Monday, December 5, 2022

Not That Far

 "And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.  And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger."  (Luke 2:4-7 ESV)


I probably write about this every year. But every year, a certain sing triggers a host of memories for me. I heard the song yesterday, so today you get my annual post!

It was twelve years ago this month that I first traveled to Bethlehem. That I first visited the Church of the Nativity. That I first saw this very special place:

 
 
Inside the Church of the Nativity, the oldest church in Christendom (built about 326 AD), this silver star marks the traditional birthplace of Jesus. It is inscribed, in Latin, "Here of the Virgin Mary, Christ was born."

That may or may not be the exact spot where Christ was born. But Christ was born. In Bethlehem. Just as it had been foretold by the prophets long before.
 
Bethlehem seems very far away to most of us. If you've traveled there, as I have, you realize that it is quite a long distance to travel. Our journey to Bethlehem does not involve travel by donkey, as it did for Mary and Joseph. But even with modern jet planes, it's a long trip, flying from the U.S. into Tel Aviv, and then traveling by car or bus on to Bethlehem.  

It's very far away. Or is it?

Several years ago, the group Point of Grace recorded a song titled We're Not That Far From Bethlehem. One of my favorite lines in that song says When our hearts still cherish Him, we're not that far from Bethlehem.

As I have been thinking about that song, and about that particular line, I've been remembering the times I traveled to Bethlehem. The times I knelt at this place of Jesus' birth. The times I worshipped there. The times we sang the songs of the Savior's birth. The times I sat in awe and wonder, reflecting on what happened in Bethlehem so long ago.


 
There are times when that seems very long ago. And times when Bethlehem seems very far away.
 
But it isn't. Not really.  
 
That song, We're Not That Far From Bethlehem, offers us a profound truth. When we cherish the Savior in our hearts, when we remember His birth, when we remember why He was born when and where He was......when we remember. And when we cherish.  
 
Then we're never very far from Bethlehem.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Underneath the stars
Just a simple man and wife.
Somewhere in the dark
His words cut the silent night.
Take my hand, for the child
That you carry is God's own.
 
And though it seems the road is long,
We're not that far from Bethlehem,
Where all our hope and joy began.
For in our arms, we'll cherish Him.
We're not that far, from Bethlehem.
 
Let us celebrate
As the Christmases go by;
Learn to live our days
With our hearts near to the child.
Ever drawn, ever close
To the only love that lasts,
And though 2000 years have passed
 
We're not that far from Bethlehem
Where all our hope and joy began.
For when our hearts still cherish Him
We're not that far,
 
We're not that far from Bethlehem
Where all our hope and joy began.
For when our hearts still cherish Him,
We're not that far
We're not that far from Bethlehem.
 




(Songwriters: Lowell Talmadge Alexander Jr., Gayla Hester Borders, Jeff  A. Borders)

You can listen to We're Not That Far From Bethlehem here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfI2x2krjGA

Friday, December 2, 2022

Continually

" Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise - the fruit of lips that openly profess his name."  (Hebrews 13:15 NIV)



Continually. Continually offer a sacrifice of praise.

Continually. What does that mean anyway?

Dictionary.com gives this definition: very often, at regular or frequent intervals; habitually; without cessation or intermission; unceasingly; always.

Continually. Always. Unceasingly. Habitually. Without intermission.

Even when there's too much month at the end of the money. Even when the roof leaks and the plumbing backs up and the dishwasher quits......

Even when there's devastating illness. Or job loss. Or bereavement.

Even when you don't feel like it.

Even when there's so much to do that you think you can't possibly get it all done. When there's cookie baking and shopping and decorating and Christmas events to attend and gifts to wrap.

Even then.

Continually.

As we begin December and are officially in the Christmas season, perhaps this is a good time to reexamine our Christmas traditions and exactly how we are celebrating the birth of Christ. In our celebrating are we continually offering our praises? Are we really celebrating Christ? Or are we only giving lip service to Him while we get caught up in elves or Santa or all our other traditions?

When we stop and really consider what we're doing this Christmas, what is it that we are continually focusing our attention on? 

Is our focus directed toward the "name that is above every name?" (Philippians 2:8)?  Or have we lost sight of the "reason for the season"?

My prayer is that we might all focus our celebration on that Wonderful Name.....Jesus! That we might truly - and continually - celebrate the Christ of Christmas. And not only in December!


Wonderful Name

Mary was the first to hear it, name that came from heaven above;
Name that raises souls from darkness, this the only name worth singing of.

Wonderful name, Jesus! Wonderful name, Jesus!
Name angels sang the night all heaven rang; wonderful name, Jesus!

Heaven touched His name with glory, precious name of Jesus, our King;
In God’s Word is told the story, of this wondrous name the angels sing!
 
Wonderful name, Jesus! Wonderful name, Jesus!
Name angels sang the night all heaven rang; wonderful name, Jesus!
-Roger Strader




Hear a choir sing Wonderful Name here: https://youtu.be/GqZfpg1j6CM

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Are You Ready For Christmas?

Are you ready? We hear that question a lot at this time of year. Are you ready for Christmas? And that usually means "have you finished your Christmas shopping?" Or "are all your decorations up?" Or "have you finished the cookie baking?" Or.......you can fill in the blank.

The question reminds me of a sermon I heard a few years ago on this topic. In fact, I think the pastor may have titled his sermon "Are You Ready for Christmas?" But what he was talking about had nothing to do with decorations or shopping or cookie baking!

His point, and one I think we would all do well to remember, is that being "ready" for Christmas has very little to do with shopping or cookies or trees. It has everything to do with Jesus. And with a right relationship with Him. Being ready for Christmas is about focus......about remembering why we are doing this in the first place.....about celebrating Jesus!

Stop for a moment and think about how you celebrate Christmas. What are your Christmas traditions? What events or activities or foods or traditions are part of your celebration? What are the “always” parts of your Christmas? In other words, if you were asked about your Christmas traditions, what would you say is always part of your celebration?

What would you say is the most important thing about Christmas for you?

We spend a lot of time and energy and money each year on decorating and gift giving and baking. We spend a lot of time thinking about those are special to us, and about what gift we can give to show just how much we love them.

Should we not also do the same thing for Jesus? It’s His Birthday we are celebrating! We hear so often that Jesus is the reason for the season. If that’s true, and it is, then what are we doing intentionally to focus our attention on the Christmas season.

When we redirect our energies away from the hustle and bustle, and focus on Jesus, on who He is and why He came, then we will be ready for Christmas!

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory.” (John 1:14 KJV)






*adapted from Are You Ready for Christmas: a December Devotional” by Susan Feaster, pub. 2016, available on Amazon


Wednesday, November 30, 2022

It’s Beginning to Sound a Lot Like Christmas!


Have you noticed? The sounds of Christmas are everywhere!

In churches, certainly, singing the songs and carols of the season.

But also in malls and grocery stores, Christmas music is playing. And not just the "Jingle Bells" kind of Christmas music, but also "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World". The music of our Savior's birth is also being played. Isn't it wonderful that we get to hear our Savior's name proclaimed in places like the mall and the grocery store!

As we head into December, the sounds of Christmas are everywhere!

In the laughter of children.

In the sounds (and smells) that emanate from kitchens at this time of year.

Maybe you have Christmas music playing in your home throughout the season. I know I do.

As I was looking back over my Facebook memories over the last few days, I realized that, over the last several days, I have spent a lot of the holiday season having medical or dental procedures. As an example, on December 15, 2011, I had a cataract removed from my right eye. What does that have to do with the sounds of Christmas?  The surgeon was listening to Handel's Messiah during the procedure!

A few years ago on this date, I had a root canal, and I noted in my Facebook post that there were Christmas carols playing in the dentist's office.  

Music is a big part of the Christmas season.  And it’s everywhere! 

This is one of my Southern Gospel Christmas favorites:

https://youtu.be/sKzi4A1ldxE

What sounds of Christmas are you experiencing today?

"And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!'"  (Luke 2:13-14 ESV)

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Silence.

Silence.  It's a hard thing to come by at this time of year.  

Everywhere we go, there's noise. Everywhere we go, people are in a hurry.  
 
Have you noticed how many more car horns you are hearing these days?  
 
Have you noticed how people always seem to be rushing about?  
 
Have you noticed the noise in the malls and the shops?  
 
Have you noticed the stress on people's faces?
 
All that may well be similar to what the world was like when Christ was born. Without the malls and automobile horns, of course. People were likely busy with their lives, hustling and bustling about with the activities of daily living. Their world was not unlike ours in that regard.  
 
And into that world, with its busyness and its noise and its daily routines, Jesus came.
No one even noticed.
 
It's still the same, isn't it?  We're busy and our world is full of noise. Even though we hear and sing carols about Christ the Savior being born, not many are really paying that much attention. We put out our nativity sets and we sing our carols and we send our Christmas cards, but far too often all that is only done out of a sense of habit. It's how we get ready for Christmas. It’s time for Christmas, and this is what we do.
 
We buy candy hearts for Valentine's Day. And we wave our flags in July. We buy pumpkins in October.  And we talk about Jesus in December. It's what we do.

How sad it is that in all our busyness and routines and noise, we too often lose sight of the reason we are doing all these things.

One of the carols we seldom sing, with words dating back to the 3rd century, says "Let all mortal flesh keep silence."

Silence. It's what's often missing at Christmas time. Because we noise is what we do. We aren’t very good at silence.

How much better might we understand the magnitude of the Gift we have been given and the reason for our celebrating, if we would take some time for silence. Some time to be still. Some time to ponder. Some time to worship.

It may be challenging to find time for silence.

But it will be worth the effort.
 
 

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,  
and with fear and trembling stand; 
ponder nothing earthly-minded, 
for with blessing in his hand, 
Christ our God to earth descendeth, 
our full homage to demand. 
 
Text: Liturgy of St. James; trans. by Gerard Moultrie 
Music: French carol melody; harm. from The English Hymnal 
Tune: PICARDY


Click here to listen to Fernando Ortega sing this carol:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8wl4u8lnDQs

Monday, November 28, 2022

Expectantly


'Tis the season for waiting.

For waiting in long lines in the mall and in the post office and in the grocery store. For waiting for the gifts you ordered on-line to be delivered, and for hoping they make it here in time for Christmas. For waiting until the Christmas break begins and there will be no school for a couple of weeks. For waiting for the family to arrive to celebrate together.  

Interestingly, many times in recent days I have been confronted with verses from Scripture about waiting! It was not intentional on my part. I was not looking for Scriptures about waiting. Here’s just one example:

"You are the God of my salvation; for You I wait all the day long."  (Psalm 25:5 ESV)

It's the season of waiting in another sense as well. It's the season of Advent, a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

As I said in my last post, I didn't grow up in a church that marked the Advent season. It wasn't part of my church's tradition to light the candles in the Advent wreath or to have special advent readings. As I've grown older, and as we've moved around the country quite a bit, I've come to embrace this tradition. But whether or not you have a wreath with candles to be lit, Advent - the time of expectant waiting - can be an important part of your Christmas celebrations.

Advent is the celebration of the birth of Jesus the Christ in his First Coming, and the anticipation of the return of Christ the King in his Second Coming. This makes Advent far more than simply marking a 2,000 year old event in history. Advent is about looking back at Christ's birth, but also looking forward to His return.

In between, Advent is about an awareness of His presence in the world today. And, on a more personal level, it's about an awareness of His presence in our own lives. About listening for that "still, small voice".  About hearing Him speak through the Scriptures. About paying attention. About focusing on Jesus.

A popular Advent hymn is Charles Wesley's Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus, which looks forward to Jesus' Second Coming.  It begins, "Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free."  Wesley was looking forward to the time when Jesus would come again to set us free from fear and sin.

What are you looking forward to this Christmas season?  In this Advent season, this season of anticipation and waiting, what are you expecting?  What is your focus?  

In this holiday season, it's really easy for us to get stressed. There's so much to do. Cookie baking, decorating, gifts to buy and wrap, parties to attend. It can be exhausting! 

How do we avoid the stress and exhaustion? It really is a matter of focus. Of remembering why we do these things. Of learning to wait. Of waiting expectantly. Of keeping eyes fixed on Jesus, as the writer of Hebrews tells us in Chapter 12.  

It's a matter of focusing on the long-expected Jesus. The One whose birth was foretold by prophets hundreds of years before it actually happened. The One whose return is also foretold. The One for whom we are eagerly, expectantly, waiting. The Hope of the world.

He's coming again. And until then, we wait. Expectantly.

"Waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ."  (Titus 2:13 ESV)

 
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus, Born to set Thy people free.
From our fears and sins release us; Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel's Strength and Consolation, Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart.
 
Born Thy people to deliver, Born a Child and yet a King.
Born to reign in us forever, Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit, Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all-sufficient merit, Raise us to Thy glorious throne.
(Words:  Charles Wesley; Tune:  HYFRYDOL, Rowland H. Prichard)
 
 
 



Saturday, November 26, 2022

Transition.


For many, this is a weekend of transition. It's time for the shift from fall d├ęcor and pumpkins and leaves to Christmas trees and holly. Many people begin November by putting up a Christmas tree. For us, the tree goes up after Thanksgiving. It has been our tradition since our very first Christmas.

This is the week we transition from the season of Thanksgiving to the season of Christmas. Even though the malls and discount stores and TV commercials have been pushing Christmas on us earlier and earlier each year, now that Thanksgiving is past we are officially in the Christmas season.  

Tomorrow is the first Sunday of Advent. Although I didn't grow up in a church that talked about Advent, at least not that I can recall, and we didn't light Advent candles in our church back in my growing up years, as I get older I find myself drawn to that tradition. To the way it focuses our attention on what we are really celebrating during this season of the year.

While we enjoy our snowmen and our Santas and our elves, that's really not what the holiday is all about.  This is a season to celebrate the birth of our Savior. To celebrate Jesus! Even though it is unlikely He was born on December 25, or even at this time of year, this is the time we celebrate that event.

Whether or not your particular church has an Advent wreath, and whether or not you have an Advent wreath in your home, you probably use candles in your Christmas decorating around the house. Even those candles are a reminder to us of what Christmas is all about. Jesus, the Light of the World, is the reason we are celebrating.

In many churches where an Advent wreath is part of the celebration of Christmas, the candle that is lit on the first Sunday of the Advent season is the Prophet's Candle. It's a time to focus attention on what the prophets had to say about the coming of the Messiah, and how these prophecies are fulfilled by the birth of the Christ Child in Bethlehem.

This week, as you are transitioning from Thanksgiving to Christmas, why not take some time to find a quiet place and read some of these Scriptures yourself. Maybe you could even light a candle. Set aside the hustle and bustle of the holiday season for just a moment and reflect on the One whose birth was foretold so long ago by the prophets.  

Read the prophecies. Reflect on how they are fulfilled in our Lord Jesus Christ. Let your spirit be renewed by focusing on what Christmas is really all about.

It's a good way to transition into the Christmas season.


"Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign:  Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel."  (Isaiah 7:14 NASB)

 
 
"Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel's strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart."
(-Charles Wesley)