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

Prayer-Conditioned Life

I am working on a sermon on the subject of waiting and how we should spend our time when we are made to wait. I think I am pretty safe in saying that nobody likes to wait. I know people who hate to wait in line so much that they study the check-out lines in the grocery store very carefully as they finish their shopping. As they approach, they choose a line but still watch the other lines. If one suddenly seems to be moving, they dart over.

But you know you are really bad when you keep watching the other lines even when your groceries are on the conveyer belt. Some of us get mad if the guy we would have been behind in another line ends up finishing fast. I may or may not be married to someone like that.

I discovered someone who I think could be labeled as a “Champion Waiter.” We meet her very briefly in the second chapter of Luke, at the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. It was a Jewish tradition that forty days after giving birth, mothers went to the Temple to be purified. Firstborn sons were presented at that time in recognition of their position as the spiritual leader of their siblings. Anna was in the temple that day because, well, Anna was in the temple everyday:

Luke 2 (New Revised Standard Version)

36”There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 

As a first-century widow, Anna certainly knew prejudice, neglect, sorrow, and loneliness. But Anna spent her days worshipping and praying in the house of the Lord. She is remembered by Luke as a prophet, for she saw the Messiah that day and praised God with her joy and her witness:

38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Anna had a ”prayer-conditioned” life. She prayed every day, all day. In her 84 years of living, she prayed and fasted night and day. That habit prepared her for encountering the miraculous. The minute she saw him, she KNEW.

Anna’s daily acts of service in the Temple put her in the right place at the right time…because she already was in the presence of God. She filled her time of waiting for the consolation of Israel with active service. God is active in our waiting when we open our hearts, our thoughts, and our prayers to his Holy Spirit.

What would happen to you if you prayer-conditioned your life? What difference would it make? Are you putting yourself in the presence of God day and night?

Anna’s story only took three verses of scripture to tell, but she will be remembered forever. As we wait for the second coming of Christ, may we wait with the same patient expectation of encountering the miraculous.

Wait Upon the Lord By Kelley Lynch

Simeon the Anticipator

This was originally published on Sept. 2, 2019. Clearly I was annoyed that Christmas resources were being hyped before Labor Day. But the scripture is absolutely perfect for this first week after Christmas 2020, as we meet Simeon the Anticipator. What are you anticipating today? Enjoy!

This headline fairly jumped off the page in an advertisement from my denomination’s publisher:

“DO YOU FEEL THE ANTICIPATION BEGINNING??”

It came unwanted and unbidden on a sunny day in August. You can probably already guess what they were selling: Christmas resources. In August.

Yes, it is time to order Advent materials. No, I don’t feel the anticipation beginning.

You see, I live on the Outer Banks. In August, all I anticipate is SEPTEMBER. September is a magical month where the weather is gorgeous, the beaches are less crowded, the air is cooler, the restaurants are still in full swing, and you can actually navigate the by-pass without getting stopped at all NINE stoplights between Colington and Kitty Hawk, which is only a four-mile trek. (Seriously, the by-pass traffic is a THING. I once wrote a song called “The By-Pass Blues,” and made my entire congregation sing it.)

Ahhh, traffic-free September! Now that’s something to anticipate!

When it comes to feeling the anticipation building, we have to talk about Simeon. Simeon was one of the best anticipators in the Bible.

Luke 2 (NIV)

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,

    you may now dismiss your servant in peace.

30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,

31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:

32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,

    and the glory of your people Israel.”

33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Wow, so much to unpack here, but let’s stay focused on Simeon the Anticipator. He was waiting for the Lord’s Messiah, and was empowered in his waiting by the Holy Spirit. He had been assured by God that the Messiah would actually come in his lifetime and he believed that so much, he went to the temple every day. He was there that day, led by the Holy Spirit, anticipating that he would see Jesus.

Let that soak in.

What are you anticipating today? Are you waiting with full assurance that you will encounter Jesus? Are you making your way toward his saving grace with confidence that you will be delivered?

Anticipation tells us that whatever we do, wherever we are, whatever sin we have committed, whatever burden of grief we bear, no matter WHAT, Jesus is ready. He is ready to heal, to direct, to rebuke, to fight for you….Jesus is ready.

Simeon teaches us to anticipate with hope. We are invited to stand firm on the promises of God in our lives and EXPECT to be delivered. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of Jesus:

Romans 8 (NLT)

35 Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? 36 (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) 37 No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.

38 And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. 39 No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.

“Neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love.” God always delivers on his promises.

Simeon saw Jesus, and we can too. Do you feel the anticipation beginning?

Morning’s Anticipation by Michelle Robertson

Behold!

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

Sent

Have you ever had an experience where you were sent someplace that you didn’t want to go? I remember a time camping with my family in Canada when my mother sent my older sister and me to the little camp store. Our task was to purchase bread, which would seem like a little thing. However, the people there spoke French. We were coached on what to say, how to say it, and how to pay. I was totally discombobulated and very afraid of doing it wrong. Of course mother knew that the lady in the store also spoke perfect English, but she was trying to send us into a foreign experience to try something new and communicate in someone else’s language. The mission was accomplished, in spite of our resistance and fear.

Like all of you, I have been sent into unwanted places. I’ve been sent into the prisons to minister to broken people. I’ve been sent to a hospital bedside to pray as someone died. I’ve been sent to officiate weddings that I knew wouldn’t last. I’ve been sent to a place far away from the home I loved with no immediate prospect of finding a church to serve, or people to love. That is how I ended up on the Outer Banks…God surely did a reversal on that one!

Did you ever stop to think about how many people in the nativity story were sent somewhere they didn’t want to go?

Luke 2 (Common English Bible)

2 In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria.Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea.

Joseph was sent by the Roman ruler to register his name so that taxes could be taken from him. He had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the privilege. You KNOW he didn’t want to go there.

 He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant.

“Great-with-child” Mary was sent along. We could not possibly imagine the discomfort and fear that such a journey meant to a young, pregnant woman. Dusty roads and sitting astride the back of a donkey while being exposed to the weather were just part of being sent.

 While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

The innkeeper was sent to care for this couple while his place was at full capacity. He couldn’t bear to send them away, but surely he felt bad about sending them to the animal stable.

The innkeeper went where he was sent to provide hospitality to strangers. Joseph went to where he was sent out of duty and obligation. But Mary went where she was sent out of love. And because they all went where God sent them, the entire world was saved.

Where is God sending you? Will you go? Will you go willingly, or reluctantly? Will duty and obligation be enough to go on, or will you go where God sends you out of love?

Wherever you go, wherever God sends you, you are never alone. Thanks be to God.

Go Where God Sends You by Cameron Piland

#unrushedchristmas

Let’s make this a THING! I have spotted FaceBook posts of families doing intentional, thoughtful things this season that aim to slow down the crazy roll we find ourselves on as Christmas approaches. The posts are marked #unrushedchristmas. One family posted pictures of a visit to a local restaurant that has massive outdoor decorations. They took their time looking at each one, and the children did a little dancing to the outdoor Christmas music that was playing on the loudspeakers. Another mom posted that she grabbed a cup of coffee and drove down our beach road to look at decorations rather than travel our busy and business-packed bypass. #unrushedchristmas is a movement aimed at creating mindfulness in each day of Advent so that we don’t arrive at Christmas exhausted and resentful.

What a supremely marvelous idea!

It occurs to me as I read these accounts that being unrushed in this season pays homage to the first Christmas, where nothing was or could be rushed. Think about the journey Mary and Joseph found themselves taking. Because a census was being conducted, they had to travel back to their hometown of Bethlehem, on a donkey and on foot. You don’t go anywhere fast with those modes of transportation.

Luke 2 (The Message)

1-5 About that time Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Empire. This was the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone had to travel to his own ancestral hometown to be accounted for. So Joseph went from the Galilean town of Nazareth up to Bethlehem in Judah, David’s town, for the census. As a descendant of David, he had to go there. He went with Mary, his fiancée, who was pregnant.

To put this into context, the distance between Nazareth and Bethlehem is almost 100 miles. At a good pace, that would be about 10 days of walking, and remember, Mary was just about ready to give birth. Nothing happened fast that first Christmas.

Neither should it today.

How can you slow down, take a deep breath, and breathe in all the glory, wonder, and majesty of the season? What can you do TODAY to unrush your rushing around? What can you let go of, simplify, or release, so that the season takes on a more humane pace?

I suppose the real question is, do you really need all that perfection?

Everyone longs for the perfect Christmas, the perfect tree, the perfect table setting, the perfect dinner, and the perfect gift. And we should know better. These things do not exist, yet every year we frantically pursue the perfect Christmas like it’s our JOB.

Stop.

Think.

Simplify.

Worship.

Adore.

Breathe.

Unrush yourself, and join in the awe and wonder of the miracle.

If it helps, imagine yourself walking almost 100 miles to get to Christmas. No matter how fast or slow you go, it will still be there. Christmas comes, whether we think we are ready for it or not. So sloooooow down and be mindful. Stop trying to create the perfect Christmas. Slow down and sit at the manger for a moment. Jesus deserves our full attention for his birthday.

Be #unrushed.

Photo by Meredith Koebley Snider

http://www.meredithksnider.com/

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.

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