Helping a child through the first faith crisis

And when your children shall say, ‘What does this rite mean to you?’ you shall say….  (Exodus 12:26)

Parents, you’d better be prepared. That day will come.

More than likely, the way children will ask this question will not be with upraised hand and respectful tone.  They will sound more like: “Why do we have to do this?  It’s so boring! I don’t get anything out of it!”  The word griping comes to mind.

Anyone heard that from your little ones?

But count on it.  They will ask that question, however they phrase it.  You’d better be ready with an answer, parents.

Six-year-old Matthew believed his mother totally, and that’s what caused the problem. He had heard and loved all her stories of Santa and elves and the North Pole . Now, he’s a bright child and he listens to the other kids. That’s how he heard that not only Santa and the elves, but also the Easter bunny and Rudolph and the entire galaxy of holiday characters were all figments of someone’s imagination. Fictions. Fantasies.

Remember, he’s six years old.  He was devastated.

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A favorite story for about fathers. Dads too.

It was mid-way through December and I was telling a minister friend how I had preached on Joseph, the father of Jesus, the Sunday before. The message was all about obedience and carrying out the will of the Lord, even when it didn’t jive with what you’d always been taught and believed.

Joseph gives us a powerful lesson,  and he deserves more than the short shrift he is usually given.

My friend said, “Let me tell you a little story I sometimes use when I’m preaching on Joseph.”

As you know, scholars believe Joseph died before Jesus began His earthly ministry because he is never mentioned again after the incident when Jesus was 12. (That would be Luke chapter 2.)

Anyway, I was thinking about what God said to Joseph when he died and arrived in Heaven.

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Things prophets and angels do not know

To my knowledge, there’s nothing quite like Second Peter 1:10-12 anywhere else in the New Testament.  From this text, we learn that prophets and angels often did their work without understanding the big picture.

Concerning this salvation, the prophets who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances in which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.

It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from Heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.

One of the bedrock principles of many Bible scholars holds that in order to understand a prophecy, a student should go back and try to learn what the prophet who announced it understood it to mean.  What was in the mind of the one speaking?

As though the speaker was the ultimate authority on his prophecy.

This principle–clearly mistaken, according to the Apostle Peter–has led to the undermining of some of the great doctrines of the Christian faith (at least by some; not all, of course).

In fact, the prophets said more than they knew, says the Apostle Peter. They were the instruments of “the Spirit of Christ within them.”

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The preacher who did not write “The Night Before Christmas”

Many versions of The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore were available. That poem is as ubiquitous in this season of the year as decorated trees and jingling bells. But there is something vastly wrong with it.

That poem–also known as A Visit From Saint Nicholas–is said to be a fraud.

The evidence says Clement Clarke Moore did not write it.

First, a little background.

The September 2001 issue of “Smithsonian” magazine carried a fascinating article about a forensic linguist named Don Foster. Titled “Don Foster Has a Way With Words,” the article introduced this Vassar professor who is known for his detective abilities regarding works of literature.

This same Professor Don Foster proved that Ted Kaczynski wrote the Unabomber Manifesto. He identified Joe Klein as the “anonymous” author of “Primary Colors” a few years back, and he uncovered and established the authenticity of a Shakespeare elegy.

He does this by studying the wording of the written pieces–that is, the word choices, phrasing, and numerous other aspects of a document–and comparing it with known samples of the writings of various people. He then announces which of the suspects is the actual author.

I had to know more. So, I drove to our local library and checked out his book, “Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous” (published by Henry Holt, 2000).

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How God fooled Satan at Christmas

“….the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age understood; for if they had understood it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” –I Corinthians 2:8

There is more going on in this universe–above us, underneath us, in the spirit world surrounding us–than we can imagine.

God is always at work. The hosts of Heaven are constantly serving Him in ways unknown to us.  But so is His arch-enemy at work, as well as his minions.  We see this throughout Scripture.

Satan is the enemy is all that is good.  Anything that would honor God, benefit humanity, and spread the gospel, Satan hates and works to sabotage.

But God is not stymied by Satan. The Heavenly Father loses no sleep worrying about him.  Satan’s doom is settled, his fate is sealed, his days are numbered.

“On earth is not his equal,” said Martin Luther about the devil in His majestic anthem “A Mighty Fortress.”  Granted, you and I are no match for Satan.  But in Christ we are more than conquerors.  This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith in Christ. (Romans 8:37 and I John 5:4)

God is constantly handing the devil defeat after defeat. We see it in life, we observe it in the world about us, and we see it demonstrated in Scripture.

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Christmas: No time to invent new twists on the old story

“Unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).

Just tell the story.

Get over the need to be flashy, cutting edge, different.  Just tell it.

Tell the story with faithfulness and respect.  Tell it accurately and fully, bringing in the accounts of Matthew and Luke, drawing from the prophecies of old.

Tell it with gusto and love. Tell the story of the birth of Jesus with all the excitement of someone hearing it for the first time.  Tell the story without detouring into theories and guesses and myths and controversies.

Your Christmas sermon is no time to conjecture on how planets aligned themselves into creating that wandering star which led the Magi to Bethlehem.  Keep in mind that it “went before them until it came and stood over where the child was” (Matthew 2:9).  Try doing that with planets.  Stay on the subject, pastor, and don’t waste your time.

Your Christmas sermon should not waste everyone’s valuable time on the pagan origin of Christmas or the history of Augustus’ census, unless you’ve found something worthwhile, pastor.  Mostly those are fillers.

Stay on the subject.

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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. I’ve heard 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.  Could someone in an adjoining field have been dazzled by that same display? Or would it have been dark over there and they would have seen nothing?

I am almost willing to bet they would not have seen a thing, that the angelic host that evening was sent to the shepherds and for no other eyes.  Over in Matthew chapter 2, we’re not told of anyone else noticing the wandering star. No one else seemed to have been transfixed by a star that seemed to have a specific direction in mind.

So maybe this was just for them.

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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 the Son of God arrives on the scene.

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

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’ and no supervisory authority to question my actions, I think I might have done things differently.

Take that stable.

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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 had selected one aspect of the Christmas story and read a text supporting it, then brought his sermon on that subject.  His points were properly related to the text and no doubt most people left the worship center satisfied 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) Surprises from 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.  Consider…

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