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What is your saddest Christmas memory?  My apologies if this question caught you off guard or if you were expecting an opening line that was significantly more “merry and bright” on the day before Christmas.  But, I seriously want you to stop reading for a moment and think about it.  What is the saddest memory that you associate with Christmas?

Maybe you just now thought about something that happened many, many Decembers ago, so long ago that it almost seems like it happened in another lifetime, or someone else’s lifetime.  It might be that you have experienced several Christmases that could competitively vie for the title of “worst ever.”  Perhaps you would identity the Christmas that is coming tomorrow, because of what is currently burdening your heart, troubling your thoughts, and causing pain in the depths of your soul.

If circumstances past or present have you in a state of mind and emotion that simply makes it impossible for you to feel overly excited or enthusiastic about feasting and festivities, ribbons and bows, trees and wreaths, tinsel and toys, please keep reading.  Christmas is precisely for you.

My saddest Christmas came in 1984 when my grandfather passed away unexpectedly on December 25 from a heart attack, just as our family was gathering at his home.  It wasn’t just sad, but shockingly so, and Christmas Day would never be the same again.  One of the two Christmases that I spent in Australia was the most melancholy and disappointing that I ever experienced because a much-anticipated holiday visit from a friend from the U.S. didn’t happen.

At this time eight years ago, Dad was in St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa following another heart attack and MRSA infection, all of which seriously negated the recovery he had made since the massive heart failure he suffered two hours after Mom’s death on September 16 of that year.  I was asked to leave his hospital room while a PICC line was being put in his upper arm, so I headed to the lobby to wait for Kim and Hannah to arrive for a shift change.  I stood alone on the stairs above the lobby and listened as a choir of Amish teenagers sang, “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night.”  Tears began to flow.  There was not an ounce of happiness lurking anywhere in my body at that moment, but my grief, sadness, and emotional wounds were being bound up and dressed with the oil and wine of hope, expressed in the words of those hymns of faith in Jesus Christ as God’s Son, Immanuel, “God with us,” a Savior, the hope of the nations, love’s pure light.

Christmas is a season for every emotion.  Christmas affirms our faith that Jesus came into this world to bring light into our darkness (John 8:12), to provide sympathetic mercy and comfort for our sorrows (Isaiah 53:3-4; Heb. 4:15-16), to offer gentle nurture and loving protection for the bruised reeds and flickering candles of our hearts (Isaiah 42:1-3), to compassionately bind up the wounds of the brokenhearted (Isaiah 61:1), and to bring reassuring calm into our chaos as the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6).

Far beyond a mere wish, my sincere prayer for you this Christmas is this: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit,” (Romans 15:13).

Advent and Christmas have focused millions of hearts and minds around the world on the story of Jesus’ birth as it is recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Gabriel, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, the Magnificat, the birth of John, Nazareth, the census, Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus, Immanuel, shepherds, jubilant angelic messengers, Jerusalem, the Temple, Simeon, Anna, a star, magi, Herod, the slaughter of the innocents, the flight to Egypt, the return to Nazareth; all of these people and places are woven into the tapestry of a timeless story that rests at the very foundation of our faith and at the heart of who we believe Jesus Christ to be.

Intentionally omitted (just to see if you would notice!) from the foregoing list of individuals who are integral to the narrative of the Savior’s birth is someone who is present at nearly every turn in the story… Joseph of Nazareth.

It is somewhat surprising to discover just how little is revealed about Joseph in the Gospels.  He is not mentioned at all in Mark, and is only mentioned in passing in the Fourth Gospel, where twice John records that people referred to Jesus as “the son of Joseph.”  Matthew and Luke, then, serve as our sole sources of information, limited though it is.  For example, what is accepted as common knowledge about Joseph’s occupation as a carpenter rests on a lone reference in Matthew 13:55.  Still, the things which are revealed about him offer powerful insights into Joseph’s faith and character and the vital role that he played in the unfolding drama of God ushering in salvation through Jesus Christ.

Carpentry would have demanded significant physical strength.  The birth narratives similarly bear witness to Joseph’s great strength of faith and character.

But, why refer to Joseph as the “silent type?”  Because nothing from his lips is recorded in the Biblical text; nothing; not a word!  We don’t have a single, solitary quotation of anything Joseph said to Mary, the angelic messengers in his dreams, the shepherds, Simeon, Anna, or the magi.  What we do have, however, is a vivid portrait of love, faith, and commitment in action.

At whatever point Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy, he simply could not accept her explanation of how there came to be an unborn child in her womb.  What man would have believed her?  In addition to her presumed guilt of sexual sin and her unfaithfulness to her betrothed, she was now compounding her iniquity with lies of the most outrageous and imaginative sort.

If Joseph were like every other man, then he was hurt, he was devastated, and he was angry.  He felt completely betrayed by Mary.  This had to be a deal breaker; he could not and would not marry her.  Still, he loved her.  Oh, how he loved her!  He couldn’t bear the thought of other people looking at her the way he now did.  He couldn’t expose Mary’s pregnancy in such a way that would make her the object of scandal, accusation, condemnation, derision, and perhaps even punishment.  He would annul their betrothal and send Mary away underneath the radar of public scrutiny and scorn.

An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, verified Mary’s account of her pregnancy, and instructed him to name the child Jesus when this son, Immanuel, was born (Matt 1:18-25).

“And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him…” That’s Joseph’s M.O.  Three more times (Matt. 2:13-14, 19-21, 22-23) God will communicate to Joseph via dreams and angels.  Three more times Joseph will do precisely as the Lord directed him.   He believes in the God of His fathers, He trusts the voice of the Lord, and submits his own wishes to the Divine will.

Joseph is just an all around stand-up guy: a hard worker, a generous provider, faithful, committed, protective, compassionate, etc.  As a subject of Rome, it is Joseph’s compliance with the requirements of the census that takes him and a very expectant Mary on what must have been an arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  In keeping with the covenant of his fathers, He has Jesus circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21), and gives him the name Jesus, just as Gabriel had instructed Mary and as he himself had been celestially directed in his dream.  Also in keeping with the requirements of the Law of God, Joseph offered sacrifices at the Temple in the Jerusalem when Mary’s postpartum purification had been completed (Luke 2:22-38).

After protecting his family in Egypt and ultimately returning to Nazareth, Joseph led his family (which including four sons and at least two daughters subsequently born to him and Mary) in devotion to God.  He taught his trade of carpentry to Jesus (Mark 6:3).  Joseph ensured that the entire family made an annual pilgrimage from Galilee to Jerusalem for Passover (Luke 2:41).  As an adult, Jesus’ custom of being in the synagogue every Sabbath (Luke 4:16) surely could be traced back to the way he and the rest of his earthly family had been led in habits of faith by Nazareth’s resident carpenter.

What did Joseph say to Mary when he learned of her pregnancy?  How did he humbly and profusely apologize to her after the truth of Mary’s story was confirmed by the angel?  What words and instruction did he routinely impart while raising Someone Else’s son in such a way that he grew in strength, stature, wisdom, the grace of God, and both divine and human favor?  Perhaps one day we will know.

Though somewhat overlooked because he is not granted a speaking part in the inspired Christmas pageant, Joseph most certainly occupies a prominent place in the cloud of witnesses who have preceded us in faith, known not for what he said, but for what he so consistently and faithfully did.

Joseph provides an example of faith that I desire to follow.  If God communicated with me through an angel in a dream and told me what He desired for me to do, I would like to believe that I, like Joseph, would immediately respond as directed.  What if God just wrote it down for me?

What are the chances that a member of the British royal family would show up at your front door, just for the purpose of sharing some conversation and afternoon tea?  What are the chances that your favorite rock group (or country band, for some of you) would park their tour bus in front of your house, set up in your backyard, and cater a barbecue dinner for you, your family, and a group of friends while you enjoyed an impromptu concert.  Slim?  None?  Would never happen?

Multiply those remote odds by several billion exponents and you would arrive at a fraction of the chance that the Creator of the cosmos would come to earth in the form of human flesh.  And yet, He did; not to gain anything, but to give everything. 

Following are a couple of excerpts from an excellent article by Michael Horton, “The Good God Who Came Down,” which appears in the current issue of Christianity Today.  

We prefer to climb up to God through argument, experience, and activity.  But God has climbed down to us, meeting us not in the “high places” we erect, but in the lowest places; in a barn, in suffering our scorn, fellowshipping with sinners, and hanging on a cross.  We don’t ascend from particulars to universals.  Rather, the source of all universal truth has descended to us in the concrete particulars of human history.” 

“There is no passable route from us to God.  We cannot climb the ladder of mysticism, speculation, or merit.  In pride, we try to rise to heaven through reason, but God descends to us in humility and self-sacrificial generosity.  We seek the truth within ourselves or in universal laws derived from our moral intuition, but God surprises us – and his name is Jesus.”

“When the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4).

“The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

“She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

“Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us'” (Matthew 1:22-23).

“Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people: for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in a cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12).

“For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9).

“Although He existed in form of God, He did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.  Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).

“Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift” (II Corinthians 9:15).

Merry Christmas, everyone!!!

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