Laid in a Manger

Luke’s description of what happened on that first Christmas is by far the sweetest rendition of the Nativity that you could ever read. Perhaps that is grounded in our many, many Christmas Eve services, where we heard it read aloud. Perhaps it was read to us in our homes by our grandmothers in the King James translation. There is a good chance that when you read it, the voice of a very serious little boy named Linus will speak in your memories of childhood Christmases gone by. (By the way, an article in The Smithsonian Magazine reveals that two of the co-creators of ”A Charlie Brown Christmas” balked at the inclusion of Scripture in the show, but Charles Schulz insisted that it remain.)

So let us read Luke 2 again, as the days until Christmas now number in single digits:

Luke 2 (New Revised Standard Version)

 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

We will continue this passage in our last devotional before Christmas, but let us pause at the manger and ponder this. It is such a simple story, one that begins with a country’s routine taxation system and ends in glory. No wonder people were amazed. Who would have thought that the long-awaited Messiah would be born of unmarried parents in such ignominy? How could the world have envisioned its Savior being laid in a dirty manger used for feeding barnyard animals? This story is surprising at every turn. And the unfortunate location of Jesus’ birth raises the same question for us every year: is there room in your inn for the Christ Child? Is there room in your heart, room in your expectations, room in your bank account, and room in your compassion for an refugee infant born so far from home?

And so before we get to the awestruck shepherds and the glories of the heavenly host, let us renew our passion for making room for everything and everyone that Jesus came to save. Where is God calling you to shine his light in somebody’s darkness? Make room.

Beach Tree by Michelle Robertson

Walking in Darkness

The Gospel of John makes great use of dark and light imagery. John beautifully weaves metaphors of night and darkness with sin and death. Light becomes a symbol of Christ and hope. Even at the end of Judas’ betrayal story, John writes that Judas got up from the warmth of the supper in the upper room and went ”into the night.”

As we quickly approach Christmas this week, our neighborhoods, our trees, our banisters, and even our tacky sweaters are encased in light. We do this as a celebration of the Christ-child, who was born to be the ”Light of the World.” On Christmas Eve, we will finally light the Christ Candle in the center of our Advent Wreaths and proclaim that Christ is a Light that can never be extinguished. Amen!

John 8:12 says this: ”Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; whoever follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”

The Light of Life. Think about it! Following Jesus means that we have access to a light that will illuminate our path no matter what tragedy, temptation, or trial encumbers us. Like a flashlight, all we need to do is turn it on and point it toward the darkness.

Isaiah also wrote beautiful words about darkness and light. In the ninth chapter, we discover this passage, which tells us exactly why the Light of the World came:

Isaiah 9 (New Revised Standard Version)

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
    on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
    and the bar across their shoulders,
    the rod of their oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
    and all the garments rolled in blood
    shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

And now for the Christmas part:
For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
    and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
    He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Jesus came to light up your situation. He came with so much power and might, there is no force of darkness you can encounter that could dull his wattage. He is the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace, who brings endless peace to the world.

Do you lack peace right now? Turn on the Light.

Darkness to Light by Stacey Hanf

Rescue Me

As you look at this picture, you will instantly notice that something has gone very wrong. A shrimp trawler named Bald Eagle II, traveling north from our neighboring town in Wanchese, lost its engines a week ago and drifted onto the shoals of this sandbar that we live on. The tide carried it right to the water’s edge, where it remained stuck on our beach for days.

Our heroic Coast Guard performed a dramatic rescue of the four crew members, pulling them from the dangerous boat one by one, by helicopter. Four men were saved. Then came the arduous task of having to carefully remove over 6500 gallons of fuel and an additional 1000 gallons of a watery oil mixture.

Think for a moment of the difficulty of saving this boat. Look at how it sits on the sand. Now think about how difficult it was to save humanity. The prophets remind us that people had fallen into sin and darkness beginning with Adam and Eve in the garden. This darkness overcame the world, and we needed a miracle to save us.

Today’s lectionary passage is a pre-Christmas reminder of why Jesus came to save us. In this Psalm, God is portrayed as both the Shepherd of Israel and the One whose face shines “so that we may be saved.” It is a good prayer for us as we slowly approach the birth of Christ and recall once again why he came. Christ was born to rescue us … because we could not rescue ourselves.

Psalm 80 (New Revised Standard Version)

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
    before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
    and come to save us!

This is a psalm of Asaph which is thought to be written after the separation of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judea. The references here make it clear that the psalmist is asking God to save Israel, and so it is believed to have been written prior to the Assyrian take over in 721BC.

Restore us, O God;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.

When God’s face shines, darkness and despair are obliterated. When Jesus came, he was described as the ”Light of the World,” dispelling darkness forever.

O Lord God of hosts,
    how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
    and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
    our enemies laugh among themselves.

Asaph knows that the apostasy and sin of the people have brought about their predicament. He senses God’s anger in what is about to happen, as Israel will fall into the hands of the enemy.

Restore us, O God of hosts;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.

I am happy to report that the story of the Bald Eagle II has a much better ending. A small tug boat was dispatched, and it was able to move the trawler at high tide, taking it out to sea to a safe harbor where it can be repaired. Don’t you just love a happy ending?

You can have a happy ending, too. God is waiting for you to be fed up enough with your own darkness to cry out for rescue. Are you stuck in bad habits, inappropriate choices, or just plain out of hope? Call out for Jesus to come and rescue you. Your savior is on the way.

Rescue Me by Jennifer Thompson


Today’s devotional won’t feel very Christmassy until the very end. Promise me you will keep reading until you get there!

In Joshua chapter 2, we encounter Rahab, the pagan prostitute from Jericho, whose heroic actions save two Israelite spies from capture by her own king. The king confronts her, and she flat out lies:

Joshua 2 (Common English Bible)

But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. Then she said, “Of course the men came to me. But I didn’t know where they were from. The men left when it was time to close the gate at dark, but I don’t know where the men went. Hurry! Chase after them! You might catch up with them.” But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the flax stalks that she had laid out on the roof. The men from Jericho chased after them in the direction of the Jordan up to the fords. As soon as those chasing them went out, the gate was shut behind them.

Rahab sets terms

Before the spies bedded down, Rahab went up to them on the roof. She said to the men, “I know that the Lord has given you the land. Terror over you has overwhelmed us. The entire population of the land has melted down in fear because of you. 10 We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Reed Sea in front of you when you left Egypt. We have also heard what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites on the other side of the Jordan. You utterly wiped them out. 11 We heard this and our hearts turned to water. Because of you, people can no longer work up their courage. This is because the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on earth below. 

 Rahab saved the day for the nation of Israel, but not in a typical hero fashion. She had no special powers and was not by any definition a “mighty warrior,” yet she used what she had to defeat the enemy. And what did she have? Words. Rahab accomplished her heroine’s mission by simply employing words to their full advantage. She shaded truths, boldly negotiated, and offered a deal to the spies that they simply could not refuse … and in doing so, she saved her entire family from the destruction of Jericho that wiped out the king, her creditors, and the rest of the population.
     Let’s take a look at one particular word which Rahab used like a weapon. In the twelfth verse, she says,

 “Now, I have been loyal to you. So pledge to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal loyally with my family. Give me a sign of good faith.”

When we dig into the Hebrew word for loyal in this sentence, we find Rahab’s secret power: she used the word chesed. Chesed is a type of loyal, loving-kindness that is part of the covenant relationship between God and Israel. It is a word that cannot be sentimentalized, but speaks to the strength and steadfastness that stem from that covenant relationship.[1] It is a reminder to the spies of their God, whose love for Israel was so great that God would never let them go, despite their actions. By choosing the word chesed, Rahab establishes her own covenant relationship with these men, relying on their understanding of what that truly meant. And in the end, her household was saved not only from death, but from the debt that had forced her into prostitution. Clever girl!

The connection to Christmas is obvious. There can be no greater expression of God’s chesed love for us than to send his only son to be born in a manger, walk among us, and die on a cross for our sins. Our ability to participate in Jesus’ resurrection is the finest example of loyal, loving-kindness we could ever hope for.

On Christmas morning, God filled the humble manger with an offering of covenant renewal that was given to both Jews and Gentiles alike. This gift of chesed is the world’s saving grace. And all we have to do is open it. Are you ready?

Christmas Holly by Kathy Schumacher

[1] A Theological Word Book of the Bible, by Norman H. Snaith (New York: MacMillan, 1951), pp.136-137.

I Just Can’t Wait to be King

I’m gonna be a mighty king, so enemies beware!
I’m gonna be the main event, like no king was before!
I’m brushing up on looking down, I’m working on my ROAR…
Oh, I just can’t wait to be king!”

I’m sure many of you recognize the lyrics to Simba’s theme song in the Disney production of “The Lion King.” This is the story of a young lion cub who desperately wants the fame, fortune, and attention that comes with being the king. Simba succumbed to the temptation of wanting praise and adoration for his bravery, and the seduction of knowing what was in the forbidden land. This information would give him superior knowledge over all of the animal kingdom, and he wanted that power. Simba’s ambitions set a series of events in motion that resulted in his father’s death and the young cub’s exile from Pride Rock. (Don’t miss the double meaning of Pride Rock: A pride is a collection of lions, and it was pride that led to Simba’s downfall.) Eventually Simba returned after a long period of humility and isolation that resulted in a realistic understanding of what kingship entails. He became a good king, and the story has a happy ending.

In our Scripture today, King Solomon’s story had a similar trajectory, but without the happy ending. Like Simba, Solomon succumbed to his temptations, ego, and ambitions. Pride was also a factor here, as were the seductions of wine, women, and song that attended a king of his stature. Solomon’s fall from his own “Pride Rock” was dramatic and devastating, resulting in the invasion of stronger armies, the fracturing of the Kingdom of Israel, and ultimately their exile from the very land God had given them. 

1 Kings 11:4-13 (Common English Bible)

As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods. He wasn’t committed to the Lord his God with all his heart as was his father David.Solomon followed Astarte the goddess of the Sidonians, and Milcom the detestable god of the Ammonites. Solomon did what was evil in the Lord’s eyes and wasn’t completely devoted to the Lord like his father David. On the hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a shrine to Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and to Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and sacrificed to their gods. 

The Lord grew angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from being with the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. 10 The Lord had commanded Solomon about this very thing, that he shouldn’t follow other gods. But Solomon didn’t do what the Lord commanded. 11 The Lord said to Solomon, “Because you have done all this instead of keeping my covenant and my laws that I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom from you and give it to your servant. 

Clearly, God ain’t playin’. It had always been the plan that God would reign as king, and the people of Israel would live together in peace and harmony. But after a series of prophets and judges overseeing them, they grew restless, hostile, and jealous. Finally they demanded that the prophet Samuel give them a king ”so that they could be like the other nations.” (1 Samuel 8:5). These stories remind us that we reject God at our own peril. Was there ever a time in your life when you rejected God? I bet it didn’t go well.

Even still, God’s amazing grace, his unfathomable mercy, and his unconditional forgiveness are offered to Solomon:

12 Even so, on account of your father David, I won’t do it during your lifetime. I will tear the kingdom out of your son’s hands. 13 Moreover, I won’t tear away the entire kingdom. I will give one tribe to your son on account of my servant David and on account of Jerusalem, which I have chosen.”

God preserves a part of Israel and the lineage of David in spite of Solomon’s sin, and that lineage led us to Jesus.

Christmas is a time to consider kings and kingship. Who is your king? What is on your throne? Have the foreign idols of celebrity worship, the blind following of popular politicians, hours upon hours of screen time, and reading more social media than your Bible become the things that you worship?

We are called back to the manger to worship the King of Kings, who is the Lord of Lords. Jesus is our one and only king, and he deserves our complete attention and obedience. To do anything less will result in danger and exile.

It is never too late to turn your heart back to God. Only then will you receive the blessings of the Prince of Peace.

King and Queen of the Animal Kingdom by Mark Poblete

Merry Christmas!

And so the day we have long anticipated is here! Christ is born, and born again in our hearts. Take a moment in your busy day to dwell on that.

What does Jesus mean to you?

What is joy?

What message will you carry from this day into tomorrow?

Isaiah 9 (New International Version)

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
    and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
    as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
    when dividing the plunder.

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.

May peace reign in your home and heart today, and may angel-songs fill the air. Merry Christmas!

A Light Has Dawned by Karen Warlitner


I am hoping that you have a plan to worship tonight. There are so many online options! Even with pandemic restrictions, everyone should be able to enter into a place of adoration. The invitation is “O Come, Let Us Adore Him!” And so we do.

For me, there is only one way to tell the Christmas story. It has to be Luke 2. This is a reflection of my childhood, growing up in the Gibbsboro United Methodist church and hearing it read every Christmas Eve. Or it could come from my love of Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang’s Christmas special, where Linus solemnly reads it in his pure, innocent voice.

One of my fondest memories of my childhood church is when I was in 5th grade, the pastor asked me to read this scripture on Christmas Eve. I was so honored and humbled. I practiced and practiced, and was ready when the time came. Little did either of us realize in the moment that it would not be my last time in a Methodist pulpit! Thank you, Rev. Davis, for giving me my start.

Luke 2 (New King James Version)

2 And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.

Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Glory in the Highest

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 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.”

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

14 “Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill[e] toward men!”

15 So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. 17 Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. 18 And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.

And on earth, peace.

And on earth, goodwill toward all.

May the Christ Child reign in your heart tonight.

And to All, a Good Night by Karen Warlitner

The Why of Christmas

Have you ever found yourself doing something over and over, and not even knowing why? I remember reading a sermon illustration many years ago about a young wife who was preparing her first Christmas dinner for her new husband. She took a beautiful, large, honeyed ham and promptly cut both ends off. Then she placed it in her roasting pan, covered it with foil, and put it in the oven.

Her husband watched this with interest. “Why do you cut the ends off?” he asked. She hesitated for a moment, and then replied, “I’m not sure. It’s the way my mother always did it.” Finally, her curiosity got the better of her and she called her mother and asked why they always cut the ends off of the ham. Did it help it cook better? Did it add to the flavor? Did they prefer the ends to be crispy?

Her mother laughed and replied, “Oh, none of those reasons. I had to cut the ends off because my pan was always too small to fit the whole thing.”

Sometimes it helps to know the why.

We have talked a lot about the “who” of Christmas, the “where” of Christmas, the “how” of Christmas, and even the “what” of Christmas. Did you ever think about the “why?”

Titus 3 (Contemporary English Version)

God our Savior showed us
    how good and kind he is.
He saved us because
    of his mercy,
and not because
of any good things
    that we have done.

This passage helps us to uncover why Jesus was born. He came to save us because he is good, kind, and filled with mercy. But most importantly, he came to save us because we could not save ourselves. We are saved by grace through faith, and not by ANYTHING we can do on our own.

Do you get that? You can’t be “good enough.” Thankfully, that also means that you can be “bad enough” to not qualify for God’s grace. You can’t earn it or be ineligible to receive it….thanks be to God for that.

God washed us by the power
    of the Holy Spirit.
He gave us new birth
    and a fresh beginning.
God sent Jesus Christ
our Savior
    to give us his Spirit.

Jesus treated us much better
    than we deserve.
He made us acceptable to God
and gave us the hope
    of eternal life.

Why was Jesus born on that first Christmas? To make us acceptable to God and to give us hope for eternal life. He cleanses us of our sin and gives us new birth through water and the spirit.

The best part of it all is that we’ve been given something so much better than we deserve. Thanks be to God!

Jesus is the Light of the World by Cheryl Lynn Smith

How Beautiful

Last week I had the extraordinary opportunity to film a children’s sermon in a sheep pasture, surrounded by live sheep. This is a first for ya girl. It was a beautiful and startling experience. The plan was for me to sit on a chair in the middle of the open field and read a little story that I had written about Jesus’ birth as told from the perspective of the animals at the manger.

Cue the sheep!

So the kind sheep handler positioned the flock just off camera and was ready to spread out their feed around my chair. The idea was that when the camera rolled, they would be surrounding me as I read, peacefully eating at my feet. It almost went like that. Almost.

The sheep were apparently excited by my reading, which of course included a perspective from one of their own…a sheep named Shirley…who, it turned out, speaks with a British accent for some reason. Or maybe it was the snack being strewn about. In any case, when the camera rolled and the feed was distributed, they charged hard…so hard that my camera girl almost got sideswiped. And then as soon as the snack was gone, so were the sheep. I was alone in the pasture. Two of them eventually returned to give me the side-eye, but that was it.

When I returned home, my dog went nuts. Apparently the sheep residue that I brought in on my shoes was quite the treat for her overactive nose. How beautiful are the feet that announce the good news of the sheep pasture!

In our passage today, the prophet Isaiah raises up the beauty of the messengers who bring good news. The Messiah is coming! Lift up your voices and sing:

Isaiah 52 (New Revised Standard Version)

How beautiful upon the mountains
    are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
    who announces salvation,
    who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
    together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
    the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
    you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
    he has redeemed Jerusalem.

Jesus came to redeem his people….ALL his people. With the birth of the Messiah, the entire world saw the salvation of God in one holy birth. The message of peace that Jesus brought is a message of hope for the world, and that message is as beautiful today as it was the very first time when cows, donkeys, and fleeting sheep heard it in a little town called Bethlehem.

10 The Lord has bared his holy arm
    before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
    the salvation of our God.

And the glory of the Lord was revealed! So go and share the good news….your God reigns.

My Girl Shirl Photo by Island Farm

At Last

We are finally in the last stretch of our holiday waiting. By the end of this week, Christmas will be here. All of the preparation, decision-making, and cleaning/shopping/wrapping/baking will be presented in their full glory (for better or worse) and the day will arrive.

Think of all the things you have to wait for….college graduations, childbirth, wedding days, the internet guy to come…waiting is hard! But it is often in the waiting that we are made ready for the next step.

Our passage in Hebrews speaks of a waiting time that is finally over. From the first sin until the advent of Jesus Christ, we waited.

We were waiting for absolution.

We were waiting for redemption.

We were waiting for salvation.

We were waiting for a way out.

And then, at last, God sent his Son.

Hebrews 1 (Contemporary English Version)

1 Long ago in many ways and at many times God’s prophets spoke his message to our ancestors. But now at last, God sent his Son to bring his message to us. God created the universe by his Son, and everything will someday belong to the Son. 

God’s Son has all the brightness of God’s own glory and is like him in every way. By his own mighty word, he holds the universe together.

Just ponder that for a moment. God’s Son holds the universe together. On days when it is all falling apart, on days that are dismal and hopeless, on days when there is no light at all, he holds the universe together.

After the Son had washed away our sins, he sat down at the right side of the glorious God in heaven. He had become much greater than the angels, and the name he was given is far greater than any of theirs.

Jesus has all the brightness of God’s glory to shine into our bleakest winters. His word is sure. His word is good…and his word lasts forever.

So no matter where your heart is on this last stretch of waiting, take comfort. The One whose name is greater than any other name holds YOU in his heart.

Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel.

Peaceful Waters by Michelle Robertson