Anticipating Advent: My Christmas Tree is a Cross

My parents made Christmas a very special time of remembrances, especially putting up the tree and decorating the house, both inside and outside. I brought that to my family. My wife made special treats to eat, years before I had made a special tape recording (reel to reel if you’re old enough to know what that is) of Christmas music, all for us to enjoy as we, together put up our tree and decorations.

I’m happy to say that my kids carry on some of that tradition today.

My Christmas “Tree” today is a cross.

I remember the first time that I saw a nativity set with little tiny nails laying in the manger, next to the Baby Jesus hands. It was a startling sight but pregnant with the reality and purpose of His birth, life, and death over 30 years later.

I still love and admire the decorations, the wonderful music, the Christmas trees, all of the precious age old traditions at Christmas…unless that’s all there is.

I have come to see that Christmas for believers is a call to MINISTRY of the greatest gift of all!!

It’s the “Ministry of Reconciliation,” as talked about in I Corinthians 5:17-19

“Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave us the MINISTRY OF RECONCILIATION, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, NOT counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to US the word of reconciliation.”

Reconciliation is the only topic that is repeated in the Lord’s Prayer. First, Jesus says “Forgive me my trespasses AS (in the same way and extent) I FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST ME.”

And then, as if to to make sure His disciples got it, Jesus says “If YOU forgive men for their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. BUT, if you do NOT forgive men, then your Father will NOT forgive your transgressions.”

Maybe that’s why we’re supposed to “leave our gift on the altar and go and first be reconciled to your brother and then present your gift.”

Oh the weight and significance of this message at this time of year especially!!!

The Ministry of Reconciliation means that you kids forgive the classmate who made fun of you on the playground. It’s forgiving the classmate who posted something you said or did on Facebook to embarrass you. It’s forgiving the neighbor next door who keeps letting his dog crap on your lawn. It’s forgiving your spouse who doesn’t do or say things you think he or she should.

When we refuse to overlook and forgive the shortcomings of those God has put in our life, when we make ourselves their judge and jury and pass sentence on them, when God has said “Vengeance is MINE, I will repay,” when we demand of our friends, neighbors, or spouse something we ourselves can’t, don’t, or won’t give, then we seat ourselves on God’s throne.

There’s only ONE God. The position is not open, it has already filled. The throne is occupied.

Forgiveness is easier SAID than done, but Jesus came to give us the example and He went to the cross to prove it and to provide it!

~Lee Mielke

Anticipating Advent — Do You Hear What I Hear?

When asked about my favorite Christmas carol, this one always comes to mind, so I decided it was time to research it.

Unfortunately, my research pointed to NOTHING about why I love it. It was written in 1962 by a married couple, Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker. They wrote it during the Cuban missile crisis as a call for peace. The song was so emotional for them that they had trouble singing it all the way through.

My love for the song is bigger than the desire for peace. Rather, it is about elements of the creation testifying to the coming of their Creator to Earth. And I love the build-up from verse to verse.

In the beginning, the wind is pointing out the star to one of the shepherd’s lambs. It is always telling to me that the creation recognizes God’s existence. I don’t mean to somehow apply personality to inanimate objects, but it is biblical that the creation declares its Creator. I delighted, on my trip to move to Washington, to see the grasses in the unpopulated fields in the middle of the country waving. It made me think of the verse that says that if people don’t praise God, nature will (Luke 19:40). During the crucifixion, it was dark in the middle of the day. I have always thought that even the sun showed the significance of the Son of God dying. So here, in this carol, the wind is pointing out the appearance of a new, super-large star that is proclaiming Jesus’ coming.

Next, the lamb gets the attention of his shepherd. Can you imagine the dark, silent night being shattered by the sound of angels singing? I doubt the lamb would need to tell the shepherd – I mean it was so stunning that the shepherds were frightened.

But then the shepherd shares the news with the king. Now we know from scripture that the kings from the East are the ones who shared the news with Herod, but this verse of the carol presents an unlikely but interesting scenario. Can you imagine a dirty shepherd walking into the palace to share the news of a Savior in a stable with a king…AND THE KING LISTENING? This stanza points out, once again, that God chose to share this great news with the nobodies of the world.

Finally, the king proclaims the great news to his people. In my mind, this is just a dreamy thought – an interesting “what if”. I know that God was working this whole situation out and that it worked according to His plan, but wouldn’t it have been nice for the earthly king to realize what God was doing and tell all the people, “Hey! Listen to this! God has sent His Son and HE is the REAL king!” I guess this just points to the longing for Christ’s return when all will see and all will know and every knee will bow.

Until then, pray for peace and know that it will only come with the coming of the Prince of Peace.
~Tricia Hitchcock


Anticipating Advent: At the Feed Trough

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
Luke 2: 6-7

If I recall correctly, the first catalog with holiday theme items arrived in our mailbox in late July. The “BEST CHRISTMAS ISSUE EVER!” magazines hit the racks in September. Then, with the chill in the air in October and Halloween past, the stores put out the Santa decorations and red and white candy, instead of the orange and black candy of the previous 6 weeks. We have been inundated with commercial “Christmas” for months now and finally, it is about to arrive, after considerable fanfare and fol-der-ol. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted, beat to a “best ever holiday” pulp.

All of this has little to do with the original gift given that first Christmas night, lying small and helpless in a barn feed trough. I know a fair amount about feed troughs, having daily encounters with them in our barn, and there is no fanfare there and no grandiosity. Just basic sustenance– every day needs fulfilled in the most simple and plain way. Our wooden troughs are so old, they have been filled with fodder thousands of times over the decades. The wood has been worn smooth and shiny from years of being sanded by cows’ rough tongues, and over the last two decades, our horses’ smoother tongues, as they lick up every last morsel, extracting every bit of flavor and nourishment from what has been offered there. No matter how tired, how hungry, there is comfort offered at those troughs. The horses know it, anticipate it, depend on it, thrive because of it.

The shepherds in the hills that night were starving too. They had so little, yet became the first invited to the feast at the trough. They must have been overwhelmed, having never known such plenty before. Overcome with the immensity of what was laid before them, they certainly could not contain themselves, and told everyone they could about what they had seen.

His mother listened to the excitement of the visiting shepherds and that she “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”. Whenever I’m getting caught up in the frenetic overblown commercialism of modern Christmas, I go out to the barn and look at our rough hewn feed troughs and think about what courage it took to entrust an infant to such a bed. She knew in her heart, indeed she had been told, that her son was to feed the hungry souls of human kind and He became fodder Himself.

Now I am at the trough, starving, sometimes stamping in impatience, often anxious and weary, at times hopeless and helpless. He was placed there for good reason: a treasure to be shared plain and simple, nurture without end for all.

Who needs Christmas cookies, pumpkin pies and the candy canes to fill the empty spot deep inside?

Just kneel at the manger.
~Emily Gibson

Anticipating Advent: The New Reality

Psalm 34:17-18

“The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them;
    he delivers them from all their troubles.
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted
    and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

The blow landed on the side of her face, startling her out of a daydream of the home she once had. “Stupid, lazy, good for nothing girl! We’re out of water again! You aren’t worth the few shekels I paid for you!”

A large earthenware pot was shoved into her arms and she hefted it to her head, her small back bent under the weight of it, empty though it was. “Bring it back full!”

The setting sun cast long shadows down the narrow street as she stumbled along; tears coursing down her cheeks. Fear of returning empty-handed moved her forward; yet fear of who might be lurking around each dark corner gripped her as she continued down the road. She turned into a shadowed alleyway and heard the soft plodding of hooves and hushed voices headed toward her. She stood still and watched the two who traveled past, greeting her kindly, but also intent on getting to their destination. For some unknown reason, she followed them, staying back so as not to be noticed; she had never seen them before, but something in their manner seemed familiar and she was reminded of her parents. They stopped before a crude stable on the edge of town, heads together they whispered as if unsure. Finally, a lantern was lit and they entered.

Curious, the young girl was drawn forward; carefully setting down the vessel, she crouched below a crack in the boards along the side of the shelter. She could hear muffled voices from inside and then there was silence. The sun had gone down and she knew she should return, but for some reason she could not leave this place of peace. Resting her head against the rough wood, she closed her eyes; and she waited, pulling her garment around her arms against the cool night air. Her earlier fear subsided to be replaced by thoughts of those who had once loved her but who were now gone. Would she ever know that love again? Could anyone fill the empty hollows of her heart?

Then she slept.

As the stars appeared one by one in the black sky above, the two inside stirred; and the light from one star outshone the others and came to rest on that humble place.

Then, in the still silence of early morning, an infant cry awakened the girl; her long watch was over.
~by Leslie Drury, Nov. 30, 2016

Quote from “The Lutheran”, November 13, 1991
“I encourage you this morning to live in that new reality.
Live in the hope and assurance of Jesus’ return.
Live in the joy of preparing for the Christ, born in Bethlehem,
the Christ who already knows you, who loves you,
and who gave his life for you. Amen.”

Anticipating Advent: Something Greater to Come

art by Bonnie Patterson

The Lord Himself will give you the sign, ‘Look!  The virgin will conceive a child!  She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means “God is with  us”)’.
Isaiah 7:14

art by Bonnie Patterson

“The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, who look forward to something greater to come.”
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


Anticipating Advent — The Gift I Needed

The world wanted something very different than what we were given on that first Christmas day. We can no longer imagine life without that Gift, and it is only through receiving It we understand anything about the world around us.

I can’t even remember most of my Christmas gifts as a child, but I distinctly remember the year I didn’t get what I wanted. A remote controlled car. And I wanted it badly. There was never much extra money growing up in the house of a Christian school teacher so there was no reason to think that it would happen, but somehow I was convinced it was going to anyway. And when the presents made their way to the tree, there was the package. The exact size, shape, and heft of the longed for car. There was no name on the box but, of course, this was for me. I visited that box often in those days before Christmas eve.

And then it was finally time. I can’t remember if the box was handed to someone else, or if it was just an empty decoy, but I do remember feeling overwhelming betrayal. A larger box emerged from the bedroom for me. It was too big, too heavy, too everything to be that car, but I’d seen enough cleverly disguised gifts to give up hope. I instantly allowed myself to soar again to the heights of anticipation. But what emerged was an aquarium.

Years of conditioning had instilled in me a sincere desire to be thankful for whatever I got. To be that kind of kid. Years of knowing that others consistently got bigger, better, more valuable presents should have allowed me to put on a better act. This was not only the biggest gift I had ever been given, but more expensive than the car I had coveted. Yet the disappointment was so overwhelming, the anticipation had gone on so long, that I mumbled thank you, then went to my room to process a grief that should have been reserved for the loss of something more. My mom came to tell me how disappointed my father was, and I reached deep into my sixth grade self and rejoined the family. I set up the aquarium in the study and afterwards lied that I truly was delighted.

Over time I would come to love the wonder and discovery of that aquatic world as I spent countless hours developing relationships with the inhabitants. While my brother was in Vietnam we kept a map in that same study, and I would wander between the mysterious contours of an unknown place and the familiar tank. That was the year we found out my father had cancer and for the next three years until it finally claimed his life, the tank was a diversion. I fixated on every nuance of lives in the tank I was responsible for while my own life often seemed untended and unnoticed. That gift was exactly what I needed.
~Brian Vander Haak, Taipai, Taiwan

Anticipating Advent: So None Can Boast

Micah 5:2 –

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
    one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
    from ancient times.”

Stories about people who lived at the time of Jesus’ birth have always fascinated me. One of the reasons I loved Max Lucado’s book God Came Near is because it starts with wondering about what a Bethlehem innkeeper may have said or thought the morning after Jesus was born in the stable. It always surprises me that such a momentous event as the birth of the long-promise Messiah was just … missed – missed by so many people who were right there.

For some reason, as soon as I was approached about the Advent writings for this year, the town of Bethlehem and the above prophecy about it were the first thing that came to mind. Maybe it’s because I know the verse notes that Bethlehem was so small. Maybe it’s because I have been feeling “small” and hang onto the fact that God uses “small” to do His work.

Probably, it was because I needed to read John Piper’s comments about why Jesus was born in Bethlehem:

“God chose a stable so no innkeeper could boast, “He chose the comfort of my inn!” God chose a manger so that no wood worker could boast, “He chose the craftsmanship of my bed!” He chose Bethlehem so no one could boast, “The greatness of our city constrained the divine choice!” And he chose you and me, freely and unconditionally, to stop the mouth of all human boasting.”

It’s true that God honored Bethlehem by using it. It’s true that an insignificant town got to play a part in changing history. And it’s true that God chose that small, unimportant town not to make it “feel” important, but to show that His actions really were all about His MERCY. And it worked! Because of the way God worked this miracle, the people of Bethlehem not only didn’t claim fame, most of them missed the event altogether. None could boast.

And so it is with us. Any significance God chooses to work through us is His business for His glory. So that none can boast.

~Tricia Hitchcock