Christmas 2018 – Day 23

Annunciation to the ShepherdsAs part of my 25 for 25 (25 devotionals leading up to 25 December), here is Day # 23: we’ve covered the prophesies and some main characters in the birth of Jesus but today we’re going to tie those two together by looking at the shepherds and angels. Luke 2 tells the story of the angel speaking to the shepherds out guarding their flocks. In verses 10-12 it says,

Then the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.’”

Obviously, these shepherds knew the Scriptures of prophecy concerning the Messiah. The angel is able to speak to them without explaining thousands of years of history. But I find it fascinating that the angel gives them some prophecy to follow, the “sign” to tell the Messiah would be that he would be (1) a baby (2) wrapped in swaddling clothes and (3) lying in a manger. This is much like the prophecy of Jesus being born of a virgin which people like to mock and say, “virgin” can be translated “young girl” (as we discussed on Day 16). People can mock the sign to the shepherds, but for them these three things had to line up perfectly in order to find baby Jesus.

I find it interesting that they didn’t balk at the fact that He was a baby. And neither did the wise men. And neither did Simeon (Day 22) or Anna. They all agreed that if God wanted to come in the form of a baby – that was good enough for them. God humbled Himself and not only came down to weak humanity but also in the most fragile form: a baby. Consider yourself this Christmas. At parties are you bragging about yourself? At church is your mind wandering to your lists or what presents you’ll be getting? Consider the shepherds humbling and focusing their attention on the only thing that matters: baby Jesus, the Savior of “all people!”

Christmas: “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”

Christmas: A Look at “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” 12/17/15.

Last week at our church’s Wednesday Night Bible Study the worship leader sang a few songs, one of which was “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” When my wife heard it she said it was one of her favorites and, like any good husband, I immediately took note! But it really made me look at the lyrics a little more closely then I have in the past. Last night I lead our Wednesday Night Study and I based it around this famous Christmas carol. Why is there so much controversy about it? How does it match up to the Bible? What are the origins of the song?

We’re going to look at the two verses that we sang at church, although there are more, which I’ve put at the bottom of this blog. It actually makes sense that there are so many verses and variations (Wikipedia gives three: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/God_Rest_You_Merry,_Gentlemen) considering it’s older than the United States! There are people who claim it’s been around since the 1600’s but there isn’t any physical proof of that so it’s best to stick with the earliest printed edition date of 1760 (ibid).

Let’s look at the First Verse:

God rest ye merry, gentlemen, Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Christ, our Saviour, Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power, When we were gone astray

The first line probably needs the most explanation: “God rest ye merry, gentlemen.” There is an theory passed around, mostly through those awful unfounded email forwards, every year that we misunderstand this line and we’re not living to our full potential unless we truly understand it. The theory goes like this: when the carol was written “rest” meant “make” or “continue to be” as in “rest assured” and that’s what it means here. Also “merry” in the Middle Ages did mean “happy” as we use it today, as in “Merry Christmas”, but that it also meant “mighty” like Robin Hood’s Merry Men. With that wealth of knowledge we’re told to translate this as: “God make you mighty, gentlemen.” Even if it were true I’m not sure how much that would help us, maybe that some dead writer commanded God to make some people strong…? Anyway, Snopes debunked it (here: http://www.snopes.com/holidays/christmas/music/godrestye.asp) and also it doesn’t fit with the context of the next line.

So my next question is, who are the “gentlemen” here? Oddly enough with all the different theories and web pages and news articles no one really definitively states who they think the “gentlemen” are here. Maybe it’s just clear to everyone but me. My best shot at it is that it’s the writer’s (who is unknown) contemporaries. Maybe she or he had a specific group of male friends who were going through depression. Or maybe the use of “gentlemen” was just to grab attention since it kind of makes your ears perk up. Or maybe it was to the everyday people who were going to hear the song but living in fear and without rest. I think it shows the mentality of 16th century England. Looking at the complete lyrics the writer seems to have aimed the song at everyone: church-going or not and just gave them the benefit of the doubt that they were respectable (“gentlemen” and ladies). We’ll talk more about that in a bit but either way the song was sung in the streets and loved especially because at this time the church only had somber music, nothing up-beat was allowed.

Interestingly, the punctuation is often wrong and gives a different spin: it’s usually written and therefore thought of as: “God Rest Ye…Merry Gentlemen” as if the gentlemen have been partying so hard that God just needs to give them a little rest. Instead it is: “God Rest Ye Merry…Gentlemen” as in “God will give you rest and make you merry….gentlemen.” So after all that the first line pretty much says what it means: “May God give you rest and peace with happiness and merriment.” But what do we need “rest” from?

The answer is in the next line: anything that would dismay us. Any of the weight of the bad stuff we’ve done or the hard stuff we have to go through. We’re told to let “nothing…dismay” us, in other words “don’t be sad and panicked.” Why? What hope do these “gentlemen” (and ladies!) have? It’s to “Remember, Christ, our Saviour, Was born on Christmas day”! Yes! That’s it, the most important thing in the whole song and in the whole world. To be mindful that Jesus the Savior came and we are saved! We are saved from whatever temporary problem we’re going through. Someone might say, “How can you tell me not to be sad and panicked? You don’t even know what I’m going through.” You’re right I don’t know what you’re going through but Jesus does and this is the only message that can speak a blanket statement to millions of people and actually offer hope and restoration! Jesus came to earth with the goal of giving love and hope to every human ever. And He had to do that from the cross, where He died for all the bad stuff we’ve done. That’s why we call Him “Christ” translated “our Saviour”! And yet, although He had no beginning being fully God, Jesus had to have an earthly beginning for His Human body. And that brings us to the next line.

It says, “Was born on Christmas day”. We must acknowledge that it is very unlikely that Jesus was born in our month of December. It is probable Jesus was born somewhere in our September/October (the Hebrew month of Tishri). Now to be fair the writer of this carol doesn’t say December 25th here. And that’s important: remember that we are thankful of the birth of Christ even if we don’t know what day exactly. So why do we celebrate it on December 25th? Well, in 336AD Constantine wanted to unite his people. He took the date of the pagan celebration of Saturnalia and said that the celebration of Jesus would be celebrated on that day also. Who knows Constantine’s motivations but personally I don’t think it was good to crunch the one true Lord’s birth into a pagan celebration. That said, I don’t know anyone celebrating Saturnalia and there is a lot of documentation that, that was church leaderships goal at that time…to overcome pagan celebrations and give glory to Jesus. (As I mentioned in one of my blogs prior, I did a series on Early Church History that’s available on sermonaudio, if you want to listen see below under “References: sermonaudio”).

So…we don’t throw baby Jesus out with the bathwater (bad joke?). There are plenty of people who don’t know or maybe don’t acknowledge the great things that have happened over the past 1700 years of celebrating Jesus’ birth.

The following line is “To save us all from Satan’s power, When we were gone astray.” Have you ever gone “astray”? That simply means “off course” and everyone has been “off course” before. What’s interesting is to be “off course” insinuates that there is a course and that there is only one way to be on course. If you didn’t catch my symbolism, Jesus is the course and He is the only way to the destination of heaven. If Jesus “saved us all from Satan’s power” then what can we do about staying “on course”? Psalm 119:1-6 gives us great insight:

You’re blessed when you stay on course, walking steadily on the road revealed by God. You’re blessed when you follow his directions, doing your best to find him. That’s right – you don’t go off on your own; you walk straight along the road he set. You, God, prescribed the right way to live; now you expect us to live it. Oh, that my steps might be steady, keeping to the course you set; Then I’d never have any regrets in comparing my life with your counsel” (The Message Version).

Second Verse:

From God our Heavenly Father, A blessed Angel came;
And unto certain Shepherds, Brought tidings of the same:
How that in Bethlehem was born, The Son of God by Name.

Do you know which of the gospels the story of the shepherds is in? What about the Magi (wise men)? Actually only Matthew and Luke have the story of Christ’s birth. Why do I bring this up? Because I’ve found that reading a little bit from the Bible on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day reminds every one of the true meaning of Christmas. I’ve also had friends who are religious and want to argue about Christmas and friends who are adamantly opposed to God who have questions about Jesus’ birth and it’s helpful to know where to find the story you’re looking for. Where is your conversation headed? Talking about giving gifts? The story of the Magi bringing the gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:11) fits! Or talking about celebrating the birth of Jesus or sharing it with others? The story of the angels celebrating His birth and the shepherds sharing it with anyone who would hear, works for that! And speaking of that…

This whole second verse in the carol comes from Luke 2:8-15, which says,

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. 10 Then the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.’ 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: 14 ‘Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’ 15 So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us’” (NKJV).

See how spiritually sound this song verse is? Indeed it was God the Father that had sent the angel, since they are messengers of His and do nothing unless He has told them to, to bring this message to the shepherds. But why to the shepherds? The truth is that the Hebrew culture at this time looked down upon shepherds. They were below even the working class. God choses to use the simple things to confuse the wise (1 Corinthians 1:27). God can go to those looked down upon because He’s not interested in earthly riches or power or any of the things that we would think would be important for effectively communicating a message. I think this would resonate with the working class of England at the time this carol was being sung in the streets. Which got me thinking about the use of “gentlemen” above. You know, if a person heard the story of the birth of Jesus from the Bible when this song was written they would affiliate with either the shepherds (probably the working class) or the Magi (maybe the upper class of “gentlemen” and ladies). But the reality is that whoever you are, if you come to Jesus, God has made you into His heirs as “gentlemen” and ladies of royalty. Romans 8:15-17 tells us, “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together” (NKJV). When the book of Romans was written the Roman culture wasn’t like the Hebrew culture or most others when it came to adoption. When a kid was adopted into a family that child received an equal share of inheritance just like the kids born into the family. Paul knows this and uses that understanding here. We’re told that we get to be “sons and daughters of God”, in status the same as Jesus. What an amazing thing to receive the full inheritance of God’s family!

The next line is “Brought tidings of the same”, but the same what? We would think it was something already mentioned and yet in a beautiful inspiration of poetry it is actually what follows: “How that in Bethlehem was born, The Son of God by Name.” Notice that He was born in Bethlehem. Did you know that the Old Testament prophesied the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem? In Micah 5:2 it says, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Though you are little among the thousands of Judah, Yet out of you shall come forth to Me The One to be Ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old, From everlasting.” Beyond that in Matthew 2:4-6 we see that the Hebrew scribes knew that Bethlehem was the prophesied birthplace of the Messiah.

Then comes the lyric, “Son of God by name.” In my last sermon on John 20:1-31 (listen here: tinysa.com/sermon/126151353454) I talked briefly about the titles of Jesus and also His name. So this line isn’t saying that “Son of God” is His name but it is a title of Him…and it rhymes! However, it does draw attention to the Name that is above all names (Philippians 2:9) and certainly to the nature of Jesus’ deity. John 20:31 says that we have life in His name. Not His titles but in His name. Whether you call Him Yehowshuwa  in Hebrew or Iesous in Greek or Jesus in English or Jesús in Spanish, His name is the only name that saves us from hell (Romans 10:9-10). Interestingly the Bible is primarily written in Hebrew and Greek and when we look at what Jesus’ name means in both languages it is: “Yahweh is salvation”. Yahweh was the personal name God gave us in the Old Testament so that we could know Him and have a relationship with Him. Who better to save us than “Yahweh” who “is salvation”…Jesus!!?

I think it’s good to conclude with the chorus: “O tidings of comfort and joy, Comfort and joy O tidings of comfort and joy.” That sounds familiar doesn’t it? We just read it in Luke 2:10 where the angel said, “I bring you good tidings of great joy…” These tidings (or “news”) were for the shepherds but also for us now! Isn’t this “comforting”?! Isn’t it “joyful”?! I know in the busyness of the holidays I can “dismay” but the good news is that “Christ, our Saviour, Was born on Christmas day” and that really does comfort and bring joy! Merry Christmas and God rest you merry, ladies and gentlemen!!

References.

Sermonaudio: Here is the link to all six studies on Early Church History. Covering from the disciples to roughly present day:http://www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakerWithinSource=&subsetCat=&subsetItem=&mediatype=&includekeywords=&exactverse=&keyword=houseofgracehemet&keyworddesc=houseofgracehemet&currsection=sermonssource&AudioOnly=false&SourceOnly=true&keywordwithin=Early+Church+History&x=4&y=5

 

“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” (Full Lyrics)

God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Christ, our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

In Bethlehem, in Israel,
This blessed Babe was born
And laid within a manger
Upon this blessed morn
The which His Mother Mary
Did nothing take in scorn
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

From God our Heavenly Father
A blessed Angel came;
And unto certain Shepherds
Brought tidings of the same:
How that in Bethlehem was born
The Son of God by Name.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

“Fear not then,” said the Angel,
“Let nothing you affright,
This day is born a Saviour
Of a pure Virgin bright,
To free all those who trust in Him
From Satan’s power and might.”
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

The shepherds at those tidings
Rejoiced much in mind,
And left their flocks a-feeding
In tempest, storm and wind:
And went to Bethlehem straightway
The Son of God to find.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

And when they came to Bethlehem
Where our dear Saviour lay,
They found Him in a manger,
Where oxen feed on hay;
His Mother Mary kneeling down,
Unto the Lord did pray.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

Now to the Lord sing praises,
All you within this place,
And with true love and brotherhood
Each other now embrace;
This holy tide of Christmas
All other doth deface.
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

Devotional # 167. Luke 2 & Isaiah 53 (Special Christmas Devotional)

Devotional 167. 12/14/15. Christmas, Part 3: Origins of Christmas (as we know it).

This week’s Reading: Luke 2 and Isaiah 53.

Introduction: If you were getting this Devotional last year than you may remember this one. I decided to use it again because it really matters. It was important that we start these Christmas studies with prophesies about Jesus but while we’re looking at origins we should consider the Christmas celebration as we know it. So, as promised last week, we’re going to look at some interesting origins of Christmas traditions.

The Christmas Tree.

  1. The Tree: People talk about many traditions over thousands of years involving trees in winter celebrations and even quote Jeremiah 10:1-4 (about trees cut down and pagan decorations of silver and gold) saying this is where we get the Christmas tree. Personally I don’t believe this is where our current tradition started, and many Christians and even secular historians agree with me. According to the History Channel, “Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes” (Source 1).
  2. Ornaments: In the Middle Ages plays depicting Bible stories were popular. “The plays celebrating the Nativity were linked to the story of creation—in part because Christmas Eve was also considered the feast day of Adam and Eve. Thus, as part of the play for that day, the Garden of Eden was symbolized by a ‘paradise tree’ hung with fruit” (Source 2). See Genesis 2:8-9 for more.
  3. Lights: We now have electric lights which are attributed to Martin Luther who, while “walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon…was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles” (Source 1).

 

Santa Claus & Giving Gifts.

Even secular websites acknowledge that gift giving was modeled after the wise men (Magi) who gave baby Jesus gifts (Source 3) but not many talk about the real man, Nicolas. “St. Nicholas was born in 280 AD, in Patara, a city of Lycia, in Asia Minor. He became the gift giver of Myra. His gifts were given late at night, so that the gift giver’s identity would remain a secret” (Source 4). This was taught by Jesus in Matthew 6:3-4, “But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.” Over time Catholics named him a Saint and by the 1500’s the Dutch pronounced “Saint Nicholas” as “Sinter Klass” which evolved into Santa Klass and eventually Santa Claus. In time the “old bishop’s cloak with mitre [like the big hat the Pope wears], jewelled gloves and crozier [a fancy staff] were soon replaced with his red suit and clothing seen in other modern images” (Source 4).

Stockings.

A story about St. Nicholas claims that there was a poor man with three daughters. Nicholas brought some bags of gold and put them in their socks that had been hung by the fire to dry (Source 4).

Christmas Songs (Carols).

Again, imitating the Scriptures (specifically Luke 2:13-14, where the angels sing to herald the Messiah’s birth), there are records of Christians creating music exclusively for Christmas in 129 AD! In 1223 St. Francis of Assisi started presenting Christmas plays with songs for commoners which were spread by traveling minstrels (Source 5). Early on they were called hymns but by the 1300’s the French word “carole” was used meaning “joyful sound” and “dance in a ring” (Source 6). Because they weren’t in Latin and were usually not directly from the Bible the church ignored or outlawed them over the years (Source 5). But by 1350 and until the 1550’s the Christmas carol enjoyed it’s “golden age” following “the verse-refrain pattern.” Over time carols went in and out of popularity but they became big again in the 1800’s and most of the ones we sing nowadays are from that time period (Source 7).

Considering Traditions.

Many people have taken Christmas very seriously. People that I respect throughout history like William Bradford and Oliver Cromwell wanted to keep Christmas sacred. Cromwell is noted as punishing people who participated in things with pagan roots like “Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression” (Source 1). This makes me think that had I been born a couple hundred years ago I probably would have sided with them. Often we don’t know how the age in which we live molds us and influences us.

Conclusion: I know some Christians who are outraged at those who don’t celebrate Christmas. There have been heated discussions on whether it’s OK to have a Christmas tree or not. People will go to war over singing a song or opening a gift. Most of the time people aren’t being purposefully blasphemous, it may be how they grew up or what they’ve been taught. Now armed with origins of the early church concerning Christmas hopefully you can intelligently and lovingly educate others in the rich history of Christmas.

But the truth is that Christmas is one point in the year where people who never go to church actually go to church. Jesus doesn’t care what the seekers motivation is, just that they come (Matthew 7:7, Deuteronomy 4:29). This year why don’t we put aside those petty differences and remember the true meaning of Christmas? Who cares about traditions when we have the opportunity to show people love and talk about the Savior who came to earth to ultimately die for our sins? We can get wrapped up in “we’ve always done it this way” and “it’s not Christmas without _(blank)__” because we want to emotionally enjoy this time. It can be the one time a year you get to see certain family or meet new people at your spouse’s awkward work party or have to do “Secret Santa” with a stranger. But all of these are opportunities to share the Christmas story with a desperate and lonely world. I encourage you to read the story of Christ’s birth with your family (use Luke 2 or Matthew 1) and even some Old Testament prophesies of His birth. I especially like Isaiah 53 because we hear about His birth but also His sacrifice on the cross. Isaiah 7:13-16 is also great. This is important because we lead our family by example (Joshua 24:15) and this instills the true meaning of Christmas! Merry Christmas!!

 

References:

Source 1: http://www.history.com/topics/history-of-christmas-trees

Source 2: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/thepastinthepresent/storybehind/whychristmastrees.html

Source 3: http://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/holidays/christmas2.htm

Source 4: http://www.thehistoryofchristmas.com/sc/saint_nicholas.htm

Source 5: http://www.sharefaith.com/guide/Christian-Holidays/holiday-songs/christmas-carols-the-history-and-origin.html

Source 6: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=carol

Source 7: http://musiced.about.com/od/christmasnewyeararticles/a/carols.htm

Devotional # 166. Luke 2:8-15 (Special Christmas Devotional)

Devotional # 166. 12/7/15. Christmas, Part 2: Is it OK to celebrate Christmas on December 25th?

This week’s Reading: Luke 2:8-15.

Introduction: This week I was thinking about why we celebrate Christmas on December 25th . I’ve had conversations for years with friends who are of other religions that consider themselves Christians and are adamantly opposed to celebrating Christmas. Why is that? They say that nowhere in the Bible are we commanded to celebrate the birth of Jesus and therefore we shouldn’t. Beyond that they say that Jesus was not born on December 25th so we shouldn’t celebrate then. They are right on both points: I can’t find anywhere that we are commanded to celebrate Christmas or that Jesus was born on December 25th. I’ll save the origin of Christmas for another time but it does bring up a good point: is it a sin to celebrate Christmas, and is it a sin to do so on December 25th ?
Let’s look at Luke 2:8-15. I love how excited the angel is when he finally gets to first proclaim that the Messiah has been born! You see when God first created Adam and Eve He didn’t make them robots He allowed them to make a choice whether to obey Him or not. But He is all knowing and so He knew that they would disobey Him, it didn’t take Him by surprise. He had the plan of humanity’s redemption before even time began. The first prophecy I see about the Savior is in Genesis 3:15. That’s telling of a time 6,000 years ago! And 4,000 years prior to Jesus being born. Humanity had been aching for a savior, so I believe there was very good reason for the angels to celebrate God’s long-awaited plan! We see this when the angel says it is “good tidings of great joy.” It’s OK to be excited that Jesus was born and that God’s will was done, that His plan had finally come to fruition in His perfect timing. And it doesn’t seem that this celebration was for the angels alone considering they imply (“you will find”) that the shepherds should go find Jesus and tell others about Him also, which they do (Luke 2:12,17-18). It’s starting to seem like less of a sin and more of a freedom! (By the way we see the Genesis 3:5 prophecy fulfilled in Luke 22:53).

If we certainly have the freedom to celebrate Jesus, now the question is, is there a specific time that we should celebrate his birth? Well, it’s true Jesus was probably born somewhere in our September/October (the Hebrew month of Tishri) and on top of that the first Christmas celebration on December 25, 336AD was when Constantine wanted to unite his people and took the pagan celebration of Saturnalia and the Christians celebrating Christ’s birth and put them together (Source 1). (I did a series on Early Church History that’s available on sermonaudio, if you want to listen see below under “References: sermonaudio”). So on the one hand 1700 years ago it was not a good thing to assimilate Christ’s birth into a pagan holiday. I’ve seen a lot of research stating that Christian leaders would squash whatever pagan religion was out there by taking over their celebrations and then informing people about Jesus. Granted this doesn’t sound much like the way Jesus told us to tell others about Him and there have certainly been abuses of what was called the Christian church over time but on the other hand I don’t personally know anyone who celebrates Saturnalia at this time. So I don’t know that the ends justified the means but I also don’t think we should just throw the baby out with the bathwater either (no that wasn’t a lame “baby Jesus out with the bathwater” joke).

Our current culture tells us that we’re all supposed to “co-exist” – that we can have our beliefs but that we can’t tell people their beliefs are wrong. Interestingly that’s exactly what Jesus did and told us to do. In Mark 16:15-16 Jesus said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” Jesus clearly gives humanity one path to salvation and that path is through Him and Him alone. Yes, throughout the Bible we see that people retained who they were: their personalities, their cultures, their families, but they also were told when they were wrong and heading towards disaster. In this case we know people are heading for hell but are we just supposed to shut our mouths, are we going to stop sending missionaries, are we going to stop taking opportunities like Christmas to talk to people about the love of Jesus? I really appreciate the candor of famous atheist Penn Jillette, of the magician duo, Penn & Teller when he said, “If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize [share Jesus]? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?” (Source 2). That’s so true!

So if in a sense Christianity has triumphed over a pagan celebration and taken it for itself than that pagan celebration no longer applies. And I would say if your motives are pure and you are celebrating Jesus’ birth then it doesn’t matter if you do it in July. But I think the bigger problem nowadays is the commercialization of Christmas. That’s what we really struggle against.

What are some opportunities that we can take advantage of during this Christmas season to proclaim Jesus and let people know about why He came to earth and how much He loves them and wants to have a relationship with them? Is it about getting a few gifts that will break? Is it about putting up some lights that will burn out? Or is it about something so much more than Black Friday and Cyber Monday and eating too much and getting a few days off work? One example I came across this week was a list of topics for the various parties we’re bound to attend during the Christmas season:

  1. What’s the best thing that’s happened to you since last Christmas?
  2. What was your best Christmas ever? Why?
  3. What’s the most meaningful Christmas gift you’ve ever received?
  4. What was the most appreciated Christmas gift you’ve ever given?
  5. What was your favorite Christmas tradition as a child?
  6. What is your favorite Christmas tradition now?
  7. What do you do to try to keep Christ in Christmas?
  8. Why do you think people started celebrating the birth of Jesus?
  9. Do you think the birth of Jesus deserves such a nearly worldwide celebration?
  10. Why do you think Jesus came to earth?
  11. Do you think Christmas is over-rated?
  12. What’s your favourite Christmas song? Why that one? Would you put a carol in your top 10?

(From: http://www.afaithtoliveby.com/2010/12/18/12-christmas-conversation-starters ).

What are some other ideas? Is there a way for you to share Jesus with others? Do you really hold the key to bringing people out of the rush and let-down of Christmas and give them the eternal gift Jesus gave so many years ago? The answer is yes!

If you have ideas on how to use Christmas time to share the good news with other go ahead and post them below in the comments!

Next week we’ll talk about where we got Christmas traditions like Christmas trees, Santa Claus and caroling. It may surprise you!

 

References:

Sermonaudio: Here is the link to all six studies on Early Church History. Covering from the disciples to roughly present day: http://www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakerWithinSource=&subsetCat=&subsetItem=&mediatype=&includekeywords=&exactverse=&keyword=houseofgracehemet&keyworddesc=houseofgracehemet&currsection=sermonssource&AudioOnly=false&SourceOnly=true&keywordwithin=Early+Church+History&x=4&y=5

Source 1: http://www.whychristmas.com/customs/25th.shtml

Source 2: http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2009/11/17/how-much-do-you-have-to-hate-somebody-to-not-proselytize

Devotional # 115. Luke 2, Isaiah 53 (Special Christmas Devotional)

Devotional # 115. 12/15/14. Christmas, Part 3: Origins of Christmas (as we know it).

This week’s Reading: Luke 2 and Isaiah 53.

Introduction: If you were getting this Devotional last year than you may remember this one. I decided to use it again because it really matters. It was important that we start these Christmas studies with prophesies about Jesus but while we’re looking at origins we should consider the Christmas celebration as we know it. So, as promised last week, we’re going to look at some interesting origins of Christmas traditions.

The Christmas Tree.

The Tree: People talk about many traditions over thousands of years involving trees in winter celebrations and even quote Jeremiah 10:1-4 (about trees cut down and pagan decorations of silver and gold) saying this is where we get the Christmas tree. Personally I don’t believe this is where our current tradition started, and many Christians and even secular historians agree with me. According to the History Channel, “Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes” (Source 1).

Ornaments: In the Middle Ages plays depicting Bible stories were popular. “The plays celebrating the Nativity were linked to the story of creation—in part because Christmas Eve was also considered the feast day of Adam and Eve. Thus, as part of the play for that day, the Garden of Eden was symbolized by a ‘paradise tree’ hung with fruit” (Source 2). See Genesis 2:8-9 for more.

Lights: We now have electric lights which are attributed to Martin Luther who, while “walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon…was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles” (Source 1).

Santa Claus & Giving Gifts.

Even secular websites acknowledge that gift giving was modeled after the wise men (Magi) who gave baby Jesus gifts (Source 3) but not many talk about the real man, Nicolas. “St. Nicholas was born in 280 AD, in Patara, a city of Lycia, in Asia Minor. He became the gift giver of Myra. His gifts were given late at night, so that the gift giver’s identity would remain a secret” (Source 4). This was taught by Jesus in Matthew 6:3-4, “But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.” Over time Catholics named him a Saint and by the 1500’s the Dutch pronounced “Saint Nicholas” as “Sinter Klass” which evolved into Santa Klass and eventually Santa Claus. In time the “old bishop’s cloak with mitre [like the big hat the Pope wears], jewelled gloves and crozier [a fancy staff] were soon replaced with his red suit and clothing seen in other modern images” (Source 4).

Stockings.

A story about St. Nicholas claims that there was a poor man with three daughters. Nicholas brought some bags of gold and put them in their socks that had been hung by the fire to dry (Source 4).

Christmas Songs (Carols).

Again, imitating the Scriptures (specifically Luke 2:13-14, where the angels sing to herald the Messiah’s birth), there are records of Christians creating music exclusively for Christmas in 129 AD! In 1223 St. Francis of Assisi started presenting Christmas plays with songs for commoners which were spread by traveling minstrels (Source 5). Early on they were called hymns but by the 1300’s the French word “carole” was used meaning “joyful sound” and “dance in a ring” (Source 6). Because they weren’t in Latin and were usually not directly from the Bible the church ignored or outlawed them over the years (Source 5). But by 1350 and until the 1550’s the Christmas carol enjoyed it’s “golden age” following “the verse-refrain pattern.” Over time carols went in and out of popularity but they became big again in the 1800’s and most of the ones we sing nowadays are from that time period (Source 7).

Considering Traditions.

Many people have taken Christmas very seriously. People that I respect throughout history like William Bradford and Oliver Cromwell wanted to keep Christmas sacred. Cromwell is noted as punishing people who participated in things with pagan roots like “Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression” (Source 1). This makes me think that had I been born a couple hundred years ago I probably would have sided with them. Often we don’t know how the age in which we live molds us and influences us.

 

Conclusion: I know some Christians who are outraged at those who don’t celebrate Christmas. There have been heated discussions on whether it’s OK to have a Christmas tree or not. People will go to war over singing a song or opening a gift. Most of the time people aren’t being purposefully blasphemous, it may be how they grew up or what they’ve been taught. Now armed with origins of the early church concerning Christmas hopefully you can intelligently and lovingly educate others in the rich history of Christmas.

But the truth is that Christmas is one point in the year where people who never go to church actually go to church. Jesus doesn’t care what the seekers motivation is, just that they come (Matthew 7:7, Deuteronomy 4:29). This year why don’t we put aside those petty differences and remember the true meaning of Christmas? Who cares about traditions when we have the opportunity to show people love and talk about the Savior who came to earth to ultimately die for our sins? We can get wrapped up in “we’ve always done it this way” and “it’s not Christmas without _(blank)__” because we want to emotionally enjoy this time. It can be the one time a year you get to see certain family or meet new people at your spouse’s awkward work party or have to do “Secret Santa” with a stranger. But all of these are opportunities to share the Christmas story with a desperate and lonely world. I encourage you to read the story of Christ’s birth with your family (use Luke 2 or Matthew 1) and even some Old Testament prophesies of His birth. I especially like Isaiah 53 because we hear about His birth but also His sacrifice on the cross. Isaiah 7:13-16 is also great. This is important because we lead our family by example (Joshua 24:15) and this instills the true meaning of Christmas! Merry Christmas!!

 

References:

Source 1: http://www.history.com/topics/history-of-christmas-trees

Source 2: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/thepastinthepresent/storybehind/whychristmastrees.html

Source 3: http://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/holidays/christmas2.htm

Source 4: http://www.thehistoryofchristmas.com/sc/saint_nicholas.htm

Source 5: http://www.sharefaith.com/guide/Christian-Holidays/holiday-songs/christmas-carols-the-history-and-origin.html

Source 6: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=carol

Source 7: http://musiced.about.com/od/christmasnewyeararticles/a/carols.htm

Devotional # 66. Luke 2 and Isaiah 53 (Special Christmas Devotional)

Devotional # 66. 12/23/13. Christmas, Part 3: Origins of Christmas (as we know it).

This week’s Reading: Luke 2 and Isaiah 53.

Introduction: Since we’ve paused our studies in Acts the last two weeks we’ve talked about the glory and the peace of Christ and the birth of our Savior, leaving us white as snow. Now, as promised last week, we’re going to look at some interesting origins of Christmas traditions.

 

The Christmas Tree.

  1. The Tree: People talk about many traditions over thousands of years involving trees in winter celebrations and even quote Jeremiah 10:1-4 (about trees cut down and pagan decorations of silver and gold) saying this is where we get the Christmas tree. Personally I don’t believe this is where our current tradition started, and many Christians and even secular historians agree with me. According to the History Channel, “Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes” (Source 1).
  2. Ornaments: In the Middle Ages plays depicting Bible stories were popular. “The plays celebrating the Nativity were linked to the story of creation—in part because Christmas Eve was also considered the feast day of Adam and Eve. Thus, as part of the play for that day, the Garden of Eden was symbolized by a ‘paradise tree’ hung with fruit” (Source 2). See Genesis 2:8-9 for more.
  3. Lights: We now have electric lights which are attributed to Martin Luther who, while “walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon…was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles” (Source 1).

 

Santa Claus & Giving Gifts.

Even secular websites acknowledge that gift giving was modeled after the wise men (Magi) who gave baby Jesus gifts (Source 3) but not many talk about the real man, Nicolas. “St. Nicholas was born in 280 AD, in Patara, a city of Lycia, in Asia Minor. He became the gift giver of Myra. His gifts were given late at night, so that the gift giver’s identity would remain a secret” (Source 4). This was taught by Jesus in Matthew 6:3-4, “But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.” Over time Catholics named him a Saint and by the 1500’s the Dutch pronounced “Saint Nicholas” as “Sinter Klass” which evolved into Santa Klass and eventually Santa Claus. In time the “old bishop’s cloak with mitre [like the big hat the Pope wears], jewelled gloves and crozier [a fancy staff] were soon replaced with his red suit and clothing seen in other modern images” (Source 4).

 

Stockings.

A story about St. Nicholas claims that there was a poor man with three daughters. Nicholas brought some bags of gold and put them in their socks that had been hung by the fire to dry (Source 4).

 

Christmas Songs (Carols).

Again, imitating the Scriptures (specifically Luke 2:13-14, where the angels sing to herald the Messiah’s birth), there are records of Christians creating music exclusively for Christmas in 129 AD! In 1223 St. Francis of Assisi started presenting Christmas plays with songs for commoners which were spread by traveling minstrels (Source 5). Early on they were called hymns but by the 1300’s the French word “carole” was used meaning “joyful sound” and “dance in a ring” (Source 6). Because they weren’t in Latin and were usually not directly from the Bible the church ignored or outlawed them over the years (Source 5). But by 1350 and until the 1550’s the Christmas carol enjoyed it’s “golden age” following “the verse-refrain pattern.” Over time carols went in and out of popularity but they became big again in the 1800’s and most of the ones we sing nowadays are from that time period (Source 7).

 

Considering Traditions.

Many people have taken Christmas very seriously. People that I respect throughout history like William Bradford and Oliver Cromwell wanted to keep Christmas sacred. Cromwell is noted as punishing people who participated in things with pagan roots like “Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression” (Source 1). This makes me think that had I been born a couple hundred years ago I probably would have sided with them. Often we don’t know how the age in which we live molds us and influences us.

 

Conclusion:

I know some Christians who are outraged at those who don’t celebrate Christmas. There have been heated discussions on whether it’s OK to have a Christmas tree or not. People will go to war over singing a song or opening a gift. Most of the time people aren’t being purposefully blasphemous, it may be how they grew up or what they’ve been taught. Now armed with origins of the early church concerning Christmas hopefully you can intelligently and lovingly educate others in the rich history of Christmas.

But the truth is that Christmas is one point in the year where people who never go to church actually go to church. Jesus doesn’t care what the seekers motivation is, just that they come (Matthew 7:7, Deuteronomy 4:29). This year why don’t we put aside those petty differences and remember the true meaning of Christmas? Who cares about traditions when we have the opportunity to show people love and talk about the Savior who came to earth to ultimately die for our sins? We can get wrapped up in “we’ve always done it this way” and “it’s not Christmas without _(blank)__” because we want to emotionally enjoy this time. It can be the one time a year you get to see certain family or meet new people at your spouse’s awkward work party or have to do “Secret Santa” with a stranger. But all of these are opportunities to share the Christmas story with a desperate and lonely world. I encourage you to read the story of Christ’s birth with your family (use Luke 2 or Matthew 1) and even some Old Testament prophesies of His birth. I especially like Isaiah 53 because we hear about His birth but also His sacrifice on the cross. Isaiah 7:13-16 is also great. This is important because we lead our family by example (Joshua 24:15) and this instills the true meaning of Christmas! Merry Christmas!!

 

References:

Source 1: http://www.history.com/topics/history-of-christmas-trees

Source 2: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/thepastinthepresent/storybehind/whychristmastrees.html

Source 3: http://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/holidays/christmas2.htm

Source 4: http://www.thehistoryofchristmas.com/sc/saint_nicholas.htm

Source 5: http://www.sharefaith.com/guide/Christian-Holidays/holiday-songs/christmas-carols-the-history-and-origin.html

Source 6: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=carol

Source 7: http://musiced.about.com/od/christmasnewyeararticles/a/carols.htm

Devotional #5. Luke 2:25-51

Devotional #5 (10/22/12).  Simeon, Anna and Jesus teaches at twelve.

Intro: Last week Jesus was born and the news was told to shepherds by angels. Jesus was also brought to the temple for ceremonial dedication to the Lord.

This Week’s Reading: Luke 2:25-51.

vv. 25-26. Here we are introduced to Simeon who was a man that the Holy Spirit “was upon.” This meant that God used Simeon and had showed him that he wouldn’t die until he got to see the Messiah that everyone had waited to see for so long.

vv. 27-32. Simeon is led by the Holy Spirit to meet up with Mary and Joseph and blesses Jesus. Verses 29-32 is Simeon praising God for keeping His word that Simeon would see Jesus born. Verse 32 is especially interesting (as we’ll see in the next section) because both Israel (God’s chosen people) and Gentiles (everybody else) are mentioned as being saved by Jesus.

vv. 33-35. As mentioned above, verse 32 is important here because it says that Joseph and Mary “marveled” at what Simeon said. Why were they amazed and surprised? Because the Gentiles were included in this prophecy of who Jesus would reach. There are other Old Testament places where Gentiles living in darkness would be given light by Jesus (Isaiah 42:6 & Amos 9:11-12, to name a few) but it wasn’t commonly taught in Mary and Joseph’s time. The cool thing to see is that regardless of who knows or remembers what God promised He always keeps His promises…which most of the time surprise us!

Then Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph and prophesizes about Mary. As J. Vernon McGee puts it “Mary paid a tremendous price to bring the Saviour into the world. She paid an awful price to stand beneath the cross of the Lord Jesus and watch Him die” (Source 1).

vv. 36-39. Now we meet eighty-four year old Anna who had been married for seven years but after her husband’s death went and lived at the temple. Since she never left she was probably allowed to live in one of the rooms for the priests because she was a “prophetess” (Source 2).

NOTE: Here Luke doesn’t include the story of the wise men who visited Jesus but you can read about it in Matthew chapter 2. It is thought Jesus was probably around two years old when the wise men visited.

vv. 40-41. Here we’re told that Jesus grew up but not just a normal childhood. Think about what it would have been like to be sinless, we see that as He grew older the human side began to know the things that the spiritual side of Him had known for all time. It also mentions that like most practicing Hebrews Mary and Joseph went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover every year. The story of Passover can be read in Exodus 12:1-32.

vv. 42-45. Jesus being twelve is important because he was considered a man at this time, even now when an Israeli boy turns thirteen they have a bar-mitzvah (for more see Source 3). So the family traveled to Jerusalem as had been their custom and after the celebration ended Jesus stayed back. Mary and Joseph were traveling with a lot of family and friends and they didn’t realize He was left behind until later that night. So they turn around and go back for Him and find Him in the temple.

vv. 46-50. Jesus was asking questions of the priests and listening to them. He was not disrespectful but it was very obvious that He was special (because everyone was “astonished at His understanding”). Mary asks why Jesus hung back because they were worried. Jesus’s response is that He was about “[His] Father’s business”. This means as God the Son He was doing God the Father’s will. This also shows that Jesus stayed behind on purpose, it wasn’t like he was a lost kid in a mall but he took care of himself for three days (v. 46). But no one understood what He meant when He said He was doing God’s business.

vv. 51-52. It says Jesus “was subject to” his parents, which means he listened to His mom and dad and went back home with them. Then we see He kept growing and “increased…in favor with God and men.” Earlier I was thinking that Jesus was probably disliked by some kids since He was perfect but that doesn’t seem to be the case. The character of Jesus that we see later in His life and the love that God displays was very obvious to everyone around Him. He loved them and more and more people enjoyed being around Him. And all of this pleased God the Father.

Summary: We got to hear about some cool elderly prophets who got to see baby Jesus. As Jesus grew up we learned that Jesus went to Jerusalem and ended up teaching and learning in the temple. We can take away a lot from this but it is important to understand Jesus never messed up, never had a bad thought or lied. But he was not super-religious and making a big deal about it but instead loved everyone equally. God came in flesh and lived with us being perfect, since that was the only way He could save us, and if that didn’t show His love enough He spent His days on earth loving people all the time!

References:

Source 1: J. Vernon McGee, Luke, p. 39.

Source 2: MacArthur, MacArthur Study Bible, p. 1516.

Source 3: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bar_mitzvah

Devotional #4. Luke 2:1-24

Devotional #4 (10/15/12).  Jesus is born and dedicated.

Intro: Last week we saw Zacharias praise God as Elizabeth gave birth to John the Baptist.

This Week’s Reading: Luke 2:1-24.

vv. 1-3. We’re told who the ruler (“Caesar Augustus”) and the governor (“Quirinius”) were of Syria. This gives us a specific place in history to look at and the reason that Mary would travel when she was due to give birth.

vv. 4-6. Joseph and Mary were engaged and they had to report to Bethlehem for the census. This gives us the first of three places that the Old Testament prophesied Jesus would be from and live. The first is from Micah 5:2 where it says that He would be born in Bethlehem*.

v. 7. Jesus is born! Because there wasn’t enough room in a motel Joseph and Mary had to go out into the barn. Imagine how Joseph felt that he wasn’t providing for his wife in a time when she should be as comfortable as possible. Mary probably wanted a mid-wife or doctor to make sure everything was OK, but she didn’t get one. Jesus was born to poor parents in a poor place in a poor town.

vv. 8-14. The first people who were told that the Messiah was born were shepherds. Shepherds were poor, smelled bad and everyone looked down on them. But God chose for an angel to tell them because they would believe and because Jesus came for “all people” (v. 10) not just the rich. He tells them how to find Jesus (“wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger”) then there are thousands of angels all singing and praising God that Jesus has been born. It seems like the angels had been waiting for this time and were excited because they knew Jesus would give everyone the opportunity to be saved.

vv. 15-20. The shepherds did exactly what the angel had told them and went quickly (“with haste”) to find the Savior they had been waiting so long for. Notice in verse 17 that they told everyone about it. When we meet Jesus we are so excited that we run to Him quickly and tell everyone about it! It says that everyone “marveled” (in other words, they were amazed) possibly meaning that they were loud and excited but in verse 19 we see that Mary quietly thinks about these things. She was probably amazed that other people would show up having been told about Jesus by angels as she and Joseph had been.

v. 21. Read Leviticus 12:1-4. Here in Luke we see the beginning of how Jesus kept the Law perfectly. Notice until he was circumcised on the eighth day Mary would be considered unclean. It is confirmed that they did name Him Jesus just as was given by God through the angel.

NOTE: Interestingly there are 32 days in-between these two verses (Lev. 12:4) so Jesus would have been about a month old by the time of verse 22.

vv. 22-24. By the note directly above this would have been the first time that Mary would have been able to enter the temple. Imagine not being able to go to church for a month and looking forward to bringing your baby, the Savior of the universe there. So they give a sacrifice to dedicate Jesus to be considered holy before God. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus did not need to do this ritual since He is God and therefore holy but because it was commanded by God for men to do, He did it. He has done everything like us, being tempted in every way that we have but never sinning (Hebrews 4:15).

Summary: We have seen that Jesus was born to a poor family in a poor area showing that although He is God He really humbled himself coming to earth. God uses angels (supernatural beings) and shepherds (just men) to proclaim His good news to men, that they can be saved from the bad things they have done if they believe in Jesus. Jesus kept all of the rules and died for our sins so we wouldn’t have to!

 

*The other two are: in Hosea 11:1 that He would live in Egypt (“And out of Egypt I called My son”) and  in Isaiah 9:1-2, that He would live in Galilee.