For Those Who Need Hope (All Of Us)

the-hope-of-christmas

I love everything about Christmas. The decorations. The lights. The snow. The music. And yes, Christmas movies. My wife and I began a yearly tradition of watching White Christmas when we were first married fourteen years ago, and two years ago we watched it in Vermont for the first time, after I became a pastor here. “Vermont should be beautiful this time of year, all that snow…” But the last two years Christmas has been snowless just like in the movie, except without the surprise snow on Christmas Eve. Maybe this year will be our first white Christmas!

I have noticed over the years that there is one recurring theme in every Christmas movie, even if it has nothing to do with the Christmas story from the Bible:  HOPE. In White Christmas, it is the hope of snow and true love on Christmas. In It’s a Wonderful Life it is the hope of finding purpose and joy in life again. In How the Grinch Saved Christmas it is the hope of even the most depraved person finding their heart and caring for others again. We could go on and on. Hope–in every one.

I think this is because innately, people know that things are not the way they should be, and if a miracle is ever going to happen, a miracle that changes things, then why not on Christmas?

Pushing Back the Cultural Haze
There are so many messages in our culture about what the basic meaning of Christmas is: love, giving, a warm feeling, family, or friends. Christmas means lots of things to lots of different people, and all of these things are good things. But since Christmas began as a holiday to celebrate Christ’s birth, we need to push back the cultural haze to see clearly what the Bible says Christmas is all about. What is the most basic meaning of Christmas? The angels can tell us.

Mary was startled to learn from the angel Gabriel, “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” (Luke 1:31-32a)

Joseph had his moment of clarity from an angel of the Lord in a dream: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)

On the night that is now known as the hinge of history, the fog was really pushed back when an angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds in a field outside Bethlehem and assured them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)

Don’t Let Christmas Be Stolen From You
The Bible boldly proclaims that the greatest miracle that ever could happen already happened on Christmas. Jesus is the reason for Christmas. God was in the manger that night. God entered into our suffering world, physically. God himself appeared in the flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ. God is not “out there,” God is here. Jesus is Immanuel–which means, “God with us.” That is why we celebrate Christmas, because Jesus didn’t just give us hope in the past; Jesus’ salvation and presence today give us hope today.

This is good news. If Christmas is mostly about love, then Christmas will be stolen from me if I don’t feel like loving others, or if I am hurt by someone I love. If Christmas is mostly about giving, then Christmas will be stolen from me if I am ever in a tough situation and can’t give. If Christmas is mostly about a warm feeling, Christmas will be stolen from me if I wake up on the wrong side of the bed on Christmas morning. If Christmas is mostly about family and friends, Christmas will be stolen from me if I am ever far from my family and find myself with few friends. But if Christmas is not about what I can do or what my circumstances are any given year, but about God himself coming to me, then I can be joyful each and every Christmas. Jesus is for those who need hope–and that is all of us.

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Jesus Is the Hope of Christmas: Our 2016 Advent Sermon Series

I love everything about Christmas.  The decorations.  The lights.  The snow.  The music. And yes, Christmas movies.  My wife and I began a tradition of watching “White Christmas” when we were first married, and last year we watched it in Vermont for the first time.  “Vermont should be beautiful this time of year, all that snow…”  Nope, just like the movie, it was 70 degrees on Christmas Eve.

I have noticed over the years that there is one recurring theme in every Christmas movie, even if it has nothing to do with the real Christmas story:  HOPE.  In “White Christmas,” it is the hope of snow and true love on Christmas.  In “It’s a Wonderful Life” it is the hope of finding purpose and joy in life again.  In “How the Grinch Saved Christmas” it is the hope of even the most depraved person finding their heart and caring for others again.  We could go on and on.  Hope–in every one.

the-hope-of-christmasI think this is because innately, people know that things are not the way they should be, and if a miracle is ever going to happen, a miracle that changes things, then why not on Christmas?  But as Christians, we know that the greatest miracle that ever could happen already happened on Christmas.  He is the reason for Christmas.  God was in the manger that night.  God entered into our suffering world, physically.  God Himself appeared in the flesh, in the person of Jesus Christ.  God is not “out there,” God is here.  Jesus is Immanuel–God with us.  That is why we celebrate Christmas, because Jesus didn’t just give us hope in the past, Jesus’ salvation and presence today gives us hope today.

Our community and our world need hope, and Christmas gives some unique opportunities to share true, lasting hope–even gospel hope!  I will be preaching 3 sermons leading up to and including Christmas, to prepare our hearts as we seek to celebrate the Savior:

  • Jesus is the Hope of Christmas Because God Always Keeps His Promises
    (December 11, Matthew 1:1-17, the Genealogy of Jesus)
  • Jesus is the Hope of Christmas Because He Will Save His People From Their Sins
    (December 18, Matthew 1:18-25, the Birth of Christ from Joseph’s perspective)
  • Jesus is the Hope of Christmas Because He Offers Eternal Joy For All People
    (December 25, Matthew 2:1-12, The Visit of the Wise Men)

I can’t wait to celebrate Jesus with you–the true hope of Christmas!  And yes, I am hoping for a white Christmas.

A Prayer for My Children This Christmas Season

Father,

As I picked up my 2 year old son out of his crib this morning, hearing him chatter in 2 year old boy talk about the mini Christmas tree in his room, it struck me that Your Son not only came as a little baby but also grew up as a boy. The Word who became flesh learned how to form words with his mouth. How incredible. How humble. How like us and yet unlike us you are, Jesus.

As we approach Christmas Day, my prayer is that my children would not miss Jesus for Christmas.  I know this starts with me, Father.  Would you strip away idols of materialism and picture-perfect white Christmases from my heart and help me to shine the spotlight on Jesus brightly this Christmas?

Would you answer the prayer that all of the decorations and cookies and parties and even Christmas programs this Advent season would not cover up the manger, but rather point my children to it?

May Christmas cookies remind them that only in Jesus will they “taste and see that the LORD is good!” (Psalm 34:8) nativity

May even gifts this Christmas point them to the greatest treasure, Your own Son.

May our Christmas tree point to the tree that the Messiah would die on for their sins.

May we celebrate like people who have a reason to celebrate, because the good news of great joy that a Savior has come is the greatest reason to celebrate.  But as we enjoy our celebration, may we never forget the reason we’re celebrating.

I know that this would take a miracle to do in my children’s hearts just as it takes a miracle in my heart, but I confess with the angel Gabriel, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37)  I know that You long for my children to behold and to believe in Jesus more than I do Father, because You are zealous for Your own glory.  Make it so–as the star shone for the magi, shine in my children’s hearts so they can see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6) this Christmas!  As the angels pointed the shepherds to the glory that was in the manger that night, help my wife and I to point our children to the Glorious One who is reigning in Heaven today because He was lying in the manger that night.

We adore you, Jesus.  May this Christmas be about adoring You!

Celebrate Advent at Home This Year!

child lighting advent wreathMy family and I have loved celebrating Advent since we arrived at Immanuel Bible Church.  To enter into a tradition of looking forward to the joy of celebrating Christ’s birth at Christmas even while anticipating His Second Coming has helped us keep Christ central to Christmas.

As Christian parents, we all want to keep Christ at the center of our families’ Christmas celebrations both inside and outside of church.  Advent is one way to do that.  Maybe you have been wanting to start Family Devotions…what a wonderful way to get in the habit of regularly talking about God’s Word as a family!

Here are several ideas and free resources for you to use in your own families’ Advent celebration.  Joy to the world–and joy to your family this Christmas season!

  • There are Advent wreaths available at Christian book stores, but there are simple, free instructions and ideas on page 2 of this Focus on the Family booklet from 2012.  Don’t let not having an Advent Wreath stop you from celebrating Advent at home!  You can still have a very meaningful time looking to Christ as a family without the wreath or candles.  However, last year was the first year that we used an Advent wreath at home and lit the candles almost every night and I can’t imagine not doing it now–it only added to the anticipation of celebrating Christ’s Incarnation as the kids would talk about how soon before the other candles were lit.
  • I encourage you to pick it right up again if you miss a night–or several nights because of the busy holiday season.  The general consistency of looking to Jesus in a special way together as Christmas approaches is what will impact your family!
  • The Jesus Storybook Bible is what we used with our family last year.  As this blog points outbaby jesus…there are twenty-one stories in it from the Old Testament—each ending with a paragraph that ties in to the imminent birth of Jesus—and then three stories from the New Testament leading up to (and surrounding) the birth story of Jesus.”  Celebrating Advent at home was as simple–and meaningful–as lighting the wreath, reading the story for that night, and one of us praying.  There is a free PDF from the same blog that lays the readings out from December 1st to Christmas Eve!
  • This year we will use Focus on the Family’s free 2014 Advent guide, “Journey to the Manger.”  Journey to the Manger Advent 2014It includes a full color printable poster with a Bible character our kids will tape on the poster every night of Advent, and of course a Scripture reading, prayer idea, “opener” and discussion for the family.  There are even printables for each day such as puzzles, that our 6 year old will love doing, that will further cement what he is learning–while the younger kids will benefit from the bright poster that goes along with the Scripture readings.  It won’t stop us from using it, but do be aware that there is one issue with this Advent guide: the first cut out to put on the poster is a cartoon picture of “God the Father.”  For that first day, we will color light on a paper to put on the poster instead of using that cutout, and explain to our kids how God lives in “unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16).  This aside, I can’t wait to use this Advent guide in our home this year!
  • I was excited to hear about a brand new devotional, “Prepare Him Room: Celebrating the Birth of Jesus Advent Devotional.”  Prepare_Him_Room_3D_Thumb__67756.1404693711.451.416This is written by the author of “The Gospel Story Bible,” which is an excellent children’s Bible that I have read in it’s entirety with my 6 year old.  There is even a video that you can watch explaining why the author wrote this Advent guide!  We will surely be using this devotional guide for Advent as my kids (currently 2, 3 and 6) are a little older, but it may be perfect for your family this year.
  • Nancy Guthrie has written an Advent devotional book, “Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room,” that is designed for the entire family–from school age children to teenagers to parents. [HT: Mike Pohlman]
  • If you have teenagers in your home–or would read an Advent devotional yourself, I encourage you to consider John Piper’s new “The Dawning of Indestructible Joy,” free from Desiring God.

Don’t Cover Up the Manger

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My wife and I had the joy of teaching Children’s Church on Sunday, and I loved the opening illustration.  As the children came into the room they took turns writing what they do to get ready for Christmas on the whiteboard.  As could be expected 10 days before Christmas, most of it had to do with presents.

Then Melanie read a list of some of the things we often do to prepare for Christmas and a prop was placed into a manger on top of a doll for each activity.  There was a cookie sheet, a little Christmas tree, a camera to represent the family photo, stationery, and of course several presents.

The point was not that doing activities to celebrate Christmas is bad, but rather that we can get so busy getting ready to celebrate Jesus’ birthday that we forget about Jesus.  He can get covered up by all of the details or traditions and be completely missed.

Isn’t this what the chief priests and scribes did in Matthew chapter 2?  They were so concerned with their traditions that even though they knew a lot about Christ’s birth, they didn’t go to see Him or worship Him.

All of those things in the manger in that Children’s Church room should have been outside the manger.  They should have pointed to Jesus rather than take His place!

This Christmas, don’t cover up the manger, but point to it. Because pointing to the manger points us to the cross. “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:21)

Joseph: A Young Man Who Followed God

josephLast Christmas I wrote about Mary as an example of a teenager who loves God.  There are also things we can learn for our walk with God by thinking about God’s work in Joseph’s life as a young man.  While most agree that Mary was probably a teenager when Christ was born, some believe that Joseph was a much older man than her.  The Bible simply does not tell us, but this idea probably came from the fact that the Gospel accounts do not talk about Joseph once Jesus is mature (Harper’s Bible Dictionary, p. 506).  It is true that Joseph had almost certainly died by the time Christ died on the cross (John 19:26-27), but this does not necessarily mean that Joseph was much older than Mary when the angel announced to Joseph that the Messiah would radically disrupt his life and plans.

As a young man, Joseph wanted to follow God.  Matthew 1:19 describes Joseph as “being a just man.”  When the Bible describes somebody as “just” or “righteous,” it should perk up our ears.  There is certainly something we can learn from this person’s life.  The way that Joseph responded to God’s working in his life is something that we can all learn from.

As a young man, Joseph put others before himself.  The Gospel writer next gives an example of this following after God that characterized Joseph: Deuteronomy 22:13-21 would have allowed Joseph to submit Mary to a public trial and even stoning if she was found guilty of sex outside of marriage.  Instead, Joseph, being “unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” (Mt. 1:19)  His plan was to show Mary grace by quietly breaking off their betrothal.  In a culture that increasingly doesn’t expect a young man to think of others until he is in his thirties and married with children, Joseph’s example should remind us that teenagers and twenty-something Christians have a special call to be “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life…” (Phil. 2:15b-16a)

As a young man, Joseph’s daily walk with God empowered him to follow God in the “big things.”  Joseph did not suddenly start to follow the Lord the day that the angel appeared to him in a dream and told him, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Matt. 1:20)  When Joseph woke up and immediately “…did as the angel of the Lord commanded him,” (Matt. 1:24) no matter what the social consequences would be, it was because he had already been following God for years.  It was the same with when he moved his family to a foreign country overnight because of another command from God in order to protect Jesus as a baby from King Herod.  When life-changing circumstances arose, Joseph did not need to think long about how to follow the Lord.  He simply obeyed because his spiritual reflexes had been trained over years as a child and teenager (1 Tim. 4:7-8).

Joseph and Mary both are great examples, but they both were sinners in need of a Savior (Luke 1:47), the very Savior whose arrival into their lives put their faith to the test.  This Christmas, do not forget your constant need of Christ.  He is the One who has saved “His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21), and He is the One who is worthy of following, both every day, and in the big things.

Advent Ideas for Families

child lighting advent wreathLast year was the first time that I had ever celebrated Advent at a church, and I loved it.  To enter into a tradition of looking forward to the joy of celebrating Christ’s birth at Christmas even while anticipating His Second Coming helped me keep Christ central to Christmas.  This will be the first year that my family is celebrating Advent at home as well.

As Christian parents, we all want to keep Christ at the center of our families’ Christmas celebrations both inside and outside of church.  Advent is one way to do that.  Maybe you have been wanting to start Family Devotions…what a wonderful way to get in the habit of regularly talking about God’s Word as a family!

Here are several ideas and free resources for you to use in your own families’ Advent celebration.  Joy to the world–and joy to your family this Christmas season!

  • There are Advent wreaths available at Christian book stores, but there are simple instructions and ideas at the beginning of the Focus on the Family booklet below.  Don’t let having or not having an Advent Wreath stop you from celebrating Advent at home!  While I anticipate it adding to the fact that this is a special season, you can still do Advent readings together without an Advent Wreath at home.
  • I encourage you to pick it right up again if you miss a night–or several nights because of the busy holiday season.  The general consistency of looking to Jesus in a special way together as Christmas approaches is what will impact your family!
  • The Jesus Storybook Bible is what we will use with our family this year.  As this blog points out, baby jesus…there are twenty-one stories it in from the Old Testament—each ending with a paragraph that ties in to the imminent birth of Jesus—and then three stories from the New Testament leading up to (and surrounding) the birth story of Jesus.”  Celebrating Advent at home will be as simple–and meaningful–as lighting the wreath, reading the story for that night, and one of us praying.  There is a free PDF from the same blog that lays the readings out from December 1st to Christmas Eve!  Our church will be using the Jesus Storybook Bible curriculum for Children’s Church after Advent, so using it at home during Advent will be another way to further connect church and home.
  • Focus on the Family produced an excellent, free Advent booklet last year, “Knowing Him By Name,” that focuses on the names of Christ throughout the Bible.  It is written for school age children and parents to do together, with a short reading each day and an activity.
  • Nancy Guthrie has written an Advent devotional book, “Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room,” that is designed for the entire family–from school age children to teenagers to parents. [HT: Mike Pohlman]
  • If you have teenagers in your home–or would read an Advent devotional yourself, I encourage you to consider John Piper’s “Good News of Great Joy,” free from Desiring God.