Tonight at 11:59pm we will bid good riddance to the year 2020. And how many of us cannot wait for a fresh start in 2021? This has been a year like none of us have experienced before. But there have been other challenging years throughout history. For instance, in 1914 the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated. This act threw most of Europe plus Great Britain and the United States into what we now know as WWI. The war raged from 1914-1918 and over 17 million people died and close to 20 million were injured. Right on the heels of this war was the Spanish flu pandemic that lasted for two years and took the lives of another 20-50 million people. The world saw fighting in Korea, Vietnam, and skirmishes elsewhere. There have been race riots, chaos, and political upheaval. Many of us know exactly where we were when President Kennedy was assassinated, and his brother Bobby and Martin Luther King Jr.
And every one of those years, on December 31, people said how glad they were to see that year over. The last Sunday of 2019, which seems like forever ago now, many people shared with me how glad they were the year was almost over and they could not wait for 2020. Now we are saying the same thing about 2020! My point is this, every year has its challenges...some more than others. Every year brings us a chance to grow personally, in our relationships with others, and with God. Our look backwards at the year leaving is colored by what we have focused on. If all we can see are the challenges, pain, struggle, grief, and chaos, then 2020 was a really crummy year.
What if, however, we looked at the year not as a journey up the mountain and back down to the depths, but as a set of train tracks. Because every year there is good and bad. There have been good things this year. They have just gotten lost in the shuffle. And we cannot lose sight of the good things that have happened. Yes, there is a pandemic. Yes, we had to suspend in person worship for a couple of months, but over time RLC had acquired enough pieces of technology to be able to record and make available worship via that technology. No, it wasn't quite the same, but we still got to see a few familiar faces, lift our voices in song and hear God's word read and preached.
Many of us over the course of this year have meet and developed friendships with people we had not known before. As people made phone calls and checked in on one another, new connections were formed. We have seen the medical world race to develop new treatments in their reaction to this pandemic. And much of the world has worked together to develop vaccines to help slow the spread of this virus.
When we think of scripture there were folks who were glad to see one year end and a fresh start in the next. Think of the prophet Ezekiel who was tasked to lay on his left side for 390 days and then on his right for 40 more. At the end of the year, he was no doubt ready to say good riddance to that year and begin the next. Or Jonah after his year spent running from God, ending up in the belly of a whale. The next year had to be better! The followers of Jesus had to be glad to see the year of His crucifixion end. That had been perhaps the worst year of their lives. For all those folks as well as for all of us, there was good mixed in. In all the chaos, pain, grief, we have seen and known God's grace. Jesus promised we would have troubles. No doubt there are times when we wonder if he has chosen the right person for a specific set of challenges, but even in our wondering we can hear Jesus say, ”But take heart, I have overcome the world.”
Maybe that needs to be front and center this next year...”Take heart, I have overcome the world.” That is the reassurance we need to hang onto. There will be challenges. We know that. There are every single year. But our God is way bigger than any challenge we might face, even if we cannot see it at the time. Ezekiel continued with his prophetic ministry. Jonah didn't spend the rest of his life in the belly of a whale. The followers of Jesus received the power of the Holy Spirit and the good news of Jesus Christ spread like wildfire. There will be good news this year. Babies will be born. People will get married and begin lives together. Others will join the church triumphant. We will continue to see medical advances. And there will be scads of people who perform random acts of kindness for people they do not even know.
Our God is still sovereign, and Jesus is still on the throne. And that kid's song...He's got the whole world in His hand...is true. 2020 has been quite a year, but together, with the help of the Lord we have made it through. Next year will bring another set of adventures. And Jesus will walk with us every step of the way.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W
If you think Genesis is a rock band from the 80’s...if you think it was Dr. Doolittle who took two of every kind of animal into a big boat...if you think an epistle is the wife of an apostle, it might be time to read the Bible all the way through! There are many people who are intimidated just thinking about reading the Bible in its entirety. You are not alone. There are strange names, like Jehoshaphat, Nebuchadnezzar, and Methuselah. In fact, there are lists of names like that. There are places that we have never heard of before, many of which do not exist anymore. And places like Sinai, Samaria, Nain, and Gomorrah. At first glance you might think the Bible is just a loose collection of totally unrelated stories. But instead, it is really one big, exciting story, the story of God and His people.
The first words in the Bible are Genesis 1:1, ”In the beginning God...” and we end Revelation with the word AMEN, which means yes, it shall be so. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. In Revelation God creates a new heaven and earth. He has gotten rid of the old which is tainted by sin. What happens in between is the story of God. I always picture a big red string running all the way through the Bible. And that red string is the constancy of God...His mercy, love and grace. Even though the Bible is comprised of 66 books it is one gigantic, seamless story.
This is a story for everyone. Our Sunday school kids will be looking at the Bible on their level as will the confirmation students. Because all of us are invited to read, this is a great opportunity to practice Deuteronomy 6:4-9. Moses reminds us that the words of God should be on our hearts. And we should teach them diligently to our kids, grandkids, all young people so they will know God. God wants us to know His story, to know Him. This is a family story because we are all His precious, beloved sons and daughters.
We will be part of the journey with Abraham's family, a man of great faith. God uses Abraham and his wife Sarah to show that anything is possible with Him. We see the story of Ruth. She is not even an Israelite but, in her faithfulness, she becomes the great grandmother of King David. And she is listed in the genealogy of Jesus. There is a very stubborn Jonah who runs in the opposite direction God sends him. Baalam whose donkey speaks is one of my favorite stories. And somehow, since watching Shrek, I always hear Eddie Murphy's voice when the donkey talks! There are prophets who do strange and peculiar things at God's direction. Jesus chooses a very unlikely group of men to be his disciples, including Peter who often speaks and acts before thinking. And there is Paul, whose life in ministry can only be described as an adventure, one that is NOT for the faint of heart.
And yet, the one person God really wants us to meet is His Son. God wants us to take a long look into His eyes and hear and see that what was begun “In the beginning”, with a perfect place and perfect people, will finally be fully realized in the last chapter of the Bible with Gods New Creation...His perfect people, living in a perfect place, with their perfect Lord. The story of scripture connects us with God's people who have gone before us. But we will be at some time those who have gone before others. Our stories are connected with all the other people of faith’s stories.
So, I encourage you to get out your Bible. If you need a new one, we have some. You can access the reading plan here. If you have questions, please let us know. Find a journal or notebook to keep by your Bible to record thoughts, things God reveals to you and questions. It is OK to write in the margins of your Bible. Highlight or underline passages that have touched your life in some way. We have Bible tabs too, so it is easier to find the books of the Bible. I have probably shared this before...it's an age thing! A Bible that is falling apart belongs to someone who isn't. When we spend time in the Word, we encounter the living God. We find courage, peace, guidance, hope, grace and mercy on those pages, plus a whole lot more.
So come on, it's almost time to begin our journey for a lifetime.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W
So, my dad said I could write once more before the year is over. I probably won’t write much next year because I don’t know too much about the Bible. Anyway, I am in BIG trouble right now because I got bored last night, and I ate some of the thank you notes my Dad had written to people. He writes thank you notes all the time because he told me it is important to say thank you when people do things for you and things that are nice. He was talking about something called Finish Strong and I ate some of those notes. But some just had teeth marks on them so I apologize to people who might one with teeth marks. The others he had to rewrite. So now I am in the doghouse.
There was a story in the Bible my Dad was reading about some men who at first, I thought he said were leopards, but the right word is leper. It is some kind of disease where your fingers and toes and sometimes ears and nose fall off. Anyway, they had to live outside of the town so other people didn’t get the disease. And anytime somebody came near them they had to yell our unclean, unclean. It sounds like a really bad way to have to live. But these ten men all had leprosy and lived outside of their town and one day Jesus came along with a whole big crowd of people. The lepers yelled out unclean, but Jesus didn’t care, and He walked right up to them and told them to go and show themselves to the priest. The only way a leper could go to the priest was if they had been healed. The men took off running and as they ran, they were healed of this awful disease.
I bet they were really excited because that meant they could go back to work and they could see their families again and all their friends. And they had a pretty cool story to tell as well. But here’s the funny thing. Jesus healed all ten of the men but only one of them stopped running and came back to where Jesus was. He came back to say thank you. I think Jesus was happy with this man but sad the other nine kept on running. Because it is important to say thank you.
There are other people in the Bible who said thank you too. A lady named Miriam…she was Moses sister…told God thank you when He helped the Israelites cross the Red Sea when the Egyptians were chasing them. She even sang and danced while she was saying thank you. And there was another lady, and her name was Hannah. She couldn’t have children for a long time and one year when she and her husband went to the temple to pray and give offerings to God she prayed to God for a child. And God answered her prayer! So, she said a big thank you to God for answering her prayer and for the son God gave her. King David said thank you to God a lot, every time God helped him in battle. And the writer of lots of the songs…Dad says they are called Psalms…said thank you many times too.
The Bible has lots of places where women say thanks. Elizabeth who was John the Baptists Mom said thank you because God gave her John and Mary thanked God in a really pretty song called the Magnificat because she got to be Jesus earthly Mom. I bet there were days though when she wondered why God picked her and when Jesus got arrested and the people treated Him bad, I bet Mary wasn’t thanking God for that.
Even Jesus said thank you to God. That time when He had all the people following Him and it got late and they didn’t have anyplace to eat, and Andrew brought Jesus some boy’s lunch of bread and fish…Jesus looked up to God and gave thanks before he broke the bread and fish into enough pieces to feed everybody. And there were A LOT of people to feed. So since even Jesus said thank you, I guess that means it is really important that we tell people thank you too. That guy named Paul was always saying thank you for all the people who believed in Jesus when he wrote them his letters. My Dad says there are lots of people at church to say thank you to. There are all the people who wipe down the pews after each church service to get rid of germs. And there are people who usher…I don’t know what that means…and people who help serve communion and lots of other people too, like the church council and people on something called the budget team. It sounds to me like there are A LOT of people to say thank you to. I probably shouldn’t eat any more notes or my Dad won’t have enough.
So, this is my chance to say thank you. Thank you for reading what I write. I have fun writing to all of you. And I have to say thank you for my mom and dad who give me a place to live and take care of me. They love me too, even when I do something wrong. But Dad says that’s what Jesus does for us. He loves us even when we do something wrong. So maybe Jesus gets the biggest thank you of all. Because without Him, we don’t have anything.
In His Grip
Perhaps some of you received a DNA test kit for Christmas. You know, the test that tells you where your ancestors came from. When you watch the commercials the folks who receive their results are always so excited to know that some percentage of their heritage is from an unexpected place. I have been intrigued to a point but when I have questions, I simply go to the genealogy my grandmother gave each of us and I can go backwards into the 1600’s at least. There are lots of Scandinavian names like Roose and Hasrslav. And the names of tiny towns and farms, some of which no longer exist. I can go to early Boston and discover that I had a relative in the 1600’s who was a pastor. His name was Ichabod Wiswall.
Somehow over the course of this crazy year people are doing all sorts of things to stay connected. Researching genealogy has been one way to do that. It is good to feel and be connected to something bigger than ourselves. We see that in scripture as well. Many times, in the Old Testament we come upon long, ponderous lists of names, many of which we cannot pronounce. It was important for the members of each of the twelve tribes of Israel to keep connected. Their heritage within their tribe was often more important than their heritage as an Israelite. And for those who were of the tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe, it was even more important. Because if you could not prove you were a Levite by genealogy, you could not serve in the temple.
In the New Testament we see two separate genealogies for Jesus. The genealogy in Matthew's gospel goes all the way back to Abraham. This ancestry was linked to God's covenant promises to Israel. First, we see Abraham where God made the covenant that established Israel as God's chosen people. And it affirmed that all people would be blessed through his family. We see David here, who was the anointed king of Israel. Here too is the promise of an ‘anointed one’ who would rule God's people. Jesus was a common name. It means Joshua in Hebrew, meaning Yahweh saves. And Christ, which means anointed, points back towards king David, Gods anointed king. There are five women listed in this genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. This is highly unusual because lineage was typically traced through men. Three of the women, Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba were of questionable character. And two of them, Rahab and Ruth were gentiles. Matthew wrote to people who were believers but had lived most of their lives as Jews. He wrote to prove that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy concerning Him.
Luke gives us the other genealogy of Jesus. He traces his genealogy all the way back to Adam, the son of God. Luke wrote to a very different audience, primarily gentile Christians who had already been taught about Jesus. Luke wrote to assure his readers that Jesus came for all people, Jews and gentiles alike. Luke traces all the way back to Adam because he wanted to show that Jesus is the fulfillment of the hopes of all people. Matthew traces Jesus lineage of royal succession and Luke traces Joseph's physical descent. Both lines converge at Joseph. But both emphasize that Jesus was the Son of David.
John doesn't have a real genealogy as we would think of one, but he too traces Jesus lineage. John, however, takes us straight back to God the Father. John presents Jesus as the eternal, Preexistent and now incarnate Word of God. He highlights Jesus existence throughout eternity with God. “The Word” conveys the idea of divine self-expression or speech. The Word is effective. God speaks and things happen, extraordinary things. That the Word was with God shows a personal relationship and saying the Word was God affirms that this Word, Jesus, was in essence the same God who created the universe.
With enough records, we could all trace our genealogy back to one place, Adam and Eve, the first couple. And, because God created them, we are His sons and daughters as well. Jesus is the true Son, and we are the adopted sons and daughters of Jesus Christ. So, we might be able to trace our lineage for several generations or even hundreds of years but ultimately, we are...first and foremost the sons and daughters of Jesus Christ. We are heirs of His kingdom, and He has made a place for us so that we can spend all of eternity with Him. We will receive new white garments to wear and a name that no one else but He will know.
This is who we truly are. Yes, I can say I am the son of Stanley and the grandson of Edward on my Father's side and the son, grandson and great grandson of a line of men named Fred on my mother's side. But I am really one of Jesus sons, beloved and treasured. You are beloved and treasured as one of Jesus sons or daughters as well. How blessed we are.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W
As we draw closer to the beginning of our journey for a lifetime, I have more thoughts about this Bible we study. The collected books that comprise our Bible are called ‘the canon.’ This word comes from the Greek word canon meaning rule or measuring stick. In the case of the Bible, the canon is closed, meaning no books may be added or subtracted. The canon has been developed through much debate on the part of religious leaders and scholars. There are five basic guiding principles for a book being accepted into the Biblical canon. The first question asks is the book authoritative? Does the book come with a divine “thus saith the Lord”? The next question asked is, is the book prophetic. Was it written by a man of God? This is followed by is the book authentic? If in doubt, toss it out. Is the book dynamic? Does it bring life transforming power? And lastly, was the book received, collected, read, and used by the early people of God?
There are two canons in existence today, the Protestant canon and the Catholic canon which includes the books of the apocrypha. The word apocrypha is a Greek word that means hidden. It is believed these books were written somewhere between 200BC and 400 AD. Some Bibles have the apocryphal books between the Old and New Testaments and others have them mixed throughout. There are scholars who look at these books as having no real point in terms of Christian religion. Reasons include historical and geographical inaccuracies, and they lack distinct elements which give divine scriptures their divine character. Some even go so far as to believe they teach false doctrine.
Our Old Testament is divided into several sections. The first five books, believed to be written by Moses are called the Pentateuch, penta meaning five. These books are followed by history, poetry, and prophecy. And the books of prophecy are divided into major and minor prophets. The distinction has nothing to do with the book's importance. It has everything to do with the book's length. The New Testament is divided into the gospels, Paul's letters, general letters, and prophecy...the Book of Revelation.
There are folks who ask why it is important to read and study the Bible. And there are others who tell me I have read it once and I don't need to read it again. Except, the Word of God is a living word and each time we read, God reveals different things to us. It is exciting and transformative all at the same time. And, it is a challenge and a huge undertaking. Here are some scriptures that speak to why we read the Bible. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17 we read, ”All scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, corrections and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The words we have in our Bible went directly from God to the writer of that specific book. These are not man's thoughts but God's. The psalmist has several things to say about reading God's Word. 119:11 tells us, ”I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” And psalm 119:105 reminds us, ”Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” And Jesus tells us in John 8:12 ”I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” In other words, Jesus who is light will light the way for us to follow Him. He will lead us on the right path and in the things, He would have us do in His name. In the Book of Acts Luke reminds us, ”Now I commit you to God and to the Word of His grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”
Spending time in God's Word is vital for our spiritual growth and for the growth of our relationship with the Lord. We will have Bibles available for one more Sunday. The reading plan is available in the box in front of the office along with the Indeed devotionals. We will also be sending an email out with the reading plan attached. You will be able to find it on our website as well.
Perhaps I sound like a broken record. It would not be the first time, nor will it be the last. We live in a world full of challenges and struggles. Yes, we have good times as well but no matter what is happening, we still need the Lord in our lives. He is the one constant we have. There is no grace like the grace we receive from Him. His peace surpasses anything the world might offer, and He continues to lavish His love on us whether or not we deserve it. So once again I invite you along on the journey of a lifetime. We begin January 1,2021.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W
Today is the first day of Christmas, the day my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree. It is the first of twelve days that ends on January 6, Epiphany. This is the traditional day set aside as the day the Wise Men arrived to visit the baby Jesus. According to the 2020 Christmas price index if you were to purchase and give the twelve days of Christmas this year it will cost you $16,168.14. This is a decrease from last year's high of $38,993.59. Other sources put the figure much higher, some as much as $107,000.00! For Christians these twelve days are the period between Christmas and epiphany.
The song, the twelve days of Christmas has a bit of a murky origin. Some believe it was originally part of a memory and forfeits game. It was a test to see how much you could remember and if you made a mistake then you had to award your fellow players a ’forfeit' such as a kiss or some sort of favor like a piece of candy. Some believe the five gold rings were not actually jewelry but the markings of a ring neck pheasant. Either way, this song involves A LOT of birds. Many look at this song as way to teach the tenants of Christianity while the church was under persecution.
This is the day after Christmas, Boxing Day in Great Britain. It was originally a day for the rich to box up gifts for the poor. It is a day when the servants traditionally had the day off and the day, they received a special Christmas box from their masters. Today it is a bank holiday and mostly a shopping day. It is also the first day of Kwanza. The name Kwanza comes from a Swahili phrase that means first fruits. It is in fact a harvest festival of sorts. The holiday is marked by the lighting of seven candles in a candelabra. Each candle stands for a specific principle: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Celebrations often include songs, dances, storytelling, and food. This is a cultural holiday, not a religious observance, honoring both bountiful harvest...hence the first fruits...and the value of community.
This is a day of eating leftovers and picking up the remains of yesterday's festivities. Perhaps some will begin taking down decorations. No doubt Mary and Joseph spent the day after Jesus birth figuring out how to care for this child God had given them. They were first time parents. That is harrowing enough but to be first time parents to the Son of God had to be quite daunting. We know they were people of faith. On the eight day they took him to the temple to be named, circumcised and presented to the Lord. Traditionally the firstborn son was named after his father, but the angel had told both Mary and Joseph this child would be named Jesus.
Jesus was an ordinary baby but so many things were different. His conception, His name, His birth in a stable away from home and family, the shepherds visit. Scripture tells us Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Those same things must have left Joseph scratching his head. We saw Mary after the angel visited her, singing praises to God. She didn't hesitate when the angel spoke. Instead, she accepted what God had for her. Joseph on the other hand, wanted to turn and run, leaving Mary behind. Sometimes when God calls us to tasks that seem impossible, running is our first response. But Joseph learned, just as the disciples learned, that when God calls, He has a plan and a purpose. We may not always be privy to all the details. But our first task when He calls is not to ask why, or where, or when or how or who. Our first task is to trust in what God is calling us to do. He already knows all the details! This is what living in God's will vs. ours looks like.
That means setting our plans and dreams aside, painful as that might be, and allowing God to guide our lives. We see this all through scripture. It was not easy then and it is not easy now. But God has a plan and I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that life goes much smoother when I get out of Gods way and let Him take the lead. Joseph learned that lesson, as did the prophets and apostles and thousands of others who believe.
It is the day after Christmas. The journey is just beginning.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W
By this time of the day the presents have been unwrapped. The mounds of paper, ribbons, bows, gift bags and boxes have been piled up and perhaps thrown away or recycled. Toys have been played with, electronic gadgets have been put to use and clothes have been tried on. The gift cards have been tucked away for later or maybe there has been some online shopping already. And some of us have had a long winter's nap! Some have celebrated birthdays today...a kids curse. It is not easy to have your birthday overshadowed by the birth of Christ. But how cool to celebrate on the same day.
Worship services have been conducted. Perhaps choirs have sung. Messages have been preached. Christians all over the world have stood in the candlelight and sung Silent Night. Worship looked different this year. People wore masks and distanced. Attendance numbers were capped for each service. There weren't crowds of people squeezing into each pew. and yet, worship was the same. We sang the familiar songs and maybe a new one or two. The gospel lesson from Luke 2 was read. Once again, we listened to the story. A census was ordered for the purpose of imposing a tax on everyone in the Roman Empire. Mary, 9 months pregnant along with Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem. There was no room anywhere except for a stable. Jesus was born there, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a feeding trough. Angels came and scared shepherds out in the fields half to death.
The angel came with news God's people had been waiting for, for centuries. The Savior was born! He was in Bethlehem! And the shepherds made haste to go see. It was true. They saw with their own two eyes. The prophets were right after all. God made a promise and He kept it. It was miraculous and wonderful. The story is told by young and old. Some read it at the table before Christmas dinner is served. Others hear it at church, and some have only heard this story because they watch the Charlie Brown Christmas special on TV. And some watch kids at a Christmas pageant act out the familiar story. Handel took the story and set it to music. However you have heard it, this story never gets old.
It is evening. The sun has set, and lights have come on all over the neighborhood. I can still see the planets Saturn and Jupiter in the sky. Many will say Christmas is over until next year. BUT, the adventure is just beginning. The day of Jesus birth may be over, but Jesus life is just starting. We are just beginning to see the power, might and awe of Jesus Christ. Even though the angel and the heavenly host were amazing God could say to all of us...you ain't seen nothing yet. There is much more to come. The story is just unfolding. Babies are wonderful and they often make adults do silly things. But babies grow up and we see that in Jesus. We see Him in the temple when He was twelve. And then when He begins His public ministry at age thirty.
There are miracles to witness, teaching to hear and study, and eventually after three years of public ministry we will witness once again Jesus death and resurrection. Along the way we will meet a cast of characters that sometimes doesn't look much different than we do. We see those who have doubts and those who have incredible faith. We look on as the scribes and Pharisees, Sadducees and priests look for a way to thwart Jesus. We see people on the fringes of faith and those whose faith never wavers. We will encounter those who stand in awe of what Jesus has done and those who see but can't or won't acknowledge Him. All of them, just like us.
We are going on a journey this year, the journey of a lifetime. And we are journeying together. Beginning January 1,2021, we are going to read the Bible all the way through, beginning to end...Genesis to Revelation. I invite you to come along. It is an amazing journey. Think of the people you will meet. Some you have heard of and others, well, you won't even be able to pronounce their names. Some of the stories will be familiar and there will be times when you say I didn't know that was in the Bible. This is a journey through God's Word, 66 books written by 40 different authors in three different languages in many different genres. But I digress. I am excited about this journey and I hope you are as well.
But right now, it is still Christmas Day. My prayer for each of you is that the Lord will bless you and keep you. That He will make His face shine on you and be gracious to you. That He will lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace. Merry Christmas
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W
The day has finally arrived! It is Christmas Eve. Perhaps there is last minute wrapping or shopping. Maybe the table needs to be set. Just one more batch of cookies! Kids who have been shaking packages for what seems like forever have almost made it. Sermons all over the world are ready to be preached and the table is set at church as well. It is Christmas Eve.
Whether you have heard the Christmas story read in the church for years or your first hearing was done by Linus with his blue blanket wrapped around his head like a shepherd, that story is why we celebrate. Many of our beloved Christmas carols and hymns tell not only of Jesus birth but the reason why He came in the first place. In Joy to the world, we proclaim the Lord has come. And the whole world rejoices...heaven and nature sing. Why? Because sin didn't just affect people. It has affected all of creation. There is cause for worship and praise. The Lord has come! In What child is this we sing the King of kings salvation brings. A reminder of just who Jesus really is. One verse reminds us that nails, spears will pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me and you. That is why He came. So even on the night we celebrate His birth we are looking forward to the cross, the real reason He came.
O little town of Bethlehem calls on Jesus to cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today. This is what Jesus is all about, becoming the center of our lives and dwelling within us. An old Polish carol speaks of the shepherds who, ”saw the glory, heard the story, tidings of a gospel true.” The best message ever was proclaimed first to dirty, smelly, unclean shepherds. Why them? Maybe because Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Perhaps because He came for everybody. Maybe, just maybe because those 'in the know’ about all things religious would not have believed or shared the message. Martin Luther wrote a Christmas hymn that has 14 verses!!! It tells the whole story of Jesus, beginning to end. Many of the hymns we sing teach theology and Bible stories. This hymn is one of them. Luther was very good at this.
We even see the fulfillment of prophecy written in Christmas hymns. In a German carol from the fifteenth century, entitled Lo how a rose Ere blooming, the prophet Isaiah tells us in 11:1, ”There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” And the hymn tells us, lo how a rose ere blooming, a bloom of finest grace. The prophets have foretold it, a branch of Jesse's race; would bear the perfect flower here in the cold of winter and darkest midnight hour.
Angels sink Hark! and glory! All to the newborn king. Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled. That is cause for great celebration because without that, we have no hope of eternal life with God. Without that we do not have a way to return to the Lord. In a beloved kids Christmas song, we sing away in a manger. But it the third verse...be near me Lord Jesus I ask you to stay, close by me forever and love me I pray. Bless all the dear children in your tender care and fit us for heaven to live with you there. That is what all of us would wish for...to have Jesus with us every step of the way and to live in such a way that we spend all of eternity with Him.
We are called to go tell the Good news on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. And in perhaps one of the most beloved of all Christmas hymns, silent night we confess that Christ the Savior is born. It is a time-honored tradition that we sing this song in candlelight. Every year as I sing this beloved song, or try to sing it, I can see the faces of so many people I have had the privilege to serve in ministry. I can see both my mother and my favorite grandmother, their faces illuminated by candlelight. People from every church I have served, including the chapel at seminary. It is a collage of young and old, classmates and colleagues, people who are still living and serving our Lord and Savior and those who have joined the church triumphant.
I am always fascinated how one light can make such as difference in the dark and then to watch slowly as a warm light fills the sanctuary. It is, as Pastor Dick would say, a holy moment, sacred ground that we stand on. So, this night or tomorrow when you sing the songs, pay attention to the words. Confess that Jesus is Lord. Shout praises and thanks for this incredible gift. And remember, He did this for you.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W
I have written about 1 Corinthians 13 before, but I recently came across a different version. This one is a Christmas version, and I cannot take credit for the writing. It goes like this. If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strands of twinkling lights and shiny balls, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another decorator. If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime, but I do not show love to my family, I’m just another cook. If I work at the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home, and give all that I have to charity, but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing. If I trim the spruce with shimmering angels and crocheted snowflakes, attend a myriad of holiday parties and sing in the choir’s cantata, but do not focus on those I love the most, I have missed the point.
In other words: Love stops to hug a child. Love sets aside the decorating to kiss the spouse. Love is kind, though harried and tired. Love doesn’t envy another’s home that has coordinated Christmas china and table linens. Love doesn’t yell at the kids to get out of the way but is thankful they are there to be in the way. Love doesn’t give only to those who are able to give in return but rejoices in giving to those who can’t. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. LOVE NEVER FAILS. Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust. But the gift of love will endure.
By this time of the year most years, many of us are too tired to enjoy the holiday. We have shopped, wrapped, mailed, decorated and cooked/bakes until we are ready to drop. When we finally get to the Christmas Eve service we are done with the holiday. I have never read how the folks in Jesus day celebrated their birthdays, if they even did. Once the angels went back into heaven and the shepherds left, it was pretty quiet for Mary and Joseph. There were no extravagant parties and Jesus may have spent one birthday in Egypt. The first recorded celebration of Jesus birth was in 336 A.D. during the reign of the emperor Constantine. He was the first Christian Roman Emperor. The early church sometimes celebrated Christmas on January 6, the day they celebrated the Epiphany, which means the revelation that Jesus was God’s Son. It is also the traditional date of the arrival of the Wise Men.
Everyone celebrates the holiday differently. Growing up mine included lefse and lutefisk along with boiled potatoes and other non colored foods. Mincemeat pie and spritz cookies along with krumkake and rosettes were also a must. Some families only exchange three gifts because that is what the Wise Men brought. Others go all out, and some can afford very little. For many more it isn’t so much the trappings and the hustle and bustle that makes the holiday. It is the precious time spent with family and friends and friends who have become family. And this year nearly everything has changed because of COVID.
Sometimes we get so busy “doing” Christmas, we forget what the holiday is really all about. There is a song and a poem both entitled “Love came down at Christmas”. And we sing, “Of the Father’s Love begotten”. Both of these speak to what God did in the world when He sent His one and only Son. I have said it over and over again. Jesus came as a tiny baby, born just like the rest of us. He was ordinary, just like we are. He lived as we live, except in His 33 years He did not sin. That makes Him perfect. That also makes Him the only one who could make a way for us to return to the Lord in a relationship that is no longer tainted by sin. We read John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever should believe in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” That is what Christmas is all about. Jesus came to pay the price for our sins and the manger points squarely towards the cross. We love because God first loved us, and that is what we share with one another. Everything else is just stuff. But love lasts forever. And God’s love never fails. We see it in the way He carefully and tenderly stoops down to take the dust of the earth to form the first human. We see it when He provided water from a rock for the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness. We see it in the prophecies of warning that His people ignored, and we see God’s love as His people are restored once again in Jerusalem after their exile.
We see the love of God in the tiny baby whose birth we celebrate and, in His healings, and teachings. We see the love of God throughout scripture. This is His story, about the way He continues to love His people even when they don’t love Him back. This is what we celebrate. We may have all the trappings and such, and there is nothing wrong with that. But if the Love of God in Jesus Christ doesn’t come first, then we have nothing.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt w
As I looked at pictures of last night’s star in the sky…the Bethlehem star that hasn’t been seen this close in centuries, the words of one of our beloved Christmas hymns ran through my head. It is the refrain from We Three Kings, and it goes like this: “Oh, star of wonder, star of might. Star with royal beauty bright. Westward leading, still proceeding. Guide us to thy perfect light.” Depending on where you were last night, the view of the ‘star’ differed. Some truly saw a very bright star and others not as much. The pictures from Lowell observatory showed clearly both planets, Saturn, and Jupiter in all their splendor. In and of themselves they are bright and beautiful, and they remind me of scripture. Psalm 19:1 tells us, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.”
The night sky was no doubt pitch black in the days of Jesus, so this bright star would have shone mightily. It would have caught the attention of anyone who was paying attention. How interesting is it then that it wasn’t the learned Hebrew scholars who saw the star and watched it to see what happened. It was astronomers, Wise Men from the East, most likely Persia who saw the star and knew something big was happening. They were willing to follow it anywhere just to see where it led them and to what, or whom.
Isaiah tells us “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. On those who walked in a land of deep darkness on them has light shined.” Isaiah 9:2. Darkness here isn’t just physical darkness but spiritual darkness as well. Israel was living apart from the covenant relationship with God. They were engaged in many activities that did not please, honor or give God glory. We too are living in a land of deep darkness. Many have walked away from God. People are living an anything goes sort of life. Many today do things that do not please, honor, or give glory to God. We too have given up on the covenant promises of God. This year has been filled with more darkness than light for many people. So last night, on the darkest and longest night of the year the Bethlehem star appeared. It reminds that we are not alone, that Jesus, Emmanuel, goes with us wherever we go. This star reminds that there is hope and a promise has been made.
How many of us put a star on top of our Christmas trees? Do we really ever think about that star or is it just one of many things that goes on our tree. The angel told the shepherds there was a sign. They would find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a manger. But the Star in the East that moved West to lead the Wise Men to Jesus also followed a sign. A bright star that appeared in the dark night sky. The people needed hope and assurance then too. There was racial unrest and discrimination and political upheaval then as well. Today doesn’t look all that different than it did 2,000 years ago.
There are many today who look at the Christmas story in the gospel of Luke and they scoff. It seems an idle tale, a fairy tale, nothing that is real or truly to be believed. But science is true. We saw with our own eyes last night ‘the Bethlehem Star’. The star is real. And for those who have doubts, scripture tells us there was a star and Wise Men followed it a long way. It led them to a child…the Son of God, the Savior of the world. That too is true. Scripture can’t be partly true and partly fantasy or fiction. The Wise Men followed exactly what the world witnessed last night, a star, part of the glories of God. He hung those planets in the sky at creation. They have been following the courses God set out for them since the beginning.
The song says guide us to thy perfect light. And we know that perfect light is Jesus Christ. He calls Himself the Light of the World. John 8:12. He is the light that guides our feet and helps us along the path of our lives. The night the shepherds hurried to the stable there may not have been much light, at least not after the heavenly host returned to heaven. But there was light in their hearts, their souls. They may not have been educated in school, but they knew the faith. They knew someday the long-awaited Messiah would come. But I bet they never in a million years dreamed they would be the first to see the Light of the World.
The star is supposed to be visible the rest of the week though not as pronounced as last night. I pray for all of you that you not only follow the star but that you have an encounter with the baby born that night, the one who is the Light of the World. He will change your life…forever. I promise.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W