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A Different Kind of Christmas
Devotions for the Season
By Mike Slaughter
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
How Do You Picture God?
He was despised and avoided by others, a man who suffered, who knew sickness well. Like someone from whom people hid their faces, he was despised, and we didn't think about him. (Isaiah 53:3 CEB)
The Lord God's spirit is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor. (Isaiah 61:1 CEB)
How do you picture God? Some of us see God as a harsh, judgmental father, much like our own flawed dad, or as a capricious Zeus hurling thunderbolts from heaven at unsuspecting humans. At Christmas, our picture of God closely aligns with that of our culture, depicting God as "Santa Claus coming to town"—both a watchful stalker who knows when we've been bad or good and rewards or withholds gifts accordingly; and a magical gift-giver who showers us with toys and electronics we don't need, all the while saddling us with more credit card debt (one gift that truly does keep on giving ... or taking).
Jesus should be our "God with skin on." But, even then, we often mess it up. My childhood picture of Jesus was The Head of Christ, by Walter Sallman, the painting that hung in almost every Sunday school class I attended. I'm sure you know it! In the painting, Jesus' face is glowing against a soft brown background as he gazes pensively toward a distant, heavenly horizon. His skin is flawless; his hair is clean and flowing. It's a beautiful painting but doesn't seem to resemble the Messiah from Isaiah 53:2 (CEB): "He possessed no splendid form for us to see, no desirable appearance." In the movie Talladega Nights, racecar driver Ricky Bobby, played by Will Ferrell, addresses all prayers to his own particular picture of Jesus—an eight-pound, six-ounce bouncing baby boy.
Before we can expect the miracle of a different kind of Christmas, first we must work on our image of Immanuel, God With Us. We must recognize in Jesus a God who knows what it means to feel pain, heartbreak, love, and joy. We must see a God who prioritizes the poor, the widowed, and the orphaned, and a Savior who loves us enough not only to die for us but to model for us how to live sacrificially in his name, so that we become co-workers in a Christmas miracle.
Lord God, help me to see your face and feel your hand this Advent season. Let my heart be broken by that which breaks yours. May I be your hands and feet for growing miracles. Amen.CHAPTER 2
The Best Gifts Don't Come in Stockings
Therefore the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14 CEB)
When we worship a Santa Claus Jesus, we overlook a simple truth: that the best gifts don't come in stockings. We appreciate only those gifts that are adorned with bows, frills, and brightly colored wrapping; and we fail to recognize the good gifts we have already received ... or those that are about to come.
One of the best gifts I ever received was in June 2007, when I spent Father's Day with my son Jonathan on the ground in Darfur, Sudan, a war zone. We had traveled there to witness God's miracle of saving lives through the sacrificial gifts of our first two Christmas Miracles offerings from Ginghamsburg Church.
Last Christmas, although I loved the new watch from my wife Carolyn, my best gift arrived during Christmas Eve worship when I baptized my newest granddaughter, Anna Claire Leavitt. All grandbabies are precious, but this baptism held special significance, since we had found out a few months before that little Anna had been born with heart issues. We continue to move forward with God, trusting that one day she will be completely healed.
Even these great gifts in my life pale in comparison with the gift of Immanuel, God With Us. Once we grasp the complete significance of that gift, no brightly wrapped shirt, gadget, or game will ever compare, or even matter. Through the power of Immanuel in my own life, I was lost but now am found; I was blind but now I see. I was a D student in high school who played in a band that was busted for drugs, and now I'm an author, a speaker, a pastor with a doctorate, and, along with my church, a world changer.
Once we fully grasp the gift of Immanuel, we are compelled to share Jesus with the world—not as a magical gift giver, but as a miracle worker. Our Messiah didn't shimmy down a chimney but hung on a cross. Now, that's a gift! It's a gift beyond all measure, and we must receive it in our hearts, not in our stockings.
Lord, this Christmas, let me not focus on the materialistic gifts I crave that bring momentary happiness. Help me to recognize the good gifts I already have received, embracing an attitude of gratitude and generosity, celebrating the season with such an infectious spirit that it draws others to you. Amen.CHAPTER 3
You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matthew 6:24 CEB)
When we look at our current understanding of Christmas, we can see that we have mixed together some Santa Claus theology, a few Victorian-era practices of the nineteenth century, and a little biblical truth to create a kind of Christianity that's more like Frosty the Snowman than the events of the first Christmas Day. Even our favorite Christmas hymns can paint the wrong picture: "The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes." That doesn't seem likely! I swear, each of my kids had colic for the first six months.
We have also set unrealistic goals for ourselves, trying to create an ideal, magical Christmas experience that simply is not attainable. Last December I made the mistake of asking a certain woman if she was ready for Christmas. Instead of the usual polite response of "almost," or "getting there," or even "no," she rattled off a "to do" list that left me dizzy—shopping, wrapping, baking, card addressing, party hosting, and concerts that took a good five minutes to describe. Where was Christ on her list?
The only way we will experience a miracle this Christmas, and next, is if we start creating new traditions for ourselves in our homes and churches—traditions that focus on the miracle worker instead of the materialism. Let's start traditions that emphasize one another, rather than the presents we expect to receive and go into debt to purchase. Even more importantly, we need to make space in our schedules and in our hearts for the presence of Jesus—first receiving the miracle, so that we can then be God's conduits for delivering the miracle.
There is a precedent for presents in the biblical Christmas narrative. In Matthew 2, we see the magi arriving with gifts for Jesus of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. So, how should we celebrate the birth of the miracle worker? By giving our presence, our presents, and honoring Jesus on his birthday by sharing our treasures with the least and the lost.
Lord, in the frantic pace of the Advent season, I will focus on your presence—not the presents. I will choose the miracle over the materialism, both receiving it and then sharing it with others. Amen.CHAPTER 4
Résumé: Miracle Worker
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses. (Acts 1:8 CEB)
When was the last time you updated your résumé? Most of us are careful to list all the positions we have held (at least those that make us look good) and the critical skills we have developed and utilized to excel in those positions. Well, God invites all his followers—that means you—to add yet another "position held" to your list: miracle worker. In 2 Corinthians 6:1, the apostle Paul describes us as being "co-workers in Christ." Acts 1:8 reminds us that we receive the power of God when the presence of the Holy Spirit invades our lives.
Do you feel that you lack the qualifications to be a miracle worker? The Scripture is full of stories about God using ordinary, unqualified, and even seriously messed up people to accomplish miracles. An inarticulate Moses led God's people out of slavery and into the Promised Land. David, an adulterer and murderer, was described as a man after God's own heart and was the greatest king of the ancient Israelites. Paul, a persecutor of Christians, authored the majority of the New Testament after his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Mary, an unwed teenager from a humble background, gave birth to the Son of God.
We don't lack examples of miracle workers in more contemporary times either. Mother Teresa, a tiny woman from Albania, became one of the most influential miracle workers of the twentieth century as she humbly served the poor in Calcutta, India. There was nothing of earthly note in her résumé that would have predicted her impact. I barely managed to graduate high school after nearly flunking my junior year. Yet, I have been privileged to pastor a church for thirty-three years that has invested $5.6 million into the Sudan for sustainable humanitarian projects through eight miracle offerings made at Christmas.
God is inviting you to add "miracle worker"—co-worker with Christ—to your résumé. You have been called and equipped. You already have the power to create change in the world through God's action in your life. This Advent, God doesn't need the elaborate, the expensive, or the extraordinary to bring about his miracles. He only needs you.
Lord, thank you for equipping me to be your conduit for serving people this Christmas. I may be an ordinary person, but I recognize that I serve an extraordinary God who will work in me and through me to accomplish miracles. Amen.CHAPTER 5
Finding My Miracle
The angel said, "Don't be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus." (Luke 1:30-31 CEB)
This Advent, where is God calling you to be a miracle worker? After all, the world is full of crises. As I write this, the Arab Spring that started in 2011 continues to result in government oppression and violent uprisings in Africa and the Middle East. Closer to home, the effects of the Great Recession that started in 2008 continue to mean high unemployment rates, more kids who go to bed hungry at night, and an ever-increasing gap between the haves and have-nots. Even if you are willing to be a miracle worker for God, how do you know where to begin?
The angel Gabriel gave Mary a vision of what God wanted to do through her. Our challenge is to create a clear picture in our minds of what God wants to accomplish through us. What are you seeing or hearing right now that creates discomfort in your spirit? Whom is God placing in your path? How are you currently serving that gets your heart pumping a little faster every time you think about it? Where do you see God already working?
Years ago, John, a member of Ginghamsburg Church, spent hours enjoyably tinkering around with automobiles. He decided to use that hobby to create a car ministry, making it possible for single moms and those in need to have reliable transportation, a critical part of holding down any job.
A church member who was working at the food pantry heard story after story of elderly clients using their food supplies to take care of beloved four-legged companions. This church member founded our Paws4Hope ministry to meet that unique need.
I'm a car buff, and one Sunday after church I was busy checking out automobile ads, when on the opposite page I noticed a photo of an emaciated child, a victim of the violence in the Sudan. I was struck by the juxtaposition of a Sedan with the Sudan. The former I knew everything about; the latter I knew nothing about. In that moment, God planted in me the seed of our congregation's work in the Sudan.
You, as a spirit-filled Christian, have the potential to have God move within you. You just need to dream God's dream and then act on God's vision.
Lord God, I am listening and watching, ready to have you birth a Christmas miracle through me. I am your servant. Amen.CHAPTER 6
Paying the Price
The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. (Philippians 3:10 CEB)
What runs through your mind when you read the Scripture above? To me, "knowing Christ" sounds great. What an honor. And "the power of his resurrection?" I'm all over that. Then I come to "the participation in his sufferings." Whoa! I didn't sign up for suffering, did I? Well, yes, I did. You did too.
For our lives to be meaningful, we need to give them away. A meaningful Christmas won't be found in personal comfort and material luxuries; rather, we will find meaning—we will receive and deliver God's miracle—when we are ready and willing to pay the price. This basic truth is the antithesis of our culture's values. Each week we look forward to TGIF, "thank God it's Friday," when we can exit the workweek. When we hit fifty our mantra becomes "I can't wait until I retire." And at Christmas we emphasize "the holly and the jolly" instead of Jesus.
Even when we do bring Jesus into our Christmas celebrations, we understandably focus on the cradle of the baby Jesus, forgetting that we cannot separate the cradle from the cross. The cross, not the cradle, is the center of the Christian message. When Jesus is teaching the disciples about his impending death in John 12, he says, "I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24 CEB). Jesus' resurrection had to be preceded by his crucifixion.
Christmas is about a miracle. But, as Mary discovered, miracles don't just happen; they are born through the pains of labor. Immanuel has come to move us out of our comfort zones so that God may work through us this Advent to make the impossible possible.
From John Wesley's Covenant Service, 1780
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom. (Luke 2:6-7 CEB)
What does your perfect Christmas look like? Having the most brightly lit exterior in the neighborhood, the one that winds up being featured by the weather guy as "house of the day" on the local TV news? Filling kitchen counters with platters of home-baked cookies and candies, or at least good imitations that have been removed from the telltale store-bought packaging? Piling up gifts so high under the tree that your three-year-old could stand behind them and be completely hidden? For some of us, it's all of that ... and more. We place so many expectations upon the season and ourselves.
Last Christmas, my wife Carolyn wound up setting up the tree by herself. In our crazy Advent schedule, it was the only available night she had, and I was committed to a meeting at church. By the time I got home, Carolyn was frustrated, to say the least. In trying to make the perfect Christmas, she had spent two hours figuring out why the middle section of the tree wouldn't light up. She had checked and rechecked every bulb on a tree that was supposed to work even when a few lights were out. It had lit up just fine when we put it away the year before. Can you relate?
My favorite part of Christmas is the family celebration. After all, we experience God through relationships. I spend each Christmas Day in my own home, after preaching as many as seven times on Christmas Eve. As a result, extended family comes to stay with us. Talk about no room in the inn! People sleep everywhere. Carolyn and I use a blow-up mattress in my study, someone else takes the foldout sofa in the basement, all the couches are full, and I love it.
Preparing for Jesus is a whole lot different from preparing for Christmas. This year, let's not get so caught up in the preparations that we miss the people—or the Messiah. Mary knew how to do it. She simply took the greatest gift the world has ever received, wrapped him snugly in a blanket, and placed him in a manger.
Lord, this Advent, empower me to slow down, simplify, and savor—savor the season, and savor the Savior. Amen.
Excerpted from A Different Kind of Christmas by Mike Slaughter. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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