grief, some guilt, some regret, some hurt, or some loneliness. Broken is hard anytime. It’s especially hard at Christmas. This is one of the main reasons Jesus came that first Christmas. Notice the first verse of our reading this morning: The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on Me . . . He has sent Me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners. God saw our brokenness and sent His one and only Son to give us hope. But He didn’t just bring a band-aid for the symptom. He went right to the central cause of most human pain, sin. Most of the broken things in our life are either broken because we have been sinned against or because we have sinned. In other words, we have done it our way instead of God’s way. We were designed to live for the One who gave us our life. That choice has made us the victims of other people’s "me first" living and made other people the victims of our sin. And a lot has been broken. Christmas is a wonderful time to open your heart to One who said He came "to bind up the brokenhearted." Turn your attention to Him alone today and accept this great healing into your life. Commit yourself to following Jesus in every area of your life.  Receive the full restoration of your life through His grace. It’s the gift God has for you...

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Happy Anniversary!

Some of you can remember when I had black hair as I do in the picture to the right! This photo was taken on December 21, 1969! It was the day of our wedding, forty-two years ago! Personally I think I really look good in the black framed glasses, though the real beauty is standing next to me! In fact, that thought provides the bridge for my thoughts today. I could spend a great deal of time (or words in this case) talking about the physical beauty of Mary, however, it is the internal beauty that has made our marriage last these many years. And, it is that kind of beauty that we must all cultivate in our lives if we expect to be able to maintain positive, affirmative relationships in our marriages, families, and lives in general. Perhaps the words of the Apostle Paul, which were used in our wedding, are most helpful in highlighting those characteristics: If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. (1 Corinthians 13:1-8 ESV) I don’t want to minimize the power of patience, kindness, or the other practical things Paul mentions about love. However, the real encouragement is to be found in the clear statement that love never ends! I have heard so many people tell me they are no longer “in love” with their spouse or a family member. They are talking about the feelings of love and appreciation. Unfortunately they have misunderstood the source of those feelings. They are not rooted in what we do, but who we are. As husband and wife, we ARE in love; therefore we can feel in love. I read a wonderful little illustration some time ago that is so poignant and true: You can see them alongside the shuffleboard courts in Florida or on the porches of the old folks’ homes up north: an old man with snow-white hair, a little hard of hearing, reading the newspaper through a magnifying glass; an old woman in a shapeless dress, her knuckles gnarled by arthritis, wearing sandals to ease her aching arches. They are holding hands, and in a little while they will totter off to take a nap, and then she will cook supper, not a very good supper and they will watch television, each knowing exactly what the other is thinking, until it is time for bed. They may even have a good, soul-stirring argument, just to prove that they still really care. And through the night they will snore unabashedly, each resting content because the other is there. They are in love, they have always been in love, although sometimes they would have denied it. And because they have been in love they have survived...

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Do You Remember?

That night some shepherds were in the fields outside the village, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terribly frightened, but the angel reassured them. "Don’t be afraid!" he said. "I bring you good news of great joy for everyone! The Savior–yes, the Messiah, the Lord–has been born tonight in Bethlehem, the city of David! (Luke 2:8-11 NLV) Had you picked up a daily newspaper in 1809, you would have read the big news that Napoleon I, emperor of France, had conquered Austria at Wagram, annexed the Illyrian Provinces (now part of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), and abolished the Papal States. I know you are now asking yourself, “so what? Who cares?” Stay with me for a few more lines! In that same year, in France, Louis Braille, who devised a way for the blind to read, was born. And in Germany, – Felix Mendelssohn, the great composer of symphonies, was born. In England, William Gladstone, the four-time Prime Minister and the father of public education, was born; Alfred Lord Tennyson, the poet laureate of Great Britain, was born; and, Charles Darwin, the most influential scientist of the nineteenth century was born. In America, Edgar Allen Poe, the master poet and storyteller, was born; Oliver Wendell Holmes, the writer and physician who developed surgical techniques still in use today, was born; and, Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States, was born. But at the end of the year 1809, the only event anyone thought to be important was Napoleon’s conquest of Austria. That was the big news. I wonder who today really remembers the "big news" of 1809? Hardly anyone. Napoleon’s conquest is just a tiny blip on the big screen of history. But the world was changed forever by a few seemingly insignificant births that took place that same year. The year Jesus was born, most people missed it. Only a few were aware of the eternal implications of his presence in a manger in Bethlehem. And so it is with all of God’s work. Most of it is behind the scenes, hardly ever visible. It rarely makes headlines; instead it makes a huge difference in the lives of people because it is eternal. Do you remember the day you became a Christian? How ordinary did that day start? How extraordinary has it become in your life?  Some of you may find that last question a little more difficult to answer than others. The reason may be that you have not taken the time to really take notice of the work of grace in your life.  The mundane and ordinary events of life have choked out the significance of God’s presence in you.  Take a moment today and revisit the Babe of Bethlehem.  Let His life fill you with new...

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