The Sign Will Lead You to Your Christmas Gift

Finding Christmas presents makes the giving fun. And giving clues as to where to find presents is even more fun. We’ve done that with our kids. Maybe you have with yours. You give them clues that lead to more clues which finally leads to the gift. It might go something like this:

  1. Rudolph is Santa’s #1 flyer. Your first clue is by the washer and (dryer).
  2. Santa’s suit is a very bright red. Now go look where at night you lay your (head).
  3. Santa’s lived long, he’s very old. Your next clue is where the food is kept (cold).
  4. To be on Santa’s nice list you can’t be a grouch. Now look under the living room (couch).
  5. The air in the house can get kind of stale. Get outside for the next clue and check the (mail).

On and on it could go until the last clue says: “You’re tired of looking. It’s almost done. Look under the tree and unwrap for some fun!

I admit. There would be something a little Grinchy about sending kids all around the house inside and out and then bringing them right back to the tree. But no matter how you go about it, the clues do what they are supposed to do. They lead them right to the gift they most want.

The best Giver gave his best gift the same way. There were shepherds out in the fields, watching their flock at night. The angel came to them and told them, “…this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

There is some evidence that there were shepherds around Bethlehem who were priestly shepherds. Some think they were tasked with spotting unspotted lambs for the Temple sacrifices. And some believe they would wrap them in bands to keep them from hurting themselves right after birth and then lay them in a crevice in the rocks called a manger until they were calmed.

We don’t know if all of this is true. The evidence is unclear. But we do know that according to the Torah two lambs were required every day for the daily sacrifice in the Temple. That’s 730 lambs each year and thousands more for other feasts and festivals. Bethlehem was known for sacrificial lambs.

Every day. Every month. Every year. Shepherds watched as these innocent, blameless lambs were offered for sin. They had time to reflect. They knew it was for their sin too. You see, they weren’t even allowed to the Temple to worship because their livelihood made them unclean.

And your livelihood makes you unclean too. No, not your 9-5 job. But the living you do every day. The way you speak to others. Your behavior. The way you go about your relationships.

Preachers aren’t immune. One holiday season I was heading home after a long day. I was almost home a little early one Friday afternoon. I was driving by a school and, out of habit, driving 20 mph due to the school zone even though school was already out for the holiday.

Suddenly the truck behind me sped up, moved over to the other lane, and passed me. I threw my hand up in the air and waved it around pointing my index finger at him thinking “Are you crazy! What kind of idiot are you?!” Then I saw him looking in his rear view mirror. Then I noticed my hand. I thought, “From his vantage point it probably doesn’t look like I’m giving him a neighborly wave. It probably looks like I’m waving one finger at him. Not the index finger.”

I didn’t feel too good about this. I felt worse when he turned into my subdivision. I slowed down a bit so he could get to his street before I got to mine. But then he turned onto my street. And then he turned into the driveway across the street from our house. I had gestured angrily at my neighbor! I waited down the street until he went inside his house. If he ever knew it was me he never said anything. But I didn’t like what was in me.

You and I need what the shepherds needed: a sign that leads to the Savior. “… wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” I’d like the story of the priestly shepherds to be accurate. It would make this sign have added significance if they in fact wrapped lambs in bands of cloth and laid them in a place called a manger.

I’d like that to be true, but we don’t need it to be true. The shepherds found exactly what they were supposed to find. Earlier Luke told us “…[Mary] 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…”

Later, Luke will strike the same cadence when he writes of the crucified Savior: “Then [Simon] took [the body] down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid.”

This baby we celebrate at Christmas is our Savior. The shepherds needed one. I need one. And so do you. And that is the gift God gave you. A Savior. God gave you a sign: a baby wrapped in rags and lying in a manger.

May you find him this Christmas.

 

Even Angels Get Excited at Christmas

What is it that gets you excited about Christmas? Young children opening presents? Giving presents? Getting presents? (It’s OK to admit it.) The family reunion at grandma’s house? The travel? (You’re in a special class if this gets you excited.)

It didn’t take much to get me excited when I was a kid. It always started for me when the Sears Wish Book would show up. Some of you will remember those. It was the Google search engine of the day for kids who wanted to find just the right toy for Christmas.

I was a child of the 60’s and I lived for comic books: Superman, Batman, Spiderman. When I was six-years-old Ideal Toy Company put out its answer to the G.I. Joe action figure: Captain Action. He was great on his own but you could also get costumes to make him into all the other superheroes. I had to have it. So I circled it in the book. I wrote Santa.

And then I waited. I imagined waking up Christmas morning and finding Captain Action under the tree. Together he and I would save the world. And if the imaginary situation called for it, I could put him in his Batman costume and the Dark Knight would bring light to the dark nights in Memphis, Texas.

All the days leading up to Christmas Day you thought about what it would be like to have this toy. Going to bed on Christmas Eve was torturous. You’d try sleeping on your back, then one side, then the other. And you knew if you didn’t go to sleep Santa would not come. Sneaking some Eggnog helped.

It didn’t take much to get excited about Christmas when we were young, did it? But something happens as we get older. The problem is your world has changed. Demands of work. Long lines. Deadlines. Receding hair lines. Expanding waistlines. Bills to be paid. Once we have some money smaller gifts aren’t such a big deal, are they? You can go out and buy those yourself. And when you have pretty much all your basic needs in our First World living, what would ever cause you to get excited?

Imagine not only having your basic needs but having everything you could possibly need. The angels did. And yet they got excited about the birth of Christ. Angels are everywhere in the story of Jesus’ birth. Joseph encountered angels three times. Zechariah once. Mary once. Shepherds once.

Actually twice. The first angel announced the birth of “…a Savior, Christ the Lord.” Then the sky exploded with “a multitude of the heavenly host.” What got angels excited about the birth of Jesus?

The prevailing idea of angels in the first century was that they were like a tired, beleaguered army. Their mission to help watch the earth was frustrated by Satan and his minions. Mankind was helpless to help itself. The angels needed reinforcement.

And reinforcement came in the form of a child born in a manger. When God sent help he did not send another angel. He sent the Lord of all angels. The Lord of all.

That’s what got the angels excited. When Luke describes the multitude of them as the “heavenly host,” the word for “host” means “army, troops.” The angels are ready for battle. Their leader had come to save.

War leaves causalities in its wake. You may be one of them. Someone did something to you. Said something to you. You’ve done things and said things you regret that have shaped your life. The world is harsh. And you too are tired and beleaguered. You’re tired of fighting alone.

You don’t have to any longer. “For unto you … has been born a Savior. Christ the Lord.” The Lord of all has come to you and you need only come to him.  And so, when a Savior was born…that was all the Christmas the angels needed. And it’s all the Christmas you need too.

I woke up that Christmas morning and Captain Action had come. In my imagination he and I saved the world.  In my adulthood Christ has come and saved my world. He can save yours too. Because of Bethlehem you have a Savior. Christ the Lord.

That’s something to get excited about.

Question: What gets you excited about the real story of Christmas?

A Christmas Invitation You Won’t Want to Ignore

John and Bonnie invited us to our first event of the holiday season. Along with a handful of others we were included in a group we did not know to join them at their house.

I plugged their address into my Google maps and we headed to the party. Along the way I said to Karen, “Do you think we need to pull up the email and check the invitation?” “No, we’ve got their address,” she said. “I don’t think there was any other information we needed.”

We pulled into their subdivision, the gate was open, and we immediately saw a line of cars parked outside a house. Google maps informed us we had arrived so we parked our car and strolled up to the door. We met another couple who was reaching the door at about the same time. We didn’t recognize them but then we didn’t really know anyone on the list. I said, “Are you going to John and Bonnie’s party?” “Yes,” they said. We turned and rang the doorbell.

A Jr. High age boy answered the door. Karen and I looked at each other with puzzled looks since we knew our friends did not have a Jr. High age boy. Then a tall man came to greet us. We exchanged introductions. Peter invited us in and pointed towards the kitchen. “Funny,” I thought, “that John has asked someone else to greet his guests.”

We came around a corner and saw a number of people huddled around the island in the kitchen. They looked at us. We looked at them. John and Bonnie were not to be seen. I looked at Karen and said, “I think we’re at the wrong party.” We went back to the front door found our new friend Peter.

“Peter, I think we’re at the wrong party,” I said while making sure I didn’t see any firearms nearby. “Who are you looking for?” I told him and he said with a laugh, “Their house is right across the street.” I asked him if his party was going to be better than John’s, he said it probably would be, and that if we were disappointed we could come back over. We appreciated the thought, but we were not invited to that party.

Shepherds knew that feeling. Even the one named David did. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1). There are times in a life of faith that God seems to forget his own, and we feel like we are standing in a room full of strangers at a party we aren’t supposed to be at. Maybe Luke knew that. Maybe he wanted to use the story of the shepherds to strengthen our faith for the forgotten times.

The shepherds may have felt left out before that night but not after that night. They’re not used to anyone giving them the time of day. But now an angel is interrupting their time at night. He tells them a Savior had been born in the city of David: Bethlehem. The shepherds went to Bethlehem and found exactly what they were told they would find.  Mary and Joseph.  But most importantly, “the baby lying in a manger.”

We have to wonder why God would choose shepherds over kings or rabbis or the popular to receive the invitation to witness the birth of his son. Could it be that: Kings are paying too much attention to the important people to bother with babies? Rabbis are too busy crossing their T’s and dotting their I’s to be interrupted? The popular have too many things on their social calendar to squeeze in one more activity?

But shepherds? They lead a simple life. They don’t have many distractions. They have no reputation to uphold or social order to protect. God had time for the shepherds because the shepherds had time for God. This rag-tag group of smelly sheep herders the rabbis banned from testifying in court were invited by God himself to be the first ones to testify of the birth of his son.

And they did. What was “made known” to them they “made known” to others (Luke 2:15,17). What had been “told them” they “told” to others (Luke 2:18, 20).

Wouldn’t you love to be invited by God to hear the birth announcement of his son and then get the honor of telling others? Well, hold onto your Christmas hat because what happened to the shepherds has happened to you.

  • You have the same story that they had. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
  • You have the same sign they had. “…you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
  • And you have the same invitation they had. God has invited you into the story of his incarnation. He has included you in the birth of his son. Because of Bethlehem you are not forgotten. You don’t have to feel like an uninvited guest.

But you do have to respond. So spend time around the manger. Put your work down. Schedule some time. Check the directions again and make sure you look where the angels said to look.

When you get there you’ll find you are right where you’re supposed to be.

Question: How can you spend time at the manger this Christmas season?

Find Time to Ponder the Christ-child this Christmas

A baby changes everything. When our first was on his way someone gave us a card that said on the front page: “Congratulations!” It had the picture of the cutest baby you would ever see until ours was born. But then you opened it up and saw these words in large, bold print: “Life as you once knew it is over!”

It was. Babies do have a way of disrupting the routine of life. It starts as soon as their existence is announced.

“Guess what honey?” The young husband has no clue. “Did I forget our anniversary?” he wonders. He takes a stab at it: “It’s our anniversary! Happy anniversary!” he declares. She scowls and says, “No dear, that’s not for three months.”

After a few feeble attempts— “Birthday? First date anniversary? Your mother is coming to live with us?!”—he does what he usually does. He gives up. “Why don’t you just tell me?” This time she can’t hold it in any longer: “We’re pregnant!”

At first he thinks, “We’re pregnant? I’m a guy. Why would she say “we”?” And soon he realizes that although he will not have a bouncing baby boy or girl growing inside his body, he is indeed pregnant too. When she tosses and turns in a sleepless night, he doesn’t sleep either. When she is hungry for Baskin Robbins mint chocolate chip ice cream, he will be eating it too. When her back aches, his will too once he is done massaging hers.

I know. I’ve been there and maybe you have too. Those nine-months are designed for the baby to be nourished and grow. But they are also for the parents to prepare. Their routines become shaped by preparation for the arrival of the baby. A crib is assembled. A room is decorated. Diapers are stockpiled. Then the day arrives.

The problem is when he came Kris didn’t look like what I thought he would look like. Red-faced. Matted hair. Slime all over his body. Not the clean, days-old babies you see in the movies. I said, “Karen, he’s great. I think he favors your side of the family.”

Yes, when Kris was born our world changed. And when Jesus was born the whole world changed.

Mary’s world certainly did. The angel Gabriel appears and announces: “…you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” Gabriel explains that the natural will be replaced by the supernatural with words like “come upon” and “overshadow.” These are words found in the Greek Old Testament that describe the hovering of the Spirit of God over the waters at creation. The Holy Spirit that was part of the creation in the beginning would cause the creation of this child “…for nothing will be impossible with God.”

To this Mary simply responds in faith: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” The word “servant” is literally “slave.” We may not like this word so it gets softened to “servant.” But Mary understands her role. She is giving up her hopes and dreams and even her own body to submit herself to the plans of God. She is giving up her questions of what is happening, why it is happening, or where is her life going to end up to an understanding of herself as “slave.”

When the birth comes so do shepherds. They’ve seen angels too and come to see the child. They leave and like the end of Christmas day, after all the opening of presents and playing with toys and feasting on the Christmas ham or turkey and all the commotion and excitement of the day, the night becomes still.

And maybe for the first time since delivering the baby Mary has an opportunity to reflect. “…Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” She reviewed all that had happened to change her world and spent some moments “pondering” them in her heart.

“Ponder” comes from the compound verb symballo. “Sym” means “together” and “ballo” means “to throw.” So it means “to throw things together.” We sometimes picture Mary sitting over to the side of the activity somewhere, rocking her little baby boy, having a Hallmark kind of moment.

But much more is going on. This word is used to describe the work of a prophet, someone who would discern what God is up to and announces it to everyone else. That’s what Mary is doing. She gets it! This baby is the son of God. He’s going to change things. He’s bringing mercy. He will bring down the mighty and exalt those who are low. He will feed the hungry that the rich won’t help. Her little baby boy is going to rule in a way that Augustus never dreamed. In a short time, her world had changed and she is throwing things together to make sense of what God is doing in her life.

Maybe your world has changed too. Christmas time is not always the most wonderful time of the year for everyone: Lay-offs leave some wondering how to pay the bills. Sickness sends presents down the list of priorities. Divorce can darken holiday lights. Death of a loved one can steal some Christmas joy.

Christmas is a time to ponder. So this season in the midst of throwing together your preparations for a gathering or throwing together parts to be assembled, may you find some quiet moments to throw together all that is happening in your life. See the good and the difficult. The blessings and the bad. But make sure you throw in with all of that the child born in Bethlehem. Ponder your world less and ponder Christ more.

But be forewarned. This baby changes everything.

Question: What do you think God is up to in your life?