The most overlooked part of the Christmas story

“Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be to 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 unto you: you will find the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

In telling and retelling the story of the shepherds and the angels in the fields outside Bethlehem, it’s easy to lose sight of the most important.

We picture those humble, working-class shepherds…given the most boring assignment in the world, to spend the night watching sheep who are not going to be doing anything or going anywhere anyway…. when suddenly the Angel of the Lord materializes, hanging in the sky out in front of them, and tells them–what else?–to “Fear not!” We join the shepherds in awe of the skyful of angels singing the excelsis deo, and then we run with them into Bethlehem as they flit from stable to stable in search of the one containing a young family with a newborn baby.  They worship, then depart to spread the news.

Does anyone ever stop to reflect seriously on what the angel said to the shepherds in that opening statement?

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The pastor’s Christmas Eve message?

A pastor’s Christmas Eve message will have a flavor all its own. Because of the relaxed nature of the evening, the sermon is often directed toward the child in all of us. Hence, the following….

My friend Annette loves to pass along to me her assignments.  Her Mississippi church frequently invites her to give a talk on this or that, and she messages for my take on that subject. She uses nothing I do verbatim, but I suspect some of my responses provokes creative ideas in her.

Some of the most interesting pieces on our website were instigated by Annette.

The other day her message said, “I have to explain the Christmas story to children ages 4-11 in my church. Help!”

I began by assuring her that I am not the best one to ask about this.  I’m fast approaching birthday number 75 and my youngest grandchild becomes a teenager in February.  Furthermore, women explain things to children better than men do.  But always eager to assist, I jotted down a few thoughts for her.  And that’s when something occurred to me.

All the people sitting before the pastor on Christmas Eve will be children.

Some will be old children, with white heads (or bald ones), while others will be younger parents and adult singles. And there will be “children children” by which we mean toddlers, preschoolers, the whole bunch.  But the thing to keep in mind is that everyone sitting before the pastor is either a child now or has been at one time.

Childhood is one thing we all have in common.

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Now, take Christmas. That’s certainly not how I would have done it.

(With tongue firmly planted in cheek, let us rethink this greatest of all stories.)

What was the Lord thinking, doing Christmas the way He did?

A Baby is born to an unwed couple after a long, arduous journey.  The cradle is a feeding trough in a stable in Bethlehem.  Welcoming committees of shepherds and foreigners show up. A murderous king sends his soldiers to slaughter babies. The young family flees to Egypt.

And thus Jesus arrives on the scene.

Admit it.  You would not have done Christmas that way.  It’s not just me.

As the God of the universe, the infinite and omnipotent Heavenly Father, you could do anything you please, right?  In the beginning, You created the Heavens and the earth, right?  The opening statement of Scripture certainly establishes who is in charge.  So everything is on the table.  Nothing off limits.

“Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.” It says that right there in Psalm 115:3.

Now, all I’m saying is that had I been God and in charge, with no one to tell me ‘no’ or no administrative authority to question my actions, I think I might have done things differently.

Now. take that stable.

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Christmas wondering

“In the same region, shepherds were staying out in the fields and keeping watch at night over their flock.  Suddenly, an angel of the Lord stood before them….” (Luke 2:8ff.)

I wonder a lot about that first Christmas.

I wonder about the shepherds Luke told us about, the men tending their sheep throughout the night in the field outside Bethlehem.

What a magical moment this must have been for them.  I wonder what that was like.

As a farm boy, I can imagine myself outside in that field with them. I’ve kept the calves and cattle, the pigs and the mules and horses. I could keep sheep. It’s basically unskilled labor, we’re told. My pastor said last Sunday that shepherds in Judea ranked on the social scale one notch above lepers.  I could be a shepherd.  What would that have been like that night?

–I wonder what they were talking about in the few minutes prior to the angels’ visit.  Did they have a fire going?  Were they talking or dozing or joshing with one another?  Were they friends or even brothers?

–And when the Angel of the Lord arrived and filled the sky with Heaven’s glory, I wonder if anyone else could have seen what they saw and heard what they heard that night.  Would someone in an adjoining field have been dazzled by that same display? Or would they would have seen nothing?

My guess is they would not have seen a thing, that the angelic host that evening was sent to the shepherds’ and none other.  In Matthew 2, no one else seems to have been transfixed by the star that went before the Magi.

So maybe this was just for them.

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Marginalizing Jesus

“And she gave birth to her first-born son, and…. laid Him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).

One reason God’s people have made so much of this verse, even to the point of inventing harsh innkeepers who slam doors in the faces of the young couple from Nazareth until they find a friendly face who apologetically gives them room in his stable, is that it so perfectly summarizes what the world has done to Jesus ever since: shunted Him off to the side and tried to ignore Him.

Scripture says, “He came unto His own and His own received Him not” (John 1:11).

Of course, in the birth narrative Scripture mentions no innkeepers, harsh or otherwise, and doesn’t even reference a stable. Only a manger, a feed-trough.

I said to a church in rural Alabama, “Of course, those of us who grew up on the farm know that stables are where you find feed-troughs! There might be one manger outside in the ‘lot,’ what some would call a corral, but the little family will not be seeking shelter in an open cattle pen. So, our vision of Jesus as being born inside a stable is probably exactly right.”

Ever since that time, the world has tried to continue that practice, crowding out the Lord Jesus and giving Him tiny places in our world and our hearts.

We honor Him with words–think of the thousands upon thousands of books written about Him–and even give Him His special day!  Then, we want to ignore Him the rest of the year.

School boards and city councils tell those they invite to pray, “Just don’t get sectarian.”  That translates to one thing and one thing only: “Do not mention Jesus in your prayer.”

That’s why it will be a cold day in Washington, D. C., before Franklin Graham and Rick Warren get invited to pray at another presidential inauguration.  They made the fatal errors in their inauguration prayers: They mentioned Jesus.

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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 with plans to be a Baptist pastor. Not exactly standard preparation.

Then, Pastor Everett Wilson of Rock Creek Baptist Church outside Double Springs, Alabama, called. Could I preach for him on the Sunday prior to Christmas?  Wow.  Could I!

Here’s what happened.

After Margaret Henderson and I spent Saturday night at my folks’ farmhouse, that 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, our home church, 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.

Now, I was eager to do anything that even remotely seemed like ministry, and here was an opportunity.  I seized it.

Not a good idea. Here’s why…

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Surprise after surprise…

On Christmas Day, 1939, Britain’s King George VI, the father of Elizabeth II, decided to do something he detested and speak publicly on the radio. He had a speech defect known as a stammer, but determined he would revive a custom his late father had started and bring an annual message to the British people. This being the first Christmas of the war with Germany, he rightly thought they could use the encouragement.

While the king and his staff were working on his broadcast message, someone sent a clipping from the Times of London to Buckingham Palace. The little article contained a prayer of sorts that had been found on a postcard in the desk of a deceased Bristol doctor. That man’s daughter had used it on greeting cards, one of which was received by a Mrs. J. C. M. Allen of Clifton, who had kept it. Realizing the words were appropriate for her country at the outbreak of the war, she passed the postcard on to the newspaper.

Just after 3 pm on Christmas Day, King George began with these words to his people: “A new year is at hand. We cannot tell what it will bring. If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings us continued struggle we shall remain undaunted. In the meantime I feel that we may all find a message of encouragement in the lines which, in my closing words, I would like to say to you.”

Then, he delivered the lines which had come their circuitous route, from the doctor’s office to his daughter, to Mrs. Allen who sent it to the Times, and thence to the palace. Now, those words were being given to the world.

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10 things about the Christmas story you may have missed

They were not “kings” from the east and there wasn’t three of them (as far as anyone knows). And when they arrived in Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary and Baby Jesus were not still in the stable, but in a house, contrary to half the Christmas cards that will be arriving at your house.

Furthermore, there’s no indication cattle were in that stable or anywhere nearby. In fact, the only thing that leads us to believe Jesus was born in a stable is that Luke 2:7 tells us Mary laid the Baby in a manger, a feeding trough.

But you knew all this.

And you knew that all of this was predicted through the centuries by God’s prophets. We particularly treasure the promises of Isaiah 7:17 (“Behold a virgin shall conceive….”) and 9:6-7 (“For unto us a child is born….”), as well as Micah 5:2 (“Bethlehem…out of you shall come forth One to be Ruler over Israel…”).

And I expect you knew that, contrary to the Christmas hymn “The First Noel,” the shepherds in Bethlehem’s fields did not “looked up and saw a star shining in the East beyond them far.” (Modern hymnals have revised that line to read “For all to see there was a star….”)

But, allow me to point out some aspects of this wonderful story it’s possible you might have missed. There is no particular order intended.

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The Brown Bag Christmas

When I asked our newlywed Sunday School class to share a favorite Christmas story from their family, Carrie Fuller said, “We have one we call the ‘brown bag Christmas.’” When she finished, I had to hear more. The next day, I called her mother for details. And that week, I phoned her grandmother in Texas.

This is a true Christmas story.

It was the early 1930s during the Dust Bowl days of Kansas, in the heart of the Depression–ground zero for misery.

The Canaday family—Mom, Dad, 7 children—were having a tough time existing. There would be no luxuries at Christmas that year. Mom told the children to go outside and find a Christmas tree and decorate it. After a lengthy search, they returned with a dead branch, which they stood up in a bucket of sand and decorated with pieces of colored paper tied with string. Little Judy, almost four, did not know how a Christmas tree was supposed to look, but somehow she knew it was not like that!

As Christmas approached, the Canaday children, like little ones everywhere, pestered Mom and Dad about what presents they might get under their “tree.” Dad pointed out that the pantry was bare, that they did not have enough to live on, and there certainly would be no money for gifts. But Mom, a woman of faith, said, “Children, say your prayers. Ask God to send us what He wants us to have.” Dad said, “Now, Mother, don’t be getting the children’s hopes up. You’re just setting them up for a disappointment.” Mom said, “Pray, children. Tell Jesus.” And pray they did.

On Christmas Eve, the children watched out the window for visitors, but no one came. “Blow out the lamp and go to bed”, Dad said. “Nobody is going to come. No one even knows we’re out here.”

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The Christmas some fellows got together and did a guy-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 for everyone who cares about them.

Women laugh about the typical male-epitaph which reads, “What’s the worst that can happen?” 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.

Why would a small group of men, albeit wealthy ones, put their lives on hold and travel at considerable expense across uncharted territory for a great distance when they were uncertain where they were headed, how far it was, or what they would see when they got there?  As I say, it was a man-thing.

It simply was not logical.  It didn’t make sense in a hundred ways.

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