Monthly Archives: December 2012

Christmas Eve Message

As we close our time together I want to briefly remind us about the true meaning of Christmas. Let me begin by telling the story of a little boy who was transition from Santa Claus to Jesus. Instead of writing a letter Santa Claus he penned his note this Christmas to Jesus.

 He sat at his desk with pen and paper at hand. He began by writing, “Dear Jesus, this year I have been a very good boy…” He paused and thought for a second and then realized this was not totally true so he wadded up the paper and tossed in the trashcan by his desk. He started again and wrote, “Dear Jesus, this year I tried very hard to be a very good boy…” He paused again, and knew this was not true either, so again he wadded up the paper and started over. This time he wrote, “Dear Jesus, this year I really wasn’t all that bad…” He paused, and in frustration wadded the paper up and tossed into the trashcan. He jumped up from his desk and went into the living room where his mother had set up the nativity scene with Mary, Joseph, and the tiny little baby Jesus. He grabbed the figurine of Mary and returned to his desk. In bold strokes he wrote: “Dear Jesus if you ever want to see you mother again…”

I have to admit I could identify with that little boy a bit. When I was younger, Christmas was all about “getting.” I remember my brothers and I were members of the CIA—the “Christmas Intelligence Agency.” It was our mission to uncover the mystery hidden in the packages under the tree.

 When mother was not looking we would sneaking into the living room and do our investigation. One by one we would pick up the packages. We had certain test that would help us identify the contents of the packages. Our first test was the weight test. Clothes don’t weigh much, but toys can. So we could tell the boxes with pajamas and new shirts from the boxes containing our toys. In addition to the weight test, we had the rattle test. We would shake the boxes to see if they rattled as if they had little parts. Toys often rattle. To my knowledge we did not break any presents, but they all got shook—hard at times. In addition, we had the “shape” test. For instance I remember my favorite Christmas present as a boy was when I got my electric football game. This was long before X-box, it was even before pong on Atari. It was an amazing game. It had at least 22 little football players and the box was a large rectangle.

 

For those of you who had one, you remember it had a large metal football field that when you turned it on would vibrate and the football players would move along the board on tiny little fibers that were attached to the bottom of their bases. Between plays you would set up your offense and defense and then turn on the board and watch it unfold. There was nothing quite as exciting as watching your Dallas Cowboy running back break into the open against the Green Bay Packers only to get in open fiend and then to go round and round in a circle!

 

I digress, back to the CIA, we spend all the days before Christmas trying to spoil the surprise, and often did to our parent’s sadness. It is interesting how the tables turn, when Robyn and I began parents it became our task to protect the Christmas surprises. Since we had a house full of girls we often gave clothes but we wanted to keep the mystery alive by using code names for the packages. This worked great until the year we forgot the code!

 As most of us discover at one point or another, Christmas is not about getting but about giving. In fact, some believe the whole idea of Christmas presents goes back to the wise men or the Magi. The men made famous by the classic Christmas carol “We Three Kings.”

 You may remember these words:  

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign

 

Matthew captured the moment with these words:

 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.(G) Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts(H) of gold and of incense and of myrrh.

 This simple profound statement has always inspired me. These men had probably traveled for two years chasing a star and a dream of worshipping at the feet of the king of the Jews only to find themselves walking into a tiny house with dirt floors, to see a toddlers in the rags of a peasant, but by faith realizing this little boy was truly the King of the Jews revealed by the stars of heaven.

 

As they worshipped him, I love the way Matthew described it, “they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and incense and myrrh.” They opened their treasures. Christmas giving begins with worship and leads to us first opening our treasures to the LORD.

 When you give your gifts tonight or in the morning you are carrying on a long tradition of opening your treasures for the ones you love, but the wise men opened their treasures to a stranger—to a stranger king.

 One of the ways people know we are the children of God is when we give and give generously. Remember what James said, “Every good and perfect gift comes from above.”

 Last December in Indianapolis a young father dressed in work clothes and dirty boots stepped up to the desk in the layaway section of Kmart. At his feet were three little children. He came to pay on his layaway bill for gifts for his little ones. As he reached for his billfold and woman stepped up and said, “No, I am going to pay for your bill.” He looked in amazement at this woman he had never seen before in his life. He looked back at the assistant manager Edna Deppe who nodded with a big smile on her face. The mysterious stranger reached into her purse and pulled out the money needed to pay his bill. Tears welled up in his eyes as he stood there in stunned amazement. Speechless he gave her a hug, and softly thank this woman he had never seen before in his life. She whispered, “Merry Christmas…and please remember Ben.”

 You see Ben was her husband that had died earlier that year, so she decided to give Ben his Christmas present this year by blessing the lives of strangers struggling to make Christmas happen for their children. On that afternoon this nameless smiling stranger paid off over fifty layaway accounts and passed out $50 bills to parents getting last minute gifts for their children. I have to believe her actions caught the attention of heaven on that cold December afternoon. You see the world is not all bad. Christmas still lives in the hearts and lives of people.

 However, I think even the wise men would agree with me, that Christmas giving did not really begin with them. You know where it began. It began with our Father in heaven. With words our children know by heart, Jesus told the Christmas story when He said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” Yes, Christmas giving began when God fell in love with the world, and loved us so much he gave the greatest gift of all—when He gave Jesus for you and me.

I believe Paul nailed it when he declared in his second letter to the Corinthians in a section on the power and scope of generosity in the life of the followers of Jesus. He wrote:

 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

 

Paul was so right. How could we put into words all that Jesus means to us. Some have translated this word of Paul as “unspeakable.” The root word was a compound word. It begins with a negative prefix, and the force of the following word is to “explain, to narrate wholly or in full, to declare.” In other words, Paul said, “No one can completely and fully put into words all that Jesus means to us.”

 

Do you remember the last words of the gospel of John? Let me remind you. He wrote:

 

25 Jesus did many other things as well.(AE) If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

 

Yes, the whole world could not contain all the majesty and mystery of Jesus our LORD. This Christmas I pray each and every one of us will be struck by the wonder of Christmas in the face of Jesus.

 

Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! Merry Christmas!

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A Christmas Portrait

“Smile” shouted the photographer to a picture perfect family seated around the Christmas tree. Mom and Dad sat in big overstuffed red chairs with huge smiles on their faces. The oldest sister stood behind her dad with her hand gently placed on his shoulder. One toddler sat in mom’s lap while the “little man” sat in his dad’s lap. Like a classic middle child a little girl stood smiling in her festive little outfit between mom and dad right in the middle of the family.

In a flash the camera captured this wonderful Christmas scene through the miracle of digital technology. With a glance, Eduardo knew he had a great picture the family would treasure for years to come.

Christmas portraits capture a moment in time but rarely do they tell the whole story. Too often Christmas portraits fall closer to fantasy than to reality. Through smiles and holiday outfits we often try to hide the harsh realities of life, but on this occasion this portrait told a story worthy of Christmas.

Just three weeks before this portrait, Cedric, the smiling father in the picture found himself far from home. He did not find himself deployed to a foreign land fighting for freedom nor was he on an extended business trip away from home during the holidays. No, Cedric stood behind cold steel bars. By his own mistakes and wrong choices this father found himself in prison far from his wife and little ones.

During those dark days Cedric made a new friend through the ministries of Prison Fellowship. The Christ of Christmas found his way into Cedric’s cell and more importantly into his heart. Suddenly the prisoner found freedom he had only dreamed about on long lonely nights. He found true freedom born within through grace and love.

The “Angel Tree” ministry created once again a Christmas miracle and I had the opportunity Sunday night at First Baptist Church to be a witness of its wonder. On this special Sunday night God reunited a family and connected them with an “extended family” ready and willing to welcome Cedric back home.

As I marveled as I realized that I had just gain a glimpse of the meaning of Christmas. When Jesus set his face toward planet earth leaving behind the glory of the throne room for a stable and a bed of hay, he intended to send a message to the world he created. Jesus entered our world shouting by his presence “You are not alone—I will show up where you least expect to find me!”

Truly the title given to Jesus by the prophet of old nailed it—“Immanuel, God with us!” Our mistakes and choices often take us places where we doubt the love of God can reach, but our doubts and fears cannot stop His irresistible love.

You could see it in Cedric’s smile. You could see it in the face of a wife and mother felt like her home was complete again with a toddler in her arms. You could see it in his teenage daughter’s face as she stood proudly with her hand on her father’s shoulder. The love of Christmas still reaches out and saves.

One portrait cannot tell the whole story, but it can capture an amazing moment in time. It can be the visual illustration at the beginning of a whole new chapter in the story of one man and his family thanks to Jesus!

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Deploying to Afghanistan: “This is what we do”

El Paso: On Friday evening I participated in a going away gathering (I cannot really call it a “party” since the focus of the gathering was one being deployed to Afghanistan with the United States Army).  Captain Joe Gonzalez will lead his Stryker company into Afghanistan to hold the fort while the US forces slowly withdraw from this war torn region of the world.

Afghanistan continues to be the “graveyard” of empires as military leader after military leader leave this dysfunctional tribal land scratching their heads and licking their wounds. History has proven time and time again that military force will not change for the long the face of Afghanistan.

Captain Gonzalez over the course of the past two years has become an integral part of the life of our church. Whenever the doors are opened you are sure to find Joe somewhere in the building. He works with our college kids. He coached “Upward Basketball.” He prays with a circle of friends at prayer meeting. He greets at the front door on Sunday mornings. He takes the offering on Sunday night. Just days before his unit deploys under his command he will be singing in our “Living Christmas Tree.” In addition he is our favor “Aggie” who dresses the part each week with his “A&M” shirts and ties. For me personally he has become like the son I never had.

As we gathered at a local Mexican food establishment, the room filled with friends of Joe’s from every generation to every  walk of life. It was amazing to see how one life had touched so many people in such a deep way. The spirit in the room was festive, and the noise was deafening. At one point, Joe turned off the Christmas music blasting in the background and got our attention like captain commanding his troops.

We sat “at ease” as Joe scanned the room and thanked one and all for being there. Then his gaze turned toward Afghanistan. Much like Jesus who set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross, Joe’s tone changed as he talked of his deployment. He talked about his anticipation about going to war. He summed it up by saying “This is what we do.” The young men and women in our military do the dirty work of keeping order in the world. They stared down evil eye ball to eye ball. They take up arms for those who cannot defend themselves. They stand the post determined to stop the advance of those who willfully kill and maim the innocent.

Those words, “This is what we do.” Kept running through my mind all night long. I realized much like the warrior king David, God had called this godly young man to take up the “sword” that divinely instituted governments must bear in an evil sinful world often attacked by hateful tyrants and militants.

On Friday night I had a glimpse of courage and honor. Pray for Joe and those under his command. Pray for peace. The hope of the future does not rest in the power of the sword, but rather in the advance of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.

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