December 25 – Dream Team

Last year, we got to spend a few days in Bartlesville celebrating Christmas with family. We had a great time quoting lines from Elf, opening presents, eating way too much, and getting schooled in Scrabble by my 10 year old niece. In other words, it was a perfect holiday. Since I grew up in Bartlesville, any trip back home brings back all kinds of memories – good and bad. In many ways, I have grown into a different person since I moved away from there 20 years ago. Some of those changes have been positive, some have been negative.

One of the changes that I would consider negative, is my general optimism about life. When I lived in Bartlesville I was much younger, and much more optimistic about my future. Let me give you an example. Back in 1984 when the Olympics were in Los Angeles, I remember dreaming that one day I would be a part of the U.S. Olympic basketball team. I loved playing basketball, and thought I had a “realistic” shot at making the team one day. I actually did the math and thought that I would only have two chances to make the team – 1992 and 1996. I thought I would only have the chance for those two Olympics because I would be in the NBA in 1997, thus making me ineligible for an amateur competition (the Olympics at that time were only open to amateurs). Best I can tell, I wanted to be an Olympian for three reasons:

  • A love of America. Putting on the stars and bars and taking on the world was an incredibly motivating idea.
  • A love of Basketball. I thought I had the skills to compete.
  • A love of Mary Lou Retton. Remember the 1984 games? As an 11 year old, I thought if I could just meet her, I had a chance . . .

Anyway, by the time 1992 rolled around, I no longer lived in Bartlesville . . . and I no longer thought I could be an Olympian. Though the inclusion of the professionals did not help me (thanks a lot Dream Team), the reason I did not make it to the Olympics in 1992 was that I was not good enough to make the team. Time has an incredible ability to kill our dreams, doesn’t it? The longer we live, the more we are in tune with our own abilities and liabilities. The more basketball I played against better and better competition, the more I realized that I was not going to be the next Mark Price or even the next Tim Legler. My talent ceiling was 6A sports in Oklahoma. Getting a realistic picture of what I could accomplish caused me to alter my idealistic notion of being a Olympic champion.

What about you? What did you used to think you were going to grow up to be? How has time changed your hopes and dreams?

While it is fun and nostalgic to look back on our dreams of fame, it is tragic when we let the passing of time ebb away at the confidence we have in our spiritual lives. For far too many of us, we trust God with less with each passing year. This happens because over time we become more and more acquainted with our lack of ability to accomplish things we genuinely desire. Year after year, an illness remains, a relationship deteriorates, a sin struggle lingers, depression clings on. Because of the persistent nature of some of our struggles, and our lack of ability to change them, we begin to trust God with less. As we become aware of our liabilities, we begin to limit our expectations. When we limit our expectations, we shrink our dreams. When we shrink our dreams, we have a tendency to shrink our God as well.

The flaw in all this is that we are attaching our hopes and dreams in the areas that matter most to us only to our own ability. As believers in Jesus Christ, we have a God we can trust for things way larger than that! Think about it: if you are a believer in Jesus, you are trusting God for forgiveness of all your sins. Your ability to be forgiven has nothing to do with your ability to accomplish something yourself, but it has to do with God’s ability to do more to you and through you than you could ever do alone! God forgives by sending His Son to die on the cross for us. That is how we are forgiven. However, as believers live out their spiritual lives, we can allow time to cause us to focus more on what we can do and less on what God can do. When we do that, our vision for tomorrow deflates.

This year, this Christmas, I want to encourage you to inflate your vision again. Trust God more this coming year for things bigger than what you can accomplish on your own. I want to encourage you in this direction by looking at the first few words in Luke 2 tonight. At the beginning of the story of Jesus birth, Luke says this, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus. . .” If you have been a Christian for a long time (or if you have recently watched the “Charlie Brown Christmas” special), no doubt these words are very familiar to you. In fact, the name Caesar Augustus is one of the most famous names of any Caesar in the history of the Roman Empire. But who was Caesar Augustus and why do we know his name today? Answering that question is a very interesting story.

In 63 BC, a young man named Gaius Octavius was born. Octavius was in the Roman army. At that time, a man named Julius Caesar was the dictator of Rome. Julius noticed the great skill and leadership ability that Octavius had. Octavius was Julius’s nephew. Julius had no children of his own. Unknown to Octavius, Julius had written into his will to adopt Octavius upon his death, and make him the heir to his fortune and political successor. On the Ides of March, in 44 BC, Julius Caesar was assassinated by political adversaries in the Roman Senate. Octavius was summoned to Rome to hear a reading of his late Uncle’s will. In the will, Octavius found out his future would be changed forever. He had been post-humously adopted by his uncle Julius and at the age of 19, Octavius had become the leader of Rome. As a tribute, Octavius took on Julius’s name “Caesar,” making him Octavius Caesar. In 42 BC, the Roman Senate deified Julius Caesar, making him the “Divine Julius” and Octavius, “The Son of the Divine” or as we might say, he became known as the “Son of God.” Then, in a twist that changed the course of Rome, Octavius changed the Roman constitution making himself an Emperor and Rome an Empire. At that time, they changed his name to Augustus . . . which means “Sacred one” . . . Thus Augustus Caesar became known as the Sacred One, the Son of God. He was the leader of the world at the time of Jesus birth.

Caesar Augustus was such a powerful man that he was able to speak a word and make the entire Roman Empire move. When you are an emperor and people think you are a god, you have lots of power. That is why when Caesar developed a new tax code and said that people needed to go to their ancestral homes to register, people started walking – among them Mary and Joseph.

Now imagine that you were alive in the Roman Empire on the night that Jesus was born, and imagine that you were walking with a set of travelers to the town of Bethlehem to register for the census. Imagine that someone were to say to you that alive in the world at that time was one known as the Son of God, the Sacred one, who would be known for 2,000 years and counting into the future. Imagine that someone were to tell you on the way to Bethlehem that 2,000 years later all of human history would hinge around this Son of God and what He would accomplish with His life. Imagine that someone were to tell you that 2,000 years later, people would look at pictures and symbols of this Sacred One and think of how the Son of God had changed their lives. Imagine that. I would imagine that if someone would have told you all that on that night, you would have thought they were talking about Caesar Augustus. In reality, however, they were talking about a child that would be born later that night in a cave and placed in an animals feeding bin.

Despite the drastic differences between Jesus and Augustus on the first Christmas night (one in a manger, the other on a throne), the world has come to remember the one, only because of His association with the other. Think about it, the man who was responsible for starting the Roman Empire . . . the man who was known as a god by the most advanced civilization in the world at that time, would be known to us only because he was the ruler at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ. As Andy Stanley has correctly said, Augustus Caesar is merely a footnote in the history of God’s Story in Christ. Men and women, we serve a God who can make a baby born in a manger infinitely more powerful than the leader of the “free world.”

This Christmas, as you ponder anew what the Almighty can do, I want you to stop limiting what God can do. I want you to renew your belief that God can do big things. As the Christmas story is read and you hear of Caesar Augustus, I want you to remember the power of God. Caesar thought he was a god and tried to make himself famous, but in the end, he was a footnote in history. Time has taught us of the limitations of human power. However, time has also taught us of the enduring nature of God’s story. When we are attached to Christ, He can do infinitely abundantly beyond all we ask or think. I want you to trust God again for big things this year, because we serve a big God.

Now, I want to ask you this question. Who are you trusting tonight? For the problem of our sin. For the problem of our uncertainty. For the problem of our mortality. For the things you truly long for. Who are you trusting? Yourself? The best a person could do is what Augustus did . . . and he is rotting in a tomb. Trust instead in the One who has gone from the manger to a throne that will never be unseated. He can offer us forgiveness, and hope. He is the One we orient our history around. His story gives meaning to ours. My dreams are bigger because I am a part of His team.

 

This devotional is part of a 25 day devotional guide.  Download all 25 days of the devotional in pdf or ebook format (for free) by clicking here.

Mary’s Christmas (part 4) Sermon Audio

On December 24, 2017 at Wildwood Community Church, I preached a sermon based on Luke 2:8-20.  This message was part 4 in the “Mary’s Christmas” sermon series.  The audio from this message is available below to listen to online or download.

 

To listen offline, click the link to download:

Mary’s Christmas #4 12.24.17

 

To listen online, use the media player below:

 

To access the free 25 day Christmas devotional book, click here.

December 24 – Far and Near

In our home we have many Christmas decorations.  Along the roof line is a set of lights designed to make Clark Griswold proud.  In the front window is the Christmas tree full of memories disguised as ornaments.  On the mantle is a Saint Nicholas statue given to us as a wedding gift many years ago.  And in three prominent locations, we have nativity scenes.  These nativity scenes are my favorite Christmas decorations . . . and I am not just saying that because I am a Pastor.

I truly love these nativity scenes.  I always have.  As a kid, we had one that set on top of our cabinet television set and I used to love to see those simple figures in a tiny barn surrounded by fake hay.  They were a real reminder of the reason for the Christmas season.  When Kimberly and I got married, Kimberly brought a very special nativity set forward with her into marriage . . . a gift her mom and dad got for her one piece at a time during her growing up years.  It is one of the greatest treasures we own.  Each nativity set has a back story of how we came to own it, but also points us to the ultimate reason for why we celebrate Christmas at all — the birth of Jesus.

Each set in our house is arranged similarly.  All the pieces are crowded together around the baby Jesus . . . as they should be.  After all, Jesus was at the center of it all that first Christmas night.  However, what is sometimes lost in nativity sets is how those pieces ARRIVED at the manger scene.  Unlike the pieces that adorn our mantles, the participants at the first Advent did not all come out of the same box.

Most nativity scenes include 3 “wise men” or “magi.”  Sometimes they are riding on camels and most every time they are carrying three neatly wrapped gifts.  They are often painted the same color as the other pieces in the set.  In our nativity scenes, they look like they totally belong.  However, those familiar with first century Jewish culture would have been quite surprised at their inclusion in the story.

By the first century, the Magi were considered to be more “wise guys” than truly wise.  The Magi were an ancient order of star-gazers from Babylon who made a living interpreting dreams and foretelling the future.  While there were certainly some honest men among them, their reputation had deteriorated toward “snake oil salesmen” – people who would tell you what you wanted to hear just as long as they could make a buck.  Most people did not view them as honorable, and certainly, no one viewed them as godly.  Metaphorically, these Gentile heathens were about as far away from the birth of the Jewish Savior as you could possibly be.  The songs we sing of them talked about them traveling far to see Jesus, but their distance was even further spiritually than physically.  For the wise men to look the part in our nativity sets, we should paint them contrasting colors and place them at the beginning of December in the garage while the rest of the pieces nestle together in the living room.

Yet in God’s mercy, those who were far off are brought near by the birth of Jesus.  Further, they were brought near INTENTIONALLY.  The Magi made it to the manger at the end of a very long and well thought out plan:

• 1400 years before the birth of Jesus, Balaam issued a prophecy about a star rising for the Messiah.  This led Jews to a belief that a real star would one day be a sign that Messiah had arrived.

• 700 years before the birth of Jesus, Micah prophesied that the Messiah would be born in the little town of Bethlehem.

• 600 years before the birth of Jesus, the Jews were taken captive by the Babylonians.  The Babylonian foreign policy of the time was to take the best and brightest people of the lands they conquered back to Babylon to work for the improvement of their culture.  One of the Jews exported to Babylon in this captivity was Daniel.  After demonstrating his ability to interpret dreams, Nebuchadnezzar promoted Daniel to become the overseer of (you guessed it) the Magi – see Daniel 2:48.  Daniel would have been in a position to influence this group with his understanding of Jewish prophecy, which would have included the idea that one day the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem and a star would mark his arrival.  This story was passed on from generation to generation of Magi until the birth of Jesus.

• At the time of Jesus’ birth, God sends a special star in the sky to guide the Magi from Babylon/Persia to Israel to see the newborn king (see Matthew 2:1-12).

For 1,400 years, God had prepared a plan to invite those who were far off to come near and into a relationship with Himself.  The night Jesus was born, the star rising in the sky made sense to the Magi because of years of divine planning.  The pieces that began in the garage were brought into the living room by God’s grace.

Contrast the response of the Gentile Magi with the response of the Jewish religious elite.  In Matthew 2:1-12, we see the chief priests and scribes correctly answer the question, “where will the Messiah be born?” BUT, they do not do anything with that knowledge.  Though the Savior of the world was right down the road from them, they were too busy or preoccupied to go check Him out!  The absurdity of the Jewish leaders’ actions might be best reconstructed in script form:

  • HEROD:  Hey Jewish religious leaders . . . there are some Magi out here who have traveled hundreds of miles over hard terrain following a special brand new star that they believe is leading them to see where the Savior of the world was born.  Do you know where the Savior of the world is supposed to be born?
  • RELIGIOUS LEADERS:  Yeah, the Savior will be born in Bethlehem.  The town directly underneath that brand new and bright shining star.
  • HEROD:  Oh really?  Should we go check it out?
  • RELIGIOUS LEADERS:  Nope. Can you pass the pretzels?  We are busy watching some paint dry.

The religious leaders of Israel WERE in the same box as Jesus.  They were painted with the same colors.  They did look like they belonged in the same room . . . however, the story of Matthew 2 shows us that sometimes those who look near are really VERY FAR away spiritually.

The contrast between the Magi and the Scribes and Priests is shocking.  Those who were far are brought near while those who looked near are revealed to be very far away.  The implications of this are extremely important to us at Christmas time.

Are you someone who is currently very far away from the Savior?  Someone who is painted a totally different color than most church people?  Maybe your life is marked by addiction, abuse, or sensuality.  Maybe you are known by your peers for your marginalized business ethics or immoral lifestyle.  Maybe you even follow another religion and do not own a Bible.  Because of the sin in your life, you appear to be in another zip code compared to Jesus, much less in the same room.  This Christmas, are you someone who is far from Him?

Or, are you someone who has grown up inside the church.  You were dedicated at First Baptist Church, confirmed in the Catholic Church, and attend a non-denominational church . . . you just want to make sure your bases are covered!  Do you have multiple bibles in your house, never miss a History channel documentary about the historical Jesus, and have a set of Jimmy Stewart “It’s a Wonderful Life” morals.  Do you realize that it is possible to have all these things . . . to look like you belong . . . yet to never really have begun a real relationship with God?

The beauty of the Christmas story is that there is hope . . . for people who are both FAR AND NEAR.  If you feel very far away from the Savior today, know that God has been working since the foundation of the world to get the message of salvation to you.  The combination of the life of Christ, the preservation of God’s Word, the sending of the Holy Spirit, and your network of friends, family, and opportunities have served as a “star” to invite you to the manger this Christmas.  The same set of signs have also been shared with those who are “near” the church.  The big question is: will you (like the Magi) follow the signs God has given and worship the Savior this year, or will you simply enjoy some pretzels and ignore the real reason for this season (like the Jewish religious leaders)?

To those who are far or near, Jesus is the “good news of great joy for all the people.”  He is our Savior, so come let us adore Him.

 

 

This devotional is part of a 25 day devotional guide.  Download all 25 days of the devotional in pdf or ebook format (for free) by clicking here.

December 23 – Skipping Christmas

Have you ever stopped to think what life would be like without Christmas?  If somehow it were possible to eliminate Christmas from the landscape of human history, what would be the net effect?  In answering that question, here is a sort of “un-Christmas” list of the things lost if Christmas never happened:

  • Wal Mart would be forced to find other items to fill their shelves from August to December.
  • Ebenezer Scrooge would have been able to work every day in December without any “unwanted visitors.”
  • The average man would own 10 less “bad ties” and the average woman would own 14 less “decorative items,” the cumulative result of one less yearly gift giving mandate.
  • Hallmark would go out of business.
  • The Grinch would have to find something else to steal.
  • Families would no longer get together for big parties and meals at the end of every December.
  • Jimmy Stewart would never have realized that he had a wonderful life.
  • We would never have heard anything about flying reindeer or jolly overweight men in red suits giving gifts to those who have been “nice”.

As sad as it would be to give up all that, the loss of Christmas would cost humanity so much more.  To fully understand the impact of a Christmasless history, we have to go back and investigate the origin of Christmas and the reason for this season of celebration.

If Christmas were truly lost, the greatest impact on humanity would be that mankind would be separated from God forever.  That’s right.  Without Christmas, you and I would stand no chance at gaining access to heaven after we die and no opportunity to have a relationship with God in the here and now.  If Christmas were skipped historically speaking, humanity would be without hope.

All humanity suffers from a terminal condition known theologically as “sin.”  Sin is anything that falls short of God’s perfect standard.  Any honest survey of our own lives informs us that there is plenty in our lives that falls short of divine perfection.  The problem with the sin in our lives is that it has a consequence.  The Bible tells us in Romans 6:23 that the “wages of sin is death.”  Therefore, because of our sin, a price of death has to be paid.  When Jesus was born into the world 2,000 years ago at the first Christmas, He started His earthly life so that He could end it on the cross.  Without physical birth, physical death would be unattainable, so He was born . . . and He was born to die in our place.  Your sin (and mine) demands a death, only who will die for your sin?  There are only two options.  Either you will pay the price for your own sin and after your physical death be separated from God forever in hell, or you can put your faith in Jesus Christ.  If you do, then the death He died in His Passion will pay the penalty for your sins, so that you might spend eternity with God in heaven.

If Christmas never happened, Wal Mart would find another way to sell toys and decorations, people would find other ways to honor each other with gifts, families would gather for celebrations at New Year’s, and Hollywood would entertain us at Winter Wonderlands instead of at the North Pole.  Life would move on in each of these areas.  However, if Christmas never happened, mankind would be without a Savior . . . and there is no other solution to that problem.  This year, as you celebrate the holidays, remember the part of Christmas that you cannot afford to skip.  Without Christ in your heart, your life and future are without hope.

 

This devotional is part of a 25 day devotional guide.  Download all 25 days of the devotional in pdf or ebook format (for free) by clicking here.

December 22 – Undercover Boss

Have you seen the television show, “Undercover Boss?”  Honestly, I haven’t . . . but I am familiar with the concept.  On the show, a CEO of a big-time company leaves the boardroom and perks behind to become a common worker in his/her organization.  The ensuing drama inevitably leads to some dynamic shift in perspective as the CEO ultimately sees how their executive decisions are effecting front-line employees.

Jesus birth in Bethlehem was not an accident and was not by chance — God had planned it all along, and had been making preparations for Christ’s arrival from the very beginning.

It is a misnomer to think that Jesus came into existence at Bethlehem.  The Bible is actually quite clear that from the time that was the beginning, Jesus already WAS.  John 1:1 says it this way, “In the beginning was the Word (Jesus) and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  Notice the tense of the verb in this verse.  Literally, this verse says, “Imagine the time when there were no people, no planets, and no plants.  At that very moment before anything was created, Jesus WAS ALREADY THERE.”  In fact, John 1:3 goes on to say that “All things were made through Jesus, and without Jesus was not any thing made that was made.”  Jesus created the world.  He did not originate in Bethlehem, He created the earth under which Bethlehem sits.  Jesus birth is not so much a simple Baby Story, as it is an episode of “Undercover Boss.”  The CEO of the universe came to the earth He created “dressed” as a common carpenter’s son.

But why did Jesus humble Himself to come as a baby that first Christmas day?  Here is a hint from Hebrews 4:15:  “For we do not have a high priest (Jesus) who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”  Jesus went through the full human experience so that we could fully know that the King of Kings has a dynamic, personal understanding for what it means to be human.  He knows what it means to cry, laugh, and love.  He knows what it means to be disappointed, discouraged, and dissed.  He knows first hand what it means to spend a sleepless night in prayer, seeking God’s will while asking if “the Cup could pass from Him.”  Jesus knows.  Because the Boss went Undercover as the carpenter’s son, we can (as Hebrews 4:16 concludes), “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Therefore, this Christmas season, as you see reminders of the infant in the manger, remember that the baby was the Boss undercover.  He has lived our lives, and He understands what we are going through.  He is not a disconnected Executive.  He is the Sovereign Savior who cares.

 

 

This devotional is part of a 25 day devotional guide.  Download all 25 days of the devotional in pdf or ebook format (for free) by clicking here.

December 21 – Houston, this is our Problem

There is a great scene in the 1995 movie “Apollo 13″ where Tom Hanks (playing the part of Astronaut Jim Lovell) sits in his back yard staring at the moon.  Lovell was soon to pilot the famed Apollo 13 spaceship all the way to a lunar landing.  As he sat in his suburban backyard on terra firm, however, Lovell was thousands of miles away from his destination.  While staring at the moon, Lovell closed one eye and extended his hand in front of him.  The captain then extended his thumb up into the air.  The camera switched to Lovell’s perspective and showed us the captain’s ability to make the moon disappear behind his thumb.

Now, two possible explanations exist regarding Lovell’s disappearing moon technique:

  1. The disappearance of the moon was an optical allusion created by the close proximity of the finger to the eyeball.  In other words, it was a matter of perspective.
  2. Tom Hanks has an extremely large thumb!  In other words, his thumb is bigger than the moon.

Of course, option one is the correct answer.  It also serves as a helpful reminder to you and me.

In our lives, the problems we face everyday have a very close proximity to our eyes.  Medical issues we deal with, relationships that crumble, dreams that are dashed, are so close to where we live that they feel absolutely enormous.  In fact, they feel so big, they can even cause us (as we close one eye of perspective under the strain) to not be able to see God in the midst of our difficulty.  As we ponder this phenomena, two possibilities exist:

  1. We have some really large problems . . . larger than the God who created the universe.
  2. We are allowing our current circumstances to create an optical allusion blinding us to the reality of the presence of our God.

This Christmas season, many of you are no doubt dealing with difficulty.  In fact, I would hazard a guess that virtually all of us are facing a tough trial of some kind.  Because of that, we might have a tendency to miss God this holiday season.  Under the stress and strain of life, we squint our eyes and see only that which is attached to our own hands.  However, do not be fooled.  God is there!  The infant born in Bethlehem is not small in stature . . . He is larger than life, and He is our Immanuel – God with us.  Because of this, we can sing loudly the chorus to the hymn “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” –

O Tidings of Comfort and Joy!  Comfort and Joy!  O Tidings of Comfort and Joy!

We are comforted because God does not disappear from us . . . He has come to us in Christ.  We have great joy because when we open both eyes of biblical perspective, we can see that the Lord has been here all along.  Remember, Jesus last words to His disciples were, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  This promise opens our eyes to dispel the allusion that we are alone.  He is here, and He is bigger than all of the problems and issues we face.  We can trust Him with all our problems, big and small.

 

This devotional is part of a 25 day devotional guide.  Download all 25 days of the devotional in pdf or ebook format (for free) by clicking here.

Mary’s Christmas (part 4) Sermon Preview

I still remember the morning our son was born.  Though the event occurred over a decade ago, I still have great clarity of that day – it is a time my wife and I treasure. 

It was the “spring forward” day of Daylight savings time, and our doc had attended a rock concert the night before – forgetting to “spring forward” her clock.  So, even though the birth day was planned several days in advance, Josh entered the world one hour later than expected! 

Josh was born at 31 weeks, and would need to spend the first month and half of his life in the NICU at Children’s Hospital in OKC.  Because of this, we had to play a “road game” . . . out of town and away from family and friends.  Any visitors had to be invited and planned out.  This meant that our birth experience looked a bit different than some . . . but it was still special to us. 

This Sunday is Christmas Eve.  On Sunday morning at Wildwood this weekend, we will be wrapping up our “Mary’s Christmas” series by looking at Luke 2:8-20.  In these verses we are reminded that Mary and Joseph were playing a “road game” when Jesus was born.  They lived in Nazareth, but Jesus was born in Bethlehem (a week’s journey away).  Though Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral home, there were far from what was “normal” for them. 

Even though they were miles from home, the Lord still planned some special visitors to see the new born baby.  By special invite, shepherds came.  By divine plan, angels attended. And through it all – Mary treasured all these experiences in her heart.

As we gather for worship this Sunday morning at 9:45 or 11:00 at Wildwood, we will treasure the birth story of Jesus and see how we are also invited to worship Jesus this Christmas season.  Make plans to join us!

P.S.  In addition to the 2 morning worship services we have this December 24, we will also have 2 evening candlelight Christmas Eve services with a living nativity (5:00 and 7:00 PM).  Hope to see you both morning and evening this weekend!

 

 

Download all 25 days of our Christmas devotional in pdf or ebook format (for free) by clicking here.

December 20 – What do we have in common with the shepherds?

As Linus (from the Peanuts) would say . . . “Lights please.”

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angels said to them, ‘Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord.  This will be a sign to you:  You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’  Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests.’  When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’  So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.” – Luke 2:8-16

Imagine that you were the shepherds that first Christmas night.  You were gathered out on the hillsides surrounding Bethlehem watching your livestock.  You were bundled up to keep warm.  Having never been a rancher or taken care of any animal larger than my 36 pound Beagle, I have a hard time imagining what they were doing.  My best guess is that they were living out the imagery of James Taylor’s classic “Sweet Baby James”:

“Their horse and their cattle are their only companions.  They work in the saddle and they sleep in the canyons, waiting for summer, their pastures to change.  But as the moon rises they sit by the fire, dreaming about women and glasses of beer.  Close their eyes as the doggies retire.  They sing out a song which is soft but is clear, as if maybe someone could hear.”

So, as the doggies retire, these shepherds saw an impressive sight.  It is hard for me to imagine what shepherds were doing on that Christmas night, but it was even harder for the shepherds to imagine the sight they were getting ready to behold.  Out of no where angels appeared in the sky singing a different song (sorry JT).  They were singing “Gloria in Excelies Deo!”  For me today, it is easy to imagine the shepherds seeing the angels . . . this is a story I have heard since I was born . . . but for the shepherds, this was a very “out of the ordinary” situation.  It was not normal for them to see angels on the hillside, no matter how many glasses of beer they may have been dreaming of.  This was a unique event!  The angels told the shepherds to go to Bethlehem and see a baby which was the Savior of the world.

The shepherds quickly took off for Bethlehem.  Can you imagine the conversation they may have had with each other all the way to the stable?  “I wonder what He looks like?  What could this all mean?  I wonder if everyone got this same announcement . . . if so, I wonder how long we will have to wait in line?!?”  The questions would have no doubt fired back and forth throughout their walk/run to the manger.

Upon arriving on the scene, however, I am sure the shepherds were probably scratching their heads a bit.  There was no line outside the stable filled with government and religious dignitaries and local celebrities.  Upon entering the stable, the place smelled more like a barn full of animals than the temple incense.  As they approached the baby in the manger, no halo circled His head, and the child was probably crying for His mother to give Him more milk.  While the text does not say it, I am guessing that the shepherds were probably wondering (either aloud or to each other) if they had heard the angels correctly.  Given the disparity between what they saw and what they had heard, these old school cowboys were placed in a spot that is very familiar to us . . . they were being asked to take God at His Word.

I walk through this story today because many times as I read the Christmas story I think, if only all people could see what the shepherds saw then all people would believe that Jesus is the Savior of the world.  To my old way of thinking, the shepherds, based on what they had seen, would not have needed a lot of faith to believe in Jesus as their Savior.  The reality, though, is that I still think it took LOTS OF FAITH for the shepherds to believe.  In fact, they did not have some of the benefits that we have.

When the shepherds saw Jesus in Bethlehem, they had never heard Jesus preach; they had never seen Him work miracles; they had never imagined the cross;  they had never conceived the empty tomb.  While they had an angel declaration, there were many facts of the story that they did not have.  Based on what they knew, they were asked to take God at His Word (through the angels) and trust Him with the rest.  As people today, we have record of His preaching, miracles, death and resurrection.  We have the testimony of  2,000 years of Church History, and the corroborating evidence of ancient historians.  Given that, however, we have never seen Jesus face to face, and angels have not visited us on hillsides.  Based on what we know, however, we are asked to take God at His Word (through the Bible) and trust Him with the rest.  When we do this, great blessings come our way.

The Apostle Peter wrote a letter to the first generation of Christians who were growing up in our present reality . . . people who had the testimony of eye-witnesses and the Scripture, but had not physically seen Jesus.  To this group (to us) Peter writes in 1 Peter 1:8-9, “Though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and even though you do not see Him now, you believe in Him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”  Peter celebrates the faith of those who have not seen Jesus, but still love and believe in Him.  This verse of Scripture is talking to you and me!

1 Peter 1:8-9 further indicates that when we believe in Jesus based on what we know (but have not seen), we reap the same benefits that His first followers experienced, “an inexpressible joy” (“Good news of Great Joy”) and “the salvation of our souls” (“a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord”).

At first glance, it appears that we have very little in common with the shepherds that first Christmas night, but in the end, we have something big in common . . . we are both being asked to embrace by faith that the child born in Bethlehem is our Savior, Christ the Lord.  Upon hearing this announcement this Christmas will you run to the manger as the shepherds did?  Will you believe in Him based on what you know and trust Him for the things that are harder for you to understand?  If you will, then joy and salvation await.  Those are two Christmas gifts that are on everyone’s list.

 

This devotional is part of a 25 day devotional guide.  Download all 25 days of the devotional in pdf or ebook format (for free) by clicking here.

December 19 – A Targeted Piece of Communication

I still remember the morning when our son was born.  It was truly an event to celebrate!  After 11 years of marriage, our family had grown from two to three, and joy filled our hearts.  When Josh was born, the news was so great that we could not keep it to ourselves . . . we had to get the word out.  We made phone calls, sent birth announcements, and even had friends decorate our front lawn, all announcing the arrival of this precious newborn!

As I think back on how we announced Josh’s birth, however, I am mindful of the fact that we were quite focused in our announcement.  The waves of people we informed were customized to our situation.  We did not take out an ad in the “Oklahoman” newspaper, or notify ABC News.  Instead, we contacted friends and family in a very targeted way.

In a similar way, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God the Father could not keep the news to Himself.  After thousands of years of relating to His creation, His one son had now taken on flesh and entered the world.  The Father was so overjoyed, He began sending birth announcements to the world.  He had Angels sing to shepherds and He placed a star in the sky for the Magi.  Far more than just placing an ad in the newspaper, these two announcements were a very targeted form of communication letting us know something of the purpose of Jesus’s life.

The shepherds were common, working class people in Jesus’ day.  These Jewish commoners sleeping in a dirty field receive an announcement to remind the world that Jesus would be more than just the Messiah of the Government Palace or Temple, but that He came to seek and to save all Israel.  The shepherds became a figure of the scope of Jesus’ saving work in Israel.

The Magi were Gentiles.  These foreign star gazers bring gifts to the new born King reminding all that Jesus’ rule was not just Jewish.  He came to provide a way for any person of any ethnicity to be saved.  The Magi (in some senses) represent me (and probably you), a person of non-Jewish origin forever changed by Israel’s Prince of Peace.

This Christmas as you set up your nativity set and place the wise men and the shepherds beside the manger, may you remember the targeted communication that brought them there . . . and the blessed hope that means for you and me.

 

This devotional is part of a 25 day devotional guide.  Download all 25 days of the devotional in pdf or ebook format (for free) by clicking here.

December 18 – Marketing the Manger

From a secular, United States culture perspective, Christmas is a marketers dreamland.  Beginning sometime in mid-October or early November, marketers begin their work to convince us what we “need” this holiday season.  Our desire to be festive, drives us to ask the question, “What trinket, toy, bling, or do-dad really says ‘I love you’ most effectively?”  Marketers representing virtually every product begin a targeted blitz to get the word out for their product.  After two months of being worn down by the marketing machine, we all realize NEEDS, we never knew we had, so we go out to purchase the product.

Most people have negative views of marketing because they have had a bad experience with it.  Virtually all of us have bought (at some point) what marketers have been selling.  Many times, we thought we were buying happiness, but instead we were just buying a bill of goods.  In the end, it is amazing how few of the “needs” marketers sell that we actually have.

The very first Christmas gift ever given was given by our Heavenly Father to mankind.  The gift was the baby Jesus, born in Bethlehem.  When God gave this gift to men and women, He also launched a “marketing campaign” to announce His arrival.  Angels appeared in the sky to speak to “certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay,” advertising the birth of Jesus and telling them why it was Good News for them.  About the same time that the Father sent His Angels to talk to the shepherds, He also placed a marquee in the sky, illuminating the way to the Savior for those in the East.  This star would be a cosmic press release announcing His coming to a set of gift-bearing star gazers.  On the night of Christ’s birth, God launched a media blitz to remind the people of their need and illustrate how Jesus was the One who could bring them joy.

Now, because of our past experience with marketers, the language I used above might have made you furrow your brow.  It seems rather crude and insincere to think of God’s announcements in this way.  In some respects, I agree with you, and it certainly is not my intention to dumb down Advent as a result.  However, I think it is important for us to think through the illustration provided above, because marketing a product that is actually necessary is not self-serving, but loving.

Since the needs Christ addresses are not imagined but actual, and since Jesus provision delivers all it promises and does not disappoint . . . the marketing of the coming of Christ is a blessed thing!  Can you imagine if someone came up with the cure for cancer but never told anyone about it?  That would be crazy.  You would want them to market that cure because its provision is so important and its need is so real.  In the same way, the arrival of the Savior of the world is not a truth to keep quiet, but something that should be shouted from the mountaintops.  God did that through the media blitz on the night Christ was born.

Think about that this year as you consider what God wants you to do with the good news that the baby in Bethlehem is the One who saves you from your sins.  God does not want you to conceal that information . . . He wants you to be a part of His marketing campaign, spreading the good news to all who you interact with.  He began this campaign on the first Christmas, and is continuing it through us today.

 

This devotional is part of a 25 day devotional guide.  Download all 25 days of the devotional in pdf or ebook format (for free) by clicking here.