Just Thinking About Christmas…

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When I was a boy, it seemed to me that we in Churches of Christ bent over backward to deny anything having to do with Christmas. We saw it as a Catholic holiday with pagan overtones and we were somewhat dogmatic in our stance that 1) we don’t know when Jesus was born, and 2) we have no scriptural commandment to celebrate it. Both of those are true. I think it says a lot that only two of the four gospels contain a birth narrative. Both Mark and John begin with the preaching of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus.

The problem came when pretty much every family at our little church had a Christmas tree, covered their house in lights, exchanged gifts, and celebrated the holiday just like everyone else in town. It seemed to me to be either disingenuous or sending a mixed message.

At some point, there was an attitude change. We began to embrace Christmas as that time of year when the name Jesus or Christ is all over the place. Even atheists had to “consider Him.” Then, as our culture grew more and more secular, the so-called “War on Christmas” dominated the headlines and we in Churches of Christ, true to our nature, were up in arms over it! The very holiday we disdained in the 1960’s had become the holiday we were fighting for in the 21st century.

It’s amazing how things change over time. I noticed yesterday that our brothers across town are displaying 2 Corinthians 9:15 on their marquee: “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!”

These are just random thoughts from my addled mind. Maybe you’ve had some of the same thoughts.

I ran across an article containing excerpts from a sermon by John MacArthur, president of Master’s College, a seminary in Santa Clarita, CA. Some of the members of the church where Deborah and I were members attended classes there. The sermon was called “The Meaning of Christmas.” He ends the sermon with his favorite Christmas story and I thought I would share it with you this week.

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What is the meaning of Christmas?

It is not the date.

The idea that Jesus was born on December 25 is rather unlikely. According to the Bible, shepherds “were abiding in the field.” They didn’t do that in the winter. Scholars tend to agree that Jesus was most likely born in March or April. December 25 came from pagan observance of the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice. This was an old Roman holiday celebrated with two weeks of green trees, lighted candles, and gifts. Christians throughout the Roman Empire wanted to celebrate the birth of Christ so in 336 the Christian Emperor Constantine declared by fiat that December 25 would be Jesus’ day.

There is nothing in the Bible about December 25.

It’s not the Name.

“Christmas” is the shortened form of “Christ­Mass” established in 1038. Over time this mass evolved into celebrating the birth of Christ. In 1224 St. Francis of Assisi began to popularize the worship of baby Jesus in the manger as background for the worship of Mother Mary.

It’s not Santa Claus.

Nicholas was a 4th century bishop in the city of Myra who gave all of his possessions to the poor. He is said to have brought back to life two children who had been cut to pieces. People soon began to associate St. Nicholas as a giver of gifts and love who is particularly important to children. St. Nicholas came to the United States by way of Holland. Dutch children expected Santa to visit on December 5. Their custom was to place wooden shoes by the fireplace and Santa would fill them with goodies. (We fast-­thinking Americans know you can get a lot more stuff in a sock than in a shoe!)

It’s not the Christmas cards.

Christmas cards have only been used for the last 100 years.

It’s not even the spirit of giving anymore.

Christmas is the spirit of indulgence. Have you been to the mall recently?

The real meaning of Christmas is Jesus.

The name “Jesus” means “Savior”. The real meaning of Christmas is that Jesus came to save people from their sins. He only comes to those who make room for Him in their lives—to those who receive Him as Savior and Lord. Personally, I’ve always thought of Luke 2:7 as the anti-Christmas: “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” The Son of God came into world and Mary and Joseph couldn’t even find a room for Him.

A tattered and torn copy of Guideposts magazine from 35 years ago contains my favorite Christmas story. The story and the lesson are timeless.

A 9 ­year-­old boy named Wallace Purling was in the second grade. He should have been in fourth. He was big for his age, and a little slow and clumsy. He had trouble keeping up with the rest of the students. He was also delightfully good natured. Everyone enjoyed it when Wally was around. He wanted to be a shepherd in the Christmas pageant. However he fit in much better as the innkeeper. His large size would make his refusal of lodging to Joseph much more forceful.

The night of the pageant, no one more was more excited than Wallace Purling. He was enraptured as he peeked out from behind the curtain watching the performance. Finally, the time came for his scene. Joseph arrived, gently guiding Mary. Joseph knocked on the wooden door. Wally was there, waiting.

Wally said in a brash voice, “What do you want?”

“We seek lodging,” said Joseph.

“Seek it elsewhere. The inn is filled.”

“Sir, we have asked everywhere in vain. We have traveled far and are very weary.”

“There is no room in this inn for you!” Wally looked stern.

“Please, good innkeeper. My wife is heavy with child and needs a place to rest. Surely you must have some small corner for her. She is so tired.”

For the first time the innkeeper relaxed his stiff stance and looked down at Mary. A long pause followed. Surely, Wally had forgotten his next line. The audience was tense and embarrassed for Wally.

“Begone!” the prompter whispered Wally’s next line twice. Wally spoke automatically.

“Begone!”

Joseph sadly placed arm around Mary and began to move slowly away. However, the Innkeeper failed to reenter his inn. He stood in the doorway watching the forlorn couple. His mouth was open, his brow creased with concern, his eyes filling with tears. Suddenly the pageant became different from all others.

“Don’t go, Joseph. Bring Mary Back!” Wallace Purling’s face grew into a bright smile. “You can have my room.”

May we not just find room for Jesus in our hearts this Christmas, but allow him to be that indwelling, overflowing well-spring of life every day for the rest of our lives.

“Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:3).

The Weight of Evidence

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scales of justiceWithin hours of the Brussels bombings on Tuesday, pictures of the perpetrators were on world-wide television. We saw footage of people fleeing a bombed-out subway car and heading out a dark, smoky tunnel to safety. We heard the wailing of the passengers as they tried to make sense of the situation.

Wednesday morning, we awakened to the news that additional arrests had been made. A third bombing suspect was still at large and being tracked.

In modern times, criminal evidence seems easy to come by. Security cameras are everywhere. Every person with a cell phone is a potential photojournalist and on-the-scene reporter. Criminal experts spot clues (like a gloved hand) because they are trained to do so. Forensics experts work the crime scene for DNA and fingerprints. And in what seems like no time, cases are pieced together and criminals are apprehended.

I am thankful that some very meticulous people have done the same kinds of research and investigation regarding the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Smart people have used the Bible and other ancient writings to build a case for the resurrection. They have employed psychology and eye-witness testimony to reconstruct an accurate scenario of what really happened and why we can believe that Jesus was brought back to life by supernatural means.

In other words, there are reasons to be confident that
He is risen.

1. Christianity began in Jerusalem.

It could’ve started in Capernaum or some other Galilean city. After all, that’s where Jesus spent the bulk of his ministry. Certainly, he had thousands of followers in Galilee.

But the Jesus movement began in Israel’s capital city of Jerusalem, the same city where Jesus’ execution took place. You have an entire community of people who saw Jesus die by Roman crucifixion just outside the city gates. He was impaled through the heart by a Roman soldier. The empire was expert in the art of killing and this man Jesus was dead and entombed.

The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is so overwhelming that it compels acceptance by proof which leaves absolutely no room for doubt.

To quash the rumors of the resurrection, all Rome had to do was exhume the body and prop it up in the temple courts. The hoax is exposed! But that isn’t what happened. Why?

2. The tomb was empty.

Because there was no body to exhume, the Jewish ruling council had to fabricate a scenario: the disciples stole the body!

If the disciples stole the body, where did they put it? And why would they go to their deaths proclaiming that Jesus is Lord, knowing that it was all a hoax? Yes, Muslim extremists are willing to die for what we know is a lie. But they die truly believing that blowing themselves up will result in paradise and 72 virgins. The twelve had scattered at the crucifixion and they would’ve remained scattered had Jesus not been resurrected.

Others say the tomb was empty because Jesus wasn’t really dead. He was in a swoon or some sort of coma. In the tomb, he was somehow revived, took off his grave clothes, rolled away a massive stone, and walked out.

This, too, is impossible. Anyone with wounds like his would bleed out. After the abuse he suffered followed by no food for three days, how does one have the strength to roll away the stone? This is just foolish talk. As we’ve already stated, nobody knew dead like Rome knew dead. And if they say Jesus was dead, he was dead.

3. The first eye witnesses were female.

To fabricate a believable resurrection scenario, you need credible witnesses. Why not Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea? They are members of the very court that condemned Jesus. Pay those guys to give false testimony about a resurrection and they might be found credible.

Instead, the gospel writers place two women at the empty tomb early on Sunday morning—Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of James the Lesser. Now, nothing against you ladies… but in first century Roman and and Jewish culture, the testimony of women was seen as worthless. Women were not allowed to serve as witnesses in Jewish courts.

The only reason the gospel writers say that these two women were the first to discover the empty tomb is because these two women were the first to discover the empty tomb. They are merely recording the truth of what really happened.

There are other compelling reasons to believe that the supernatural resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead really happened. Seek the evidence for yourself. There are 2 very good places to start mentioned below, but there are others. Everyone should weigh the evidence for himself or herself.

“The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is so overwhelming that it compels acceptance by proof which leaves absolutely no room for doubt” (Sir Lionel Luckhoo, Criminal Trial Attorney and world record holder of 245 consecutive jury trial acquittals).

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:20).

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Two sources contributed to this post, both of which are profitable: The Case For Christ by Lee Strobel and More Than A Carpenter by Josh McDowell.

The Delight of Obedience

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walking-in-his-will_t_nv“When we love the Lord, obedience ceases to be a burden. Obedience becomes a delight.” – Joseph B. Wirthlin

During the final week of Jesus’ earthly life, the run-ins with the religious people increase in frequency and intensity. They confront him with wave after wave of questions, designed to trick him into saying something so outrageous that he can be charged with a crime.

The religious people seem really concerned with the source of Jesus’ authority. In other words, “Jesus, just who do you think you are?” In Matthew 21, Jesus refuses to answer their trick question directly. Instead, he tells a parable—a story about two sons, one of whom tells his father ‘no’, but then changes his mind and obeys his father. The other son tells dad ‘yes’, but then disobeys.

The second son represents the religious people. It seems like they’re obedient. But, in reality, they are not. The first son represents sinners. In the Message, Eugene Peterson calls them ‘crooks and whores’. Jesus says that the crooks and whores will enter the kingdom of the heavens ahead of the religious people.

Why? Because they are obedient.

Obedience has always been a big deal to God. From the Garden of Eden to Sinai to the church, God has always expected his people to be “doers of the word and not hearers only.”

God accused Israel, and Jesus accused the religious people, of being folks who “honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” As we said in the Living Jesus series, the righteousness of the religious people was only skin deep. Jesus is looking for a deep, inward righteousness that comes from the heart and works its way out to the hands, feet, and tongue in obedience. We do our works of service not to make ourselves look good, but to make Jesus look good to the world.

We’ve all known people who are “CINOs”—Christians In Name Only. They’re in church singing loud and praying long, flowery prayers. They put a big check in the collection plate. It looks like they are model Christians! But Monday through Saturday, they look nothing like Jesus.

We’ve all known people who come to Jesus as drunks, drug abusers, sex addicts or worse. They find out that Jesus still loves them and is willing to cleanse them and forgive them, so they come to him in obedience. They are so overcome with gratitude for what Jesus has done for them that they can’t stop loving people and serving them. For them, Christian is more than a name—it’s a way of life, seven days a week.

The Bible says that we are saved by grace through faith. But it also says that the proof of genuine faith in Christ is obedience. James says, “I will show you my faith by how I live.” Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount that it’s the people who do the will of the Father who will enter the kingdom of the heavens.

There is a constant tension in scripture between faith and works. But I think it’s a good tension. It reminds us that the former cannot exist without the latter.

There is a constant tension in scripture between faith and works. But I think it’s a good tension. It reminds us that the former cannot exist without the latter. It’s interesting that in John 6:28-29, Jesus calls faith a work. Now that’s tension!

It was Abraham’s faith alone that counted him righteous (Romans 4). But his faith was manifested in his willingness to leave his homeland for a place he knew nothing about (Hebrews 11:8) and his “almost” sacrifice of Isaac, the son of promise (Hebrews 11:17).

Is your faith evidenced by your obedience to the greatest commands—love for the Father and love for people? When we really trust the work of Jesus at the cross to save us eternally, we can’t help but exalt his name at all times and in every way… and we are delighted to do so.

“Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations” (Deuteronomy 7:9).