Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

by Joshua and Joanna Bogunjoko, SIM International Director | In joyful obedience, SIM workers continue to respond to Jesus’ invitation to “Come, follow me!”
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6.

Come!
Entering the season of Christmas, I am reminded of the words of the hymn, “O come, let us adore Him” and “Come, and behold Him!”, referring to the newborn King. Jesus would later speak the word come when he said, “Come, follow me.”

The invitation to Come!, available to us every day, is all the more poignant during the season of Christmas. Shepherds and foreign magi came to worship the incarnated Christ Child upon his arrival into human history. Through the ages, believers from numerous ethnic groups and nations have continued coming to worship and adore.

But this invitation is not heard by everyone on earth. Many are living and dying today behind barriers to the gospel that silence and block the come! And so we go to the ends of the earth so that many more may come to worship Him.

In 2018, SIM will celebrate its 125th anniversary. Our purpose and vision remains constant. Even as I write, many living in darkness are responding to the Christmas invitation to “Come, adore Him!” In joyful obedience, SIM workers continue to respond to Jesus’ invitation to “Come, follow me!”.

Thank you for your prayers, gifts, support, friendship and service with, and alongside of, us, our family and SIM. Come, let us adore Him together!

Purpose & Mission

Convinced that no one should live and die without hearing God’s good news, we believe that He has called us to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ in communities where He is least known.

Therefore, compelled by God’s great love and empowered by the Holy Spirit…

  • We cross barriers to proclaim the crucified and risen Christ, expressing His love and compassion among those who live and die without Him
  • We make disciples who will trust and obey Jesus, and become part of Christ-centered churches
  • We work together with churches to fulfill God’s mission across cultures locally and globally
  • We facilitate the participation in cross-cultural ministry of those whom God is calling.

Vision

The vision of SIM is to see a witness to Christ’s love where He is least known, disciples of Jesus expressing God’s love in their communities, and Christ-centred churches among all peoples.

By faith we see…
in the world: A vibrant testimony to the gospel through character, word and action among communities where currently Jesus is least known. Followers of Jesus living out the gospel in unity and in the power of the Holy Spirit, making disciples who trust Him, obey him, and play a full part in church life. Churches serving their communities and reaching out with the gospel locally and globally.

in SIM: A community growing in faith, in obedience to Jesus, and in ministry competence. Workers crossing barriers with the gospel, being and making disciples of Jesus, expressing His love and compassion. Multi-ethnic and multi-skilled teams serving together in love and harmony. Courageous leaders investing in the development of others for life transforming ministries. Effective partnerships with Christ-centered churches and organizations facilitating the spread of the Gospel.

in eternity: The redeemed from all tribes, languages, peoples and nations worshiping the Living God.

 



What Is the Real Meaning of Christmas?

JesusOnline Ministries | But if you were to go back seven hundred years before the birth of Christ and ask the prophet Isaiah what it means to him, he would tell you Christmas is about the birth of a special child: Jesus.

Christmas means different things to different people. To most, it is a heartwarming time with family and friends. To many children, it’s about presents and Santa. To merchants, it means a season when many retailers finally begin making money.

But if you were to go back seven hundred years before the birth of Christ and ask the prophet Isaiah what it means to him, he would tell you Christmas is about the birth of a special child:

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)

We hear these words each Christmas season during the singing of Handel’s Messiah. This profound message is that God Himself would come to earth as both King and Savior.

Most Jews were waiting for the Messiah to deliver Israel from Roman oppression. They were looking for a Messiah of power and authority. But God had a different plan. He chose to send His son as a humble servant whose primary mission was to die for our sins (see Philippians 2:5-11).

The writers of the New Testament present Jesus as both fully human and fully God. Isaiah had said as much when he foretold the Messiah coming to earth as both child and Mighty God. Confirming the words of Isaiah, the apostle Paul writes of Jesus:

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15-17)

What would motivate the Creator of everything that exists to step down from his lofty position as the sovereign ruler of the universe to become one of us? Jesus tells us that he came because God loves us–each of us.

The wonderful meaning of Christmas is that Jesus came to rescue us from the death sentence caused by our sin, and to give us hope and peace with God. He did it because he cares for you and me, and wants to adopt us into his family–now and forever.

Why not take time this Christmas to reflect on God’s great gift to you? The one who created you is the same one who came to earth and died for you!

In a world filled with corruption and selfishness, there is tremendous hope in knowing that God cares. And he promises eternal life to all who believe in Jesus. Can you think of a greater reason to celebrate Christmas?

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John3:16)



Immanuel

by Mark Batterson | The Almighty God became Immanuel, “God with us,” so we can spend eternity with him.

Introduction

Matthew 1:18–25:

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.” When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

One of the biggest mistakes we make in the way we think about God is thinking about him in four-dimensional terms. God isn’t four dimensional. According to string theorists, there was a dimensional split shortly after Creation, which means there are more dimensions than meet the eye. Physicists postulate the existence of at least ten dimensions, which leads Dr. Hugh Ross to argue that God is at least eleven dimensional. The truth is: God is omni-dimensional or extra-dimensional.

I mention all of that to say this: we all underestimate God.

In the words of Dr. Ross: “We doctrinally orthodox Christians potentially underestimate God’s nature, powers, and capacities by a factor of a trillion in one dimension.” If you add just a second dimension, we underestimate God by a trillion to the trillionth power. Truth be told, we underestimate God by infinity to the infinity power.

Immanuel: God with us

God is the Almighty One. But he is also Immanuel. If you want a balanced picture of God, you’ve got to juxtapose those two names. He is God Most High and God Most Nigh. He exists outside time and space. He is also Immanuel—God with us.

God entered space-time 2,000 years ago in a tiny village outside Jerusalem called Bethlehem. Galatians 4:4 says, “When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive the full rights as sons.” Jesus was subject to the same spiritual laws that govern all of us. He was also subject to the same physical laws that govern the universe.

It’s easier for us to accept that Jesus was fully God than that he was fully human. But we underestimate the humanness as well as the divinity of Jesus. I have these weird thoughts sometimes. Here’s one of them: For the better part of 30 years, Jesus worked as a carpenter. I wonder if Jesus ever missed the nail and hit his thumb. I wonder if he ever got a splinter. I think he did. I think Jesus got bumps and bruises and toothaches and stomachaches and headaches. He got tired and hungry. He got sad and mad. Hebrews 4:15 says he was tempted just like we are, but he never gave into temptation. He suffered like we do—more than we do. William Shakespeare said, “He jests at scars who never felt a wound.” We don’t serve a scar-less God. We serve a God with scarred hands and feet and side and back. According to Isaiah 52:14, Jesus was scarred beyond recognition.

Downsizing

Philippians 2:6 says Jesus “made himself nothing.” He “humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” God put skin on. He became touchable and approachable. Think about this: The Omnipresent One downsized to the confines of a human womb. The Omnipotent One became a helpless baby that had to be fed and nursed and burped. The Omniscient One had to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic. He became nothing. Why? He became nothing so that we could become something. It’s all about trading places or trading spaces. Second Corinthians 5:21 says, “He who knew no sin became sin for us so that we could become the righteousness of God.” In other words, Jesus makes us a deal we can’t refuse. He says, “Give me all of your sin. I’ll give you all of my righteousness. And we’ll call it even.” I love the way Dick Foth says it: “He came to our place. He took our place. And he invites us back to his place.” That is the gospel in a nutshell.

The present of presence

The greatest gift a parent can give a child is the present of presence. That is what kids crave. Our youngest son, Josiah, is at the stage where he never wants me to leave. When it’s time for work he never wants me to leave the house. When it’s time for bed he never wants me to leave the room. Sometimes I’ll ask the kids if they want to go with me when I’m running an errand. Josiah always shoots his hand into the air and says, “Me!” in an irresistible falsetto voice. Kids crave their parent’s presence.

I played basketball for the University of Chicago, and our conference schools were scattered all over the country. We played Emory in Atlanta and New York University in New York City and Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. But the game I remember the most was Brandeis in Boston. That is an awfully long drive from Chicago. I’m guessing 16 hours one way. My parents drove from Chicago to Boston to watch me play. Here’s the kicker. I only got a few minutes of playing time in that particular game. And they had to turn around after the game and drive home. Thirty-two hours of driving to watch me sit on the bench! But I’ll never forget it.

A.W. Tozer said that “most Christians are theological Christians.” He said they are attempting the impossible. “They’re trying to be happy without a sense of the presence.” How sad! The greatest gift God gives us is the present of presence. Jesus said, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” The Holy Spirit is our 24/7 counselor. He is always on call. Before you got up this morning and after you go to bed tonight, he will be interceding for you!

Let me tell you about one of the best days of my life. Years ago I was at a conference in Southern California and had a free day, so I hopped a boat to Catalina Island, about 25 miles off the coast of California. If you know me you know I love the ocean. There is something about the ocean waves that re-calibrates my spirit. I love the sun, and there was plenty of it that day. I love books, and I had a good one. I love islands and I love exploring new places, and Catalina was both of those things. I took a tour of the island and found it fascinating. There are actually buffalo that roam the island. They were brought over for a movie shoot in the 1930s and left there. I chilled on the beach. I did a little window shopping. And I went parasailing. It was pretty close to my definition of a perfect day except for one thing. One thing was missing. All day I had this recurring thought: “I wish Lora was here.” One of my dreams is to take her back there so we can experience it together.

The best experiences are lacking when we experience them by ourselves. The greatest experiences are shared experiences. That is why the Almighty One became Immanuel.

Maybe this is over obvious, but the Almighty One became “God with us” because he wanted to be with us. Here is an amazing thought: God wants to spend eternity with you. Even I get tired of being around me sometimes! But not God.

Conclusion

Revelation 21:3 says, “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” He came to our place. He took our place. And he invites us back to his place.

Mark Batterson is lead pastor of National Community Church in Washington, DC, and author of Wild Goose Chase (Multnomah Books, 2008).



Christmas – It’s a Big Deal

by Michael Jolayemi | Christmas is about deliverance from Satan and from self. Let us therefore rejoice, make merry, eat good food but let us come to know the Lord our Savior intimately and let us worship Him. He is the reason for the celebration.

Growing up in a poor family and in a remote cocoa-plantation village many years ago, I and my peers looked forward to Christmas with excitement. The sound of Christmas bell was something of great delight. More importantly is the change in our mothers’ kitchens with great aroma of new menus which often put us in a wonderful Christmas  mood. Christmas celebration gave us hope for good and rare food on the table; special food and special drinks. Lunch and dinner tables at Christmas time were seen only once a year. Christmas was usually a big time of festivities. And it was good because delicious food is part of the great celebration.

But not only food, our parents were always saddled with additional expenses of new Christmas clothes. Parents would have saved money throughout the year in expectation of Christmas or they would be forced to borrow because it was an issue when all kids were on their way to church in new attires and your kids had none. I recalled that many houses were thrown into chaos with children crying because they had no Christmas clothes either for financial reasons or that the dresses were not ready because the tailors did not finish sewing the dresses for Christmas. In our local areas, tailors were usually busy at Christmas time and if your clothes or that of your children were not given to the tailor well ahead of time, they were often overwhelmed and could disappoint a number of customers. There could have been an avalanche of law suits for breach of contracts if it were in places like America or U.K.; but no court in those areas would adjudicate on such breaches. Besides this, we were a small community where everyone knew each other and no one wanted to go that far to resolve issues; hence we managed our differences without court interventions.

The point is that everyone looked forward to Christmas time with high expectations of good food, new attires and other festivities. But Christmas has always been with great expectation in the world, not just for food and dresses like children in my community. It held the expectation of the birth of the Savior, God’s show of love for humanity. The people God created in His own image had been separated from Him as a result of sin which Satan had lured Adam and Eve into. The world which is ravaged with sin and wickedness longed for a messiah who would deliver the people from sin and satanic oppression’s. It was a big deal because people were sick and tired of their sinful situation. It was a hopeless and helpless situation and people were eager to see the Savior come. Christmas is therefore about the birth of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the reason for Christmas. If He were not born, we would not have any Christmas celebration. If He did not die, and resurrect, we would have remained in our sins. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” John 3:16

Among prophets who spoke about this great expectation was Isaiah. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.” Isaiah 9:6-7. God did it uniquely for the world; the God who became man came as a baby and in the depth of His love for us, laid down His life to restore our joy and fellowship with the Father.

Little or nothing was known about Mary, a Jewish virgin, who became the mother of our Savior. The Holy Spirit had visited her, and the Lord had favored her. She was carrying a unique baby in her womb, which would bring the most needed relief to the world of sin. How can this happen to me when I have not known any man? Mary asked from the Angel of the Lord who had brought great news to her from God. And the angel said to her, Do not be afraid, Mary, for 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. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. Luke 1:30-33, 35

And the day came, over 2,000 years ago; the despondent world was turned into a place of jubilation. The shepherds who were out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night, were privileged to hear the great announcement, heralding the arrival of the long-expected King. “Fear not”, the Angel of the Lord said, “for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Luke 2:10-12. Heaven and earth shouted for joy “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” The jubilation in heaven and on earth was that the separation of man from God was being taken care of once and for all.

The shepherds did not just hear the good news, they believed it, and they made the personal choice to go to see the baby. “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child.” Luke 2:15-17. There were also the wise men from the East who had followed the star which they had seen in the East till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.  And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Mat 2:10-11.

Christmas celebration with good food and new clothes is wonderful because something good had happened to us. But Christmas is not just about physical enjoyment of food and celebration. It is about joy for our freedom from sin, from sexual perversion, from hatred, lies, hypocrisy, adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the likes. Christmas is about deliverance from Satan and from self. Let us therefore rejoice, make merry, eat good food but let us come to know the Lord our Savior intimately and let us worship Him. He is the reason for the celebration. What no one could do, He did for us. Also, remember that there are children without parents at this Christmas season, with no one to provide for them. You can act for Christ today in bringing joy to their hearts, and the hearts of the less privileged.

Michael JolayemiMichael Jolayemi is an author and Bible scholar. He has written few books on social issues: “Saving America: The war we can’t ignore”; and “Sheltered through the storm: the travails and ultimate triumph of the Church.” His next book is about the Sin issue and will be out by God’s grace next year. You can connect with Michael via www.conservativevoiceofreason.com or www.michaeljolayemi.com.

 



Looking to Wrong Places for Peace and Happiness: Jesus is The Answer

by Rev. Dr. Daniel ade’ Iselaiye | Chairman, ECWA USA DCC | Jesus Christ assures the world of what he has for all human beings. He says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (St. John 10:10). (image, YouTube).

From time immemorial, human beings have sought for ways to find happiness. Philosophers and religious leaders have talked much and written a lot about it.  Jesus came into the world with a mission, that is, to save life and he did it by presenting himself as the one and the only one who could give life in abundance to humanity.  It was critical for him to complete this mission because the more people turned away from God to look for happiness or satisfaction in wrong places the more they perish.  God wanted the world to know the realty of the need to save humanity.  The Scripture says in John in John 3:16, “For God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son.  God gave His Son so that whoever believes in him may not be lost, but have eternal life.” Some today try to go around this simple truth by looking into wrong places for a life of prosperity or happiness. It is sad to know that many church leaders have misled their congregations to believe that money or riches can give happiness or satisfaction.

Wise men and women know that the material things of this world cannot give happiness.  These things cannot guarantee our happiness or satisfaction.  We need a better approach that will show that we understand how real happiness relates to one’s life.  Whether you are a Christian or not, you will indeed believe that life is ontological, that is, it moves towards a particular end which Aristotle (384-322B.C) called “eudamonia, which simply means “happiness,” “satisfaction,” or prosperity.  That will possibly explain why so many modern church leaders erroneously lay undue emphasis on amassing fleeting wealth and riches as if these temporary materials can satisfy restless souls.  There will be no satisfaction until one’s soul finds God who makes man in His own image.  Aristotle believed that happiness is an activity of the soul and to have this life of happiness or satisfaction, one must live one’s life according to reason.  It is this reason that leads us to a life of virtue. What we have become will then determine what we do.  The argument here is not about whether a wise man like Aristotle was a Christian or not.  He certainly lived before Christ appeared in the world. However, he discovered reason as a means of living a life of happiness and Jesus came to show the world that he is the reason, the one and only one that can satisfy our restless souls. When one’s sinful nature is changed he or she begins to live according to the life of Christ.  If that spiritual transformation is real, one will not be looking for happiness or joy that does not come from Christ. The life of virtue does not take place in a vacuum.  The full realization of the good life is guided by reason that is rooted in Christ who is the embodiment of God’s wisdom. No wonder then the prophet calls Jesus the “Wonderful Counselor,” and “Prince of Peace!”

The understanding of what has been written so far is very important to our spirituality. It confirms our belief in the fact that Jesus is the reason for Christmas.  Why then will people look in wrong places for happiness or satisfaction? Look at the world of commerce that celebrates Christmas without Christ.  God is both a spiritual as well as an intellectual Being.  Thus, He wants human beings to reason with Him.  This is stated directly in Isaiah 1:18 where God says, “Come now, let us reason together, though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”  Everybody reasons but it is important to know that it is not everybody that reasons aright.  We are therefore invited to reason with God.  When that is done, we will see the futility of looking for happiness or satisfaction in wrong places. When we live fully according to reason, our spiritual life will be nourished.  Looking for happiness in wrong places will be unnecessary, because it is Jesus alone that can satisfy the needs of our souls.  He is the bread of life and the water of life. Know that Jesus wants Christians to rejoice not because of money or the materials of this world but because of their names that are written in the Book of Life (St. Luke 2:20).

The Testimony of King Solomon:  There are valuable things that money cannot buy, such as love, wisdom, and integrity.  Solomon chose wisdom which helped him later in his life to write his last book, Ecclesiastes.  He got all the money, including all the women, and the houses he desired.  He became the richest and wealthiest in the history of the world and it may seem to us that all his desires were fulfilled.  We may judge that he reached the peak but let’s look at his own assessment. Solomon knew that the search for heaven on earth based upon money and other material things is definitely an illusion.  He warns people of the insidious deception of riches.  Solomon reached the top by the grace of God but that top is indeed empty as it has failed to satisfy the continuous thirst and hunger of man’s restless soul. It has been the plan of Satan to make human beings run after vapor and things that do not last.  Humanity is hurt by this satanic deception. What can give peace to the soul has eluded many people in the world. There is a dial need to be led to a higher ground based on the truth behind the following assessment made by King Solomon:

I said to myself, “Let’s go for it-experiment with pleasure, have a good time!” But there was nothing to it, nothing but smoke.  What Do I think of fun-filled life?  Insane!  Insane!  My verdict on the pursuit of happiness?  Who needs it?  With help of a bottle of wine and all the wisdom I could muster, I tried my level best to penetrate the absurdity of life.  I wanted to get a handle on anything useful we mortals might do during the years we spend on this earth (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3 MSG).

If nothing in the world cannot heal our sin-sick souls, then the world needs to look at the right person, Jesus the mighty healer. The angel who appeared at his birth knew what the gift of God means to the world.  So, he said, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord” (St. Luke 2:10-11).

There are many events in our lives that point to the evils of focusing on material things to give us peace and happiness. The love of money, as the Bible puts it, is the root of all evils.  Is very rare today in some churches for leaders to give this warning.  How we wish they could preach more about the beauty of the kingdom of God.  If people know about its power and beauty, it will not be difficult for them to find their ways to it and they will not need much of preaching, neither will they look to wrong places.  False preachers attempt to make their congregations happy through the use of gimmickry. Even though the gospel is not preached, people feel entertained momentarily.  Churches have been invaded by fake ministers through the use of spiritual and psychic sophistry.  They teach in such a way as to offer people false alternatives to the peace that Christ gives.  Beware of the use of modern pseudoscience and the so-called miracle workers who are now using electronic wizardry to deceive innocent people who still have some respect for ordained ministries.  Jesus calls all fake pastors and teachers thieves and robbers. They are used by Satan to steal and destroy souls.

It is a grievous mistake for young people to believe that such things as wine, dangerous drugs, alcohol and the likes can give them happiness.  This is a lie. The danger here is in the fact that when these things are taken in excess, it results into drunkenness which is a powerful spirit by itself.  The Bible makes an interesting comparison between the Holy Spirit and drunkenness. Just as God uses the Holy Spirit in human beings to do His will and conform to the life of a disciple, in the same way, drunkenness controls anyone who is drunk.   A drunkard loses his  or her power or will to control himself or herself because he/she has given his/her own reasoning faculties and all other abilities to alcoholism which does not give anything good to the body except to take away from it before destroying the body.  In order to keep ourselves under the right spirit, the Bible says, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.  Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18).  This is a very powerful analogy.  Don’t be deceived, there is no joy in drunkenness.  Jesus is willing to give us joy and peace.

Jesus Christ assures the world of what he has for all human beings. He says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (St. John 10:10).  Let’s beware of the thieves among us.  This includes anyone who teaches and encourages others to look for alternatives to the abundant life that Jesus Christ offers the world.  Let us look only to Jesus and live.  Jesus explained the realty of his claim to Nicodemus.  When God’s people were dying in the wilderness as a result of their disobedience, God asked Moses to raise up a brazen serpent.  Anyone who simply looked up to see the serpent became whole or healed. Jesus came and was lifted up on the cross.  Anyone who looks to him will live (St. John 3:14-15).  Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” {St. John 14:27).

The following song written by William A. Ogden in 1887 is used as the conclusion for this discussion:

I’ve a message from the Lord, hallelujah!
This message unto you I’ll give,
‘Tis is recorded in His Word, hallelujah!
It is only that you “look and live.”

 

Refrain:
“Look and live,” my brother, live;
Look to Jesus now, and live;
‘Tis recorded in His Word, hallelujah!
It is only that you “look and live.”

 

I have a message full of love, hallelujah!
A message, O my friend, for you,
‘Tis a message from above, hallelujah!
Jesus said it, and I know ‘tis true.

 

Life is offered unto you, hallelujah!
Eternal life thy soul shall have,
If you’ll only look to him, hallelujah
Look to Jesus who alone can save.

 

I will tell you how I came, hallelujah!
To Jesus when he made me whole –
‘Twas believing on His name, hallelujah!
I trusted and he saved my soul

May the joy of the Lord be our strength. Amen!

 



Holiday Family Movies

There’s no better way to hide out from the cold than by cozying up to a holiday movie (Rotten Tomatoes).

Holiday time is a great time for reflection and appreciation, and the holiday movies listed below is a way to take it easy and reflect on the good old days for the grown ups and a new beginnings for the young. The movies pick ranges from Ebenezer Scrooge’s redemption in the adaptations of Christmas Carol  to the salvation of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. There is no better way to put yourself in the holiday spirit than with a classic holiday movie. Get the popcorn and drinks ready and relax to any or all of this classic holiday movies.

IMAGE  DESCRIPTION
Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: The classic Disney animated characters play the roles in this animated retelling of the Charles Dickens masterpiece. Ebenezer Scrooge. Nominated for an Oscar.
Starring: Wayne Allwine, Alan Young, Will Ryan
Directed By: Burny Mattinson
Rating: G
Genre: Animation, Kids & Family
Directed By: Burny Mattinson
In Theaters: Oct 23, 1983 wide
On Disc/Streaming: Nov 5, 2013
Runtime: 25 minutes
  How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1967)
Critics Consensus: How the Grinch Stole Christmas brings an impressive array of talent to bear on an adaptation that honors a classic holiday story — and has rightfully become a yuletide tradition of its own.
Synopsis: Chuck Jones’ animated version of the classic Dr. Seuss book How the Grinch Stole Christmas originally aired on television in 1966 and has since become a holiday family favorite. Voiced by Boris Karloff (who also narrates), the Grinch lives on top of a hill overlooking Whoville with his dog, Max. Each year at Christmas time, the Grinch’s hatred grows stronger toward those insufferably cheerful Whos down in Whoville. Content to exchange presents, eat large banquets, and sing songs in the town square, the Whos live in a blissful ignorance of the Grinch’s contempt. One year, he gets the idea to stop Christmas from coming by dressing up as Santa Claus. He cobbles together an outfit and makes his dog drag him around on a sleigh while sneaking into the Whos’ homes and stealing their presents, food, and decorations. After he has stolen every last thing, the Whos wake up on Christmas morning to sing in the town square, causing the Grinch to question the basis of his nefarious plan. Thurl Ravenscroft (the voice of kid cereal mascot Tony the Tiger) provides the vocals for the song “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” This story was remade into a live-action movie in 2000 by director Ron Howard starring Jim Carrey as the Grinch. ~ Andrea LeVasseur, Rovi
Starring: Boris Karloff, June Foray, Thurl Ravenscroft, Eugene Poddany
Directed By: Chuck Jones, Ben Washam
Rating: NR
Genre: Animation, Classics, Comedy, Kids & Family, Musical & Performing Arts, Television
Written By: Theodor S. Geisel
In Theaters: Jun 1, 1967 wide
On Disc/Streaming: Oct 31, 2000
Runtime: 26 minutes
Studio: Warner Home Video
  Holiday Inn (1942)
Critics Consensus: With the combined might of Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, and Irving Berlin working in its favor, Holiday Inn is a seasonal classic — not least because it introduced “White Christmas” to the world.
Synopsis: Music by Irving Berlin, songs by Bing Crosby and dancing by Fred Astaire all add up to a really delightful musical that also just happened to launch the hit ‘White Christmas’.
Starring: Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds, Virginia Dale
Directed By: Mark Sandrich
Rating: NR
Genre: Classics, Comedy, Musical & Performing Arts, Romance
Written By: Claude Binyon, Elmer Rice
In Theaters: Jan 1, 1942 wide
On Disc/Streaming: Nov 2, 1999
Runtime: 100 minutes
Studio: MCA Universal Home Video
  Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Sally Benson’s short stories about the turn-of-the-century Smith family of St. Louis were tackled by a battalion of MGM screenwriters, who hoped to find a throughline to connect the anecdotal tales. After several false starts (one of which proposed that the eldest Smith daughter be kidnapped and held for ransom), the result was the charming valentine-card musical Meet Me in St. Louis. The plot hinges on the possibility that Alonzo Smith (Leon Ames), the family’s banker father, might uproot the Smiths to New York, scuttling his daughter Esther (Judy Garland)’s romance with boy-next-door John Truett (Tom Drake) and causing similar emotional trauma for the rest of the household. In a cast that includes Mary Astor as Ames’ wife, Lucille Bremer as another Ames daughter, and Marjorie Main as the housekeeper, the most fascinating character is played by 6-year-old Margaret O’Brien. As kid sister Tootie, O’Brien seems morbidly obsessed with death and murder, burying her dolls, “killing” a neighbor at Halloween (she throws flour in the flustered man’s face on a dare), and maniacally bludgeoning her snowmen when Papa announces his plans to move to New York. Margaret O’Brien won a special Oscar for her remarkable performance, prompting Lionel Barrymore to grumble “Two hundred years ago, she would have been burned at the stake!” The songs are a heady combination of period tunes and newly minted numbers by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin, the best of which are The Boy Next Door, The Trolley Song, and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. As a bonus, Meet Me in St. Louis is lensed in rich Technicolor, shown to best advantage in the climactic scenes at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi
Starring: Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Lucille Bremer, Mary Astor
Directed By: Vincente Minnelli
Rating: G
Genre: Classics, Drama, Kids & Family, Musical & Performing Arts, Romance
Written By: Irving Brecher, Fred F. Finklehoffe
In Theaters: Nov 28, 1944 limited
On Disc/Streaming: Apr 6, 2004
Runtime: 113 minutes
Studio: MGM
The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
Critics Consensus: Deftly directed by Ernst Lubitsch from a smart, funny script by Samson Raphaelson, The Shop Around the Corner is a romantic comedy in the finest sense of the term.
Synopsis: The Shop Around the Corner is adapted from the Hungarian play by Nikolaus (Miklos) Laszlo. Budapest gift-shop clerk Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and newly hired shopgirl Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) hate each other almost at first sight. Kralik would prefer the company of the woman with whom he is corresponding by mail but has never met. Novak likewise carries a torch for her male pen pal, whom she also has never laid eyes on. It doesn’t take a PhD degree to figure out that Kralik and Novak have been writing letters to each other. The film’s many subplots are carried by Frank Morgan as the kindhearted shopkeeper and by Joseph Schildkraut as a backstabbing employee whose comeuppance is sure to result in spontaneous applause from the audience. Directed with comic delicacy by Ernst Lubitsch, this was later remade in 1949 as In the Good Old Summertime, and in 1998 as You’ve Got Mail. It was also musicalized as the 1963 Broadway production She Loves Me. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi
Starring: Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Frank Morgan, Joseph Schildkraut
Directed By: Ernst Lubitsch
Rating: NR
Genre: Classics, Comedy, Drama, Romance
Written By: Samson Raphaelson
In Theaters: Jan 1, 1940 limited
On Disc/Streaming: Oct 1, 2002
Runtime: 97 minutes
Studio: MGM
Toy Story That Time Forgot (2014)
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: During a post-Christmas play date, the gang find themselves in uncharted territory when the coolest set of action figures ever turn out to be dangerously delusional. It’s all up to Trixie, the triceratops, if the gang hopes to return to Bonnie’s room in this Toy Story That Time Forgot. (C) Disney
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Kristen Schaal, Kevin Mckidd
Directed By: Steve Purcell (II)
Rating: NR
Genre: Action & Adventure, Animation
Written By: Steve Purcell (II)
In Theaters: Dec 2, 2014 wide
On Disc/Streaming: Nov 3, 2015
Runtime: 22 minutes
Studio: Disney/Pixar
 A Christmas Carol (1938)
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: One of the better versions of the Dickens classic features Reginald Owen as Scrooge, real-life relatives Gene, Kathleen and June Lockhart as the Cratchit family, and Terence Kilburn as Tiny Tim.
Starring: Reginald Owen, Gene Lockhart, Kathleen Lockhart, Leo G Carroll
Directed By: Edwin L. Marin
Rating: G (nothing objectionable)
Genre: Classics, Drama, Kids & Family, Science Fiction & Fantasy
Written By: Hugo Butler
In Theaters: Dec 16, 1938 wide
On Disc/Streaming: Nov 8, 2005
Runtime: 99 minutes
Studio: MGM
Paddington (2015)
Critics Consensus: Paddington brings a beloved children’s character into the 21st century without sacrificing his essential charm, delivering a family-friendly adventure as irresistibly cuddly as its star.
Synopsis: From the beloved novels by Michael Bond and producer David Heyman (HARRY POTTER), PADDINGTON tells the story of the comic misadventures of a young Peruvian bear who travels to the city in search of a home. Finding himself lost and alone, he begins to realize that city life is not all he had imagined – until he meets the kindly Brown family who read the label around his neck that says “Please look after this bear. Thank you,” and offer him a temporary haven. It looks as though his luck has changed until this rarest of bears catches the eye of a museum taxidermist. (c) Weinstein
Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Ben Whishaw, Julie Walters
Directed By: Paul King (VII)
Rating: PG (for mild action and rude humor)
Genre: Comedy, Kids & Family
Written By: Hamish McColl, Paul King (VII)
In Theaters: Jan 16, 2015 wide
On Disc/Streaming: Apr 28, 2015
Box Office: $85,879,985
Runtime: 96 minutes
Studio: The Weinstein Company
 Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Critics Consensus: Irrefutable proof that gentle sentimentalism can be the chief ingredient in a wonderful film, Miracle on 34th Street delivers a warm holiday message without resorting to treacle.
Synopsis: Edmund Gwenn plays Kris Kringle, a bearded old gent who is the living image of Santa Claus. Serving as a last-minute replacement for the drunken Santa who was to have led Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, Kringle is offered a job as a Macy’s toy-department Santa. Supervisor Maureen O’Hara soon begins having second thoughts about hiring Kris: it’s bad enough that he is laboring under the delusion that he’s the genuine Saint Nick; but when he begins advising customers to shop elsewhere for toys that they can’t find at Macy’s, he’s gone too far! Amazingly, Mr. Macy (Harry Antrim) considers Kris’ shopping tips to be an excellent customer-service “gimmick,” and insists that the old fellow keep his job. A resident of a Long Island retirement home, Kris agrees to take a room with lawyer John Payne during the Christmas season. It happens that Payne is sweet on O’Hara, and Kris subliminally hopes he can bring the two together. Kris is also desirous of winning over the divorced O’Hara’s little daughter Natalie Wood, who in her few years on earth has lost a lot of the Christmas spirit. Complications ensue when Porter Hall, Macy’s nasty in-house psychologist, arranges to have Kris locked up in Bellevue as a lunatic. Payne represents Kris at his sanity hearing, rocking the New York judicial system to its foundations by endeavoring to prove in court that Kris is, indeed, the real Santa Claus! We won’t tell you how he does it: suffice to say that there’s a joyous ending for Payne and O’Hara, as well as a wonderful faith-affirming denouement for little Natalie Wood. 72-year-old Edmund Gwenn won an Oscar for his portrayal of the “jolly old elf” Kringle; the rest of the cast is populated by such never-fail pros as Gene Lockhart (as the beleaguered sanity-hearing judge), William Frawley (as a crafty political boss), and an unbilled Thelma Ritter and Jack Albertson. Based on the novel by Valentine Davies, Miracle on 34th Street was remade twice: once for TV in 1973, and a second time for a 1994 theatrical release, with Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi
Starring: Edmund Gwenn, John Payne, Maureen O’Hara, Natalie Wood
Directed By: George Seaton
Rating: NR
Genre: Classics, Drama, Kids & Family, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Special Interest, Romance
Written By: George Seaton
In Theaters: Jan 1, 1947 wide
On Disc/Streaming: Oct 16, 2001
Runtime: 96 minutes
Studio: 20th Century Fox
  Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Critics Consensus: Enchanting, sweepingly romantic, and featuring plenty of wonderful musical numbers, Beauty and the Beast is one of Disney’s most elegant animated offerings.
Synopsis: Walt Disney Animation Studios’ magical classic Beauty and the Beast returns to the big screen in Disney Digital 3D(TM), introducing a whole new generation to the Disney classic with stunning new 3D imagery. The film captures the fantastic journey of Belle (voice of Paige O’Hara), a bright and beautiful young woman who’s taken prisoner by a hideous beast (voice of Robby Benson) in his castle. Despite her precarious situation, Belle befriends the castle’s enchanted staff-a teapot, a candelabra and a mantel clock, among others-and ultimately learns to see beneath the Beast’s exterior to discover the heart and soul of a prince. — (C) Disney
Starring: Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Jerry Orbach, Angela Lansbury
Directed By: Gary Trousdale
Rating: G
Genre: Animation, Drama, Kids & Family, Musical & Performing Arts, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Romance
In Theaters: Nov 22, 1991 wide
On Disc/Streaming: Oct 8, 2002
Box Office: $47,611,331
Runtime: 85 minutes
Studio: Buena Vista
   It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Critics Consensus: The holiday classic to define all holiday classics, It’s a Wonderful Life is one of a handful of films worth an annual viewing.
Synopsis: This is director Frank Capra’s classic bittersweet comedy/drama about George Bailey (James Stewart), the eternally-in-debt guiding force of a bank in the typical American small town of Bedford Falls. As the film opens, it’s Christmas Eve, 1946, and George, who has long considered himself a failure, faces financial ruin and arrest and is seriously contemplating suicide. High above Bedford Falls, two celestial voices discuss Bailey’s dilemma and decide to send down eternally bumbling angel Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), who after 200 years has yet to earn his wings, to help George out. But first, Clarence is given a crash course on George’s life, and the multitude of selfless acts he has performed: rescuing his younger brother from drowning, losing the hearing in his left ear in the process; enduring a beating rather than allow a grieving druggist (H.B. Warner) to deliver poison by mistake to an ailing child; foregoing college and a long-planned trip to Europe to keep the Bailey Building and Loan from letting its Depression-era customers down; and, most important, preventing town despot Potter (Lionel Barrymore) from taking over Bedford Mills and reducing its inhabitants to penury. Along the way, George has married his childhood sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed), who has stuck by him through thick and thin. But even the love of Mary and his children are insufficient when George, faced with an $8000 shortage in his books, becomes a likely candidate for prison thanks to the vengeful Potter. Bitterly, George declares that he wishes that he had never been born, and Clarence, hoping to teach George a lesson, shows him how different life would have been had he in fact never been born. After a nightmarish odyssey through a George Bailey-less Bedford Falls (now a glorified slum called Potterville), wherein none of his friends or family recognize him, George is made to realize how many lives he has touched, and helped, through his existence; and, just as Clarence had planned, George awakens to the fact that, despite all its deprivations, he has truly had a wonderful life. Capra’s first production through his newly-formed Liberty Films, It’s a Wonderful Life lost money in its original run, when it was percieved as a fairly downbeat view of small-town life. Only after it lapsed into the public domain in 1973 and became a Christmastime TV perennial did it don the mantle of a holiday classic. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell
Directed By: Frank Capra
Rating: PG (for thematic elements, smoking and some violence)
Genre: Classics, Comedy, Drama, Kids & Family, Science Fiction & Fantasy
Written By: Frank Capra, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett
In Theaters: Dec 25, 1946 wide
On Disc/Streaming: Sep 19, 1995
Runtime: 135 minutes
Studio: Liberty Films
  Frozen (2013)
Critics Consensus: Beautifully animated, smartly written, and stocked with singalong songs, Frozen adds another worthy entry to the Disney canon.
Synopsis: Featuring the voices of Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel, “Frozen” is the coolest comedy-adventure ever to hit the big screen. When a prophecy traps a kingdom in eternal winter, Anna, a fearless optimist, teams up with extreme mountain man Kristoff and his sidekick reindeer Sven on an epic journey to find Anna’s sister Elsa, the Snow Queen, and put an end to her icy spell. Encountering mystical trolls, a funny snowman named Olaf, Everest-like extremes and magic at every turn, Anna and Kristoff battle the elements in a race to save the kingdom from destruction. (c) Disney
Starring: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad
Directed By: Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck
Rating: PG (for some action and mild rude humor)
Genre: Animation, Kids & Family
Written By: Jennifer Lee
In Theaters: Nov 27, 2013 wide
On Disc/Streaming: Mar 18, 2014
Box Office: $400,736,600
Runtime: 102 minutes
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures


Preparing for Christmas – The Matthew 6:6 Way

by Christy Fitzwater | For all the time I spend on my knees in front of paper sacks, doling out sweet treats and wish-list fulfillment, I spend a much longer, more precious time on my knees in front of the Father. Praying for this one and that one. Attending to the details of so many hearts and lives.

Only the mother may pass.

Behind the door of Jayme’s room (still hers in our hearts, even though she has a man and a mortgage now) lie growing mounds of Christmas treasures. Nondescript paper grocery sacks carry only a name on the outside but hand-picked stocking stuffers on the inside.

On the floor in the closet are a few folded, college-ruled papers that hold my nice list. (Not a naughty in the whole lot.) After my covert ops into town, I slip stealthily into the gift room and disperse the latest gifts.

Cross them off the list.

This is a work I do alone every December—poring over the names and the wish lists, stashing surprises and organizing delightful gifts we only splurge on once a year.

But that is only one of my two secret Christmas rooms.

The other is a place I slip into by myself as well, but in this room, the names are on note cards tucked into a plain paper mache box. So many names, and this Christmas I am poring over each one with secret prayer.

Sick people. Friends making decisions. Lost souls for whom I am fighting. Missionaries. Church family. Impossible requests that I’m just sure God is going to take care of quite nicely. Mental struggles. Emotional turmoil. Brothers in Christ overseas. Children. Parents. Grieving hearts. Empty pocketbooks. Hearts that need growing.

For all the time I spend on my knees in front of paper sacks, doling out sweet treats and wish-list fulfillment, I spend a much longer, more precious time on my knees in front of the Father. Praying for this one and that one. Attending to the details of so many hearts and lives.

Jesus says:

But you, when you pray, enter your closet, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly (Matt. 6:6).

Go into your room, mothers.

Go into your room during the Christmas season, and do the secret work of tending to names. This is a meaningful, lasting, world-altering gift you give.

This article originally appeared at christyfitzwater.com.

Christy Fitzwater is an author and pastor’s wife living in Kalispell, Montana. She is the author of Blameless: Living A Life Free from Guilt And Shame and My Father’s Hands: 52 Reasons to Trust God with Your Heart. Find her devotional writing at christyfitzwater.com.



The Fight Before Christmas

by Regis Nicoll | The fight over Christmas has been raging ever since the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod. Yet the story endures—not only because it speaks to our greatest need and deepest longing, but because it is true.

Black Friday, 6:15 AM. The checkout lane was already twenty persons deep, but worse—it hadn’t moved in five minutes. As I scanned the other seven lanes, they were no better. Resigned, I took my place in line clutching the electronic gadgetry I had snatched up in my bargain-hunting frenzy.

As everyone knows, deep mark-downs await the deal-hungry consumer on the day after Thanksgiving. But the experienced shopper knows the real deals go to the “doorbusters”—those gritty individuals who forgo shaving, makeup, and even breakfast to be the first in the door. Of course the scarcity mentality of a disheveled and hungry horde can lead to some pretty uncivil behavior…

The lady behind me, also bothered by the slow lane, settled into the queue sighing, “Well, at least this is orderly—not like the first store.”

“First store? It’s only 6:15. What time did you start today?”

“Four. I tell ya, them folks was crazy … pushin’, shovin’, and grabbin’ stuff left and right. They even started fightin’ after a guy broke in line … two of ‘em rollin’ in the aisle … crazy folks!”

“You’re kidding.”

“It was ugly! I got no complaints now. Believe me. Them folks was crazy!”

As I listened, I recalled a scene from Jingle All the Way (1996) with Myron Larabee (Sinbad) and Howard Langston (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in an aisle-rolling melee on Christmas Eve. In their determination to grab up the season’s most popular toy, the warring duo resort to lying, stealing, wrestling, and even bomb threats. Why? As Howard’s son explains, “Johnny’s gonna get one. So is everybody else I know. Whoever doesn’t is going to be a loser.”

The “L” word seems to bring out the fight in us. While Jingle is hyperbolized for the sake of humor, there is much truth in its caricatures.

Marketing Christmas
Let me first say that Christmas is my least favorite holiday: not for what it represents, but for what it has become: a heavily marketed secular event in which the pressure to wow family and friends with presents, decorations, and Christmas dinner is enough to unravel all but the most determined Martha Stewart wannabe.

Indeed, for many folks the holiday’s months-long juggernaut can lead to post-Yuletide trauma, as the good news of “For to us a child is born” is buried in the rubble of discarded gift wrappings, turkey scraps, and unmet expectations.

For businesses, Christmas sales account for up to 50 percent of annual profits. Consequently, the season is a “make-it-or-break-it” time and retailers must be ever creative to avoid being a year-end “loser.”

One of the most prevalent schemes is “Christmas creep”—the continued expansion of the holiday season. If you’re like me, you barely recall the time when stores waited until after Thanksgiving to put out their Christmas merchandise. Today, many stores begin their retail campaign the day after Halloween and some shortly after Labor Day.

Not surprisingly, the resultant holiday overlap can lead to some awkward product placement. For instance, in Rite Aid stores Halloween merchandise was displayed across the aisle from Christmas items in symbolic tension.

Another strategy is to design obsolescence into products. How many of us have electronic or computer devices gathering dust which, although just a few years old, lack connectivity or compatibility with newer products and software? This tactic is optimized by introducing the latest techno wiz bangs during the Christmas season. Even the film industry gets in on the act by releasing their big wave of blockbusters and Oscar hopefuls after Thanksgiving.

Over the last several years, though, a new marketing ploy has been gaining momentum.

“Grinching” Christmas
What would have seemed lifted out of a Dr. Seuss story just a decade ago is a real life drama today. After generations of growing consumerism, Christmas has become a perennial target of those who are intent on stripping away all religious references and symbols from the public square.

The stories are familiar: city injunctions against nativity scenes, school bans on Christmas carols, plays, and cards with religious messages, the renaming of Christmas break to Winter break, and so on.

In the retail world, the “C” word is avoided in the belief that a welcoming atmosphere and healthy bottom line depend on a religion-free marketplace.

The “grinching” of Christmas—robbing it of its Object and true meaning—is necessary to make ever more space for commerce.

But as the push to co-opt Christmas as a season of partying and corporate profits continues, Christians should reclaim a vision of it in keeping with the highest ideals of Christianity: peace, good will, charity, and love—ideals at diametric odds with the indulgent consumerism that characterizes the season today.

Consider the tradition of gift-giving. What began in the fourth century as the charitable giving of essentials to the needy has become the exchange of non-essentials among the not-so needy. Thus, the outward emphasis of the original tradition has taken a decided inward turn: from unilateral charity to reciprocal gift exchange.

What’s more, driven by media hype and escalating expectations, too many of us end up spending too much, with money we don’t have for things we don’t need. Not only is that a bad exercise of Christian stewardship, it fuels the materialistic push towards a Christ-less Christmas.

That is not to say that Christians shouldn’t exchange gifts. It only means that the Christian ideal should be balanced toward true charity and that gift exchange should be well within the means of the giver.

Reclaiming a Christian vision extends to other Christmas traditions as well. Take the Christmas tree, for instance.

Despite its pagan origin, the Christmas tree points heavenward, inviting us to turn our gaze to Christ who was nailed to a tree to become the Tree of Life. It also evokes the Vine, through whom life courses out to connecting “branches.” Its red and white decorations bid us to rejoice as those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” And its piquant scent and evergreen color stir our senses, directing our thoughts to the life that is ever new and ever-lasting.

The fight over Christmas has been raging ever since the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod. Yet the story endures—not only because it speaks to our greatest need and deepest longing, but because it is true.

Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

∼ Charles Wesley (Hark! The Herald Angels Sing)

Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. His new book is titled Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

 



Sharing The Joy Of The Lord: Our Strength

by Rev. Dr. Daniel Iselaiye, ECWA USA Chairman – Let the love of Jesus Christ move you to even love those people that our society has branded as “unlovable.”

Merry Christmas!

Our story is taken from 2 Samuel, chapter 9, where David shows kindness to Jonathan’s son, Mephibosheth.  This message is written to remind us to show mercy to someone this Christmas and throughout the New Year, 2017.  This is one of the powerful ways to be like Christ.  Remember also that all human beings have only one way to have joy, that is, by giving it to others.  No one can have real joy and keep it to oneself. If you have it, you will give it to others and you lose nothing by giving it to others.  If you intend to keep it, you will lose it or we can assume that you have not really got it from the beginning.  It is like the spring of water that wells out to give life to others.  Joy is a test of the Christian life, particularly as the joy of the Lord is deemed our strength.  Let’s examine what we can do to have joy.  David gives us an example to follow.

Show Kindness to others for Jesus’ sake:    David said, “Is there yet any that is left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake? “Needless to say that David and Jonathan were very good friends even when Saul (Mephibosheth’ s grandfather) was planning to kill David.  Saul and his son, Jonathan, both died in war.  Saul’s family was to be completely destroyed but Mephibosheth, the lame child survived to live in Lo-debar in fear.  David remembered his relationship with Jonathan as a friend.  Thus he decided to show kindness to his friend’s son, Mephibosheth.  If you are a friend of Christ, it is important that you keep that love burning in your heart by showing kindness or mercy to someone this Christmas and the New Year.  As we remember our relationship with Christ, someone is bound to benefit from that relationship.  Jesus emphasized the point when He said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7).  The joy of Christ comes to you as you show mercy to others.

King David asked, “Is there anyone left from the family of Saul to whom I can show some godly kindness? (2 Samuel 9:3).  One was discovered, Jonathan’s son, lame in both feet.  King David’s godly kindness was intentional.  He planned in his heart to do good – the kind of good that would make a difference forever in the life of another person.  He reached out to the one he wanted to help.  In some cases we expect people who need our help to come to us begging.  We expect them to show up at our doors.  This wasn’t so with Jesus who made himself a gift to people.  Christian love moves from the inside out like a centrifugal force.  It moves from the center to reach out to others.  This is the reason we should not expect people to always come to us even though having the real love will be attractive to people.  Thus David sent out someone to “fetch” the one he wanted to help get out of Lo-debar, a place which means “no pasture” or “no communication,” as the name suggests.   It is assumed then that Mephibosheth had been cut off from others as a result of poverty, suffering, and fear.  He was in a desert place.  Here was a man who was both lame and poor, his family wiped out and dispossessed.  So, he found himself in Lo-debar (a place of no pasture). 

King David had a plan that would forever change Mephibosheth’s life for the better.  Let us read this interesting story again from “The Bible in Contemporary Language” (Eugene H. Peterson):

The king asked, “Is there anyone left from the family of Saul to whom I can show some godly kindness?”
Ziba told the king, “Yes, there is Jonathan’s son, lame in both feet.”
“Where is he?”
“He is living at the home of Makir son of Ammiel in Lo Debar.”
King David didn’t lose a minute.  He sent and got him from the home of Mikir son of Ammiel in Lo Debar.
When   Mephibosheth son of Jonathan {who was the son of Saul), came before David, he bowed deeply, abasing himself, honoring David.
David spoke his name:  “Mephibosheth.”
“Yes sir?”
“Don’t be frightened,” said David.  “I’d like to do something special for you in memory of your father Jonathan.  To begin with, I’m returning to you all the properties of your grandfather Saul.  Furthermore, from now on you’ll take all your meals at my table.”
Shuffling and stammering, not looking him in the eye, Mephibosheth said, “Who am that you pay attention to a stray dog like me?”
David then called in Ziba, Saul’s right hand man, and told him, “Everything that belong to Saul and his family, I’ve handed over to your master’s grandson.  You and your sons and your servants will work his land and bring in the produce, provisions for your master’s grandson.  Mephibosheth himself, your master’s grandson, from now on will take all his meals at my table.”  Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants.
“All that my master the king has ordered his servant,” answered Ziba,” your servant will surely do.”
And Mephibosheth ate at David’s table, just like one of the royal family {2 Samuel 9:3-12).

Let the love of Jesus Christ move you to even love those people that our society has branded as “unlovable.”  The love of Christ in you makes the unlikely likely and the impossible possible.  Jesus’ love works miracles for you and for others.  It is hard to explain what happens when one shares the joy of Christ with others.  Sandra gave a precious gift to Beth during Christmas.  Thinking of how with the gift she would be able to keep the house warm and buy food and gifts for her children, she burst into tears and cried for joy.  Sandra moved towards her to hug her and within a minute the two began to cry.  It was a joyful cry.  It was as if Jesus was there putting his hands around them and crying with them.  Love has become the litmus test for our spirituality.  Jesus said, “Let me give you a new command:  Love one another.  In the same way I loved you, you love one another.  This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples – when they see the love you have for each other” (John 13:34-35).

Jesus Addresses Christians as Friends:  As friends of Jesus, we are expected to do what we do for Jesus’ sake.  Think about the relationship between love and joy.  Jesus said,

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.  Now remain in my love.  If you obey my command, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in His love.  I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.  My command is this:  Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one like this, that he lay down his life for his friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command.  I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business.  Instead, I have called you friends, for everything I have learned from my Father I have made known to you.  You did not choose me, but I chose you and I appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last. 

Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.  This is my command:  Love each other (John 15:9-17).

Are we ready to work with God to care for others instead of being so self-occupied as to neglect others who may need our help?  We can change the desert in one’s life into a place of pasture.  We maintain our joy as we bring joy to others.  Blessings come to us in the process and God is glorified.  May the joy of the Lord be our strength.

 



Coping with Grief & Loneliness Over the Holidays

Handling grief or loss over the holidays by Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (iStock photo)

"This is my comfort in my affliction, for Your word revives me" (Ps. 119:50, MEV).

Christmas isn't a joyful season for everybody. Grief—whether from loss, loneliness or both—crescendos around this time of year for many, and the deep, emotional pain can seem like almost too much to bear.

Isaiah 53:4 states, "Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows." Jesus carries as much of the burden as we let Him. But in addition to falling into our Savior's loving arms, here are five suggestions to ease your personal Christmas blues or empower you to help someone else dealing with grief and loneliness:

1. Be kind to yourself. Billy Graham likens the death of a loved one to major surgery. But that can also be true regarding the death of a relationship, say a divorce. Healing from any medical operation takes time, and so does finding a new way of life after losing someone close. Leave the decorations in the attic this year if you need to. Find another family member to host Christmas dinner. Most importantly, perhaps, allow yourself to cry—or even scream—out to God as you process. David did in Psalm 61:2. Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died (John 11:1-44). Your tears aren't a sign of faithlessness. They're a natural and necessary response to your loss. Let God heal you (Matthew 11:28).

2. Adjust your expectations. Anticipate Christmas will be different without your loved one and be proactive about your emotional health. Don't live in fear of your emotions, but take stock of your heart, especially before logging onto Facebook or other social media. Feelings of loneliness have a way of intensifying when you're bombarded by social media posts of your friends apparently having a grand time. Sign off for now if you need to.

If you find yourself in the comforter role this Christmas, keep your words washed in love and extend grace. Whether Uncle John has been gone for seven days, seven months or seven years, your aunt still misses him. Don't wonder (especially aloud) how she can still be sad after all these years. "How are you holding up?" is typically a safe question when talking with someone who has experienced loss. Check out the Sharing Hope in Crisis course from the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team if you're interested in in-depth training for these sensitive situations.

3. Reach out. Sometimes the best way to lift your spirit is by helping someone else. Isolation turns your focus inward. Instead, volunteer with a local church, serve dinner to the homeless or walk your elderly neighbor's dog. Do something to serve. Additionally, if you're aching to have Christmas dinner with others, ask to join a  family member, friend or someone in your church. Remember, it's never a bad idea to offer to bring a dish, supplies or help with cleanup. Alternatively, if you know someone dealing with grief or loneliness, do your part. Give the gift of your time (Galatians 6:2).

4. Say something. Memories linger in your loved ones' absence. Remember the funny stories. Share them. Laugh and cry with your family members and friends as you reminisce. Or don't. If there aren't good memories or it's just too soon, consider finding new traditions and ways to focus forward.  If you're on the outside looking in, don't feel compelled to change the subject if someone mourning brings up good memories about the deceased. Operate cautiously and with sensitivity but above all else be a good listener and don't mind the tears. Memories are precious gifts from God, and they are one of the few ways a loved one's legacy lives on.

5. Cling to the promises of God. Especially when you don't feel like it. Consider John 14:18, which says: "No, I will not abandon you or leave you as orphans in the storm—I will come to you." You might feel forgotten by people, but you aren't forgotten by our heavenly Father. God is here. He sees you grieving. He wants to comfort you. Remind others of that truth. If you aren't familiar with His promises, start by finding peace with God.

Some quotes from Billy Graham on grief:

  • "With Christ as your Savior and constant Companion, you, although alone, need never be lonely."
  • When we grieve over someone who has died in Christ, we are sorrowing not for them but for ourselves. Our grief isn't a sign of weak faith, but of great love."
  • "It is our Lazarus tomb dark and foreboding and drenched with bitter tears, but it is there that we meet our Lord who brings life from death and gladness from the very tomb of bereavement. Christ can give rest in the midst of sorrow."
  • "If there is something we need more than anything else during grief, it is a friend who stands with us, who doesn't leave us. Jesus is that friend."

For the original article, visit billygraham.org.

 

 

Let Christmas Be Complicated

We often overlook the tragic backdrop to Jesus' birth. (Photo: ECWA Archive)

I have always loved the color gray. All my favorite hoodies, sweatpants, and T-shirts are gray. One Christmas shopping trip, my fashion-savvy mother tried to get me to “please, pick some color besides gray—something bright!” As much as I try to branch out, there is something inexplicably comfortable and comforting about the color. I feel at home in it.

Much later, the world itself seemed to turn gray. After six months of struggling with depression and self-hatred in a country that wasn’t my own, I returned home to find my nicely packaged view of how the world works shattered. Gone was the God who did things “for a reason,” the God who, if he called you to a place, would give you a deep contentment, even if circumstances were difficult.

My relationship with God went through a fundamental shift then, and the way I see the world has never been the same. As I struggle off and on with depression, I live through seasons of lighter and darker shades of gray. Instead of rose-colored glasses, I see the world through a dimming and dulling filter.

But even as the world has turned gray, it has also become more complex. It is in some ways too simple to say that I’ve gone from seeing the world as “black and white” to seeing it as gray. Of course, as a Christian, I affirm that some things are black and white; there is both real evil and real good in the world. But beyond that, evil and good can become so entangled in this time-between-times that it can be difficult to see where one ends and the other begins. Seeing the world through the lens of Scripture demands we recognize this shades-of-gray complexity of our world.

The human minds craves simplicity. We tend to simplify otherwise complex situations so that solutions are clear to us. Whether it’s terrorist attacks in Paris or protests against racism on college campuses, we find comfort knowing what the response ought to be, not to mention why it happened in the first place. We simply need more air strikes and more surveillance. We need to stop accepting refugees. We need less war, not more. We need to stop coddling students with political correctness.

I see this simplification happen on a personal level too, with well-intended attempts to explain or answer our suffering. Think of the clichés: God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. Everything happens for a reason. It was just her time. Behind these sentiments, we find the good desire to affirm that God loves us and has our best interests at heart. But too often such simplifications—of individual suffering or suffering on a larger scale—belie our need to control the narrative. If we can oversimplify the situation, then we can understand it and protect ourselves. But in a world tainted by sin, circumstances are rarely that straightforward, as we learn from Scripture itself.

Many have recently invoked Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in their flight to Egypt as “Middle Eastern refugees,” in parallel to present-day refugees. And yet, their story—even in the pages of the New Testament—isn’t an isolated account of a happy-ending journey. What about the other babies and families of Matthew 2, those left behind to suffer the consequences of King Herod’s lust for power? What’s the reason for that? It is easy to see why this part of the story is often left out of our Advent retellings. In the midst of the joy and hope surrounding Jesus’ birth, we find the insertion of one of the most brutal acts depicted in the New Testament.

This detail doesn’t get included as a casual aside. Matthew tells us twice that Herod is fulfilling prophecy. First, Jesus’ family flees to Egypt, having been warned of the danger. This fulfills Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Second—and even more striking—is the “fulfillment” of the words of Jeremiah:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
Weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children;
And she refused to be comforted,
Because they were no more.

Imagine one of those Jewish mothers of Bethlehem. Her one-year-old son, having made it through those first few critical months of life, has been taken by her own king, his life snuffed out in the offhand chance that he might pose a threat. And she was powerless to stop it. She did not have the benefit of the warning that Joseph received. Perhaps she didn’t have the means to flee even if she had been warned. Now imagine had she been told that her suffering and loss fulfilled a prophecy, that it’s part and parcel of the sending of God’s Anointed One, part of God’s “plan.” It rings a bit hollow, doesn’t it?

The questions abound: What about Herod? Ultimately, his acts fulfill the prophecies. Or do they? Just because this is the way it happened, is this the way it had to happen? Could God have fulfilled the prophecies in another way? Let’s put it even more strongly: Did God want those babies to die? Is Matthew implying he did? Like any time we try to grapple with the hows and whys of God’s plan, these are tough questions. There aren’t easy answers. And perhaps that is precisely the point.

Too often we read Scripture expecting nice, neat packages. I suspect this is why some Christians struggle with the Old Testament, where it’s harder to grasp the “whys” behind the tough stories. But Scripture mirrors the complexity of the human situation it is meant to address. And Scripture often whispers, even when we would prefer that it shout.

This Advent and Christmas, I am challenging myself to pay attention to the silences of Scripture—the places where Scripture invites us to ask questions, to wrestle with the text, to wrestle with God, as Jacob did. In the shades of gray, I can listen for the Spirit to whisper in the details I might otherwise overlook.

John Calvin spoke of Scripture as “spectacles” that teach us to see God and the world rightly. As we allow Scripture to shape our vision, we may find that we no longer need the easy answers, the clichéd responses, the knee-jerk reactions. We may find ourselves able to sit and be silent.

Once upon a time, not far from Bethlehem, another prophecy was fulfilled: a strong empire executed a lowly criminal, with the religious leaders cheering them along the way. Many in that time thought they could see the distinctions between black and white. It took a resurrection to open their eyes. We too live in a time when “we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror.” Let us pray for eyes to see the world in all its complexity…until that time when “we shall see face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).

Mandy Rodgers-Gates is a Th.D. candidate at Duke Divinity School and a Wheaton College graduate. She wrote one of the winning posts in Her.meneutics' writing contest this summer.



10 Hallmark Christmas Movies Classics

10 great Christmas classics you have to watch this season. (image | fanpap, purple Merry Christmas)
 
It's Christmas time! Has Christmas season really started if the music isn't blasting and you're not planning your nightly Christmas movie marathon? – NO! No need to be embarrassed – it's everyone's guilty pleasure. Hallmark Christmas movies suck you in, and since the season of eggnog and mistletoe has officially begun, here's a list of the best Hallmark movies.
 
1. Matchmaker Santa
Matchmaker Santa
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
This is one of the best Christmas romance movies. Feeling caught between her boyfriend, and her boyfriend's best friend Dean, Melanie has a big choice to make – but not without the help of our favorite jolly friends!

2. Let It Snow
Let It Snow
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Stephanie finds both spirit in the Christmas season and romance; putting her in a hard place with some tough decisions. (Also – who doesn't love a good DJ Tanner throwback?)

3. Northpole
Northpole
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The North Pole is worried that maybe people are too stressed out to enjoy the spirit of Christmas. Finding the magic in Christmas might be the solution.

4. The Nine Lives of Christmas
The Nine Lives of Christmas
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Will Cat Ambrose change Zachary's outlook on Christmas time and finding true love?

5. Christmas Ornament
Christmas Ornament
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Grieving the loss of her late husband, Kathy decides to stop her Christmas traditions, only to find out Christmas spirit alone will bring in a special someone that changes her outlook.

6. Debbie Macomber's : Mr.Miracle
Debbie Macomber's : Mr.Miracle
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Angel Harry comes to Earth to help a woman named Addie. He's unwilling to listen to advice, and with good intentions he meddles with lives. Will he be able to help Addie open up?

7. Christmas Under Wraps
Christmas Under Wraps
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
When Lauren doesn't get the position she wanted, she ends up moving to Alaska. Unexpectedly, she falls in love only to learn that the town is hiding a pretty big secret.

8. Christmas with Holly
Christmas with Holly
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The owner of a toy store falls in love with a man caring for his niece, who refuses to talk after the death of her mother. This Christmas they will find the true meaning of family will.

9. November Christmas
November Christmas
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Eight-year-old Emily is struggling with Cancer and will not be able to do Christmas this year, so the wonderful community has an idea to make this Christmas extra special.

10. One Christmas Eve
One Christmas Eve
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Everything on Christmas CAN and WILL go wrong for one family – will they be able to combat it with Christmas Cheer?
 
If you're anything like me, you'll be done binge-watching these in a week! So in that case, tune into Hallmark for tons of new Christmas classics.
 
Movies review by Kylie Stewart. You may check out the original review at The Odyssey Online.  You can tweet Kylie online. Sea foam green, frequent coffee runs, and a whole lot of Jesus in my life.
 


Hallmark Christmas Movies: ‘Guilty Pleasure’ No More

It starts with a girl. She’s white, with immaculately curled hair. She is shy/clumsy/uptight, but deep down, she wants to open a bakery/be an artist/follow her dreams.

Then there’s the boy. He’s also white, with perfect teeth and hair like a businessman from the ‘80s. He works too much/doesn’t care about the holidays/needs help raising his kids because his wife recently died.

Maybe the roles are reversed; it doesn’t really matter. The lighthearted conflict between them goes on for 45 minutes to an hour, until they kiss at the end. Cue the music, fade to the credits, and then it starts all over again.

This is the Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas spectacular, a nonstop lineup of variations on the romantic holiday movie formula. In 2015 alone, Hallmark has released 17 new Christmas-specific movies, adding to their expansive back catalog of made-for-TV films. This year was my first time sitting down to watch their feel-good movie marathon, but the plotlines were familiar to me as an evangelical girl who grew up longing for a safe, happy, magical world where it felt like Christmas every day.

While mainstream culture scorns the romance as lowbrow and naively idealistic, it remains a hugely profitable enterprise thanks to its loyal readers and viewers. Last year, from Halloween to Christmas, Hallmark was the No. 1 channel for women age 25-54, and a single one of their holiday films, Christmas Under Wraps, attracted 5.8 million viewers. (That’s double the viewership of most Real Housewives shows.)

Once-niche “nerd” entertainment gained popular esteem as it proved itself lucrative (think Marvel movies, Star Trek reboots, and the like), but Hallmark Channel-style romance continues to elicit a degree of derision. No one is more acutely aware of the reputation of these sentimental and seasonal romances than the women who adore them. When I asked a few fans why they tuned in, the answers came in sheepish sentiments: I know they are predictable but… they are calming background noise… I just like happy endings… Christmas is a hard time of year, and they make me feel good… I’m probably too idealistic, but they are just so full of warmth….

These caveats offer some protection from judgment and let others know that they are aware of the criticisms of the genre. But perhaps loving the Hallmark Channel at Christmastime isn’t something to apologize for. More broadly, it may be time a shift in our language when we talk about loving something that we know isn’t perfect.

My friend (and Christ and Pop Culture founder) Richard Clark once told me he doesn’t believe in guilty pleasures. Watch what you want to watch, he said. If you truly feel guilty about watching something, maybe you should turn it off. As I read what fans told me about these pleasant movies, chock-full of bland actors and hopeful messages, I realized there is nothing to feel guilty about. They contain nothing morally wrong or hurtful or violent or exploitative. And yet, people (mostly women), still do.

Perhaps our desire for elite taste beyond the Hallmark Channel fare comes out of a sense of pop culture classism. While exploring the enormous popularity of Celine Dion, music writer Carl Wilson presented a theory from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wherein taste becomes a way “to set ourselves apart from those whose social ranking is beneath us, and to take aim at the social status we feel we deserve.” We see this play out culturally in our sneers directed at Celine, romantic movies, or even the incredibly popular Adele. Anything deemed so accessible by women—women from a wide variety of classes, in particular—automatically becomes an issue of bad taste for those who consider themselves more refined.

This gendered and class-based judgment should distress us as Christians, as people called to break down cultural distinctions and barriers, not create or uphold them (especially when we happen to be on the “winning” or “artistically savvy” side). No one, as far as I can tell, regards the romance genre as a bastion of artistic innovation or importance. But as another music critic, Joel Heng Hartse writes, “What is taste, after all, other than love?” So many people love these movies and find them as hopeful as they are improbable. Perhaps the enormous popularity of romantic holiday movies serves as a reminder of our desire see happy endings played out before us, at least every now and again.

To be honest, the few movies I watched as research for this essay felt only mildly pleasant. I chuckled a little bit. Immersed in a world of few problems and many beautiful people, I felt happy enough when they got together in the end. I will probably watch one or two a year (any more than that and it does start to feel a bit like a money-making cash enterprise, the movies subsisting to sell advertising spots). As the writer and Countdown to Christmas fan Addie Zierman told me:

There's also a little tiny part of me that finds it sort of nice—this idea that somehow during Christmastime people start to see things better. Truer. They let go of old hurts. They forgive their parents. The go home after being away too long. They make peace with their past. Things are made right in the end.

Those desires—to see and experience forgiveness, homecoming, peace, redemption—all stem from deep spiritual needs. And wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t judge people for seeking out those kinds of stories, if instead we strove to find the commonalities of desire that transcend gender, race, and class? Now that would be a Christmas miracle, indeed.

D. L. Mayfield’s writing has appeared in various publications such as CT, McSweeney's, and Image Journal, among others. Her favorite romantic comedy is “The Decoy Bride” starring the magnificent David Tennant. Her book of essays titled Assimilate Or Go Home: Notes From a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith will be out from HarperOne in August 2016. Find her at dlmayfield.com or on Twitter.

 



Five Errors to Drop from Your Christmas Sermon

If you want to help people see Christmas with fresh eyes, start by dropping these familiar fallacies.(Abraham Bloemaert / Wikimedia Commons.The adoration of the Magi)

Pastors, preachers, and Bible teachers: Have you thought about your Christmas sermon or lesson yet? If you want to help people celebrate Christmas this year (and every year) in keeping with established facts—not later legends, traditions, or popular imaginations—start by avoiding these common mistakes.

1. Don’t add details that aren’t in the text.

This might seem obvious but bears repeating because it happens so often. The massive annual proliferation of Christmas cards, nativity scenes, and TV specials perpetuates these added details and gives the impression that they are facts.

The infancy narratives in the Gospels lack many of the details that have been fabricated in subsequent centuries. For example, they don’t tell us about the nature of the stable (cave, open-air, wood, etc.); whether there even was a stable; whether or not there were animals nearby; or the number of wise men. These magoi (not kings and not necessarily three in number) almost certainly didn’t arrive on the night of the birth as most manger scenes depict. And a star wouldn’t have been suspended right above the roofline. With no mention of a stable, the manger could have been in the open air, in an animal pen near the house, in a small cave, or in the area of a house used for animals.

The texts don’t mention Mary and/or Joseph riding on a donkey. It is equally plausible—if not more so—that they walked the entire way from Nazareth to Bethlehem (70–80 miles; at least 3 days of steady walking). The idea of Mary riding a donkey stems from a second-century apocryphal work (Protoevangelium of James, chap. 17). Actually, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable for a pregnant teenager in antiquity with an active lifestyle to walk such a journey.

Despite what we see in some Christmas pageants, there is no mention of an innkeeper (whether mean and coldhearted or regretful for the lack of space available); Luke simply mentions that there was no room in the kataluma (Luke 2:7). The kataluma was not a formal professional inn with an innkeeper but could point to either a public covered shelter (as in the Greek translation of Ex. 4:24) or to the guest room in a personal home (as in Luke 22:11).

It is important for us to stick with established facts when preaching and teaching. There is, of course, nothing wrong with the use of historical imagination. But it is important to maintain a clear distinction between what we actually know happened and imaginative reconstructions of how events might have taken place. Christianity is rooted in historical fact. This is as true for Jesus’ birth as it is true for the crucifixion and resurrection.

2. Don’t supply spiritual explanations for cultural practices to make them sound biblical.

We love to find—or even invent—spiritual reasons for various cultural practices related to Christmas. For example, we give gifts to one other to remind ourselves of God’s great gift of Jesus to the world or of the gifts of the wise men to Jesus. That may sound nice, but is it biblical? Or do we really give gifts because that’s what our parents did and what everyone else we know does (except the Jehovah’s Witnesses, diehard secularists, and some religious purists)? What kind of parent would you be if you didn’t give your child a Christmas present (or, in many cases, a whole roomful of them)? Or, just imagine, if you didn’t celebrate Christmas at all (like the Puritans)? Very little is intrinsically spiritual or biblical about these kinds of expectations. They’re almost entirely cultural. That doesn’t make them necessarily wrong, but we shouldn’t invent biblical rationales to justify them.

Examples abound. What does the decoration of an evergreen tree have to do with Jesus’ coming to earth to rescue God’s creation? We may tell ourselves it’s a symbol of everlasting life because it’s evergreen but is that really the reason to set up a Christmas tree each year? Similarly, we may point to candles as a symbol of Jesus being the light of the world, holly as a symbol of the crown of thorns that was placed upon Jesus’ head, the color red as a symbol of Jesus’ blood shed on the cross, the yule log as a symbol of the cross, mistletoe as a symbol of reconciliation, and bells as a symbol for ringing out the good news. Even if some of these associations and symbols are ancient, they don’t explain why we should necessarily incorporate them in our Christmas celebrations today. If we’re honest, we have to admit that we celebrate Christmas the way we do primarily because of our own cultural traditions, even though there’s little real connection between these traditions and the biblical accounts of Jesus’ actual coming to this earth as a baby.

The danger of infusing spiritual rationales into cultural practices is also seen in some of the Christmas songs we sing at church during the month of December. The most flagrant violation might be “O Christmas Tree.” You have to search hard through the stanzas of this hymn to find anything related to Jesus. We should be uncomfortable singing this carol in a gathered group of Christians because it’s basically a song paying homage to a tree. Just because the song has been culturally or traditionally associated with Christmas doesn’t mean we should incorporate it into our Christian Christmas celebrations.

The main danger here is that we present cultural practices as if they carry biblical weight or authority. Obscuring the line between cultural practice and biblical teaching is not only unhelpful and confusing, but also potentially harmful to our faith. When we no longer distinguish what’s biblical from what’s cultural, we run the risk of accepting and propagating syncretistic, hodgepodge ideas that have no biblical basis. Our faith is no longer based in truth but, at least in part, on myths and legends.

There is no need, of course, to abandon all these cultural practices in our family celebrations. We should simply maintain and communicate a clear distinction between the aspects of our Christmas celebration that are inherited from the culture and those that are clearly grounded in Scripture.

3. Don’t be embarrassed by the Jewishness of passages related to Jesus’ coming.

The first chapter of Luke includes two lengthy hymns that have traditionally been called the Magnificat (Mary’s song in Luke 1:46–56) and the Benedictus (Zechariah’s song in Luke 1:67–79). The titles come from the first word of these hymns in Latin. These passages—or at least parts of them—are at times neglected because they are rather lengthy and express Jewish hopes in God’s salvation without a clear indication of what that salvation would look like. This deliverance, as we know it in retrospect, comes in the form of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the expansion of the gospel beyond Israel to the Gentiles, and Jesus’ return at the end of time.

The Magnificat celebrates how God, through Mary’s child, will restore and help Israel while opposing her enemies and oppressors. The Benedictus describes John the Baptist’s role in relation to Jesus, the main figure in the fulfillment of God’s plan to restore Israel. The hymn praises God’s actions of visiting and redeeming his people by raising up the Davidic Messiah to deliver his people, all in fulfillment of his promises to Abraham and to his people through the Old Testament prophets. This deliverance will enable God’s people to serve God without fear and in righteousness forever.

Perhaps these hymns are at times neglected in our Christmas sermons because they’re not “Christian” enough. This neglect, however, comes at a serious loss. Both hymns describe the salvation that will result from Jesus’ coming to earth. During his first coming, he decisively dealt with his people’s sin, thus fulfilling passages such as Micah 7:18–20. We’re still waiting for his second coming, when he will set things right in every way—politically, economically, socially, and spiritually—once and for all. We are still waiting for the full and final fulfillment of the declarations made in the Magnificat and Benedictus. Both hymns are also powerful examples of how to praise God by focusing both on his attributes—his power, holiness, and mercy—and his actions in fulfilling his ancient promises to his people in and through the birth of Jesus the Messiah.

The Christian faith is rooted inextricably and inexorably in the Jewish faith. This is why even Luke, a Gentile, presents Jesus’ coming in terms of Old Testament fulfillment (Luke 1:1). Like Matthew, who wrote his Gospel primarily to Jews, Luke presents Jesus’ coming in a thoroughly Jewish cast. If we fail to see our Christian faith rooted in God’s dealings with his people Israel long ago, it will likely remain shallow and leave us with a truncated gospel and canon, not to mention an inadequate understanding of who Jesus is and why he came.

4. Don’t be swayed by dubious challenges to the biblical witness to Jesus’ birth.

Both birth narratives in Scripture are replete with manifestations of supernatural events surrounding the Virgin Birth: angelic appearances, dreams, visions, prophecies made regarding Jesus, Elizabeth conceiving past the age of childbearing, Zechariah losing his speech, the circumstances surrounding the naming of both John and Jesus, the relationship between the two births, and so on. Matthew, for example, goes out of his way to make clear that Mary was Jesus’ mother, but that Joseph was not his real father. After a long string of references to men “fathering” a son, Matthew concludes his genealogy with reference to “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Matthew 1:16, italics added), indicating that Joseph was not Jesus’ real father. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb.

So let’s not be intimidated by critical objections to the Virgin Birth or other supernatural aspects of the Christmas story. When you read about authors such as Reza Aslan claiming that stories about Jesus’ birth and childhood are “conspicuously absent” from the earliest New Testament writings—such as Paul’s letters and Mark’s Gospel—and that the early Christians filled in the gaps to align Jesus’s life with various Old Testament prophecies, including those related to his birth, don’t be alarmed. According to Aslan, the early Christians concocted the myth of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem in order “to get Jesus’s parents to Bethlehem so he could be born in the same city as David.” Others, such as Andrew Lincoln, deny the historicity of the Virgin Birth on similar grounds. We can’t respond in detail here, though we’ve done so elsewhere. In short, these kinds of arguments reflect misguided attempts to drain the biblical birth narratives of their transcendent elements by using critical reasoning in order to reinterpret supernatural occurrences and to rewrite the narratives in purely naturalistic terms.

On the one hand, as already mentioned, let’s be careful ourselves not to add extraneous details—though driven by tradition, not critical reasoning. Let’s be adamant in defending the reliability of the biblical witness to the supernatural nature of Jesus’ birth, which was unlike any other in human history. The Bible is unequivocal, and careful historical research certainly allows for the fact that it took a miracle—in fact, a whole string of miracles—to save us. That is nothing to be embarrassed or intimidated about.

5. Don’t get bogged down in trivia and miss the true significance of Jesus’ birth.

Scholars continue to debate questions such as the year of Jesus’s birth, and whether or not Jesus was born on December 25. They debate the historicity of Quirinius’s census, the year of Herod the Great’s death, the phenomena surrounding Jesus’ birth—the star of Bethlehem—and a host of related chronological and other issues. They also debate the possible pagan origins of Christmas, such as whether it provided a functional substitute for the Roman Saturnalia, and, as mentioned, the emergence of various other traditions associated with our celebration of Christmas. All of these are interesting questions worth exploring, but don’t dwell unduly on such peripheral issues. Instead, focus on the central message of Jesus’ first coming, on the biblical story of the Incarnation.

Who was Jesus, and why did he come? John’s Gospel roots Jesus’ origins in eternity past, as the Word who was in the beginning with God and was himself the agent of creation. According to John, in Jesus, God visited the world he had made, but his own did not receive him (1:11). How tragic! How inexcusable! That Word, John tells us, became flesh in Jesus, or, as John puts it, “pitched his tent” among us (1:14). In his three and a half years of ministry, Jesus trained the twelve disciples and others to carry on his mission, to take the gospel of salvation to the ends of the earth. Then, he died for us on the cross to pay for our sins and to reconcile us to God. Our broken relationship with God was mended. Those who trust in him enjoy deep spiritual fulfillment and continual connection with him already in the here and now and will do so for all eternity.

That’s worth celebrating, at Christmas and throughout the year, in joyful song and in a life dedicated to the glory of God in the highest of which the angels sang that starry night over two millennia ago.

Andreas Köstenberger is Senior Research Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Alex Stewart is Academic Dean and Assistant Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Tyndale Theological Seminary in Badhoevedorp, The Netherlands. They co-authored The First Days of Jesus: The Story of the Incarnation (Crossway, 2015).