Wednesday, December 21, 2022

What It's All About!


Dear Friends,

There was a time in my adult life when layers of Christmas traditions had obscured the meaning. As a young boy, I knew it was about the miraculous birth of Jesus, but it was also about the miraculous coming of Santa Claus. Christmas was a time of mystery and wonder until someone punctured my belief about Santa with the truth and all the mystery and wonder leaked out. As I grew into adulthood, my Christmas became a sloppy mixture of sentimentality and materialism. It was a time of year when things in the world became nice again. Nice decorations, nice songs, nice movies, nice dinners, nice gifts and the miracle of Jesus’ birth was overshadowed with the miracle of people actually being nice to one another. 

We long for the hope, peace, joy and love that we often find in our sentimentalization of Christmas. We express our love for each other by giving gifts and the more the merrier. And sadly for too many of us, that’s the true meaning of Christmas. But those of us who are believers know that Christmas is more than nice, warm thoughts and what we got at Walmart on Black Friday. 

Christmas is about a Creator entering into His Creation to redeem us and bring us true hope, peace, joy and love. Christmas is about the incarnation, literally meaning “God in the flesh.” And when we return to the spiritual riches of Christmas, the sentimentality and materialism of the season is now eclipsed with the majesty and mystery of the incarnation. Our childlike wonder has returned. Thank You God!

Advent is the season of expectation. The word Advent is from a Latin word meaning “coming” and we celebrate the first time Jesus came to earth in that Bethlehem manger as we look with full expectation to His second coming. ‘Tis the season to decorate, shop, cook, bake, give, receive and spend time with family and friends. That’s what we love about Christmas, but none of those wonderful holiday traditions has anything to do with Christ. That’s why we need Advent to remind us to take a timeout from the holiday busyness and spend time with Jesus.

I love the Christmas movies. I laugh at the immature and irreverent humor in "National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation" and cry at the same sappy places you do while watching "Miracle on 34th Street" and "It’s a Wonderful Life." But of course those classic Christmas movies are about an eccentric family, the “real” Santa Claus and guardian angels. Nothing about Jesus.

That’s why my favorite Christmas movie is a animated movie (cartoon) that was introduced to the world on December 9, 1965. Its overt religious theme was out of place on TV then, and no major studio or television network would even think about producing this today. The miracle is that, not only was it made, but that networks must still show this very politically-incorrect animated movie every Christmas because it’s so immensely popular! I’m talking about "Charlie Brown’s Christmas." Here’s an excerpt:

Charlie Brown: Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?

Linus Van Pelt: Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.  [moves toward the center of the stage]

Linus Van Pelt: Lights, please. [a spotlight shines on Linus]

Linus Van Pelt: "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, 'Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.' And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'"

[Linus picks up his blanket and walks back towards Charlie Brown]

Linus Van Pelt: That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Having a Christ-Centered Christmas?

Dear Friends,

In the fourth century, the church established a liturgical service (the “Christ Mass”) that would celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25th. And while the exact date of the birth of Jesus is unknown, the earliest known reference to His birth being on December 25th was in a commentary on the Book of Daniel that Hippolytus of Rome wrote in 204 A.D. Some time after that, a pagan festival honoring the sun god “Sol Invictus” began to be celebrated on that day and it was later claimed that the church then formally established December 25th in the fourth century as the birthday of Jesus to counteract the influence of paganism. But in 320 A.D., one theologian answered this criticism by noting, “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of Him who made it.”

If we were to objectively look at our own pre-Christmas activities, preparing for parties, setting out snowman inflatables on our front lawn, stringing colored lights, “Black Friday” and a frantic shopping for gifts, we might see that what we’re doing is far more “secular” than “Christian.” That’s why we might want to spend these remaining few days preparing for a Christ-Centered Christmas and here are seven things that may be helpful:

Read a Christmas Devotional Book. 
Read as a daily devotional or ignore the designated days in Advent and just read until the words reveal something that stops you and fills your thoughts with what’s personally meaningful for you. Spend some quiet time meditating on what the Holy Spirit just called to your attention and ask God to speak to your heart what He wants you to know.

Be Bold with Your Faith!
Say “Merry Christmas” to everyone. If you are genuinely worried about being politically incorrect and offending someone, recent surveys show that 96% of people in America celebrate a traditional Christmas! Even many Jews, Muslims and Atheists!

Read the Christmas Story in your Bible.
Isaiah 7:14; Luke 1:5-56; Matthew 1:18-24; Luke 2:1-20.

Surround Yourself and Family with Visual Images of the “Reason for the Season.”
The focus for Christians and non-Christians alike is a decorated tree. Rhianna and I have had trees with lights and brightly-colored painted glass round ornaments. Trees with only country-cute wood ornaments but our tree today, with the exception of a few religious ornaments, is nearly all crosses – it’s our “Jesus Tree” (see Rhianna’s photo above).

In the Interest of Full Disclosure: I confess that I do insist on hanging my plastic "Jack in the Box dude riding a reindeer" on the tree. Our yearly tradition is that I put it in the front and Rhianna later hides it in the back.

And no Christian home should be without a Nativity scene. That’s because the Holy Family with Jesus in the manger, always has been, and always will be, the most Christ-centered image of Christmas. We love to decorate our homes at this time of year, but if you invited a family, who didn’t know you well, into your house, would they know that you’re a Christian by the images depicted in your seasonal decorations? This may be an uncomfortable thought, but others can always tell who or what we worship by the things in our home that are important and meaningful to us!

Fill your Home with Christmas Music. 
And I don’t mean “LAST CHRISTMAS” by Wham! or Mariah Carey’s hit holiday song “ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU” (Spoiler Alert: She’s not singing to Jesus). There’s more and more secular “Christmas” music on our radios and being streamed, but to keep Christ in Christmas, we need to listen to and sing along with the traditional Christmas hymns we remember from our childhood. There are also many excellent contemporary Christmas albums with Christ-centered lyrics in genres from Gospel to Country.

Watch a Biblical Christmas Movie.
Enjoy the sentimental Hallmark Christmas movies or “It’s A Wonderful Life” but also watch “The Nativity Story.” Dove Foundation reviews said “The cinematography in this film is breathtaking and the acting is solid throughout.” The film was also acclaimed for its historical and biblical accuracy and shows the viewer what life in those times would have realistically been like. “The Nativity Story” is THE Christmas movie.

Go to Church. Attend a Christmas Eve service. 

Many of us have focused this Advent season on Christmas-centered activities – the tree, outside lights, shopping, decorations, gifts, cookies, greeting cards and we finally got the inflatable snowman working again on the front lawn. These are all well and fine, but now for these next twelve days, let’s transition from a Christmas-centered mind set to a Christ-centered Advent that will prepare us for the coming of the Lord and our celebration of Him on December 25th. When we do so, we set aside the stress-inducing crowdedness of our days and give Jesus the space to move fully into our lives.

When we make this holiday season Christ-centered, we are rewarded with His grace and with the love and warmth of His presence in our hearts. And then dear loved one, that’s when Christmas becomes Christmas...

Thursday, December 8, 2022


Dear Friends,

Please don’t get me wrong here. I love Santa Claus. I’ll never forget the year he brought me a genuine Red Ryder BB Gun and I still have my old Structo steel toy truck he left for me under the tree. I even have the Gilbert Erector Set that Santa gave me, but the Gilbert Chemistry Set disappeared shortly after the incident involving the stink bomb in my sister’s bedroom. 

As I grew into my teens, Santa apparently became very concerned over my personal hygiene habits because my stocking would be filled with deodorant, toothpaste and dental floss. Instead of finding an exciting new toy under the tree, I’d find a shirt and a package of underwear from Sears. In my middle-age years, Santa brought me books, knowing how much I like to read. But today, as I’ve transitioned into my senior years, Santa brings me industrial-sized packages of toilet paper and paper towels from Costco. No. I’m not kidding about that.

But the Santa I knew and loved as a boy never overshadowed the Baby in the manger. The focus of our celebration was not on the tree in our living room but on what took place in our church. The Nativity set my grandmother gave me when I was nine is on the bookshelf next to me as I write this. She gave it to me to keep the Christ child in my thoughts during the Christmas season – it still does. This was the 1950's and our family was typical of the believing, church-going families of those days. 

Times are different today. We’ve enhanced and expanded the Santa legend today until he has morphed into God. He sees you when you're sleeping. He knows if you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good. So be good for goodness sake. Santa Claus is omniscient – all knowing. He knows when you've been good or bad. Santa is omnipresent – he’s everywhere on Christmas eve. Santa fulfills the wishes of good little boys and girls because he is all powerful – he’s omnipotent. Santa brings miracles! All you have to do is to believe!

Those three underlined characteristics are the attributes of God and God alone. But when we’ve imprinted God’s characteristics onto Santa Claus and elevated Santa to be our Christmas deity, we can’t blame our children or grandchildren for praying to their Santagod for toys and other cool stuff. Take a moment and look up Exodus 20:3. Maybe we need to turn the Santagod back into his human namesake: Saint Nicholas. 

In the 4th century, Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra which was located in the territory of Lycia. In New Testament days, Lycia was a province of the Roman Empire and was visited by Paul on one of his evangelistic journeys. Acts 27:5-6

Saint Nicholas has been remembered as a man of great faith and his compassion for others. His parents died when he was young, leaving him with a large amount of money. Many bishops in those days used their position in the church to gain great wealth and property. Nicholas used his position as bishop to give away his personal wealth to those in need. He used his money to redeem those sentenced to death for their failure to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor and was known for giving gifts of food, clothes and shoes to children.

During the reformation, the Protestant reformers rejected nearly all the saints but kept Saint Nicholas, and in remembrance of this Saint at Christmas, children received gifts. Sinter Klass” is Dutch for Saint Nicholas, and Dutch settlers brought Sinter Klass to the English-speaking world where we spelled and pronounced it as “Santa Claus.”

At about the same time in Victorian England that Sinter Klass was introduced, a popular phrase “cast your bread upon the waters” was in vogue. This is Ecclesiastes 11:1 and because of the vagueness of the Hebrew it has been translated several different ways. In the context of the scripture the best translation may be “Do good wherever you go. After awhile, the good you do will come back to you.” (CEV) Casting our bread upon the water seems to be an exercise in futility resulting in a waste of good bread, but Solomon’s imagery tells us to give in faith not knowing what the actual results will be but knowing that you can expect a return in this life or the next. Proverbs 11:18; Galatians 6:9 

We joyfully and liberally give of our time, efforts, finances and our material things to others even when we don’t see results and even when our generosity does not seem to be doing any good. Matthew 5:44; Luke 14:13-14 That is not “Santa” giving. Thanks be to God, that’s Christ-like “Saint” giving.  

Santa Claus says: “Ho, Ho, Ho.”

Saint Nicholas said: “The giver of every good and perfect gift has called upon us to mimic God’s giving, by grace, through faith, and this is not of ourselves.