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Yes, it is bright, merry, joyful, and the most wonderful time of the year. A season to celebrate Emmanuel, God with us. But it can also be the most difficult time of year for those who are lonely, are walking through the loss of a loved one, or have contentious relationships with their family. Even some of our most treasured Christmas songs are complicated. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was written from the point of view of World War II soldiers, dreaming of home while living in the horrors of war, while Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” resigns to “muddle through, somehow,” hoping her troubles will be gone next year. That’s not very merry or bright.
Even so, Andy Williams was right: Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. But the contrast of love, joy, peace, and hope with the reality of the wounds, wars, and worldliness of our daily lives can be jarring. How should we, the church, respond to the Christmas season in light of the pain in the world?
One solution is to ignore the darkness that surrounds us, to not talk about the news and ignore the struggles of the holidays. But that won’t do, especially for the people commanded to be light in the darkness (Matthew 5:14). We don’t have the option of hiding under a bushel to preserve our peace.
Another response would be to reject the joy of Christmas in an effort to highlight the necessary needs of the world, becoming cynical toward the ignorantly holly-jolly attitude of the season. Joylessness is not an appealing option, especially for those of us who love the decorations and music of Christmas. But a muted, honest response may feel like the only way to address the real hurt in the world around us. Is this season about Christ or the excess of materialism? Where is the joy we sing about for the starving in Yemen? Where is the peace that is heralded through the speakers of our shopping centers? Why is it here but not in Ukraine or Uvalde? In this world, Christmas can feel like glossy wrapping paper around a lump of coal. Like Frank Sinatra sings in the too-often-ignored carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”:
Yes, the world is broken and can appear hopelessly irreparable. And, yes, our cultural values have infiltrated Christmas. But cynicism towards Christmas isn’t a path to wholeness. Quite the contrary: our only hope in life or death is that baby in the manger, the “reason for the season.” The world needs our celebration of Jesus. We can’t solve a crisis on the other side of the world, but we can share the joy of Jesus’s birth with everyone we meet.
So, we cannot avoid the complications of Christmas, but we also cannot reject the happiness of the holiday. We walk a third path, the way of Christ, of intermingled joy and sorrow. We groan and weep because of sin and its effects but we can do nothing but rejoice in the hope we have found in Christ (Romans 8:22–25; Philippians 4:4–5).
Just think about the way we celebrate Christmas. In the coldest season of the year, when darkness overwhelms our non-working hours, we emblazon our homes with lights and warm ourselves with hot chocolate. We brave the winter weather to be near to family, bearing gifts to (what can seem like) everyone we know. We focus on giving, serving, and compassion toward the needy in our communities. We defy the present darkness to proclaim our hope in Jesus (John 1:5). That is the Christian life!
The spirit of Christmas is neither avoidant nor despairing; it is defiantly hopeful. We are caught between the two comings of Christ and choose to live in the assurance of the second while acknowledging that we can do more to spread light of his first. Yes, we are awash with pain, loneliness, grief, war, poverty, and illness, but it will not always be that way. We can stand where and sing triumphantly with Frank Sinatra into the wintery night:
Merry Christmas. Come, Lord Jesus.
A holiday brimming with delicious food, time with family and friends, and lots of football, Thanksgiving is also a day to remember what we’re thankful for. For Christians, Thanksgiving presents an opportunity to reflect on all God has done and is doing and thank him.
Gratitude should mark the people of God, but we can be tempted to reserve it for a holiday or mealtime prayers. Paul exhorts us in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 to “give thanks in everything; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” His command feels extreme—does he really want us to give thanks in everything? If so, what does gratitude even look like? How can we start building a habit of thanksgiving?
The good news is we can become grateful people by the power of the Spirit, and we can begin growing in gratefulness with one simple step: noticing what God is doing in our lives.
Paul mentions fourteen times in his letters that he thanks God for the people he’s writing to. Have you ever stopped to consider why he mentioned his gratefulness for his fellow Christians? Whether he is about to write words of rebuke or correction or encouragement, he still thanks God for the church—for people. He notices them. More importantly, he notices that God has orchestrated his relationship with them, that God put them in his life for a reason, and that God works in and through them.
Just as God brings people into our lives, he also places us in our neighborhoods, jobs, and churches. When he created the world, he put humans in it to live, grow, and take care of creation. Taking time to notice the world God put you in—your workplace, your home, your car, your church, your neighborhood park—can help cultivate gratitude in your heart. Yes, difficult places exist. Brokenness riddles our world. But God’s goodness, faithfulness, and kindness always shine forth through the brokenness for us to witness and thank him for.
Have you ever paused to notice a moment? Maybe the giggles of a playing toddler, the taste of a home-cooked meal, or the words of a hymn in Sunday worship. Or maybe you look back on past moments, spending time to reminisce with old college friends or to remember a loved one who’s passed away.
Past or present, moments encapsulate beauty. Slowing down to notice important or even seemingly insignificant moments can make us more grateful.
Taking notice of your people and your world—and seeing all of it as God-given, as proof of his love and grace—is the first step toward gratitude. When we know what to notice, we can move from simply observing our lives to giving thanks to God. Thanksgiving can look different for all of us, but there are a few practical ways we can weave it into our lives.
Keeping a gratitude journal is trendy for a reason. When we put pen to paper and list what we’re grateful for, we acknowledge what God has given us in a physical way. Regularly slowing down to thank God helps solidify gratitude in our hearts and builds our thankfulness muscle. Journals can also help us remember what God has done for us when we’re facing impossible, difficult situations. In many ways, it is an act of worship to write down what we are grateful for. Grab a journal or a pad of paper and try writing down three things you’re thankful for every day, then turn your list into a prayer of praise.
Gratitude is contagious. When we tell others what we’re thanking God for, we point them to gratefulness. Take a walk with a friend or call a family member and weave gratitude into your conversation organically. Notice how speaking with thankfulness about your life affects others. Or tell a significant person in your life that you are thankful for him or her and why, just as Paul did for the churches he wrote to.
Hardship often makes gratitude feel as impossible as asking the rain to stop pouring. When we face difficulty, the habits we’ve formed in calmer times come in handy. They give us the words to say when we have none to offer. Find verses on gratitude and memorize them (consider Psalm 100; Philippians 4:6–7; or 1 Thessalonians 5:18). Make a playlist of songs that express thanksgiving to God and return to it often. Or find a written prayer that thanks God that you can pray when words don’t come easily.
Gratitude transforms us. When we give thanks, we acknowledge God and his work in the world. We lift our eyes from looking at ourselves to see the spiritual reality of our lives.
God is at work. He always has been and always will be.
As you enter the holiday season, look for ways to build a lifestyle of gratitude. Invite your friends and family to join you and see how God grows joy, love, and hope in you as you thank him.
Can we just skip the first seventeen verses of Matthew? The real story of Jesus starts when Joseph struggles with Mary’s news that she’s expecting a baby that isn’t his. At Christmastime, we want to read about dreams and angels and a baby’s birth, not a long list of “begats.”
Actually, no. Biblical authors always write with purpose. During this Advent season, as we anticipate the second coming of Jesus by contemplating his first coming, let’s consider what Matthew is teaching us through the orderly genealogy.
Including Jesus’s ancestry proves he was born specifically into the family of David. By tracing a direct line from David to Jeconiah to Joseph, Matthew demonstrates that Jesus was a legitimate son of David, qualified to become the future king of Israel.
The names Matthew includes are also important to understanding Jesus. Readers can go back to the Old Testament to learn more about each ancestor mentioned. Careful readers will notice that among forty-two generations in Matthew’s list, five included the mother along with the father. We are meant to note those breaks in his pattern and explore why their stories might be significant.
“Judah fathered Perez and Zerah by Tamar . . .” (Matthew 1:3)
How do you preach a family-friendly sermon about an abandoned daughter-in-law (Tamar) who seduced her father-in-law (Judah) and was declared righteous for doing it? It’s difficult, but knowing the tradition of Levirate Law helps: Judah was morally bound to provide a husband for Tamar after his two oldest sons died, but he refused. Tamar later pursued the justice owed to her by tricking (a very willing) Judah into sleeping with her. Though ready to condemn her apparent immorality, when Judah realized what had happened he admitted, “She is more righteous than I” (Genesis 38:26, NIV). She birthed twin sons, one of whom became a forefather to David and eventually Jesus. The woman often labeled “prostitute” was actually pursuing righteousness—and God blessed Israel through her.
“Salmon fathered Boaz by Rahab . . .” (Matthew 1:5)
The Canaanite prostitute had heard about the nation of Israel, and their mighty God, long before they prepared to overrun her city of Jericho (Joshua 2). When she realized Israelite spies were in her inn, she hid them from her own authorities and proclaimed her allegiance to Yahweh, “for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on earth below” (Joshua 2:11). Turning her back on her own people and choosing God took guts. Rahab went from the ultimate outsider—an immoral foreigner—to becoming a leading insider, accepted as a faithful member of Judah. She eventually married their leader and became a noteworthy link in the Messianic line. Her courage and faith demonstrate for all of us that God restores the repentant and welcomes all who call on his name.
“Boaz fathered Obed by Ruth” (Matthew 1:5)
Another foreigner grafted into Jesus’s heritage, Ruth came to faith through grief. A Moabite woman, she married an Israelite man who died within ten years, leaving her childless. But her devotion to her grieving mother-in-law, Naomi, reflected the unconditional loving-kindness of Israel’s God whom she pledged to serve. Ruth is, above all, loyal, just as Yahweh is. She, too, married into the leading family of Judah and became a critical link in the long line to the savior.
“David fathered Solomon by Uriah’s wife . . .” (Matthew 1:6)
By avoiding her first name and instead referencing her by her murdered husband’s name (2 Samuel 11), Matthew highlights Bathsheba as a victim. The reference isn’t so much about her as it is about David’s actions toward her. Having abused his power as king and taken her to his bed, then murdering her husband after a failed attempt to cover up the resulting pregnancy, David is the sinner in this story. In his parable to David (2 Samuel 12:1–14), the prophet Nathan confronts him with his guilt, prompting David’s confession that he indeed had sinned. But God chose to fulfill his covenant with David despite David’s evil behavior, because he is a faithful God. Even our worst sins will not discourage him from his purposes. What about Bathsheba? God raised her up through her son Solomon, who became king after David thanks in part to her advocacy (1 Kings 1:15–35). By God’s grace she survived heartbreak and grew into a woman of strength and influence.
“. . . Mary, who gave birth to Jesus who is called the Messiah.” (Matthew 1:16)
The culmination of Jesus’s genealogy centers on his mother, Mary. The rest of chapter one (vv 18–25) assures readers that Mary’s child comes from God himself, that Jesus is the long-promised Emmanuel that Isaiah predicted (Isaiah 7:14). We can explore Mary’s point of view in Luke 2, where we see her willing submission to God’s challenging but amazing call on her life. She was Jesus’s first disciple, believing in him from the very beginning and faithful to stand with him through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
The Advent season gives us time to reflect on the first coming of our savior and the longing that God’s people felt as they waited for him. But he did come! Jesus was born—Emmanuel, “God with us”—as part of an extended family whom God worked through to bless the world. As we anticipate his second coming, Jesus’s family line can teach us much about how he wants us to live: faithful, obedient, loyal, courageous, repentant, forgiving.
The Christmas season is full of light, joy, and beauty. At the center of our celebrations and family traditions is a vulnerable baby in a feeding trough—Emmanuel, God with us. As Christmas approaches, the season of Advent offers us a chance to reflect on our savior, his purpose, and the surprising ways he invited people near to him.
To help you and your church reflect on the coming, or advent, of Christ, pastor Derwin Gray spent time with our team filming Advent, a five-part series exploring the ways the birth of Jesus changes everything. We caught up with Derwin after he preached at the RightNow Conference to hear about his experience making this series and his hope for everyone who watches it.
Derwin: Filming with the RightNow Media team is not only fun—because they are all hilarious and we have good chemistry because they are great people—but also, they have professional expertise. The way they are able to take content and match it with locations and editing encourages me in my faith. I am excited about this Advent series because they make me better than I am!
Derwin: The biggest thing I learned about Advent was a greater awareness of God’s heart. Advent means “arriving” or “coming.” In the beginning, the Father had already determined that Jesus was going to come and reconcile all things to himself. The way he goes about that is beautiful, mysterious, life-giving, and powerful.
Derwin: I want them walking with Jesus more. Jesus is not just a Sunday friend; he is an all-week, all-the-time companion. He’s Lord. He’s Master.
The beauty of Advent is that we see the beauty and vulnerability of God entering into humanity in a fragile state and form. We see God use people to do incredible things! You don’t have to be the biggest or the best. Mary was just a teenager. Joseph was just some guy! God takes ordinary people and does extraordinary things.
So, I want people to be overwhelmed with God’s grace and the gift of his Son this Christmas.
Summertime can feel like an obstacle to overcome for parents of school-aged kids. How do we keep our kids busy without over-scheduling them? How do we manage our own responsibilities while also ensuring our children’s minds don’t wither away from hours of screen time? Can anything keep kids interested, occupied, productive, and even learning during summer vacation?
Remember playdough, finger paint, and crayons? Toddler days were messy! But while the medium may (or may not) change, our kids’ creativity doesn’t. Let’s occupy their busy minds by filling their busy hands with opportunities to create. Adapt the following ideas to the ages and abilities of your children.
Set up a dedicated spot in your home—a table, nook, or entire room if you have it—for artistic endeavors stocked with a supply of paper, pencils, paint, and other creative tools. Name a particular hour of your day as “art class” and explore a passion or talent your child may possess. And if you just can’t handle glitter, paint, or modeling clay, find a friend who can and trade playdates with them. When my kids were between five and twelve years old, I always loved taking them to my friend Susie, who, as an actual artist, was happy for them to join her kids in making a huge mess on her kitchen table. They came home with glittery hair, colorful smudges, and shining eyes as they showed me their newest handmade treasures.
Books are the doorway to the future, exercising children’s imaginations, thinking, comprehension skills, and creativity. Stories help them understand the world and imagine a new world in which they can play a part. The power of reading inspired Dolly Parton, for instance, to create her Imagination Library, which sends a book per month to children from birth to five years old.
While babies are napping, toddlers can enjoy “rest time” with books until they doze off. Older kids can settle down during the heat of the day with a reading hour. Or jazz up your routine with a weekly trip to the library where they can discover new stories and foster a lifelong habit of reading.
Begin with the best book in the world, the Bible. A short time reading God’s Word will start every day with pure goodness. Don’t make it complicated—even opening your physical Bible and then retelling the story in your own words teaches your children the value of hearing from God every day. Let them participate and help you as they are able. Maybe have them draw a picture depicting something from the story that day.
Once they start reading, many children begin dramatizing the stories they love. Do your kids enjoy imitating or quoting their favorite characters and scenes? Clean out your closets and offer your rejects or old favorites to a costume bin. Encourage the kids to act out their morning Bible stories, write screenplays, get into character, and become someone new on stage. Cheer on your cotton ball-bearded Moses and blue sash-draped Mary. Ooh and aah when “Jesus” multiplies the cheese and crackers. Always say yes when they ask if you want to watch.
Reading often leads to writing. Keep old school notebooks from the recycle bin, tear out the used pages, and reuse what’s left as “dreaming and drafting” notebooks. Let your kids’ creative instincts run wild! Don’t worry about penmanship or grammar. When they feel they’ve completed a poem or short story and are ready to share, help them re-write it neatly or even type it into the computer (we can’t ignore sneaking in easy learning). Print out a final version to share with friends and family. Celebrate your child’s imagination and hard work.
Storytelling takes many forms, and video is easily the most popular type of media right now. Disney, for example, rules the screens in many households. The kids will ask to watch their favorite episodes or movies all day long, and we are often tempted to let them vegetate in front of the screen. But why not put the camera—or your iPhone—into their hands instead? Using free apps such as iMovie or InShot, young aspiring producers can learn basic editing skills for photography and video. Movie night can take on a whole new angle.
Let’s encourage our kids to tell stories that reflect their faith and God’s character. The original kids’ series The Creators, a product of the RightNow Media video production team, tells the story of a group of friends who join forces to create films that are “meaningful, virtuous, and good.” The Creators weaves biblical truths into engaging stories with humor and the right dose of seriousness. Perhaps a short time in front of a show will inspire your kids to produce their own series!
When God created humans, he made us in his image (Genesis 1:27). That means we are made to be creators too—it’s part of our DNA and our purpose. Who says we have to wait until we are adults to make wonderful things?