Read an Excerpt
A Different Kind of Christmas
Youth Study Edition
By Mike Slaughter
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Expect a Miracle
Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
Reading and Reflecting
The Ghost of Christmas Past
What makes Jesus really difficult to deal with is that he never has been what we think we want.
The early Jewish community of Jesus' disciples wanted a messiah who would overthrow the existing Roman rule, restoring Israel to its former power. It's safe to say that we've been perfecting that misunderstanding of Jesus ever since, always trying to bend him to our will instead of the other way around.
Mary very well may have been the last person to get Christmas just right. Of course, she did have the benefit of not knowing that it was Christmas. She was distracted by the direct revelation from an angel that she was to become pregnant and that the child would be called the Son of God. She would have been worried that she was unprepared and unqualified for such a task. She would have been bracing herself for how this coming Christ would affect her life—what would change, and what she would face as a result of simply being willing to participate. And in that moment, she was willing. She was open to this new vision for her life, no matter how difficult, no matter the cost. Does this sound like Christmas at your house?
Somewhere we've squeezed the meaning out of our Jesus, particularly at Christmas. An event that at its inception called for making deep personal sacrifices and using ordinary means to accomplish extraordinary things has come to sputter with empty meaning, like an old neon sign. We've lost the miracle once offered, and we don't seem moved to seek it out again. Christmas Day has become what it never was meant to be. One could argue, in fact, that it wasn't meant to be a day at all—that in living lives that reflect Christ in and through our relationships, there would be no need for a day of remembrance. But we love what we've made it.
Personally, I don't love it. In fact, sometimes I can't stand it. I miss the miracle. I want to wonder again at the unbelievable truth of the person of Christ. But I can't, because everyone keeps asking me what I want from the store as a gift, and what I think my wife or kids might want. It all makes me a little sick: the full-court press marketing blitz; the raging swell of debt for families that can't afford it; the complete sidestep by Christians of anything Christ-like as we tear down our barns to build bigger barns to store all of our self-imposed blessings.
I think what hurts the most is our misappropriation of the genuine goodwill that exists within the mayhem. I think people really are trying to do good in some fashion at Christmas; they're just doing it in a way dictated by consumer culture. Everybody should have something at Christmas, right? I've been on the receiving end of that kind of goodwill many times and have received it as a miracle in each instance. I'll never forget our elementary school janitor bringing my family a Christmas meal we couldn't afford. Or the time as a freshman in high school that a family "adopted" ours and showered us with gifts we wouldn't otherwise have received. Or the Christmas after my mom died, when my girlfriend's mother (now my mother-in-law) overspent to make my pile of presents equal in hugeness to her own two children's, knowing that at our house, in the first year of my mom's absence, we couldn't bring ourselves to celebrate with a tree and gifts.
Those are treasured, life-changing memories for me. But the shower of gifts veils the terrific example of how we should live in sacrificial relationship with each other every day. Every day we should find someone who can't afford dinner. Every day we should seek out a family in need of clothing. Every day we should extend love and acceptance to those around us who are hurting. The miracle of Jesus as we observe him at Christmas is that we didn't get to pick him out, and it's impossible to return him the next day if we decide he doesn't fit our lives. Jesus came to transform the every day of our lives.
I'm inviting you this year to hear with new ears the story of Christ's coming. Expect the miracle of Jesus. Prepare yourself to receive the change he brings to your life. Consider the cost. And rejoice with a clear vision as God begins a new work in you.
Our Christian tradition owes a great debt to the Jewish faith and Scriptures. Without them, Jesus might have been interpreted as simply a renegade deity flung into the face of every world religion. Our Gospels show Jesus to be the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, and in so doing they intertwine our faith with a long and wise tradition. In Isaiah 7:14, we find this: "Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." If we look back at this exchange between God and Ahaz in Isaiah, then flip ahead to read Matthew (1:18-24) as he neatly puts a bow on the fulfillment of that Old Testament promise through the birth of Jesus, we might tend to forget what happened in between: hundreds of years passed. Generations came and went. Ahaz, in Isaiah 7, declined to ask God for a sign but was given one anyway. Surely he believed that the promise would be fulfilled within his lifetime, especially considering that the sign was given in response to an immediate military threat.
Small wonder that Jesus' disciples thought he had come to overthrow Rome. They'd been raised on centuries of tradition that their military woes would be addressed just as soon as the sign came. As Jesus walked and talked and taught and lived a life that existed only for love's sake, it had to sting a little that those closest to him had completely missed the point of his existence—those who called themselves his disciples and were the first Christians.
Can we really say at Christmas that we've understood the miracle of Jesus any better than they did?
Are You Shy?
They say that fear is a powerful motivator, but so is poor self-image. We've all shied away from doing new things, perhaps important things, because we feel that we aren't good enough, smart enough, tall enough, or just because we might fail. Has this happened to you? When? What were the circumstances? Do you regret your decision?
Read Luke 1:46-48.
Do Mary's words sound like the words of a shy girl? Why or why not? When the angel first told Mary what was going to happen (Luke 1:26- 38), was she a little more guarded in her response? What do you think had changed?
How can you find the kind of joyful expectation that Mary showed when God asks things of you in your own life?
Paul, one of the most celebrated apostles, experienced a remarkable journey of faith. He was a Roman citizen and a well-schooled religious figure; in short, he had it made in the culture to which he was born. As he began to follow in Jesus' footsteps, those achievements and accolades began to fall away. Paul was undeterred; he had found a new purpose in sharing the love of Christ.
Read Philippians 3:7-11.
Have you let Jesus change your life at this level? What are some things you have let go in order to follow Jesus more closely?
Do you miss those things? Were they all "bad" things, or have you found that even good things can become distractions in your relationship with God? What are some examples?
If Jesus doesn't figure this centrally in your life, what's holding you back? What are you afraid to let go of?
Surprised by God
Have you ever been surprised when something you did turned out all right? What makes us doubt ourselves so easily? Mary and Joseph had already experienced quite a journey by the time they brought Jesus to the temple and were no doubt well-versed in trusting God along the way. Even so, when Simeon met the young Jesus and praised God, they couldn't believe the words they were hearing.
Read Luke 2:25-33.
When was the last time you were just blown away by the movement of God? What were the circumstances?
Sometimes we encounter great things in good times, but often we find our faith renewed by God's actions only after we wrestle in the darkness for a while. What difficulties do you imagine that Mary and Joseph faced in raising Jesus to this point? How rewarding do you think their experience at the temple was?
It's possible that you are still waiting for your "temple moment." How do you find strength to press on through difficult times when following God?
Making It Personal
Spend a few minutes thinking back over the Christmases you've experienced in your life so far. What are some of your favorite memories? Why do they stand out?
What are some of the good things about gift giving and what generally is referred to as "the holiday spirit"?
How much Jesus is in your Christmas? It may sound funny to ask in that way, but it's an important question. If Jesus isn't the focus of your Christmas, what is? How do you feel about that?
What can you do this year to prepare yourself for the miracle of Jesus coming to us?
Are you prepared to make the necessary sacrifices in your life to welcome Jesus fully? Do you already know what some of those sacrifices will be?
Are you open to new visions from God for your future? Is it possible that you've already been stifling some glimpses of your future, because you're afraid of what it might mean for your life? Are you willing to let go of that fear and instead begin to trust?
Sharing in Conversation
Spend some time with a group discussing these questions:
1. What are everyone's plans for Christmas this year?
2. Can anyone share an experience in which they overcame their fears or self-doubt to do something for God?
3. What kinds of sacrifices can we make to follow Jesus more closely? Are there big, obvious things in our lives that need to go?
4. Has any one of you ever felt led by God to do something? What was it? What did that feel like? Did you follow through?
5. If Jesus were to ask you one question about your family's Christmas from last year, what do you think it would be?
Bringing It to Life
A Very Matey Christmas
Supplies: A child's (functioning) telescope
Spend a few minutes passing the telescope around your group, taking turns looking through it. What can group members see within the room that they might not have noticed before? Small objects, stains in fabric, even the texture of the walls might receive new attention. What do you see?
When everyone has had a turn, ask someone to write the text from Isaiah 7:14 on a sheet of paper. The words should be small but visible to the naked eye. Ask someone who hasn't seen the verse to read it through the telescope, with one restriction: They have to look through the wrong end.
Give everyone an opportunity to try the same thing, looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Was anyone able to read the verse?
It is possible to read the verse, but it's definitely more difficult. Spend a few minutes talking about the "lens" we look through when celebrating Santa Claus and the highly commercial nature of today's Christmas, instead of making Christmas a holiday celebrating Jesus' birth. How do Santa Claus and the practice of exchanging gifts confuse the message of a humble Jesus born to a family of meager means? Does that bother anyone? Why or why not?
A Sight for Sore Eyes
Supplies: An inexpensive set of magnification glasses (the stronger the better)
As in the previous activity, pass the magnification glasses around your group, taking turns trying to see through them. If people wear glasses already, they should remove them. Try reading from a book. If you're in someone's home, get some old photographs and place them on the floor, then stand and try to identify people in the pictures. Any luck? Any headaches?
As a final exercise, lay out a long string or a line of white tape from one end of the room to the other. Pick a volunteer to stand at one end, wearing the glasses. Spin the volunteer for a minute or so and then have them try to walk down the line. It should be fun to watch. You can come back at the end of your discussion time and let everyone try it who wants to.
Ask the initial volunteer: What did that feel like? We've all been a little dizzy, but how did it change things to have your eyes affected as well?
Let everyone discuss: In your own life, how did you choose the quality of your eyesight? Did you get to choose? If not, what determined your eyesight?
Have people in the group ever tried to deny problems with their eyesight—for example, holding off on getting glasses or contacts, pretending they could see farther down the eye chart, and so on? How did that go?
If we're uniquely equipped as we follow Christ, how similar or different should we expect our vision to be when compared with the vision of those around us?
What are some ways that we can embrace our own vision and encourage the vision for Christian living of our friends? What can we accomplish together?
Listening for God
God, help us this Christmas to rediscover the miracle of Jesus' example. Show us how to live our lives in a way that remains open to your leading and makes us part of your great work. Amen.
Thinking and Writing
Read the questions, then use the space below to write your thoughts.
What's the favorite Christmas present you ever gave, and why?
What is the closest thing to a miracle that you have experienced?
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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