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All We Want for Christmas is You, God

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Photograph by Rob Kelly

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

James 1:17

 

As part of my office Christmas gift exchange this year, we each filled out a short survey. What is your favorite color? Dogs or cats? Coffee or tea? Very simple, light-hearted questions – nothing too deep, of course. Then, these surveys were mixed up and redistributed to each employee. This meant that not only was the “Santa” secret, but the recipient of the gift was secret as well. We had our few, short clues, but nothing else to base our gift selection on. Despite this fact, during the gift exchange, I was surprised to find how it seemed that every gift was a complete hit and matched the recipient’s preferences perfectly.

Armed with little more than the basic fact that Pride and Prejudice was my favorite book, my “secret Santa” delivered a handmade art piece decorated with my all-time favorite Jane Austen quote. How from among the 252 pages did they know to use this particular quote? I saw a gift prepared by a stranger to a stranger, and yet it felt uniquely designed for me.

If my coworkers were able to give such personalized gifts with such little information, just imagine how much more personalized the gifts the God who created us – and knows every single hair on our heads – would be able to give?

This series, we’ve been studying different gifts that God gave leading up to the first Christmas and how they built a deeper relationship between God and the people he presented those gifts to. Zechariah and Elizabeth longed for a child even into their old age. God not only gave them a child, but He also blessed them with the knowledge that He was real and the assurance that He would always do what He said He would. The shepherds longed for community and belonging beyond their flock of sheep. God revealed to them the Savior upon his entry into the earthly world – the one who would bring invitation, belonging, and identity. Simeon was a devout man who longed to see the one who would be a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of God’s people Israel. God not only gave him the gift of seeing the Savior as he had hoped, but God also blessed him with this great journey of expectation and anticipation to the end of his life. Throughout the Bible, we have so many accounts of God giving gifts that truly meet the desires of hearts and even more beyond.

Sometimes it can be difficult to remember that we are characters in the Christian story, too! Just like God met the personalized needs of each person in these stories, he wants to meet our needs, too. And He also wants to exceed our expectations. God loves to give us gifts. Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

God is our creator and the creator of our heart’s desires. My prayer for us this Christmas season is that we would not be afraid to ask God for the desires of our hearts. I pray that God would not only meet us where we are but that during that journey, He would reveal Himself to us in so many ways and that we would have many experiences to share with Him. I pray that He would build a confidence in us that He is faithful and that He will walk through our journey with us. Father, all we want for Christmas is You.

 

By Mical Coon

All Simeon and Anna Wanted for Christmas (Part 2)

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Photograph by Katherine Ashdown

Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,

which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”

Luke 2:28-32

 

Simeon took him in his arms. Just think about that statement. Simeon took Jesus, the son of God, the creator of the universe in his arms. Jesus was about six weeks old, just beginning to hold up his head and focus his eyes and smile. I wonder what Simeon thought when he first looked into that tiny face. Did he know right away that this child was a promise kept? Was it a dawning? Or a lightning strike?

I remember the first time I held each of my grandchildren. There was a deep recognition within my soul that knew this child somehow. Knew she belonged to our family, our lineage, our history. Knew he was beloved by me, by us, by God. A connection of love that was anchored in grace and flowed between us. I wonder if that is how Simeon knew this was the One he longed for. I wonder if, when he looked in those eyes, there was a knowing. I wonder if the spirit within him knew the Spirit in this baby. He recognized in those eyes, in that smile, the one he worshipped and loved and heard. And he praised God. He praised him for the keeping of a promise, not just to him, and not just to Israel but to all of us. Jesus would be a light for revelation to all.

Anna felt it too. It didn’t matter that she was very old. (Depending on how you translate the text, Anna was either eighty-four or about one hundred and five.) She wasn’t too old to see a promise fulfilled, and she wasn’t too old to move toward him, and she wasn’t too old to rejoice and share what she knew.  Luke 2:38 tells us that “Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” Can’t you see this elderly woman telling all who would listen that the Messiah was here? The promise had been kept! The waiting was over!

And yet, Jesus didn’t look like a messiah. He wasn’t rich or powerful or mighty. At least not to the naked eye. He was an infant, small and helpless, dependent on his mother for life. How did Anna and Simeon know who he was? How did they see past the obvious? I think they had both spent so much time in God’s presence, praying, worshipping, and listening that they knew Him when they saw Him. They knew his voice. They knew his face.

Sometimes the word of God fulfilled, the promise kept, is wrapped and hidden in unlikely places. Sometimes the waiting is over, but we don’t see the birth of the answer right in front of us. We expect fireworks when God has sent us the soft glow of an ember. We expect the rush of a flood when the first drops of rain are splattering on the ground. We need spiritual eyes to see and spiritual ears to hear, as Simeon and Anna had, to recognize the light of his revelation. How do we attune our senses to God’s answers? Just like Simeon and Anna did, spending our days in his presence, getting to know his ways, learning to recognize his face.

God, I thank you that you do keep your promises, and you do fulfill your word to me. Help me, this Christmas, to spend time in your presence. To sit at your feet and ponder. Help me to learn the subtle beginnings of your promises kept, the tone of your voice, and the lines on your face.

 

By Beth McDonald

All Simeon and Anna Wanted for Christmas

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Photograph by Anna Arpasi

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him.

Luke 2:25

 

Four hundred years. Four hundred years of silence. Israel had grown used to prophets and judges and kings speaking the words of the Lord to them, for them. Sometimes they warned. Sometimes they comforted. Sometimes they predicted. But, regardless, they were. Many of them spoke of a coming Messiah, the consolation of Israel, who would bring hope to all people and the restoration of all creation. All of Israel longed for his appearance. But, then, silence. Four hundred years of silence.

And yet, it seems that there were still whispers. There were those who still heard His voice. Not the kings, the judges, the famous but a man named Simeon and a widow named Anna. They were both faithfully listening in anonymity.

Simeon was only a man, just and devout, carefully worshipping God as best he knew how for decades, day after day. Along his journey, he learned to hear God’s voice, probably through worship, through obedience, through leaning in and listening. And God honored him. He whispered to Simeon’s heart that he would see the Messiah before he died. We don’t know when God had given him this promise. We don’t know how long he had been waiting, expecting, hoping. And yet, he never stopped looking.

Only married for seven years, Anna became a widow at twenty or twenty-one. The grief and disappointment and desperation must have been overwhelming. In that culture widows had no inheritance, no rights, no provision. They were powerless and forgotten. And yet, in that darkness, she learned to hear the light. She learned to hope. Anna became known as a prophetess, a mouthpiece of God, and spent the rest of her eighty-four years, living in the temple, fasting and praying. And waiting, expecting, hoping.

We too have moments when we hear Him. A sunset touches deep within. A friend’s encouragement carries weight. A verse leaps out in significance. A dream lingers. A Voice whispers to our heart. These moments are pregnant with promises. Promises of hope. Of restoration. Of reconciliation. Of healing. Do we move on quickly, forgetting what we felt, ignoring the tug? Do we laugh at our naivete to believe? Do we file them under false claims? Or do we, like Simeon and Anna, take them out and inspect them? Memorize them? Wonder over them? Believe them? Pray and fast over them? Spend our days in His presence, waiting, expecting, hoping?

God, what I want for Christmas is to remember what your voice sounds like. Give me ears tuned to your presence. Remind me of words you’ve already spoken to me, and your promises, the dreams I’ve ignored or buried so deep they’ve been forgotten. Grant me the courage to pull them into the light and look at them, pray over them, believe them, and the patience to wait for their fulfillment with expectation.

 

By Beth McDonald

All the World Wanted for Christmas: the Darkness and The Light (Part 2)

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Photograph by Cara Spinks

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

Matthew 2:13

 

My mother texted me this week after having taken Daddy to his first chemo/radiation appointment and said “Tommy, this is so scary to me, and it’s hard to keep Daddy from seeing my fear. Yes, I have faith that he will be cured, so why am I still so scared this Christmas?”

A young mother and father sit and gaze at their infant baby boy who has been heralded by shepherds, wise men from the East, and by the very angels from Heaven itself as the Messiah, Savior, the Prince of Peace. Their steady focus is on the infant Jesus. How could anything in the world distract them from the wonder, the power, the sheer joy of this moment? And yet, another visit by the angel. This time, the message is that they must flee because Herod seeks to kill their child. They flee.

We want to keep our eyes upon Jesus this Christmas and to express and abide in His love. Yet we can’t escape the reality that just beyond that moment of peace with Christ, lies that which produces pain, disappointment, and fear. How do we flee from or fight the powers that seek to destroy God’s plan and presence in our lives without losing our connection to Him and to others? How do we deal with the “Herod” realities of life this Christmas?

This story in Matthew, as well as the whole of scripture itself, teaches us these following truths:

  • God is not moved nor is He frightened by evil people
  • God’s plans cannot be thwarted by others who would seek to undermine
  • God’s loving will for me is not shaken by adverse circumstances in my life
  • God’s light and comfort is often revealed in the depth of our trials
  • God fulfills His plans even though we may feel hopeless
  • God’s timing is perfect

Read them out loud. Post them on your mirror or by your bedside. Send them to yourself in an email and/or record them on your cell phone and play them while you drive. These are TRUTH.

What I want this Christmas, God, is the ability to acknowledge the difficult realities that I may face while never losing sight of your faithfulness to me, your love for me, and the wonderful plan that you are fulfilling in my life. BRING ON THE ANGEL!

 

By Tom Sanco

All the World Wanted for Christmas: the Darkness and The Light

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Photograph by Ed Kight

A voice was heard in Ramah,… Rachel weeping for her children;… Because they were no more.

Matthew 2:18

 

It’s Christmas Eve 1962, and I’m sitting on the floor by the wood stove, wrapped in an old blanket, drinking hot chocolate from a Santa Clause mug, and watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” on our black and white Philco TV. I didn’t really understand the storyline, but I loved the scene where everyone fell into the pool at the high school dance as well as how everyone was so happy at the end. But I didn’t like Mr. Potter and it bothered me how sad everyone seemed to be. I didn’t like how George yelled at his kids, how he cried when he held Zuzu or when he wanted to jump off the bridge. I didn’t like the story of George Bailey very much.

Though the movie is a sentimental holiday classic for many, it does contain a backdrop of darkness featuring a suicide attempt by a father of four which made “It’s a Wonderful Life” a risk to release in 1946 at the end of World War II where 70 million people died. The film reminds us that there is in fact, a dark subplot to Christmas.

While Mary holds her baby boy, while the star shines in the east, and while the angels announce the birth of our Lord, darkness swells in the heart of King Herod at the news of a baby born in Bethlehem who was the “King of the Jews.” (Matthew 2:2)

Perhaps it was Herod’s fear of losing power or his quest for supremacy. Or maybe it was a sense of betrayal by the Jews, for whom he had rebuilt the temple of Jerusalem that he would respond to the voice calling from within the darkness and order the killing of all the male children in Bethlehem under the age of two. The massacre of the innocents.

This story reveals the depth of evil that existed at that time and exists still today.  However, the story also reminds us that it is darkness that makes Christmas necessary. It was because of sin that light, salvation, hope, and love came into the world by way of a small baby in a manger. Joy to the world. The Lord has come!

Opportunities to enjoy the sentimental nostalgia of the holiday season can easily be found in stores, on TV, in our brightly lit neighborhoods at night, and in the traditions that we enact. Allowing ourselves to really enjoy these experiences is an important aspect to being human, being in community, and being a part of family.  It’s good that we should enjoy all the season has to offer! Experiencing the true light and joy of Christmas however, can only be found against the backdrop of sin from which the Christ of Christmas alone can deliver.

Jesus. What I want for Christmas this year is to really enjoy the festivities of the season while also experiencing anew the way in which you brought me out of darkness and into the light of your love. 

 

By Tom Sanco

All the Wise Men Wanted for Christmas (Part 2)

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Photograph by Brody Bond

After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

Matthew 2:9-12

I love it when God hits me over the head with a message. He delivers the same message, in different ways, as if to say, “You didn’t really hear me before, so here it is again.” Or, “You may have heard me earlier, but you really need to remember this.”

Lately He’s been trying to restructure my view of what we’re supposed to find in this life. Until this year, I thought this life was all about me and all of the ways God and I could make me happy. I thought God existed for me and my agenda – my busy, unbreathable agenda.

Anyone who knows me, knows how extremely focused I can get on a mission. Whether I’m walking down the hall at work to retrieve something off of the printer, or I’m running across the street to save a child from the also single-mission focused drivers of Baltimore (just an example – I’ve never actually done that), I may as well have my retired first sergeant of a dad on my shoulder commanding me to march straight on and divert for nothing. I could pass a mariachi band playing with puppies and offering bags of Hot Cheetos, and I wouldn’t even notice. I wish I were exaggerating.

I miss a lot in my daily routine because I think my productivity and accomplishment will bring me happiness (nod to my Enneagram Type 3). I praise God that He doesn’t tire of telling me that I won’t find life there.

The wise men were wise. Imagine that. They knew where life was to be found, and they placed themselves in a posture to see the sign that would lead them there and follow that direction.

Jesus is life. We couldn’t receive a simpler, yet more difficult message this Christmas season. He is the way. And as we’ve learned, that way is not easy, but it is worth it.

What if we tried to live in a way as if everything we did led to Jesus on the other side, underneath a star, welcoming us to worship Him?

Even if we receive nothing else we want this Christmas season, I hope we understand that we, too, can “rejoice exceedingly with great joy,” as the wise men did, because of the eternal gift God has for us right now.

Lord, thank you for giving us the eyes to see. Thank you for removing our blinders and for showing us that You, and You alone, are the true prize, and all we really need to find.

I think the Serenity Prayer sums it all up beautifully:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

 Living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
that I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
forever in the next.

Amen.

By Lisa Morris

All the Wise Men Wanted for Christmas

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Photograph by Natalie Romano

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

Matthew 2:1-2

 

We don’t enjoy talking about disappointment, suffering, grief, or loss very much because these experiences don’t lift us up or brighten our days. They don’t make us feel good, although they play very significant roles in our journeys of following Christ. We would rather surround ourselves by encouragement and positivity and move quickly past the dark parts to get to the brighter side as fast and as distracted as we can.

I find myself deeply relating to the wise men because of what they were waiting for. Their hearts must have ached so greatly that they searched so desperately for the sign of a savior. The Bible does not indicate that the Star of Bethlehem held any type of distinguishable appearance. The wise men had to have been focusing so intently to spot this new star in the sky as soon as it rose.

Imagine all of the days they looked into the sky and saw nothing new. They must have experienced a cycle of disappointment. I’m sure they wondered how long they would wait. They may have been wealthy, but that wouldn’t make the waiting any easier or shorter.

Culturally, we hate the idea of waiting. Waiting holds a lot of space for disappointment. We link waiting to wasting time. Most new products and services intend to save time, deliver now. We stream media like television and music so we don’t need to sit through the commercials or wait until the next week for the next episode. We shop online so we don’t need to spend the time driving to the store and dealing with the crowds – and even better, we sign up for free two-day shipping to make it all happen as fast and with as little hassle as possible.

If we must wait, we find ways to distract ourselves to make these periods more bearable. Social media gives us something easy to do while we wait for our order or for our friend to show up – or while we wait for that relationship to change or for that grief to pass.

God leads us into battles, and we fear He won’t lead us out. The severity and the longevity of our hardships hold doors of doubt. Did God really call me here? Did He really intend this terribly difficult situation for me? Does He really hold good on the other side of this? Is there another side?

I admire the wise men for the way they embraced the waiting and engaged with this difficult period. They remained present, expectant, and continued to search for what they were wise enough to know they needed. Their faith and expectancy enabled them to see the star of promise as soon as they did.

I wonder about the Stars of Bethlehem that we miss when we seek to ease our pain. We may search for distraction, but our hearts yearn for direction.

Lord, all I want for Christmas is to expect and notice your signs. As I wait for the salvation, redemption, and reconciliation I know you will bring, I want to accept your gifts of peace and confidence that direct and lead me, ultimately, to You.

 

By Lisa Morris

All the Shepherds Wanted for Christmas (Part 2)

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Photograph by Rob Kelly

And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

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.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them… And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Luke 2:9-15

 

The Giver gives not only physical blessings. He gives of Himself. He gives the knowledge and the security that we belong. He gives an identity of belonging. We are members of something full of purpose as His children.

I found myself wondering while writing this why God chose to send a whole group of angels to welcome the shepherds into His story. He didn’t do that for Mary or Joseph, the parents of His son. He didn’t do that for the wise men, the respected of society. He sent them each instructions for their role in His story. But to the shepherds, he sent a group of which to be a part, a story in which to partake.

He invited them to take on the same role as the host of angels, to be the messengers to the rest of the world.

One of the things that struck me the deepest during my Araminta training, which continues to strike me each time I’ve heard it since, is this:

“Lives broken in the presence of community can only be healed by the presence of community.”

So many of us carry with us brokenness we inherited from dysfunctional families, toxic friendships, and societies that refused to welcome us in. And the only way to heal that brokenness is through the community of Christ. We need healthy relationships to teach us our worth. We need friends who are loyal in our failings to allow ourselves grace. We need strangers to show us kindness to allow trust to form again.

Maybe the group of angels was sent to be an instant community to the shepherds, an overwhelming display of the knowledge that they were part of something, a first step in their healing.

My story with my mentee has not reached healing yet. There is still a lot of brokenness in that relationship and in her life. But I know that the Giver sees her. I know that she is loved and valued. I know the desires of her heart are known. And I know that I’ve been called to invite her in.

As we chase after the heart of the Giver, our desires should begin to align with his. We know that he makes a big deal about the unseen in society. We know that he desires to call them to something truer. And like the shepherds, we are invited to take on that task with Him. Who in your life needs to be welcomed into healing community with you?

 

By Sarah Evalle

All the Shepherds Wanted for Christmas

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Photograph by Al Hammar

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night…

Luke 2:8

 

The things we add to our Christmas lists are usually physical: a new bike, the fuzziest of sweaters, a tablet, or that new miter saw. But how many of us put belonging, or invitation, or excitement on our lists? Do we pause to examine the true desires of our hearts and ask God for what only He can provide? This series, we’ve been examining the gifts God provided for the people in the Christmas story and through their needs, we’re diving deeper into knowledge of the Giver.

So what about the shepherds? What did their hearts long for? We know that shepherds were typically not the cool kids in Hebrew society. They spent spans of time out in the fields, away from the love of families or the security of community. They were generally regarded as “beneath” by the more respected members of society. They were left out. They were alone.

On that clear, quiet night in the fields, I believe the shepherds desired to be a part of a community larger than their flock of sheep. They might have longed to be welcomed into the society of which they stood on the outskirts. They might have wanted to be invited in, valued, seen.

Looking around, I recognize the desire to be known and wanted in my own heart, in the heart of my coworker who eats his turkey sandwich alone, in the heart of the foster kids I’ve known and loved, and in others. I think especially of the girl I’ve been blessed to mentor through Araminta. With her brokenness comes a fierce sense of independence that has her running from those who care for her. I wish she was able to see the truth that she belongs.

We are constantly surrounded by those who are “outside,” “beneath,” “unknown,” or “unseen.” The least of these. The modern day shepherds. And as those who search after the heart of God, our hearts’ desire should be for these.

Jesus, for Christmas this year, I ask that the “least of these” would know your heart for them. That they would see their identity of belonging in you, that they would be welcomed into warm homes and warm hearts, and that as your people, we would be willing to sacrifice our own comfort for theirs.

 

By Sarah Evalle

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