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I have wanted to share devotionals with you this Christmas to encourage and uplift you. Many of them I’ve written over the years, and some will be new. I ran across the following story on an old flash drive as I was searching for something else. I have no idea where it came from, but this story never ceases to bring tears…

Jesus and the Orphan

In 1994, two Americans answered an invitation from the Russian Department of Education to teach morals and ethics (based on biblical principles) in the public schools. They were invited to teach at prisons, businesses, the fire and police departments and a large orphanage.

As it neared the holiday season, the orphans heard the traditional Christmas story for the first time. The Americans told them about Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem; and after finding no room in the inn, Mary and Joseph went to a stable, where Jesus was born and placed in the manger.

Throughout the story, the children listened in amazement. Some sat on the edges of their stools, trying to grasp every word. As a follow-up activity to the story, each child was given three small pieces of cardboard to make a crude manager. Each child was also given a small paper square, cut from yellow napkins that the children tore into strips, and then carefully laid in the manger for straw. Small squares of flannel from a discarded nightgown were used for the baby’s blanket. Pieces of tan felt were used for the doll-like baby.

As they made their way around the room to observe the children, one of the Americans noted, “All went well until I got to one table where 6-year-old Misha sat. He appeared to have finished his project. As I looked at the little boy’s manger, I was startled to see, not one, but two, babies in the manger! Quickly, I called for the translator to ask the lad why there were two babies in the manger.”

The observer noted Misha very accurately recalled the story that had been told until he came to the part where Mary put Jesus in the manger. “Misha then started to ad lib his own ending,” recalls the observer.

And when Maria laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay. I told him I have no momma and I have no papa, so I don’t have any place to stay. Then Jesus told me I could stay with him. But I told him I couldn’t because I didn’t have a gift to give him like everybody else did.

I wanted to stay with Jesus so much, so I thought about what I had that maybe I could use for a gift. So I asked Jesus, if I kept Him warm, would that be a good enough gift? And Jesus told me, ‘If you keep me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me.’ So, I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and told me I could stay with him — for always!”

As Misha finished his story, his eyes brimmed full of tears that splashed down his little cheeks. Putting his hand over his face, his head dropped to the table, and his shoulders shook as he sobbed and sobbed. The little orphan had found someone who would never abandon or abuse him, someone who would stay with him — for always!

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This devotional was written several years ago when our boys were still at home and I still owned my caning business… some of these things have changed – some have not…

At the Beginning

Father, I lift up my heart to You at the “beginning” of this Christmas season. I say “beginning” as in “Church calendar” and not in terms of the marketplace – for in the marketplace, it has already been “Christmas” for a loooong time now…

Being a child of the 60’s, one of the first things that comes to mind is John Lennon’s song of “So this is Christmas, and what have we here…” and I think, “Yeah, what do we have here…?”

We have lists – shopping lists, grocery lists, “to-do” lists and an already “jam-packed to the gills” calendar filled with even more responsibilities.

As a business owner, I have customers depending on me for things on their shopping lists.

As a wife, and mother, I have family depending on me for – well, for being “Honey” and “Mom” and all that entails at any given point in their lives.

And, as a church-member and Sunday School teacher, I have “every time the doors are open” activities, that I’m expected to attend, lessons to prepare, and devotions to give.

But, as a woman, as Your child, I have… peace… yeah, I really do. As I think about it, and all the things I “have” to do in all the other areas of my life, I’m surprised that the word “peace” is what comes to my mind when I think of what I have as Your child…

This hasn’t always been so. And may not always be so, but at this time, in this place, right now I have peace. And I thank You for that, Father.

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What a “time” of the year, Lord! No other season or “holiday” creates the conflict and convolution that Christmas does. No other date on the calendar produces more good will and more animosity all in one, than does this time of so-called “peace on earth”… Why is that Lord?

What is it about Christmas that makes it the most selfless and yet the most selfish time of the year? What makes it the most joyous and yet the most lonely, the most filling and yet the most emptying, the most loving and yet the most hateful time of the whole calendar year? Why Lord?

Is it… You… Lord? I suspect it is that whole “inner conflict” thing – that whole “good verses evil” thing, that “darkness verses light” war that has been raging ever since the garden -“both” gardens…. (Eden and Gethsemane!)

It’s always there, isn’t it, Lord? It just comes to the surface more when mankind is “forced” to look You right in the eye, as they are “when the baby cries” at Christmastime, and You “demand” that we either react, or respond…

God help us to respond.

In Jesus’ name – Amen.

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The first Sunday in Advent begins with the candle of “hope” and so, Father, I lift up those who feel they have no hope. You’ve created our bodies to survive for weeks without food, days without water, and minutes without air, but we cannot survive for a moment without hope.

How, Father, can we bring hope to a hopeless world? The song says, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name…”

When the word “hope” is used in the Bible it doesn’t mean “wishing” it means “a certainty”. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” – not the essence of things that we wish would happen, but the very things of which we are certain…

And You Father, are the only One that brings that kind of hope.

And may I, as Your child, reflect that hope this Christmas season.

In my Saviour’s Name – Amen.

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Christmas Eve Service Huckleberry Springs 12/24/15

 

Then and Now

 

I dare say that there is not a person here this evening who does not know the Christmas story. In fact – the mere fact that you’ve taken this time out of your Christmas Eve celebrations with family and friends to be here speaks volumes about the seriousness of your faith. I pray that our music and our message will enhance your Worship experience, this Christmas Eve night.

I listed our scriptures in the bulletin if you brought your Bible and want to follow along. I’m sure you know the stories, but listen as I read them, for a common theme among each of them.

(read Luke 1:5-20; Luke 1:26-38; Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 2:1-14)

Did anyone pick up on the common theme among each scripture? What one thing did the angel say in each encounter – or in Joseph’s case – in his dream?

Do not fear!

We’ve memorized or read or heard these words a thousands time – “Do not fear…” But yet, we seem to somehow think that it was easier for them then, than it is for us, now. So, let’s see…

Zechariah:

In our first scripture we saw that Zechariah was a priest and a very old man. He and his wife Elizabeth had no children, which as you know, was a well accepted sign of God’s displeasure in those days. There were hundreds of priests in Zechariah’s day, and when verse 9 tells us that Zechariah was chosen by lot to go into the Holy Place to burn the evening incense, it was a high honor. As he was burning the incense to the Lord, our scripture tells us that an angel (whom we will later find out is none other than Gabriel) appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. Verse 12 tells us that Zechariah was “troubled when he saw him, and fear gripped him”…

So what was Zechariah afraid of? Well, first of all, it had been over 400 years since God had spoken to His people, and then to be going about a normal routine priestly function (even if it was a great honor) and to look up and a find an angel standing there has got to be a little disconcerting! So Zechariah was afraid of what he saw. What is this going to mean? What is going to happen? It is highly unlikely that Zechariah had ever seen an angel before. What did he look like? How did Zechariah know it was an angel, anyway?

But then the angel said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.” What prayer? What had Zechariah been praying for? Surely to goodness he wasn’t praying for Elizabeth to get pregnant! But, that was the answer, anyway… Sometimes the answers to our prayers aren’t exactly what we expect them to be. Perhaps Zechariah’s prayer was for the Messiah to come – well, John would be the answer to that prayer. Perhaps his prayer was to deliver the people from oppression and sin. And, John was the answer to that prayer, too. Or maybe Zechariah’s prayer was simply, “O Lord, let us hear from You!” And John was definitely the answer to that prayer as well.

If you’re afraid of what you see… God says, “Do not be afraid, I am the answer to your prayer…”

Mary:

In Luke 1:26, we find the angel Gabriel being dispatched once again. This time he appears to Mary. Mary doesn’t seem to be as disturbed by an angel appearing as she is by what he says. Verse 28 tells us that he said, “Greetings O favored one, the Lord is with you” and then we read that “she was greatly troubled at this statement and kept pondering what kind of salutation this might be…”

In our East Tennessee vernacular we might expect her to say, “What in the world????” But the angel said, “Do not be afraid, Mary for you have found favor with God.” The word “favor” is the Greek word charis and is often translated as “grace.” It means “a gift”. It does not mean one is deemed good enough to be chosen by God – but that God has chosen to give a gift regardless of one’s status.

Before Mary ever received the full account of Gabriel’s message, she was afraid that she had “found favor with God…” Essentially Gabriel said, “Hello Mary! God has chosen to give you a gift”. Now why would that frighten anyone? Often in our culture we expect that a “gift from God” equates to health, wealth and prosperity, but that’s not always what it means. Now, don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with being blessed with health, wealth and prosperity – but God’s gifts are designed to bring God glory – not us.

Many of you know that our youngest grandson was born in early September. He was a full month early, but appeared to be extremely healthy, and we were so relieved. After a couple of days there began to be some concern that he might have Down’s syndrome. There would need to be blood tests made, and the results wouldn’t be back for a week or so. Our son and daughter-in-law’s pastor and some friends were there when we went back to visit that night. The pastor prayed before he left and he said, “Lord, we know that You have chosen Johnny and Allison to be Jude’s parents…” and right then I knew that Jude would indeed have Down’s syndrome.

God had, in essence, said to John and Allison, and to all our family, “Hello there! You have found favor in My sight and I have chosen to give you a gift!” Were they afraid? You betcha they were, we all were, and still are at times… But God’s gift will always bring Him glory.

I have heard people say “Well, I’m not sure I want that much favor from God!” But do you remember what Mary said? She said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; be it done to me according to Your word.” Submitting yourself to God may be the most difficult and frightening thing you’ll ever do – but it will also be the most rewarding.

If you’re afraid of what you hear… remember the words of Proverbs 3:5-6 Trust in the LORD with all your heart; and lean not unto your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct your paths.

Do not be afraid – God’s gifts are always perfect!

Joseph:

Next we come to Joseph. Poor ole Joseph – bless his heart. I wonder if he ever felt like he was just along for the ride? Here he was, betrothed to Mary – some translations will say he was “engaged” to her – but it was more than that. It was the same as being married – only without living together. To break it off would require an actual divorce – and if she was pregnant – and he knew the baby wasn’t his… Well, that would (by law) require stoning. He had always strived to keep the Law – so – should he do what was right – according to the Law… or should he do the right thing – according to his heart?

I suspect that he went many nights without sleep, trying to come to terms with what lie ahead. Then finally, in utter exhaustion, finally he fell asleep and an angel appeared to him in a dream. We don’t know why the angel didn’t physically appear to Joseph as he did to the others – but at any rate the message was the same “Do not be afraid.” Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife. Don’t be afraid to do the right thing – and don’t be afraid of what lies ahead.

If you’re afraid of what lies ahead for you, or if you’re afraid to do the right thing – remember – Do not be afraid, for (as the quote goes) if God leads you to it – He’ll lead you through it…

Shepherds:

And finally, there were the shepherds. The shepherds were an interesting lot. By Jesus’ time the Orthodox Jew hated the shepherds. Never mind that Abraham and the Patriarchs were shepherds; never mind that Moses was a shepherd, and the greatest Israelite King of all, David, was a shepherd. The pious Jew hated the shepherds because by that time they were near the bottom of the social ladder. When Jacob and his sons and family went down to Egypt during the famine, they were all nomadic shepherds. When Moses led the Children of Israel out of Egypt some 400 years later less of them were shepherds. And after they returned from Exile in Babylon in 516BC very few were shepherds. It had become a despised trade.

Shepherds were mostly uneducated and unskilled. They were viewed as dishonest, unreliable and because of that, they were not allowed to testify in court. It didn’t matter if you were the only witness to a crime – if you were a shepherd, your testimony was inadmissible – because you were a shepherd. And well, they didn’t bathe very often either. Sheep required care 24/7/365. There were no days off or vacations. And, because of the constant care, they couldn’t keep all the rites and rituals required by the Law – at least the “man-made” portion of the Law; therefore, they were viewed as being constantly ritually unclean.

However, no matter how despised the shepherds were, they were indispensable. The Temple sacrifices required 2 “perfect” first-born lambs every day. Every. Day.  That’s more than 700 lambs a year PLUS the lambs that were needed for Passover and all the other feasts and festivals.

So the shepherds were just doing what their daddies, and granddaddies, and great-granddaddies had done for centuries – keeping watch over their flocks by night… And as the scripture puts it, “the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and (what? I love how the KJV puts it) they were sore afraid.” They were so afraid it hurt!

And what did the angel say? “Do not be afraid. I bring to you good tidings of great joy, which shall be for all people.” Not just those who dress right. Not just those who smell right. Not just those with the right pedigree. All people!

Why were the shepherds afraid? Well, you know, having an angel appear in the night sky might cause some alarm… But here’s what I think really frightened them. The… angel… came… to… them…

To them. The lowest of the low. The most despised. Did they dare believe it?

The message is the same today. Whether you live in a mansion or a mobile home; regardless of how you’re dressed, or how you smell, or what your past reveals, the angel’s message is the same, “Do not be afraid. I bring to you good tidings of great joy, which shall be for all people.”  For we celebrate tonight and tomorrow the birth of a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

People are still afraid today. We see the condition of the world around us and hear of “wars and rumors of wars”, and yes, we’re afraid of what lies ahead in this coming year. Do we dare believe that God is in control?

We’re not the only ones to face fears such as these.

One of America’s best known poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), composed the words to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” on December 25th 1864. When Longfellow penned the words to his poem, America was reeling in the anguish of the Civil War, and was still months away from Lee’s surrender to Grant which would come in the spring of the next year.

As with any composition that touches the heart of the hearer, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” flowed from the experience of Longfellow– involving the tragic death of his wife Fanny and the crippling injury of his son Charles from war wounds.

Tragedy struck both the nation and the Longfellow family in 1861. The Civil War began on April 12th, and Fanny Longfellow was fatally burned in an accident on July 10th.

The first Christmas after Fanny’s death, Longfellow wrote in his journal, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” A year after the incident, he wrote, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” Longfellow’s journal entry for December 25th 1862 reads: “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

Almost a year later, Longfellow received word that his oldest son Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac, had been severely wounded with a bullet passing under his shoulder blades and through his spinal cord. The Christmas of 1863 was silent in Longfellow’s journal.

Finally, on Christmas Day of 1864, he wrote the words of the poem, “Christmas Bells.” Perhaps it was the reelection of Abraham Lincoln, or the possible end of the terrible war, or the fact that his son Charles, had survived his injuries that may have been the occasion for the poem. But in his poem, the Christmas bells loudly proclaimed, “God is not dead.” Even more, the bells announced, “Nor doth He sleep.

God’s Truth, Power, and Justice are affirmed, when Longfellow wrote: “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail.” And the message that the Living God is a God of Peace is proclaimed in the close of the carol: “Of peace on Earth, good will to men.”

History is filled with times that try our souls, and this present day is no exception. However, it is words such as these that bring comfort to our hearts.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

 

Prayer:

Gracious Lord and Heavenly Father, so many times You have said to us, “Do not fear”, and yet we do. This world is such a fear-ful place. We’re afraid of what we see, what we hear, what lies ahead, and Lord we even fear that You have it all under control… Forgive us. Give us courage, give us peace, and give us grace to be faithful to Your call.

I pray now, Lord, for each home and each family represented here tonight – that You will fill their souls with gladness and joy in this precious season – and may Your presence manifest itself in our lives throughout the year.

We lift our prayer in the wonderful name of Jesus our Lord and Savior – Amen.

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Last week I posted a devotional titled, “Why Shepherds”. In that I talked about why God sent the angel, and the announcement to the Shepherds. This week we talk about the Wisemen.

Why Wisemen?

All we know for a fact about the Wisemen, or Magi, that came to Bethlehem is found in Matthew 2. But, we do know a little about the priestly tribe of the Magi from history, and from the Old Testament. They are first mentioned in the 7th century BC as a tribe within the Median nation in eastern Mesopotamia, near Ur of the Chaldaeans. They were skilled in astrology as well as astronomy, which was the study of the stars, as well as their meanings. (Remember, God said in Genesis 1:14 that the lights in the heavens were to be for “signs and seasons and for days and years.”) Astrology and astronomy were not mutually exclusive, but mutually explanatory.

 

We find Daniel being integrated into the group of “wisemen” during the Babylonian exile. During that time they were among the highest ranking officials in Babylon and in Daniel 5:11 Daniel is made chief over them all. And I believe it was Daniel’s prophecies and writings that directed these Magi toward Bethlehemat just the right time. In fact, the expectation also arose from the dispersion of the Jews among all the nations, as they carried with them the hope and the promise of a divine Redeemer. Isaiah 9; Isaiah 11; Daniel 7.

 

Their presents, “gold, frankincense, and myrrh,” were the usual gifts of subject nations (Psalm 72:15; 1Kings10:2; 1Kings10:10; 2Chronicles 9:24)

 

Q     Why do you think God directed the Wisemen to seek the Christ child?

 

Q     Which is more important to the story, Shepherds or Wisemen? Why?

 

 

Q     Now, think about this – Did God speak to or lead the Shepherds and Wisemen in the same way?

 

 

Q     What does that tell us about the way God calls people today?

 

A very good example of God’s different calling comes in Acts 10 in the event with a Roman centurion named Cornelius, and the Apostle Peter.

 

Cornelius was a Gentile and a “God-fearer”, which meant that he believed in the One True God of the Jews, but he was not a proselyte – had not totally accepted the Jewish religion. His background was that he was a Roman soldier, he’d come up through the ranks, was very dependable and brave, and living in Caesarea with his family; and like the Roman Centurion in Matthew 8, he was used to giving and taking orders. So, that’s how God approached him, God sent an angel who gave Cornelius, basically, a command. “Dispatch some men to Joppa, and send for Peter.” And what did Cornelius do? He obeyed, immediately.

 

Peter, on the other hand, was approached differently. God didn’t just command Peter to go to Caesarea, because likely his response would have been, “why?” Or worse, “What? Me go to the Roman capital in this district? No way!” No, Peter was Jewish and Jewish people are storytellers. Remember the parables that Jesus taught? Or remember how the prophet Nathan, rather than directly approach King David with his sin, instead told him a story of a man and his little ewe lamb? The Jewish people are “visual” people, so God gave Peter an illustration.

 

What this tells us is that God draws each of us differently. We each have different backgrounds and different roots. There is only one way to God the Father, and that is through Jesus, but the story of the Wisemen and Shepherds tells us that there are many paths to Jesus. And the exciting thing is, the Holy Spirit does the preparing and the calling and the directing.

 

 

Q     How do you think God directs you?

For an in-dpth study on the Magi and Matthew 2, listen to this audio commentary I did for a Women’s Bible study group that I teach. http://Listen to The Gospel of Matthew Chapter 2  https://soundcloud.com/user-429419020/the-gospel-of-matthew-chapter-2

 

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Did you ever wonder why God sent the angel to the shepherds? The following is an excerpt from a Sunday School lesson I’m teaching this week.

Why Shepherds?

By Jesus’ time the Orthodox Jew hated the shepherds. Never mind that Abraham and the Patriarchs were shepherds; never mind that Moses was a shepherd, and the greatest Israelite King of all, David, was a shepherd. The pious Jew hated the shepherds because by that time they were near the bottom of the social ladder. When Jacob and his sons and family went down to Egypt during the famine, they were all nomadic shepherds. When Moses led the Children of Israel out of Egypt some 400 years later less of them were shepherds. And after they returned from Exile in Babylonin 516BC very few were shepherds. It had become a despised trade.

 

Shepherds were mostly uneducated and unskilled. They were viewed as dishonest, unreliable and because of that, they were not allowed to testify in court. It didn’t matter if you were the only witness to a crime – if you were a shepherd, your testimony was inadmissible – because you were a shepherd. And well, they didn’t bathe very often either. Sheep required care 24/7/365. There were no days off or vacations. And, because of the constant care, they couldn’t keep all the rites and rituals required by the Law – at least the “man-made” portion of the Law, therefore, they were viewed as being constantly ritually unclean.

 

Q     So, let me ask you this – have you ever known anyone who lived up to (or lived “down” to) expectations?

 

Q     Have you ever known anyone who said (or maybe said it yourself) “Well, this is just the way I am.”

 

However, no matter how despised the shepherds were, they were indispensable. The Temple sacrifices required 2 “perfect” first-born lambs every day. Every. Day.  That’s more than 700 lambs a year PLUS the lambs that were needed for Passover and all the other feasts and festivals.

 

Q     What kinds of jobs today might be extremely necessary, but thankless?

Q     So, why do you think God sent the Angel to shepherds?

Q     What did the angel say to them?

A.     Luke 2:10-11 – “I bring [to] you good news (the same word as “gospel”)

                  Of a great joy

Which shall be for all the people (not the word for “their” people only, but ALL people, gentiles included.)

 

Isaiah 61:1 in the Amplified Bible says, “THE SPIRIT of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed and qualified me to preach the Gospel of good tidings to the meek, the poor, and afflicted; He has sent me to bind up and heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the [physical and spiritual] captives and the opening of the prison and of the eyes to those who are bound.”

 Don’t we all fit into those categories at various times in our lives? Why did God send an angel to the shepherds? We are ALL “shepherds” at times.

 

(coming later – “Why the Wisemen”?

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I’m sure you’ve seen the Geico commercial where the man teaches three guinea pigs to row a little boat while another one cries “row”. And the man says, “Such a simple word, ‘row’.” 

I thought about that recently as I was thinking about Paul’s words in Philippians 2:5-8 where he tells of what some have called Jesus’ “7 steps down from Glory.” It can be broken down this way:

 

“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God,

  1. did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,
  2. but emptied Himself,
  3. taking the form of a bond-servant,

 

  1. and being made in the likeness of men.

 

(Then) Being found in appearance as a man

  1. He humbled Himself
  2. by becoming obedient to the point of death,
  3. even death on a cross.”

 

The first three steps take place in heaven, and the last three take place on earth, but it’s that 4th step that creates the transition between heaven and earth. The last part of verse 7 says, “…and being made in the likeness of men.” That little word “made” is the key word here.

 

Such a simple word… “made…”

 

The word literally means “to come into being.” This… is… the Incarnation. Jesus was “made in the likeness of men.” He was born. He came into the world through the birth canal. He was attached to His mother by His umbilical cord… but He had His Father’s blood. His birth was for real. He didn’t “just appear.” He was born, just like you and I were. He didn’t come into existence in Bethlehem, but He was “made” in the likeness of men. And you know what? He still has that body.

 

Such a simple word, “made…” but oh what significance!

 

 

Oh, and think about this… Jesus has a bellybutton. Doesn’t that just blow you away?

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