That First Christmas


I am not sure if I have posted some of these thoughts before; I know I have mentioned them in passing. 

How many “first” Christmas do you remember?  I know that my first Christmas was on December 25, 1950 and that my parents and my grandparents were there.  There may have been a few of my North Carolina cousins there as well.  I also know that I looked absolutely fabulous in my baptismal gown.  I know that because I have a picture of my parents and I on that occasion.  But since I was only three months old at the time, that’s all I know about my first Christmas. 

There are the memories of my first Christmas with my wife and each of my daughters.  I remember the Christmas twenty years ago when Ann and I traveledto Memphis to meet my mother, brothers, and sister.  It would also be the first time that Ann had ever heard me preach.  I remember telling her just before we arrived at the church that she would be the only white women there. 

I also remember the broken bones and broken marriages, of lost jobs and being homeless at Christmas.  Against the backdrop of the Joy of Christmas, we must also remember that, for many individuals and families, this is not a joyous time.  If for no other reason that this is the season of giving, we must find ways to share our joys with those who suffer pain and loss.  We must find ways to bring hope and light into the lives of those for whom Christmas is often the darkest and longest night. 

We think back to that First Christmas some two thousand years ago.  Mary and Joseph knew that this was a special day but those around them only saw a couple in need of help, trying to find shelter on a cold and dark night where a baby could be born.   

I am sure that the innkeeper wasn’t thinking that this couple were by any means a special couple but just two people trying to find a place to stay in a town overflowing with people because the Roman government had insisted on a census of the population. 

And surely among all of Joseph’s cousins who had traveled to Bethlehem for the same reasons as he did were some mid-wives who would help with the birth of Mary’s child.  You did not ask who the child was; you helped the mother through a difficult time. 

But then the shepherds came.  Shepherds were the dregs of society and no one in proper society would even think of letting them visit; after all, there was no telling what they might do or take.  But some among those gathered that night must have thought that if the shepherds had been invited, something special must be occurring. 

Even those who weren’t paying attention to what happened in Bethlehem knew something must have happened when Herod imposed the wrath of Roman power on the rumor of the birth of a new King. 

So, in a society ruled by Roman and religious oppression, where success was guided more by your position in society and fealty to the law, some saw a light shining in the darkness of the winter night.  Though many did not know how special that night was, they knew something was changing.  And over the years, they would come to understand what happened that night and what it would mean. 

There is a darkness enveloping this world today and though light is returning as the seasons move forward, this darkness seems to be growing.  There are those today for whom the darkness totally envelopes their lives; there is no joy, there is no hope in their lives. 

Christmas has no meaning if it is not shared; we share it with those seeking light in a sea of darkness.  But more importantly, just as those who gathered that first night in Bethlehem, we too take what happened with us and we tell others.  

We all have our special first Christmas.  Let this Christmas be the beginning of the story that we share each day. 

What Gift Will You Give?


This is a Christmas piece, but one not based on readings from the Gospel concerning Jesus’ birth.  Rather, I will be using some thoughts from Paul and some thoughts that Jesus gave during the Galilean ministry.

There is a little bit of Christmas in this piece because one of the pieces that many choirs sing at this time contains the line, “what gift can I bring?”

One would think that one must understand what gifts we have been given so that we know what gift we can bring.  Oh, I suppose that one could run down to the store at the mall or page through countless pages of on-line shopping to find the right gift to give the Baby Jesus.  But one is going to have to really stretch to give a gift that beats gold, frankincense, and myrrh, don’t you think?

I do believe that the gift we bring to Jesus is found in the gifts that we have been given.  In Romans 12: 6 – 8, Paul speaks of the gifts that we have been given:

  • Prophecy
  • Service
  • Teaching
  • Exhortation
  • Giving
  • Leading
  • Mercy

Each of these gifts is a product of how we received God’s Grace.  So the gifts that we give must and need to reflect those gifts that we have received.

And therein lies the rub, how much of those gifts will we give away?  There are so many individuals today who proclaim that they have received the gift of grace from God, yet their words, actions, deeds, and thoughts reflect the actions of the one servant who received the one talent and then buried it for fear of losing it.  Those who gave more of themselves in terms of the gifts and talents that they received found the return as great as what they had been first given.

And there will come a time when we must account for the use of our gifts.  If we look beyond the birth of Christ and beyond His death to the point of His return, then we are faced with the question of when do you use those gifts in my name?  How many times did Jesus challenge the people to see God’s presence in their lives outside the Temple?  How many times will our use of the gifts we have been given, in whatever form they may take, to help others find Christ?

What gifts will you share this year as your celebration of Christmas?

What is the message of Christmas?


What is the message of Christmas?

In 1968 Simon and Garfunkel released a song entitled “7 O’clock News/Silent Night”.  As they were singing “Silent Night”, the news was broadcast in the background, slowly getting louder and eventually became louder than the song.  I don’t know if either Paul Simon or Art Garfunkel commented on the song, but it was clear that the message of Christ’s birth was getting drown out by the news of the world.

Along the same vein, someone might record the song “Do You Hear What I Hear?”  But the message of Christmas that we might hear will be a similar one, a message of the trouble, the violence, the hatred, the greed and commercialism that seems to dominate the world today.  And what I fear is that for many people, if they hear the message of Christmas at all, this will be the message of Christmas.

Some people, of course, do not hear the message of Christmas but, then again, they are not listening for it.  They have their own faith traditions and stories and Christmas is not a part of that story.  And it would be wrong for those who hear the message of Christmas to expect others to listen, for respect for all people was and should still be part of the message of Christmas.

To hear the message of Christmas, you must, at some point, believe in Christ.  There are those who don’t hear the message because they don’t believe in God, no matter what the faith story may be.  For these individuals, Christmas is merely another name for Saturnalia, a pagan festival at the time of the winter solstice, which the early church co-opted in the name of Christ.

If one studies the history of the early church and the history of Christmas, we know that the story of Christmas did not occur in the darkness of the winter solstice but more likely in the early Spring.  The selection of the time of the winter solstice may have been to distract many people from other celebrations but it was also just as important to not distract from Easter (which is my hypothesis).

But many of those who deny the existence of any god still celebrate Christmas but what message are they hearing?  But while they may not believe in God, Christmas, or what it truly means, they do, I believe, get upset when they do not get their fair share of the presents given out.  Some of these individuals have created their own quasi-Christmas to justify the need for presents, gifts and celebration.  This is a one-day message, a message that has no meaning tomorrow or the day after; there will a new message to take its place.

But the message of Christmas was never about the presents one receives or a measure of one’s worth in terms of presents received.  It is about understanding why presents were given to the baby Jesus in the first place and what those presents foretold for Jesus’ life and later mission to us.

So, what is the message of Christmas?  Sadly, many people today who proclaim themselves to be Christian cannot tell you what that message is.  The message they hear in church is a combination of many distinctly different messages, designed by individuals who either do not want others to learn or do not want to learn themselves.

The message of Christmas given by so many is one that speaks highly of material gain and personal power.

It is a message of convenience, it is a message that echoes the words of Gordon Gecko, that “greed is good”.  It is a message that says Christ’s birth is a triumph of rich over poor and power over weakness.  It is a message that proclaims exclusiveness and hatred, and that only certain people are entitled to the riches and the power that comes from following Christ.  It is a message that say one must and can only say “Merry Christmas” during this season of many holidays and celebrations.  And if you do not accept this message as the one true message, then you must be opposed to Christmas and you must be defeated in this peculiar “war on Christmas.”

To hear the true message of Christmas, we must open our minds as well as our hearts.  We have all grown up and we teach the Bible in such a way as to believe there is one Christmas story when there are two (one in Matthew, where the Magi are the focus) and one in Luke (where we hear of the shepherds).

This is a simple story but as we grow in age, we must also grow in wisdom as well.  We must at some point in our life understand the world into which Jesus was born.  We must understand why it was that the shepherds were first to be told and why the Magi, no matter when they arrived, are also part of the story (I discussed this a few years ago in “A Personal Evolution of Christmas”).

The shepherds were the first to hear the message of Christmas because they were not the rich or powerful.  Rather, the shepherds of Jesus’ day were among the lowest of society.  Their work made them virtual outcasts in society and kept them barred from the Temple.  The religious, political, and economic elite then would never have imagined that the lowest of society would be the first, expect the news of the Messiah to be given to them first (even when the prophecies told otherwise).

The arrival of the Magi (and we really don’t know how many there were; we use three because of the gifts mentioned in Matthew’s story) tells us several things.  For Matthew, the gifts of frankincense and myrrh spoke of Christ’s death to come, for Matthew was writing his Gospel after the fact and not while it was occurring.  That the Magi came was also a statement that the message of Christmas was going to be for the whole world and not just the people of Israel.  I would like to think that Matthew was also making a subtle statement that the message of Christmas was about the mind as much as it was about the heart.

The Magi represented science in its beginning forms and to exclude the search for knowledge would be to limit the message of Christmas.

So, the true message of Christmas is more than a simple story and it is certainly not about power, greed, or exclusiveness.  Rather it is just the opposite of what so many hear.

And when we speak of those who hear the message of Christmas, we must remember that many people do not want to hear a message that speaks in those terms for the darkness of the season only amplifies the pain and loss in their soul.  Messages that speak of personal triumph merely remind many of what they do not have.

The true message of Christmas is one that brings a new light into the world, a light that will grow in time and will encompass the world.  It speaks of hope, at a time when the world needed hope and needs hope today. It is not a message limited to one individual or one group but to all individuals, even if they do not believe or want to believe.  And while there may not be many proclaiming this message, there are a few who do.  And as they tell this message of Christmas to their friends, and lead a life that exemplifies the meaning of the message and the story of Christmas, others will hear it.

And just as the message grew from the back roads of the Galilee through the efforts of the early church, so too will the message grow today.

The true message of Christmas is that in the darkness and despair of the world around us, in a world of hatred and violence, in a world where many are excluded, a child was born.  And with the birth of the Christ Child, a light that can never be extinguished began to shine.  It was and is a light that brings hope and promise to all mankind.

 

The Star of Bethlehem (again!)


It’s a frequently-asked question…. and so, if you want to read some interesting thoughts about the Star of Bethlehem then I recommend you head on over to the Faith and Science resource site and check out that part of the Frequently Asked Questions! Star of Bethlehem Of course, you could also pick up a copy of Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial where we spend a whole chapter talking about it. … Continue reading →

Source: The Star of Bethlehem (again!)

What Season Is This?


One of the things that makes us human is our ability to discern the differences in things.  I would suspect that one of the reasons the Preacher was able to write “to everything there is a season” was that he could see the passage of time in the seasons of the year.

We know that this is the winter season because the signs of the world around us tell us that it is winter time.  The beginning of shorter days, colder temperatures, animals beginning to prepare for hibernation, etc., all are signs that winter is upon us.

In the same way, we know that this is the Christmas season.  Unfortunately, the signs of Christmas seem to be appearing earlier and earlier ever year and these signs seem to have taken on an almost apocalyptic overtone.

They speak of economic disaster if we do not buy Christmas presents, forgetting that the first Christmas presents were given to the Christ child, not received by those who came to see the new-born baby.

The signs of Christmas today speak more about who we are today and less and less about what we can be tomorrow.  There are those who speak of a “war on or against Christmas”, and to some extent, they are correct.  There are those whose idea of Christmas is limited to what they want and who seem to forget that the primary visitors to the new-born baby were societal outcasts and foreign nationals (and individuals who spent their lives seeking new answers rather than accepting as unchanging answers that possibly do not work).

In a world where power is measured by one’s economic and social status, it is hard to imagine a child born in the most minimal setting being the One and True King.  This child has no true power, no money, no retinue to do his bidding or will so how can he be the true King?

We speak of the Prince of Peace being born and yet we continue to live in a world where violence and warfare dominate.  We are so attuned to this world and this way of life that we fail to realize that its only conclusion is the destruction of the world in which we live.  We are so attuned to this world and its way of life that we fail to realize that allowing only a few people to have all the money and wealth can only create conditions where violence and warfare are the only solutions.

We live in a world where a small group seek to maintain control by keeping those with common interests from coming together.  When groups of individuals hate, or at the minimum, fear other groups of individuals, those in power remain in power.  And sooner or later, this too will lead to the destruction of the world.

The signs of Christmas do not bode well for the future.  And the signs that tell us what season it is are not good signs at all.

But, there is one good sign.  It is that a small child was born some two thousand years ago, in a non-descript setting in a backwater town that virtually no one even knew existed.  But it was enough of a birth to disturb the powerful.  And as this young child would grow into an adult, He would begin to change the world in ways that the world could not understand (and obviously does not understand today).

When asked one time how one should treat one’s neighbor, Jesus spoke of ways that ran counter to accepted social policies, “ask what you would want people to do for you and then do that for them.”  It works this way – just because there are people who feel that they have the right to treat others in negative ways does not give you the right to do the same in return.

He said to turn the other cheek when someone struck you, to give your second cloak when someone demands your first, to walk the extra mile when commanded to walk one mile.  Time and time again, His way was a different way of life.  Some got it, others didn’t; some came to understand it; others never will.

There are those who have taken the title “Christian” but have chosen to live a life of exclusion, hatred, and violence. That is not the Way and it never was. The hymn says that they will know we are Christians by our love, not our hatred.

I know that the coming months are going to be hard but I know that with Christ the central part of my life, I am going to stare directly into the face of hatred and evil, smile and say that God loves you no matter what.

I know that the traditional mission of the followers of Christ was to go out into the world and make disciples of all the people.  But that didn’t mean beat them over the head with a stick until they accepted Christ.

But how are we to do that, make disciples of everyone.  Since disciples can be taken to mean students, we are to teach them about Christ and what Christ did.  And it must be a lesson that is done outside the classroom, not inside.

When Jesus began His ministry, He spoke of bring sight to the blind, of feeding the hungry, of bringing aid and comfort to the sick and afflicted, and freeing the oppressed.  There is, if you will a concrete and an abstract view of this mission statement.  But you cannot achieve the abstract if you do not have the concrete.

Our task is to put the words of Christ into action.  This is a season of new hopes and new beginnings, it is a season that begins with us.

Peace to you, peace to all your friends, and peace for the season.

 

“The Meaning Of The Christmas Story – 2014”


Here are my thoughts for Christmas this year.

If we are to give meaning to the story of Christmas that we tell this year, we ought to start with what we know.

For some, the idea that Jesus Christ was ever born is a fantasy or superstition. But something happened some two thousand years ago that caused some people to write down some stories and tell them to others and risk their lives in doing so. And while it may not always be possible to factually verify everything, that we are still telling the story today should tell us that there is a certain degree of truth in the story.

But let us start with the knowledge that we know Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25th or in December for that matter. With the statement in Luke’s Gospel that the shepherds were in their fields that night, we can surmise that Jesus was most likely born in either March or early April.

But if we were to celebrate Jesus’ birthday at that time, there would inevitably be a conflict with Easter and that would probably not be a good idea.

We also know that those involved in the early church coopted a pagan holiday that occurred during the winter solstice as the date for Christmas. One supposes this was done to change the focus but, as we will see in a few moments, there was at least one other compelling reason.

But let me just say at this moment, if you profess to be an atheist, why are you disturbed by all of this? By your own declaration, you do not believe in any sort of god or gods, so the actions of one group to “steal” another groups holiday should have no effect on you.

And as an atheist or even as a pagan believer, if you participate in any sort of gift exchange because it is Christmas, then you are in it for yourself and that is not nor has it ever been the story or meaning of Christmas.

I would also add that those many self-righteous individuals who call themselves Christian but lead a life that does not contain Christ are also in it for themselves. Just because you put a sticker on the right side of your bumper that proclaims “keeping Christ in Christmas” doesn’t make you a Christian if you haven’t kept Christ in your heart as well.

You see the story of Christmas begins with an invitation, not to the rich and the powerful or members of the political and religious establishment, but to the outcasts of society. The announcement of the birth of Jesus was given to the shepherds, who by the very nature of their work, were considered ritually unclean and no self-respecting citizen in Jesus’ time would have anything to do with them.

Despite the profession as their King and his beginnings as a shepherd, the shepherd profession was not very well appreciated. I can only imagine what parents back then might have thought if one of their children were to come home and say that they wanted to become a shepherd or that they were going to marry one.

I don’t think much has changed in the past two thousand years. The people and professions change but we still exude an aura of exclusion when it comes to the people we bring to Christ or to whom we take Christ.

Yes, we have a food closet at our church; we hold food and coat drives; yes, we give food baskets at Thanksgiving and Christmas and we do all of that in the name of Christ but what happens the other days of the year. If we truly felt that no one should go hungry or naked, homeless or sick, why are we not doing something about that? Is that not what Christ said He came to this world to do and is that not part of the Christmas story?

Now, the one thing that I don’t want to do is mix up the Christmas stories in the Gospels but then again we have done a pretty good job of that on our own anyway. It may be that most people don’t know the reason for celebrating Christmas in December but they also don’t know that the story that is told is a combination of stories and that there really is no Christmas story in Mark or John.

And that makes the inclusion of the Magi all the more important. We also speak of the three wise men but we really don’t know if there were only three or if more may have been on the trip. We make the argument for three because three gifts were given. In fact, we don’t even know if they were all men (I think that we make certain assumptions about the nature of the position that are necessarily true). And we have to go to sources outside the Bible to get their names.

The Magi are in the story because they have seen signs of Jesus’ birth, signs that were available to the scientific advisers of the Israelite political and religious authorities as well. How is it that they missed them? Could it have been they were more interested in preserving their own positions than advancing knowledge? Why was it that the signs of Jesus’ birth were given to individuals outside the religious and political establishment? Could it have been that the knowledge of Christ’s birth was meant for all and not just a select few?

Even today, there are those who seek to limit our knowledge, telling us that there is a limit to our knowledge. But if their counterparts two thousand years ago couldn’t get it right, how can we trust them today?

We know that Jesus will grow in wisdom and stature so learning had to be important to Mary and Joseph. So should it be today. And just as the Magi looked beyond the horizon, so should our learning process push the envelope as well. Say what you will about the science of the Magi, it was the foundation for the science of today. They sought answers to questions and that is what we need to be teaching today. The answer to the question will always be in what we do, not what is in some book.

It was never made clear to me when I was growing up what sort of society Jesus was raised in or what the nature of that time might have been. But I have come to know, because I have sought to find out, that though the time may have been called the “Pax Romana”, it was a peace enforced by brutal force and oppression.

Are these times any different? We still seek to establish peace through force and oppression but we are finding that it does not work. To paraphrase Patrick Henry, there can be no peace as long as war is used to accomplish it.

We are also reminded that even one of Jesus’ disciples questioned the validity of Jesus’ message because He was from Nazareth. Our own ability to understand people is often clouded by our own preconceived notions of time and place. We struggle each day to judge a person by the content of their character and not their outward appearance.

We live in a dark time, in part because the relationship between the earth and its journey around the sun. But the darkness that envelopes our lives is brought on as much by our indifference to the conditions of others and our own self-interests.

I would hope that when the early church authorities decided to co-opt pagan winter solstice ceremonies, they did so because they understood that there was more to the darkness in the people’s lives than just the position of the earth around the sun.

Christ’s birth was meant to be the light that could overcome the darkness and allow people to know that, no matter who they may be or where they come from, there was hope in this world. He came to this world to bring light to a darkened world and that is the Christmas story.

It was never meant to be a one-day event. It was meant to be the beginning of a story that lasts a lifetime and one we live each day. It was and need to be a story told by all and told to all. So, as you tell the story, remember how it began and how lives were changed.

That is the meaning of the story this year and in the years to come.

“The Christmas Story”


For those that don’t follow this blog on a regular basis, you have to know that my roots lie in the South (having been born in Virginia and lived in Alabama, Texas, and Tennessee). And as I have said on a number of occasions, when you mention places like Corinth, Rome, Mount Moriah, and Shiloh, I am more apt to think of Mississippi, Georgia, and Tennessee than I am places in Israel and the Mid-East.

For me, the Bible has and will always be about life today, not life two thousand years ago. So it makes sense to read a translation that is a bit more modern and tied up with archaic or out-dated language. And those two points, being Southern and having a sense that the Bible needs to mean something to me, lead me to the Cotton Patch Gospels by Clarence Jordan. If you have never read this translation, you don’t know what you are missing.

But what kind of hospitality would it be for me not to offer you a taste of this translation? So here is the Christmas Story as translated by Clarence Jordan for the Cotton Patch Gospels. (If you are even more interested, I included his translation of the story of the Good Samaritan with the message I posted back in July for the message “Who Will Be The One?”)

The Christmas Story – as translated by Clarence Jordan for the Cotton Patch Gospel, Jesus’ Doings (Luke)

“It happened in those days that a proclamation went out from President Augustus that every citizen must register. This was the first registration while Quirinius was Secretary of War. So everybody went to register, each going to their own home town. Joseph too went up from south Georgia from the city of Valdosta, to his home in north Georgia, a place named Gainesville, to register with his bride Mary, who by now was heavily pregnant. While they were there, her time came, and she gave birth to her first boy. She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in an apple box. (There was no room for them at the hospital.)

Now there were some farmers in that section who were up late at night tending to their baby chicks. And a messenger from the Lord appeared to them, and evidence of the Lord was shining all about them. It nearly scared the life out of them. And the messenger said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid; for listen, I’m bringing you good news of a great joy in which all people will share. Today your deliverer was born in the city of David’s family. He is the Leader. He is the Lord. And here’s a clue for you: you will find the baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in an apple box.’ And all of a sudden there was with the messenger a crowd of angels singing God’s praises and saying, ‘Glory in the highest to God, And on Earth, peace to humankind, The object of God’s favor.’

When the messengers went away from them into the sky, the farmers said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Gainesville and see how all this the Lord has showed us has turned out.’
So they went just as fast as they could, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in an apple box. Seeing this, they related the story of what had been told them about this little fellow. The people were simply amazed as they listened to what the farmers told them. And Mary clung to all these words, turning them over and over in her memories. The farmers went back home, giving God the credit and singing praises for all they had seen and heard, exactly as it had been described to them. And when the day came for him to be christened, they named him Jesus, as he was called by the angel before he was conceived.

After they had finished carrying out the rules and regulations of the church in regard to the child, they brought him to the bishop in Atlanta to dedicate him to the Lord, just as the Scripture said: ‘Every first baby, if it’s a boy, shall be dedicated to the Lord.’ Also, they wanted to make a thank-offering — as the Scripture said — of the equivalent of ‘a couple of ducks or two fryers.

Now then, there was a man in Atlanta whose name was Simon. He was a sincere and devout man, and deeply concerned for the welfare of the world. Being a spirit-led man, he had been assured by the Holy Spirit he would not die before seeing the Lord’s Leader. Guided by the spirit, he came to the First Church. And when the parents brought in the child Jesus for the ceremonies, Simon picked him up in his arms and praised God. He said, ‘Now let your servant, Almighty Master, Slip quietly away in peace, as you’ve said. For these eyes of mine have seen your deliverance Which you have made possible for all of the people. It’s a light to illuminate the problem of races, A light to bring honor to your faithful disciples.’

And Joseph and Mary were really amazed at these things that were said about him. Simon congratulated them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Listen, this little one is put here for the downfall and uplift of many in the nation, and for a symbol of controversy — your heart, too, will be stabbed with a sword — so that the inner feelings of many hearts may be laid bare.’

Now Hannah, a lady minister, was there. She was from one of the best families in the South. She was quite old, having lived with her husband for seven years after getting married, and as a widow from then until her present age of eighty-four. She never left the church, worshiping there night and day with prayers and vigils. She came up to them at the same time and gave God’s approval, and started talking about the child to all those who were hoping for the nation’s deliverance.

And when they got through with all the church requirements, they went back to south Georgia, to their own city of Valdosta. And the little fellow grew and became strong. He was plenty smart, and God liked him.”