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 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 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.”

“A Single Light – The Light of Christ”


Here are my thoughts for this Christmas Day, 2013. This completes the series of readings and thoughts for Advent (“A Single Light – The Light of Hope”, 1 December 2013, “A Single Light – The Light of Love”, 8 December 2013, “A Single Light – The Light of Joy, 15 December 2013, and “A Single Light – The Light of Peace, 22 December 2013).

The Scripture readings for this morning are Isaiah 52: 7 – 10, Hebrews 1: 1 – 4, 5 – 12, and John 1: 1 – 14.

We begin the light of the candles by again reading the story of Christ’s birth from Matthew 1: 18 – 25:

The Birth of Jesus

The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t know that.) Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.

While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream. God’s angel spoke in the dream: “Joseph, son of David, don’t hesitate to get married. Mary’s pregnancy is Spirit-conceived. God’s Holy Spirit has made her pregnant. She will bring a son to birth, and when she does, you, Joseph, will name him Jesus—‘God saves’—because he will save his people from their sins.” This would bring the prophet’s embryonic sermon to full term:

Watch for this—a virgin will get pregnant and bear a son;
They will name him Immanuel (Hebrew for “God is with us”).

Then Joseph woke up. He did exactly what God’s angel commanded in the dream: He married Mary. But he did not consummate the marriage until she had the baby. He named the baby Jesus.

On this day, we re-light the candles of hope, love, joy, and peace. Surrounded by the light of hope, love, joy, and peace, the Christ Candle lights all the world to see the birth of Christ.

On Christmas

We honor Messiah with the Christ-Candle’s flame;

Our Christmas Eve candles glad tidings proclaim.

O come, all ye faithful, rejoice on this night

As God comes among us, the Christian’s true Light.

Our prayer this morning –

On this morning, when the soul is often chilled, the Birth of Jesus warms us as the light of a small fire warms our bodies. Let us rejoice this morning as we celebrate and helps us to bring the light of Christ into the world for all to see. AMEN

In all the time that I have been a lay speaker/servant or written pieces for my blog, Christmas has only come on a Sunday twice (in 2005 – “So This Is Christmas” and in 2011 – “The True Gift of Christmas”). So 2013 is the norm and not the exception I suppose.

In one sense that’s a good thing because it gets people to think of Christmas outside the boundaries of normal routine. If Christmas were a Sunday “thing” I don’t think it would have the impact that it does because it would be just another Sunday at church.

Now some will point out that Jesus was probably not born on December 25th and that the early church authorities picked that date to co-opt some pagan celebrations. And it is true that Jesus was more likely born sometime in the spring but if we were to celebrate his birth then, we might find ourselves celebrate Easter and Christmas in the same week (and I would hate to think what might happen if the happened to occur on the same day).

But to some extent, what difference does it make what day on the calendar Jesus was born? What matters most is that He was born and that His birth changes our lives! Right now, they are celebrating Christmas in Australia and New Zealand and other countries in the Southern Hemisphere. While we are in the midst of winter, they are in the midst of summer. And how can you sing about snow on Christmas Day when the temperatures may very well be in the low to mid 80s?

It isn’t about the day but what happened on that day and what it means to us. It should be more important in our thinking that Jesus was born, that He came to this world to be a part of our lives and to grow up as we grew up, understanding all that we have to deal with.

It would be a different story all together if Jesus were to have just appeared one day, out of nothing, already in his thirties, telling us of the Good News. I don’t think that there is a person today who would accept that as the truth.

But that we have a birth and that we know that Jesus grew up a part of this world means that there is something to what He says to us and what His presence in this world means something to us today.

The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus has been a part of this world from the very beginning and that He is a part of this world today. That, in one sense, could not have happened if He had not been born.

And how much joy and celebration could there be if He were not here. Oh, we could easily find some excuse for celebrating and exchanging presents on this day; after all, there were already parties in place when the decision was made to make Christmas and December 25th one and the same. But such parties would have no meaning and it would quickly become something of a status thing as to who got the most stuff this year.

For some, that’s all Christmas is, how much stuff one got. But when you stop and pause and think about what happened two thousand years ago and what was given to us, then the amount of stuff one gets becomes meaningless. We have been given the greatest opportunity ever known to mankind, the opportunity to be free from sin and death, the opportunity to go beyond the boundaries imposed by sin. It is a gift that we share and need to share with others this day.

Four weeks ago, we began preparing for this moment. Each week, as the days grew shorter and the darkness became greater, we lit a candle. And perhaps the effect of one or two candles was not enough to overcome the darkness. But today, on one of the shortest days in the year, when the darkness can be said to be at its maximum, the lighting of the Christ Candle in the center of a circle of light of hope, joy, love, and peace brings forth a brightness that no amount of darkness can deny.

We celebrate the birth of Christ because we have been given the greatest present of all, the promise and hope of salvation, of a life not limited. And what better gift can there be than that?

What Gift Did You Give?


Here are my thoughts for the Christmas Day, 2007.  May the blessings of God be with you and your family and may this truly be a season of peace and joy for all.

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Many years ago I used to say that Ebenezer Scrooge had the right idea about Christmas. Now, I never said “bah, humbug!” or anything like that. I never questioned the meaning or reason for Christmas. I just said that Scrooge had the right idea. And every time I did that, I would get criticized, castigated, and ridiculed.

Now, the problem was that the Scrooge that I was referring to was not the Scrooge that dominated Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” but rather the one at the end of the novel who would live the Spirit of Christmas everyday.

Everyone thinks of Scrooge as the miserly old skinflint. To most people, Scrooge was a mean old man and he wasn’t going to change. What this all means to me is that most people failed to understand what Dickens was trying to say and do with the novel.

The same I think can be said about Christmas. How our society views Christmas today is a far cry of what it really means. Christmas today is dominated by the gods of consumerism and selfishness. We speak of the joy of Christmas but it seems to be a joy brought about by the number of presents under the tree that have our names on them. We sing “Joy to the world” but we really mean “joy to me.”

But such celebration and such self-centeredness reminds many people of whom they have lost in the years. It is no wonder that, for many, Christmas is the most depressing time of the year.

Yes, it is a time for families and get-togethers. After all, Jesus was born during what was essentially a family reunion. None of our traditional Christmas stories mentioned the presence of other family members but they would have been there to help with the birth of the baby to be named Jesus. But the family that celebrated the birth of the Christ Child was more than just the blood relatives of Joseph who had come to Bethlehem for the Roman census. It was an extended family that went beyond the accepted societal definitions of that day.

The shepherds were the first outside Joseph’s family to be told that the Christ Child was born. Shepherds occupied one of the lowest rungs in society and their inclusion in the birth celebration was a sign that the message of hope that came with the birth of Christ was a message for all, not just for a few.

The same is true about the arrival of the Magi. The Magi are a reminder that the birth of Christ was for all, not just for a select few. And the Magi brought gifts. They brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh, some of the most expensive gifts know to the society of that day. Today we use this simple act of devotion as a sign that we can receive gifts from our family, our friends, our co-workers, and if need by, from ourselves. We forget that the gold that Mary and Joseph received that day would be used to get them to Egypt when Herod orders the killing of the innocents in order to secure his throne. We forget that Mary will keep the frankincense and myrrh and bring them with her when she and the other women who were Jesus’ disciples go to the tomb on Easter morning to properly prepare His body for burial in the tomb.

We remember that the Magi brought expensive gifts and we expect that others will bring us such gifts. We forget that the Magi gave the gifts without expectation of anything in return. Their knowledge of the world told them that this Child was something special and that they should honor Him, not the other way around. We know that the Magi received a gift because they returned home with the knowledge that they had seen the hope of the world to come.

I have been in churches big and small where the presence of God is perceptibly felt. I have been in church, both big and small, where you cannot feel that presence. I much prefer those churches were God is present. I have been in big churches that were built by people who had the love of Christ in their hearts. I have been in small churches where the building was more important than what transpired inside and there was no love present.

Christmas is about that presence. Christ was born to bring a renewed sense of hope to a people who felt that God had forgotten them. The birth of Christ is our gift from God to be taken, as were the gifts given to Mary, and placed in our hearts to cherish and honor.

Too often, the meaning of Christmas gets pushed aside. Too often, it is not even discussed. Perhaps we need a visit from the Christ Child Himself again to remind us that God had not forgotten us and that there is hope in this world. We have been given that gift of hope called the Christ Child. Like Mary, we need to place that gift in our hearts where it can grow and flourish. And then, like the Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of “The Christmas Carol”, we will live in and with the Spirit of Christmas through all the days of the year. Perhaps we will be like the shepherds who returned to their flocks and told all they met of the great thing that they had seen. Perhaps, we will be like the Magi who changed the path they traveled. And having been given the greatest gift of love ever known to mankind, we will give the gift of love each day.

Christmas can never be about the gifts we got but rather the gifts we give. What gifts did you give?