Glad Tidings of Great Joy

ChristmasIt is highly likely that the last thing you want this morning is a Christmas sermon, so in the spirit of Christmas cheer, I’ll keep this as brief as possible.

Most of us, religious or not, probably know by heart the St. Luke, Chapter 2 (King James Version) of the Christmas Story. I memorized it as a young child and that translation is still my favorite for Christmas reading.

Do you remember this part, “And suddenly there were with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly host, praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men’”?

I thought you did.  Did you know, though, that there are some translation and punctuation issues that once fixed, deepen the Christmas message?

First, some background; when Luke wrote his Gospel, there were no punctuation marks in the Greek Language.  Heck, there were only capital letters and there was no spacing between the words. IMAGINETRANSLATINGTHISSENTENCEINTOANOTHERLANGUAGEWHICHISWHATBIBLETRANSLATORSDOSOTHATWECANREADGODSMESSAGEINENGLISH

Anyway, we have a much better handle on ancient Greek grammar these days than King James’ team did; and a better translation reads; “Suddenly a great multitude of the heavenly host joined the angel saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest; and on earth, peace to mankind; on whom His favor rests.’”

Shazaam! Do you see it? Wow!  In this one declaration, the angels proclaim that the human race is special above all creation. These mighty warriors and messengers, who live, worship and work daily in the physical presence of almighty God, announced that out of all the starry host, out of all the worlds and creatures and beauty and majesty that exists in the universe, it is we, mortal human flesh, who are the special recipients of His Grace.

How many stars fill the skies? How many birds fly? How many fish swim beneath the ocean waves? How many tiny microbes wrestle and play and thrive beyond the naked eye? This world is a complex, diverse, amazing masterpiece, yet out of all the species in heaven and on the earth, it is we, the human race, who are the special objects of his affection.  He made this universe as a gift for us. Then He made us. We treated it all, including Him, with utter contempt. And still He loves us.

It’s easy to imagine a love that is requited, but a love that keeps going despite rejection upon rejection? Who ever heard of such a thing?  “Unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given. And His name shall be called, Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.


It Came Upon a Midnight Clear: Shepherds and Kings and Surprising Things

Outside of Joseph and Mary, the very first humans to lay eyes on the Christchile were Bethlehem’s shepherds.  How absolutely marvellous and appropriate that is, and on multiple levels.

On a similar night, a thousand years before, another shepherd was called from these same fields to receive God’s message and become King of the Jews.  His name; David, son of Jesse.  Now, the heirs of David’s first occupation were the first to gaze upon the heir to David’s throne.  This King’s reign however, would not be limited to 40 years like His ancestor.  As the prophet Isaiah had said, “And of His kingdom, there shall be no end.”

In the first century, outside of Jerusalem, Israel was still primarily an agrarian society.  Sheep and goats, along with cattle and donkeys, were the primary symbols of wealth.  Shepherds tended to be servants, men too old to go to war anymore or the youngest sons of the landowners.  They were men and boys of little station, yet given the awesome responsibility of guarding and guiding the wealth of the nation.

Sheep and goats are far from the stupid creatures they have been portrayed to be over the years.  As someone who has owned many of them over the years, I can attest to the fact that they are quick learning and crafty creatures.  In fact, it is said that a sheep can remember a human face for up to two years.

While not stupid by any stretch of the imagination, sheep and goats are, however, prone to wander.  They don’t pay attention to their surroundings and are easily lost.  They are also prey animals, hunted by creatures as diverse as hawks, owls, bears, wolves and lions.  It was the shepherd’s responsibility to keep the flock safe from themselves and from the many predators roaming the hillsides and the skies surrounding Bethlehem.

Shepherds were not men of standing, but they were frequently courageous.  David, himself, described how as a boy, he was forced to tackle both a lion and a bear in defense of his father’s flocks.  And it is these men who are the very first to see the Savior and carry the good news of His arrival.  They were nearly two years ahead of the Wise Men.

By the time the Magi arrived with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, Jesus was a toddler and the shepherds had already spread the message of the Messiah’s arrival to the surrounding villages.

Not much has changed in the last 2,000 years.  It seems that the wealthy, the important, the positioned in society, take a little longer than the ordinary citizen to catch on to God’s truth.  It’s not that they are bad people, at least not any worse than anyone else, but on occasion, money, privilege and power distract their possessors.  The rest of us, having fewer speed bumps, are able to get on board a little faster.

The good news is, the Wise Men, did catch on and did follow the star and did arrive at the party.  Sure they were a bit late, but it’s never too late.

God is still calling shepherds and Wise Men to meet his Son.  Young and old, male and female, from all races and languages we are invited to sing with the angels, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will towards men.”



Easter’s Prequel, AKA – The Christmas Story

And so it was, that while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.  And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.       Luke 2:6,7 King James Version.

Just in time for Easter: The Christmas Story.  How convenient is that?  As we focus on the Passion and Resurrection of the Christ, it’s a great time to reflect on some of the events surrounding His birth.

The only narratives regarding Jesus’ birth, are found in Chapter 1 of Matthew and Chapter 2 of the Gospel of Luke and they record totally different aspects of the event.  They don’t contradict each other, but rather tell the story from different angles.  Matthew gives us some of the events from Joseph’s perspective, while Luke (the detail obsessed doctor) gives us much more information, and does so from Mary’s view.

Luke, Chapter 2, is the first chapter of the Bible I remember memorizing as a child; King James version, of course.  To this very day, I still love the poetic, lyrical rhythms of that translation of this particular chapter.

I want to focus our attention on verses 6 and 7, if you have a minute.  These two short verses, tell us many things about Jesus arrival, some of it counter to what we may have thought all our lives.

‘ She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”  There are so many layers in this one sentence that it’s hard to know how many of them to peel back.

It seems to me that growing up, I had this idea that Mary’s labor pains caught everyone by surprise and that she and Joseph were scrambling around trying to figure out what to do.  ‘….wrapped him in swaddling clothes’ suggests something quite different.  These strips of cloth were not scraps left laying around the barn.  Every baby born was wrapped in these. I would almost compare them to a combination diaper/receiving blanket kit.  The point is, Mary and Joseph were not surprised by the onset of labor.  They travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem because they had to and they knew full well that the baby would arrive while they were out of town.  They came prepared.  They had their ‘diaper bag’ kitted out so that wherever they were when labor hit, they would be ready to handle the situation.

‘…because there was no room for them in the inn.’  For some reason, I get the impression that there are still folk who have the notion that Mary and Joseph were poverty stricken, homeless and in despair and were forced by their situation to hole up in a stable.  That’s not exactly the case.  In point of fact, we don’t know anything about Joseph’s and Mary’s financial situation.  We know Joseph was a carpenter of Royal Descent and they lived about 70 or so miles north of the family home.  The reason Jesus was ‘laid in a manger’ was because there was no room for them in the inn.  The census had caused an influx of visitors to the village and the hotel was full. The No Vacancy sign (or it’s equivalent)  was in the window.

The sad part to me was not the absence of hotel space, but that no one MADE room.  Here is Mary, clearly ‘great with child’, and not one person said, “Oh my, here take my room,” or, “you know what, we’ll crowd you into our space with us.”  They were all so busy, so focused, dare I say it, so selfish, they left the expecting couple in the streets to fend for themselves.

I can’t help but wonder how many ‘Marys’ we pass each day, who need a bed, a room, a meal, some water, a dollar, a hug, or maybe just a smile, but there’s no room in our day or our hearts to notice anything but our own needs.

You know who did make room?  The cows moved aside, the goats stepped to the back of the stable, the sheep left their feed trough, the donkeys walked away.  Even the snake slithered into his hole and made room for the Creator.  The created world recognized their Lord and rejoiced to see Him, while the people, the humans created in His image had ‘no room’.  The apostle John, in the first chapter of his Gospel put it this way, “He came to that which was his own, and his own people did not receive Him.’

Before this night was over, angels would sing, shepherds would marvel and the very stars of heaven would shine down in worship of the Word who became flesh. The citizens of Bethlehem, though, revelled the night away, or slept blissfully in their own little self centered worlds.

Those of us who are Believers, know that Jesus is coming back.  His first trip began in obscurity and ended in a cocktail of gore and glory.  There was no room for him to be born in Bethlehem, so He was laid in a manger. There was no room for His message in Jerusalem so they nailed Him to a cross, There was no room for Him to be buried, so He was laid in a borrowed grave.  There was no room for Him in the grave, because He is Life itself, so He rose.

Even today, there is no room for Him.  There is no room for Him  in the School House and there is no room for Him in the Court House. There is no room for Him in the public square or in the city park.   Is there room for Him in MY house?  In Your house?  What about in our hearts?

Mary and Joseph knew the time was near for the baby to be born and they were prepared.  The place and time didn’t matter, they were ready for any circumstance.  They had their ‘swaddling clothes’ all in order.  When He returns, this time in triumph rather than obscurity, I wonder how many of us will be prepared, or whether or not we’ll have room at all?  I choose to be ready.  I hope you make that choice, too.


A Christmas Parable

Christmas: for some it’s cookies and candy and visions of sugar plums. For others it’s presents and family and joy and peace. For still others it’s a baby, a manger, some shepherds, a star and hope for the world. There are others, millions of them, for whom Christmas is heartache and loneliness, hunger and thirst, fear and despair.

I have been all of these.

This morning, as I fed the animals and did my farm chores, I was, in a manner of speaking, visited by three spirits.

A ghost of Christmas past came to me. He brought a thousand memories to mind. He reminded me of my childhood, filled with wonder and love and joy. I remember my sisters and I dragging Mom and Dad out of bed at some unholy hour because our little souls couldn’t take the suspense another minute.  I remember Dad always wanting to eat breakfast before opening presents. I remember him being out voted most of the time.

The ghost then took me across the ocean, to Scotland and the magnificant memories of Christmases spent there. I saw again, the Church Christmas programs and those little Scottish Church buildings in Buckie and Portnockie filled to overflowing. I could see Doug and Denise in their jammies, tearing into presents while I tried desperately to pour caffeine down my gullet.

I smiled until the spirit fast forwarded me to my first Christmas alone. My house empty. My heart broken. My life in tatters. I saw my Christmas dinner of cheese on toast washed down with beer, then another for dessert; my pain too great for words.

There were far too many Christmases spent so. When I thought I could not bear to see another one, the ghost took me forward once more, and I saw my first Christmas with Brittan as she decorated our little house in Florida. Joy had come back into my life and for the first time in years, I hoped again.  Oh, how I wanted to linger just a moment in that place.

In a flash, though, the spirit took me to other places and other Christmases, in Iowa, in Kentucky and in Maine. Some were tender and peaceful. Others were hectic to the border of manic. But each made me smile and a mist clouded my vision.

Suddenly, the ghost was gone, replaced by another, showing me this present Christmas.  Not mine, though, but other places and other faces. There were children and ancients. There were a multitude of languages and a rainbow of races.  But there were no smiles or carols or trees or presents. Prayers were being lifted and letter to Santa, each begging for food, for water, for shelter, for Daddy to come home, for Mommy not to be sick anymore. I saw Santa weeping in his sleigh, his bag empty, his chest heaving with grief.

Then the spirit took me to another place, a war ravaged desert. I saw children among the rubble. I could see across the way, a soldier, dust mingling with tears as he unwrapped a parcel that contained a framed photograph of a young woman and a golden haired baby girl. He held the photograph to his chest, sobbed in the silence then lifted his voice in what was either a prayer or a scream. I could not tell for sure.

I begged the ghost to allow me to help or to take me away, because I could not remain idle and maintain either my sanity or my morality. Instead, he disappeared and his place was taken by a third spirit. This one, ethereal, insubstantial, yet glorious and terrible all at once.

The spectre too my hand and lifted me high above the earth to a place of indescribible wonder. There was peace in this place. I could hear singing and laughter. I looked around and saw people everywhere, each contented, happy.  As I toured the city, I became aware that although there were hundreds of thousands, millions of people, there was not a hospital, a cemetery or even police car to be seen. I marveled.

Suddenly, my path came to an abrupt end. I could see across an enormous canyon. On the other side, was the multitude of hungry, the sick and the broken I had seen before.  Behind me was the happiest place my mind could imagine. In front of me was more heartache than my soul could endure.

I turned to the spirit who led me and asked, “Sir, why?”

“You know why, child. You’ve always known why.”

“How can they get from there to here? The gulf is so vast? It’s too far, too hard.”

“There is a path. Lead them. You know the way.”

“But they are too hungry to follow.”

“Then feed them.”

“They are too weak.”

“Then carry them.”

“Some are too sick.”

“Then heal them.”

“What about the ones too heartbroken to hear?”

“Weep with them.”

“What if they won’t follow?”

“Lead them anyway.”

At that point, the spirit handed me a book, a map, a bowl of rice, a trowel, a vial filled with some elixir and a washcloth. I took them from him, but wondered at their meaning.

“Take these and go to them. Beyond where you can see, there is another place, more hideous than anything you see before you. There are horrors and monsters there. Creatures and devils that feast upon the heartaches you can see now. They will soon devour the sick, the broken and the weary. Those they do not devour they will drag back across the abyss to their lairs to consume at their leisure. You have in your hands all you need to change the destiny of legions.”

I stared at the ghost, with a cocktail of emotions, ranging from fear to anticipation, and queried, “Sir, will any come with me?  I am fearful that I will fail.”

“By choosing to go, you cannot fail. As to whether any will follow, I cannot say. Only One knows. Go, now. Feed, heal, comfort and lead.”

Then, as quickly as the scene had appeared, the spirit and the visions were gone.  I was again in the barn, my arms filled with hay, goats and cattle calling out for breakfast.  It was still dark outside. The day still young. No time had past. The future was in my hands. I wonder…