By / Dec 19

Like the turning of a page, years inevitably come and go. Some years are memorable. Some are forgetful. Some are joyful. Some are devastating. In light of what we read in Ecclesiastes 3:1 about there being a season for everything, this should not be surprising. Still, as we relish success or lament loss, the knowledge of this reality does little to contain the delight or mend the heart in the moment.

I was pondering this recently as I was reading Zechariah’s prophecy following the birth of his son, John, in the first chapter of Luke. Countless Christmas sermons have been preached from these opening chapters of the Book of Luke (I’ve already heard three myself this season). But this brief section with the old man’s words doesn’t typically receive as much attention as it should in many evangelical churches, which is understandable given its placement between Mary’s song of praise and the birth of the Christ child.

As a father of three, it is intriguing to me that Zechariah’s first words in nine months aren’t about his son, at least not at the outset. For months, he was forced to be silent because of his unbelief. All the while, he was undoubtedly dealing with a flood of mixed emotions. I can’t help but think he was filled with pride and overcome with gratitude at this blessing from the Lord (Ps. 127:3). Were I in his shoes, I’m not sure I could have restrained my excitement. Yet, I wonder what Zechariah did with his time?

Perhaps a partial answer to that question is revealed in his prophetic words. A significant portion of what he discusses are the promises laid out by the prophets of old. I tend to believe, having been rebuked by the Lord, Zechariah devoted himself to studying Scripture and searching for all the ways God was faithfully keeping his promises. The path the Lord was taking to fulfill them, which very few understood in that time, had brought him right to the door of Zechariah’s household.

And so, even in the midst of a blessed occasion for his family, Zechariah’s first words are about the Rescuer who has come as a horn of salvation for us (Luke 1:69); a Redeemer who is a Dayspring from on high that shatters the darkness (vs. 78-79). The whole Benedictus is vivid and moving. It is as relevant in a season of jubilation as it is in a season of hurt. 

The shadows point to the Light

That’s been meaningful for me as much of 2023 has been a season of immense challenge, not unlike what Zechariah describes as “living in darkness and the shadow of death” (vs 79). The worst school shooting in our state’s history was perpetrated at the small Christian school my children attend. The aftermath and recovery created a number of challenges for every family involved.

More acutely, there are seven families this Christmas season without a cherished loved one in their home because one disturbed and emotionally distressed individual decided she would act on the hate that consumed her and destroy six innocent lives. Weeks would come and go when pain was more prevalent than happiness. Sleepless nights and anxious days were the norm in many homes. With all this, the words that open verse 79 are more real than I would have imagined possible. 

Still, Zechariah’s words have ministered greatly to my heart this season. A wise friend, one walking this same path, pointed out that the fact we see the shadows should offer hope. For, that has to mean there is a source of light causing the shadow. And, of course, he is right.

Even in the darkest of valleys, there is light: Jesus, the Light of the world (John 8:12).

So, I am reminded to imitate Zechariah in this moment––however long it lasts. Even if he and I are engaging from different angles: he from a season of blessing, me from a season of sorrow. From either place, we point to the truth that our Savior pierced the darkness of this broken world so that we may have light.

I hold fast to this truth this Christmas, as we weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn. The Light we follow promises to guide our feet “into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79). And when we arrive at our destination, there will be no more evil, no more gun violence or mass shootings, no more broken bodies or traumatized minds, and no more shadows.

When this season on Earth ends, and we find ourselves with him, “there will be no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). That season of glory without end is one both Zechariah and I, through joy or pain, proclaim to the world.

By / Dec 19

To outside observers, Mary and Joseph were just another Jewish family showing up at the temple for the purification rite. They were following the Jewish law. Seven days after birth, Jesus circumcised and thirty-three days after circumcision, Mary and Jesus were back here in the temple for the purification ceremony and the presentation of their child to the Lord for his service. 

But here is where this moment is anything but ordinary. That baby, after all, is the Son of God, the one whose words breathed out creation, sculpted Adam and Even from the dust of the ground and breathed into his own parents the breath of life was publicly identifying with his people, Israel, by submitting to the circumcision. Jesus, perfectly submitting to the law that only he could perfectly fulfill, the spotless One identifying with the impure so that Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and all true believers might one day become pure. 

Mary and Joseph carried with them two turtledoves as part of the sacrifice offering. There is, of course, deep irony here. Though they carried in their arms, the Lamb of God, they were too poor to purchase a lamb and instead, had to settle for the lesser turtledoves. It reminds us of the kind of people among whom God chose to dwell. The kingdom of Christ breaks in, not in the palaces or private estates of the powerful, but among the common, the meek, the kind of people who had to dig for enough shekels to afford turtledoves. And the baby held so tightly in their arms would one day become the perfect sacrifice for sins that these slain animals symbolized, the Lamb of God slain for the sins of the world. 

Nobody in the temple that day was looking for a Christ child. Nobody was seeking a Savior. Nobody expected, on this of all days, a moment that would be written down later in ink by a doctor and preserved as Scripture for us to read today. There was a heaviness in Jerusalem that day and most days. It had been centuries since God spoke directly to his people. And every time Jewish people trudged past their temple, they had seen the Roman flag, flying high above their land, a recurring symbol of their lost glory. 

Would-be messiahs had come and gone. Now they were ruled by men like Herod, whose corrupt ascension to power and ruthless leadership further disillusioned ordinary Jews. None of them thought the solution for the corruption in Rome and the malfeasance in Herod’s palace and the sin in their own hearts was resting, not a few feet away, in a carpenter’s arms. 

Even the religious elites in this temple, who pored over the ancient books and prided themselves on knowing every last arcane point of theology, were oblivious to Jesus. 

But among the crowds that day, not among the waiting parents, not among the religious leaders, was a mysterious old man. Unlike the cynics, unlike the religious leaders, Simeon held onto a seemingly impossible wish grounded in a radical faith in the Scripture’s promise of a coming Messiah. Would God appear in the flesh in their day?

He studied the Scriptures and the prophecies. But more than that, he listened to the voice of God’s Spirit. 

Who is Simeon? 

So who is this Simeon character who just kind of appears, from the shadows, into the gospel story? What’s interesting is that, 2,000 years later, we still don’t really know who he was. Luke, who wrote his eyewitness account with painstaking detail thought only one thing mattered in Simeon’s bio: “faithful, devout Jew waiting for the consolation of Israel.” 

Simeon believed the promise of a coming servant-king, the son of David, threaded throughout the law and the prophets. He may not have understood everything he read, but he knew enough to believe. Simeon knew enough to listen to the Holy Spirit’s whisper and was more in tune with God than the scholars who were paid to study and the scribes who were paid to teach. 

Imagine the scene in the temple that day. An old man, stooped and graying, coming every day to the temple, expecting the Messiah. The religious people probably think he’s an eccentric. They make jokes behind his back. There’s Simeon. He thinks the Lord is coming today. 

Every day he scans the crowd. Every day he asks the Lord, “Is this baby the one?” and every day the Lord says, “No, Simeon, this is not the one.” 

And then finally one day the Spirit of God whispers those words: This is the day. This is the one. You will meet the Son of God. 

Perhaps he’s reminded of the way Israel’s last great king was chosen. A similarly aging man of faith approached Jesse’s lineup of young men, asking the Lord, Is this the next king? And the Spirit answers Samuel, each time, No, this isn’t the one. Until finally, David, the unlikely shepherd boy, summoned from the shepherds’ fields, enters. 

Yes, this is the next king of Israel. 

Imagine how Simeon’s aging heart leaped within him. “Can I hold your child”, he asks. And in his arms, Simeon carries the frail, newborn baby whose arms would one day carry Simeon from sin to salvation. He looks into the eyes of his tiny Savior, the same Jesus who holds up the universe with his power. 

What wells up in Simeon’s heart were words he had been preparing to share his entire life. A prayer that has been memorized, sung and framed from caves to cathedrals throughout church history:  

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29–32 ESV)

I can die because I’ve seen your salvation. This, for Simeon, was no ordinary baby. He would not only be Simeon’s salvation, but the salvation of the world, people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. This is the one of whom God spoke to Abraham, when he promised that the patriarch’s heir would bless the nations. This is the one of whom God spoke to David when he promised the monarch an everlasting kingdom. This is the one of whom the prophets spoke, a lion of the tribe of Judah, a suffering servant, a conquering king. 

Simeon had met Jesus, and Simeon was ready to die. 

Death, of course, is a strange subject for Christmas. It doesn’t make for cozy Hallmark specials and singing Christmas trees. But Simeon knew he could face death—something every one of us will face one day—because he met the one who would conquer death. 

There is so much for us to learn from Simeon’s life. His perseverance, his attentive listening to God in a noisy, cynical age, his worship of the baby Jesus. But what is most important about Simeon—and you—was his relationship with Jesus. Simeon could die, not because he checked off the right religious boxes or performed all the outward rituals of the Jewish faith, but because he put his faith in the God-man. 

You, like Simeon, can be unafraid of death because you can know and understand that this baby is the triumphant, conquering Jesus whose own death and resurrection defeated the sin, death and the grave. 

Don’t misunderstand: Simeon wasn’t seeking death. And neither should we. But there is a sweet assurance in knowing that if and when our time comes, whether tomorrow or in forty years, we can face death with peace because we know the Prince of peace. 

In my experience as a pastor, the people who were most full of life, who walked through every day with joy and verve were those who were most at peace with their own mortality, who understood that this little baby in the manger we celebrate at Christmas defeated the grave. This is why Paul could say, of his own contentment, “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” Either way, he has peace and Christ is glorified. 

This is the central message of Christmas. No doubt, today as you read this, you are enveloped in the charm and the coziness of another December. But as much as we enjoy the season, let us not remember that we set aside time, as believers, not merely to gather with family or to sip warm beverages, but to acknowledge the central truth of Christianity: Jesus has come to save us from our sins. 

This Jesus, Simeon knew, wasn’t just an ordinary baby. He may not have understood exactly how it would all play out, nor did he fully grasp the mystery of God becoming human (neither do we). But Simeon knew enough to know that Jesus would not only be the long-awaited Messiah every Jewish person longed to see; he would be “a light for the Gentiles.” This is repeated, often, in the gospel narratives of Jesus’ birth. In Mary’s song. In Zachariahs’ praise. In the words of the angel to Joseph. 

Jesus is and was a Savior for the entire world. It’s important for us to understand this truth. Sometimes we are tempted to think Jesus came only to save people that look like us, but we are told, from the promise to Abraham in Genesis through the words of the prophets and on into the gospel narratives and on through the letters of Paul and into John’s vision in Revelation that the kingdom of God is made up of people from every nation, tribe and tongue.

And let’s not forget the great cost of our salvation. This day in the temple was a day of celebration and dedication, but Simeon’s words were not all pleasant for Mary to hear, especially his proclamation that “a sword would pierce” her soul. This is not what new mothers exactly want to hear about their motherhood, but Simeon knew that the promise contained both joy and pain, blessing and anguish. The baby whom Simeon held, who cooed and kicked and delighted his young parents would one day endure the unjust trial, motivated by blood thirsty crowds. The very people he formed as Creator would laugh at his cries of pain. The world he came to save would send him to his death. Most of all, the Father with whom he communed in all of eternity would see his son, not as the pure and spotless lamb, but as the embodiment of all the sin and anguish of a rebellious human race. 

This sword was Mary’s unique calling. One day she would kneel at the foot of an ugly Roman instrument of execution: a cross. One day she would weep, with the others, as he lay dead in a borrowed tomb. One day she would question and fear and doubt the angel’s promise. 

Simeon’s word to Mary was rooted in the prophet’s vision of a coming king who would both suffer and conquer, who would reign over his enemies and yet be pierced for the transgressions of his people. This is why Christmas is both wonderful and yet violent, far from the saccharine holiday we often celebrate. The kingdom of God was to first come through the violent death of the Son of God. 

But Mary, like all of those who believe, could find hope that the baby she held would not only pay for the sins of those who nailed him to the cross, but would defeat death in his resurrection. Her son would endure all of this to reconciliation between sinners–like herself, like Simeon, like you and me–and God. Jesus’ future agony would be our salvation and God’s glory.

*This excerpt is an adapted excerpt from “The Characters of Christmas: The Unlikely People Caught Up in the Story of Jesus” (Moody Publishers, 2019).

By / Dec 13

I recently had the opportunity to visit the U.S.–Mexico border at El Paso and Ciudad Juárez with a group of SBC leaders to learn and gain a better understanding of what is happening on the ground at the border. We spent time with migrants at shelters in both Mexico and the United States, a retired border enforcement officer, and with those involved in meeting the needs of these migrants when they arrive.

This was not my first trip to the border, and it is always an emotional experience for me as I see the great need, pain, and desperation of many migrants and those on the front lines of both enforcing our laws and addressing a humanitarian crisis. This trip, though, offered me a new lens with which to view this experience: Advent.

A time of waiting and yearning 

Advent is a time of waiting. It is a time in which we both remember the great anticipation with which the people of Israel awaited the Messiah’s arrival and simultaneously look ahead to Christ’s second coming. It is a time where we often see the brokenness of our world more acutely and yearn with greater urgency for Jesus’ return when all will be made right. It is a time of both immense grief at what is and great hope of what is to come.

As I spent time with many young mothers and their children at a shelter in Mexico, it was as if I was watching this Advent reality play out physically in front of me. Many told of the great tragedy from which they fled. They spoke of poverty, threats to their children from gangs, and incredible trauma that forced them to flee their homes. Much was left unsaid about what they had experienced on their journey to Ciudad Juárez, though data tells us that it is likely that many of these women faced rape or sexual assault on their journeys, extortion from cartels, and some may have even lost loved ones on the way.

As I looked at their weary eyes and bodies that had carried so much tragedy, I thought of Mary and Joseph. I wonder if they similarly looked scared and tired to Egyptians when they fled, as what we would consider modern-day asylum seekers, with a very young Jesus. Were they met with help along the way? How did they sacrifice to protect their son? I wonder if Mary, much like these women, pleaded for strength from God to keep going amidst her fears and exhaustion.

These women and children find themselves in a time of waiting. As the United States’ border policies continue to change, many find themselves waiting for an opportunity to request asylum. Depending on their country of origin and circumstances, that day may come quickly for some, and for others, they may not have that opportunity for weeks, months, or years. They sit in a shelter, graciously run by a church, waiting for policies to change, waiting for safety, waiting for a new life. They wonder what opportunities they might have in the U.S. They look at their children and ask what opportunities will be granted to them—a decision largely made by lawmakers thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C. 

Resting in the first Advent 

Yet in the midst of their uncertainty, grief, and fear, there is incredible hope among these people. They trust God to provide a way for them and have sincere hope that someday they will make it to the U.S. and that their sacrifices will have been worth it for their children to grow up safe, free, and with opportunity. 

This type of experience can make me feel overwhelmed by all of the ways that our world is not as it should be. In a perfect, sinless world, people wouldn’t have to leave their homes. Women would not have to take birth control before migrating out of fear of rape on their journey. Children would not have to grow up with unspeakable trauma in their most formative years. Young people would not have to grow up in shelters and refugee camps instead of stable homes and schools. People would be able to flourish in their own neighborhoods.

But that is not our reality. Our world is fallen and broken, and people, made in the image of God, suffer as a result. This reality of our world makes me long for the reality of the new world. A world that is perfect—where there is no suffering, no tears, no tragedy. Advent reminds us that in a day coming soon, all will be made right.

Until then, though, we can rest on the first Advent—that Christ himself came as Emmanuel, God with us, to walk through the tragedy and hurts of our world with us. I wonder if this is why so many of our treasured Christmas hymns point to the truth that Christ has come to free his people from oppression and bondage spiritually and someday will do that physically as well.

For now we say, “Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free. From our sins and fears release us, let us find our rest in thee.” Be the “joy of every longing heart” even as we wait. Someday the weary world will rejoice and these women and their children will victoriously proclaim with us, “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name, all oppression shall cease.”

Emmanuel sees and knows those women in that shelter. Someday those women in ragged clothes and with worn-out faces who have trusted in Christ will be glorified as co-heirs with him, and they will find the ultimate rest, peace, and safety that they have longed for. Each of us this Christmas, regardless of whatever we may be walking through, can cling to Emmanuel’s presence as we are overwhelmed by the burdens, tragedy, and grief of this life. He knows you and cares for you, and he has paid the greatest price to redeem this broken world.

By / Dec 12

When she passed by an “angel” tree in the lobby of Fairview Church in Lebanon, Tennessee, almost 20 years ago, Denise Vermeulen was intrigued by the paper angels hanging on the Christmas tree and asked the volunteer for more information. She was surprised to learn that each angel represented a local child who had one or both of their parents incarcerated, and the church was gathering Christmas gifts for them. 

“When she explained it to me, I just started bawling,” said Vermeulen. “This particular angel tree ministry was something that really resonated with me.” 

Vermeulen’s father was a drug addict and dealer and was in and out of prison most of her childhood, as well as her adult life.

Christmas was often a hard time for Vermeulen and her family when she was a child. Her parents were divorced, leaving her mother to raise three young children on her own. Her grandparents provided as much as they could for their grandchildren, and she has many happy Christmas memories with them. However, her contact with her father was intermittent, often via a letter from jail, and Vermeulen only remembers only receiving one gift from him after her parents’ divorce. 

“He was actually so big time that he was on the TBI list,” she said. “The last time they got him, not only did he have a large amount of cocaine and marijuana in the car, but he also shot at a police officer, and they got him on that, too,” Vermeulen said. His last arrest landed her father in jail for decades. 

That day in the church lobby, Vermeulen was so moved that she began to assist with the program at that time and later started serving as the church coordinator. 

Remembering families affected by a loved one’s incarceration

Prison Fellowship Angel Tree is a program that serves incarcerated parents by giving them a pathway to restore and strengthen relationships with their children and families. Through this ministry, children receive gifts, the gospel message, and a personal message of love on behalf of their mom or dad behind bars.

More than 5 million children, or 1 in 14, in the U.S. have had a parent in state or federal prison at some point in their lives, according to the Casey Foundation. And those statistics don’t consider adults, like Vermeulen, who have this experience in their past. 

Vermeulen encourages everyone to remember: “It’s not the children’s fault.” 

“As a child, you should not have to deal with the consequences of your parents’ decisions. But these children deal with those consequences every single day. This is why it is so dear to my heart. I want them to know I understand.” 

“To me, for the children to get a gift and know that their parent is thinking about them, regardless of the mistakes that they’ve made, that really spoke to me, because I never felt that way.”  

“When you’re a kid, you don’t understand mom or dad is in prison,” Vermeulen said. “All you know is that it’s Christmas, and they should give you a present no matter what,” she laughs. 

Vermeulen and her church are able to both gather the gifts and host a Christmas party to distribute them to the children of incarcerated parents in their community. Participating families come to the church to pick up their gifts and stay for a pizza party with games and arts and crafts. 

“It’s about the children, letting them know they are loved and sharing the Gospel with them,” Vermeulen said. 

For more information about the Prison Fellowship Angel Tree program, visit prisonfellowship.org.

*A version of this story previously appeared in Wilson Living magazine. 

By / Nov 28

“Kill it again, Charles! Kill it again!”

I’d heard the punch line a dozen times, but it never failed to send me into a fit of giggles. That my grandma, the strongest, bravest woman I knew, would be the source of it made it even funnier.

She’d grown up in the mountains during the Great Depression, the middle child of 10. Her people were farmers who understood the goodness of hard work, laughter, and family, so once a year, we’d make our way back to their hills for a reunion where the siblings swapped memories and told tales on one another. I remember passels of cousins by varying degrees, games of softball, an outhouse, a creek, and tables full of food—potato salad, ham, and butterscotch pie.

But my favorite time for stories was curled up in my grandma’s bed on the nights I was allowed to stay over. Our days together were for work—cleaning, blackberry picking, and gardening—but the nights were for storytelling. She’d dress me in layers and socks and tuck me in under piles of blankets. Sweating, I’d throw them off, but she’d put them right back on, determined that I wouldn’t be cold.

Then in the darkness, I’d whisper, “Grandma, tell me about the time . . .”

I had a whole repertoire of stories to choose from: the time she’d overturned the churn and spilled the family’s cream for the week or how she walked three miles to high school in good weather and boarded in town in bad. But one of my favorite stories was when she and her older brothers were out making hay under a blazing summer sun.

She’d been assigned to the top of the wagon, and as her brothers threw up pitchforks of hay, she’d stamp them down to make room for more. The system was working fine until a tremendous black snake came flying through the air straight at her—an unfortunate hitchhiker on someone’s fork of hay. As quickly as it had come up, she sent it back down, where her brother stabbed it. But satisfied with nothing less than the reptile’s eternal damnation, she screamed, “Kill it again, Charles! Kill it again!”

The snake and the promise 

In all fairness to the snake, seeing one in a hay field isn’t uncommon, and most are entirely harmless. There’s the black racer—long, shiny, darting here and there; the northern ring- necked with its yellow collar; and the eastern garter, a striped snake that apparently to someone, somewhere, once resembled the aforementioned accessory. You will occasionally spot more harmful snakes, the kind that send a shiver up your spine and have earned the aversion we carry against the species as a whole. Timber rattlers make their home in wooded areas, blending into the underbrush, while their neighbor the copperhead prefers more open habitats like overgrown fields, dilapidated barns, and rock ledges.

When you encounter a snake, however, the best thing to do is nothing. Even a venomous snake would rather move along than bite you. So catch your breath, calm your heart, and watch it for a few seconds before it glides out of sight. If you do, you’ll see one of the most unexpected, and unnerving, spectacles in the animal kingdom.

Limbless, a snake propels itself in waves, writhing and slithering along the ground. To climb, it will coil around a tree or pole, scrunching and creeping upward. To burrow, it relies on “rectilinear locomotion,” a unique coordination of scale and muscle movements that allow it to push its body forward in a straight line. Surprisingly, this uncanny way of getting around is the first specific animal phenomenon recorded in Scripture. And perhaps even more surprisingly, the snake is the first to receive the promise of Christmas.

According to Genesis, after God made the man and woman, he placed them in a garden which they shared with the animals. For a while, everything was good and beautiful and exactly as God planned; but a twist was coming, a twist in the form a winding, coiling, curling reptile. One day a snake shows up, and with subtle, hissing words, convinces them to do the one thing God had forbidden: to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Immediately, a curse descends; the man and woman are banished from the garden; and nothing is the same again.

For its part in the deceit, God sentences the snake to its unique movement:

You are cursed more than any livestock and more than any wild animal.
You will move on your belly
and eat dust all the days of your life.

But then he promises this:

I will put hostility between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring.
He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel (Gen. 3:15).

Theologians call this passage the protevanglium, or the first announcement of the good news, because it foreshadows the birth of the One who will undo the serpent’s deceit along with its lethal aftermath. Eve’s hope—our hope—was that this coming Promised Son would crush the serpent and all it represents, even as he suffers in the process.

But here’s something curious: the news of a Redeemer wasn’t given to Eve, not directly at least. It was given to the snake. And it was given in the form of a warning: judgment is coming. The power you hold over the earth will one day be taken from you. So for the snake, Christmas is far from good news. Or is it?

Of course, the snake of Genesis 3 is not simply a snake, not like the ring-necked and garter snakes in my backyard. Revelation 12:9 speaks of an “ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the one who deceives the whole world.” And elsewhere in Scripture, snakes represent sin and our own bent toward falsehood. Romans 3:13, for example, says

There is no one who does what is good, not even one.
Their throat is an open grave; they deceive with their tongues. Vipers’ venom is under their lips.

But here’s something even more unexpected than the fact that Christmas was first announced to a reptile. In John 3:14-16, Jesus likens his redemptive work to a miracle that occurred centuries earlier when God healed the Israelites of poisonous snakebites by having them look to a bronze serpent on a pole. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness,” Jesus says, “so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”

And just like that, those who once followed the snake into damnation, now proclaim the grace of Christ in salvation. Those cursed by their own disobedience are now blessed by the obedience of another. I wonder about this. I wonder how the snake—so long associated with sin and death—could be associated with Christmas. I wonder until I remember the heart of the Creator for his creation. The God who knows every sparrow that falls, who numbers the stars, who holds the seas in his hand—would this same God let his creation be taken from him? Would he so easily give up what he has created and called “good”?

No. This is a God who redeems. This is a God who restores—both for those who have suffered under the deceit of sin and those who have deceived others. Because one day, evil will be crushed under the heel of the Promised Son, and his blessings will flow “far as the curse is found.”

And when he does, the snake that was once a sign of sin’s dominion will become a sign of our complete and final redemption. In Isaiah 11:8–9, the prophet tells us of the day when the Promised Son will finally and fully reign over his creation. In that day,

an infant will play beside the cobra’s pit,
and a toddler will put his hand into a snake’s den.
They will not harm or destroy each other on my entire holy mountain.

The hope of the snake is our hope. We, who with poison on our lips have deceived and been deceived, to us, the promise is given: a Savior has come, and a Savior will come. And when he is lifted up, all who look to him will find life—everlasting and eternal.

This article is an excerpt from the new book, Heaven and Nature Sing by Hannah Anderson from B&H Publishing (2022).

By / Dec 24

All across the world, Southern Baptists are preparing for Christmas Eve services with their local congregation. But there was as time in American when most Protestants, including many Southern Baptists, did not consider Christmas to be a holiday worth celebrating.

A holiday rejected 

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, many Protestants found no biblical justification for Christmas and associated it with Roman Catholicism. For instance, in his book on “profane and superstitious customs,” the influential preacher Increase Mather included an entire chapter titled, “Against Profane Christ-mass Keeping.” Among his reasons were that the very name of Christmas (“Christ mass”) “savours of superstition,” that there’s no evidence Jesus was born on Dec. 25, and that the celebration was “in compliance with the Pagan Saturnalia that Christ-mass Holy-days were first invented.” (Modern scholars would later debunk the narrative that Christmas had a pagan origin.)

They were also scandalized by the drunkenness and revelry that was similar to activities we would now associate with Halloween. As J.A.R. Pimlott points out, celebrations included trick-or-treating, cross-dressing, and going door-to-door demanding food or money in return for carols or Christmas wishes. “Men dishonor Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas,” wrote the 16th-century clergyman Hugh Latimer, “than in all the 12 months besides.”

In 1647, the Puritan government in Boston even canceled Christmas for a few years. They ordered shops to stay open, churches to stay closed, and ministers to be arrested for preaching on Christmas Day. Protestants in the Southern states, though, were more tolerant of the festivities, at least as a civic function. In the 1830s Christmas became a legal holiday in Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Still, it was mostly a civic holiday rather than a religious one.

The celebration of Christmas during the Victorian Era in England — when Christmas carols first became popular and Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol — eventually trickled over into the United States. After the Civil War, the celebration of Christmas became more common in Southern Baptist life, though it was still mostly associated with friends and families than with activities of ​the local church. 

A change in the celebration of Christmas

That began to change, though, due to the influence of Charlotte Digges “Lottie” Moon, the SBC’s most famous missionary. In 1873, the SBC’s Foreign Missions Board (now the IMB) appointed Moon to go to China. Moon became the first American woman to attempt to live exactly as the Chinese did, adopting their dress and language and showing a greater appreciation for their culture. The effort helped to connect with Chinese neighbors. As Moon told the FMB,  “I am more and more impressed by the belief that to win these people to God, we must first win them to ourselves.” 

In 1887 Moon wrote a letter to the Foreign Mission Journal suggesting that Southern Baptist women set aside the  “week before Christmas” as a time of prayer and giving to international missions. “Is not the festive season when families and friends exchange gifts in memory of the Gift laid on the altar of the world for the redemption of human race,” she wrote, “the most appropriate time to consecrate a portion from abounding riches . . . to send forth the good tidings of great joy into all the earth?”

In 1888, a handful of women dedicated to the cause of missions founded the Woman’s Missionary Union. That initial Christmas offering collected $3,315 (roughly $97,000 in 2021 dollars). By 1889, the Annual Report of the convention reported that “Christmas envelopes” were distributed in the churches. The Foreign Mission Board in the Annual Report of 1890 acknowledged that it had published “Christmas literature,” and in 1897 the convention thanked the WMU “for the sum of all these Christmas offerings.” As Stephen Douglas Wilson observed, “Over time the Southern Baptist embrace of a Christmastide offering to support missions made it respectable to incorporate additional Christmas themes in Southern Baptist churches.”

In 1918, after Moon’s death, ​the WMU Christmas offering was renamed the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. Since its inception, several billion dollars has been collected for the fund, including $159.5 million in 2019–20. The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions funds more than 50% of IMB work

One of the best ways Southern Baptists can continue to promote the true reason for Christmas — Immanuel, God with us — is by giving to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. You can help send even more Southern Baptists to the ends of the earth in order to proclaim Jesus by making a year-end donation to the International Mission Board

By / Dec 23

Watching is a big part of the Christmas season. We watch plays, movies and musicals. We watch parades. We look at light shows. We are awed by the beauty and décor of Christmas. But the good news of Christmas is that God has posted a casting call inviting us to join his story of redeeming love. One man who quickly accepted this invitation was Joseph.

Joseph was a blue-collar man who made a living as a carpenter in the small village of Nazareth. He fell in love with a young girl named, Mary. They were making plans to be married, but it was discovered that she was pregnant. We can only imagine the sense of loss and disappointment he felt, but he loved her and did not want to disgrace her. So he decided to call off the engagement privately. That is when an angel of the Lord appeared to him to inform him that Mary had conceived by the Holy Spirit and would give birth to a Son who “will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

Bad news suddenly turned to good news as God invited Joseph to enter his story. Joseph never hesitated and “did as the Lord’s angel commanded him” (Matt. 1:24).  On the night Jesus was born, the best spot Joseph could find for Mary to give birth to the Son of God was a borrowed stable in Bethlehem. Shepherds visited, and everyone was amazed. A few months later, wise men from the east arrived to worship Jesus.

Despite challenges and awkward moments, Joseph was riding the waves of the miraculous. It was an immaculate conception here and an angel sighting over there. It was one extraordinary event after another. It was everything we would want Christmas to be. And then after the wise men left, the story took an unexpected turn.

“After they were gone, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Get up! Take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. For Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night, and escaped to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod’s death, so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled: Out of Egypt I called My Son” (Matt. 2:13-15).

Joseph had not planned on raising the newborn King as a refugee, but that is what was happening. Now joining the Christmas story was not just exciting, but it was deadly. For Jesus to live, Joseph’s plans had to die, but Joseph never hesitated because he knew who Jesus was.

A right Christology produces a faithful missiology. In other words, a right view of Jesus, knowing who he is and why he has come, leads us to forfeit even our best intentions to do whatever it takes to make Jesus known in the world. Christmas is not a sentimental story to watch, but a salvation story to join. Joseph shows us how.

We join the Christmas story when we listen to God.

Sometimes we think of Joseph as an awkward bystander to the Christmas narrative. He was not the biological father of the baby. He was not royalty. He was not a theologian. He did not even make hotel reservations in Bethlehem. We may be tempted to think of him as the Ray Romano of Christmas, yet Joseph was anything but disengaged or incompetent.

Matthew records Joseph’s genealogy to prove his credentials. The angel appeared to Joseph and invited him to go behind the scenes to see what God was doing to redeem the world, and Joseph readily embraced it all. He was a man who walked with, listened to and obeyed God.

There was no rationalizing, no procrastinating and no excuse making. There was no seeking advice and no praying about it. When Joseph heard from God, he responded without reservation. He must have had many questions, but none of them were more important than listening to and obeying God.

We join the Christmas story when we take what God gives.

Joseph and Mary packed up Jesus and their belongings for a 175-mile hike to Egypt. Historians tell us that, more than likely, the first part of their trip was through rugged terrain. They had the gifts of the wise men to fund their journey and their stay in Egypt. And even in Egypt, they were likely in a community of Jewish refugees who had resettled there to escape the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire.

All of this reminds us that, just because God sends an angel to call us, does not mean he will send an angel to deliver us. The uncommon work of God is often accomplished through common means. When Herod threatened Jesus, God could have miraculously rescued this family. Instead, he warned Joseph, and Joseph strapped on his sandals, packed up their things and walked through the dark desert to relocate his family to a foreign country.

Making Jesus known often means being comfortable with inconvenience, laboring in ordinary work and staying faithful in obscure, uncelebrated and unremarkable obedience.

We join the Christmas story when we persevere into the unknown.

How long would they stay in Egypt? The angel didn’t say. And Joseph never asked.

As it turned out, they likely stayed in Egypt only a few months, but they didn’t know that when they started the journey. They were willing to miss birthdays, funerals and weddings. They were willing to take their only son away from parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends. They were willing to grow old in a foreign land if that’s what it meant to make Jesus known.

God’s activity to redeem the world is always an open-ended assignment. Hosea prophesied, “Out of Egypt I have called my Son.” Joseph likely knew the Law and Prophets, but how all the pieces fit together was a mystery to him. But it was no mystery that God’s eternal purpose was more important than his own plan.

Joseph refused to simply watch the Christmas story from a distance. He gladly abandoned his plans to join God’s redeeming work to make Jesus known. Whatever story, whatever plan, whatever platform, whatever future we think we are building for ourselves, Jesus can build a better one because he is simply a better Savior of the world than we are.

By / Dec 17

In this episode, Brent and Lindsay discuss Southern Baptist Disaster Relief after the tornadoes, Omicron’s arrival to the U.S., and efforts to crackdown on unruly airline passengers. They also discuss the Christmas blues, the U.S. missionaries freed in Haiti, and the bipartisan deal on China’s human rights violations. 

ERLC Content

Culture

  1. Southern Baptists help with tornado aftermath
  2. Biden tours KY tornado damage
  3. Bipartisan deal on China stalls in Senate; ERLC resources
  4. U.S. missionaries freed in Haiti
  5. Flight attendants urge crackdown on unruly passengers
  6. Omicron is coming 

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  • The Dawn of Redeeming Grace // This episode was sponsored by The Good Book Company, publisher of The Dawn of Redeeming Grace .Join Sinclair Ferguson as he opens up the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel in these daily devotions for Advent. Each day’s reflection is full of insight and application and will help you to arrive at Christmas Day awed by God’s redeeming grace and refreshed by the hope of God’s promised King. Find out more about this book at thegoodbook.com.
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By / Dec 16

In April of 2021, we found out that my 37-year-old-husband had a tumor in his small intestine that indicated the presence of a very rare cancer. The diagnosis and surgery to remove it took place this year. But he was sick for most of 2020, undergoing tests, scans, and blood work that mostly provided no answers.

As we began to visit a cancer center in our city and acclimate ourselves within this new community, I realized that I was assuming a new identity at the same time that my husband had become a cancer patient. In addition to my other roles, I was now a caregiver. As the illness progressed and he underwent surgery, I began to assist and care for my husband in unprecedented ways, along with assuming more responsibilities in our home. We have three boys, now ages 10, 7, and 3, and I found myself feeling like a single parent.

As we enter the Christmas season, I think of all the men and women who find themselves caring for someone who in years past would have been shoulder to shoulder with them, or maybe even leading, through these weeks that are supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year.” I think of those looking at the busy calendar, the Christmas menu, or the bank account, wondering how they will manage it all. I think of those with young children who are blissfully content with the presents under the tree and the older kids who are searching their parents’ eyes for comfort and peace. If that’s you, I want to share a word of encouragement from the scriptures. 

Finding hope in the minor prophets 

In the spring of 2021, an amazing and diverse group of women studied the minor prophets together at my church. It was a wonderful anchor for me in this season, keeping me in the scriptures, as well as giving me a group of women who encouraged and prayed for me. To the surprise of some of the attendees who were less than thrilled about looking at these books with strange names and even stranger language, we loved our study of the minor prophets. 

My greatest encouragement through my husband’s diagnosis and surgery was found in an unlikely place: the book of Nahum. I’m not sharing this with you as a biblical scholar, but as someone who went to the Word for manna on the hardest days of my life. If you are a caregiver at Christmas, I want to share the hope I found in this little book of the Bible.

Nahum 1:15 states: “Look to the mountains — the feet of the herald, who proclaims peace. Celebrate your festivals, Judah; fulfill your vows. For the wicked one will never again march through you; he will be entirely wiped out.” There are five things I clung to in this passage, and I pray you will, too. 

1. “Look to the mountains”: Suffering reminds us of our humanity. In seasons of immense difficulty, the challenges around you can feel insurmountable. More than that, if you look only to yourself, you will quickly run into your very human limitations. A diagnosis doesn’t usually come with clear answers for the questions of “how” or “why,” and that shatters the false ideas of strength and being untouchable that tend to creep up in lighter seasons.  

You must, “set your eyes on things above,” as Colossians 3:2 says, and remember, as Isaiah 55 proclaims, “For as heaven is higher than earth, so [God’s] ways are higher than your ways, and [God’s] thoughts than your thoughts.” As we “look up,” we can trust in his good purposes, even when they don’t make sense in our present circumstances.

2. “The feet of the herald, who proclaims peace”: We must look to the one who comes “to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners” (Isa. 61 and Luke 4). Ephesians 2 reminds us that Jesus “is our peace.” Jesus proclaims peace to you! The image of him found in Nahum, coming down from the high places — even the mention of his human feet — reminds me of how he left heaven to come to earth as a baby. He did not leave us alone in our suffering. He embodied his love and came into our reality for the purpose of making peace with God. The only way to have peace in your heart when fear threatens to steal the joy from this Christmas season is to remember Christ.

3. “Celebrate your festivals, Judah”: This obscure verse of Scripture became my meditation and gave me purpose for the way I was leading my family through this season. Because of Jesus, we still had reason to celebrate — Easter, the end of the school year, birthdays, the Fourth of July, and now, Christmas. I was determined that cancer would not cast its long shadow over every area of my children’s lives. A dear friend always tells me to “choose joy,” and we fought for every ounce.

4. “Fulfill your vows”: Nahum was obviously not reminding the Israelites of their marriage vows, but I could not read those words without remembering my own pledge to care for my husband, “in sickness and in health.” Like so many elements of our faith, the true tests come in private and in suffering. It was ironic to consider how the words I said in my very expensive dress and in our beautifully orchestrated wedding ceremony were truly coming to life in a tiny hospital room, when neither of us had slept or showered, and no one was watching. 

5. “For the wicked one will never again march through you; he will be entirely wiped out”: I know cancer is the result of our broken and wicked world. It is not as God intended. I also know that one day sickness and suffering will be done away with. I also know that my husband will be perfectly healed eventually, and it was and is my prayer that his surgery “entirely wiped out” the cancer from his body. I know that God is able to do so, by whatever means he choses, and we give him glory. 

In this Advent season, we remember how God fulfilled his promises and gave us the Messiah as a baby 2,000 years ago. Emmanuel, God with us, has come. You are not alone. No matter what you are facing and the burdens you are carrying, our righteous King will sustain you. And he will prove faithful once again when he returns: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Rev. 21). 

By / Dec 14

It’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year — one filled with joy and laughter. For believers, it’s supposed to be a reason to celebrate. So, why do I (and so many others) struggle with Christmas? Here are three reasons I’ve found to be true in my own life. 

Selfishness

Sometimes when I experience the Christmas blues, it is a result of selfishness. When this is the case, I need to remember the gospel and how it speaks to this struggle. 

I need to remember that Christmas is not about me. My perspective is oftentimes radically self-centered and prideful. I’m frustrated because I’m making Christmas about me. But our celebration of the incarnation shouldn’t be about the stress of finding the perfect gift or the annoyance of crowded shopping centers. Christmas is about Jesus entering the world, fulfilling the promise of God to redeem his people, and establishing God’s kingdom.

I need to remember that it is better to give than to receive. Acts 20:35 reminds us of Jesus’ own words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Our Lord and Savior lived this out in his own self-giving. Christmas is his holiday, and it’s about generosity. It’s about giving gifts — not because we have to, but because we genuinely want to share our joy with others.

I need to remember that Christ is the best gift of all. God has come in the form of a baby. He has lived a sinless life, died a shameful and undeserved death, and paid a debt I could not have otherwise paid to our holy and perfect God. Because he was resurrected from the dead, the curse of sin has been put to death, and he has made a restored relationship with our heavenly Father possible. That’s the best gift we could ever receive.

When we remember the good news of the gospel, it changes our perspective. Because we’ve experienced Christ’s love, we can extend grace to everyone. And when we’re reminded of this truth, we can combat the selfishly judgmental thoughts we often have running through our minds — the jealousy we feel when we think others are getting better than they deserve. When we think about what Christ has given to us, we can remember that a gift is just that — a gift — not something deserved, but a grace that is freely given. It’s a gracious demonstration of love, not an obligation.

Frustration

A second reason I struggle with Christmas is that I’m frustrated with a greedy and commercialized world. I desire to give my kids the good gifts they want without giving in to the greedy newer-bigger-better mentality that is rampant in the commercialized society all around us. 

We’ve all been there, right? We’ve all asked our kids to make a list of what they want for Christmas. Then we’ve taken that list and compared it to the budget we have for gifts. Sometimes it can handle the expectations; sometimes it can’t. How do we balance the level of expectation with our ability to provide? How do we lead our families through the rough waters of entitlement?

We can only navigate those waters by reminding our kids that it is more blessed to give. We can teach them generosity by giving them practical demonstrations of how to be generous and why. Here are some key truths to model.

Generosity involves a sense of fairness. Be careful to hear what I am saying and what I’m not. I’m not saying absolute equality. I’m talking about the kind of self-giving that does its fair share to meet the needs of others. Parents, we need to be living in such a way that our kids see us being generous with our time, talents, and treasures in order to meet the real needs of those around us. We need to ask (and ask our kids), “Are we doing our fair share?”

Generosity can’t be commanded; it must be voluntary. According to 2 Corinthians 8, there is blessing associated with voluntary generosity. So our kids must want to. We need to show them that when they cheerfully give, the joy comes from seeking the well-being of another, not from what they can get out of it. Ultimately, our generosity is motivated by how generous God is with us through Jesus. We need to ask (and ask our kids), “Do we want to give? Why or why not?”

Generosity remembers Jesus. Just as I need to remember Christ’s generosity when I’m selfish, my kids also need to remember Jesus when they are tempted by greed. Jesus loved us so much that he left the riches of heaven for us. His death shows us the lengths of his love and what generosity truly looks like. His resurrection removes the barrier of sin and death and provides the power through the Holy Spirit to be generous like he is generous. We need to ask (and ask our kids), “How have we remembered Christ’s gift to us today?”

Pain and grief

There have been times when my struggle with Christmas has not been merely a result of personal selfishness or worldly sin. Instead, my Christmas blues have been an experience of deep grief and pain due to the world’s brokenness. And when that’s the case, I must remember love. 

We need a place to process our losses in light of the hope we have in Christ. I’m thankful that the elders of my local church have begun to host an annual Blue Christmas service. This is a time when those who are hurting can come and lament. It’s a service to be quiet, still, grieve each year’s losses, and perhaps even prepare for the difficulties of a Christmas season without someone you love. The Blue Christmas service is for people who are grieving a death, who have spouses or family members overseas (in the military or on the mission field), or who have gone through a divorce. It focuses on finding hope in the gospel and the presence of Christ even in the midst of loss.

Why have we found this to be valuable? Our society doesn’t really like grief and suffering, and we want to rush people through it. We’re pressured to not show weakness. Even the church can be seen as a place where you are told how to feel or what to do. In both church and society, people feel like they have to hide their pain to be strong. 

The reality is that the opposite is true. It takes more strength to show your grief and pain and feel it than to run away from it. Our desire is to be a church that creates a space for people to grieve, to be a church that shows that suffering is real and people aren’t always happy. The Blue Christmas service says to our church community, “It’s okay to be broken,” and it says to the wider community around our church, “We are a place where it is okay to be where you are at any time”

When we are struggling with Christmas, we can help ourselves and others by remembering what Christmas is all about and by keeping our focus where it should be: on the incarnation and birth of the One who was prophesied, born of a virgin, and who lived and died to save us from sin. The good news of Immanuel confronts our selfish hearts. And it’s the message that motivates generosity and care for those who are in brokenness and pain. Christ is the one who leads us to hope and peace even in the midst of the Christmas blues.