Christmas

The Villains of Christmas: the Baby Jesus

The Villains of Christmas: the Baby Jesus

Merry Christmas!

One of the most cringe-worthy prayers ever prayed on the big screen is prayed by Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) in Talladega Nights. In his prayer, the immature Ricky Bobby keeps referring to Jesus as “baby Jesus.” At one point his wife interrupts him, “You know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him baby. It’s a bit odd and off-puttin’ to pray to a baby.” Ricky Bobby responds, “Well, I like the Christmas Jesus best.”

The final villain this Christmas, baby Jesus, might be as alarming to you as Ricky Bobby’s prayer. Before the mob forms, allow me to explain what I mean by saying that the baby Jesus can be a villain of Christmas.

How many of us also “like the Christmas Jesus best”? We might not say it out loud, we might not pray to “baby Jesus,” but in reality, we keep the Jesus of our faith small and contained. How many of us happily maintain a childish, trivial faith? How many of us effectively keep Jesus in the manger?

Christmas Eve Recommendations

Christmas Eve Recommendations

Merry Christmas,

As you celebrate your Christmas, here are some bonus recommendations for you.

May the joy and hope of Immanuel reign in your home and in your hearts,

John

1.       Did the Gospels Borrow From Pagan Myths? Timothy Paul Jones examines this claim: “In the simplest possible terms, here’s what these critics contend: The most marvelous claims in the Gospels—a miraculous birth, for example, as well as the idea of a deity who dies and rises again—are paralleled in pagan religions that predate Christianity; therefore, early Christians must have fabricated these miracles based on their knowledge of pre-Christian religions.

2.       The Lord Gave Us A Casket for Christmas: Erik Naykalyk shares his heartbreaking story, “Exactly three weeks to Christmas Day, God decreed to take my home ad flip it upside-down. Twelve days before Christmas, we lowered my son’s casket into the cold, hard, December ground. And I’ve never been looking forward to Christmas more in my entire life. No, seriously. Never.”

3.       A Letter to the Depressed Christian at Christmas: David Murray reflects, “Depression is tough at the best of times. Perhaps it’s the best of times, such as holiday times, when it’s especially tough. The thought of mixing with happy people fills you with dread. The thought of remembering lost loved ones fills you with gloom. How can people be so happy when you are so sad? How can people celebrate when you are in mourning? It jars your soul and scrapes your tender wounds, doesn’t it?”

4.       200 Years of Silent Night: Keith and Kristyn Getty consider the power and beauty of one of the best and longest sung Christmas carols: “God’s heavenly peace is still so evident in these enduring lyrics and chords, its soothing effect one of the marvels of our modern holiday traditions—like a distant whisper somehow soft enough, yet also loud enough, to reach us in the deafening noise.”

This Week's Recommendations

This Week's Recommendations

1.       What the World Says When We Lie to OurselvesStephen Kneale considers how the world responds to the lies we tell ourselves compared to how the Bible responds. For instance: 

"Lie: Everybody hates me
World: I’m sure that isn’t true. I like you.
Bible: ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Rom 5:8); ‘See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.’ (1Jo 3:1)"

2.       How Would Christ Celebrate Christmas? Erin Davis suggests that, “It's great to spend Christmas with the people we cherish, but I don't think Jesus' Christmas celebrations would only include the people He is most familiar with. I believe He would spend His birthday in service to others.”

3.       5 Pitfalls When Preaching or Teaching on the End Times: Please won't you read this brief but important article before you lead your next Sunday School class on Revelation? Marty Duren reminds us, "Pastors and theologians have long held the importance of accurately dividing eschatological words of truth. Too often though, we see dull knives forced again and again onto the sacred text, resulting in tortured interpretations (the UN Secretary General as the Antichrist) or unbiblical expectations (77 Reasons Jesus Will Return in 1977)."

4.       What Should I Do to Become a Pastor? Derek Heibert offers great advice for anyone who has considered whether they have a vocational calling to pastoral ministry. He reflects on how different that advice is compared to other vocations, "We all know the assumed logic in America for landing a career: 1. Decide what to do with your life. 2. Go to school to learn the skillset. 3. Graduate from said school. 4. Get hired for a job using that skillset. Now substitute “school” with “seminary,” and voilà! You have a career in pastoring … right? You might be surprised to learn that this isn’t the answer I texted back to the aspiring pastor..."

5.       Why Christians Have Always Done Healthcare DifferentlyJohan Tangelder begins by reflecting on the crossroads we currently stand at, "Within a short time span hospitals and medical care have greatly changed. In fact, today a man of seventy can justly claim that more medical progress has been made in his lifetime than in all of previous history. This medical progress forces us to cope with issues our forefathers never faced. The most common and most pervasive issue is how new medical science has transformed medicine: it used to be about caring for a person; now it is about curing a disease. According to this new philosophy, when someone is faced with a medical problem, everything that can be done ought to be done, no matter what – they are treated as an object to be fixed, rather than a person to be helped."

6.       What Would Happen if Every Human Being Suddenly Disappeared? This is an interesting thought experiment.

The Villains of Christmas: the Gifts of the Magi

The Villains of Christmas: the Gifts of the Magi

The Magi are an iconic part of the Christmas story. Unbelievably, a group of philosopher-astronomers from the East (probably Persia) had knowledge that only a handful in all of Israel had: a Savior-King has been born in Bethlehem. Following the prophecies, they made their trek to Bethlehem to meet this Savior-King. When they arrived, “they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.”[ii]

And they do not come empty handed. They come bearing three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Each of these gifts has meaningful symbolism befitting the child-King. Items of great value, they proclaimed that Jesus was the King who would restore Israel.[iii]

Those gifts, according to many, were the impetus for the tradition of gift giving at Christmas time.[iv] The tradition began with humble origins and remained that way for a long time. Two popular books show just how much gift giving has changed in just this past century. If you pick up O’Henry’s The Gift of the Magi (1905) you find a husband buying his wife one present, a set of combs, and the woman buying her husband one present, a chain for his pocket watch. Or turn over to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Little House on the Prairie (1935) and you find that the kids’ haul on Christmas consisted of tin cups, peppermint candy, small cakes, and a penny.

Fast forward a hundred years to today and I chuckle to think of how my children would respond if the zenith of their Christmas presents was a shiny new cup.

This Week's Recommendations

This Week's Recommendations

1.       Why the Angels Were Speaking to You, Too: Jan Shrader reflects on the thrice-repeated words of the angels, “Do not be afraid,” at the first Christmas and reminds us that “There is a heavy price to be paid when you begin listening to fear.”

2.       Why the Tithing Challenge Isn't a Good IdeaYou may have heard of certain churches offering a "money back guarantee" with their challenge to tithe. Aaron Earls made a good case for why that isn't a wise practice, "A tithing refund distorts God’s design for giving by presenting people as owners with nothing to lose, rather than as stewards who sacrificially engage in spiritual investment."

3.       Why You Should Go to Church Even When You Don't Feel Like It: These words from David Sunday are so good, "That’s why we meditate on the teachings of God in Scripture day and night. That’s why we gather in the house of God with the people of God week by week. We don’t do it just for the immediate benefit. We take the long view. We cultivate these rhythms of grace, we practice these disciplines of worship, so that when the years of drought come, we will remember: we will recall when our souls pour dry the days of praise within God’s house. And the very remembrance will sustain us."

4.       6 Ways to Make Yourself Marry-ableI'm not a fan of the title, but if you re-frame this as helpful advice for young adults, then I like it quite a bit. Lisa Anderson concludes that in preparation, "You will no doubt realize you have some things that need to change. We all do. We’re all carrying baggage that was either placed on us by the generations before us or picked up of our own free will. Now’s the time to dump it. Now’s also the time to identify addictions, outrageous debt and spending pitfalls, past or present abuse, bad family patterns, and anything else that’s holding you back from spiritual, emotional, and relational health. Get counseling if you need it."

5.       5 Myths About DepressionMichael Lundy packs a ton of truth in this post. Please read it not only for your sake but for those who struggle with depression in your life, "Gandalf, one of my favorite quotable characters who exists only but no less vividly in the minds of readers, said “despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.”6 It is a temptation to think that we do when we do not, and to see an evil end when God has something quite different in mind and in store. Yet, it is a temptation to which most—if not all—of us are vulnerable."

6.       The Thief and the FriendJason Upton might have my favorite voice in Christian music. If you haven't listened to Upton before, try this song.

The Villains of Christmas: The Innkeeper

The Villains of Christmas: The Innkeeper

Every self-respecting children’s nativity play has Mary and Joseph greeted by the gruff Innkeeper who rudely tells Mary and Joseph that there’s no room and then, for good effect, slams the door in their faces. What was the motivation of this heartless hotel manager? Why didn’t he find a place for this pregnant woman? Today we met the second villain of Christmas: the Innkeeper.

The biblical story isn’t nearly as clear as to the backstory of this Innkeeper. There is a just a fleeting reference to the incident and that reference only occurs after Jesus’ birth. Luke tells us simply, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”[i]

Unlike last week’s obvious villain: Herod, the Innkeeper is a little trickier to decipher. In the ambiguity, though, we find ourselves and the reality that Christmas reveals in us the sneaky villain of a lack of prioritization. Surely the Innkeeper should have been able to find a place for Mary and her child.

Let’s first briefly consider who this Innkeeper might have been and why he didn’t have room for Mary and Joseph.

The Villains of Christmas: Herod

The Villains of Christmas: Herod

Christmastime is here. It’s a time for joy and generosity and hope and celebration. But Christmas is not without its threats. Over the next four weeks we will consider four villains of Christmas. The name of the first villain is King Herod. King Herod exemplifies power. The yearning for power in our own hearts threatens our experience of Christmas.

Herod was the villain at the first Christmas. He was a politician’s politician. He was oily and underhanded, vicious and cold-hearted. Born in 73 BC, Herod rose to power quickly (in his mid-twenties) by maneuvering his way through the Roman political machine and given the title “King of Judea” by the Roman Senate.[i] Upon rising to power, Herod decimated anyone who might be his rival, including three of his sons and his first wife, Mariamne.

Herod’s paranoia served him well and allowed him to rule for 37 years—far longer than most. His political savvy extended well past his paranoia. A half-Jew himself, Herod was a master of alliances, eventually taking ten wives, each gaining him a strategic political advantage. And he knew the power of tangible change. Herod took on massive building projects throughout Judea including the construction of the port at Caesarea Maritima, the Second Temple, the fortress at Masada, and Herodium. Many of these can still be seen in Israel today. In fact, most beautiful ancient buildings that remain are Herod’s handiwork. To fund these projects, Herod levied massive taxes on the people that created animus between him and the people (and also helps us understand just how hated the tax collectors we meet in the Bible were).

One day in the final years of Herod’s life, a group of Magi from the East requested an audience with Herod.

Simeon's Christmas Song

Simeon's Christmas Song

There are those who are constantly at church because they are uncomfortable outside her walls. Then there are those who are a fixture because they are so thirsty for the presence of God. Simeon was the latter. He was a righteous and devout man. And he yearned for the coming of his Savior.

The Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not die before he met the Messiah. You could not visit the temple without seeing Simeon and the prophetess, Anna. They spoke with yearning of the coming of the Messiah. When would he come? What would he be like? How would they know it was him? And they prayed. They earnestly prayed for his coming.  

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas friends! 

May the powerful mystery of God-became-man be fresh to you this day. 

Here is a very different take on that mystery by The Modern Post that reminds us of the war that was waged in that Bethlehem manger two millennia ago. In the words of Kimberly Wagner, "The angels proclaimed peace on earth, but they knew that peace can only come through the victory secured by this Babe’s death and resurrection. He was born to die. But through His death He conquered the enemy of men’s souls. He came to establish peace, but peace purchased at such great cost—His precious blood. One day He’ll wear a robe stained from that precious blood when He wages war at His final Advent, in battle apparel as our warrior King."

Praise God for the war God waged this day.

Christmas blessings to you and your family,

John

This Week's Recommendations

This Week's Recommendations

1.     The Shepherd Who Stole Jesus: You can't leave a baby that cute just lying there! He needs some cuddles!

2.     The Twist in the Sermon on the Mount You Probably Missed: Mark Ward with a powerful insight of the authority of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, " For any flesh-and-blood human being to quote a Bible verse to a bunch of Jewish listeners in the first century and then follow it up with, “But I say to you. . .” is remarkable, breathtaking. It would be like a lowly clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court standing out on the steps of the court building in Washington, D.C. to relay the justices’ decision to the reporters at a press conference. He reads the detailed, multi-page decision, and then adds, “That was a good opinion the justices gave, but I think. . .” That clerk has no authority to say what he thinks. No journalist holding an audio recorder cares what he thinks. Jesus’ six antitheses work in this passage only if he has the right not only to interpret but even to add to the law of God (as Jesus will do later in the passage with oaths). And who but God can do that?"

3.       Living Life Undefended: Daniel Bush's simple reflection convicted me, "In the summer of 1984, the Gillette Company launched a series of television commercials advertising its Dry Idea antiperspirants, which led to one of the wittiest and most memorable slogans in the English language: “Never let them see you sweat.” There’s deep truth in that tagline, at least with regard to antiperspirants. I’ll even go as far as to apply it to business negotiations, trade deals, and global politics—but apply it to personal relationships, especially your relationship with God, at your peril."

4.       When Kids Won't Bow to Your Idols: Jennifer Phillips nails it in this reflection on parenting and idols. She begins with this story, "When I had my first child, I was determined to knock this parenting thing out of the park. I read all the books. “If you do these things,” they promised, “your child will be on a predictable schedule and will sleep through the night by the time you come home from the hospital.” Or something like that. Except my son wouldn’t cooperate. He cried endlessly. He had trouble feeding and wouldn’t nap for longer than 20 minutes. Do you know what my predominant emotion was in the midst of all of this? Anger. At an infant. I threw pillows in the middle of the night and yelled at my husband and said not-so-kind words. To my infant. Now, I’m sure that hormones and sleep deprivation played a role in my response, but more than anything I was upset because I had faithfully followed A and B and I wasn’t getting C. I deserved a child who would cooperate. All the books told me he would if I did my part, and I did my part. I was worshiping at the altars of control, success, convenience, and let’s just say it—reputation. But my son refused to bow down. And I was furious."

5.       I Joined the Wrong Church: Samuel Emadi's article is excellent and weaves a story I hear so often in terms of disappointment so many experience in the context of the local church, and then he re-frames the issue: "These covenant obligations are the foundations of our church commitment and should function as the backbone to church life. Covenant precedes community. We might even say covenant creates community. The covenant promises members make to one another blossom into the life-giving relationships our hearts crave."

6.       Martin Luther, the Anglicans, and Christmas Carols: Instead of focusing on theology, the British love meditating on snow, silence, and livestock in their Christmas hymns. Martin Luther finds this annoying.