Why Christmas Matters

Over the millennia, God has appeared in many forms in His ongoing pursuit of intimate relationship with the ones that He created in His own image – people.

To Abraham, He appeared as a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch.

To Joseph, He appeared as an interpreter of dreams.

To Moses, He appeared in a burning bush, and revealed Himself as “I am.”

To Israel, He appeared as the One whom no one could approach except Moses, and later, the High Priest.

To Elijah, He appeared as a the One who sent down fire from heaven, and then later, as a gentle whisper.

To Isaiah, He was the One sitting high and lifted up, exalted on a throne, and the train of His robe filled the temple.  The sight of Him caused Isaiah to repent in terror at his own unworthiness.

To Ezekiel, He appeared as Glory that caused Ezekiel to fall face down in the dust.

To Daniel, He appeared as the Ancient of Days, seated on a fiery throne.

To Mary and Joseph – ah, to Mary and Joseph.  To them, He appeared as a newborn child, crying, still wet with amniotic fluid, umbilical cord needing to be severed, helpless and tiny.

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The One who spoke all things into existence appeared as a baby.  The One Who created Mary and Joseph in His image, Who holds all of creation together, the One Who simply is, existing outside of time, Ancient and yet making all things new, the One who will one day return as King of Kings and Lord of Lords – that One depended upon Mary for sustenance, and upon Joseph for protection.

And in that moment, the One who had appeared in so many forms and in so many glorious personal revelations set aside His rights and privileges and revealed Himself as Immanuel – the One who humbled Himself so that we could have the possibility of relationship with Him.

Wonderful Counselor?  Absolutely.

Mighty God?  The only One.

Everlasting Father?  Yes.

Prince of Peace?  Yes, the only One who will bring lasting peace.

But most wonderful, most amazing, most difficult to understand and accept – He is Immanuel.  God is with us.

His good friend John, who knew Him when He was an adult, wrote this about Him:  “The Word became human and lived here on earth among us.”  (John 1:14, NLT).  Literally, it means that He pitched his tent among us – He moved into our neighborhood and became one of us, so that we could know Him and one day, move into His neighborhood.

Never forget this deepest, truest meaning of Christmas – that the Eternal, Almighty, Omnipotent God loved you and wanted a relationship with you so desperately that He humbled Himself and exchanged the only Throne that matters for a feeding trough in Bethlehem, and later, a cross outside of Jerusalem.

And what gift could you or I possibly give Him this Christmas that would be enough to properly thank Him?

Would it be to give up all we have?  To attend every service we can?  To feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit those in prison?  To heal the sick and cleanse lepers and even cast out demons?

All those things can be good.  They each have a place.

But all He really wants is you.  Your heart, your love, your faith in Him.

“To all who believed Him and accepted Him, He gave the right to become children of God.  They are reborn!”  (John 1:12-13, NLT)

He wants you to accept His offer of relationship.  It’s why He came.  It’s the whole reason for Bethlehem, for Golgotha, and for the empty tomb.

How do you accept His offer?

Just tell Him.

It’s as simple as that.  Thank Him, tell Him you’re sorry for trying to do this all on your own, and that you believe that He is Who He says He is – the Savior.

Then just trust Him.  He’ll do the rest.

Merry Christmas!


If you’re interested in learning more about following Jesus, or want to try a new devotional for the New Year, check out my new devotional book, Forty Days of Walking With Jesus:  A Devotional Guide, now available on the Kindle Store.

Suffering, Christmas, and Hope

Christmas stirs up a ton of emotions.  I’m sitting here at my desk in front of my MacBook screen, trying to write and in the meantime, my mind is being bombarded with stuff that concerns me – stuff I wish I could do something about, or change:

  • A close friend whose teenage daughter is suffering debilitating episodes from a disease that currently has her unable to speak and to move her dominant hand.
  • A parishioner who lost his wife of 60+ years last month and is about to experience his first Christmas alone.
  • Another parishioner who is currently going through chemo treatments and is stuck at home for the duration.
  • Another parishioner who just lost a son.  The week before Christmas.
  • A close friend who is about to experience his first Christmas as a divorced man after being married for over two decades.
  • My in-laws are about to have Christmas alone in North Carolina while we’re in Pennsylvania.
  • My parents and my brother and his family are about to have Christmas together in central PA while we are in Western PA.  (I am very thankful, though, that my immediate family is together and will be able to spend the day together.)
  • My wife is recovering from her second surgery in less than a year, and is experiencing pain that I can’t do anything about.
  • Families that I know that are basically at war with one another.  Their Christmas observance will be marred by their anger with one another.

Those are just a few of the things I think about that I’m aware of personally.  (There are a ton more.)  That doesn’t include stuff like:  ISIS; the economy; our fractured nation; poverty; Aleppo; and a host of other issues that our nation and world are facing.  Or ignoring.

Now, that’s the negative.  I could also list a ton of things that are running through my mind for which I am grateful, including amazing family and friends, wonderful experiences that I’ve had in the last year, newlywed couples that I know get to enjoy their first Christmas together, the blessings of freedom, a wife who loves me no matter what, a daughter whose company is always good for my soul, two friends with whom I can always “take the masks off” with and know I won’t be judged, and so much more.  (And I know that gratitude is a powerful thing – I’m amazed at what a difference it makes in my day to list five things for which I’m grateful every morning.)

But there’s so, so much trouble in this world.  So many suffering, hurting people.  And for many of them, I can’t fix it.

What do we do with that?

Pray for them, for one thing.

Do what you can, for another.  Call someone.  Write someone.  Encourage them.  Stop in for a quick visit and pray for them.  Do what you can; don’t dwell on what you can’t.

And hope.

Christmas is, after all, all about hope.

For a child is born to us, a son is given to us.  The government will rest on his shoulders.  And he will be called:  Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  His government and its peace will never end.  He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David for all eternity.  The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies will make this happen! (Isaiah 9:6-7, NLT)

Those words fill me with hope.  The child has been born; the son has been given.  He IS the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.  He knows me.  And I know Him.

These words fill me with longing – the child has been born, the son has been given; but his rule has not yet been fully established.  He has departed to His Father; and someday, He will return, and His rule and eternal reign will be established.  He will finally bring peace, and fulfill our hopes and dreams.  His government will be truly right and righteous, and He will set all things right.

Christmas reminds us, in the midst of sorrow and suffering, that there is hope.  That one day, soon, the babe in the manger will return as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  That one day, soon, Christmas will not just be about hope – one day, Christmas will be about hope and longing fulfilled.  Christmas will no longer be just about what was once accomplished and yet still is to be completed – it will be about celebrating the final coming of our Lord, and the end of sorrow and suffering.

May that thought fill you with hope this Christmas.


If you’re interested in learning more about following Jesus, check out my new devotional book, Forty Days of Walking With Jesus:  A Devotional Guide, now available on the Kindle Store.

The Christmas Story We Never Hear

We’re so familiar with the Christmas story and its different elements – Gabriel appearing to Mary, an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream; Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem, no room at the inn, the manger, the shepherds, the magi, the Bethlehem star.

But there’s one part of the story that we often miss – a perspective that is often ignored – a Biblical account of the story that we don’t usually hear read at Christmas Eve candlelight services.  I preached on this passage a couple of years, and just yesterday, saw a blog post that reminded me of the importance of this part of the story.

Here’s the Christmas story you may not have heard, from heaven’s perspective:

Then I witnessed in heaven an event of great significance. I saw a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet, and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant, and she cried out because of her labor pains and the agony of giving birth.  Then I witnessed in heaven another significant event. I saw a large red dragon with seven heads and ten horns, with seven crowns on his heads.  His tail swept away one-third of the stars in the sky, and he threw them to the earth. He stood in front of the woman as she was about to give birth, ready to devour her baby as soon as it was born.   She gave birth to a son who was to rule all nations with an iron rod. And her child was snatched away from the dragon and was caught up to God and to his throne.  And the woman fled into the wilderness, where God had prepared a place to care for her for 1,260 days.  Then there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels.  And the dragon lost the battle, and he and his angels were forced out of heaven.  This great dragon—the ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, the one deceiving the whole world—was thrown down to the earth with all his angels.  Then I heard a loud voice shouting across the heavens,

“It has come at last—salvation and power and the Kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ.  For the accuser of our brothers and sisters has been thrown down to earth—the one who accuses them before our God day and night.  And they have defeated him by the blood of the Lamb and by their testimony.  And they did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die.  Therefore, rejoice, O heavens!  And you who live in the heavens, rejoice!  But terror will come on the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you in great anger, knowing that he has little time.”

When the dragon realized that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child.  But she was given two wings like those of a great eagle so she could fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness. There she would be cared for and protected from the dragon for a time, times, and half a time.  Then the dragon tried to drown the woman with a flood of water that flowed from his mouth. But the earth helped her by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that gushed out from the mouth of the dragon.  And the dragon was angry at the woman and declared war against the rest of her children—all who keep God’s commandments and maintain their testimony for Jesus.  Revelation 12:1-17 (NLT)

The Book of Revelation is apocalyptic literature, and therefore filled with imagery and symbolism.  This account is no different – a pregnant woman (Mary), a large red dragon (Satan), a son (Jesus), angels, 1260 days – it can all be very confusing.

But don’t miss the larger story.

Christmas wasn’t just a silent and holy night, filled with awe and wonder and stars and angels and shepherds and a baby in a manger.

That first Christmas was an invasion.

God sent His Son to invade this earth – to fight to the death against the ancient serpent.

Why?

Because the world around us “is under the control of the wicked one.” (1 John 5:19)

You don’t need me to tell you that.  All I need to do is list a few places, a few names, to stir up images in your mind that tell you that it’s true.

Aleppo.

Iran.

Ethiopia.

Castro.

Human trafficking.

North Korea.

Evil is at work in our world.  Has been since…well, since Adam and Eve disobeyed God.

But Christmas is the message of hope.

The dragon may be angry.  He may be committed to making war against us.

But his time is short.

On that first Christmas, he was served notice of that fact.

At Golgotha, he thought he had reversed it – thought darkness had won.

But darkness cannot overcome light.

And on the first Easter Sunday, the dragon’s power was broken.  His destiny was sealed.  His doom was secured.  And your freedom was purchased.

Never forget that Christmas isn’t just “Silent Night” and “We Three Kings” and “The First Noel” and “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night.”

It’s also the story of an invasion, of a battle to set you free forever.

It’s a story of hope, and ultimately, of victory!


If you’re interested in learning more about following Jesus, check out my new devotional book, Forty Days of Walking With Jesus:  A Devotional Guide, now available on the Kindle Store.

The Soul’s Worth

One of my favorite Christmas carols is “O Holy Night.”  I love the tune, the power of the song, and the message of the lyrics.  And I have another confession – I’d rather hear my daughter sing it than anyone else!

The first verse of the song contains these memorable lines:

Long lay the world in sin and error pining

Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth

A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

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“Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.”  What is your soul worth?

The world in which we live doesn’t put a whole lot of value on the human soul.  There’s more value placed in appearances, possessions, positions, stature, and achievements.  But according to Jesus, that’s a false value system that one day will leave us empty.  As several have said, to climb the ladder of success and then, at the end of your life, find that the ladder is leaning on the wrong building, is the ultimate loss.

Jesus himself put it this way:  “What do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your soul?” (Mark 8:36, NLT).

The truth is that your soul is worth everything.  Jesus paid the ultimate price so that He could offer you salvation for your soul.  That’s why the song tells us that it wasn’t until He appeared that the “soul felt its worth” – because the only price that could be put on a human soul was the life of God’s Son.

Here’s another angle to consider as well:  until Jesus “appears” in your life – until you have a relationship with Him – you will never know the true worth of your soul.

Everyone else will try to tell you what you are worth.  Your value to others often will depend on what you’ve done for them, what they want you to do for them, what you can do for them, or even how well you meet their expectations.

And the truth is that most of us value our soul’s worth based on either other peoples’ opinions of us, or narratives that we’ve been told our whole lives – or even narratives that we’ve told ourselves.

But, as my friend Dr. Rob Reimer first told me, the question of your value was settled at the cross.

Your soul’s worth?  The life of the sinless Son of God.

God is bigger than you, wiser than you, and He knows things you don’t know.  And He placed a value on your soul – your life – when He sent His Son to give His life to redeem you.

Any other value system – any other method of valuing your soul – is simply wrong.

This Christmas, remember that an important part of the story of the Babe in the manger was that He appeared so that YOU would know the true value of yourself.  You don’t have to wonder what God thinks of you, or if He loves you.  That issue was already settled.

He loves you.  And no matter what you do or don’t do, no matter what you’ve done, no matter how good or bad you or anyone else thinks you are – the One who created you has already set your true value.  You are of infinite value.

Your soul can know its worth.

It was worth the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus.


If you’re interested in learning more about following Jesus, check out my new devotional book, Forty Days of Walking With Jesus:  A Devotional Guide, now available on the Kindle Store.

Our Hopes and Fears

As much as I love and enjoy contemporary worship music, when it comes to Christmas, I’m pretty much a dyed-in-the-wool-old-fashioned-Christmas-carol lover.  For me, there’s something about the depth of the Christmas story, the familiarity of the carols, and yet the fact that we only sing the carols a few weeks out of the year that keep them fresh and meaningful to me.

This year, I’ve been preaching an Advent series on the subject “fear not.”  (Thanks to Craig Groeschel for a great series on that theme that inspired and informed me!)  As I was studying, researching, and preparing back in November, I was listening to the familiar “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and I heard these familiar words: “…the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

A little context is helpful.  Here is the complete first verse:

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

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It’s an intriguing phrase, don’t you think?  What are the hopes and fears of all the years?

I don’t know that there is an easy answer to that question.  Or at least, there’s not a short answer to that question.  The fears of all the years?  Well, the list of human fears is consistent – people are people, experiencing the same challenges, even as life changes – but it’s a long list.  Fears of things like death, dying, sickness, loss, grief, darkness, loneliness, depression, being forgotten; fears of things on behalf of our families and friends; fears for our nation, our security, our future…  As I said, the list is a pretty long one.

How about the hopes of all the years?  I think, even though sometimes it seems that we can come up with the negative more easily than the positive, the truth is that we are created in God’s image, and therefore, there is something in us that hopes – or at least wants to hope.  Hope can be for temporal things – a better job, a new car, a raise, a white Christmas, (preferable with not enough snow to have to shovel it!); for our family – children, safety, a better future, a better life; and the list of things we can hope for can become quite long, too.  Hopes and dreams for our kids, our town, our nation, our church, our friends…

But there’s something in us, I think, that hopes more deeply.  Something in us hopes for love, for joy, for peace.  For home.  Or should I say, for Home.  We hope – we long for – we were created for – God’s Presence.  And something within us will never be completely satisfied, completely fulfilled, until we are Home with God.

And, there’s something in us that fears deeply.  Fears separation, fears loneliness, fears loss – but at its root, perhaps unrecognized by many or even most – it’s the fear of a meaningless eternity, separated from God.

Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, wrote these words:  “God has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.”  (Ecclesiastes 3:11, NLT)  It’s part of God’s design that we know deep within us that there is something more, something greater.

Something to hope for; something to fear.

The hopes and fears of all the years – in the town of Bethlehem, on that first Christmas – were met.

All the hopes, the deepest, truest desires of the human heart – the birth of Jesus was God’s “YES” to our greatest hopes.  There is more.  So much, much more!

And all the deepest, darkest fears of the human heart?  They were also answered on that night.  The birth of Jesus was God’s shout to all humanity – “Fear not!”

There is, finally, nothing to fear.  Emmanuel, our Savior, has conquered every fear.  Even death itself.


If you’re interested in learning more about following Jesus, check out my new devotional book, Forty Days of Walking With Jesus:  A Devotional Guide, now available on the Kindle Store.