The report from Bethlehem: A shepherd signs in

“Now there were in the same country shepherds abiding in their fields by night….” (Luke 2)

(Herewith we present a report from the youngest shepherd of that fateful night in the field outside Bethlehem, with the occasional editor’s remark in italics.)

I was not supposed to work that night, it being a school night. My friend Elihu asked me to fill in for him.  Now, my father is not real thrilled with me hanging out with some of these characters who work night shifts with the sheep.  Shepherding is the ultimate unskilled labor and only those who can’t do anything else–or hesitate to show their faces in public in the day–need apply.

But Father knows I’m a good student and agreed that we could use the money.

Anyway, that’s how it happened that I had the most amazing experience of my young life.

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Something for everyone in the Christmas story

“Now, the birth of Jesus came about in this way….” (Matthew 1:18).

Do you like a true-life adventure story?  This one is the best. It’s found in only four chapters in the Bible: Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2.

You like genealogies?  Then check out the birth narratives about our Lord Jesus. See Matthew 1:1-14 and also Luke 3:21-38.

You like mysteries?  Try to figure out how those two lists of ancestors works out for the lineage of Jesus.  If you finally give up, then (and only then) go to a commentary written by a Bible-believing scholar. Your church library probably has several.

You are a history student?  Then check out Luke 2:1-3 where “the beloved physician” gives the historical setting for the birth of our Lord. Then, move up one chapter and see how Luke does the same thing for the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry some three decades later.

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The Christmas some guys got together and did a man-thing.

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King, wise men from the east arrived unexpectedly in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him'” (Matthew 2:1-2).

Only men would have done what the Magi did. Only a group of buddies, men friends all on the same page, all of them sharing the same drives and curiosities and interests, only such a band of brothers would have gone to such lengths simply to see a Baby.

It’s a man thing.

If that sounds condescending to the women in the audience, I apologize, but it’s the truth.  Women talk about this all the time, how men do crazy things, disregarding the risk, seemingly not caring about the trouble they are causing everyone around them.

Women laugh about the typical male-epitaph which reads, “Hey, what do we have to lose?” or “Hey, guys–watch this.”

First, why did they do it?

The greatest puzzle of the Magi story to me is not the star they followed (was it a comet or an unusual alignment of stars or something never seen before?), not their origin (were they from Persia? or somewhere else?), and not even the religious significance (did this really fulfill Numbers 24:17? were they astrologers? what does it mean?), but simply why they did what they did.

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My worst Christmas sermon

I was 21, a college senior, engaged, and had been called into the ministry.  But so far, no opportunities to preach had opened up.  After all, I was attending a Methodist college and planning to be a Baptist pastor. Not exactly standard preparation.

Then, Rock Creek Baptist Church outside Double Springs, Alabama, called. Well, actually, Pastor Everett Wilson called.  My brother Ron was his Sunday School superintendent and no doubt had put a bug in his ear.

After Margaret and I spent the night at my folks’ farmhouse, on Sunday morning we drove to Rock Creek, arriving in time for Sunday School. (Hey, no one had told me the preacher did not have to attend Sunday School!)

We sat in with the young people, which was our custom at West End Church in Birmingham and it seemed the thing to do. What I did not count on, however, was my presence intimidating the teacher. So, she took the easy way out.

She asked me to teach.

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The other reason I believe so strongly

“Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel….” (II Timothy 2:8)

Asking thoughtful believers why they are so dadburn confident of the truth of Jesus Christ will result in a hundred different answers.

My pastor says for him, it’s the Lord’s resurrection. It’s as historically verifiable as anything in ancient times and perhaps more. And if Jesus rose, then He’s still alive and how good is that!

In a recent blog here, I said that to me the scriptures “fit” and  just “feel right,” providing the number one assurance for this country boy. I recognize the arbitrary and subjective nature of that, but there it is.

Other reasons believers give range from the archaeological evidence to the miracles they’ve experienced or their grandma’s testimony.

But there’s something else that looms large in my mind, a fact that dominates almost everything else.

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All I want for Christmas

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son….”

A few years back, the minister of music and I decided to try something different on the last Sunday night before Christmas. We had done all the pageants and children’s musicals and there was nothing more that just “had” to be done. So, Ken and I came up with the idea of a “homespun Christmas,” where anyone who wished could come to the microphone and sing a Christmas carol.

After all, what could happen other than a few tone-deaf members grating on our ears? Hey, it was a Sunday night. What did we have to lose?

We ended up with an irregular collection of performances. A dad and his son sang a duet that hit the occasional correct note, but they were charming and everyone loved it.  A family sang harmony and blessed the crowd. There were solos and a little karaoke-type stuff. But one number in particular was unforgettable.

Someone in our congregation had put out the word that “just anyone” could come and sing. So they did.  No one knew those two teenage girls. I think they came from the other side of the metro area, maybe 25 miles away.  Their short dresses indicated they were not regulars in our church or possibly in anybody’s church.

They sang a rather seductive version of “All I want for Christmas is you” that would not have been out of place in a smoky barroom. (Anyone unfamiliar with the song will have no trouble finding it on youtube.)

Brother Ken sat there wondering what act could best follow this and what he should say about this song.

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Joy to the World!

“I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be to all the people….” (Luke 2)

God is a God of great joy.

There is great joy in God’s presence. (Psalm 16:11)

That joy has a name: Jesus Christ.

Wherever Jesus Christ is honored, joy is the dominant element in the atmosphere. (Acts 8:8 and 15:3)

When Jesus Christ enters a life, that person is filled with joy.

Joy is the flag flown from the castle of your heart to show the King is in residence.

Joy is something other than happiness, for that quality depends on happenings.  The joy of the Lord is of a higher quality and superior to all others.

The joy of the Lord is the strength of His people.  (Nehemiah 8:10)

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Christmas Epiphanies: How we know we’re hearing from God

“And Joseph arose from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took (Mary) as his wife, and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son, and he called His name Jesus” (Matthew 1:24-25).

“Papa,” the little girl said,”How do we know when it’s God speaking to us and when it’s just us talking to ourselves?”

Her grandfather, a longtime pastor friend of mine, said, “Honey, that’s one of the great questions we have to struggle with throughout our whole lives.”

I’m confident the family asked Joseph that question and a hundred more.

“What do you mean you’re going ahead with the marriage, Joseph? Can’t you see Mary is pregnant and not by you? Doesn’t it matter to you what people are saying and how this looks? You say you heard from God? What does that mean?”

They thought Joseph was being “used,” that his “hearing from God” was his own wish fulfillment, that he wanted to marry Mary so badly he was willing to put up with anything, that the voice he was hearing originated in his own libido.

Poor Joseph.  He did two of the toughest jobs anyone will ever do who is determined to follow the Lord…

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The ongoing, ever-living Christmas

I sat in the congregation listening to the Christmas sermon.  Something was missing and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

The minister selected one aspect of the Christmas story and read the text, then brought his sermon from it.  His points were properly related to the text and no doubt most people in the worship center felt satisfied that they had been spiritually fed.  It was only later that something occurred to me, what was the missing ingredient in that morning’s service.

The worship leader and musicians and the pastor all drew our attention back to that night in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago, and they did a fair job of opening the text, explaining its message, and praising the Lord. But they omitted one major element as far as I could tell.

They forgot to give us the “so what” of the Christmas message.

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The Unexpected Christmas

“That is one of the reasons I believe in Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed.” –C. S. Lewis in “Mere Christianity”

Nothing about the Christian faith is as we might have expected. Get into the business of a virgin birth, a sinless life, a vicarious death, and a resurrection, and have it happen to a Jew in First Century Roman-dominated Judea and all bets are off.

Consider just the unexpectedness of the Christmas event itself, the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ.

1) Matthew 1

–The lineage of Jesus contains an interesting lineup of characters, including several women of questionable character: Tamar who seduced her father-in-law, Rahab the prostitute of Jericho, Ruth who was the subject of gossip in Bethlehem, Bathsheba who was the “other woman” of David’s fall from grace, and of course, Mary herself, the target of malicious gossips throughout Nazareth.

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