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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Blindsided by opposition: Welcome to the ministry, young pastor.

(In our experience, most of the Lord’s people are wonderful and most of His churches are filled with sincere and godly workers. But once in a while, pastors come upon sick churches led by difficult people who seem to delight in controlling their ministers. When they find themselves unable to do this, they attack. Pity the poor unsuspecting preacher and his family. What follows is written just for them.)

“But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to the courts, and scourge you in their synagogues….” (Matthew 10:17)

You and your wife–please adjust gender references herein as your situation demands–went into the ministry with heads high, hearts aglow, and eyes wide open, idealism firmly tucked under your arm, vision clear and focus solid.

As newly minted ambassadors for Christ, the two of you were ready to do battle with the world, eager to serve the saints, and glad to impart the joyful news of the gospel.

Ministry was going to be great and noble and even blessed.

That’s what you thought.

You expected the work to be hard, the hours long, and the needs great.

What you did not expect was to be blindsided by members of your own church leadership–to be slandered by people you counted on as friends when you took a courageous position, criticized for something you did well, even lied about.

You knew there would be vicious people “in the world,” outsiders who do not believe in God, who cannot discern spiritual things, and who refuse to subject themselves to moral absolutes.

You were ready for that.

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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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How Jesus learned to love parables

No one automatically comes into this world with their teaching techniques firmly in hand. We learn them from the people who teach us, we learn them by trial and error, we figure out for ourselves what works best.

Even though the Lord Jesus Christ was Who He was when He arrived–with all that the Incarnation means–we can safely assume that He learned somewhere along the way, growing up in Galilee, the value of a well-placed story.

But more than any other way, the Lord Jesus learned to love parables from Scripture. And by Scripture, we mean the Old Testament, since that was the only sacred text available at that time.

The parable has played a leading role all through the years of God’s dealings with His people.

The first memorable parable, to most of us, was given King David by the prophet Nathan. David had stolen another man’s wife, Bathsheba, and had arranged to have her husband Uriah killed in battle in order to hide his wickedness from his people.

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Sermon illustrations: Get ’em while they’re hot!!

First story: “We humans are a mess, aren’t we?”

A woman was sharing with her weight-loss group: “I had cooked a cake, my family’s favorite. Later, I saw they’d eaten only half of it. So I sat down and ate a slice. And another. Soon the entire cake was gone. Now I began worrying about what my husband would think. He liked the cake but he’d really be upset if he knew I’d eaten the entire half.”

We pause to ask our audience a question….

What do you think the woman did? And what did her husband say when he got home and found the cake gone?

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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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What Satan is up to and how we may defeat him

We are not ignorant of his devices. (II Corinthians 2:11)

We actually know a good bit about Satan. More than we think, I expect. His history, his driving force, and his game plan are spelled out all through Scripture. We are left with tons of unanswered questions, but we know enough to understand how he works and what to do about him.

His devices. We know his maneuvers, his designs, his schemings, his wiles, and how resourceful he is. (Those are all different ways the Greek for “devices” is translated in various versions.)

Look at it this way. Satan is no fool. He has been studying human nature from the early days of the human race. He knows human psychology to a degree that any university in the land can only imagine. If they gave doctorates to serpents, he would have degrees out the kazoo. He is one smart dude.

He knows you.

The question before us, today, though, class, is this: do you know him? Do you pay attention to how he works?

There are two extremes to avoid: going to seed on Satan and seeing him in every thing, everywhere, is one extreme; and completely ignoring him is the other. There’s a balance somewhere in the middle where God’s people should take our stand.

If you are trying to do right, to live for God, to resist the encroaching infiltration of the world, then you are in his crosshairs. He has targeted you.

You’d better learn how he works and how to resist him.

Please note that I am not recommending that any of us specialize on the devil.

I’ve known a few ministers and a larger number of laypeople who seemed to focus on this archenemy. Every sermon they preached, every conversation they held, they talked about the devil far more than the Lord Jesus. Not a good thing. The Bible tells us to resist him (James 4:7), not to specialize on him.

We do far better by concentrating on the Lord Jesus Christ and obeying Him. However, if we do that effectively, we will soon encounter the adversary. From that moment on, we’ll be learning lessons about Satan whether we like it or not.

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