The Polar Opposites Of The Christmas Story

“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.”– Matthew 2:16-18. 

The Christmas story has a hero and a villain and they could not be more different. They share a few sentences in the Christmas story and that is all they have in common. 

The villain is King Herod. There is not a lot known about King Herod, but what is known is not good. Historians tells us that King Herod (Herod the Great) was a cruel, power-hungry ruler who feared the loss of his power and ruthlessly destroyed all potential rivals with incredible cruelty and no remorse. Herod saw the baby Jesus as a threat and wanted to murder him.  

The hero of course is Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah. Jesus sought first to do the will of His Father in heaven; to please, honor, and glorify Him. Jesus also came to bring people abundant life, which required Him to die on the cross, be resurrected before returning to heaven.

Jesus was perfect, sinless; Herod, was far from perfect and a cruel tyrant. Jesus gave his life and ministry as a sacrifice so that the world would know God. Herod’s life revolved around sacrificing others in order to protect himself.  

Ultimately, Herod’s glory and strength were forgotten. Few people remember the accomplishments of this king. He is remembered only as a paranoid tyrant, the man who committed mass murder in an effort to save his power.  The legacy and influence Jesus had on the lives of people has never been surpassed. No other person or leader has inspired so many positive changes in the lives of His followers. People who encounter the risen Christ are totally transformed. Their outlook on life is changed forever. They devote their lives to serving others, minimizing their own needs and desires.

The child in the cradle that King Herod tried to kill became the king on the cross. And because He did, there is salvation and grace. And regardless of the enemies I face or the storms in my life, God is present in my life. God is always near us. Always for us. Always in us because “Immanuel” means “God with us.” 

Discussion Questions:

  1. While the Christmas story is full of beauty and wonder, there’s a bad guy. What lessons can we learn from the life of King Herod? 
  2. How is the story of Christmas the story of God’s relentless love for us?

Words To The Wise

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”  Matthew 2:1-2.

The wise men are a staple of the Christmas story. The wise men were from a distant country, but God had given them a sign in the heavens—a special star—telling them of the birth of a new King. They went to Bethlehem, found the young child, and gave Him their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The Bible says they, “bowed down and worshiped him” (Matthew 2:11).

The wise men did not have the news told to them by angels, they sought out the Christ. They traveled for two years without even knowing what they would find at the end or how long it would take. They followed the direction God called them to follow. God showed the wise men what direction they would go, not what they had to do. They followed the star in faith. Should we not do the same?  

It would seem logical that during their journey, the wise men were constantly looking up because they were guided by a star. “We saw the star as it rose…And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy!” (Matthew 2: 2,9-10)  Again, should we not do the same? Should we be consistently looking upward seeking the Lord and His presence?  Seeking the Lord means seeking His presence. “Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth.”  (Colossians 3:1-2) We will never get our bearing unless we are looking up. And we will never find our way out of the storms of life without the presence of God with us.   

Think for a moment on the sacrifice the wise men made. Not only did they receive a message from God, they acted on it. And in the process, they invested a great deal of their time, talent, and treasure to find a baby they had never met. Why would they do such a thing?  Because finding and worshipping Jesus is worth it. It begs the question, what have you invested in in order to worship Jesus?  How much of your time are you giving to find Jesus, to spend time with Jesus, and to worship him?  Are you using your gifts for Jesus? Why should you make all those sacrifices today? Because, wise man still seek Him and because He is worth it. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Does the wise men’s action surprise you? What is most amazing about how they responded?
  2. What can we do this week to look up even in the storms of life?

The Calm In The Storm

“Suddenly, a fierce storm struck the lake, with waves breaking into the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him up, shouting, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” Jesus responded, “Why are you afraid? You have so little faith!” Then he got up and rebuked the wind and waves, and suddenly there was a great calm.” – Matthew 8:24-26.

Storms have a unique way of revealing truth about God, while at the same time revealing how little we know about Him. They leave us shaken and exhausted and weary. We turn to Him in our chaos. We cry out for Him to intercede.

One of the best stories in the Bible is Jesus calming a raging storm while with His disciples. Jesus needed a rest from teaching the crowds near the Sea of Galilee. He decided to take a boat with His disciples to the opposite shore (Mark 4:35–36). Once on the boat, Jesus fell asleep, and a treacherous storm arose (Luke 8:23).

Terror gripped the men. We know that some of the disciples were professional fishermen and made their living on the water. Professional fishermen would know how to react to a sudden storm if they spent their lives in the occupation. We can gauge the storm by how frightened these fishermen were. They even thought they would drown. (Luke 8:24).

And yet Jesus slept in the back of the boat (Mark 4:37–38). He slept peacefully and restfully because He knew that God was with Him. Proverbs 3:24 tells us that “You can go to bed without fear;  you will lie down and sleep soundly” and Psalm 4:8 adds, “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, O Lord, will keep me safe.” These verses tell us that we can sleep peacefully because God is near. Jesus was awakened by the disciples and He said, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:40).

This story is an example of how Jesus’ disciples were not all that different than you and I. They saw Jesus perform countless miracles and walked with Him day to day, but they still thought that they would drown. But is their lack of faith any different than our lack of faith?  We can never misplace our faith when we put it in Christ. When the waters of life appear to loom over us, threatening to crash, find Him in the midst of the storm sleeping at the stern of the boat. Come to Him. Rest in Him. Recognize His presence with you. As He moves and calms the storm, praise Him and learn more about Him. He longs to reveal more of Himself to you. He cares for you. He is completely in control.

If you seek and find His presence in the midst of the storm, you will find His presence is enough.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In what ways can you identify with the fearful disciples? Are there areas where you are running to safety or wanting to go back to the shore/solid ground?
  2. What is the purpose of the “life storms” we experience? How have you reacted to the “life storms” you’ve experienced?
  3. What does having faith look like in your life?

God With Us At Christmas

“If we could condense all the truths of Christmas into only three words, these would be the words: ‘God with us.’ We tend to focus our attention at Christmas on the infancy of Christ. The greater truth of the holiday is His deity. More astonishing than a baby in the manger is the truth that this promised baby is the omnipotent Creator of the heavens and the earth!” – John MacArthur.

It isn’t necessary to mention the commercialization of Christmas. We have seen it. We have experienced it. For some time now, the true reason for Christmas has been steadily slipping away from the world’s focus. 

For 2,000 years, however, Jesus has not been forgotten. Nor has the story of His birth. But, why did He come? Why did the Son of God leave the splendor and beauty and glory and holiness and wonder and perfection of Heaven to come to the dirt and sin and trouble and sadness of earth?

If you asked the average person on the street why Jesus came to earth, you would get different answers. Some would say that it has something to do with peace and good-will on earth, to teach us to forget hostilities and to renew our hopes for mankind. Others would say that it has something to do with giving us an example on how to be better people. I’m sure there are any number of possible answers.

So why did the Son of God come to this world two thousand years ago? The answer is simple: Jesus came to earth for you and for me. Christmas should be very personal to each of us who are followers of God. Yes, it is Jesus’ birthday, but it is also the beginning of the gospel story. We are not just celebrating the fact that Christ came as a baby. We are celebrating that He came and brought redemption to our world. In other words, He came to redeem you and me and all who believe on His name.

Here is how Paul answered that question in I Timothy 1:15? “This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them all.” Paul was musing over the grace of God shown to him. He could not get over it.  We too should be amazed. We too should not be able to get over it. We too should be in awe of God with us. We should be in contact astonishment at God’s grace and mercy that began for each of us on that first Christmas night.

I want to challenge you to take the step to read the Christmas story, pray with your family and focus on Christ coming into the world for and to you. As you read, keep in mind that you are not just reading recitations of the familiar events of the first Christmas night. The passages are intended to understand what “God with us” and “unto you is born a Savior” really means. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you feel like your family captures the heart and the integrity of the Christmas season? If so, how have you done that successfully?
  2. What would you suggest are a couple of practical ways to help refocus on the true meaning of Christmas?
  3.  Pray for those in our communities that they will attend church on Christmas.

Advent…A Time to Refocus

“For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,  Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His government and its peace will never end. He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David  for all eternity..” – Isaiah 9:6-7. 

In our fast-paced, materialistic, “do more” culture, it’s all too easy to always be moving to the next thing on our to-do list, especially during the holidays. We have to put up the tree. We have to bake the cookies. We have to buy presents and then wrap them…beautifully. Gift wrapping has to be quick because we have to finish the family Christmas letter and then mail it along with the Christmas cards. And then there are all the holiday get togethers. 

That’s an awful lot of to-dos that take up too much of our focus. It is all about focus. Advent, is the time when we should slow down and focus or refocus on Jesus. Christmas can be an enormous distraction. But it can also be collectively inspirational because God is with us. What if we didn’t spend all of our time on shopping and wrapping and going to parties and focused on the reason for the season?  Luke 2:7 reminds of that reason, “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

Think about that verse for second. The Son of God did not arrive in some glorious or earth shattering event, but instead God chose to come into the world in the most humble way possible. Here we have the Son of God become the son of a virgin. God with us. This is such a mind bending, heart altering truth. This season of the year should remind us more than anything, that God made a way, to be right here “with us.” Don’t ever doubt or fear that He’s not with you. He hasn’t lost control. He hasn’t forgotten you. We simply need to draw closer to Him. 

Most Christians alternately approach and retreat from God. Even with the best intentions we see this reflected in our prayer life, regular Bible reading, and in being the hands and feet of Jesus. James 8:4 promises that if we come near to God, he will come near to us.

Drawing close to God enriches all other aspects of the Christmas celebration—fellowship, gift giving, gift receiving…even shopping. Focusing on Jesus can help to put everything else in its proper light.

Advent is a time to draw near to God. It is a season set aside to prepare for the celebration of the coming of God’s son. God is with us. Draw near to Him this Advent season.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does Advent mean to you?   
  2. How can we focus or refocus on God this week? 

Fear Factor

“Elijah was afraid and fled for his life. He went to Beersheba, a town in Judah, and he left his servant there. Then he went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.” – 1 Kings 19:3-4. 

When we look at the story of Elijah’s flight and subsequent prayer for death, we naturally have to pause and wonder what happened. This is a pretty sudden reversal from power and boldness to fear and panic. It is startling to think of someone like Elijah frightened away by the threat of Jezebel.  When Ahab came in and told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, of course she didn’t take it well. Of course she was incredibly incensed by this, especially with the prophets being slain. And of course, she wanted to extract revenge. But was that reason enough to run?

I wonder what we would have done in that situation? Today, as in Biblical times, everything is about what we see and how we respond to it that matters. James says that Elijah was a man just like we are and he had the same strengths and weaknesses. We are all the same. One day we can be on the mountaintop and then running for our life the next, and it can happen a lot quicker than we think.

For whatever reason, Elijah was not not able to look beyond Jezebel’s threats so he basically made a run for it. Panic and fear took over and he ran away as far as he could. Just like Elijah, you can be on the mountaintop one day and defeated the next. As you journey forward in life, don’t be surprised when fear emerges. Remember, nothing good in life comes without a struggle against fear. When facing a fear, ask yourself, “of what am I really afraid?” Then admit your fears to yourself and God. Then, turn immediately to the matter of your faith. It is the solution for fear. The key is to run headlong at fear with your faith in Christ Jesus and your confidence firmly set in Him. 

Do you remember the story of Robinson Crusoe? He gets shipwrecked on an island and a Bible is washed up as part of the wreckage. He reads it and then starts a relationship with the Lord. But then he sees a footprint in the sand, just one footprint, and he knows that he is not alone. He returns to his camp and boards it all up, and then when he has finished the barricading he can no longer sleep because he is worried about cannibalism. He saw one footprint and it changed everything for him. He failed to trust in God because he was afraid.

God wants so much more for us than to walk through life full of fear, worry and anxiety. “Don’t worry about anything,” the Bible tells us in the book of Philippians, chapter 4, ”instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.  Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. To what extent does fear influence your decision making? 
  2. What can you do this week to identify and defang your fear? What can you do to begin to believe and live as though God’s love has the power to overcome your fear?

A Voice Crying In The Wilderness

Elijah was afraid and fled for his life. He went to Beersheba, a town in Judah, and he left his servant there. Then he went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.” — 1 Kings 19:3-4.

If you had to pick one story in the Bible, is there a more dynamic one than Elijah’s victory over the false prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18? In the space of one chapter, Elijah takes care of idolatry, sparks a revival and ends the three-and-a-half year drought. By any standards that is a pretty good day. But Elijah had no time to celebrate that victory, for Queen Jezebel wanted to kill him. So Jezebel sent this message to Elijah: “May the gods strike me and even kill me if by this time tomorrow I have not killed you just as you killed them.” Elijah fled to the wilderness so filled with fear and discouragement that he sat under a solitary broom tree and said he wanted to die.

Have you ever felt like Elijah under the broom tree? One of those days … or weeks … or years, where you find yourself in the wilderness without the desire or strength to go on. You made some poor choices that feel irreversible. The bitter disappointment from seeing that critical deal fall through. And the discouragement from having your house damaged or destroyed in 155 mph hurricane winds. You work, you pray, you expect visible success, some tangible results only to see everything you’ve worked for fall apart and end in the wilderness.   

God knew Elijah needed to be refreshed, rejuvenated, and raised. An angel of the Lord brought Elijah food and drink while he rested. God also reassured Elijah that he was not alone and provided a friend and successor to him in Elisha. 

God can redeem our wilderness experiences. Whatever theories we might hold, there is no wilderness so isolated that the Spirit is not there. There is no terrain so barren that it cannot yield the Father’s gifts. With God, it turns out that time in the wasteland is never wasted.

It is there that God does some of His most powerful work. If God has called you into a wilderness season, don’t give up. In that dry, choking place, in that season of barely hanging on, remember God is watching over you. And know he’s using this difficult season to prepare for you things ahead—things sometimes far greater than you could ever achieve without the pain you’re now walking through.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How can the wilderness elevate Jesus and put Him into focus?
  2. What can we do at a practical level to increase our spiritual benefits from our time in the wilderness or obscurity?

Wilderness Walks

“For the people of Israel belong to the Lord; Jacob is his special possession.He found them in a desert land, in an empty, howling wasteland. He surrounded them and watched over them; he guarded them as he would guard his own eyes.” – Deuteronomy 32:9-10

In the TV series Alone,10 people try to survive a harsh, unforgiving wilderness with only their wits, their skills, and the ten items they each chose to carry in their packs. They must hunt, build shelters, and fend off predators. It is the ultimate test of human will.

As a Christian, you will end up in a spiritual wilderness more than once in your life. In the spiritual wilderness, God seems distant because you can’t hear Him or sense His presence or guidance. But the wilderness, like the valley, is where God sustains you no matter how long you are lost and no matter how long you are in the wilderness. The wilderness is a place where you can be restored and offers you a chance to be restored by God, if you will stay there long enough.

In Deuteronomy 8:2-3 (MSG , the children of Israel are reminded what happened to them during those forty long years of wandering in the wilderness: “Remember every road that God led you on for those forty years in the wilderness, pushing you to your limits, testing you so that he would know what you were made of, whether you would keep his commandments or not. He put you through hard times. He made you go hungry. Then he fed you with manna, something neither you nor your parents knew anything about, so you would learn that men and women don’t live by bread only; we live by every word that comes from God’s mouth.”

This passage basically tells us that a test from God is not to reveal how defective you are; it’s to reveal what’s already inside of you, and even what’s lacking, so God can provide it for you. The children of Israel got hungry, so they cried out to God to feed them. And God gave them manna. 

When we’re in a wilderness season, it’s easy to lose sight of God’s protection, provision, and preparation. It may feel random, but each moment is God’s design. It may seem like the end of your story, but it’s really the only way the story goes forward. If God has called you into a wilderness season, don’t give up. In that dry, choking place, in that season of barely hanging on, remember God is watching over you. Have faith and know he’s using this difficult season to prepare for you things ahead—things sometimes far greater than you could ever achieve without the pain and struggles that you may be encountering today.    

Discussion Questions:

  1. What can we do when we are in the wilderness?
  2. Read James 1:2-4; Romans 5:3-5: What is the purpose and benefits of being in the wilderness?
  3. What can we apply to our lives from the message this week?

A Question Of Fairness

“He will judge the world with justice and rule the nations with fairness.” – Psalm 9:8.

“It’s not fair.” We have all said those words at one time or another. At the core, those words reveal our expectations. We want something to go a certain way and believe it should. We have expectations of God as well, and when those expectations are not met, we say, “it’s not fair.”

Is God unfair? Where is the God of balance and equity that we expect?  Hurricane Michael has raised this topic anew. We struggle daily with the “…for he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike” thing found in Matthew 5:45. We are not alone. The prophet, Habakkuk, questioned God’s “fairness” in using the wicked Chaldeans to punish the more righteous (Habakkuk 1:12-13). A faithful Job suffered the loss of his property, family, and health, with God’s approval. The book, A Martyr’s Grace, tells the story of 21 Moody Bible Institute alumni who gave their lives on the mission field for Christ. None of that seems warranted or fair.

It is natural to hate unfairness. But it is also natural to have our sense of fairness easily skewed or warped. We find it much easier to see injustice and sin in other people’s lives than we are with our own. So it seems unfair that people who sin more are doing so much better than those of us who are trying to follow Jesus Christ. Seeing the cross rightly means that we see ourselves rightly. Because if we could see everything clearly from God’s perspective, would we really want God to be fair? Would we still be seeking God’s perfect justice? Or would we be okay with the rain falling on the just and the unjust alike?

When we understand that our sins have earned us the death penalty, we realize we don’t warrant preferential treatment. Isaiah 64:6 says, “We are all infected and impure with sin.When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags…”  The key words “we are all.” We need God’s grace as much as anyone else to overcome our sin. Nobody warrants eternal life. Jesus Christ was willing to die in our place—to pay the death penalty for you and for me. He did nothing worthy of death. He never sinned. As the Son of God, His life is worth far more than all human lives put together.

When you consider these facts, isn’t Jesus’ death the most unfair punishment ever? Yet He willingly gave Himself to make it possible for us to repent and be forgiven. His sacrifice made His mercy possible and available for everyone. You can’t be more fair than that.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you think God is fair? Why or why not?
  2. Do events like Hurricane Michael change how you view God’s fairness? If so how?
  3. How would your life be different if you believed God was completely fair? 

Peaks and Valleys

“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has it’s place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain.”  Martin Luther King Jr

Why do people climb mountains? When asked that question, people who have risked their life scaling the world’s highest peaks suggest that it is more than just reaching a summit.  It is the total experience. Once they reach the peak, they want to savor the experience, the determination it took to get there, and soak in the sense of accomplishment and peace they have from getting there. But in many cases, they cannot stay too long because they need to head back before the sun goes down. 

It is the same with a mountaintop experience with God.  A mountaintop experience is a temporary, uncommon encounter with God that is meant to give us a fresh awareness of His reality and nearness. We naturally want to savor it and the peace and joy it brings. The mountaintop is a nice place to visit, but you can’t stay there. There’s no Chick-fil-A, Starbucks and in most cases, no cell phone or Wifi signal. All kidding aside, the mountaintop is a place that God allows you to be in for a a few days, few hours or a few moments and is part of our total life experience. But here is the thing: you can’t expect God to show up in your life in dramatic mountaintop ways if you don’t show up before Him in faithful, consistent ways in the valleys. Richard Nixon said, “Only if you have been in the deepest valley, can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.”

I have learned over the years that the inspiration, faith, grace, and hope we experience at those God-given mountaintop moments is what will sustain us in the valley.  But sometimes it is the other way around. It is not easy, but it is possible to have mountain top views while walking though the valleys. It is through these valleys that we depend on God’s strength. It is through these valleys that we rely on God and His lead because we may not see the end. It is in the valleys, as well as the mountaintop experiences, that we can grow closer to God.   

Savor the total experience of those times when we have a mountaintop experience with God. But remember that we can have mountaintop views as we walk through the valleys of life.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you experienced “mountaintop” experiences with God? How would you describe them?
  2. What would we need to change to look at our “valley” experiences as an opportunity to draw closer to God?