Early Christmas Gifts
Anyone who comes to [God] must believe he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. –Hebrews 11:6
Read: Hebrews 11:1-6
Reflect: These days my 10- and 8-year-old daughters are having lots of conversations with their 5- and 3-year-old brothers about Santa Claus. Does he exist? Will he bring presents? The boys are eagerly anticipating Santa’s coming. My girls no longer share their brothers’ fervent faith.
A similar conversation takes place in today’s Scripture. Does God exist? Hebrews’ answer: Yes! Will God bring presents? Yes, again! But how do we know? Hebrews provides two answers.
First, Hebrews takes us back to the very beginning of creation itself. Long before time begins, God speaks new life into being, calling order out of chaos. Later, God makes new creation visible in the birth of the Son. Further on, God establishes everlasting life in the resurrection. Now, God promises an eternally renewed world when our King returns. God bestows blessings upon blessings coming and going. (Forget Santa. I can’t wait ’til God comes!)
Second, Hebrews draws our attention to the countless saints who have gone ahead of us in the Way. Hebrews 11-12 describes people willing to stake their lives on God. They suffered and died for their faith in God and God’s promises. (Is anyone willing to do the same for the sake of Santa?)
The fact that thousands of people from thousands of communities over thousands of years have seen evidence of a life-creating, world-redeeming God tells me that putting my hope and faith in Jesus is a sure thing.
—J Janzen (2015)
Respond: God, the many early Christmas gifts from you lead me to believe that you exist. Here is my gift to you: a desire to earnestly seek you.
Who Is This?
Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” —Luke 8:24
Read: Luke 8:19-25
Reflect: By the time the disciples get in the boat, they have seen Jesus raise the dead to life (7:14-15), give sight to the blind, and heal people of diseases, plagues, and demons (7:21). Now, the simple rebuke that calms the wind and the raging waves throws Jesus’ disciples into turmoil: Who can this be?
Compare that to an earlier story told in Luke 2. A handful of shepherds are drowsily minding their flock when the night sky bursts into a light and music show that would put Disneyland to shame. In all the hullabaloo a voice?—an angel?—declares, The Messiah is born! You’ll find the child in a manger.
How the shepherds know that Bethlehem is the place to look is anybody’s guess, but they zip into town, and find the little One and his parents tucked away among some farm animals. And once they’ve seen him, the shepherds brag about their crazy visions to all who will listen (and those who won’t).
Why is a little miracle who eats, sleeps, and smiles as he passes gas more convincing than the miracles performed by a 30-year-old Jesus? What’s wrong with the disciples that they are blind? And what’s right with the shepherds that they can see? No one can say for sure.
More importantly, both stories pose the annual Christmas question that you and I must answer for ourselves. Based on what you know, who is he in yonder stall? Who is he that the winds and the waters obey him?
—J Janzen (2015)
Respond: Who is He to whom they bring all the sick and sorrowing? . . . ’Tis the Lord! the King of glory! At his feet we humbly fall, Crown Him! Crown Him, Lord of all! (Benjamin R. Hanby)
A Crummy Christmas
Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish. —Matthew 15:28
Read: Matthew 15:21-31
Reflect: Last week my 3-year-old son picked a scrap of food off the floor. It was popped in his mouth, chewed up, and swallowed before I could stop him. “Yum!” he grinned.
Two things stand out to me in today’s Scripture reading. First, Jesus reacts to the Canaanite woman much the way I did to my son: Jesus recoils. Jesus ignores the woman’s cry for help (v. 23), then he says Israel must be fed before the Gentiles (v. 26)! (First-century Jews regularly dismissed Gentiles as inferior by calling them dogs. Why does Jesus do this, too?)
Second, instead of letting the insult distract her, the Canaanite woman takes Jesus’ words and uses them to her advantage. Her response could be paraphrased like so: “Yes, God’s promises will be fulfilled first in Israel. And that means that God’s blessing will ultimately be shared with the whole world! But don’t make me wait. Throw me a bone now! I want an early Easter present!”
Jesus’ callous behavior reminds me that God’s gifts rarely arrive neatly packaged according to my timetable and to my tastes. (God can’t be boxed in!) The Canaanite woman’s behavior reminds me that if I’m distracted by disappointments and unmet expectations, I’ll miss out on receiving the life-changing presents available to me.
Turkey is on today’s Christmas menu at our house. Yet I’m starting to think a few scraps from the Master’s table will be a far more satisfying feast. I wish you a very “crumby” Christmas . . .
Respond: God is great and God is good! Let us thank God for our food. By God’s hands we all are fed. Thank you Lord for daily bread!
My Christmas Wish
I believe; help my unbelief! –Mark 9:24
Read: Mark 9:14-24
Reflect: This morning my two daughters and two sons woke up before sunrise to see what Santa had left in their stockings. There has been much “glorifying and praising God” (Luke 2:20).
But as I treasure the joy of my children, I’m pondering other things in my heart. In today’s Scripture, a crowd is in turmoil (vv. 14, 19). How many people today are sitting across the table at odds with one another? How many countries are suffering instability? In the middle of the confusion is a boy who is caught in the grips of a demonic sickness (vv. 17-18, 20-22). How many people are enslaved by addictions, illnesses, and other limitations? And sadly, the efforts and prayers of Jesus’ friends seem unable to make a difference (vv. 18, 28)—an all-too-familiar reality in our day and age.
Today we celebrate the birth of the Savior, the promised Gift who will rescue us from sin, evil, and death through his life, crucifixion, and resurrection. But like the desperate and despairing father, I sometimes wonder if Jesus really is “able to do anything” to help us (v. 22). Christmas may have come for me and my children, but what about Christmas for the homeless? The refugee? The orphan?
In today’s Scripture, the father cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” What a prayer to offer Jesus as a Christmas present! What a Christmas wish!
Respond: I believe, Jesus! Help me in my unbelief, so that I might be a gift—your hands and feet—to the world you deeply love.
When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, . . . to redeem those who were under the law. —Galatians 4:4-5
Read: Galatians 4:4-7
Reflect: In Exodus 2 a son is born. This son will free Israel from slavery and lead God’s people out of Egypt, through the wilderness, to their promised inheritance. Exodus 12 describes Passover, the pivotal moment when Israel is released from bondage. Forty days later, Israel arrives at Sinai, where God gives the people the Law to guide them (Exodus 19-24).
In today’s Scripture, Paul describes a new exodus. Only this time Gentiles are “enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world” (v. 3) and the Jews are enslaved “under the Law” (v. 5). At Christmas, Paul tells us, God’s Son is born. This Son redeems people from bondage to idols and powers (among other things) and leads them to the promised inheritance: adoption as God’s children (vv. 5-6). Galatians 3:13 describes the new Passover, the cross—the pivotal moment when Gentiles and Jews are redeemed from slavery. Forty days later, God gives the people something better than the Law. God gives the Holy Spirit (v. 6; see also Acts 2).
Moses and Jesus. Exodus and Christmas. Passover and Easter. Israel and the church. With more than sugarplums dancing in our heads, Paul the storyteller now shifts his attention and points his finger at you. God does not pass you over. You are no longer a slave. You are a child of God. You are God’s heir. God has sent the Spirit of Jesus into your heart. What good news! What else could make Christmas merrier?
Respond: Jesus makes us his brothers and sisters, children of the Father. What glad tidings you and your kin! Thank you, Abba!
In the Shade of the Jesse Tree
For as the earth brings forth its shoots . . . so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up. –Isaiah 61:11
Read: Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Reflect: In 2012 my church celebrated Christmas Eve by decorating Jesse Trees. The ornaments and symbols of the Jesse Tree trace the story of God’s love from creation to cross and beyond.
In Genesis 3 the fruit of a tree introduces the weeds of sin and the thorns of death into the garden that was God’s good world.
In Genesis 17 God plants seeds of hope when he promises that Abraham’s descendants will blossom into a nation that will bless the whole world.
In 1 Samuel 16 and 2 Samuel 5 a budding nation is given King David, the offspring of Jesse.
The prophets describe how Israel failed in its mandate to bless the world. Yet the prophets hold out the promise of a day when a Branch will bless all of creation with the fruit of justice and righteousness (Isaiah 9, 11, 27; Ezekiel 17; Jeremiah 23, 33; Amos 9).
Matthew 1 and Luke 1-2 announce that the long awaited dream is coming to fruition. As the apple of God’s eye is hung from the tree, sin, evil and death are defeated once and for all and forevermore (see Acts 5, 10, 13; Galatians 3; 1 Peter 2)!
Colossians 1 and Revelation 22 remind us that the Tree of Life is growing stronger and stronger, spreading it’s roots and branches wider and wider until one day all things are fully and completely healed.
That’s some Christmas tree!
Respond: I rejoice in you, O Lord, my whole being exults in you; for you have covered us with righteousness, and your salvation shines out like the dawn!
Go in Peace?
Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, . . .for my eyes have seen your salvation. —Luke 2:29-30
Read: Luke 2:22-40
Reflect: The birth of Jesus is been marked by one prophetic announcement after another. An angel prophesies to Zechariah (Luke 1:13-20). Gabriel prophesies to Mary (1:26-38). Mary breaks out into prophecy with Elizabeth (1:41-55) followed by Zechariah’s prophetic words (1:67-79). Then angelic predictions turn shepherds into prophets (2:8-18).
Jesus’ birth story concludes with the prophetic words of Simeon and Anna. Remember how hard it was to wait to open Christmas presents? The few days leading up to the big moment seemed to stretch on forever, didn’t they? Now imagine the joy, the relief, the surprise of Simeon and Anna who had to wait for years and years and years. The baby Jesus is a sight for sore eyes gone almost blind looking for Israel’s Redeemer. No wonder they burst forth in praise!
As is typical of prophecies, the words of Simeon and Anna have an edge to them. As Simeon says to Mary, there is a cost to salvation. To receive a gift requires that we let go of something else. If we embrace Jesus, we won’t be able to hold on to other things. Sometimes Jesus may lead us places we’d prefer not to go . . .
As we wrap up our Christmas celebrations, the Master dismisses us. Do you go praising God and speaking about the child to all who are looking for redemption? Or do you go feeling apprehensive or discouraged—with the overwhelming sense that a sword is hanging over your head? My prayer is that you go in peace, knowing that the painful glory of Jesus is sweeter than all else.
Respond: Master, my eyes have seen your salvation again this Christmas. Glory to you! Bless me so that I may go in peace to speak about you to all who seek redemption.