Did You Know? Christmas Tidbits


Familiar Christmas Traditions

Where or when did these items become a part of Christmas?

candles—One of the earliest records of candles being used at Christmas is from the middle ages, when a large candle was used to represent the star of Bethlehem.

candy canes—In the mid 1800s, candy canes were hung on Christmas trees for the first time.

Christmas cards—Sending Christmas cards originated in the UK in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole.

Christmas carols—Christmas music wasn’t typically used in religious services until St. Francis of Assisi in the 12th century. At times, some felt Christmas music was inappropriate for the holiday, and so carols were sung on streets more than in churches.

Christmas light displays—Thomas Edison created the first strands of electric lights and strung these outside of his Menlo Park Laboratory during the Christmas season of 1880.

Christmas tree—Germany receives credit for the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it when in the 16th century devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes.

nativity scene displays—St. Francis of Assisi staged the first nativity scene in 1223. According to his biography, he set up a manger with hay and two live animals—an ox and an ass—in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio.

presents—The pagan tradition of gift-giving during the winter solstice became associated with Christmas around the year 336 AD because of the gifts the Magi gave to baby Jesus.

Santa Claus—St. Nicholas was a Bishop who lived in the fourth century in Myra (in modern Turkey). A very rich man, he had a reputation for helping the poor and giving secret gifts to people who needed it.

wreath—The Advent wreath was first used by Lutherans in Germany in the 16th century. In 1839, Lutheran priest Johann Hinrich Wichern used a wreath to educate children about the meaning and purpose of Christmas, as well as to help them count its approach.

Yule log—The Yule log, of Germanic origin and once linked to the winter solstice celebration, became one of the most widespread Christmas traditions in early modern Europe. Its first recorded appearance was in 1184.

Learning a little about the history of the Christmas traditions that have become common in many parts of the world, can be fun. What about bells and mistletoe? Holly or stockings hung by the chimney with care? What about fruitcake and eggnog? Maybe you know the history of some favorite tradition. Feel free to share in the comments.

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Published in: on December 10, 2018 at 4:52 pm  Comments (3)  
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The First Week Of Advent — Hope


I don’t know much about Advent. Here’s what the always-helpful Wikipedia says about it:

Advent is a season observed in many Western Christian churches as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas. The term is an anglicized version of the Latin word adventus, meaning “coming”.

Latin adventus is the translation of the Greek word parousia, commonly used to refer to the Second Coming of Christ. For Christians, the season of Advent anticipates the coming of Christ from two different perspectives. The season offers the opportunity to share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, and to be alert for his Second Coming.

I like that!

I didn’t grow up in a church that treated Christmas as a season, much less as one with an organized, scripted approach to the Big Day. My present church hasn’t done much either. But I’m becoming a little more familiar with it. During the first week of Advent, believers are called to think about the prophecies pertaining to the Hope of Israel, the Messiah whose birth we celebrate at Christmas. The virtue attached to this first week is hope.

The truth is, a lot of Christmas is about disappointment.

Maybe that’s because a lot of life is about disappointment. When you’re young, of course, you don’t realize the permanent nature of disappointment. Yes, permanent. You didn’t win the high school football championship, so you say, We’ll get it next year.

But eventually there is no “next year” for high school football, and that disappointment about missing that block or dropping that pass or fumbling that punt return will just be there.

This is true about pretty much everything. Husbands and wives, who love each other dearly, nevertheless discover that their spouse is not perfect. That she doesn’t bake cakes like Mom did, is disappointing. That she has gained a few pounds or wants to stay home instead of pursuing her career and bringing in a second income, is disappointing.

He, on the other hand, doesn’t take care of the yard the way Dad did, and he doesn’t like to go out or have friends over for dinner. Instead, he seems glued to the TV every weekend. It’s disappointing.

But kids, well, there’s nothing disappointing about our children, is there? I mean, they are so cute and cuddly and innocent and sweet. So precious. Until they begin to cry. At 2:00 AM. Until they poop in the diaper you just changed. Until they take longer to learn to walk than you thought they should. Until they tell you no. Until it’s hard to potty train them. Until they don’t like to read, and you’re a bookaholic. Until . . .

You get the picture.

What in life isn’t disappointing? Sure, there are successes—like winning that high school football championship. But that was high school. What are you doing now? And how will you top it tomorrow?

There’s always a new goal, something else that we need, someone else we wish were here. It’s a great time, but if only . . . then it would be perfect.

Along comes the Bible announcing a hope that does not disappoint. There’s a specific reason why this hope is different from all others:

and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. (Rom. 5:5-6)

The passage goes on to explain how Christ’s death for sinners accomplished something we need: reconciliation with God. So here are the twin foundations of the hope that does not disappoint: God’s love (which is as eternal as He is), and the relationship Jesus made possible for us to have with God.

The one Person who loves perfectly has lavishly poured out His love and He did so, not because of anything worthy in us. Just the opposite. He gifted us when we had nothing of value to give Him.

All we bring is our imperfect selves. What He brings is a robe of righteousness—the clothes fit for a king, bought and paid for by Jesus with His broken body and shed blood—which He gives to us who believe.

And those are things—God’s love, Christ’s sacrifice—that don’t change and won’t dissipate or fade away or need to be replaced. They are forever gifts—the foundation of hope that does not disappoint.

This article is a revised and updated version of one that appeared here first in December, 2014.

Published in: on December 7, 2018 at 5:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Virgin Shall Conceive


When I first started this blog, I anticipated writing more posts about fiction, understood from a Christian worldview. As it’s happened, I’ve ended up writing more posts about the Christian worldview than I do about fiction. And what better time to do so. I mean, Christmas is not exclusively a religious holiday, but it nevertheless does have religious significance. And not just religious. Christian meaning!

We aren’t celebrating the birth of any old god. Rather, Christmas rivets our attention on Jesus, the Christ, who entered the world as a baby.

The first miraculous part of His coming was His conception. His mother Mary was a virgin. Clearly anyone reading the Christmas story must question this. I mean, how many virgins do we know who get pregnant?

Interestingly, C. S. Lewis addresses this very subject in his book Miracles. This volume is much more of an apologetic for God and His work in the world than I had realized. As an aside, I can see more clearly why Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials, called himself the anti-Lewis. But because Lewis had himself been an atheist, he could anticipate the arguments an atheist would make against the Supernatural.

Unsurprisingly, the miracle Lewis refers to with some frequency is the virgin birth. Here are some of his thoughts in answer to the common atheist argument that people of old believed in miracles because they didn’t have the scientific knowledge we have now.

You will hear people say, “The early Christians believed that Christ was the son of a virgin, but we know that this is a scientific impossibility.” Such people seem to have an idea that belief in miracles arose at a period when men were so ignorant of the course of nature that they did not perceive a miracle to be contrary to it. A moment’s thought shows this to be nonsense: and the story of the Virgin Birth is a particularly striking example. When St. Joseph discovered that his fiancé was going to have a baby, he not unnaturally decided to repudiate her. Why? Because he knew just as well as any modern gynecologist that in the ordinary course of nature women do not have babies unless they have lain with men. … When St. Joseph finally accepted the view that his fiancé’s pregnancy was due not to unchastity but to a miracle, he accepted the miracle as something contrary to the known order of nature. All records of miracles teach the same thing. In such stories the miracles excite fear and wonder (that is what the very word miracle implies) among spectators, and are taken as evidence of supernatural power. If they were not known to be contrary to the laws of nature how could they suggest the presence of the supernatural? How could they be surprising unless they were seen to be exceptions to the rules? And how can anything be seen to be an exception till the rules are known? … If St. Joseph had lacked faith to trust God or humility to perceive the holiness of his spouse, he could have disbelieved in the miraculous origin of her Son as easily as any modern man; and any modern man who believes in God can accept the miracle as easily as St. Joseph did.

Good stuff, important to recall when we are approaching the celebration of the Incarnation. At every turn concerning Christ’s birth, there was a miracle. It’s helpful to remember that the things which seem impossible are impossible, except for God who can do the impossible.

This post was inspired by one that appeared here in December, 2007.

Joy To The World


California is still reeling from the recent wildfires, and here in SoCal we are bracing for an expected rainstorm. People in the burn area are sandbagging, and voluntary evacuations are in place, because everyone knows that following fire, rain brings mudslides.

What’s ironic is, we need the rain because we’ve been in such a prolonged drought. So we want rain, but we don’t.

On top of this, the people in Thousand Oaks are still a bit shocked by the shooting that killed so many who were minding their own business, spending time with friends, that fateful evening they were attacked.

Then there are others who are mourning.

We lost our last President of the US from the Greatest Generation last Friday, so in some ways the nation is mourning.

Joy to the world?

I’ve had it, some people are saying, Christmas is over. Who can celebrate when the world is in such turmoil, when sorrow is so present, when there seems to be so little to engender joy?

But isn’t this precisely why we must celebrate Christmas? Not the Christmas of Santa and Fa-la-la-la-la or Black Friday Greed. Not that Christmas.

What we need to celebrate is God, come down to rescue us from the trauma of sin that puts puts evil intent in the hearts of people and corrupts the very fabric of our planet.

Christmas is proof that God hasn’t left us to cope on our own, that He has a solution.

Good news! the angel said to the shepherds, that night Jesus was born; this joyful announcement is for all people–you have a Savior.

Who needs a Savior? Not those living contentedly, convinced of their own ability to heal the woes of Mankind. Not those untouched by fear or grief or devastation.

Who needs the joyful announcement, The Savior has come? People aware of their need for a Savior.

In the midst of an obviously broken world, Jesus appears with comfort and assurance. For those who trust Him, He gives His presence through the dark and His promise that things won’t always be like this. Sin won’t win. There is a future and a hope.

That’s good news, joy for the whole world.

This post is a partially rewritten article that appeared here in December, 2012.

Published in: on December 4, 2018 at 5:24 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Truth About The Star – And Why It Matters


Christmas Eve a bright star shone over a lowly stable—or so all the pictures and videos and Christmas cards would lead us to believe. A busy star, that, because the same legends have it leading the wisemen from wherever they lived in the East to that same ramshackle stable, with a little side trip into Jerusalem.

Even when I was young, I had some serious questions about this popular notion about the Christmas star. First, why did the star lead the wisemen to the wrong place before it led them to the right place? And secondly, if it was so bright, why didn’t other people go see what it was pointing to? I mean, would they ignore such a dramatic heavenly sight?

As it turns out, much of our ideas about the star are legend, not Biblical fact. Take the first point—the idea that the wisemen followed the star from their home in the somewhere East to the wrong place, Jerusalem.

A careful reading of Scripture shows that initially no travelers from the East followed the star. Rather, the magi—another name for astrologers who studied the heavens—saw the star that indicated a king had been born in Judea while they were still in the East. They decided to pay homage to this king, so they packed up their caravan and went to the most likely place you’d find the heir to the throne—the capital city, the home of the sitting king.

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” (Matthew 2:1-2)

Upon arrival, of course, they learned that, oops, no heir had been born to Herod, which could only mean one of two things—either a coup would occur overthrowing Herod, which was unlikely since Rome ultimately oversaw who sat on the throne, or the promised Messiah of Scripture had been born. Most Jews, it seems, believed He wouldn’t unseat Herod, but Rome, at least as far as it held jurisdiction in Judea.

Herod checked with the scholars familiar with the prophets. From them he learned that the promised Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and that’s the information he passed on to the magi, all the while making his own plans to do away with this child that just might be a threat to his own rule.

When the magi packed up and headed out of Jerusalem, that’s when they saw the special star again. They recognized it as the same one they’d seen in the East, and this time it moved in front of them, only to stop when it came to the place where Jesus was—not a manger any longer but a house.

So why didn’t others join the wisemen and follow this star too? I mean, Scripture says “all Jerusalem” was troubled—unnerved, perturbed, perplexed—by what the wisemen had to say. A star, a king, magi come to worship? Wouldn’t “all Jerusalem” then be only too eager to see where that bright star was going? They’d been waiting for generations. Couldn’t this be it???

Well, the thing is, nowhere in Scripture does it say this star was bright. The wisemen saw it and recognized it because they were wise men. They made it their business to study the heavens, to learn the secrets of God.

Here’s what Strong’s Concordance says about the magi:

the name given by the Babylonians (Chaldeans), Medes, Persians, and others, to the wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augers, soothsayers, sorcerers etc.

It’s uncomfortable to think that God spoke to these non-Jews in a way that seems so different from the one He used with the Jews and later with the Church. No sorcery, He said in Scripture. No divination, no interpreting of omens:

There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. (Deut 18:10-11)

Yet clearly the magi saw in the heavens the proclamation of the birth of God’s Son. This brings to mind a verse in Colossians in which Paul says “… the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation ” (1:23b – emphasis mine).

So what if the star declaring Jesus’s birth wasn’t an isolated incident? What if God, through His omnipotence, put the gospel message out there in any number of ways for men who wished to worship Him?

But that’s speculation on my part. What isn’t speculation is that the star didn’t lead the wisemen to Jerusalem and Scripture says nothing about the star being particularly bright.

And this is important because … ?

For one thing it illustrates how easily we come to believe something we’ve heard over and over and seen time and time again, regardless of its Scriptural underpinnings. For me, the star is a reminder to be cautious. The faddish interpretations of Biblical events just might be built upon a legend, so it’s imperative to examine ideas in light of what Scripture actually says.

Secondly, it shows that even the wisemen needed to verify their findings with Scripture. God didn’t send them an errant sign that inadvertently took them to Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem. No, they made that mistake all by themselves.

Thirdly, if God had wanted the whole area to drop everything and run to see the baby Jesus, I don’t doubt that He would have made the star particularly bright or sent the host of angels to Jerusalem instead of to a handful of shepherds going about their regular duties. In His divine wisdom, though, He chose a small reception party—actually two separate parties by two divergent groups: lowly shepherds and foreigners. The latter were not Jews. They were people from Somewhere Else.

Above all, it seems to me that the star, which apparently the Jews laden with Scripture completely missed, shows that God intended His Son to be the Savior of the world. He was not the political powerhouse the Jews were looking for. He was and is the King available to all who wish to bow the knee, to worship and adore Incarnate God, born to save.

This post is a lightly edited version of one that appeared here in November, 2012.

Published in: on December 3, 2018 at 4:50 pm  Comments (7)  
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Christ At The Center Of Christmas


Whatever else Christmas once meant in another culture at a different time, and no matter what it means to those today who don’t know Jesus, the reality is, He has made such a big impact on the world that there’s hardly a place that doesn’t acknowledge His birth at Christmas.

In truth, His coming changed the world. We are right to give Him praise.

Great is the LORD and highly to be praised,
And His greatness is unsearchable. (Psalm 145:3)

For He [Christ] was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. (1Peter 1:20-21)

Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city.

Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child.

While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger.

When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them. (Luke 2:1-20)

May God richly bless you this Christmas.

Published in: on December 25, 2017 at 5:00 am  Comments Off on Christ At The Center Of Christmas  
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Heroes Of Christmas – Joseph


OK, most people would count Joseph as either a hero of Christmas or a bit player. After all, Scripture doesn’t say much about his role other than that he went to register for the census along with Mary. Even that statement makes him seem sort of like a butler or bodyguard. I mean, Mary had to get to Bethlehem some way in order to fulfill the prophecy about the Messiah’s birth place, right? So why not on Joseph’s coattails?

The thing about Joseph—he shows his mettle between the lines.

First he showed himself to be a kind, thoughtful person when he first realized Mary was pregnant. He knew he wasn’t the father, so by all natural means, that meant Mary had been unfaithful to him.

His choices: break up with her publicly or break up with her privately. In that culture, an engagement was binding, and no one broke an agreement lightly. In the case of an unfaithful wife or an unfaithful woman promised in marriage, the jilted would-be husband could legitimately ask for the woman to be treated as an adulteress. That meant stoning.

Joseph didn’t want that for Mary. In other words, thinking she had wronged him, he still did not want to treat her in like kind.

While he was thinking all this through, an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him to go ahead and take Mary as his wife. So, option three, one Joseph hadn’t considered before.

Without a complaint, he did what he was told. How tempting to say, Really? I have to raise a boy that isn’t my own? I have to stand by a woman who will undoubtedly receive the scorn of our neighbors? I have to take her down to Bethlehem, looking like that? I mean, all the relatives will be there. What will they think?

None of that.

What he did do was obey the angel. He married the woman and keep her a virgin until after Jesus was born. Kept her a virgin. That’s nothing to ignore in this story. If Joseph had claimed his lawful conjugal rights, Jesus’s status as the Son of God would be forever in question. Accusations could easily be leveled that this idea about a conception apart from the human order of things was just a convenient story.

But if Joseph kept Mary a virgin, what other explanation was there except that God had performed a miracle?

Further, he didn’t complain that he had the responsibility to deliver that baby safely into the world. Maybe he didn’t actually do the delivering. He might have hunted up one of Bethlehem’s midwives instead. But either way, it fell on him to see that Mary was cared for. That Jesus was cared for. Did he worry and fret and pace while Mary was in labor? Was he kneeling beside her, holding her hand? Did he wipe sweat from her forehead? Did he cut the umbilical cord? Did he procure the cloths that she used to wrap Jesus in? Was it his idea to put Him in the manger?

Joseph didn’t complain that Mary would be the mother of the Christ child but he would be just the stepdad. He didn’t shrink back from a life that would be lived in the shadow of his wife and his stepson.

In fact, he embraced the responsibility. First he made sure Mary’s little baby was circumcised, as Jewish law required. And he named Him Jesus, as the angel had told him to do. When a second angel warned him in a dream—not them, not Mary, just Joseph—that Herod was coming after Jesus to kill him, he got his little family on the road and headed for Egypt.

He obviously kept his ear to the ground, because he knew when Herod died, when he could safely return home.

He didn’t shrink from all that was required of him, even when he had to make personal sacrifices. He listened to God’s messengers. He didn’t insist on his own way. He was kind and protective and obedient—a real Christmas hero.

Published in: on December 22, 2017 at 5:10 pm  Comments (4)  
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Heroes Of Christmas – The Magi



Wise men still seek Him, the little Christmas saying goes. The problem is, the term wisemen is misleading. The Bible does record an event involving visitors from the East who came to worship the new king born in Judea.

These visitors were not kings, necessarily. And they weren’t men known for their great wisdom. There also were an undisclosed number of them. Some scholars project from other historical records that a caravan traveling some distance could have included as many as three hundred people.

But that’s conjecture. What we know for fact is that these visitors were magi—astrologers, soothsayers. Kinda close to wizards. OK, that’s the fantasy writer’s spin on things. Sticking with what we know of the word used in Scripture, magi refers “to the name given by the Babylonians (Chaldeans), Medes, Persians, and others, to the wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, augers, soothsayers, sorcerers etc.” (Strongs Bible Dictionary accessed through the Blue Letter Bible)

We know they came from somewhere in the East, so some scholars have suggested the possibility that they may have been familiar with Jewish prophecy because of Daniel’s influence upon the Babylonian wisemen. Except, they didn’t know the prophecy about were the new king was to be born.

Just like the shepherds, the magi are subject to much speculation that has hardened into legend that’s difficult to dislodge. Too bad, because what the Bible reveals to us is pretty impressive.

As a result of their study of the heavens, the magi knew something, but they didn’t know everything. They knew a king had been born in the land of Judea, but they didn’t get the parentage right or the place of birth right or the kind of king he proved to be, right.

Still, based on what they knew, they went. In other words, they acted. That’s more than we can say for the chief priests and scribes who knew where the Messiah would be born, knew that these magi had seen his star indicating his birth, and still didn’t go to worship him. Even though they were the religious leaders of the day, they played it safe while these men from afar, not only made the dangerous journey, but were willing to ask for directions. OK, that’s a little humor there. But not far afield.

These magi were also humble. I mean, they came all that way to worship a toddler. Jesus could have still been an infant, but given that Herod later killed all the boys two years old and younger who had been born in that region, and that he did so because of the information he learned from the magi about their journey, it’s likely that Jesus was a year old maybe a year and a half or even two years old. Regardless of His age, these men who came such a long way, knelt to give him homage.

Then, too, the magi were pretty generous. They brought expensive gifts to give to the new king. As it happened, the items proved to be symbolic, but it’s unlikely they selected them because they thought a baby would need gold or a rich perfume used for the temple incense or an embalming spice. The thing that’s notable here is that these gifts had to cost the magi something. They were not ordinary and they were not inexpensive. Maybe the magi were rich, but even so, they weren’t hoarding their wealth.

There are a few other things we can conclude about the magi, but one more I’d like to highlight. They were not above listening to God. They didn’t mind changing their plans or changing their directions, so when they received a warning in a dream not to go back to Herod and report the whereabouts of the Messiah, they listened. And again they acted. Did they argue about it? Did they all have the same dream so they knew the warning had to be true? The Bible doesn’t tell us these details.

But it tells us enough to know the magi who came to honor Christ were men we can respect and admire, certainly for their willingness to act on the knowledge they had, for their humility, for their generosity, for their obedience to God’s message.

Published in: on December 21, 2017 at 5:18 pm  Comments (5)  
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Heroes Of Christmas—The Shepherds


There are a number of heroes involved in the first Christmas, but the shepherds happen to be my favorite. Of course they get a lot of press, but surprisingly, I don’t think most of it is for the right reason.

What seems to be the going point of emphasis regarding the shepherds is how low on the social totem pole they were. Some scholars claim that they were even outcasts, that they were thought to be lazy and untrustworthy.

Not everyone agrees. Several scholars point out that Abraham was a shepherd, Moses was a shepherd, David was a shepherd. A quick glance at Scripture, and it’s clear that all of Israel was tied to shepherding at one time. When Judah, who God named Israel, went to Egypt with his family because of the severe famine, they took with them all their flocks. Pharaoh asked that they care for his animals too since they were shepherds by trade.

It seems highly unlikely that the attitude toward shepherds would have shifted so drastically so that they were now despised. For one thing, God Himself identified with shepherds when David wrote in the Psalms, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Isaiah 40 also portrays God as a shepherd:

Like a shepherd He will tend His flock,
In His arm He will gather the lambs
And carry them in His bosom;
He will gently lead the nursing ewes. (v. 11)

Jews in the first century would have known these and other passages of Scripture that portray God as a shepherd. The information identifying shepherds as despicable comes from sources that were written later or belonged to a different culture, making them at least questionable.

At any rate, one thing is sure. The Bible does not say the shepherds were despised. One scholar concluded that shepherds were not well respected because often children were given the job to care for the sheep. In other words, it was unskilled work that even a child could do.

Perhaps that was the attitude of the day.

The other going belief about shepherds is that they were poor. I don’t know if they would have been poorer than fishermen, however. Especially near Jerusalem with the priests and Levites buying and selling in the temple. Were shepherds in a kind of black market racket for illegal sheep? Maybe. Maybe not.

All that’s speculation. The Bible doesn’t say any of that.

What it does say makes these particular shepherds real heroes of the faith, I think.

Luke 2 records the angel’s announcement to this group who were staying out in the fields at night to do their job. We can see a level of responsibility and commitment there, and sacrifice too.

As Jesus later said, a good shepherd would lay down his life for his sheep.

But those particular shepherds had something else going for them. They had faith.

The angel told them that Messiah was born and gave them the sign: a baby, wrapped in clothes, lying in a manger.

The shepherds’ response? They didn’t stand around debating what the angel meant by “manger” or “wrapped,” or “Savior,” or “born.” They didn’t wonder what they were supposed to do about this announcement or if the Messiah had really come. Instead they simply said, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem, then, and see this thing that has happened.” Yeah, that has happened. They made that declaration before they went, before they found the baby, before they saw with their own eyes that what the angel had said, was true.

In other words, they believed the announcement.

In reality, faith is nothing more than believing a particular source. In this case, the shepherds believed what the angel said. Before they had seen the sign. They didn’t go to Bethlehem to see IF it was true. They went to Bethlehem BECAUSE it was true.

Another thing that makes them heroes in my eyes is that when they found Mary and Joseph and the baby as He lay in the manger, they immediately started telling everyone what the angel had said about the Child.

Maybe they also told everyone about the glory of the Lord that shone around them. Maybe they also mentioned the multitude of the heavenly host that praised God in their presence. Those would be awesome events, worthy of stories that you tell your grandchildren. But Scripture doesn’t tell us they bragged about seeing angels and surviving, or about being singled out for such a special visitation.

No. What they wanted everyone to know about was not what had happened to them, but what they had been told about this Child. Their focus was on Jesus, not on themselves.

Great men, those shepherds. Real heroes of Christmas.

Published in: on December 20, 2017 at 5:49 pm  Comments Off on Heroes Of Christmas—The Shepherds  
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God Started It – Reprise


Nativity_Scenes004When I was growing up, my brother, sister, and I had . . . disagreements from time to time. We squabbled about silly things—whose turn it was to do the dishes, who got to sit in the front seat of the car (or if Mom and Dad said we all had to sit in the back, who got the window seats), what TV program to watch, who got the Sunday funnies first, who got to sit where at the dinner table—silly things.

Inevitably our disagreements would escalate, and Mom or Dad would intervene, scolding whoever had caught their attention. Just as sure was the response from whichever one of us was in the hot seat: But he started it! Or she. We were not the instigator. Ever. At least as we saw things.

In truth, there is one time when in fact that line is true. When it comes to our relating to God, He started it.

In the grandest scheme of things, of course, He started it because He started everything! But specifically in relating to Humankind after the first man and the first woman turned away from Him, He started it. And on a personal level, with me, He started it.

The grand scheme refers to the cosmos. God created. The specific dealing with humanity refers to God’s plan of salvation—sending His Son as the sacrifice to expiate our sins. The personal refers to His work to bring me to Himself.

At no time did I or anyone else initiate with God.

He started everything by making Man in His image, after His likeness. Like any child, Adam was helpless when it came to deciding what color hair he’d have or how tall he’d be or how smart he was. He didn’t decide to be like God, with a will and emotions, with the capacity to create and to communicate. It was God who wanted us to be like Him, and so He made us.

It was also God who loved the world, who determined to love us while we were yet sinners, who chose to express His love by His actions. He gave His Son, and His Son died that He might cancel out the certificate of debt we each owed.

And speaking of “each,” God chose me, called me, rescued me. It’s very personal—not some generic salvation, as if he tossed his net into the sea of humanity and scooped up the ones who couldn’t get away, so I was caught along with a myriad of others.

The point is, I wouldn’t be here, there wouldn’t be a Church of which I am a part, and I wouldn’t be His child if it weren’t for the fact that God started it. John said it plainly in his first letter: “We love Him, because He first loved us” (KJV, 1 John 4:19).

Paul spelled out God’s initiating activity more fully. First our condition:

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. (Eph. 2:1-3)

Pretty hopeless—if God didn’t enter the picture. There was no way for dead people to be made alive without a miracle. There’s no way for sons of disobedience to become righteous and holy, apart from God transforming our lives. There was no way for children of wrath to become children of peace and reconciliation except by the power of God to cause us to be born again.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Eph. 2:4-10, emphasis added)

Love is the fourth and final quality our church is emphasizing as part of the Advent season, and certainly love seems to be a part of Christmas. We are reminded of the love of our families—some traveling many miles in order to have a few days together with loved ones; most spend hundreds of dollars and precious hours shopping in order to give gifts to those we love.

We even include a “love” tradition—the hanging of mistletoe—as part of our Christmas celebration. And the holidays aren’t complete without at least one Christmas romantic comedy or classic story with romance.

Then when we look at the events of that first Christmas, we’re aware of Mary’s love for her newborn child, of Joseph’s love for his little family, of the wisemen’s love and devotion that took them far from home to worship the king.

But none of it would have happened if God hadn’t started it. He formulated the plan before the foundations of the earth, Peter said:

you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. (1 Peter 1:18b-20)

And Paul verifies the plan:

But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior (Titus 3:4-6).

There was no salvation until the kindness of God and His love for mankind appeared. There were no deeds we could do to earn a righteous standing with God. The great change from dead men walking to alive in Christ came because God started it. And He did so as an expression of His great love.

This post first appeared here in December 2014.

Published in: on December 19, 2017 at 4:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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