Missing Angel

Our church secretary walked into the office holding a large wooden angel. She had been helping pre-school parents park for our Christmas program when a women drove by and stopped to pull the angel out of her trunk. “I drive by your church every day and I noticed your nativity scene didn’t have an angel. I had this in my garage and I don’t need it, so I thought I would bring it here.”

First, who keeps random angels in their garage? And second, who doesn’t need an angel? But we are grateful for the much needed addition to our little corner nativity scene. I personally think she will fit right into the place.

The angel at the original nativity scene also came as a surprise to everyone.

Luke 2:8-20 New International Version (NIV)

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

You betcha they were terrified. Wouldn’t you be? Having an otherworldly being suddenly descend from the skies and blinding you with all of its blazing luminescence would be a frightening thing indeed. I can’t figure out how they just didn’t run for the hills.

And then, she spoke:

 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Good news! Great joy! A savior is born! The long awaited Messiah has come! And he is the LORD. Her announcement introduced tremendous change, but it came with the assurance that this change would be good.

But did you catch the very first thing she said? “DO NOT BE AFRAID.”

As a matter of fact, angels offer the instruction “fear not” 58 times in the Old and New Testaments. It seems that every time they appeared, that was the first part of their message.

It was a message for then, and is a message for now. I believe there is a lot of fear and anxiety in our nation and in the world today. We fear many things: the effects of climate change on our planet, immigrants overrunning borders, guns, disease, gangs, our children’s futures, terrorism, vaccinations…one look around you and you will find something that has people terrified. And there are forces in the world that seem to exist only to perpetuate those fears.

Life involves a certain amount of fear because life involves a certain amount of change. And change is always a scary thing. A new job, a lost job, a pregnancy, a divorce, a biopsy, a diagnosis…change invokes fear. These things usually turn out to be alright in the end, but in the beginning, it is good to remember what the angels told us: do not be afraid.

The angels came to remind us that God is here. Whatever you are facing, whatever change is coming, whatever tragedy has befallen you, whatever disappointment you are experiencing, DO NOT BE AFRAID, for God is with you.

The shepherds learned that. They were the first to set aside their fears so that they could experience the incarnate God as he lay cooing in the manger. They heeded the command of the angel and thus experienced the presence of God in the flesh.

Where is God calling you to set aside your fears so that you can see his glory? Where are the angel’s words trying to take root in your heart so that you can move boldly into the change that God is preparing for you? How will you respond to his imminent presence?

In spite of all the anxiety and fear around us, let us worship this child as the Savior he was born to be. Let us resist those who would promote fear as a means of control, and realize that we are surrounded by a heavenly host that proclaims the power of God over all other powers on earth. Let us not resist change, but embrace it with the confidence of the children of God.

And most of all, let us be not afraid.

An angel holding an Angel.

I Know Him!

The tradition of Santa Claus is a rich and storied one. Many countries have their own version, but the American tradition began with an idea that came across the ocean with 17th-century Dutch immigrants. They were moving to New York and brought with them a story of a kind benefactor known as “Sinter Klaas.” Author Washington Irving wrote about the Dutch version of St. Nicholas in 1809, who was said to arrive on horseback every year on the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas to distribute presents in the villages.

The Dutch-American St. Nick was immortalized in Clement Clark Moore’s poem published in 1823 entitled, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” also known as “The Night Before Christmas.”

The St. Nicholas legend stems from a real third-century A.D. monk named Bishop Nicholas of Smyrna (Izmir). He was a wealthy man who delighted in throwing presents to poor children through the windows of their homes. He traveled the country giving away all of his wealth and helping the poor and the sick.

The Catholic Church honored St. Nicholas as the patron saint of children and seafarers. In England, the tradition of Father Christmas has been observed for centuries, and the French have their own Pere Noel.

What all of these variations of Santas have in common is a reputation for giving to the poor, showing compassion to the marginalized, focusing on the needs of the children, and assisting those who have very little. Sounds just like Jesus.

Santa, in essence, is a giver, with his roots in the sacred traditions.

Isaiah 58 (NIV)

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:

to loose the chains of injustice

    and untie the cords of the yoke,

to set the oppressed free

    and break every yoke?

7  Is it not to share your food with the hungry

    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—

when you see the naked, to clothe them,

    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

8  Then your light will break forth like the dawn,

    and your healing will quickly appear;

then your righteousness will go before you,

    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;

    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

And in turn, WE respond, here I am Lord. Send me. I have no proof, but I imagine that the original St. Nicholas said exactly that when God called him to a life of generosity. In doing so, he evolved into a secular icon that speaks of the sacredness of giving. We have to give Santa his due, as he points to the generosity of spirit and kindness to all.

Perhaps the best way to honor the tradition of St. Nicholas is to do what Isaiah is calling us to do: share our food with the hungry, provide the poor wanderer with shelter, clothe the naked, and especially to not turn away from our own family members.

How will you respond? Where is God calling you to give of yourself in a new and fresh way this Advent season?

Whatever it is, DO IT. God promises to be your rear guard, and your light will break forth in your generosity. And that light, like the light of Christ himself, dispels all the darkness of the world.

My uncle has been blessed with a pure white beard, a jolly temperament, and a particular call to exemplify the compassion and generosity of Santa. He has worked for years as a professional Santa, which comes with a lot of guidelines. For example, Santa can’t promise anything, but must respond with “I’ll put it on my list” when a child asks for something. Uncle Chuck tells of some sad moments in his career, such as the time when a little girl sat on his lap and asked only for a new pair of shoes. His greatest joy in this role is that it has allowed him to be “the spirit of love and compassion.”

Isn’t that what all of us should be doing this season?

Embodying the love of God and the compassion of the babe in the manger is a job of Santa-like proportions. Where is God calling you to embody that spirit today?

See the Santa? Be the Santa.

Photo courtesy of Georgianna DeCarmine and The State College Magazine

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Please Unwrap Before Christmas

On November 1st, a friend of mine posted on FaceBook that she had completed all of her Christmas shopping and had wrapped every single present. Then on the Thanksgiving morning she posted a picture of said wrapped presents under a perfectly decorated Christmas tree, all plugged in and tinseled out, ready to go. So you know what I did? I BLOCKED her. I mean, really, who needs friends like that??

But seriously, the tradition of wrapping presents is a curious one. Everyone has a different philosophy of wrapping. My beloved mother-in-law was an excellent gift wrapper. She measured everything, used her ruler to make perfect cut lines, tucked all the corners under in perfect envelope-shapes, and matched her seams with precision. Then the tag and the bow were carefully chosen to match. The wrapping was a gift itself. Me, not so much. When gift bags became popular, I rejoiced. I use them without apology. And you’re lucky if it has matching tissue paper. Or any tissue paper.

Of course so much of the fun of Christmas is trying to guess what is under the colorful wrapping. People will pick up presents, shake them, smell them, and spend days (or in my friend’s case, MONTHS) wondering what the wrapping contains.

Jesus was said to be “wrapped in swaddling cloths” when the shepherds came to see him. They probably also wondered what the wrapping contained.

Luke 2:8-12 New King James Version (NKJV)

8 Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. 10 Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

12 And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

It was common practice in that time to wrap a newborn in strips of cloth. As any good NICU nurse will tell you, swaddling (done now with a blanket) is still a good practice. It restricts the sudden, jerky reflex that newborns have when they are startled and keeps baby warm and feeling secure. In many ways, swaddling replicates the safety and comfort of the womb.

Jesus, like any other baby, was swaddled. His Christmas wrapping was a gift from his parents, who understood the magnitude of the gift they were wrapping up. Even the shepherds understood that they were experiencing something otherworldly and extraordinary, and they instantly knelt in worship.

It can take a lifetime to unwrap the gift of Jesus. It will take a lifetime of study, prayer, worship, and service to fully realize what we have received. Christmas is an invitation to peek under the wrapping and see what you can see. Do you see what I see? There you will find the Word of God, ready to be held, read, and cherished.

And one last thought…Jesus was wrapped in strips of cloth at both his birth and his burial.

John 19 (NIV)

40 Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.

And so Jesus’ Christmas wrapping is a reminder that he indeed was born to die…so that you might live. That is the greatest gift you will ever receive.

So open this gift with joy. Open it with a solemn understanding of what you’ve been given. Open it with great abandonment. Open, and receive eternity in all of its glory.

Beautiful Wrappings by Gail Driver

At the Center

I spotted this picture on a friend’s Facebook page and immediately asked if I could use it. I have never seen a “hanging nativity” scene before. Isn’t it clever? You have to hang them in a certain location in order to tell the story. Jesus has to go in the center, and everyone else, including the lamb, has a particular place to be.

At the heart of it, nativity sets are all about telling the story, which is why every house, especially homes with children, should have one. And, if I may be so bold, they should be made of something unbreakable so that the children can play with them, acting out and retelling the story themselves.

I have to confess that I am a bit of a nativity snob. A very long time ago a friend and I were traveling through Israel together and she mentioned to me, “I hate those nativity sets where Jesus is all alone in the manger, reaching up with his arms outstretched. It’s like he is saying, ‘Somebody pick me up!’ I know that is meant to be a kind of ‘glory’ moment, but he just looks cold and lonely to me.”

BAM. From that point on, I never wanted a nativity set unless Mary was holding Jesus. If I ever found a set with Joseph holding Jesus I would probably lose my mind.

The order of the characters in a nativity set helps to reinforce the lesson of Christmas. Shepherds take their place off to the side as invited guests. The angels float high above in all their reflected glory. The wise men, late arrivals to the scene by about two years, usually place themselves on the opposite side of the shepherds. (Kings and servants know their place.) Cows and lambs, displaced by all these humans intruding into their home, are scattered about according to height. Mary and Joseph flank the manger, looking downward adoringly at their son.

And in the center of it all is Jesus.

If Jesus isn’t at the center of Christmas, we are totally missing the point. All the rest of the nativity set is just window dressing.

When people are hungry, they fill their stomachs with food. Often with unhealthy food. When they are thirsty, they fill themselves with drink. Often with unhealthy drink. When they are sad, lonely, angry, depressed, disenfranchised, pushed aside, etc., they fill themselves with anything that makes them feel full. Often with unhealthy fillers. Christmas can be used in such a way…we fill our homes with tinsel and gaudy things, fill our time with overspending, fill our bellies with overeating and over-drinking, and use the season to try to complete a void in our lives. Then we wake up in January and realize that the void has become even bigger.

That can happen if we forget to keep Jesus in the center of it all.

I have a young friend who took her family to the mountains this year in lieu of a big gaudy Christmas. She was inspired to make memories instead of making a hole in her bank account from purchasing things her children would quickly outgrow. The trip was a revelation to her. Time spent together in the beauty of God’s creation was the greatest gift of all, and when her sons are old men, they will always remember this Christmas. That what happens when you put Jesus in the middle.

What changes can you make to your approach to Christmas that would put Jesus back in the center of your life? Where is God calling you to place yourself in the nativity set at the foot of the manger…and stay there all year? Going to church on Christmas Eve is a wonderful practice, but how about making a commitment to go every Sunday?

Let this Christmas be a beginning of your coming home to the nativity. With Jesus in the center, you won’t need any of the other trappings.

1 John 2 (The Message)

15-17 Don’t love the world’s ways. Don’t love the world’s goods. Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father. Practically everything that goes on in the world—wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, wanting to appear important—has nothing to do with the Father. It just isolates you from him. The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out—but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity.

A Precious Nativity by Patti Kohl Koehler

The Miraculous, Glorious Absurdity

Isaiah 9

2 The people walking in darkness

    have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of deep darkness

    a light has dawned.

3 You have enlarged the nation

    and increased their joy;

they rejoice before you

    as people rejoice at the harvest.

Of all the Old Testament prophets who pointed to the coming of the Messiah, I love the words of Isaiah the best. Did you know that Jesus quoted from Isaiah more that any other prophet? Jesus was the fulfillment of all of the prophecies, and Isaiah apparently says it best.

One of the Advent traditions that many churches observe is called the Festival of Lessons and Carols. It tells the entire story from start to finish of how the Messiah came, and why he was necessary. While it relies on several Isaiah passages, it doesn’t start there. Surprised?

It starts with Genesis. From the beginning of time, we needed a Savior. With the first sin in the garden, humanity necessitated a saving from ifself, as it were. We see throughout the entire Old Testament that the sacrificial system offered by God in order to redeem us failed again and again.

Then came Jesus, the fulfillment of every promise and the hope of every heart. Jesus is the end-all-be-all of sacrificial lambs. He took the sins of the world upon himself and we are forever reconciled with God through Jesus’ saving death that brings eternal life.

And thus the need for the incarnation. The incarnation is understood as “God becoming flesh.” God, in his omniscience, realized that we would need a Savior that we could relate to. He chose to come to earth in the form of an infant, so that he would walk, talk, suffer, feel anger, experience temptation, know hunger and fatigue, and be relatable.

John 1

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

I think the whole notion is a glorious and miraculous absurdity, and one that demonstrates God’s love beyond a doubt. That the God who created the universe would lower himself to such a humble place blows my mind. Born in dirt, cradled in straw, homeless and cold, God came, and dwelt among us. Isn’t that absurd? 

This morning I recalled a wonderful young female pastor named Alice who preached at my Annual Conference many years ago. I sat in my seat, spellbound. I had not done much preaching up to that point, and I had modeled my style after my colleagues, who were all male. When I heard Alice preach, I was stunned. She preached like a girl. She was relatable, humorous, genuine, and authentic. I never preached like a man after that. Her example helped me preach from my own voice, and it changed me forever.

The reason God came as a baby was so that he could experience the world he created, and thus be an authentic guide, a relatable savior, and a credible witness. Jesus is the real deal. The stories of his life on earth are stories we can put ourselves directly into. We can feel what he felt, see what he saw, and walk where he walked. As absurd as it was, it was the only way to save us.

God became flesh and dwelt among us. This is the greatest gift you will receive on any Christmas. How will you respond? Where will you be a credible witness, and tell this story to someone who needs to hear it? How will you relate to Jesus today?

Go, and preach this in your own voice. Tell someone about the Messiah. Better yet, act it out in everything you say, think, and do. Be the light in the darkness of somebody’s Christmas, and rejoice.

Lights in the Darkness by Suzanne Wrenn

Blue Christmas

When I was a child, my family’s Christmas lights were red, yellow, green, white, and orange. I don’t recall when blue lights came into vogue, but I remember being stunned the first time I saw a tree vibrant with blue LED lights dominating the color scheme. Blue is now my favorite Christmas light color. After all, blue is the liturgical color for the season of Advent.

Then I experienced my first “blue Christmas,” a phrase now used to define a sad, lonely, and sorrowful Christmas. Not everybody has a holly, jolly Christmas. The loss of a loved one, a divorce, a family member not being able to come home, having to work over the holidays, and just plain disappointment can all lead to feeling blue during the most wonderful time of the year. My blue Christmas was due to three things. I had moved away from my church of 16 years, and I was on leave with no Christmas Eve services to look forward to. My oldest daughter had just gotten married and was spending Christmas in another state with her in-laws. Worst of all, my father passed away suddenly two days after Thanksgiving.

I wasn’t just blue, I was black and blue.

Have you ever felt like a holiday could smack you right down? Holidays can be sneaky little buggers. They can come up behind you without any warning in the mall or at a party and poke you so hard from behind that it knocks the wind right out of you. A flash of memory, a familiar song, a taste of nostalgia, and suddenly, unbidden, you are feeling the pain of your loss with such intensity that you can’t move or breathe. The unhappy irony of that is that Christmas is the celebration of the Prince of Peace, the Comforter:

Isaiah 40

1 Comfort, O comfort my people,

    says your God.

2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

    and cry to her

that she has served her term,

    that her penalty is paid,

that she has received from the Lord’s hand

    double for all her sins.

3 A voice cries out:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,

    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

4 Every valley shall be lifted up,

    and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level,

    and the rough places a plain.

5  Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,

    and all people shall see it together,

    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Even in the bluest of Christmases, God comes into our valley of sorrow to lift us up and level us out. Grief is a natural expression of a life that was well loved. It is the heart’s way of dealing with the unthinkable void that death creates. God longs to bring comfort to his people who mourn. He longs to comfort you in your blueness. And here is the good news: he will stay by your side until you begin to feel just the smallest and slightest bit better. And eventually you will.

He won’t leave you or grow tired of comforting you, for he is the everlasting God.

28  Have you not known? Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

    the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He does not faint or grow weary;

    his understanding is unsearchable.

29 He gives power to the faint,

    and strengthens the powerless.

30 Even youths will faint and be weary,

    and the young will fall exhausted;

31 but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

    they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

    they shall walk and not faint.

Are you having a blue Christmas this year? You are not alone. If you look around, you will probably find others in the same color scheme as you. So don’t feel ignored or left out of all of the “have yourself a merry little Christmas” celebrations…others are faking it, too.

I hugged a friend last week who just lost her mother. I know she is dreading this Christmas. I have experienced that same dread and the feeling of disconnect with the joy-to-the-world spirit that others were feeling. I even felt resentful and could not wait for Christmas to be over. As I held her, I heard myself saying, “Every time you miss your mom this season, try to get up and do something for someone else. Think of someone who needs a prayer, or a card, or a casserole, and focus on that.”

I don’t know if that will help. I do know that when we push our way out of our circumstance, we survive for another day and live to tell about it. Sometimes that’s all we can hope for. Blue Christmases are a game of survival. And when grief finally loosens its stranglehold on us, we can begin to feel joy again.

So look around. Others are blue, too. Somebody you know is having a bleak mid-winter this year. Find someone who needs their pain to be acknowledged, and let them know that you see them. When you do that, blueness begins to fade….theirs, and yours.

Blue LED lights

Here is a resource that might help, or be the perfect gift for somebody blue on your list: Mourning Break-Words of Hope for Those in Grief

December Birthdays

Raise your hand if you are among the unfortunate ones who have a December birthday. Those of you born in the other eleven months don’t have a clue. Who else gets “combination birthday/Christmas presents?” Nope, that is reserved for us December babies. I can give you a list of such combo-presents: every bike I ever received, a fancy cowgirl outfit (with boots), a black and white TV for my teenage bedroom….yes, my parents would do the combo thing when they were debating a somewhat expensive present that they were struggling to afford. Bless them!!

On the other hand, I do share a birthday with Walt Disney. I found that out when I was in High School, and have always loved it. It makes me happy to share a birthday with a man of his creative genius and genuine expertise in story telling. Happy birthday to us, Walt!

The most important birthday in December of course is Jesus’ birthday. I had a childhood practice of either staying up past midnight on Christmas Eve or waking up early on Christmas morning to sing Happy Birthday to Jesus before the day began. I would look out the window from my bed at 5 Chatham Rd. and see the street light shining in the dark, and sing to baby Jesus. More often than not, I could see the snow falling on Christmas morning in that light, and snow on Christmas was EVERYTHING. This is possibly the only benefit of growing up in New Jersey.

I wonder what Christmas would look like if we had kept it as just a birthday party for Jesus, instead of the giftpalooza-partypalooza-spendtoomuchpalooza-shoptillyoudroppalooza that it has become. Imagine it: we would wake up, talk about how wonderful Jesus is, plan a nice meal, bake a birthday cake, have the celebration, blow out the candles, and call it a day. And it would truly be just about him.

How can we make Christmas just about Jesus again?

First, we can care about the things that he cares about. The widow, the orphan, the children crying for their parents at our country’s border…he cares about that. Giving to the needy and sharing our abundance is something he cares about. He cares about the people who are ill, in hospital beds, or nursing homes. He cares about things that are lost: souls, marriages, teenagers, car keys, runaway pets, and your will to resist temptation. He cares about the planet his father created. He cares about YOU.

Micah 6:8 Amplified Bible (AMP)

8 He has told you, O man, what is good;

And what does the Lord require of you

Except to be just, and to love and to diligently practice kindness (compassion),

And to walk humbly with your God, setting aside any overblown sense of

importance or self-righteousness?

This Christmas, let us focus on getting Jesus the perfect birthday present. Let us dive deep into his word and grow closer in our relationship with him. Let us stand up for justice, diligently practice kindness, love one another, offer compassion, and be humble before him. Or, as Christina Rossetti once wrote:

What can I give Him,

Poor as I am?

If I were a Shepherd

I would bring a lamb;

If I were a Wise Man

I would do my part,

Yet what I can I give Him,

Give my heart. (In the Bleak Midwinter)

Happy Birthday, Jesus!

Mountain Snow by Mary Anne Mong Cramer.

Singing Hallelujah

Isaiah 9:2, 6-7 (NIV)

“The people walking in darkness

have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of deep darkness

a light has dawned.

For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given,

and the government will be on his shoulders.

And he will be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the greatness of his government and peace

there will be no end.

He will reign on David’s throne

and over his kingdom,

establishing and upholding it

with justice and righteousness

from that time on and forever.

The zeal of the Lord Almighty

will accomplish this.

It is so tempting to hit the “Publish” button right now. What could possibly be added to the glory and beauty of that Isaiah passage? It gives me chills to read it. I can hear the echos of Handel’s Messiah as I read it: those gloriously phrased notes of “Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God! The Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace!”

I had the unexpected blessing of standing next to my sister-in-law and singing the Hallelujah Chorus at the end of a performance of the Candlelight Processional at Disney World this week. Yes, Virginia, they do read scripture at Disney World. It is accompanied by a full orchestra, a 200-plus choir, six herald trumpets, and a deaf interpreter signing each note and word from the stage. All hope is not lost in this world. My sister-in-law is an excellent alto, and our voices combined in harmony with hundreds of others as we sang the truth about why Christmas happened.

It is important for us to sing the truth this season.

In the midst of the world’s cacophony, we need to sing, and sing loudly. We need to be that light in the darkness of commercialism and secularism. It is good for us to remind each the world that Christmas is still Christ’s Mass, a celebration of his birth. We need to complain to school boards that remove every sacred song from school Christmas productions and feed our children a sugar-diet of “Jingle Bells,” “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” and “All I Want For Christmas is my Two Front Teeth.” OK, I get that the last one is relevant to the Elementary School set, but still….

Where is the truth? What is the truth?

Handel knew. He wrote Messiah in just 24 days. He wrote from morning to night. Given the sheer volume of the 259-page score, it is estimated that he wrote 15 notes per minute. In total, he wrote roughly a quarter of a million notes in a little more than three weeks. That is insane. That is the power of the Holy Spirit.

Messiah is in three parts. Part I begins with this prophecy by Isaiah and others, and moves to the annunciation to the shepherds. In Part II, Handel concentrates on the Passion and ends with the “Hallelujah” chorus. Part III tells of the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s glorification in heaven. The story is complete, a reminder to us that when you sing of the truth of Christmas, it is good to tell the whole story, from the Old Testament promise of his first coming at the manger, to the New Testament promise of his second coming.

So go and tell. Go and sing. Go and speak the truth, using both words and actions.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the zeal of the Lord Almighty accomplished it. Hallelujah!

Candlelight Processional by Kenn Haas

Mary Poppins’ Bag

Do you remember the wonderful scene from the original Mary Poppins movie where she plops her large carpet bag on the table and begins to pull out things like a hat stand, a large wall mirror, a potted plant, shoes, clothing, and a very special measuring tape? I remember as a child being fascinated by her bag. Can you imagine being able to reach in to your carpet bag and get whatever you needed?

Many decades later, Hermione Granger one-upped Mary with a small and elegant beaded bag that had a lot of useful things, including a large multi-level tent and an invisibility cloak. And her bag was small enough that she could hide it in her sock.

This notion of magical bags is something that children innately understand. Think about it; how many times does your child expect you to instantly produce what they want, often making unreasonable and unrealistic requests? And when it’s possible, don’t you make every effort to respond?

In the same way, we can treat God as though he has a magical bag. We operate under an assumption that we can make requests and God will supply them. All of us are guilty of treating God like a big ATM machine in the sky at one time or another. We use him when we need something, but when our pockets are full, we pass on by. Is this a good practice? Do you ever feel guilty about asking God for things beyond your ability to provide for yourself? Check this out:

Luke 11 (NRSV)

5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Good gifts. We know how to give good gifts to those whom we love. In most people’s minds, this season is all about getting and receiving good gifts. Look at the advertising all around you. Lexuses wrapped in big red bows, overly expensive and lush outfits that dance across your screen, flashing diamond jewelry featured in commercials where the husband/boyfriend gets a big reward of love for choosing the right piece…and in each case, the bigger, the better.

But the question remains, should we/may we/might we treat God like a department store Santa, and go sit on his lap with a big list of “gimmes?”

The answer is yes. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus-like aspect of God. And that’s all right.

You see, God longs to hear the desires of our hearts. God wants the intimacy of a trusting child who goes to a parent in the hope and anticipation of getting a Red Ryder BB Gun. Will he give you things that might harm you? Nope. Will he give you what you need instead? Yup. It is the relationship of love, trust, and honesty that blesses the Lord. When we ask, seek, and knock, we are demonstrating our belief that God is able to respond. That demonstration of faith is vital to us, and to God.

So in this season of preparation, while we anticipate the greatest gift to humankind that the world has ever known, go to God in prayer. Ask away. Watch him reach into his carpet bag and pull out the very thing that you need, even if you didn’t ask for it. God invites us to ask, seek, and knock. It’s pretty much in the bag.

Well, Hello There by Mary Anne Mong Cramer

The Great ADVENTure

Come along with me on a great adventure. One that doesn’t require time in the malls or searching Amazon, but one that ushers in the ADVENT of the Kingdom of God on earth. This breaking-through of the holy presence did not get cleaned up by hospital nurses and handed to his momma wrapped in a hospital print blanket and matching hat. This presence did not receive a baby shower with brightly wrapped presents from his adoring family. This presence didn’t even have a gender reveal party…can you imagine?

No, this presence was birthed in dirt and spent his first night on earth sleeping to the sounds of a mooing cow and a snoring donkey. The stink must have been noticeable, but he was too little and much too polite to mention it.

This miraculous presence came straight from heaven above, intended to take root in the hearts and souls of humanity. God sent his only son to walk among us, to experience temptation, to feel hunger, pain, disappointment (lots and lots of disappointment), anger, and friendship. When God deigned to be one among us, he went whole-hog. He didn’t just tickle his toes in humanity-water, he went for the deep dive and didn’t come up for air for 33 years. God with us, Emmanuel.

The great ADVENTure we will embark on will lead us straight to that manger scene, where we will find ourselves standing among dirty shepherds, regal wisemen, a couple of sheep, vibrant angels, and his parents. Like a piece in a nativity set, we will freeze there in worship and adoration.

But not just yet.

In the meantime, we must prepare. Advent is a season of preparation. Not with decorating, buying, baking, and decking all our halls, but by making our spiritual heart-homes ready to receive the awe that is coming.

In Matthew, we are reminded that we didn’t know the hour of Christ’s first coming on earth, nor will we anticipate the timing of his second coming. So we have one job: to be ready.

Matthew 24:36 (NRSV)

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

KEEP AWAKE. You don’t know. You must be ready. The hour will be unexpected. You don’t want to be caught unaware.

How can you get ready for the greatest breaking-in of heaven upon the earth? How can you prepare to receive this incredible gift of the infant God, who came to save, heal, forgive, teach, help, rebuke, serve, and love?

Maybe it’s time to clean out the musty attic of your heart and create a space for the manger child to have a room there. Do you carry any unconfessed sin? Repent. Do you harbor a grudge with someone? Forgive. Are you estranged from a family member? Reconcile. Are you lazy in your discipleship? Begin a new discipline, like reading this Advent devotional without fail every morning.

Advent kind of sounds like Lent, doesn’t it?

This season heralds the greatest adventure humankind has ever known. If you keep stressing about gifts, cookie baking, parties, cleaning, and entertaining, you are sure to miss it.

Don’t do that again this year. Be still. Listen. Breathe deeply of the fragrance of the Evergreen that brings both life and eternal life into your nostrils. Settle yourself down so that you can be open to receive him.

See you at the manger.

Pennsylvania Snow by Becca Ziegler.