Discovering Spiritual Truths & Celebrating God's Grace in the Every Day Happenings of Life.
Too big. Too tight.
Already have it. Doesn’t work.
Not needed. Not my style.
Seriously, what were they thinking?!
For these and many other reasons, the days after Christmas are the busiest “return” days of the year. Have you stood in a long return line at Target, Kohl’s or elsewhere yet? I was at the UPS store yesterday morning, just after they opened, and was still 8-customers deep in the line. Americans return nearly $90 billion worth of gifts every year. According to the National Retail Federation, more than half of all shoppers say they will return or exchange any unwanted gifts within the first month after Christmas. Based on numbers from last year, UPS alone estimates they will process more than 60 million holiday returns. Despite the best intentions of friends and families, some gifts just don’t work out. Returned holiday gifts are a fact of life. Not every gift is going to be a winner.
But did you know that it was actually the raggedy, dirty old shepherds who made the first Christmas return? Luke 2:20 says, “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” Yes, indeed, it was the unlikely first guests of Jesus’ birth that found themselves with the first Christmas return. It was not a return rooted in disappointment or dissatisfaction. Quite the contrary! It was an invaluable return; one that most assuredly changed their lives forever. It was a return that they didn’t want to send back. They didn't want to exchange for something different. They were excited about it. They wanted to keep it; and they shared it with anyone who would listen. After the shepherd’s early encounter with the heavenly hosts and precious time spent with the holy family, these shepherds would never be the same. They were uplifted. They were rejoicing. They were praising God for all they had heard and seen.
Why so? After all they still had to go back to the same unimpressive jobs. It’s not like they won the lottery, found new wealth, or even a better profession. So why did these men return to the sheep fields with such a newfound sense of jubilation?
As you may expect, the life of a shepherd would never land them on the cover of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Though a necessary work, it wasn’t the most appreciated and certainly not sought after. These shepherds were off the grid and far from most people’s minds, living away from their families outside of town. And this particular group of shepherds, more likely than not, drew the short straw having to work the night shift—risking their lives for a bunch a sheep against thieves and predators for a menial salary. It is unexpected then, yet very much divinely prescribed, that these are the first to hear “good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” The angel squashed their fear and returned their gaze to the heavens, declaring, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” These poor, stinky shepherds knew immediately that this was not just a gift given for others, but a gift given for them also! Rather than announcing Christ's birth to kings, scholars, or priests, the angels went to "ordinary" persons (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:26–30). The message of the gospel is universal, and accessible to all—a fact echoed in the way angels first carried it to everyday laborers in humble circumstances. And because the shepherds received this good news, and found the Gift hand-wrapped by Mary herself, they returned to their lives rejoicing in the love of God shown and given to them.
So, as you are out making your returns this post-Christmas season, may the good news of the Savior born, lead you to return to a life filled with praise and thanksgiving!
“I truly believe that if we keep telling the Christmas story, singing the Christmas songs, and living the Christmas spirit, we can bring joy and happiness and peace to this world.” (Norman Vincent Peale)
“Well, this is one Christmas shepherd who’s going to keep his trusty blanket with him.” (Linus, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Check this out!)
Recently, my Dad recommended a new, binge-worthy series on Amazon Prime. I watched it. It was really good…
I’m glad he told me about it.
Several weeks ago, a family member recommended we visit a local cidery. My wife and I went and we had a fantastic time together…
I’m glad she recommended it.
Way back in August, a church member invited my son and me to a NY Mets game. He was even willing to drive into the city. We went. The Mets won. We had an awesome time…
I’m glad he invited us.
Frequently, we will try a new restaurant based on a good review or recommendation. After a satisfying meal and good experience, I’ll often think…
I’m glad they encouraged us to try this place.
This past Friday night, we had 11 preschool and 8 church families here at church for a Gingerbread Family Event. They loved it…
“Thanks for inviting us. We had so much fun.”
Do you get the point?
Am I being too subtle?
Are you picking up what I'm putting down? 😉
3 days away. Christmas weekend is nearly upon us. Don’t let people miss out. No matter where you will be worshiping this weekend, bring someone else with you. Extend the invitation to your family, friends, and neighbors to join you in worship this weekend.
“How then can they call on the One in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in the One of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-15)
Maybe there is something to the repetition of it all?!? The predictable and the familiar doesn't always have to be a bad or mundane thing. I can almost guarantee that you will not hear any breaking news when you come to church this Christmas. Very likely, nothing will shock you or leave you speechless. No special additions or previously unseen characters. After all, the story hasn’t changed. We follow the same star. We travel to the same manger. We marvel at the same angels. We stand alongside the same shepherds. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” (KJV, Luke 2:11-12)
Sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it?
For over 17 years now, my wife and I have shared presents with each other at Christmas. With varying degrees of excitement and practicality, we exchange gifts as an expression of love and thankfulness for each other. In the early years of our marriage, we’d occasionally try to recount the different gifts shared at past Christmas, birthdays or anniversaries. It was fun to relive the gifts we had shared as it brought to mind different memories or stories from years gone by. But as the years have progressed and with more attention focused on gifts for our kiddos, it has become impossible for us recall each gift given and received from one year to the next. After all, I can’t remember half of what happened to me in the last week. Truthfully, many of those gifts have probably since been thrown out or used up; they no longer work or are no longer needed. It is not that the gifts weren’t special or appreciated, it is just near unachievable to find a gift that stands the test of time. Maybe then, there really is something special and news-worthy to the unchanging story we encounter each Christmas season.
The repetition of God’s beautiful gift given to us in the Christ Child firmly imprints itself on our hearts and in our minds. Unlike clothes that have worn out or gadgets that are outdated, the incredible message of Christmas is timeless. It speaks just as much comfort to us today as it did 2000 years ago. Today the “good tidings of great joy” is just as relevant and sorely needed in our culture and our personal lives as ever before. We need to hear of God’s great act of love to put back our sin-shattered lives. We need to hear that there is still hope in despair and peace in the midst of hardships. We need to hear that all is not lost, that we are loved and passionately pursued by the Creator.
To be fair, we don’t always like repetition. None of us do. If a song comes on the radio too much, we change the station. If our favorite TV show comes on with a rerun, we flip to another channel. If our children wear the same clothes every day, teachers will start to get concerned. If we start eating the same thing for dinner each night, eventually our taste buds will rise in protest. But we dare not tune out the Christmas story. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8) No matter how many times we’ve heard it before. We still need it. Desperately. The gift of a Savior, light breaking into our world of darkness to uplift and redeem us.
Even though my wife and I can no longer recall the exchanged gifts of the past, one thing we never fatigue of is hearing about how much we love each other. Our children never get tired of hearing how much their parents love them. Parents never get tired of hearing their children say how much they love us. Christmas is God’s emphatic—and wonderfully repetitious—declaration of His unchanging and unmatched love for you. We sing with the angels and rejoice with the shepherds again and again, year after year, because God shows His great mercy for us in flesh and blood form. We see the “goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior” who appeared to save us and make us heirs to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7) We don’t enter into a candlelit church just for tradition’s sake, to hear a familiar story. So much more is happening. God is again revealing Himself to us. God is again showing up in our midst. He is again dwelling among His people. Yes indeed, something awesome happens when we gather to worship, again, at Christmas. We peer into the manger, past the hay and animals, to gaze upon a child wrapped in swaddling clothes—the divine and perfect Gift that lasts forever. “Behold, the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel which means “God with us.” (Matt. 1:23)
Beautiful words! God is with YOU today and always. For YOU a Savior is born. My prayer is that we never grow weary of hearing this! 😊
“Of course, it’s the same old story. Truth is usually the same old story.” (Margaret Thatcher)
“Who can add to Christmas? The perfect motive is that God so loved the world. The perfect gift is that He gave His only Son. The only requirement is to believe in Him. The reward of faith is that you shall have everlasting life." (Corrie Ten Boom)
This is not just a desperate pastoral plea. I have recently seen several articles and videos that all stress the same thing… Invite your friends and neighbors to church this Christmas. No joke! And the research and numbers back that statement up.
Among regular church goers, over 91% plan to worship at Christmas. No surprise. BUT even among non-church goers, 53% of people (in the northeast) said they would look for a church to worship at Christmas. Furthermore, people are over 57% more likely to respond favorably to an invitation to church this time of the year. That’s a huge number! Why? Because it’s Christmas! Even if it isn’t their routine or desire during the rest of the year, people find their way back to church during this Christmas season. So why not invite them here to King of Kings? Or wherever you call home. Seems like a situation we dare not pass up!
What does this mean? It means we need to extend the invite, it may be the easiest time to do so all year! Make the call. Type the email. Send the text. Or... gasp... actually talk to someone in person. No matter how you do it. Invite them. Personally. To family and friends, neighbors and co-workers. If you plan on attending church here (or anywhere else) this Christmas, please invite someone to go with you. You might even offer to pick them up. No matter where your church home is, there are few things more uplifting than a full service on Christmas Eve.
In this picture above you see one of our Christmas decoration additions for this year. Thank you, Hobby Lobby. Though not as impressive as my inflatable leg lamp; it is a simple sign that hangs near our front door. Perhaps you have something similar decking the halls or walls of your home as well. Walking around my neighborhood a couple of nights ago, I noticed at least three other homes that have the word ‘JOY’ somehow displayed in their outdoor, yuletide adornments. A short word with a huge message. Such decorations are a necessary reminder of what this season is supposed to be about. This time of year, it is a word that brings us back to the unlikely first guests of the baby Jesus in that Bethlehem stable—the shepherds. Remember them? Minding their own business and tending to their flocks, suddenly the heavens opened, and the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Cutting through the darkness of night and booming over the bleating of sheep, the angel declared how from this point forward the shepherds' lives would never be the same. No one’s life would ever be the same. That is definitely good news. Yes indeed, the Advent season, which culminates in Christmas, is not to be filled with fear or stress, chaos or sorrow. The angel speaks to us also today, “Fret not!” This is a season intended to generate joy as we peer into the dusty manger and see that God dwells among us. The unfailing Word is now clothed in flesh. He is with us. God Himself takes up residence in our midst and promises to never leave our side. Just like He invited the dirty shepherds, God continues to welcome the dirty and sinful into His presence.
We know this. We believe this. We find comfort in this. But sometimes our Advent weeks leading up to Christmas rarely feel like they are filled with ‘JOY.’ We may emblazon the word on all kinds of decorations and doorways; but if you peek behind the blinds, you will find most of our homes are lacking it. A couple of weeks ago, a dear friend of mine, posted this picture of her beautiful family Christmas tree. Did you notice the top of the tree? After the garland was strung. After the ornaments were hung. After the candy canes were meticulously placed. After the star punctuated the point. After all that work, and only a few days of being able to sit back and enjoy the glow, a whole portion of lights burns out. Have you been there before? A wonderful tradition that is supposed to bring happiness is now a source of exasperation. Time to start all over. Oh how frustrating! But there’s a valuable lesson here. For all our faithful efforts and careful preparation, there are still so many things that are outside of our control. Without any warning, the lights in the many proverbial arenas of our lives will flicker, fade, and often go out. Or to say it another way, the brokenness of this world and deviousness of the devil will stop at nothing to rob our joy. The devil is the stealer of joy; and he loves to pollute our Advent minds. He loves to turn the calm and contemplative season of Advent, into one that is chaotic and cringeworthy. Like the cheesy plot of most Hallmark Christmas movies… just as we try to sit back and enjoy the glow of a good work done or a beautiful memory in the making, the lights go out. Conflict arises. Where there was light, now we sit in a frustrating, disheartening darkness.
But we endure. We recalibrate our gaze back to the creche. We still sing, “Praise the One who breaks the darkness with a liberating light…” LSB 849. (Listen to it here, it’s one of my favorites.) We sing for joy and gladness because of what HE has done for us. The incredible gift of ‘JOY’ that comes to us in Jesus, cannot be messed with. It cannot be stolen. Our joy is not dependent on our circumstances. Even if we lose the job. Even if we receive the scary diagnosis. Even if we feel alone. Even if we struggle with addictions. Even if we cave into temptation. Even if we soil a relationship. Even if we screw up. Even if the half the lights on our Christmas tree burn out, our songs rooted in Advent and Christmas ‘JOY’ can still erupt from our hearts and mouths because it is not found in our situations but in our Savior. Advent and Christmas ‘JOY’ is not tied up in fluctuating conditions; it is not a shifting emotion. This ‘JOY’ is the confidence of knowing that Jesus is Immanuel. God with us! At all times. In all circumstances. With no boundaries. No exceptions.
My friends, rejoice in these coming weeks. Rejoice because Jesus, who came, is coming again. For you. Rejoice because God welcomes us into His enteral kingdom. Rejoice because Jesus is our Light, and not only does this mean we will never again stumble in the darkness, but it is a light that will never dim or go out!
“Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” Psalm 51:12
Pastor Steve Vera