Day 28-The Christmas Story in Matthew and Luke

On Christmas morning in my family, before we open our gifts, we light a candle, symbolic of Christ’s presence and the light he brings to the world. Then we read the Christmas story as found in Matthew and Luke, and then we pray. It seems appropriate to end these reflections in the same way. I invite you to read the Christmas story as you celebrate on Christmas morning this year.

The Christmas Story in the Gospel of Matthew

            Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded himl he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25)

 

The Christmas Story in the Gospel of Luke

            In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and they glory of the Lord shone around them, “Do not be afraid; for see-I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child ling in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered tehm in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:1-20)

 

            Lord, thank you for coming to us in Jesus Christ. Thank you for the salvation he brings. Thank you for your love, mercy, and grace. Thank you for Christmas. Help us to live as Christ-followers and to take your light in to the world. Amen. 

Day 27-The Light of the World

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5)

            No one knows when Jesus was born. December 25 was chosen not because someone had a copy of Jesus’ birth certificate, but because, as the early church pondered when to celebrate Jesus’ birth, the winter solstice seemed the perfect time. They chose this time, I believe, not because it was already a pagan festival, though it was. I believe they chose this date because on this night the heavens themselves seemed to tell the Christmas story.

At the winter solstice, the world seems to change. Up to that day, the nights have been growing longer and the days shorter, Darkness has been defeating the light. But after the winter solstice, the days grow longer and the night grows shorter. Light overcomes darkness.

We have focused in this book on Matthew and Luke’s telling of the Christmas story; but John, too, tells the story of Christmas. He does not include shepherds or angels or wise men. He tells the story thus: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” When better to celebrate the one who himself was light, who defeated the darkness, than on the winter solstice!

We observe candlelight at Christmas in part to commemorate the triumph of light over darkness that happens through Jesus Christ. The candle lighting portion of the service begins by extinguishing all the candles and turning out the lights in our sanctuary. We stand in the darkness, recalling the moments in our lives and in our world when darkness has seemed palpable. You can’t appreciate the light of Christ that comes to us at Christmas until you’ve first felt and known the darkness. Finally in our candlelight service, we bring in one candle from the back of the room-the Christ candle-representing Jesus himself. We then begin to pass the candlelight throughout the room, lighting one another’s candles as we sing “Silent Night.”

When we finish passing the light, we invite everyone to hold their candles high in the air, and we all just look around. The room that was pitch dark a few minutes before is now filled with the soft glow of candlelight. And this, we note, is the point of Christmas-God came to us in Jesus Christ to dispel the darkness with his light. Hate, violence, bigotry, war, poverty, disease, and even death seem so often to rule the world. But Jesus came to show us that God is, that God loves, and that hate and evil will not ultimately prevail.

I remind the congregation as we stand holding our candlelight that at one point in his ministry Jesus said, “I am the light of the world!” But as he called his disciples and invited them to follow, he said to them: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). In this moment we see that Christmas is not only a gift from God-light piercing our darkness-it is also a calling from God to take his light into the world by our acts of love, mercy, and justice.

I’ll offer just one small example of the simple ways this mission is lived out: A couple of years ago on Christmas Eve, Karla, our pastor to senior adults, went to a nearby nursing home and went room to room, offering to read the Christmas story from the Gospels. After reading, she prayed with the residents and then moved on to the next room. She came to a room that was dark; the lights were off and the shades were drawn. She hesitated to go in but then noticed a woman sitting on the edge of the bed in the darkness, her hands folded in her lap, as though she were waiting for someone or something.

Karla asked if she could come in and read the Christmas story, and the woman whispered, “Yes.” After reading about the birth of Jesus, Karla prayed with the woman and then invited her to join in the Lord’s Prayer. Karla wished her a Merry Christmas and slipped out of the room. As she left, Karla heard the woman weeping quietly. She turned and stood at the door for a moment and heard the woman praying, “Lord, you didn’t forget me. I prayed that you wouldn’t forget me, and you didn’t.” Karla went back into the room, wrapped her arms around the woman, and held her as she wept. There in the darkness, light had come. It came because Christ was born in Bethlehem. It came because Karla had seen the light and felt compelled to share the light.

Christmas is God’s gift to us, a gift of light and life, hope and grace. The gift is a reflection of God’s concern for the world, and God’s desire to heal it and drive away its darkness. The gift of Christmas therefore comes with a mission, a calling, and a responsibility. We must bear Christ’s light into the world by our love, expressed through works of mercy and justice. At Christmas we are invited to bear the light, but not only to receive it. We are invited to bear the light, to walk in the light, and to take the light into the world.

 

            Lord, I accept your light, your love, your mercy, and your grace. Fill me with your love. By your Holy Spirit help me to reflect your light, to walk in your light, and to take your light into the world. Amen.

Day 26-The Visit of the Magi

            In the times of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observe hos star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:1-2)

 

Luke tells us about the shepherds and the manger. Matthew doesn’t mention these at all. In fact, Matthew merely states that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. He then tells us that sometime after Jesus was born., “wise men from the East” came to pay him homage. By the time the wise men arrived, Mary and Jesus were staying in a home.

I invite you to review what I have written about the wise men in The Journey  and what I mention there concerning King Herod the Great. Here I simply want to point out that the wise men were likely Zoroastrian priests from the area that today we call Iran. They were also likely astrologers, a profession which at that time was highly regarded. Somewhere between modern-day astrology and astronomy.

God beckoned the wise men to make several-month journey to see the infant Jesus, even though these men were likely not Jews. What does this tell you about God’s concern and interest in the nations of the earth, not simply in the Jews? In some ways this story reminds me of the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet whom God used to call the Assyrian people to repentance.

When the wise men hound Mary and Jesus they were “overwhelmed with joy.” They then presented gifts they had brought all the way from Persia-gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

You may know that these gifts were signs pointing toward Jesus’ future identity. Gold is the gift of kings, and Jesus was the “King of kings.” Frankincense was used by priests in their offerings to God, pointing toward Jesus’ role as our “high priest.” And myrrh was used in embalming the dead, a gif that pointed, even then, to the fact that Jesus would one day die. The Christmas gifts of the magi also likely sustained Joseph, Mary and Jesus when they fled to Egypt, becoming refugees there, after learning that Herod wanted to kill Jesus.

Our congregation’s offering on Christmas Eve are one way of identifying with the magi in worship and of helping children in poverty. I’ve mentioned earlier in this book that on Christmas Eve night, our congregation gives away its entire offering, half to causes in a developing nation (currently, Malawi, Africa) and the other half to initiatives for children in poverty in Kansas City. This practice has proved to be very compelling not only for our members, but for the many visitors at the Christmas Eve services. Last year a young man came to me after worship and said, “I’m a Buddhist, and my friends invited me to come tonight. I loved the music and your message, but what most moved me was the fact that your congregation voted to give away the entire offering tonight for children in poverty. I’ll be back!”

Christmas has become, for most Americans, a season for gluttonous and overindulgent excess. But the wise men model for us a different approach to Christmas. They were not seeking to get more, but to give what they had to help the child and his family. Today we give what we have to help others in Christ’s family.

In recent years, a younger generation has sometimes accused Christians of judgmentalism, hypocrisy, and insensitivity to the needs of others. Yet this same generation is drawn to people and causes who, in the words of Micah, “do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” It may well be that when our celebration of Jesus’ birth begins to mirror the magi’s celebration, then a younger generation will begin to see the power of the Christian faith.

For more information about how you or your church can give as the magi did, or for possible projects to consider, go to www.JourneyThisChristmas.com.

Lord, help me to look for ways, in my sphere of influence and in my daily life, that I can “do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly” with you. Grant me a generous heart. Amen.

 

Day 25-The Meaning of the Manger

“This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)

 “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.” (John 6:35a)

            After Jesus was born, he was wrapped in strips of cloth and placed in a manger. A manger is a feeding trough from which donkeys, horses, and other animals eat. While we usually picture the manger as constructed of wood, the only examples we have left in the Holy Land from ancient times are actually large stones that have been carved out on top to hold straw.

Luke mentions the manger three times in just a few verses as he tells the story of Jesus’ birth. This is unusual and should lead us to ask why. Why does Luke feel it important to tell us about Jesus’ first bed? And why does he mention it three times?

One reason is obvious: the manger points to Jesus’ humble birth. It embodies a profoundly moving truth: that on his first night on this earth, the King of Glory, the Son of God, slept in a trough where the animals fed. What a picture of God’s desire to identify with the humble and the poor.

But I think Luke had something more in mind, something I had not seen in twenty-five years of preaching the Christmas story. I believe Luke mentions the sign of the manger three times to communicate the powerful image of Jesus’ first bed being the place where God’s creatures come to eat.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a town that means “House of Bread.” John would later describe Jesus multiplying the loaves of bread and saying, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry” (John 6:35). Jesus was, of course, speaking of a spiritual sustenance the world would receive from him. Matthew, Mark, and Luke record Jesus taking bread at the Last Supper and saying, “this is my body, which is given for you.” (See Luke 22:19.)

The manger-the feeding trough-was a sign of what Jesus came to do. He came to offer himself as bread for our souls. He came to satisfy a hunger that could not be satisfied any other way.

When Jesus was tested in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry, the devil tempted him to turn stones into bread. But Jesus responded by quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, “One does not live by bread alone” (Luke 4:4). Yet one of our greatest struggles is that we forget this. We come to believe that if we have enough bread-enough money, enough stuff-we will be satisfied. But here’s something I am absolutely certain of: there is nothing you or your family members will open on Christmas morning that will ultimately satisfy the deepest longings of your heart.

I have watched people in the congregation I serve who forgot this. They found that the “cares of this world and the desire for wealth” choked out the gospel. They lived their lives for more and bigger and better; but the more they had, the less they were satisfied, like someone with a disease that leaves them always hungry, and through they eat and eat and eat, they are never filled.

Our hearts hunger to know that we are loved, that our lives have meaning and purpose, that we can be forgiven and find grace, that we are not alone, and that there is always hope. We hunger to know that even death will not be the end of us; and we hunger for joy, and peace, goodness, and grace.

In this life, we wrestle with the temptation to believe that if we just had enough bread we would be happy. Luke, in the sign of the manger, is reminding us that Jesus is the only one who can truly satisfy the hunger of our hearts.

 

            Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more, Help me to trust in your love and to live in your grace. Help me to be a part of your purpose. Fill me with your Spirit, and guide me by your love. Amen.

 

Day 24-The Shepherds’ Response

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the  manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (Luke 2:15-20)

The shepherds had heard from heavenly messengers that a new king had been born in Bethlehem. They would find him in a parking garage the one (that’s what a stable was), lying in a bed of straw where the animals ate.

How would the shepherds respond? Would they stay in their fields; or would they leave their flocks, risk losing their jobs, and hike over the hillsides to Bethlehem in search of the newborn King? Scripture tells us what they did: The shepherds “went with haste” to see the one whose birth would be a source of “good news of great joy for all the people.”

When the shepherds arrived, they saw with their own eyes “Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger,” and they became God’s messengers-God’s angels-telling others about the child. This is important. It demonstrates a rhythm in the Christian life: Others tell us about Jesus, we see with our own eyes and believe, and we tell others what we’ve seen. Then we return to our daily lives with joy, changed forever.

It is Christmas time, and there are many people who typically don’t go to church but are searching nonetheless for the “good news of great joy for all the people.” They’ve been searching at the mall, at their Christmas parties, even sitting in font of a decorated Christmas tree, but they still haven’t found Christmas. And they won’t find it, unless someone plays the part of the angel and invites them to come and see the child “wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in the manger.”

Ann’s husband invited her to attend our candlelight Christmas Eve services one year. She wrote, “If my husband hadn’t invited me to Church of the Resurrection, I would still be searching for a way to fill the hole in my heart that God now fills.” That was many years ago; today, Ann has gone on to become a leader in our congregation.

Each year, we give away our entire Christmas Eve offering to two projects benefiting children in poverty. Half of the funds last year went to projects in Malawi, Africa, and the other half to renovate and support inner-city schools. Ann has become one of the leaders in our work with the inner-city schools, which includes tutoring, installing playgrounds, repainting buildings, and supporting teachers.

After we had completed a playground at one of the inner-city schools, a man at the school asked Ann, “Why would you do this for us?” She told him, “It’s our way of showing God’s love for you.” Both began to cry as they stood on the playground that day.

Ann’s angel was her husband, who invited her to “come and see.” She came on Christmas Eve and heard the story of the child, born in a barn, who slept in a feeding trough. She discovered the “good news of great joy for all the people.” When Ann returned home, “singing and praising God,” she went on to become a messenger who has shared God’s love with hundreds of others. They  world was changed because of that one invitation.

Who is God calling you to be a messenger for this Christmas?

 

            Lord, please use me to invite_________________ to Christmas Eve services this year. Make me one of your messengers. Then help _____________ to hear the “good news of great joy” that you have come to us in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Day 23-The Angelic Chorus

“This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And sudden;y there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven,  and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:12-14)

            The shepherds were on the hillsides not far from Bethlehem. When you visit Bethlehem, one of the places you may be taken is the “shepherds’ fields”-two hillsides separated by a valley. The ruins of ancient churches dot one hill, as well as two chapels and an interesting cave that gives you a glimpse of what a cave dwelling may have looked like at the time of Jesus. You’ll also likely see, down in the valley, a shepherd or two grazing some sheep.

After the messenger of the Lord had explained that the Savior had been born, he encouraged the shepherds to leave behind their sheep and go to Bethlehem to see the Christ Child. They were to look for a newborn child, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a feeding trough for animals (a manger). What a sign! They would find the Savior of the world not by a star-that was the sign for the magi-but by finding a child laid to sleep in a makeshift crib!

And then, suddenly, as if the heavens could no longer keep quiet, a host of strangers appeared singing and praising God. I wonder if you’ve seen the video of the “flash mob” singing the Hallelujah Chorus is a mall food court. An unsuspecting crowd of people are eating their lunch in the food court when one woman begins to sing, “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hal-le-lu-jah!” Then another joins her, and another, and another, until several dozen people are singing together in perfect harmony as a stunned crowd watches. This is how I picture the angelic chorus appearing and breaking into song that first Christmas night.

In the shepherds’ fields, the heavenly chorus sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” The order of these two ideas may be important. First come praise, and then comes peace. Glory to God. Peace on earth. I find in my own life, as I praise God, I begin to experience God’s peace. When I’m frightened or anxious or feeling down, I sing hymns and choruses. Sometimes, when I remember the tune but not the words to the hymn, I make up my own words. But the act of singing God’s praise to others often gives them peace.

Years ago, while I was serving as the youth director of a church in Texas, I took the youth to do repairs at the homes of two elderly women living in a blighted south Dallas neighborhood. Some of the other homes in their neighborhood were boarded up. Some had been torn down. Some were drug houses. These women had lived in this neighborhood for decades, but the world seemed to have forgotten them.

The women were excited when we arrived. As we scraped and caulked and painted their homes, they prepared cookies and lemonade and told us stories of their lives. These women knew they were teaching the youth that day. When we left their homes they were so grateful, and our youth were filled with joy.

The following Christmas, we decided to take the kids back one night to carol for these two women. Our youth took up an offering among themselves to give the women, and from their own money they collected two hundred dollars for each woman. They all signed Christmas cards for the women and tucked the money inside.

I’ll never forget what happened at one of these homes. We emptied the bus, and forty-five youth stood around the doorstep of Miss Violet’s home. We began to sing, and as we did it seemed the whole neighborhood came outside to see what was happening. It had been a long time since any of them had seen a caroler on that street. Miss Violet turned on the front light and slowly opened the door as we sang. Then one of the youth stepped forward and presented her with gifts and the cards. The young woman said, “Miss Violet, we came to remind you that God loves you. These gifts are a sign of his love and ours, too. Merry Christmas!”

Miss Violet stood there, dumbfounded. Her hands shaking, she opened the card and read it, then looked at the money that fell into her hands. Tears began to roll down her cheeks, and she said in almost a whisper, “Ever since my husband died, I thought God had forgotten me. Tonight, you reminded me that he still remembers I’m here.” It was one of the most moving experiences in my ministry at that church.

I wonder if this is what the night-shift shepherds felt that night, as the heavenly host sang carols to them.

 

Lord, help me to be one of your angels, reminding others of the “good news of great joy” that is Christmas. Help me, with my words and deeds, to be a visible sign that you love those around me.  Amen. 

Day 22-A Message to the Shepherds

            In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see-I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:8-11)

   

            While the shepherds were watching over their flocks, a messenger from God appeared to them. The sight of a complete stranger in the middle of the night on a hillside in Bethlehem would have been enough to startle these shepherds, but Luke also tells us “the glory of the Lord shone around them.” What is the glory of the Lord? Sometimes in Scripture the expression is synonymous with God’s presence, sometimes his character, sometimes his attributes. There are times, however, when God’s glory refers to something visible, and this seems to be the case here. What did it look like? Luke doesn’t tell us, but Exodus 24:17 notes that “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire.” Ezekiel, when he saw the glory of the Lord, described “something that looked like fire, “followed by a rainbow (1:27-28). Whatever the shepherds saw, their response was to be “sore afraid” (Luke 2:9 KJV).

But the angel told them not to be afraid, for he was bringing them “good news of great joy for all the people.” I love that phrase. What is the good news? It is the fact that a Savior had come to rule the earth.

The Greek word for savior, soter, means one who offers help and deliverance for those in trouble. Warriors, rulers, even some of the Greco-Roman gods were considered saviors. In Luke’s story, the night-shift shepherds were being invited to see the newborn Savior, King, and Lord.

Christmas celebrates the birth of the one who came to save the human race from sin. Remember, sin is the propensity to do, and the actually doing of, those things that are counter to God’s will in our individual lives and collectively as a race. Jesus came to save us from judgment, from separation fro God, from guilt and shame. But he also came to show us a different way to live-to show us what it means to be human and what God’s will is for our lives. He came to invite us to follow him, to be changed by him, and thus to be saved by him.

A group of former prostitutes and drug addicts arrive at our church by van each week for worship. They come from one of our urban ministry partners called the Healing House. I love this ministry and the women, and some men, who are a part of it. Bobbi Jo is the founder. A former prostitute and addict, she describes her life before she came to faith in Christ: She had been on the streets for years, during which time she had been raped sixteen times and had twenty-four broken bones. Ultimately she ended up in detox, and about that time Bobbi Jo finally asked God to help her, deliver her, and save her. And God did. She found hope and strength, and her heart and life began to change. When her mother died, Bobbi Jo was left with a small inheritance that she used to start the Healing House.

Today, seventy people live in the three buildings that are part of this ministry. These women and men have come to a place where they, too, are asking God to save them. They are seeing him change their lives. In turn they seek to live as followers of Jesus, and the world is changed by this. Each of their lives is like a stone cast into a pond: the ripple expand in every direction.

Every time I see this group in worship, I feel as if they are living, breathing testimony to the good news of great joy to all the people, that at the first Christmas a child was born to be the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.

Christ still saves us. He forgives, heals, and changes, us. He is still Lord, calling us to follow him each day of our lives. Take a moment today to invite him to continue saving you form the ways in which you stray from God’s path, and pledge to follow him as your Lord.

Jesus, save me. Save me from the guilt I sometimes feel for my past sins and mistakes. Forgive me. And Jesus, save me from my tendency to turn from God’s path today and every day. I wish to follow you as my Lord. Lead me on your path. Amen.

Week Four-The Journey

            It’s likely that Mary and Joseph had remained in Nazareth so Mary could give birth in her hometown before moving to Bethlehem. But just weeks before Mary was to give birth, a Roman census make it necessary for the young couple to make their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

            Most scholars say there were two routes Mary and Joseph might have taken to Bethlehem. The first route would have taken them to the east along the Jordan River, then west to Bethlehem. The second route, and the one I think likely, is shown on the map as a solid line and was the more direct route. It went through the Jezreel Valley and along the Way of the Patriarchs, right through Samaria and the heart of the country.

The first part of their trip would have taken about three days, over sloping mountains and hills, with nothing really difficult in the terrain. They would have traveled past hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of olive trees. It certainly was fitting, for olive oil was used to anoint the high priest and the king, and Jesus had been chosen by God to lead his people and rule forever on the throne of David. The very word Messiah, or Christ, means anointed one.

Soon they would have come to the village of Sychar, in the heart of the ancient Samarian countryside. After leaving Sychar, their journey would have become more difficult. After perhaps nine days, the holy family would have found themselves in the beautiful but treacherous Judean wilderness.

How do you think Mary felt when, just a day and a half short of their destination, she and Joseph arrived at the wilderness? I can almost hear to say, “I can’t go any farther, Joseph. I can’t do it anymore.” This was a trip that she was Joseph didn’t want to make. Yet, in the midst of the exhausting journey, amid the deferred dreams and the dashed hopes, God was working to redeem the world.

After a difficult day and a half, they reached a stable in Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem. In hindsight we can see what Mary couldn’t as she entered that stable, her contractions getting closer and closer together. She couldn’t hear the angels sing, couldn’t see the shepherds run to the stable, couldn’t know that the magi were on their way with gifts to the little king. But she had hope.

Hope is a decision we make, a choice to believe that God can take the adversity, disappointment, heartache, and pain of our journeys and use these to accomplish his purposes. This is precisely what happened in Mary’s story, where, on the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem and then in a stable among the animals, we see hope born in the midst of disappointment. We want to whisper to Mary, “don’t cry. God is here, even among the animals. People will draw hope from your story until the end of time.”

I invite you, regardless of where you are on the road, to choose hope, to have faith, to trust that your difficult journeys will never be the end of the story because God is by your side. Hear the song that all heaven and nature sing as the Christ-child is born. Invite God to use your disappointments to accomplish his purposes.

It was just such hope, I believe, that kept Mary going on that long, difficult journey to Bethlehem.

Day 21-Night-Shift Shepherds

            In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. (Luke 2:8)

                       

            Garrison Keillor writes the following descriptions of shepherds in his foreword to Ron Parker’s The Sheep Book: A Handbook for the Modern Shepherd: “They are gentle and attentive people and good company…shepherding is an ancient scientific culture and teaches people more than they intended to learn and brings out qualities in them they might not attain directly through moral ambition.”

In Jesus’ time, shepherds were absolutely essential suppliers of wool, milk, meat, and sacrifices; but they were not held in high esteem among the townsfolk. Some people considered them backward and simple, and they were often seen as uneducated, unsophisticated, and unclean. In speaking with Palestinians in Bethlehem during my recent trip, I was surprised to learn that this is still how shepherds are seen among many people to this day. Perhaps this is the very reason that God had an affinity for shepherds. God, like Garth Brooks, seems to enjoy “friends in low places.”

What else do we learn about the shepherds in our story? We know these men were the night-shift shepherds named Ibrahim and his family, who make their living by keeping a dozen or so sheep in and around Bethlehem. Their humble state was evident as we talked. I asked Ibrahim why God chose to invite the shepherds to be the first to see and celebrate the birth of Jesus. He responded instantly, “Because Jesus was humble, and shepherds are humble.”

It may be that some of you reading this are thinking, “This author is like a broken record-in nearly every reflection he mentions God’s choice of the humble in the Christmas story.” But I don’t believe this is my theme; it seems to be God’s theme. The theme plays out over and over again in the story-from the choice of Mary of Nazareth, to the choice of a simple tekton in Bethlehem, to the song that Mary sang about the way God fills the hungry with good things, to the birth in a stable, to the choice of night-shift shepherds as the first people invited to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

James captures this idea when, quoting Proverb 3:34, he writes, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). The response that this idea is meant to evoke is captured in James 4:10: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” The apostle Paul offers similar words of admonition in Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.”

Among the people I know who exemplify this spirit is a physician in Kansas City named Gary Morsch. Gary is one of the founders of Heart to Heart, an organization that delivers medical supplies and more to impoverished countries and disaster areas. One of Gary’s lessons in humility came when he went to visit Mother Teresa’s mission in Calcutta, India. He and his team arrived to deliver medicine and to care for patients at the Home for the Dying and Destitute. Gary, stethoscope around his neck, introduced himself to Sister Priscilla as a physician from the United States who was ready to help the sisters. She said, “Follow me please,” and proceeded to escort him through the wards of dying people to the kitchen, where there was a large pile of putrefying garbage. She said to him, “We need you to take this garbage to the dump. The dump is several blocks down the street.”

In an instant, doctor was demoted to garbage man. As Gary made trip after trip to the dump, he began to feel sorry for himself, resenting the fact that he had come all the way to Calcutta, delivered millions of dollars in medicine, was a physician with a stethoscope in his back pocket to prove it, and yet was hauling garbage. After having done this for several hours, he noticed a small sign with Mother Teresa’s famous words: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” It was then that he understood why he had been assigned garbage duty. It was God’s way of teaching him humility, servanthood, and love.

If God chose night-shift shepherds to be the first to celebrate the birth of Christ, what might that tell you about the attitude of heart that God is looking for from you and me?

            Lord, thank you that you humble the proud and give grace to the humble. Help me to humble myself before you and to do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility to consider others better than myself. Amen.

Day 20-No Room In the Guest Room

            While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2: 6-7)

   

            After ten days of travel, Joseph and Mary finally arrived in Bethlehem. But upon arriving, the young couple found the local inn overcrowded, so Mary was forced to give birth in a barn. Right? Maybe, but maybe not.

The word translated in most English versions as “inn” is the Greek word kataluma. This word can also be, and perhaps should be, translated as “guest room.” The word appears in two other places in the New Testament, in Mark and Luke, when Jesus tells his disciples on Thursday of Holy Week to find the owner of a particular house and ask, “Where is the guest room (kataluma) where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” The word referred to an extra room in the house.

I’ve suggested that Joseph was from Bethlehem. Why would he need an inn if his family lived there? He would not. Many scholars also suggest it is unlikely that there was an inn in Bethlehem. A better translation of Luke 2:7 might be that she laid him in a manger because “there was no place for them in the guest room.”

Joseph’s entire family would have been required to return to Bethlehem for the census. Most would have arrived before Mary and Joseph, so the guest room likely would already have had two or three families staying in it. But there also would have ben a stable or barn in the house-tradition says it was a cave like the one at Mary’s home in Nazareth. It makes sense to think that Mary and Joseph would have been afforded greater privacy, and would have avoided making the rest of the house ceremonially unclean, by staying in that stable or barn. Therefore Mary laid her son in a manger, because “there was no place for them in the guest room.”

Luke doesn’t explain all this to us. That is not his point. What he wants us to notice is that Mary gave birth in a makeshift shelter, and Jesus’ first bed was a feeding trough. The King of kings was born to a young couple whose income placed them on the lowest rung of society, and he was born homeless.

Christianity speaks of Jesus’ birth as the “Incarnation”; that is, in Jesus, God came and lived among us. Jesus’ birth, life, teachings, death, and resurrection all show us God’s heart and character. In Jesus’ birthplace, we see that the God of the universe identifies with the lowly. This leads me to love him even more. This is the glory of God that we see in Jesus Christ-humility, compassion, mercy, tenderness, and lowliness.

Today, as many as 3.5 million Americans are homeless at some point during the year. Of these, thirty-nine percent are under the age of eighteen. A surprising number of homeless women are pregnant. Part of God’s message in Christmas is intended for those who are homeless or nearly so. In Christmas, God says to them, “When I came to walk on earth, I was born in a stable, to two teenage parents who had nowhere else to stay.”

As you prepare for Christmas you’ve likely been shopping, trying to buy gifts for people who already have all they need. What if this year you gave gifts in honor of your friends and family to help people who really are in need? My friend, Pastor Mike Slaughter, likes to remind his congregation, “Christmas is not your birthday!” He challenges everyone in his congregation to give to the poor each Christmas an amount equal to what they will spend on their family. My wife LaVon and I began doing this several years ago. Our decision acts as a governor on what we spend for our family, keeps us focused on what Christmas is really about, and fills us with the joy of knowing we are helping others.

I challenge you to consider doing this in your own life or with your family. Your local church likely has suggestions for you of projects to serve those in need this Christmas.

Lord, I am humbled that you came to us as a child born in a stable and laid to sleep in a manger. Help me to see those in need as you see them, and this Christmas to serve as your hands and voice to bless them in your name.  Amen.