The Day After Christmas

But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13-14 ESV). The day after Christmas is usually one of the most difficult days for people to face. Family have come and gone, the excitement of new things has turned to the task of exchange and refitting. We find ourselves back in an old familiar routine that is at best unsatisfactory. Perhaps it is that we spend a month or longer, decorating and cooking, buying and gifting, baking, listening to music and snuggling in front of the fire and movies, and then, in one 24-hour period, it’s over. For some there is another day off that allows some transition back to the “real world.” And, while this is a luxury for some and not all, there are several ways that anyone can stretch the season of Christmas. The following may be helpful to you as you face the “undecorating” and a return to the regular. First, let me suggest that you find a time for rest. Even if you are back at work, take some time at lunch or break and let your mind linger over the time of inactivity. Take the day slowly and don’t say yes to anything that isn’t urgent. Take the time to recharge yourself and be present with those you love most. Second, use some of the time you have to reflect. This is the time of year to look back over all the blessings that have come your way. Good news from the doctor, promotions at work, milestones for the kids, travels and adventures, personal growth, the list could be a mile long. Start collecting those blessings, either on paper or in your head, and watch as your cup overflows.  Third, find a place and purpose in rejoicing. Remember why you’ve just spent a month preparing. Yes, the holidays are fun, but Jesus is the reason for the season. Read the story with fresh eyes. Ponder how Joseph must have felt; consider what happened next for him and Mary. Immerse yourself in the idea that Christmas changed everything—not just for a day, or a season, but forever. Fourth, prepare yourself for the New Year. After you’ve spent time reflecting on the months that just passed, what does your mind land on? Is there a word that resonates in your heart? Develop a sense of perseverance to continue. More than anything, forget what has gone before and move to what is ahead. After all, the assurance of eternal life is ours in Christ. That is the “prize of the upward call of God in...

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Buon Natale!

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:2-7 ESV). “Buon Natale!” which is Italian for “Merry Christmas.”  So, I would like to dip a bit into my heritage and say Buon Natale to each of you! While there is certainly much that is the same about the traditions in America and Italy during Christmastime, one readily observable difference between them is the general lack of commercialism that threatens to swallow up and completely secularize the holiday. For instance, instead of writing letters, or emails, to Santa Claus asking for presents Italian children are encouraged write letters to tell their parents how much they love them. The letter is normally placed under their father’s plate and read after Christmas Eve dinner has been finished. Italians have also adopted some of the northern European traditions as well. In northern Italy a fair number of families decorate an evergreen tree in their home; however, many families use the ceppo. This is a wooden frame several feet high designed in a pyramid shape. This frame supports several tiers of shelves, often with a manger scene on the bottom followed by small gifts of fruit, candy, and presents on the shelves above. The “Tree of Light,” as it is also known, is entirely decorated with colored paper, gold pinecones, and miniature colored pennants. Small candles are fastened to the tapering sides and a star or small doll is hung at the apex. It is their center of attention for their family celebration. Neither is better than the other unless one removes the act of worship because of Jesus’ birth. Our reading today gives us a glimpse of who Jesus was to be once he was born. These are lofty positions. And, yet, all of them are positions that cannot be filled by anyone other than the Christ. This is the real reason for celebration. It is easy to lose this message in the midst of our celebrations. I hope you have not lost that great gift of grace. Hold to it tightly. It is your hope and...

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Christmas Eve

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7 ESV). I hope you have enjoyed the “20 Days of Advent” that we completed yesterday. Today, of course, is Christmas Eve. My prayer is that you are able to celebrate with family and friends in the true spirit of this holy day. We are blessed to be with many of our family today and tomorrow, though there are always those are missing. Perhaps you are one of those who find themselves wondering how you will ever celebrate when there is such an obvious absence you must face. Perhaps returning to the birth passage as our reading will give you some comfort and assurance. When I read it and think of the many emotions that surround this day, I am reminded of the wonderful carol, “Silent Night.” This picture is the chapel where it was first performed in 1818. It was first performed on Christmas Eve at St Nicholas parish church in Oberdorf. A young priest, Father Joseph Mohr, had come there the year before. He had written the lyrics of the song “Stille Nacht” in 1816 at Mariapfarr, the hometown of his father, where he had worked as a co-adjutor. The melody was composed by Franz Xaver Gruber, schoolmaster and organist in a nearby village.  Shortly after it was taken and performed throughout Europe becoming one of the all-time favorites of Christians everywhere. It is strange to think how God’s message is spread in such unforeseen ways. This is some of what was happening when Caesar Augustus issued this decree requiring everyone to return to their birthplace to be registered. Joseph and Mary were forced to make the difficult journey to Bethlehem from Nazareth. Mary was due to give birth at any time and the trip would be very difficult; however, perhaps the most difficult thing of all was being absent from family and friends at such a momentous occasion. Even though this was Joseph’s birthplace, there is no reason to believe that any of his family still remained in this little town. They were alone and forced to take shelter in a stable which was little more than a hollow in the hillside that doubled as a dry place for the animals. This fulfilled a prophecy concerning the coming of the Messiah (cf. Micah 5:1-2). Though many doubt Jesus’ position and power, God will not fail to keep his promises. So, regardless of what your immediate circumstance is, take a moment to renew your hope and be assured that God will not fail you. He will make all things good. He can be...

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Advent (Day 20)

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:16-18 ESV). Perhaps the darkest of events surrounding the birth of Jesus is found in our reading this morning. Herod the Great was then king of Israel. He was one of the most paranoid and cruel of leaders. And, even though there are some who refuse to believe that this even occurred, given his progressive cruelty and the Biblical evidence, I have no doubt about it taking place. Josephus is our best resource for the life of Herod. He tells us of an incident near the end of his life. In 4 BC he is in his winter palace in Jericho. It’s the only place in the holy land that doesn’t snow or get cold in the winter. After all, it is 1,200 feet below sea level. Herod is dying. He tries every remedy in the world to stop the multitude of diseases that were creeping up on him. He went to the hot springs on the northeastern corner of the Dead Sea for treatment; however, it was to no avail. So he goes back to his winter palace and he invites his sister Salome in and he says, “I want you to arrest all the Jewish leaders in the land and imprison them in the hippodrome just below the palace here.” And so she does so and then she says, “Brother, why am I doing this?” And Herod says, “Well, I know that when I die the Jews are going to rejoice. So I want to give them something to cry about.” And so he wants these leaders all executed in that hippodrome so that there will be thousands of households weeping at the time of his death! He is the Hitler of his era. Did he have all these children murdered? I think there is no doubt. But what does that tell us? Perhaps the greatest truth is that there is no logic or acceptable explanation for the evil and cruelty in our world. While 14,000 children were murdered senselessly during that rampage, we cannot ignore the nearly 750,000 babies that are aborted each year in the United States. Regardless of how you feel on the political position of this issue, it is a fact that, in nearly every case, these children would have been able to have lived to be born given the chance. This is a picture of sin and evil at work in our world. The only answer to that is the gospel. After all this is the only reason Jesus was born. He came to seek and forgive those who are lost. As we go about this year celebrating the birth of Jesus, take a moment and determine how you will spend the coming year to spread that message of grace and...

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Advent (Day 19)

And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him. (Luke 2:39-40 ESV). Just the other day Mary asked me, “Do you think Jesus ever had temper tantrums?” The question caught be a bit off-guard. However, my response was, “Probably.” Then I thought it through a bit and added that even though he might have done all of those things children typically do as they grow and mature through each stage of life, he could not have ever been disobedient or disrespectful. That would have meant he would have sinned in his emotion. He was fully human. He experienced every emotion as we do; however, his reaction to the feeling was always careful obedience and honor to God. Our reading helps us with that. Here Luke says simply, “And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him” (v. 40). You see, the gospels only give us a handful of events: the family’s escape to Egypt (Matthew 2:14) and return to Nazareth (Matthew 2:23; Luke 2:39); His increasing wisdom (Luke 2:40-52); and His visit to the Temple in Jerusalem at age 12 and obedience to His parents (Luke 2:41-51). Oh, there are accounts of Christ’s childhood in the apocryphal gospels. These are books written much later by those seeking to fill in the “gaps.” However, these “gospels” present a child who is sullen and uses miracles for entertainment rather than doing the will of God. Neither of these attributes fits with the character of Christ. While the authentic details of Jesus’ childhood are sparse, we can learn a great deal from the country and area of His youth: Israel and Galilee. While Jerusalem emphasized the intricate and convoluted study of the Old Testament and teachings of the rabbis, Galilee’s distance from the city afforded a somewhat milder approach that had little respect for legalism. For this reason and because of dialect differences, the Galileans were often seen as unlearned. We can expect that Jesus grew up in an atmosphere permeated with the teachings and words of the Old Testament. He also likely attended a Jewish school by age six, since these were common even in remote areas. Beyond this, the content of His parables and teachings may suggest the everyday sights of His youth: shepherds with their sheep, marriage parties in celebration, foxes in their lairs, tax collectors at the door, widows at work looking for lost coins, bakers in the middle of kneading bread, carpentry with Joseph, and the poor in the street. The one aspect we can be sure of is that Jesus’ youth served to fulfill an important part of His ministry. That is, though fully God, He grew up as any human does. This gives him the unique ability to identify and help us through every experience. That gives us hope and...

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Advent (Day 18)

But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene. (Matthew 2:19-23 ESV). I know beginning with this story is not really an “advent” devotional; however, I hope to show you the principle in our reading today through experiences over the last forty-eight years with my wife, Mary. Today is our anniversary. In some ways these nearly five decades have passed very quickly, though I must be honest and say they have not been without some real challenges. I can say that every one of them makes me want to simply dance with my bride. The picture you see today is one taken at my nephew’s wedding (also in Bryan, Texas) in 2014. I was privileged to officiate that wedding. At the end of the day all of the “older” folks were called to the dance floor. One by one the DJ began to eliminate couples by length of their marriage. Even then Mary and I were the last ones dancing. My sincere hope, which I am committed to work toward, is that at the end of this life we will still be left dancing! December 21, 1969 was a typical Saturday afternoon in Bryan, Texas. It was a day full of surprises even though most of it was very scripted and rehearsed. It is strange that that would become the story of our lives together. It has been full of surprises though carefully scripted by our heavenly Father. I have mentioned before that through the years we have lived in three states, 12 different cities, and 21 different apartments or homes. As you can see we were certainly a “mobile family.” Some of the moves were necessitated by a change in positions. I have been in ministry positions in seven different churches/organizations. Whew! Doesn’t that make you tired? It didn’t for us. In our reading Joseph and Mary moved yet again in the brief years after Jesus’ birth. We hear of no complaint or weariness. There was always a simple obedience to take the next step as God directed them. I certainly don’t want to give you the impression that I am as righteous or wise as Joseph; however, neither Mary nor I complained about any of the changes in our lives. We simply went and explored the next “surprise” of our life. We trusted that God would was directing us and that He would make it right. As I reflect on all those years, I can truly say each one was full and blessed. We have met cherished friends along the way. We have seen God do miraculous things in our journey. From that history comes I have an unshakeable hope that all the remaining years we shall have together shall be the same. God sees to that. So, for all of the blessing I thank my God; and, I thank my wife. Happy Anniversary, Sugar! Let’s go...

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