This revised edition of the popular book includes stories, Scriptures, and thoughts to warm your heart throughout the season, as well as devotions by Jacob Armstrong and a new fifth chapter for Christmas Eve/Christmas Day.
Also available are resources for a five-session study, including a Leader Guide, DVD, and resources for youth and children.
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About the Author
Jacob Armstrong is the founding pastor of Providence Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. Providence's vision is to see those who are disconnected from God and the church to find hope, healing, and wholeness in Jesus Christ. Jacob is the author of Renovate, A New Playlist, Treasure, The God Story, Upside Down, Loving Large, Interruptions, and The New Adapters.
Read an Excerpt
THE GIFT OF HOPE
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn't want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."
Some years ago our family gathered in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for the wedding of our nephew. I reserved a room at a local hotel with two double beds, so our daughter Jodi and granddaughter Sarah could share the room with us. Sarah was five years old at the time, and we never knew what she was going to say next.
After the first night at the hotel, I asked Sarah if she had slept well. She said, "Well, Gran, let me explain it like this. At my dayschool we take naps after lunch. But there is a boy in my class named Tyler who snores and I can't get any rest." She paused for a moment, then said, "I think Tyler was in our room last night."
Now, according to Matthew 1 there wasn't a Tyler in the room that night with Joseph, but there was an angel, and after his encounter with the angel, Joseph probably didn't get much rest either! Remember the story with me.
Joseph and Mary were engaged and going through the traditional year of betrothal before their formal marriage could take place. They had not had the wedding ceremony yet, were not living together, and had not been physically intimate, but in the eyes of the community they were as good as married. Then, out of the blue, Joseph received word that Mary was expecting! Joseph surely was shaken and heartsick. But he was a kind man and loved Mary, so he decided that instead of publicly humiliating her, he would just break it off quietly.
As Joseph was making his decision, an angel appeared to him in a dream and said words to this effect: "Joseph, don't be afraid. Go ahead and take Mary for your wife. Your love for each other is unique and special. The Spirit is with her bringing a new life. The child is of God. It is God's will that she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
In the Bible, angels are messengers from God, so imagine the powerful effect of this message of hope. The angel told Joseph not to be afraid and not to abandon Mary, but instead to go ahead and marry her. The angel told Joseph that Mary would give birth to the Savior. And the angel told Joseph to name the baby Jesus. Don't miss this, now: the angel told Joseph what to name the baby!
There are so many remarkable images and lessons in this powerful section of Scripture, but for now let's focus in on the naming of the baby and what it says to us about the gift of hope.
Names Are Important
Have you noticed that people tend to live up — or down — to their names?
I know a man named Smiley. That is his legal name, and it is the ideal name for him because he smiles all the time. Even when he is experiencing life's tough moments, his face has a bright and gracious expression.
I know a man named Happy, and he is one of the happiest people I know.
I also have a good friend named Skippy, and he just "skips" through life with grace and charm and energy.
A woman I know is named Sunny, and the name fits her perfectly. She not only has beautiful blond hair that just glows, but her face is radiant and she has a golden disposition that is warm and wonderful. I have often wondered, What if her parents had named her Stormy? Would she be the same person? Or would she be different?
Then there is John Wesley Dowling, who turned out to be one of the finest Methodists I have ever known.
I'm sure there are exceptions, but more often than not people do indeed live up (or down) to their names. So, parents, be very careful when naming your children! That name can have a dramatic effect on the development of their personalities. Our children may well become what we name them.
The importance of names is a powerful and significant theme in the Bible. The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible puts it like this: "The giving of personal names in ancient Israel was not merely for the purpose of providing a distinctive label for an individual, but was also commonly (an occasion) for expressing religious convictions associated with the birth of a child or its future." (Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible Supplementary Volume, 619).
For example, the name Elijah means "the Lord is my God." It's probably no accident that Elijah grew up to be a courageous prophet who called upon his people to worship Yahweh alone and not to bow down to Baal or the other gods of the Canaanite religion.
The name Moses was also fitting. It literally means "draw out." You probably remember that, as a baby, Moses was saved from being murdered. The Egyptian king, afraid that the Hebrew slaves might grow strong enough to rebel, had ordered for all Hebrew newborn baby boys to be killed. But the family of Moses came up with a creative plan to save his life. They put baby Moses into a basket and placed it among the reeds in the Nile River. The pharaoh's daughter found the baby, "drew him up out of the water," and adopted him. Later, you remember, Moses led the people of Israel through the parted waters of the Reed Sea, drawing them out of Egypt to save them. So Moses was indeed a good name for him.
In the New Testament, one of my favorite characters is Barnabas, whose name means "child of encouragement," which is exactly what he was.
Now, we notice also in the Scriptures that when something dramatic happened to change a person's life, in effect giving them a new birth, their names were often changed to fit their new life. For example, after their covenant with God was made, Abram became Abraham and Sarai became Sarah. After he wrestled with the angel, Jacob became Israel. And Jesus changed Simon's name to Peter, Petros, "the rock."
And that brings us to the passage in Matthew 1.
The Naming of the Christ Child
The angel said to Joseph: "don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:20-21). This announcement is the Christmas hope in a nutshell. It means that God will always be with us — watching over us, reconciling us, and saving us in this world and the world to come.
There is a gospel song that says it like this: "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus ... There is something about that name." Indeed there is. The name Jesus means "savior" or "the lord's helper." But also notice — don't miss this now — that the name Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua.
You remember, of course, who Joshua was. As the spiritual tells us, "Joshua fit the battle of Jericho ... and the walls come tumblin' down." So we can also understand the name Jesus to mean "wall-breaker."
Here is how the apostle Paul expressed it in his Letter to the Ephesians, in one of the most powerful statements in all the Bible: "Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us. ... So now you are no longer strangers and aliens. Rather, you are fellow citizens with God's people, and you belong to God's household. As God's household, you are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone" (2:14, 1920).
Now, this idea of Jesus being the wall-breaker, breaking down the dividing walls of hostility, can better be understood when we see it against the backdrop of the Temple's physical layout in the time of Jesus. The Temple was a parable in stone, exposing the prejudices, or walls, that existed in society during biblical times — walls that included a few privileged people but excluded or shut out most. As worshipers moved through the Temple toward the high altar (the Holy of Holies), they encountered a series of walls holding the people back from God.
The first wall held back foreigners, people of other races and nations. The second wall held back women. The third wall held back all men except the priests. The fourth wall, a veil surrounding the Holy of Holies, held back everyone except the High Priest, who was permitted to go inside the veil only once a year on the Day of Atonement. Even then the other priests tied a rope around his ankle, so that if he fell or passed out, they could pull him back without going inside!
The Holy of Holies, which represented the presence of God, was remote, fearsome, austere, and unapproachable. But then came Jesus, and he broke down the dividing walls and made us one. He brought God out to the people.
When you think of it, that's what Christmas is about: God breaking out, God smashing down the walls, God coming warmly and wonderfully into our lives. And when we forget about Christmas, when we neglect the teachings of Christ, then once again we start building up those walls, fostering hostility and hatred, prejudice and bigotry.
The walls we build today are every bit as real as those in the Temple. Here are some of them:
There are the walls that divide nations. However, Christ came as the Prince of Peace, the Savior of all people, and the Lord of all nations.
There are the walls that divide men and women. The truth is that Christ was the first real liberator of women. Read his teachings, study the Gospels, see how he respected women and included them, and notice how much he advanced the cause of equal rights and equal opportunity.
There are the walls that divide clergy and laity. Jesus made no such distinction. He sent all of the disciples out as ministers.
There are the walls that hold people back from God. More than anything, Jesus brought God to people and people to God. Jesus came not to change God's mind but to reveal it. He came to show us how much God loves us and how available God is to us.
Do you remember what happened in the Temple when Jesus was on the cross? The veil around the Holy of Holies was torn apart, from top to bottom. God did it! God tore it! God broke down that wall!
Jesus Lived Up to His Name
Here is the good news of Christmas: Christ is our Savior, our Redeemer, and our Reconciler. He makes us all one. He breaks down the dividing walls and shows us that we are God's family. And that is our hope for peace on earth and good will toward all people.
This profound truth is captured in a story that was written by an American journalist who had to spend one Christmas Eve with his family in Paris. He writes that his family's entire trip had been one frustration after another, and they had to settle for a Christmas Eve dinner at a rundown restaurant. There they found a local flower woman who had no customers, German and French families who looked as frustrated as his own, and one American sailor writing a letter home. They had all but lost their Christmas spirit, but then:
The young sailor finished his meal and got up to leave. Putting on his coat, he walked over to the flower woman's table. "Happy Christmas," he said, smiling and picking out two corsages. ...
Pressing one of the small corsages flat, he put it into the letter he had written, then handed the woman a twenty franc note.
"I don't have change, monsieur," she said. ...
"No, ma'am," said the sailor ... "This is my Christmas present to you."
Straightening up, he came to our table. ... "Sir," he said to me, "may I have permission to present these flowers to your beautiful daughter?" In one quick motion he gave my wife the corsage, wished us a merry Christmas, and departed.
Everyone had stopped eating. Everyone had been watching the sailor. Everyone was silent. A few seconds later, Christmas exploded throughout the restaurant like a bomb. The old flower woman jumped up. ... The piano player began to belt out "Good King Wenceslaus". ... My wife [sang] ... and our three sons joined her, bellowing the song with uninhibited enthusiasm.
"Gut! Gut!" shouted the Germans. They jumped on their chairs and began singing the words in German. The waiter embraced the flower woman. Waving their arms, they sang in French. ...
People crowded in from the street until many customers were standing. ...
The miserable evening in a shoddy restaurant ended up being the very best Christmas Eve we had ever experienced just because of a young sailor who had Christmas spirit in his soul. He released the love and joy that had been smothered within us by anger and disappointment. He gave us Christmas.
— William J. Lederer, "A Sailor's Christmas Gift," Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul (Deerfield Beach, FL.: Health Communications, Inc., 1997), 320–21
His name shall be called Jesus the wall-breaker. He will save the people from their sins. Christ is the hope of the world. And hope is a Christmas gift that won't break!
1. What does Advent mean to you? Why is it important? What do you hope to receive from participating in this small-group experience?
2. Discuss the encounter of Joseph and the angel. What feelings do you think Joseph experienced?
3. Why are names important? Discuss some of the ways in which names are chosen. Describe how and why you received your name.
4. List and discuss the meanings of the name Jesus. Why do you think this name is appropriate?
5. In what ways was Jesus considered a wall-breaker during his ministry?
6. In what ways does Jesus represent the gift of hope?
Dear God, thank you for the season of Advent and the gift of hope. Help us to prepare our hearts for your coming and to remember the true meaning of Christmas. Amen.
Focus for the Week
Begin your observance of Advent by becoming an instrument of hope to others this week. Give the gift of hope to those who need it by giving of yourself. As Christmas draws near, look for opportunities to become a messenger of good news.
JOSEPH ACTUALLY SAID SOMETHING
Shea Glover, a high school student at the Chicago High School for the Arts, posted a video from a school project on YouTube in 2015. It now has millions of views. In the video, Shea stands behind the camera and prepares to take a video of her classmates, one at a time. Then as she begins to film, she explains the premise of her project. The premise, she says, is to film things she finds beautiful.
What happened next was not Shea's intent, but it quickly became the focus of the project and the reason it went viral. Shea's initial hope was to simply record beautiful people in her school. What the video became is a look at the stark difference between people's faces before and after they are told they are beautiful.
The reactions range from being embarrassed to being flattered. Some laugh or look away. One student angrily protests, thinking it a mean joke. Most, though, simply smile, showing an incredible before-and-after transformation.
Being called beautiful changes the way we look. Being called beautiful gives a gift we don't see coming. Words have power.
No one disputes that what we do is important. "Actions speak louder than words," we have heard, and in most cases that is true. What we see in the Advent Scriptures, though, is that what we say is really important, too. We hold the power to give a gift by what we say to people, about people, and about ourselves.
Joseph is one of the great characters in the story of Jesus' birth. Most people have heard of him. Mary gets a little more press — OK a lot more — but Joseph hangs right in there. We know Joseph is noble. We know that Joseph is a person of action, and with few exceptions it seems, the right action. What is striking, though, is that Joseph is a man of very few words. It is commonly observed that we don't know anything that Joseph said. Of course, no one thinks that Joseph didn't talk. It's just that there is no record of any of his words.
But, that's not quite true. Joseph said something. And we know what it is. Are you on the edge of your seat? One word. There is one recorded word from Joseph: Jesus.
After learning that his fiancée is pregnant, Joseph is told in a dream to not be afraid. An angel tells him to believe what Mary says is true. And Joseph is told to name the boy Jesus. The name means "savior," or as we learned, in a sense it means "wall-breaker." Joseph was told to name his son Savior, Deliverer, Wall-Breaker.
Joseph woke up from his dream and took Mary home as his wife. And we don't know when he named the baby. We don't know if it was when the baby was born in the middle of the night in a place where animals were kept in Bethlehem. We don't know if it was on the eighth day when the baby was ceremonially presented in the temple. But somewhere in there, Joseph names the baby Jesus. It's not exactly a direct quote attributed to Joseph, but it's clear that Joseph stated the child's name (Matthew 1:25). Jesus. This boy's name is Deliverer. My son's name, Joseph says, is Jesus, Savior, Wall-Breaker.
Excerpted from "Christmas Gifts That Won't Break"
Copyright © 2017 Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents
1. The Gift of Hope,
2. The Gift of Love,
3. The Gift of Joy,
4. The Gift of Peace,
5. The Gift of Christ,