NONDESCRIPT NOBODY BIRDS

Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. [Isaiah 58:10 (NLT)]

clark's nutcrackerA few weeks ago, in Charles Schultz’s classic comic Peanuts, Snoopy sat on his doghouse and decided not to tell his little bird friend Woodstock about Santa Claus. “He’ll never get any presents anyway. Santa Claus never brings presents to tiny, nondescript, nobody birds,” he thought before concluding, “It’s kind of sad at Christmastime to be a nobody bird.” I wasn’t so sure about Santa ignoring the “nobody birds.” The previous day, several from our church had participated in a project that demonstrated just how much “Santa” really does care.

Those “tiny, nondescript, nobody” birds live in a nearby town where more than 40% of the population lives below the poverty level. Their parents, many of whom don’t speak English, are the working poor: the people who quietly bus our tables, pick our tomatoes and lettuce, mow our lawns, trim our trees, clean our hotels, and re-tile our roofs. A beautiful ray of hope exists for them in a center dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty through early childhood education, after-school tutoring, summer enrichment, and a tutoring corps. For five nights in mid-December, the Center offered a “shopping” event for families in need while volunteers served as stockers, Santa’s elves, and gift wrappers. Qualified shoppers were assigned a day and time to arrive and browse through a beautifully appointed and organized “store.” A personal Santa’s elf accompanied parents as they selected three gifts for each of their children along with stocking gifts, stuffed animals, and clothing. Parents were able to shop with dignity as they selected presents for each of their children and Santa’s own workshop couldn’t have been better stocked! At checkout, their selections were gift-wrapped in colorful holiday paper. The only difference between this store and a regular one was that the gift-wrapping was complimentary and money never exchanged hands! The store’s entire inventory had been donated by individuals, organizations and stores in neighboring communities.

People’s hearts grow bigger around Christmas and nearly one-third of all giving occurs in December. During the holidays, we see a generous outpouring of love in the Salvation Army’s red kettles, Fill the Truck and Angel Tree programs, Toys for Tots, Operation Christmas Child, Trees for Troops, assorted wishing and giving trees, and both toy and food drives sponsored by churches and other groups. The need, however, doesn’t disappear when the tree comes down. Loving, giving, sharing and caring shouldn’t be boxed up with the ornaments for the next eleven months.

I remember one father whose gifts I wrapped. Although he was thrilled to select presents for his children, tears of joy came to his eyes upon learning he also could select new shoes for them. When those two pairs of new sneakers are outgrown in a matter of months, what then? Will the family have to choose between new shoes, milk, school supplies or a visit to the dentist? Poverty, hunger, inadequate housing, lack of medical care, and the other challenges facing the “tiny, nondescript, nobody birds” in our communities remain long past December. Instead of being Santa Claus just in December, let us be the hands and feet of Jesus, generous in thought, word and deed, all year long.

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. [spoken by Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens]

Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need. [Deuteronomy 15:10-11 (NLT)]

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THE FEAST OF EPIPHANY – JANUARY 6

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.” [Matthew 2:1-2 (NLT)]

magi

Assuming you don’t worship in the Orthodox Church, today is known as the Feast of Three Kings or Epiphany. Since the church year for Orthodox Christians follows the Julian calendar, tonight is their Christmas Eve and Epiphany won’t be until January 19th. For those of us using the Gregorian calendar, however, today often is the day the Christmas tree is taken down, the nativity sets boxed up, and the holiday decorations are tucked away until next December.

Epiphany, however, isn’t about decorations or eating the last of the Christmas cookies. The word “epiphany” means to show, make known, or reveal. Those “ah-ha” moments when we have a flash of insight or understanding are often called epiphanies. (I frequently prayed for epiphanies when studying algebra and geometry.) When the travelers to Emmaus (in the gospel of John) suddenly recognized the resurrected Jesus, they had an epiphany as did Saul when Jesus revealed Himself on the road to Damascus. Today’s Epiphany celebration is about the coming of the wise men with gifts to visit the Christ child. Their visit revealed Jesus to the world as Lord and King, not just to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles.

When the long awaited Messiah was born, angels sent the birth announcement to lowly shepherds rather than religious leaders. The king was born, not in a palace, but in a stable. The newspaper didn’t list His birth but a star led the way. The baby gifts were brought not by Jews but by Gentiles: pagans who traveled from Persia, Arabia or India for several months to find this newborn king. They didn’t present the family with typical baby gifts and their offerings certainly weren’t what a poor carpenter’s family would expect to receive. Their offerings, however, were standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world. Gold, the metal of royalty, symbolized His kingship and acknowledged His right to rule. Frankincense, used in worship and the anointing of priests, symbolized the role Jesus would take as our High Priest. Myrrh, a spice used for embalming, was an odd gift for a child but the magi were familiar with the prophecies that told of the Messiah’s suffering. This was the perfect offering for the One who would be a sacrifice. Perhaps the greatest gift the magi brought was the one that didn’t come in a box: their worship!

As we put away the last of the holiday decorations, let’s not put away the message of Christmas. May the living Christ remain in our hearts: our King, God, and Savior—the One who lived and died so that we might die and live.

Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain, Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never Over us all to reign. …
Frankincense to offer have I. Incense owns a Deity nigh.
Prayer and praising all men raising, Worship Him, God on high. …
Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume Breaths a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying, Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
[“We Three Kings” by John Henry Hopkins, Jr.]

They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. [Matthew 2:11 (NLT)]

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RENEW – NEW YEAR’S DAY

But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. … And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins. [Jeremiah 31:33,34b (NLT)]

Come, let us use the grace divine, and all with one accord,
in a perpetual covenant join ourselves to Christ the Lord;
Give up ourselves, thru Jesus’ power, his name to glorify;
and promise, in this sacred hour, for God to live and die. [Charles Wesley]

queen butterflyJohn Wesley had an excellent alternative to making a New Year’s resolution that’s unlikely to be kept. Believing that Christians should reaffirm their covenant with God, in 1755, he introduced a covenant service to the Methodist Societies. By 1775, this service was usually held on New Year’s Eve (and called a Watch Night Service) or New Year’s Day. This was a service of renewal in which believers would gather for self-examination and reflection and then renew their covenant with God by dedicating themselves wholly to Him. The practice of a covenant renewal service held on the Sunday nearest January 1st continues in some Methodist churches today and is a practice that has crossed denominational lines.

A covenant is a promise between two (or more) parties to perform certain actions. The covenant of the New Testament between God and man is that He will restore fellowship with and forgive the sins of those whose hearts are turned to Him; it is a covenant of salvation by grace through faith. Our part of this promise is our faith in Jesus and a giving up of self so that He can fill us with His Spirit; it is the taking of His yoke and a commitment to follow Him. Unlike a resolution to eat healthier or exercise more, it is God’s power, not our good intentions, that keeps this covenant in place.

I don’t know if you’re making any resolutions today, but let us all join together in renewing the covenant of grace—to be God’s people, trusting in His word, empowered by Him to be His hands and feet, seeking to bring His light into this dark world. Our prayer can be as simple as, “O Lord, I dedicate my life to you and will serve you in every way I can!”

Lord, I am no longer my own, but Yours. Put me to what You will. Rank me with whom You will. Let me be employed by You or laid aside for You, exalted for You or brought low by You. Let me have all things. Let me have nothing. I freely & heartily yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, You are mine and I am Yours. So be it. Amen. [John Wesley]

Now may the God of peace—who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, and ratified an eternal covenant with his blood—may he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen. [Hebrews 13:20-21 (NLT)]

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EXPLORATORY SURGERY – NEW YEAR’S EVE

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. [Psalm 139:23-24 (NLT)]

spiderwortThe tradition of New Year’s resolutions goes back 4,000 years to the ancient Babylonians. During their 12-day celebration of the new year (held in mid-March), they either crowned a new king or reaffirmed their loyalty to the old one. They also promised to return anything borrowed and pledged the repayment of all their debts. While returning borrowed items and paying our debts are good goals for the coming year, our resolutions usually have something to do with exercise, diet, getting better organized, learning a new skill, spending less money, or reading the entire Bible in a year.

Perhaps, before resolving to floss or eat more vegetables, we should pray and ask God what it is that He would like to see us change. “Search me, O God,” is what could be called a dangerous prayer; when we ask Him to look, we’d better be ready for what He finds. Chances are that it will have nothing to do with developing better dental or nutrition habits. Asking God to examine our innermost being is asking Him to perform exploratory surgery in search of sin. While a surgeon may not find a tumor, God is sure to find plenty of areas in our hearts and minds in need of improvement! If a surgeon does find cancer, we expect him to remove it but, when God finds something offensive in us, He expects us to repent and turn away from it.

Our spiritual goals can fail as readily as the non-spiritual ones and, according to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, less than half of those who make New Year’s resolutions are successful at keeping them. Perhaps we’d do better if we understood that we can’t change by ourselves. Maybe will-power alone can keep us away from Dunkin’ Donuts or get us to a 6 AM aerobics class but it isn’t enough when we’re combating spiritual enemies. Fortunately, we are powered by the Holy Spirit and, through Him, all things are possible.

Let us remember that Jesus is in the business of transformation. It was at a wedding party in Cana that He transformed water into wine. He then transformed the blind into the sighted, the lame into the strong, and the diseased into the healthy. He changed the churning sea into calm water, a few morsels of food into a feast, and the dead into the living. Jesus’s miracles of transformation continue today. He turns darkness into light, anger into peace, fear into hope, animosity into love, selfishness into generosity, mourning into joy, shame into honor, and sinners into saints.

The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul. [G. K. Chesterton]

And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. [Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NLT)]

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CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS ALL YEAR LONG

But the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! [Luke 2:10-11 (NLT)]

christmas cactusSeveral years ago, I was given a Christmas cactus in early December. It had just started to blossom and, by Christmas, it was in full bloom and beautiful. A Christmas cactus typically goes dormant by Easter but mine bloomed until mid-May. The next year, it blossomed again at Christmas but the flowers weren’t as spectacular; it was dormant by February and didn’t survive the summer. Regretfully, I’m a neglectful gardener and my record with plants is dismal. The cactus actually lasted longer than any of my holiday poinsettias.

The spirit of Christmas shouldn’t end when we take down the tree, put away the crèche, the flowers drop from the Christmas cactus, or the poinsettia gets tossed! We can’t leave the baby Jesus in the manger and forget that He grew, taught, led, suffered, died, rose, ascended into heaven, and will come again! We need to keep the spirit of Christmas alive in our hearts well beyond the time the toys break, the holiday cookies are eaten, the Christmas cactus goes dormant and the poinsettia dies. The spirit of Christmas—its joy and anticipation—the good news of the gospel message—shouldn’t be dependent upon the calendar. It should flower all year long unless, of course, we become neglectful and forget to fertilize and water it with God’s word and prayer. A pastor friend always keeps a small nativity scene in her office to remind her (and her visitors) that the manger is as important a symbol to Christianity as is the cross. If we have Jesus in our hearts, we can be Christmas people no matter what season it is. May the spirit of hope, love, joy and peace, so present during Christmastime, continue in your hearts all year long!

Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. [Calvin Coolidge]

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. [John 1:14 (NLT)]

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THE CRÈCHE AND THE CROSS

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. [John 3 16-17 (NLT)]

creche and crossPew Research reports that while 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas, more than half of them celebrate it only as a cultural holiday! While they’ll decorate their house with lights and wreaths, trim a tree, send cards, and exchange gifts, Christmas is just an excuse for good food, parties, family gatherings, and presents. While they’re not indifferent to Santa, gifts, merriment, or decorations, like the people of 1st century Palestine, they are indifferent to the Christ child. The shepherds saw the star and sought the babe in the manger and a caravan from the East brought Him gifts, but we don’t read of any townspeople visiting Joseph and Mary. What of the priests and scribes who told Herod where the Messiah would be born? They knew the prophecies but didn’t join the Magi in their quest to find the One who would fulfill those prophecies. Lowly shepherds and men from a faraway land recognized Jesus as the Messiah but most of God’s chosen people ignored the greatest event in all of history.

Some people react to Christmas with antipathy; like Herod, they hate its message. Rather than join the magi and seek the newborn King of the Jews, the enraged Herod slaughtered all of the male babies around Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the king! The “bah humbuggers” are like the atheist who erected a 10-foot 300-pound pentagram just 20-feet from a nativity scene in a Boca Raton park in 2016. Non-believers don’t want a King who might knock them off their pedestals any more than Herod wanted one who could knock him off his throne. They’re uncomfortable with the concepts of sin, salvation, love, sacrifice, obedience and forgiveness that surround Christmas. Then again, maybe they dislike this day simply because Christmas reminds them of the emptiness of their lives.

Some people respond to Christmas as did the angels, shepherds, magi, Simeon, and Anna: with worship. Tonight and tomorrow, people around the world will raise their voices in praise and thanksgiving, light candles, sing carols, kneel in prayer, lift their hands in worship, and share bread and wine at communion. Some will come and adore Him tonight but won’t return to church until next Christmas. But others will ponder the events of this night, as did Mary. They will allow the Christ child to enter into their hearts and lives and affect their every thought, word, and action for the rest of their lives. After extinguishing the Christmas Eve candles, they will continue to let their lights shine all year long. They are the ones who know that God came as a baby and lay in a manger so that He could suffer, die on the cross as a common criminal, and pay the penalty for mankind’s sins. They know that the crèche is meaningless without the cross!

Let us behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

But Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them. [Luke 2:19b-20 (NLT)]

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