The Wrong Message

Robert Jeffress leaves the platform at First Baptist in Dallas after introducing Donald Trump.

Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, welcomed Donald Trump to their service this past Sunday morning. The church’s website proclaimed: “The focus of the music and message this Sunday will be on the most important event in human history—the birth of Jesus Christ. President Trump is known for his love for Christmas and what it represents. We are thrilled to have him join us this Sunday morning.” Apparently Trump was in Dallas for a rally that afternoon with Bill O’Reilly, but Jeffress seized the opportunity to have him at First Baptist.

Readers of this blog know that I am not a fan of Donald Trump. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say now that I am not a fan of Robert Jeffress, either. To give you an idea why, consider the biography of Jeffress that appears on the First Baptist web site. It begins, “Dr. Robert Jeffress is Senior Pastor of the 14,000-member First Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas and a Fox News Contributor. He is also an adjunct professor at Dallas Theological Seminary.” It then proceeds to tout his “more than 4,000 guest appearances on various radio and television programs” before listing some of the shows he has appeared on. After mentioning his radio program, TV program and books, it says, “Dr. Jeffress led the congregation in the completion of a $135 million re-creation of its downtown campus. The project is the largest in modern church history and serves as a “spiritual oasis” covering six blocks of downtown Dallas.” Presumably that means First Baptist’s modern church history because if it means modern church history in the broader, worldwide sense then it is an outright lie, but either way…brag much? Jeffress seems to fully embrace the notion of “celebrity pastor.”

Having said that, Jeffress does seem to teach biblical truth. I may not like his personality, his arrogance or his priorities, but I am unaware of any heresy he preaches.

Before preaching his sermon, Jeffress said that Trump’s remarks would be the “climax and conclusion of the service.” While Trump spoke of the biblical account of Christmas, in words he admitted were prepared for him by the church, he added references to Afghanistan, police reform, America first and his never-ending crusade to “make America great again.” He even managed to work in his irritation with the press that Melania Trump received for her selection of White House Christmas decorations while Trump was president. Trump then received a standing ovation that included some chanting “U.S.A.!”

The bulletin at Fist Baptist on December 19

Absurdly, the church’s executive pastor then took the stage and said, “While we were very honored to have the 45th president of the United States with us today, I must remind you that it is our longstanding policy as a church that we do not endorse or oppose any political candidate for public office or otherwise intervene or engage in any political campaign.”

Uh huh…

Interestingly enough, the church’s website even contains a small-print disclaimer that appears on every page and reads, “First Baptist Church of Dallas does not endorse or oppose any candidate for political office. Instead, any information, videos, appearances, posts, etc. related to any political topic are provided for informational purposes only, and represent the personal views or opinions of the individual expressing them, but do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of First Baptist Church of Dallas.”

Trump made it clear that he was going well astray of the remarks that had been prepared for him, but since Jeffress has been an unabashed supporter of Trump all along there is no way he could truly have been surprised. After all, Donald Trump has never stuck to a script in his life and he is not going to pass up any opportunity to make something about him. I am not embellishing here, either; while introducing Trump, Jeffress called him one of his closest friends. He even said that Trump was “the most consequential president since Abraham Lincoln.” After the service Jeffress had the temerity to say that he did not think that Trump had said anything political and that the “full house” at First Baptist was evidence of Trump’s popularity.

Trump’s visit to First Baptist is certainly not the first time a political figure has attended a church service. That happens often and on both sides of the aisle. It is not the first time a political figure has been acknowledged at or given the opportunity to speak at a church service. Again, happens on both sides of the aisle. But a politician should never be the center of attention at a church service. Indeed, no human should ever be the center of attention.

It is incredibly sad that Robert Jeffress would preach a message that was, by all accounts, biblically accurate and invited unbelievers to salvation, yet call Trump’s remarks the climax. That absolutely sends the wrong message. Intended or not, Jeffress essentially declared that the account of Christ’s birth is nice, but Donald Trump is better. There is no greater climax than the birth of Jesus Christ in human form, coming to earth as a baby, knowing He would grow up to die on the cross for the sins of humanity. How tragic that minutes after that truth was proclaimed—and thankfully it was proclaimed—the congregation was chanting about human politics. A church service should never become a political rally. Chants of “U.S.A.!” in a worship service should sadden any true believer.

Celebrating Christmas

I want to consider two questions. First, why do we celebrate Christmas? And second, do we truly celebrate Christmas?

To the first question, no doubt most of us would answer, “because that’s when Jesus was born.” And that’s true. But there is really so much more to Christmas than the birth of Christ. It is wonderful that Jesus was born, and it is fitting that we should celebrate it, but the real reason for celebration is why Jesus was born. In a 2010 devotional entitled “Why Do We Need a Savior?” David Wright wrote the following:

As we draw closer to Christmas, we need to remember we are celebrating more than just the birth of our Savior. Christ came into this world to redeem us and save us. But from what?

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned (Romans 5:12)

Sin. Our sin, which is inevitably born through our thoughts and intentions (James 1:14–15), comes so naturally due to the sinful nature (Romans 7:14–25) we inherited from our father Adam who disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3). Sin, which has brought separation from God—both physical and spiritual (Genesis 2:17)—to all. Sin, which is deserving of death before a holy and righteous God. Sin, worthy of wrath and punishment, which we cannot overcome on our own no matter how desperately we try.

In the last post I examined the significance of the virgin birth. Mary conceived miraculously, doing something no human had ever done before or has ever done since. Mary, a virgin, gave birth to Jesus, the Messiah. The one and only human who ever lived who fulfilled all of the Old Testament prophecies, the one and only human who ever lived a sinless life, and the one and only human who could pay the penalty for sin demanded by a just and holy God. So let us not lose sight of the virgin birth, because nothing could be more significant.

But let us also not lose sight of the fact that Jesus came to die.

Matthew 1:20-21 says, “’Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’” There are many passages of Scripture we could look to as we consider that Jesus was born to die, that His death was the necessary payment for our sins that none of us could ever pay, but for the sake of time and space, let us consider only one. Romans 4:25, in the New Living Translation, reads this way:

He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God.

Jesus was born, and that’s wonderful. It is cause for celebration. But it is not His birth or His life which saves us from our sins. Rather, it was His death, which provided the perfect atoning sacrifice demanded by a just and holy God and that none of us could pay. And then His resurrection, which defeated death, and made possible the gift of eternal life.

The second question I want to consider is this: do we truly celebrate Christmas? If you look in the dictionary, there is more than one component to the definition of “celebrate.” The first part is this: “to observe (a day) or commemorate (an event) with ceremonies or festivities.” We have that part down pretty well, don’t we? We have a day on the calendar set aside specifically to celebrate Christmas and no doubt we all have traditions we observe and festivities we enjoy as part of this celebration. I don’t think we need to linger here because we have this part figured out.

But the second part of the definition of “celebrate” reads like this: “to make known publicly; proclaim.” Sadly, I am not sure we do nearly as well with this part of the definition. Many of us acknowledge the real meaning of Christmas but sometimes we don’t really want to make a big deal about it. And that’s both interesting and odd, because there are so many other things in life we love to make a big deal about. Whether it be a new car, a new pair of shoes, a victory by our favorite sports team, the winning of an election by our candidate or, since it’s Christmas time, getting a present we really had our heart set on. We love to make those things known publicly, don’t we? Most of us don’t shy away from those things.

Recently, asked readers to share the best gift they had ever given. Interestingly, most of the answers involved something along the lines of, “one year when I had no money…” followed by a recounting of giving a gift that was so well received specifically because it reflected thought, consideration and love. Most of the gifts themselves were not expensive, but each one was cherished because it was so personal, so thoughtful, so deliberate and so heartfelt.

Equally interesting was the fact that all of the stories shared ended with a testimonial to the enduring meaningfulness of the gifts.

• A woman from Jackson, MS described a mother’s ring she and her siblings saved to give their mother. “When we gave it to her, she cried. She still wears it daily.”
• A woman in Austin, TX described a particularly unique and thoughtful gift she gave her husband—a box with slips of paper with each one detailing something she loved about him. “He still displays it in his office,” she concluded.
• A woman in Ada, MI described giving her mother-in-law a piece of the kind of candy that her husband would give her every year for Christmas before he died. “The gift deepened our bond,” she said.
• A woman from Meridian, CT described giving her mother, who suffered from macular degeneration, a cassette tape with 30 of her favorite recipes. She said, “She used it until her death a decade later.”
• A college student from Atlanta described giving homemade burlap Christmas stockings to family members and said, “I love that we’ll use them year after year.”
• And a woman from Washington, DC described giving her husband an outdoor grill to celebrate their purchase of a new home. “Every time he leaps up to use it, I can see the excitement on his face.”

Do you see the point? When we receive thoughtful, deliberate, meaningful gifts, we cherish them. We don’t take them for granted. We don’t think, “oh that’s nice,” and then stick it in a cupboard or a closet somewhere. Far from it. Instead, we put them in places of honor, where we can see them and be reminded of the love and thought behind them. Even more than that, we tell other people about them. We are so touched, so appreciative, so grateful, that we want other people to know about the gift. Really, deep down, what we’re doing in that moment is declaring to others, “someone loves me so much, look what they did for me!”

No one ever loved you, or me, or anyone else, more than God does.

No Christmas gift was ever more expensive than the gift of Jesus Christ, but neither was any gift ever more personal, more thoughtful, more deliberate or more heartfelt. No gift ever has or ever will be more motivated by love than the gift of Jesus Christ. No doubt we will all, at some point, over the next few days be asked by someone what we received for Christmas. Or we will, voluntarily, share with others about one or more of the gifts we received. But how many of us will take the time to tell others, whether over the next few days or throughout the year ahead, about the love of God and the gift of Jesus Christ? The gift of Jesus is unlike any other gift we will tell anyone about. 2 Corinthians 9:15 says, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift.” It is a gift available to everyone, and we lose nothing by sharing it with others. In fact, we gain by doing so.

David Mathis said this about the real meaning of Christmas: “Few things are more tragic than taking Christmas in stride. Its spirit and magic, that alluring sense of supernatural goodness, are not just for children, but even for the grownups. Especially for the grownups. God forbid that we ever get used to Christmas.”

So let’s not get used to Christmas. Let us never forget how miraculous, how wonderful, how incredible it really is. Today, and for every Christmas we have left, let us remember why we celebrate Christmas, and let us truly celebrate Christmas.

The significance of the virgin birth

Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus is not as well known as Luke’s but it is just as important. Matthew gives is the genealogy of Jesus from Joseph’s side, while Luke gives it from Mary’s side. Joseph’s lineage is important because it traces the ancestry of Jesus from Abraham and through David. Of even greater importance, however, is the fact that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus–and that Jesus had no biological father at all. This is a point Matthew makes quite clear. Beginning in verse 18, Matthew says, in essence, “here’s the way it happened.”

First, Mary and Joseph were betrothed. In Jewish custom, a betrothal was just as binding as a marriage. It was much stronger than an engagement in our culture. While ending an engagement may be awkward and even painful, there are no legal ramifications or consequences for doing so. It can be accomplished through mutual agreement or by just one party changing his or her mind, and it takes nothing more than saying, “I changed my mind.” Not so with a betrothal. While a betrothed couple was not yet married, and the marriage certainly had not been consummated, the man and woman were viewed legally as being married and the only way to terminate a betrothal was through divorce.

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia:

The term “betrothal” in Jewish law must not be understood in its modern sense; that is, the agreement of a man and a woman to marry, by which the parties are not, however, definitely bound, but which may be broken or dissolved without formal divorce. Betrothal or engagement such as this is not known either to the Bible or to the Talmud, and only crept in among the medieval and modern Jews through the influence of the example of the Occidental nations among whom they dwelt, without securing a definite status in rabbinical law.

Several Biblical passages refer to the negotiations requisite for the arranging of a marriage (Gen. xxiv.; Song of Songs viii. 8; Judges xiv. 2-7), which were conducted by members of the two families involved, or their deputies, and required usually the consent of the prospective bride (if of age); but when the agreement had been entered into, it was definite and binding upon both groom and bride, who were considered as man and wife in all legal and religious aspects, except that of actual cohabitation.

The Hebrew root (“to betroth”), from which the Talmudic abstract (“betrothal”) is derived, must be taken in this sense; i.e., to contract an actual though incomplete marriage. In two of the passages in which it occurs the betrothed woman is directly designated as “wife” (II Sam. iii. 14, “my wife whom I have betrothed” [“erasti”], and Deut. xxii. 24, where the betrothed is designated as “the wife of his neighbor”). In strict accordance with this sense the rabbinical law declares that the betrothal is equivalent to an actual marriage and only to be dissolved by a formal divorce.

Matthew tells us that when Mary became pregnant it was after the betrothal but before “they came together.” I think this has two connotations to it. First, after a man and woman were betrothed there was a period—often one year—in which the husband-to-be would leave his wife-to-be, return home to his parents’ home and build a home—literally, a series of rooms—onto their home for he and his wife. So what was called the “hometaking” had not yet occurred. Second, the physical union of Joseph and Mary had not yet taken place. They were betrothed, not married, and they were neither living together nor had they consummated their marriage.

Mary was “found with the child of the Holy Spirit,” Matthew says in verse 18. In Luke 1, starting in verse 26, we see Luke’s account of the announcement of Christ’s birth. In verse 31, Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive a son. In verse 34 Mary asks how that could be. Mary, it says, asked the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” That is how it is translated in the KJV and NKJV, but the ESV, NIV and NASB render it, “how can this be, since I am a virgin?”

John MacArthur comments on this verse this way: “Mary understood that the angel was speaking of an immediate conception, and she and Joseph were still in the midst of the long betrothal…before the actual marriage and consummation. Her question was borne out of wonder, not doubt, nor disbelief, so the angel did not rebuke her as he did Zacharias (v. 20).”

At the end of verse 18, Matthew says that Mary “was found with the child of the Holy Spirit.” Both Matthew and Luke make it explicitly clear that Mary was a virgin at the time she became pregnant with Jesus. We all know this, of course, but we may become so comfortable with the fact that we fail to comprehend how incredibly important this fact really is.

In his book The Person of Christ, Donald Macleod writes,

The virgin birth is posted on guard at the door of the mystery of Christmas; and none of us must think of hurrying past it. It stands on the threshold of the New Testament, blatantly supernatural, defying our rationalism, informing us that all that follows belongs to the same order as itself and that if we find it offensive there is no point in proceeding further.

John MacArthur has written, “The importance of the virgin birth cannot be overstated. A right view of the incarnation hinges on the truth that Jesus was virgin-born.”

David Mathis, in an article entitled “The Virgin Birth,” has written this:

What is the significance of the virgin birth? To begin with, it highlights the supernatural. On one end of Jesus’ life lies his supernatural conception and birth; on the other, his supernatural resurrection and his ascension to God’s right hand. Jesus’ authenticity was attested to by the supernatural working of his Father.

Secondly, the virgin birth shows that humanity needs redeeming that it can’t bring about for itself. The fact that the human race couldn’t produce its own redeemer implies that its sin and guilt are profound and that its savior must come from outside.

Thirdly, in the virgin birth, God’s initiative is on display. The angel didn’t ask Mary about her willingness. He announced, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:31). God didn’t ask Mary for permission. He acted—gently but decisively—to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).

Finally, this virgin birth hints at the fully human and fully divine natures united in Jesus’ one person. The entry of the eternal Word into the world didn’t have to happen this way. But it did.

That Jesus was born of a virgin is a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah in chapters 7 and 49. If you believe in the authority and inerrancy of the Bible then there is no doubt that Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant and still when she gave birth to Jesus. The Hebrew word used in Isaiah is sometimes translated as “a young woman” or “an unmarried woman,” which has caused some so-called scholars to suggest that Mary was not actually a virgin. The Greek word used by Matthew, however, is an unambiguous term–there is no other possible meaning or translation of the word.

Writing for Answers in Genesis, Chuck McKnight explains it this way:

The Hebrew word translated as “virgin” is ‛almah. While it is sometimes translated as “young woman,” we must look at the context to determine what it means in this particular instance. The birth prophesied in Isaiah 7:14 was to be a special sign from the Lord—a clear demonstration of His power. As young women regularly conceive and give birth, that would hardly make for a unique indicator. If ‛almah only meant “young woman” here, then any one of the billions of births since then could be claimed as a fulfillment of prophecy.

It was not, of course, possible for any one of the billions of births to fulfill the prophecies or to provide the perfect atoning sacrifice necessary to provide forgiveness for the sins of mankind. That Jesus was born of a virgin narrowed the candidates for prophecy to fulfillment to one. It was biologically impossible for a virgin to conceive. Even with the scientific advances we have today, which make unnecessary the act of sex in order for pregnancy to occur, a woman cannot become pregnant without the essential chromosomal contribution of a male. When Mary conceived the baby Jesus, however, there was no contribution from a male. Mary conceived miraculously, doing something no human had ever done before or has ever done since. Mary, a virgin, gave birth to Jesus, the Messiah. The one and only human who ever lived who fulfilled all of the Old Testament prophecies, the one and only human who ever lived a sinless life, and the one and only human who could pay the penalty for sin demanded by a just and holy God. So let us not lose sight of the virgin birth, because nothing could be more significant.

Lessons from the Shepherds (part 3)

The third thing to notice about the shepherds is that they Announced Comprehensively. Not only did they hear the message, but once they heard it they acted on it. Then, after they had acted on it and seen Jesus for themselves, they announced it. Verse 17 says that, “[W]hen they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child” (NKJV). The Message paraphrases this verse this way: “They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child.”

The shepherds knew the truth about Christmas, and they went out to share it with everyone they saw. I can imagine them running through the streets of Bethlehem, shouting, grabbing people by the hands and telling them the wonderful news. How many of us have taken the time to share with someone this season–even just one person–that Jesus is what Christmas is all about?

When I was growing up my family had a tradition. We would get up and open presents at home on Christmas morning–my parents, my brother and me. (This is before my sisters were born). Then, we would drive eight minutes away to my paternal grandmother’s house. There we would eat brunch (which always included what we called “egg bake casserole”) and open presents with Grandma. After we had been there for a while we would drive 40 minutes to my maternal grandparents’ house, and there we would spend the rest of the day–opening presents, eating dinner, and so forth. But when I got to Grandma’s house in the morning I couldn’t wait to tell her what presents I had received from Mom and Dad. And when I got to Grandma and Grandpa’s house later I couldn’t wait to tell them what I got from Mom and Dad and from Grandma. Then, a day or two later, when I saw my friends, I would tell them everything I got for Christmas from Mom and Dad, Grandma, and Grandma and Grandpa! I had received these presents, and I wanted everyone to know about these great gifts.

Every believer has a wonderful gift from God–the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. And yet for some reason, most of us don’t seem too excited to tell anyone about that gift. We’ll tell people–even as adults, many times–about our new clothes or our new car or our new “toys,” but we won’t tell them about our new life in Christ…and the fact that they can have that gift, too!

The other thing that I think is worth noting about the shepherds announcing Christ’s birth is that there is no indication in the biblical account that anyone paid any attention to what they said. The only thing Luke tells us is in verse 18: “Everyone was surprised when they heard what the shepherds told them” (ESV). That’s it! They could have been surprised as in they were in awe of the birth of the Messiah, or they could have been surprised as in they thought the shepherds were crazy. Either way there is no indication that anyone else went to see the Baby for themselves. No where do we read that the stable was suddenly overwhelmed by crowds of people wanting to see Jesus for themselves. And remember, it’s not like there was no one in town! The whole reason Mary, Joseph and Jesus were in the stable in the first place is because all the inns were full!

Yet, and this is my imagination again, I suppose, I do not picture the shepherds being slowed down at all by whatever reaction they received from the people they told. Whether people smiled and nodded, said something like “Wow, that’s cool!” or told them to shut up and go away, I suspect the shepherds were still overcome with joy and still told everyone else they saw. Let that be a lesson to us, too–regardless of the reaction we may receive when we share the Good News, we need to keep spreading the Word!

Like the shepherds, we need to attend to God’s message, act on it, and announce His gift. John MacArthur calls the shepherds the “first New Testament evangelists.” “The shepherds’ story is a good illustration of the Christian life,” he writes. “You first hear the revelation of the gospel and believe it. Then you pursue and embrace Christ. And having become a witness to your glorious conversion, you begin to tell others about it. May God grant you the life-changing spiritual experiences and the ongoing attitude of enthusiasm and responsiveness that cause you to tell others that you, too, have seen Christ the Lord.”

It is easy to get caught up with the activities of Christmas time. There’s a lot going on. There is plenty of good, fun things to do. But if we forget or neglect what Christmas is all about then we will have ruined it. If we forget Christ, then we miss the point entirely. May we be like the shepherds and share the truth of Christmas, the truth of God’s Christmas present to the world, with everyone we meet.

Lessons from the Shepherds (part 2)

The second important lesson that we can learn from the shepherds is that they Acted Quickly. (If you’re a note taker, you’ll recognize immediately that “quickly” starts with a “q” not a “c,” but it works phonetically). The shepherds not only had the message, but they obeyed the message. Verse 16 tells us that “they came with haste.” That means they were in a hurry. They did not look at each other and say, “Maybe we should go check that out tomorrow.” No, they heard, they got up, and they went. And as far as we know–as far as the Scriptural account indicates–the shepherds were the only people who went to see the Savior that night.

The shepherds were the first to hear the good news that the Messiah had been born, and certainly having the news announced in person by a heavenly host of angels would have been an awesome experience. However, we too have the message of the angels. We know the good news that the Messiah was born…and we have the rest of the story, too. We know that He lived a perfect, sinless life, that He died on the cross, that He rose again three days later, and later ascended into heaven where He sits today at the right hand of God the Father.

I am guilty, though, of not always acting quickly in response to the message of Christmas. I am careful to remember the real meaning of Christmas and to be sure that it remains at the center of our family celebration, but I do not always remember, or take time, to share that true message with others. Having the good news is wonderful, and remembering the true meaning of Christmas is imperative. But in and of itself that is not enough. We must not keep that message to ourselves…as we will see tomorrow in the final lesson from the shepherds.

Lessons from the Shepherds (part 1)

Now that we have concluded our examination of the Dangerous Distractions that can prevent us from focusing on the Design of our Deliverance, I would like to look at three important lessons that we can learn from the shepherds. The shepherds who were tending their flocks in the fields outside of Bethlehem on that first Christmas night were the first individuals to ever recognize the Design of their Deliverance and the first to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas.

Luke 2:15 reads, “When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.'”

The first thing we see about the shepherds is that they Attended Carefully. The word “attended” here means that they listened. The shepherds listened to what the angels had to say. They recognized that it was a messenger of the Lord who was speaking to them, and they listened carefully. There are far too few people today listening carefully to the message of Christmas. They think that the message is all about glad tidings and giving presents and Santa Claus and snow and fruitcake. And those things are all good and fun. (Except maybe fruitcake). But those things are not what Christmas is about. People who focus on these things miss the real meaning–they miss the true gift–because they do not attend carefully to the message of the manger.

With the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season it can be very easy to let the meaning of Christmas get drowned out by all of the noise and distraction around us. Even when we do pause to read or listen to the Christmas story from the Bible, we may even be tempted to let it go in one ear and out the other. After all, for many of us it is a story that is very familiar, and it can easily become just something else on our Christmas “to do” list. This year, let me encourage you to slow down, eliminate all distractions, and give your full attention to the wonderful message of the Christmas story. I am sure that if you will attend carefully to the message you will be blessed and encouraged by the reminder of the real Reason for this season.

The Design of our Deliverance

While Luke’s account of the Christmas story provides us with several examples of Dangerous Distractions, it also provides us with the real meaning of Christmas–God’s Design for our Deliverance.

The Old Testament is full of prophesies that the Messiah would come–that God would provide a way for man to be delivered from the bondage of sin. As the song says, “Long lay the world/in sin and error pining/til He appeared and the soul felt His worth. A thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices/for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!”

So many people alive at that time, however–just like so many people alive today–chose to remain weary in sin and error, choosing to ignore that indeed it was “the night of our dear Savior’s birth.”

God designed a plan for sinful man to be delivered from sin and to have the opportunity to choose to spend eternity with Him. He had been providing advance notice of that plan for generations. And yet almost no one, as we will see over the next few entries in the blog, took any notice of this event.

If the Distance to the Destination, the Details of the Day, or the Demands of our Duties keep us from seeing God’s Design for our Deliverance then we too will miss the true meaning of Christmas. Our celebrations and parties and singing will all be for naught, it will all be meaningless and hollow with no significance beyond the pleasure of the moment. In the midst of a dark and sinful world, much of which is intent on denying the Reason for the Season, do not fall victim to the Dangerous Distractions! Remember the true message of Christmas! If you keep Christ at the center, I suspect you just might find that you have the opportunity to share that message with someone else, too. After all, could there be a better or more appropriate way to celebrate Christmas than to show someone God’s Christmas Gift?

Dangerous Distractions (part 3)

The third example of Dangerous Distractions that can interfere with our ability to actively recognize the true meaning of Christmas is this: the Demands of our Duties.

Remembering our passage in Luke 2, just think about the innkeeper. This man was likely beside himself even before Mary and Joseph knocked on his door. His inn was packed full. There was NO vacancy. Surely he was overwhelmed, and likely asked himself at least some of these questions: How was he going to feed them all? Did everyone have a pillow? Should he have upped his rates in order to take advantage of the crowd in town? Where was he going to park all the donkeys and camels? This man made his livelihood running the inn, but he had probably rarely, if ever, had so many guests at once. And not only the inn, but the entire town was full of people. And let’s not forget that his family had to register, too. There were many duties demanding his attention. And he had no idea what was about to happen.

Sometimes today we are the same way. We let our duties, our jobs, our responsibilities occupy all of our time. We have things to do at work, at church and at home–and more than likely they are all very valid and even very important things. But if we are not careful, they can divert our attention from what Christmas is all about.

In his book God’s Gift of Christmas, John MacArthur writes about the innkeeper: “Not only did he turn Mary and Joseph away, but he apparently didn’t even call for anyone to help a young mother about to give birth. The Son of God might have been born on his property. But he missed Christmas because he was so preoccupied. There is no indication that he was hostile or even unsympathetic. He was just busy, that’s all. Millions of people today are consumed with activity–not necessarily sinful activity, just things that keep them busy. At Christmas, people are especially busy. Shopping, banquets, parties, concerts, school activities, and other things all compete for attention. And in the clutter of activity, many preoccupied people miss the Son of God.”

Thinking of my own current and past experience, I know that December is one of the busiest times of the year. Right now, as a school superintendent, I have a perfect storm of end-of-semester activities, athletic events for winter sports teams that just started their seasons, musical performances for the Christmas concert, and a Christmas program at church. That’s not including anything on a personal or family level. When I was at the children’s home it would have been typical for there to be a dozen choir performances and at least half a dozen Christmas parties between Thanksgiving and Christmas, plus a staff party and things at church. As MacArthur wrote, there is nothing sinful about any of these things, but they keep people busy. And when we get so busy that we lose sight of what Christmas is all about–when the Demands of our Duties interfere with celebrating the true meaning of Christmas–we have a problem.

So this Christmas season, be on guard against the Dangerous Distractions that so easily find their way into our lives.

Dangerous Distractions (part 2)

In addition to the Distance to our Destination, we may also be distracted by the Details of the Day. Mary and Joseph, and probably most everyone else, would have been devoting considerable thought to what the day of the census would be like. Luke tells us that a decree had gone out from Caesar that the world should be registered, and that this was the first registration while Quirinius was governing Syria. That wording seems to indicate that this registration would have been a first-time experience for those impacted by the decree. So, putting ourselves in their sandals for a moment, it is easy to imagine what questions may have been going through their mind as they traveled to the cities of their ancestors’ birth. For example, where would they have to go in town in order to complete the registration? How many other people would be there? Would they have to wait in a long line? What kinds of information would they be required to provide?

Having never done this before they were undoubtedly unfamiliar with how it would work. This is somewhat difficult for us to imagine, because we do most everything by mail, telephone or the Internet. Can you imagine if each of us had to go to the city of our birth every so many years, or the city of our father’s ancestry? We don’t have these worries today, but just suppose the government decided to implement such a scheme? (After all, you never know what the government might do, right?) I was born in Washington, D.C. Traffic in and around Washington is bad enough on a “normal” day, but I cannot imagine what it would be like if everyone who had been born there had to return at a specified time. The numbers would be staggering. I was born at the Columbia Hospital for Women. The hospital closed in 2002, but it had been one of the oldest hospitals in Washington, D.C., having occupied the same location since 1870. It became one of the pioneering hospitals in many areas of obstetrics and gynecology, and more than 250,000 babies were born at Columbia. And that is but one of the hospitals in D.C. If such an edict were to be made that I had to return to Washington, D.C. for a registration I would certainly be asking myself many of the same questions that Mary and Joseph, and countless others, were asking…and I would likely have trouble finding room in an inn, too.

Registrations aside, though, we still get distracted by the Details of the Day today. Most of us have considerable traditions associated with our Christmas celebrations, and December is typically filled with lots of activity. As Christmas Day approaches, though, our minds may be filled with some or all of these questions…

* When will everyone arrive?
* Did I get all of my shopping done?
* Did I wrap everything?
* Does the tree look right?
* Is the house clean?
* Did I finish all of the decorating?
* When, and what, are we going to eat?
* Who’s bringing what dish?
* When will we open presents?

The Details of the Day can occupy our attention to the point that we forget all about the true meaning of Christmas. Most families make a big deal about Christmas. Family members get together, lots of food is prepared, etc. All of these things are fine. I love Christmas just as much as anyone else, maybe even more. (My collection of Christmas music is almost ridiculously large). But none of these things are what Christmas is all about.

Thinking back to that very first Christmas, no one knew that is was even about to be the first Christmas. Mary and Joseph had some knowledge, because they knew Mary was carrying God’s Son, but even they did not know exactly when Jesus would be born. To everyone alive at that time it was simply the night before another day. A day when they had to register, but other than that, just another day on the calendar. And unfortunately that is what Christmas is for many people today–just another day. It’s a day off of work, a day to get together with loved ones, a day to exchange gifts. But beyond the traditions and the time off of work, it is really just another day. The only thing that makes it any different is the Details of the Day, and so that is what becomes the focus of their attention.

Of course, it is the Details of the Day that account for the true meaning of Christmas, too. Only because Christ was born of a virgin in the city of David, lived a perfect life, suffered and died on the cross, and rose three days later does Christmas have any meaning at all. We just have to be careful to ensure that while we enjoy all of the fun details like food, family and gifts, we do not neglect the meaningful details of Christ’s birth.

Dangerous Distractions (part 1)

As I mentioned yesterday, I am going to spend several entries looking at Luke 2, and doing so from what may be a different perspective than is usually taken. For the first three entries I am going to examine the Dangerous Distractions that can interfere with our ability to stay focused on the true meaning of Christmas.

In verses 4 and 5 of Luke 2 we read that Joseph, along with his betrothed, Mary, had to travel to Bethlehem for the census which Caesar Augustus had ordered. As you know, Mary “was with child.” Despite her condition, she and Joseph had to travel approximately seventy miles over rough, mountainous terrain. Given their means of travel–likely on foot or riding a donkey–this would have been a particularly difficult journey for Mary. With the roads and vehicles that we have today, a 70 mile trip is no big deal. It would take slightly more than an hour, and the travelers would be inside of a vehicle, protected from the elements and able to stay warm. They could listen to music if they were so inclined, and enjoy a relatively hassle-free trip to their destination.

Today, of course, most people travel at Christmas because they want to, usually to be with friends or loved ones. Yet, the Distance to our Destination can still occupy our minds and distract us from the real meaning of Christmas. Think about your Christmas travels. I think it is safe to assume that you likely have asked yourself at least one of these questions:

* How far do we have to go?
* What time do we have to leave?
* How much traffic will there be?
* Will the weather interfere with our travel plans?
* How long will we have to wait at the airport?
* What if they lose our luggage?

These are but a few examples of the many things we spend time worrying about when it comes to Christmas travel–and I didn’t even mention every child’s favorite travel question: “Are we there yet?” When these matters become the focus of our attention they cause the message of Christmas to be pushed to the back of our minds–if we stop to think about it at all!

So this year, whether you are traveling 7, 70, 700 or even 7,000 miles, be sure to keep the message of Christmas in mind. Don’t let the Distance to your Destination and the many questions and concerns of travel interfere with what Christmas is all about.