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Category Archives: Books

Book review: A novel of women surviving ISIS

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“Today is Nazo Heydo’s wedding. The day she will set herself on fire.”

Thus begins What Comes with the Dust: Goes with the Wind, Gharbi Mustafa’s gripping novel about women who survive the abuses of the Islamic State.

I have read Gharbi Mustafa’s first novel, When Mountains Weep, which is the story of a Kurdish boy coming of age when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein tried to exterminate the Kurds. I knew Mustafa was as excellent novelist, so I was looking forward to this second novel about the suffering of Yazidi Kurds under ISIS. I was totally blown away by this new book. Mustafa’s first book was very good; this book is great.
What Comes with the Dust: Goes with the Wind is a long title, which comes from the Yazidi religious legends that are explained in the book. It is a story about two Yazidi women, Nazo and Soz, and their struggle to survive. Nazo must escape slavery from ISIS to reach her forbidden lover. Soz is a female soldier who fights ISIS but also struggles with a secret love. Their fates are intertwined in a heart-wrenching story taken directly from the events we see on the daily news.
In 2014, the world watched in horror as Kurdish helicopters dropped relief supplies and tried to rescue thousands of Yazidis on Shingal Mountain in Iraqi Kurdistan, trapped there by ISIS. Since then, the United Nations has recognized the Yazidis re the targets of genocide by the Islamic State.
Who are these Yazidis? Why are the Kurds so eager to rescue them? Why is ISIS so eager to destroy them? This novel answers these questions, even though it is a work of fiction. In story form, the novel unravels the mysteries of the Middle East to western readers. Along the way, Mustafa shows us the mysterious religion and culture of the Yazidis, and contrasts these peaceful people with the fanatical cruelty of ISIS. Rich in culture and characters, and jarring in its account of jihadist brutality, it is a story that keeps the reader turning the pages to the end. I simply could not put it down until I finished.
Gharbi Mustafa is uniquely qualified to write this story. A Kurd himself, Mustafa is professor of English at the University of Dohuk in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. He has personally interviewed Yazidi women who escaped ISIS, and knows the culture like few writers in the English language. As a novelist, he writes in a way that is at once deeply moving and enlightening. It is well worth the two hours and 200 pages.

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Four great children’s Christmas books

Parents and grandparents often look for great books to share with their children at Christmas. Here is what I consider to be four of the best children’s Christmas books. One is sentimental, some are humorous, and one will help a child deal with suffering.
AlabastersSong
One of my favorites is Alabaster’s Song: Christmas through the Eyes of an Angel by Max Lucado. It tells the story of a boy who believes he hears the angel on the Christmas tree singing. Then miraculously, the gap-toothed angel appears by the boy’s bedside, a boy like him, and tells him what it was like to sing to baby Jesus. Children of all ages will enjoy this book, but parents, watch out, because you may get a lump in your own throat at the way the story ends.

HowTheGrinchStoleChristmas

In my list of favorite children’s Christmas books, I have to include the classic book that I loved when I was a child, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss. This beloved book has been made into a popular cartoon TV show, that includes the song, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” In recent years, a live-action movie was also made, but I still prefer the cartoon that follows the book word-for-word. It is hard to improve on the whimsical rhyme of Dr. Seuss.

Most readers already know the story, of how the Grinch couldn’t stand the noise that all the “Who’s down in Whoville” made on Christmas morning. So he decided to steal all of their toys on Christmas Eve. What he never anticipated was that they would still sing on Christmas morning without any presents at all. I love the climactic lines:

“It came without ribbons! It came without tags!/ It came without packages, boxes or bags!”/ And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore. / Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!/ “Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store./ Maybe Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more!”

The changed heart of the Grinch has put the word “Grinch” next to “Scrooge” in the Christmas vocabulary of the English language. Every child deserves a chance to hear a parent or grandparent read it to him or her directly from the book, and follow it with a heartfelt discussion about the real meaning of Christmas.

CajunNightBeforeChristmas

My third selection is Cajun Night Before Christmas, by “Trosclair,” edited by Howard Jacobs. This is a regional favorite in Louisiana, but I have read it to children in Georgia who loved it.

Imagine the famous poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” told in the dialect of south Louisiana, with St. Nicholas gliding across the bayou, with “eight alligator a pullin’ a skiff.” Of course, the alligators have French names:

“Ha, Gaston! Ha, Tiboy! Ha, Pierre an’ Alcee’! Gee, Ninette! Gee, Suzette! Celeste an Renee’!”

I have read this story aloud to my family and to children in public schools over the years, and it always produces loud laughter, even among those who aren’t familiar with the Cajun culture. There have been many imitations of this book, such as the Cowboy Night Before Christmas and the Redneck Night Before Christmas. But none have surpassed the originality and pure fun of Cajun Night Before Christmas.

AllIsWell

My final selection is All Is Well: A Story for Christmas, by Frank Peretti. Peretti is the best-selling author of the Christian thriller This Present Darkness, but he is also the author of one of the most touching Christmas books for children that I have ever read.

All Is Well is different from other children’s Christmas books for several reasons. It is on the reading level of an older child, perhaps about fifth grade. It is on the emotional level of a single mom who is struggling to make ends meet at Christmas. The story takes place in July, not during the Christmas season. Yet is most certainly a Christmas story, especially for those who going through tough times during the holidays.

If you are looking for a cute Christmas book for your child, this is not your book. But if you need encouragement to make it through Christmas, this may be the best book you could read, especially to a child who doesn’t understand why God is allows suffering and hard times.

Book review: “Snoop: A Spiritual Memoir of a Vietnam Army Grunt”

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Snoop: A Spiritual Memoir of a Vietnam Army Grunt (Published by Parables, 2016), by C. Wayne Harrison, is a 98-page book that tells stories of war, grouped together for devotional reflection. That may sound like an unusual approach, but Harrison makes it work.

Harrison was a private in the U.S. Army, who fought in the jungles in the Vietnam War in 1969-1970. Today he is Baptist minister in Booneville, Mississippi. In ten short chapters, he recalls his desire to be a soldier and relates in vivid detail the horrors he experienced in the war. Although the stories tend to move chronologically from early in his life through his year in Vietnam, the chapters are more thematic in nature, with titles such as, “The Heart of a Soldier,” “The Hands of a Soldier,” “The Hardships of a Soldier,” etc. Each chapter opens with a passage from the Bible, then focuses on stories that relate to the theme of the chapter, followed by some discussion questions and a prayer.

The reader identifies with the young man, who is nicknamed “Snoop” because of his lapel pin of Snoopy, the dog who imagined he was a fighter pilot, in the “Peanuts” comic strip. Some descriptions of war in the book may be disturbing to young readers, and the stories certainly are sobering even to mature readers. I believe Harrison’s writing will connect well with soldiers who read the book, and would make an excellent resource for military chaplains or anybody, especially soldiers, who are willing to reflect on God’s purpose for their lives.

The book is well-written, using excellent images and descriptions, and is easy to read, although I noticed a typo on p. 64, where the word “scar” was spelled “scare.” There are black-and-white photos of Harrison as a young soldier in the back of the book. In interest of full disclosure, I received a complimentary copy of this book from the author, with no obligation to write a favorable review.

Book review: “Mark Twain: A Life” by Ron Powers

TwainPowers I just finished reading Mark Twain: A Life, by Pulitzer-prize winning biographer, Ron Powers (Free Press, 2006). This is an in-depth biography of the famous writer and humorist Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain. At times, it seems too detailed, as it covers more than I wanted to know. Nevertheless, Powers does an excellent job of helping the reader understand the complexities of the man, and he also helps the reader understand American culture during the 19th century, as the two are so closely intertwined. This is a biography, not a literary critique, so Powers does not put heavy emphasis on analyzing Twain’s writing, although he does give a balanced discussion of how literary critics have judged his works, with special attention to his greatest work, Huckleberry Finn.
Some new things that I learned about Twain:
*he traveled extensively as a young adult and for the rest of his life
*he had a lost love that he never forgot
*he had a fierce temper
*he believed in God, but was turned off by the hypocrisy he saw in church, causing him to struggle in his faith
*he was a sucker for bad investments, but famously paid off his debts
*he had friendships with famous Americans, such as Henry Ward Beecher, William Dean Howells, Helen Keller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Ulysses S. Grant
*he almost fought a battle against Ulysses S. Grant, but later became a close friend of Grant, and published Grant’s autobiography
*during his latter years, he turned to political satire
*the context of some of his famous one-liners
Speaking of one-liners, I must mention a few of my favorites from the book:
“Preachers are always pleasant company when they are off duty.”
“I worked in a bookstore, but didn’t like it because the customers bothered me so much I could not read with any comfort.”
“He would rather decline two drinks than one German verb.”
“The new hobbies in the election year 1876 are politics and pornography. But I repeat myself.”
“Do you know why Balaam’s ass spoke Hebrew? Because he was a he-brayist.”
“When I was a boy everybody was poor but didn’t know it; and everybody was comfortable and did know it.”
“You can’t pray a lie– I found that out.” (quote of Huckleberry Finn)
“The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
If you love Mark Twain and American history, and you don’t mind reading a long book, you will enjoy this biography. If you don’t want to wade through 736 pages to learn about Twain’s life, or if you are more interested in a literary analysis of his writings than the story of his life, you may want to read a different biography.

Movie review: “Unbroken”

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I loved Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book, Unbroken, about the amazing life of Louie Zamperini, so I was excited to hear that a movie version was being made. However, I was concerned when I heard reports that director Angelina Jolie had cut out the story of Zamperini’s Christian conversion.

The life of Louie Zamperini was made up of three inspiring stories of redemption: athlete, war hero, and Christian servant. Any one of these stories would make an great book or movie. The first story is how he was changed from a troubled boy into an Olympic runner through the inspiration of his big brother. The second story is how he survived air battles with the Japanese, a crash and 45 days afloat in the Pacific Ocean, and horrible torture in a Japanese P.O.W. camp through his personal determination. The third story is how he was saved from alcoholism, post-war trauma, a broken marriage, and bitterness toward the Japanese when he accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior at the Los Angeles evangelistic crusade in 1949 that made Billy Graham a world-famous preacher. The book tells all three of these stories; the movie tells the first two.

When I went to see the movie, I knew the conversion story would not be told, so I went with low expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the movie did include the same foreshadowing of his spiritual conversion that is found in the book: the Christian message he heard growing up in an Italian Catholic home with a praying mother, and the promise he made to God when adrift in the ocean that if God would save him, he would serve Him the rest of his life. The movie ends with his homecoming after the war, but the text on the screen briefly tells the viewer that Zamperini “made good” on his promise to serve God, and that he returned to Japan to forgive his captors.

So the story of Zamperini’s faith is not omitted from the movie, but it is greatly abbreviated. The movie itself is very well done. The acting, filming, musical score and drama is top-notch and faithful to the story found in the first two parts of the book. If you have read the book, you will still enjoy the movie. If you have not read the book, I encourage you to see the movie and then read Laura Hillenbrand’s book to get “the rest of the story.”

Favorite children’s Christmas books: “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”

HowTheGrinchStoleChristmas  In my list of favorite children’s Christmas books, I have to include the classic book that I loved when I was a child, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, by Dr. Seuss. This beloved book has been made into a popular cartoon TV show, that includes the song, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” In recent years, a live-action movie was also made, but I still prefer the cartoon that follows the book word-for-word. It is hard to improve on the whimsical rhyme of Dr. Seuss.

Most readers already know the story, of how the Grinch couldn’t stand the noise that all the “Who’s down in Whoville” made on Christmas morning. So he decided to steal all of their toys on Christmas Eve. What he never anticipated was that they would still sing on Christmas morning without any presents at all. I love the climactic lines:

“It came without ribbons! It came without tags!/ It came without packages, boxes or bags!”/ And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore. / Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!/ “Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store./ Maybe Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more!”

The changed heart of the Grinch has put the word “Grinch” next to “Scrooge” in the Christmas vocabulary of the English language. Every child deserves a chance to hear a parent or grandparent read it to him or her directly from the book, and follow it with a heartfelt discussion about the real meaning of Christmas.

Favorite children’s Christmas books: “Cajun Night Before Christmas”

CajunNightBeforeChristmas   Continuing my series of reviews of favorite children’s Christmas books, today’s selection is Cajun Night Before Christmas, by “Trosclair,” edited by Howard Jacobs.

Imagine the famous poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” told in the dialect of south Louisiana, with St. Nicholas gliding across the bayou, with “eight alligator a pullin’ a skiff.” Of course, the alligators have French names:

“Ha, Gaston! Ha, Tiboy! Ha, Pierre an’ Alcee’! Gee, Ninette! Gee, Suzette! Celeste an Renee’!”

I have read this story aloud to my family and to children in public schools over the years, and it always produces loud laughter, even among those who aren’t familiar with the Cajun culture. There have been many imitations of this book, such as the Cowboy Night Before Christmas and the Redneck Night Before Christmas. But none have surpassed the originality and pure fun of Cajun Night Before Christmas.

The book is available in many book stores and at amazon.com here.

Favorite children’s Christmas books: “Alabaster’s Song” by Max Lucado

AlabastersSong    Parents often look for great books to share with their children at Christmas. For the next few days, I will share what I consider to be four of the best children’s Christmas books.

One of my favorites is Alabaster’s Song: Christmas through the Eyes of an Angel by Max Lucado. It tells the story of a boy who believes he hears the angel on the Christmas tree singing. Then miraculously, the gap-toothed angel appears by the boy’s bedside, a boy like him, and tells him what it was like to sing to baby Jesus. Children of all ages will enjoy this book, but parents, watch out, because you may get a lump in your own throat at the way the story ends.

The book can be found in many Christian book stores, and on Amazon.com here.

Book review: “Dead Lawyers Tell No Tales”

DeadLawyersTellNoTales If you like John Grisham, you will probably like Randy Singer. I have read many of Singer’s legal suspense novels, and I found his plot twists to be consistently good, often better than Grisham. Singer is a Christian writer who avoids profanity and has a Christian worldview to his books. As a Christian myself, I really like that. But if you are not a Christian, don’t let that put you off, especially in Dead Lawyers Tell No Tales. Although his previous novels are not “preachy,” this novel is even less so. Singer simply weaves a captivating story of redemption. Landon Reed, a former SEC football quarterback who went to jail for taking a bribe to throw a game, wants to redeem himself by becoming a lawyer and helping others. He is an imperfect man who nearly falls again, and then gets caught up in a law firm where somebody is slowly killing every lawyer at the firm.

From beginning to end the plot kept my interest. Each short chapter seemed to end with something that made me want to read the next chapter and learn how the plot would resolve. Singer is a lawyer himself, and is able to describe complicated legal situations with clarity and detail. But what made this story engrossing in the first half was the theme of forgiveness and a second chance. In the second half, the plot accelerated and I couldn’t put down the book until I finished. This is probably Randy Singer’s best book to date.

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Book review: Joe McKeever, “101 Cartoons”

101Cartoons  Recently, I had the pleasure of enjoying some pancakes with Joe McKeever. When he noticed that the waitress was friendly, he immediately pulled out a pad and pencil, asked her to stand still and smile, and in a few moments he had drawn a wonderful cartoon of her likeness. She was so excited, another waiter came to ask about it, and he gladly drew another one. Everywhere he goes, Joe draws pictures of people. You might say that he’s the quickest draw in the West.

McKeever’s cartoons were published for years in Pulpit Helps and are still a regular feature in various Baptist newspapers through Baptist Press. Now McKeever has published a great collection of some recent favorites, entitled 101 Cartoons. Each cartoon is a full page, and nearly all are in full color. Most of the cartoons poke fun at religious subjects, as is illustrated by the photo at the bottom of this review. Others, like the cover photo above, poke fun at life in general.

McKeever has a corny sense of humor, which I like. He pokes fun at pastors, deacons, pastor search committees, hypocrites in church, seeker-sensitive churches, Calvinism, fickle church members, Facebook, smart phones, politicians, TV, the lottery, sports, health and exercise, among other things. Some of the cartoons make a serious point, such as the one that shows a man in a wheelchair in front of a church with inaccessible steps, who says, “I’ll bet this is a real pretty church on the inside.”

The print is large and easy to read, and as you can see from the photos, they are very colorful. It makes a great coffee table book for enjoyable conversation with family and visitors.

101 Cartoons is available from Amazon.com or you may purchase it directly from the author and he will inscribe a personal greeting and cartoon inside the front cover for you. Send a check for $15 for one or $27 for two, to Joe McKeever, P. O. Box 855, Kenner, LA 70063. In the interest of full disclosure, Brother Joe gave me a complimentary copy of his book along with the pancakes; however, he did not ask me to write this review– I was glad to do that myself!

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Book review: Max Lucado, “Outlive Your Life”

OutliveYourLife   I have read about 20 books by Max Lucado. I love his gift for telling a story and turning a phrase. However, after reading so many of his works, I began to feel that if I’ve read one of his books, I’ve read them all. So when I got a copy of Outlive Your Life: You Were Made to Make a Difference, I let it sit on my bookshelf for over three years.

Recently, some circumstances in my own life drew me again to the title. I’d like for my life to make more of a difference, so I decided to see what Max had to say. I was deeply moved– to take action.

This book uses the familiar writing style of Lucado that has made him one of the bestselling Christian authors of modern times: vivid storytelling with a surprise ending, and clever, poetic phraseology. For example, he described the apostle Peter’s reaction to the vision to eat unclean food by saying, “Peter was pondering the pigs in the blanket when he heard a knock at the door” (p. 146). He also follows a Biblical theme, as he does in most of his books. This one focuses on stories in the Acts of the Apostles to encourage Christian readers to make a difference in their world, the way the early disciples did.

What really stands out in this book, however, is how boldly Lucado calls on Christians to be involved in social action. Again and again, he urges Christians to help the poor, care for orphans, feed the hungry, etc. He is very specific in examples of how to do that, more so than any other book of his that I have read to date. He does so without abandoning the gospel message. In fact, chapter four, “Don’t Forget the Bread,” stresses that if we help the needy and don’t share the gospel, we are like he was when his wife sent him to buy bread at the grocery store and he came home with everything else and forgot the main thing: the bread.

Each of Lucado’s books include a discussion guide at the end, but this book has a “Discussion and Action Guide” (emphasis mine). America’s most inspirational author intends not only to inspire, but to move the reader to action. For this reader, he succeeded.

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Book review: Many choices in study Bibles

StudyBiblesCopyright 2014 by Bob Rogers

When it comes to studying the Bible, not only are there many choices of translations, but also many choices of study Bibles. Here is an overview of some that I have found helpful.

There are several general study Bibles that are connected directly to a certain translation of the Bible. If a person cannot afford an entire set of commentaries, or wishes to have commentary on the whole Bible in one volume, these study Bibles are the best option. The NASB Study Bible (also available with the same notes as the NIV Study Bible), the HCSB Study Bible, the ESV Study Bible and the Jeremiah Study Bible (NKJV) are examples of this. Each of these study Bibles have extensive introductions to the books of the Bible, maps, and notes at the bottom of the page to explain the text in the particular translation used. The ESV Study Bible is the most scholarly and exhaustive of these study Bibles. The HCSB Study Bible is in a more popular style, and makes the best use of color, making it the easiest to read. The Jeremiah Study Bible has notes by popular Bible teacher, Dr. David Jeremiah.

Some study Bibles focus on a special purpose. The Archaeological Study Bible (NIV) includes notes and articles that explain the cultural and historical background of the Bible. The Life Essentials Study Bible (HCSB) and Life Application Bible (available in NLT, NIV, NKJV, NASB) focus on applying the truths of scripture to our lifestyle. The Life Essentials Study Bible makes use of QR code. Readers can scan the code with their mobile phone and watch a video of a Bible teacher explaining the passage in greater depth. The Discover God Study Bible (NLT) focuses on devotional and doctrinal truth. This is an excellent study Bible for a new believer. The Apologetics Study Bible (HCSB) includes notes and articles that defend the Christian faith against non-Christian religions and skeptics.

All of these study Bibles are excellent resources in shedding light on God’s word. I refer to many of them on a regular basis, depending on how I am studying a particular passage. But none of these aids can substitute for simply reading the text first yourself. I would recommend you read and read again the text and make your own notes on what you observe before you turn to these or any other study aids. After your own study, check your observations with those of the experts. That way, you will allow the Holy Spirit to speak directly to you through scripture, and to speak to you through those who have studied it before you.

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Finding Christ in our Christmas gifts

ChristmasGiftBoxCopyright 2013 by Bob Rogers

At Christmas, people all over the world exchange gifts. The Gallup Poll estimates that each American will personally spend about $740 this Christmas on Christmas gifts. (Source: http://www.gallup.com/poll/166226/consumers-holiday-spending-intentions-remain-modest.aspx). American Research Group estimates that each American spends $801. (Source: http://americanresearchgroup.com/holiday/)

   Research says that on Black Friday 2013, Americans spent $12.3 billion in stores and nearly $2 billion online. Source: http://www.slideshare.net/WishpondTechnologiesLtd/black-friday-2013-results-1). Hundreds of billions of dollars more will be spent during the entire Christmas season.

   Children look for Santa Claus to bring them gifts. According to a survey on Today.com, 67% of American families will give each of their children at four gifts or more for Christmas. So most American children get more gifts for Christmas than Jesus got on His own birthday! Many children are so excited about getting gifts that they forget that the holiday is to celebrate Jesus’ birth.

   In America, exchanging gifts at Christmas has become gluttonous, excessive and wasteful. How did get so far away from the original idea? Let’s work our way backwards to where this all came from, and see if we can’t also get back to where we should be.

I.                  The tradition of gifts from Santa Claus

    Santa Claus as we know him today originated here in America, particularly in New York.

   The tradition of Santa Claus comes primarily from the poem by Clement C. Moore, a seminary professor in New York City. The poem was originally called, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” but most of us know it by the first line, “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” It was published in 1823 and had a great impact on the tradition of Santa Claus. It is from this poem that people get the idea of a jolly elf with a big belly coming on Christmas Eve with reindeer and bringing gifts for children. Yet even this poem never calls him Santa Claus, but instead it calls him St. Nicholas. New York, where Clement C. Moore lived, was first settled by the Dutch, who used the term Sinterklaas, to refer to St. Nicholas, and Sinterklaas came to be pronounced Santa Claus in English. But who was St. Nicholas?

   Nicholas was a real person who was a Christian bishop in the 4th century. He was born in A.D. 270, and died on December 6, A.D. 343. Nicholas grew up in a wealthy home in Myra, part of modern-day Turkey. He became bishop of Myra and was known as a conservative, Bible-believing bishop, with a reputation for secret gift-giving and caring for children. One legend said that he often put coins in the shoes of people in need. The most famous legend about Nicholas was that a poor man had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry for their wedding. This meant that they would remain unmarried and probably, in absence of any other possible employment, would have to become prostitutes. Hearing of the girls’ plight, Nicholas decided to help them, but being too modest to help the family in public (or to save them the humiliation of accepting charity), he went to the house under the cover of night and threw three purses (one for each daughter) filled with gold coins through the window opening into the house.

   One version of the legend has him throwing one purse for three consecutive nights. Another has him throwing the purses over a period of three years, each time the night before one of the daughters comes of age. Invariably, the third time the father lies in wait, trying to discover the identity of their benefactor. In one version the father confronts the saint, only to have Saint Nicholas say it is not him he should thank, but God alone. In another version, Nicholas learns of the poor man’s plan and drops the third bag down the chimney instead; a variant holds that the daughter had washed her stockings that evening and hung them over the embers to dry, and that the bag of gold fell into the stocking. (Sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas#Gift_giving,   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nicholas

   You can quickly see how these legends developed over the centuries into the legend of a character who brings gifts in secret, sometimes in stockings or down a chimney. He is known by many names in many countries, including Father Christmas, Père Noël in French, and Sinterklaas in Dutch.

   Because the real St. Nicholas died on December 6, in many nations he is remembered on that day with the giving of gifts. But during the Protestant Reformation, many Protestants changed the gift-giver to the Christ child, which is Christkindl in German, and changed the date from December 6 to Christmas Eve. The German Christkindl got corrupted to Kris Kringle in English, and the Dutch Sinterklaas got corrupted to Santa Claus in English.

   But we need to go further back than St. Nicolas to understand gift-giving at Christmas. Nicholas was a Christian bishop, and we need to go back to the Bible to see where he learned to give gifts.

II.               The tradition of gifts from the wise men

   Many traditions have grown up about the wise men who came to bring gifts to Jesus. The popular Christmas carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” has led people to believe that there were three wise men, and that they were kings. Tradition has even given the three kings names: Melchior from Persia, Caspar from India, Balthasar from Arabia. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_Magi)

   How much of this is really in the Bible?

   Matthew’s Gospel tells us that after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that wise men came from the East, following a star to find the newborn Messiah, the king of the Jews. It does not say there were three of them, it only says they brought three gifts. There could have been twelve of them, for all we know.

   The word translated “wise men” in Matthew 2:1 is magi. It is a Persian word that described priests of the Zoroastrian religion who foretold the future by studying the stars. The word magi was first used by Darius the Mede, who is considered from the people group known today as the Kurds. Kurds today still celebrate certain Zoroastrian practices, especially the Zoroastrian New Year that they call Newroz. Thus instead of kings from India, Persia and Arabia, the wise men were very likely Zoroastrian priests and astrologers from the Medes, or modern-day Kurds.

    Now let’s look at Matthew 2:11. It says, “Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary His mother, and falling on their knees, they worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

    This happened many months after Jesus’ birth, so they now live in a house, not in a stable, and Jesus is a child, not a baby. Joseph is not mentioned, probably because he was away at work. But what is most important for us is to notice what the wise men did. If we will pay close attention to what they did, we will get our Christmas gift-giving back in balance. They did two things. First, they fell on their knees and worshiped Jesus. Second, they presented Him with treasures.

   Notice that their first gift was their worship. There is no greater gift that you or I can give Jesus than to give him our worship. The poet Christina Rosetti wrote,

“What can I give Him? Poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part. Yet what can I give Him, Give Him my heart.”

   This was the first gift of the wise men, the gift of their hearts. The apostle Paul writes about the Christians in Macedonia in 2 Corinthians 8, who gave offerings even though they were poor. Yet Paul says in 2 Corinthians 8:5 that they first gave themselves to the Lord, even before they gave their financial gifts.

   Notice that their second gift was their treasures: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There are many traditional symbols associated with these three gifts. Gold was considered one of the most precious medals in ancient times just as it is today. Job 28:15 talks about wisdom being so valuable that not even gold could be exchanged for it. King Solomon’s court was full of gold. Gold is often associated with Jesus as king. Frankincense is an incense that was used to burn before the Lord in the altar, according to Exodus 30:35-36. Thus frankincense is associated with prayer and worship. Myrrh is a valuable perfume. Myrrh was used as a beauty treatment, but John 19:39 says that the women used myrrh to anoint Jesus’ body for burial, and thus myrrh was associated with Jesus coming to die on the cross for our sins.

III.           How to find Christ in our giving

   So how do we find Christ in our Christmas gifts? Our journey backwards to the root of our traditions should give us some answers.

   First, we should give ourselves to Christ in worship.

   The wise men first gave of themselves in worship, and then gave their treasures to Christ. This should remind us that Christmas is about giving, not getting gifts. It is not about us receiving gifts, but about us giving to celebrate Christ. The most important gift of all is our worship to Christ. A Christian who is too busy exchanging presents at Christmas to give Jesus his presence in worship is guilty of idolatry! The wise men came to Jesus, and fell on their knees before Him. So should we.

   Second, we should give Christ our treasures.

   This should also remind us that our gifts should have a purpose. While there are many legends about the purpose of the gold, frankincense and myrrh, the reality is that soon after this, Joseph and Mary had to flee from the murderous intentions of King Herod, and the rich gifts from the wise men must have been very practical and useful to them in financing their trip. Genesis 37:25 mentions traders on a caravan of camels who were carrying perfumes and incense. The fact is that all three gifts were easy to transport, valuable and easy to sell on the open market. The gifts were not wasteful; they had a useful purpose.

   If we truly treasure Jesus Christ, if we are truly grateful for Him coming to safe us, then we will want to give gifts to glorify Jesus Christ. This can include gifts to people in need, and gifts to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.

   What would happen if just half of our church members would just give 10% of their spending to missions to share the gospel?

   Last year, Southern Baptists gave $149.3 million to the international missions offering.

If just half of Southern Baptists gave just 10% of the average Christmas spending to missions, we would give $592 million dollars to missions. Instead, Southern Baptists only gave 25% of that amount.

   Third, we should not teach our children to be greedy and materialistic. Many children think that Santa Claus has an unlimited supply to give them anything they want, which encourages greed and selfishness. Parents need to resist the culture’s materialism in the way they give gifts to their kids.   As a mentioned in the beginning of this sermon, most American children get four or more gifts at Christmas, yet Jesus only received three. Many parents are saying that it’s time that they take a lesson from the wise men, and in honor of Jesus, they give their children three gifts. By giving your children three gifts, you remind them of Jesus’ three gifts. Some families do it this way: something they want, something they need and something to read. Others choose something they want, something they need, and something to wear. Other families give a “gold” present, and “frankincense” present, and a “myrrh” present. The “gold” present is something a child would want and treasure. The “frankincense” present is used in worship and spiritual life, such as a Bible, and the “myrrh” present is something for the body, like clothing or shoes. Many families allow a fourth present, as the child gets to pick a gift to give away to somebody else in need.(Source:http://t.co/ckwo8WQcvZ)

   Fourth, we should exchange gifts to express our love.

   As long as we honor Christ at Christmas, there is nothing wrong with exchanging gifts with our family and friends, as well. After all, giving and receiving gifts are an expression of love. Gary Chapman, in his bestseller, The Five Love Languages, says that people feel love in five major ways: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Although people have a primary love language, most people feel loved when they receive all five of those. Chapman points out that a gift does not have to be expensive to express love. It’s more important that the gift is thoughtful.

   My sister, Nancy, is the best gift-giver I know. I have always noticed how thoughtful she is in selecting gifts for others. So I called her up and asked for her advice, and here is what she told me:

   Nancy said, “I think about what that person would enjoy. It depends on who the person is.  I ask, would it appeal to that person, not to me. So I ask myself, how would they react when they open this gift? Like a person who loves cats, I might think they would like a cat figurine, but then I think about how this person does not collect items and so even though they like cats, they don’t collect figurines. So I don’t just think about it just a minute. I give it some time and thought.

   “When it comes to gift giving, the magic thing is not the dollar value. It’s showing the other person that you care about them and value them by thinking about what they would like. It’s about the receiver, the care and thought. One year when I had no money, I baked cookies and put them in plastic bags and put handwritten notes with the cookies, and it went over fine, because I tried to personalize it. A lot of times, a card you make yourself or a blank card that you write a note in, means even more.”

   “What you will discover when you start putting time and thought into your gift-giving, is that gift-giving will become more enjoyable for you. You will look forward to seeing how the other person reacts and how they know that you showed that you care by selecting something just for them. After all, giving gifts is an expression of our love, and if we love someone, we will put some thought into what we give them.”

 A young man wanted to get a special Christmas gift for his father, who lived far away. He looked for something unique that would show how much he valued his father. So he got an exotic parakeet. It could speak five different languages and it could sing “The Yellow Rose of Texas” standing on one leg.

   He spent $10,000 on the bird and had it shipped this unusual bird to his father. On Christmas Day, he called his father. He couldn’t wait to hear what his Dad thought of his gift. He said, “Dad, did you get my gift?” His father said, “I certainly did, son.” The man said, “Well, Dad how did you like it?” His dad replied, “Oh, it was delicious!”

   He said, “But Dad, that was a special bird that could speak five different languages and even sing while standing on one leg! I can’t believe you ate him!” His father replied, “If he could speak five different languages, I can’t believe he didn’t say something before I ate him!” (Adapted from Tony Evans’ Book of Illustrations, p. 117-118.)

   God sent the greatest gift at all at Christmas when He sent His Son to save us. But many of us have missed the point, like the man who ate the parakeet. But before we criticize those who miss the point, let’s ask ourselves a question: “Why don’t we say something?” After all, how are they going to know about the real gift of Christmas if we don’t tell them?

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Finding Christ in our Christmas songs

?????????????????Copyright 2013 by Bob Rogers

 What is the most popular Christmas song in America? Billboard magazine’s list of the top ten Christmas songs of 2012 is probably our best source. This is not based on opinion, but is based on airplay on the radio, sales, and online streaming. Here is the list (Source: http://wgna.com/the-most-popular-christmas-songs-of-2012/):

10. Last Christmas- Wham!

9. Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)- Trans-Siberian Orchestra

8. It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year- Andy Williams

7. White Christmas- Bing Crosby

6. Jingle Bell Rock- Bobby Helms

5. A Holly Jolly Christmas- Burl Ives

4. Feliz Navidad- Jose Feliciano

3. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts)- Nat King Cole

2. Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree- Brenda Lee

1. All I Want For Christmas Is You- Mariah Carey

   Did you notice who is completely missing from the top ten? Jesus! Christ is not only not in the top 10 songs, he’s not even mentioned in the rest of the top 20.

   In a world that sings about Christmas without Christ, God is calling the church of Jesus Christ back to the tradition of Christmas carols.

 

I.                  The history of Christmas carols

 

  While many Americans sing about Santa, chestnuts and a white Christmas, Christians all over the world have sung about the birth of Jesus Christ for centuries. As early as the fourth century, Ambrose, the archbishop of Milan, wrote a hymn for Christmas to teach that God truly became a man, in response to heretics who denied Jesus’ incarnation.

   Singing Christmas carols was popularized by St. Francis of Assisi during the Middle Ages in Europe, and was also encouraged by the Protestant Reformers, such as Martin Luther. As early as the 15th century, groups of singers would go from house to house in England and sing Christmas carols. Christmas carols in English first appear in a 1426 work of John Awdlay, chaplain from Shropshire, who lists twenty five “caroles of Cristemas”, probably sung by groups of “wassailers,” who went from house to house and enjoyed “wassail,” ale, or apple cider, and other desserts given to them at each home. Thus we get the line, “here we go a wassailing among the leaves so green,” and since the homes often fed the carolers, we also get the line, “bring out the figgy pudding, we won’t go until we get some.” It was only later that carols begun to be sung in church, and to be specifically associated with Christmas.

  Two of the oldest Christmas carols still sung today are “O Come, all ye faithful,” which was originally written in the 13th century, and “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” which was first composed in the 14th century.

   Perhaps the three most popular Christmas carols in English are “Joy to the World,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night.” The first two were sung in the American colonies even before the United States was a nation, but the third one came from Austria.

    “Joy to the World” was written by Isaac Watts in 1719. It is based on Psalm 98, and its tune comes from one of the songs in Handel’s Messiah. Originally this song was intended to refer to Jesus’ Second Coming, but it has come to be associated mostly with His first coming at Christmas.

   “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” was written by the great Methodist founder Charles Wesley in 1739, and the words were revised by the great evangelist of the Great Awakening, George Whitefield. A hundred years later, the classical composer Felix Mendelssohn composed the tune that is popular today when people sing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”

   “Silent Night” was originally written in German and first sung on Christmas Eve, 1818, at St. Nicholas Church in the village of Oberndorf, near Salzburg, Austria. The organist, Franz Gruber, discovered that the organ wasn’t working at the church. The priest, Joseph Mohr, had composed the words in German to “Silent Night” two years before. So he shared it with Gruber, who composed the tune to be sung by guitar. When Karl Mauracher came to repair the organ, he heard the story of how the song was composed in an emergency and sung without the organ, and Mauracher spread the song everywhere that he went. The song came to America by German-speaking congregations. Originally the words were “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.” The English words we sing today were translated by John Freeman Young. “Silent Night” has been translated into 140 languages. (Sources: Wikipedia and Companion to Baptist Hymnal by William Reynolds.)

   I wish we had time to talk about many other popular Christmas carols like “O Holy Night,” including some newer songs like “Mary Did You Know?” Many families bake a birthday cake and sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus on Christmas morning, which is a wonderful way to teach the true meaning of Christmas to children. Which brings us back to the original story itself, because the first Christmas carols are found in the Bible itself.

 

II.               The songs of the first Christmas

 

    Really, singing Christmas carols goes all the way back to the first Christmas, because Luke’s Gospel records four different songs as he gives the Christmas story. Let’s look at the lessons we get from these original Christmas carols.

 

A  Mary’s song says that Christ came to love the forgotten  (Luke 1:46-55)

   When Mary was told that she would be the mother of the Messiah, she broke out into a song of praise, found in Luke 1:46-55. It is often called “The Magnificat” because she began, “My soul magnifies the Lord…”

   The song emphasizes how God has remembered the forgotten and lifts up the lowly. In verse 48-49 she sings with amazement that God chose her, a simple girl from Nazareth: “He has looked with favor on the humble condition of His slave. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” And notice what she sings in verse 52: “He has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly.”

   Mary’s song reminds us that in Christ, God remembers the forgotten. Mary was a poor girl, and Jesus was born in a feeding trough. The song should remind us to stop and give a donation to the Salvation Army when we go shopping, to help Toys for Tots, and share with Operation Christmas Child and Backpacks for Appalachia. The Christmas child shoe boxes and backpacks are a wonderful way to share Jesus with the poor at Christmas.

 

B.  Zechariah’s song says that Christ came to save us (Luke 1:67-79)

 

Not only was Jesus’ birth a miracle, but the birth of John the Baptist, who was the forerunner of Christ, was also a miracle, because his parents were way too old to be having children. Yet an angel appeared to Zechariah to tell him that his wife Elizabeth would have a child in her old age. When John the Baptist was born to them, Zechariah broke out into a song of praise. It is found in Luke 1:67-79.

Zechariah’s song emphasizes that Christ came to save us. Luke 1:68-69 says, “Praise the Lord, the God of Israel, because He has visited and provided redemption for His people. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David.” In the Bible, a horn was a symbol of strength. The Messiah was to come from the family line of King David. So Zechariah was singing about the same thing his son would prophesy when John the Baptist saw Jesus, and John proclaimed, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

   Zechariah’s song reminds us that Christ came to save us from sin.

C.     The angel’s song says that Christ came to give us peace (Luke 2:13-14)

   When the angel announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, he was suddenly surrounded by a great angel choir that sang the best-known of the songs that first Christmas. We read it in Luke 2:13-14. It is called “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” because it begins with the words, “Glory to God in the highest.”

   The angel’s song spoke about Christ, the Prince of Peace, coming to bring us peace. Most of us know this song from the King James Version, which says, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, Good will towards men.” Many of us react to that like the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote the words to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” during the Civil War. He wrote,

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

   The good news is that the most reliable ancient manuscripts do not say what the KJV says. That is why the HCSB translates it, “peace on earth to people He favors!” You see, Jesus’ coming is not a general guarantee that everybody will have peace. The more accurate translation does not say peace to all men, but peace to people He favors. That is, peace is available to those who receive God’s grace, or favor, through faith in Christ. As Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” On Christmas Eve, 1914, during World War I, the British, French and German armies laid down their arms and visited with one another in peace, and they all sang “Silent Night” in their own languages, as they all knew the song. The message about the Prince of Peace made all the difference, even in the midst of war.

   Have you found the peace of Christ? The angel’s song reminds us that Christ came to give us peace, a peace we receive by faith in Him.

 

D.     Simeon’s song says that to keep Christmas with us, we must share it (Luke 2:29-32)

 

   There is one more Christmas song in Luke’s Gospel. Officially, it was after Christmas, since it happened a few days later. A lot of people get the post-Christmas blues after Christmas is over. They get kind of sad, taking down the Christmas tree and putting away the decorations. And we rarely sing Christmas carols after Christmas Day. But Simeon did.

   A few days after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem to dedicate Him to the Lord in the temple. There they met a prophet named Simeon, who had been waiting all of his life for the Messiah to come and save His people. Luke 2:26 says it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he saw the Messiah. When he saw Jesus with Mary and Joseph, Simeon took Him in his arms and sang the fourth Christmas carol. In that song, Simeon reminded us that to keep Christmas with us, we must share it. We read the song in Luke 2:29-32.

   Simeon sang, “For my eyes have seen Your salvation. You have prepared it in the presence of all peoples—a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory to Your people Israel.”

   Simeon knew that the salvation that is offered in Jesus Christ was prepared for “all peoples,” both Gentiles and Jews, and he wanted everybody to know that the baby Jesus that he was holding in his arms was the Savior.

   Simeon’s song reminds us, to keep Christmas all year long, keep on sharing the good news.

 Christmas carols that celebrate Jesus may not be in the top 20, but people still recognize the songs and enjoy hearing them this season of the year, which is all the more reason for us to play carols in our homes and cars and places we work. It’s a simple way to share the good news.

    And how we need to renew the tradition of going Christmas caroling! I have a suspicion that if Zechariah and Simeon and Mary were with us today, they would be going door-to-door caroling, with some shepherds right behind them and angels overhead.

   Years ago, a small group of carolers went door-to-door in a wealthy neighborhood of Beverly Hills, California. They rang a doorbell, and the man of the house answered, all in a hurry. He said, “Look, I appreciate the sentiment, but I really don’t have time for this. The house is a mess and we’re trying to get out the door to go shopping. Come by some other day.” As he shut the door, Bing Crosby and his family said, “Okay,” and left.

    God sent His Son at Christmas. Don’t be so busy you miss the song.

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Finding Christ in Our Christmas Lights

KeaganLights12.13.2013Copyright 2013 by Bob Rogers

Houses all over my neighborhood are covered with outdoor Christmas lights, but what does it have to do with the birth of Jesus Christ? Let’s go back and look at where we got the tradition of Christmas lights.

I. Origins of Christmas lights

For centuries, Christmas lights meant lighting candles.

The tradition of putting up Christmas lights began with putting candles on Christmas trees. Christmas trees originated in Germany by the 16th century, from several different traditions. Some Germans actually burned an evergreen tree in the town square and danced around it. There is a popular legend that Martin Luther, the German Protestant reformer, began the tradition of putting candles on Christmas trees. The legend says that one crisp Christmas Eve, about the year 1500, he was walking through snow-covered woods and was struck by the beauty of a group of small evergreens. Their branches, dusted with snow, shimmered in the moonlight. When he got home, he set up a little fir tree indoors so he could share this story with his children. He decorated it with candles, which he lighted in honor of Christ’s birth. (Accessed on the Internet on December 5, 2013 at: http://www.christmas-tree.com/where.html).

Whether or not this is true, we know that the Advent wreath was invented in 1839 by Johann Henrich Wichern, a Protestant pastor who worked with the urban poor in Germany. The children would ask every day if Christmas had arrived, so Wichern built a ring with evergreen and candles to candles to light the 24 days in December before Christmas, and large candles to mark the Sundays. Later this was simplified to four candles for the four Sundays, and a Christ candle in the middle for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The custom of lighting an Advent candle did not spread to America until a century later, in the 1930s. (Accessed on the Internet December 4, 2013 at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advent_wreath).

II. Modern Christmas light traditions

On December 22, 1882, Edward H. Johnson, vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company, displayed his Christmas tree with 80 red, white and blue electric lights bulbs the size of walnuts, at his home on Fifth Avenue in New York City. This was the first time a Christmas tree had been illuminated with electric lights, but the idea spread quickly. Three years later, the White House Christmas tree was covered with electric lights. By the early 19th century, it became popular to put lights on buildings, not just on Christmas trees. In the 1960s, with the construction of so many subdivisions in American communities, it became the custom in American neighborhoods for many families to cover their houses with lights. This custom has spread around the world, and is particularly popular in Japan. (Accessed on the Internet on December 4, 2013 at: http://en.wikipedia.org./wiki/Christmas_lights).

As I mentioned at the beginning of this message, Christmas lights cover waterfronts, caverns, skyscrapers and shopping centers today. Some even use synchronized timers to have their lights flash to music.

Yet while many American homes are covered with Christmas lights, many of the families who live inside never go to church. Christmas lights are popular in Japan, but a very few Japanese are Christians. So what do Christmas lights have to do with Jesus Christ and His birth? Actually, it has everything to do with Christmas!

III. The light of Christ

The Bible uses light as a symbol for Christ in both the Old Testament and New Testament.

In Numbers 24:17, the prophet Balaam said, “A star will come from Jacob, and a scepter will arise from Israel.”

The prophet Isaiah said, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD shines over you… Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your radiance…Caravans of camels will cover your land… They will carry gold and frankincense and proclaim the praises of the LORD.” (Isaiah 60:1, 3, 6).

The Gospel of Matthew shows how these prophecies pointed to the coming of Jesus as the Messiah: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea in the days of King Herod, wise men from the east arrived unexpected in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.’” (Matthew 2:1-2)

Perhaps the eastern star-gazers had been studying the Hebrews scriptures. Perhaps they read Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:17 that a star would come in Israel. We don’t know what star they saw. Astronomers say that there was a convergence of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in 7-6 B.C., and a Comet in 5 B.C. Since our calendars are off a few years, we now know that Jesus was born about 4-6 years earlier than 1 A.D., so it is possible that they saw one of these astronomical events. Yet God could well have produced a supernatural light. According to Matthew 2:9, the star moved and then stopped moving. “After hearing the king, they went on their way. And there it was—the star they had seen in the east! It led them until it came and stopped over the place where the child was.”

Perhaps the wise men read Isaiah’s prophecy that nations would come to his light and caravans of camels would bring gold and frankincense to praise the Lord. For look at what it says in Matthew 2:11, “Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary His mother, and falling on their knees, they worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

Matthew’s gospel shows us how Jesus fulfilled the prophecy and is represented by the light. John’s gospel makes the application to you and me. John 1:4-5 says, “Life was in Him, and that life was the light of men. That light shines in the darkness, yet the darkness did not overcome it.”

Let’s take a closer look at this, because every line in these two verses is expanded on later in the Gospel of John.

John 1:4a says, “Life was in Him.” John 5:26 says, “For just as the Father has life in Himself, so also He has granted to the Son to have life in Himself.” Jesus, the Messiah, has something powerful within Himself: life. He is able to give abundant life and eternal life to His followers.

John 1:4b says, “and that life was the light of men.” John 1:5a continues, “That light shines in the darkness.” We read in John 8:12, “Then Jesus spoke to them again: ‘I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows Me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” Do you see how John 8:12 explains John 1:4-5? If you want to have real, abundant, eternal life, you need to come out of the darkness of sin and this evil world, and come to the light of Jesus Christ.

Now look at John 1:5b: “yet the darkness did not overcome it.” The Message says, “the darkness couldn’t put it out.” The NLT translates, “the darkness can never extinguish it.” In John 12:35 we read, “Jesus answered, ‘The light will be with you only a little longer. Walk while you have the light so that darkness doesn’t overtake you.’” The word translated “overtake” in John 12:35 is the same Greek word translated “overcome” in John 1:5.

So what does this all mean? It means that there is a great spiritual battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. Jesus warns that darkness can overtake you. You and I can be consumed with evil and sin and defeated. But Jesus is the light of the world. And if we come to His light, the darkness can never put it out. In Matthew 5:14, Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” Jesus calls us to shine His light to a dark world that does not know Him.

Let me tell you the tale of two sons. It is a true tale. Both families have given me permission to tell their stories.

Mitch and Amy Ambrose are members of First Baptist Church of Rincon. Their son, Joshua, was two years old when he got sick, but he loved Christmas lights. He had several surgeries that next year. When he was almost three years old, he was going to have to go to the hospital for brain surgery. It was the middle of November. He asked if they were going to have a Christmas tree with lights on it. They said yes, and Amy they put the tree up in the middle of November, and put lights on it the day before they went to the hospital, so he got to see the lights. The morning after the brain surgery, he had a seizure and lost consciousness, which left him totally physically disabled. He couldn’t respond to his family at all, so the doctors labeled him as blind. But when he was about eight years old, he was lying on his play mat on the floor, and the Christmas tree was up with the lights on. When Mitch and Amy came home from Wednesday night church, Josh had crawled up under the tree, trying to get closer to the light, unknown to the caregiver. To this day, Josh still loves to come to church and see the Christmas lights.

Nick and Brenda Revette are my brother-in-law and sister-in-law. Their son, our nephew Brian, was two and a half years old, about the same age as Josh, also right before Christmas. Brian was struck with spinal meningitis, and almost died. He survived, but was left blind. He wanted to see the Christmas tree, but he couldn’t see it that year, because he was blind. He was afraid of the dark. He would say, “dark is bad.” But people continued to pray for Brian, just as people prayed for Josh. A few months after Christmas, Brian remarked that he saw a horse on the TV, and they realized that his eyesight was coming back. The next year, Brian got to see the light on the Christmas tree again.

Both of these young men, Josh Ambrose and Brian Revette, are now in their 20s. Josh still cannot speak. Brian can see, but he continues to have seizures and is limited in his activities. But the thing they have in common is that they have both wanted to see the Christmas lights, and they both did. Josh saw the lights right before his stroke. Brian saw the lights after he recovered from his stroke. Jesus said in Revelation 22:16, “I am the Bright and Morning Star.” And because a star stood over Bethlehem, and because Jesus came as the light of the world, one day both of these young men will see Jesus face to face in the brilliance of all His glory in heaven.

Yet there remain billions of people who have yet to see the true light of Christmas.

It is interesting that almost every nation celebrates Christmas, even nations that are not Christian. The Japanese, for example, love the lights and music of Christmas. Post-modern Europe, which is largely post-Christian and has forgotten Christ, still loves to celebrate Christmas.

The 6.8 billion people in the world are ethnically grouped into 11,626 people groups. Of these people groups, some 3,352 people groups have no one who is spreading the gospel among them. No churches, no missionaries, no gospel.

The nations are waiting. The light has dawned at Bethlehem. As we put up our Christmas lights, let’s make sure that we share the light of Christ with the nations. Their eternal destiny depends on it.

When I asked Brian’s mother, my sister-in-law Brenda, to share how she feels about Christmas lights, she said, “God was not in the dark. God was in the light. God sent us His light, the light of the world that first Christmas. God’s miracles are great. When you look at the Christmas lights, remember the true light!”

If you see a video ad below this post, please understand that I have no control over these ads, and that I do not necessarily endorse the product.