Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Silent, Snowy Day

I am sitting in my living room, enjoying the first white Christmas season of my life.  It is a rare feeling of quietness and peace,  this double stillness of weather and holiday.  I can only imagine that this is what life must have been like in the days before cars, computers, and the rattling noise of phone and television. Yesterday the family was here, noisily celebrating.  We watched movies and talked. Today we sit in silence and solitude. 
We are missing Sunday Service, to be sure.  But even so, I do not really regret it. Can anything better display the beauty of God than the silent whitness of a snowy day? Can anything better convey the sense of reverence than this quiet moment of stillness?  No monastery or hermitage can be quieter than this moment. 
I think about Elijah,  broken from his battle with Ahab, exhausted by his trip through the Sinai desert, praying in is cave and hearing the Still Small Voice of God. 
The problem with silence I think, is more in what we do with it.  Instead of drinking it in, we are always looking for ways to fill it.  Silence does not need to be filled. It needs to fill us.  We do not have to break silence, silence needs to break us.   God speaks in silence only if we listen to it.
Silence is precious.  It is nice to have a piece of it, if only for a little while.

The Dawning Light

"Arise, shine, for your light has come,

and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.

See, darkness covers the earth

and thick darkness is over the peoples,

but the LORD rises upon you

and his glory appears over you.

Nations will come to your light,

and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Isaiah 60:1-3

The know very little about the nativity of Jesus, but there is one thing of which we may be fairly certain—he was not born on Christmas.

We know this for three reasons. First, we have the statement in Luke 1:26 In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, This may refer to Elizabeth’s sixth month of pregnancy, but this is not likely, since it would be a repeat of what the angel said earlier. More likely it would mean that Mary conceived in the sixth month of the year, and gave birth in March of April. Second, shepherds did not abide in the field in December. Shepherds stayed in the field so the sheep could fatten themselves on the spring grass. In December, it would have been as barren as our grass. Besides it would have been terribly cold. Third, the earliest celebrations of Jesus’ birth were held in April, not December.

Some people say that the reason Christmas is celebrated on December 25 is because of a Roman holiday called Saturnalia. Personally I do not believe it. There was a much deeper reason.

The selection of December 25 was a stroke of genius. It is four days after the Winter solstice, the darkest time of the year. What better time to celebrate the coming of the Light of the World?

From the very earliest days, Christmas has been a festival of lights, because He was the Light of the World. John wrote of him “in him was life, and that light was the light of men.”

The coming of the Light of the World has astounding implications. Think of it! Thousands and thousands of years ago, Adam and Eve committed the first sin. Darkness entered the world. For our whole existence the dark implications of that one sin have been growing on the earth, not only affecting people, but all of creation as well. The world grew gradually darker with sin.

In the first eleven chapters of Genesis, we can trace the progression of sin. Adam and Eve had two children--Cain and Abel. Cain murdered his brother out of rage. Perhaps it was premeditated, perhaps not. Perhaps Cain felt sorry, perhaps not. But we cannot deny that killing a human being seems a more manifestly evil act than stealing fruit from a forbidden tree.

The third recorded sin was worse. Cain's great-great-great grandson Lamech not only killed a man, but bragged about it to his wives. There is no fear or shame in him. He said.

wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times."

It got worse from. Just before the story of Noah, the Bible says "When men began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose." Gen 6:1-3

The "sons of God" refers to angelic beings. These “sons of God” are really fallen angels, or demons. In six chapters we have gone from fruit stealing to consorting with demons. The darkness is spreading, growing thicker.

In Genesis 9, we have a new dawn of sorts. God wipes out the whole world except for the eight people—Noah’s family. But sin rode on the ark along with the animals. Noah got drunk, his children go bad to worse, and soon the world is back as before, full of sin and corruption. Soon they all gather at the tower of Babel, and sin has become the victor again.

No one knows how much time elapsed between Adam and Noah, or Noah and Abraham. But we know that sin continued to thicken and darken, like smoke pouring into the atmosphere from a hundred hellish flames. The thicker it became, the more it obscured the light of God.

God made a promise to Abraham, that through Him would come a seed that would bless the whole earth. But Abraham never saw that child, or even dreamt what that redemption would be. When he did up in heaven, Abraham rejoiced to see it.

Two thousand years elapsed between Abraham and Jesus. During that time, sin continued to grow. We have a record of it in recorded history. There were wars, famine,d slavery, human sacrifice, ritual slaughter, torture, and genocides. By the time of Isaiah in the seventh century BC, the world had already seen several evil empires, as evil as Babel--Akkadian, Sumerian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Hittite, and many we cannot know. All these empires were built on sin—pride, idolatry, greed, and cruel oppression. Isaiah, looking out from his position as advisor to King Hezekiah, would have seen the wickedness first hand. Isaiah had every reason to believe sin would destroy everything good and holy that was left on earth.

But Isaiah saw the heart of God, too. Even then the dawn was approaching. He wrote.

"Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. "

Isaiah saw that sin was thick and the world was dark. Even so dawn was coming. God was going to part the clouds of sin, and the light of God would eventually sign through.

But this parting did not come in Isaiah’s time. Far from it! The seventh century BC was terrible but the sixth century was even worse. The Assyrian Empire was followed by the Babylonians, who were followed by the Persians, who were followed by the Romans.

We could not say if the Romans were the worst people who ever lived—but they certainly had to among the worst. They brought order to the world, but they did it through war and oppression. They destroyed whole nations without a hint of remorse. We would be shocked by the level to which they sank. Some emperors were insane like Nero ad Caligula. But there were sane ones were much, much worse, because they were systematically wicked. Today's mafia was based on Roman "virtues" such as vengeance and ruthlessness.

But the rest of the world was not any better. Even the religious leaders of those days were corrupt beyond belief. The whole world was a cesspool of slaughter.

The child of Bethlehem was born into the world of the Romans. He was the light of which Isaiah spoke. But he only came to a small place, and only a few knew. Nevertheless, the light broke through.

Think about what it is like during a thunderstorm. You know the storm is over when you see a small cloud get out of the way for a moment and light break through. A single ray cames down, refracting from the moisture in the atmosphere. A rainbow appears.

Jesus was that rainbow, appearing in the midst of a dark and messed up world. His appearing signaled the end of a long, long night.

Thirty-three years later, Jesus was died on the cross. It was a dark time for him, but it was the beginning of the light. On the cross Jesus paid the penalty for every sin ever done--for Cain and Lamech, for Noah's children, for the Nimrod, of the builders of the Tower of Babel. He paid the price for the Akkadians, Babylonians, Persians, and even for the sins of the Romans who nailed him there. He looked down at the Roman guards and said "Father Forgive them."

Now understand, this was not the end of darkness. It was the beginning of the end. The clouds parted, but there was still plenty of dark. Sin still happened. But gradually the forgiveness and glory of God in Jesus spread throughout the world until now, there are citizens of every country who rise up and call him Lord.

Now it is two thousand years after the manger and the cross. Sin is still thick. But we can no longer say (as some do) that the world is worse. Now it can be better, because the light of God is in it.

Sin Is not gone. Injustice exists, temptation exists, death exists, but it no longer has to be. Now, there is a light we can go to, and a forgiveness that has been bought for us

Jesus said "father forgive them" He meant it for the Romans as well as the Jews. He meant it for all the remaining generations of people until this very day. Now he offers us forgiveness. He offers the same forgiveness to the Arab terrorists and to the militant atheists and secularists. The light has come for them, if they will see it. They may be forgiven and have a new life because of the Baby of Bethlehem.

For the past two thousand years, the light and the darkness have been warring with each others. Sometimes the light is on the top. Other times it is th darkness. Our final victory is assured. But not before the last battle in our war is fought.

In Revelation we read that the darkness will gather for one more great push. Ut will be blown away like morning fog. The light will finally come to every part of the world. Adam's sin will at last be finally repaired.

But until that day, we have Christmas. We have the Bible, We have the Holy Spirit to point us in the direction of the light.

Many Christians despair this Christmas. Do not despair. The light has already come. We have Christmas to remind us, along with the Bible and the Holy Spirit. The Glory of the Lord is coming.

Rejoice that the light has come, and morning has broken over us.

The Woman, The Child, and the Dragon

What is the “true meaning of Christmas”? For the practicing Christian it is the celebration of the coming of Christ, the Messiah. For those who are not practicing Christians, Christmas may be about family, getting along with people, having a good time, giving gifts, or pretty much whatever positive feelings we want to make it. For the merchants, it is about making lots of money. For everyone else it is frantic shopping, partying, decorating, spending, obligations, reunions, and of course football. Christmas is an overdone, overblown, excuse to end the year with a week-long party.

Let me let you in on a secret. Christmas has always been this way. We have records, going back the Middle Ages, of complaints over the excessive celebration of Christmas. Even in ancient times they overdid it. People just like to party.

I like to party too—I’m not against it. But I like to have a reason to party. Meaning is important. Christmas has been sanitized, fantasized, stretched and pulled like taffy to make it palatable to the most number of people. We’ve added trees, snowflakes, presents, reindeer, sleighs, and of course Santa, but none of these things have anything to do with Christmas. One reason we have done this is because we really don’t want to talk about what really went on at the birth of Christ.

Here’s the truth about Christmas It was the decisive battle in a great war that has been going on since the dawn of time. It begins in Genesis 3: 14-15.

This refers of course to the events in Eden at the dawn of time. God put Adam and Eve in the garden to tend creation and to enjoy life. God gave only one commandment—“Of all the other trees you may eat. But do not eat from the tree of life, an do not touch it, lest you die.”

The Devil, taking the form of a serpent, tempted Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. Then she gave some to Adam. As a result, God evicted them from Eden.

Before they went, God had a session with Adam, Eve, and the serpent. First He asked Adam if he had eaten. Adam made an excuse. “It was my wife,” he said. Then he asked Eve if she had eaten. “The serpent made me do it,” she said. So God called he serpent forward.

"Cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals. You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel."

Here’s what he said. First, he would crawl on his belly forever. Second, the serpent and the woman would be enemies forever.

But God promised that one day the seed of the woman would crush he serpent’s head—that is, destroy him. God doesn’t say the seed of Adam but of Eve. People usually referred to the seed as being from a man, not a woman. This seed would only be of the woman. This seed, (descendent) would be wounded by the serpent, but he would destroy it.

We are not just talking about snakes. This is the Devil. Snake was just the form he took. This seed of a woman would destroy the Devil.

Until the coming of this seed, Satan has the upper hand. But when the seed of the woman comes, his reign would be over. Sin’s power will at last be broken.

This passage forms the basis of Revelation, chapter 12. Revelation is a a book of symbols, but when we interpret the symbols, everything becomes clear.

12:1-4 A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born.

What began as a simple story of a woman and a snake now has grown to cosmic proportions. The woman s not just a simple woman. She is Eve. She is also Israel. She has the moon under her feet and twelve stars in her crown. This is the promise to Eve promised in Genesis.

The serpent has grown, too. Now he is a dragon, the symbol of all worldly and Satanic powers. The enmity mentioned in Genesis has become a cosmic war.

Things are going badly for the woman. The woman is going into labor. Everything seem lost. What good is a pregnant woman against a dragon?

But wait a moment! What child is this she’s bearing? It is the seed of the woman who was promised to crush the serpent’s heel. His appearance on earth spells the end of the serpent’s reign. In desperation, the serpent-dragon-Devil lashed out at the woman, trying desperately to stop him from coming.

5-10 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.

And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down — that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:

"Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down.

Thus begins the final battle of the war begun in Genesis. The Devil tries to stop the coming of the child. He throws everything he has at the woman, but none of it works. Remember the accusations when it was discovered that Mary was pregnant out of wedlock? Remember how Joseph himself almost put her away? Remember how at the very moment the child was to be born suddenly they suddenly had to take that arduous journey to Bethlehem? Remember how they almost had to sleep out in the cold? Remember how Herod tried to deceive the wise men to find the child? Remember how he struck down the innocents of Bethlehem? All of this is the snarling fury of the beast, trying desperately to keep Christmas from coming.

Satan knows that this baby is destined to destroy him. First he tries ridicule. Then he tries bureaucractic confusion, then he tries outright murder, but none o it works. Jesus comes anyway, and it is the end of his kingdom, and his life.

God intervenes to protect the woman:

13-16 When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the desert, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent's reach. Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth.

John speaks poetically and symbolically, of course. God bears her up on angel wings. Satan spews venom at her, but God stops the venom. God did not allow Satan to have the upper hand over the mother of His child. Jesus came anyway.

But still, this does not stop the Devil’s fury. He just redirected it.

17 Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring — those who obey God's commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.

For the last two thousand years, Satan has still been railing against those who believer. It is useless, of course. Once Christmas came, there is nothing he could do. Unable to stop it, he set out to make war against believers. If he can’t stop Jesus coming, then he tries to smash those who believe it, so there will be no one to tell.

Satan is still trying to obscure Christmas from our eyes. He hides is behind a wall of pretty fantasies. He dazzles us with lights, so no one will notice what it is really about. Don’t let them know what He came to do, or what Christmas is all about. Let them continue to think whatever else they wish, as long as they don’t hear of God’s salvation. Let them think the Garden of Eden was a myth, that the Bible is a fantasy, and that it is all just a pretty story.

Lately, Satan has been following a plan that he believes will assure him victory. He has been pushing people to think it is all a myth. Philosophers for the past half century have developed a view called post-modernism, which says (rightly) that our minds think in terms of stories. But they have added (wrongly) that one story is as good as another. You can base your life around the Bible or Star Trek. It makes no difference. It doesn’t matter if it’s true.

So tell the Christmas story (the Devil says.) But tell of Santa Claus, too. Tell of Scrooge, while you’re at it, say It’s a Wonderful Life. It doesn’t matter, the Devil says. One’s as good as the other.

But a myth cannot save us. If you’re trapped under a car, does it matter whether you call 911, or yell for Superman? Jesus’ story is vital to us because it is true. God promised the Seed of the woman, and the seed of the woman came. God promised to defeat Satan and protect us, and he will. Christmas is glad tidings of great joy, only because it is real, and so is God.

Every year, we tell this story. We tell it because you must believe it. Jesus ties all history together. From Genesis to Revelation.

So as you celebrate Christmas this year, don’t let your family forget the real story behind the season. Don’t let them forget that there is only one who has ultimately defeated the Devil—and that person is the one we celebrate on Christmas Day, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Gift of the Blessing

He was his father's favorite boy. When his father Jacob was dying, he sent for him.

Esau was out in the field. He hurried home to his father's side. But before he could arrive, his brother Jacob to see his blind father and impersonated his brother.

His father put his hand on Jacob's head and pronounced the blessing he intended for Esau.

May God give you of heaven's dew and of earth's richness — an abundance of grain and new wine. May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you. May those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed." Gen 27:28-29

No sooner had his father finished and Jacob left, then Esau entered the room to receive his blessing. But his father had already given it. He burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, "Bless me — me too, my father! Gen 27;34

For the last four thousand years, scholars have been reading this story and scratching their heads. Just what was Esau after? Why was the blessing so important?

Perhaps Esau sought his father's blessing so he could be the leader of the family. But Jacob had already stolen the birthright. Esau had sold it fo a bowl of lentil soup. Jacob did not have to trick him again. He had already done it.

Perhaps the blessing was a prayer for God’s protection. But since when does our prayer for one child preclude us from praying with another?

The blessing incorporated both these ideas, but it was not either of them. The blessing was--something that is both special and unique. No two people can have the same blessing. Only one child can walk away with any specific blessing.

Isaac’s blessing was what he intended for Esau’s ears alone. He had carefully thought it out beforehand. Esau never heard those words to him. Esau had to settle for a much lesser blessing, hastily thought out and definitely not the same.

Parents love their children the same, but they do not treat them the same. Each child needs to be treated differently. A careful parent does not just divide their estate equally, they think through what each child needs and give that to them. That is what Isaac did. He planned his blessing to Esau specifically for Esau’s ears.

All this happened four thousand years ago in a culture so different from ours that we can barely imagine it. So what does this mean to us? Does it make any difference to us?

A blessing is hard to define. It is not just a word, but a feeling, an acceptance. The best we can define it is this—it is a specific statement or action expressing unqualified love and acceptance. A blessing is something that parents give children. It is also something children give parents. Husbands give it to wives and wives to husbands. We all give it to God, and God gives it to us. We can live with opposition and hatred, as long as we fell that someone somewhere has blessed us. None of us can survive without it.

I had a friend who was an amateur gardener. He had heard that talking to plants made a difference in how they grew. He planted two identical bushes across from one another on his garden path. Every day, he would turn to one plant and say "You are a good plant, I am pleased with you." He would turn to the other and say, "You are a bad plant. I hate you." Sure enough, the plant he complimented grew faster than the other. Then he reversed it. Sure enough, the hated plant began to grow, while the other plant wilted.

I don’t know if my friend was right about his plants. But I do know that it is true about people. When people are loved and appreciated, they grow. When they are belittled and criticized, they do not. A person who blesses a child is like the sun. If we shine upon her, she will thrive. But if we keep her in our shadow, she will never be what she was meant to be.

A parental blessing is a very personal and earthly need which every one of us experiences from our earliest days. A child builds a tower with blocks, and says "daddy, come see!" He wants approval. He wants blessing. A little girl climbs up in her daddy's lap. She wants a blessing. A boy goes out on the baseball field, hits a long drive, and looks back to his dad, to see if he is looking. He is looking for his blessing. A bride will not start the service until her father arrives to give her away.

Unfortunately, many missed the blessing. Maybe their parents did not give it. Maybe they were like Esau and stayed out in the field, to far from their parents to know how they felt. We looked for approval and it never came. Instead, we grew up thinking that we had to earn the love of others. We go on to teach our children this, so they never got the blessing, either.

A child grows up insecure and suspicious. He never knew there were people who could be trusted. A bride marries her husband but never feels good enough for him. A parent becomes dependent upon a child “liking” her, so she never disciplines, fearful of losing the child’s conditional love. All through life, the unblessed child has broken relationships, insecurity, fear, and hostility, and never fully understands why.

But there is good news. We have another father--our heavenly Father. He has promised us a blessing that no one can steal. That blessing is better than the ones our parents, crippled by sin and ignorance could ever give. Best of all, it is for all God’s children.

We have been studying the all-important horizontal relationship of our faith—our relationship with others. The blessing is the essence and substance of that relationship. It is what we are left on earth to do—to give others God’s unconditional love. God’s expressed love has the power to restore broken people--if only we know how to give it.

One of the most influential books I have ever read regarding my ministry is a book by Gary Smalley and John Trent—The Gift of the Blessing. In it, these two others identify five elements of a blessing. With some modification, here are the five elements we need to give others.

Verbal encouragement. When Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau he used words. Words are vital. It is not enough to love our wives, we must tell them we love them. It is not enough to love your children. You must tell them. For every criticism you throw in their direction, there should be twenty words of encouragement.

Many men especially confuse concern with blessing. The only way they know how to express love is with criticism. The cannot say anything positive without putting a critical sting in it. They believe they have to criticize, to make their loved ones better.

Perhaps. But criticism does not work in a relationship where there is no trust. If people do not know you are on their side, then your criticism will drive people away. Before we criticize we must first bless.

Healing touch. When Isaac blessed Esau, he touched his arm, and laid his hand upon his head. Often we forget that there are people in this church that never receive a touch from anyone all week. Our ritual of hugs and handshakes may be the only time that some people will get a hug all week.

When was the last time you hugged your children? Your wife? Your mother? Your friend? These meaningful touch mean more than a thousand words of praise.

Intelligent praise. Isaac admired his son for his abilities as a hunter and outdoorsman. His blessing of his son incorporated that admiration.

Jacob had other positive traits, but it was wholly inappropriate to praise him as a hunter. Jacob could cook it, but he couldn’t shoot it. His father Isaac knew that, and would not have praised his son for something he did not do.

Nothing smells worse than an insincere compliment. Complements need to be the result of having studied another and found something you genuinely like.

Even so, there is something to admire in all people. We are all created in God's image, which means there is something wonderful about everyone. All we need to do is find it.

Use imagery to tell their story. The human mind organizes our feelings into story and imagery. That’s why we illustrate sermons. We may not understand something complicated, but often a single image or a story will bring it home to us.

Use your imagination when you are trying to deliver a blessing. Know their story, and find some simple way of saying it. Give them something their imagination can grasp and understand how special they actually are.

“You have always been a failure.” “You’re a rotten egg.” “You are a loser.” Can you imagine how statements like that can affect a child’s self-image negatively?

“You’re a survivor.” “You’re gifted.” “You can do it.” Those kinds of statement can affect us for a lifetime. We hold onto images like that, and become what others predict. We need to intelligently seek out ways of expressing our positive images of others, to help them experience the grace of God.

Isaac's blessing to Esau invoked some of he same language that God gave to Abraham and Abraham gave to Isaac. Isaac is giving his son a story that goes back to God’s covenant with his grandfather. Jacob remembered that blessing, and told it ot his children. It was the family story for all generations.

Give them a destiny. Isaac did not just talk about Esau’s past. He gave him what was intended to be his future. He said he would rule over his household. All nations would be blessed by him. He looked at Esau’s story and his ability, and gave him a sense of destiny.

No one achieves in life without a vision of destiny. One of my middle school teachers had worked as a secretary in the statehouse in Texas. One day, her fellow secretaries were excitedly talking about a new, young state senator who had just begun his first term. He was tall and handsome, and made quite an impression. His name was Lyndon Johnson.

“Lyndon Johnson,” she said. “Never heard of him.”

She did not know that Johnson was in the room. He walked over to her, took off his cowboy had and bowed. “Well lady,” he said. “You will.”

Johnson became what he knew he would become—president. Someone in Johnson’s past had blessed him with a vision of what he could be, and had believed that he would become it. Johnson caught that confidence and carried it to the White House.

Bless your children with the gift of faith. Believe in them, and trust that God will do good things with them. Your faith in others is not based on what they can do, but on what God can do through them.

Give others a blessing, and they will bless you in return.

A Good Conversation

A good conversation can be a life changing event. A superficial conversation is forgotten almost immediately. We can be surrounded with geniuses, but never know it, because we never got beneath the surface.

The words of a man's mouth are deep waters,but the fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook. Prov 18:4

As iron sharpens iron ,so one man sharpens another. Prov 27:17

The purposes of a man's heart are deep waters ,but a man of understanding draws them out. Prov 20:5

These proverbs say the more we talk to people, and the deeper our conversation the smarter we are going to get. Conversely, if you want to make a people stupid and dull, then get them to stop talking, or else keep the conversation superficial. When God wanted to stop the tower of Babel, He simply made it so people could understand each other. Soon, they gave up in frustration and never finished the project. Satan has conquered the world by setting up walls of division between us so we could not learn from each other.

But if we learn to talk to each other--really talk--then the Kingdom of God can shine through us.

If we just learned to talk to each other, we would be far along the way towards knowing God. God made us so that every portion of us has a separate piece of God, since we are part of a body. Without that part, we will never be whole. So if we are together in churches or even in Bible studies, it stands to reason that we ought to grow in strength, stature, and godliness. If we hold together and communicate God's love with each other, we ought to be awesome.

But we aren't, why is that?

Do you know the "five second" rule? It's the rule that some people have, that says if some food hits the floor, if it isn't there more than five seconds, you can still eat it. Whether or not it is true, the theory behind it is simple. It says that if the contact we have with something is superficial, we are unlikely to catch anything from it. If ou know the five second rule, then so does the Devil. If the Devil can keep our relationships superficial, then we are unlikely to experience the Holy Spirit from each other. Just keep people talking about things that have no bearing on them--contestants on a reality show, movies, the weather, for example, and you avoid any danger of people becoming better people just by talking. Let all communication be frivolous, and we will remain frivolous, too.

Acts 3:1-9 gives us an excellent example of this. Peter and John were going to the temple. They were really only about a half mile from the temple so they probably passed by that direction several times a day. By the side of the road was a lame beggar who stuck out his hand. There is no telling how many times they must have seen that beggar.

Now we mustn’t think that a beggar as a parasite on society. Actually, they provide a very useful service. Religious people were expected to give alms to the poor. It was part of thir religious duties. This beggar was providing a service. If you gave him a coin and you gained a sens of righteousness. In truth, the worshippers would not have liked it if there were no beggars at the gate. If they did, they would have had to actually go where the poor people lived, and they wouldn’t like that. It would have upset the balance between beggars and giver.

Then Peter did something unexpected. He stepped out of the role that beggars and givers had. He said "look at us! Don't look at my hand. Don't look at my purse. Look me in the eye!"

This was a violation of he rules. Beggars looked down, humbly, or else they looked up sadly, like a puppy dog, humbly beseeching their wonderful masters for coins. That was the superficial relationship people expected from beggars. You gave them a coin, they gave you praise and appreciation. But Peter would have none of this. He wanted a deeper relationship with this man.

When he got his attention, he said. "Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee, in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk."

If Peter and John had left that relationship on a superficial level, nothing miraculous would have happened. But Peter and John refused to see a beggar as a beggar. He saw him as a human being.

The majority of our days are spent in superficial conversation and shallow relationships. I say “shallow” because we are only able to see a small portion of people. We do not look them in the eye, but define them by only one characteristics.

For example:

Judging. I hate cigarettes. Personally, I think cigarettes are a thoroughly unattractive habit. I would rather ride in a car full of skunks than a car full of people smoking. . My parents smoked, even though it made me nauseous and gave me asthma.

But I have never met a smoker. I know people who smoke, but they are not smokers. Te I cannot reduce person who smoke to one a nasty habit. Smokers can be kind and witty and considerate. They can be Christians or Jewish, or Republicans of Democrats, but they are not just smokers. I cannot let that one action which I dislike define them. So even when I do not like smoking, I cannot allow smoking to define my relationship with them.

The same is true of other things people do that I disagree with. Can I be friends with people who disagree with my politics. Can I be friends with homosexual or adulterer, or atheists. Jesus was. The Pharisees labeled and pigeonholed people according to their sins --homosexual, adulterer, coward, tramp, liar, fat. Then they would declare that we should never associate with people like that. But if all we see in one another is our faults, who could stand? We must rise above the faults of others and see the worth of a person as a whole if we are ever to have a helpful conversation.

Using. Once I got a phone call from a political candidate. He wanted to come to speak to our church. I told him we did not get involved in politics, but I would like to find our more about his candidacy, and where he stood. He hung up on me. If he could not use me to get votes, he wanted nothing to do with me.

We often reduce people to what they do for us. We call them customers, clients, salespeople, workmen, bosses, officers, and audiences. We count noses, and are always wanting to see how many we can add.

This is a necessary part of what we do, but we must always remember that a person is not a number. There is no reason we should not be in business. But we should never forget that the people we do business with are not just clients. They are real people with real needs.

Comparing There is nothing wrong with healthy competition. But when there is competition without respect, it can be poisonous. Competition reduces people to a measuring stick. We derive our own value from seeing what others do and have.

A Christian derives his opinion of himself from looking at God, not from looking at his neighbor. Comparing not only hurts our opinion of ourselves, but it also causes us to miss the needs of our neighbor as well.

Condescending. There was a young man when I was in college named Joe. There was something about Joe that was just creepy. He had an expression like he was always smelling something bad. He would often make inappropriate comments, that left everyone wondering if he was from this planet. One Christmas Joe rang bels for the Salvation Army. People would walk away from the store just to avoid running into Joe. Joe seemed destined to a life of weirdness.

Then in his final year of school, something came over Joe. He began to soften. He was known to actually say intelligent and insightful things on occasions. Finally, we got the nerve to ask him--what went right?

That year, Joe got a new roommate. His name was Will. He was an ex-hippie who had become a believer. He was used to weirdness. Will didn't treat Joe as if he were strange. Instead, before he came to college, he prayed to God to send him the right roommate, one who needed God's love. He got Joe.

"He didn't treat me strange," Joe said. "He treated me as if I were everyone else." That was all it took. One person saw through Joes odd exterior to the person underneath.

Over the years, I have seen many other "problem children" as I call them. Some were parishioners who no one liked. Others were beggars on the street. Still others were friends and family members. The one thing they all had in common was not that they had needs, but that people could only see their needs. They were labeled as needy, and treated as if they were nothing else. But when can see the value in those people, they can become our best friends.

Doctors see our illnesses. They probably talk to one another about us, saying, "I've got a diabetes at three, and a head cold at three fifteen." Lawyers see our legal problems, They have a divorce at four and a bankruptcy at five. Policemen see our crime, salesmen see our wallets, hatmakes see our bare heads. But we often miss the people beneath the problem. People do not exist for us to help. They exist because God has a purpose for them. We should not just pray for those in need. We should give thanks to God for the special and unique gift that every human being is to us. God has a reason for everyone who is in the world, and we should thank Him for that reason.

Tomorrow, you may meet a beggar on the street, or a salesman on the phone, or a teenage kid behind a drive through window. He or she will have their hand out to you. They will want your silver or gold, or they will want your business. To them, you are a potential tip or a momentary meal. I don't know who that person might be, but one thing will be true of them. They will be broken in some way. They may have a broken heart, a broken marriage, or a guilty conscience. They will be thinking that in one way or another, you're silver or gold will fix it. It won't. They will take your money and still be broken.

There is one thing you can do, though, that can make a difference. You can say, "Look at me." and you can look at them. You can see them as a human being, and invite them to see you as a human being. You won't be able to help them much with silver or gold. There is not enough money in the world to truly fix a broken soul. But you can offer them something greater. You can offer them God's love and power. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, you can offer them compassion, faith, and power. Then, at last the can rise up and walk, healed and reborn. Then you and they can both walk, and leap, and praise the Lord.

The Land of the Liars

I call on the LORD in my distress, and he answers me.

2 Save me, O LORD, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues.

3 What will he do to you, and what more besides, O deceitful tongue?

4 He will punish you with a warrior's sharp arrows, with burning coals of the broom tree.

5 Woe to me that I dwell in Meshech, that I live among the tents of Kedar!

6 Too long have I lived among those who hate peace.

7 I am a man of peace; but when I speak, they are for war. Ps 120

John Noble was an industrialist who worked in the Soviet Union during the ‘50’s. During this time, he was arrested and spent time in a Soviet prison. His book I Found God in Soviet Russia, Noble wrote about his life behind the Iron Curtain. The Soviet system, he said, had a common trademark that ran from one end to another—lies. Everyone lied all the time. The people lied to the government and the government lied to the people.

The Soviets had a constitution which guaranteed democracy, as well as freedom of speech and religion. Nobody kept it. The people in the Soviet Union officially loved their government. Inside they resented it. No freedom really existed. It was all a lie from one end to another. It was a land of Liars.

Like John Noble, the composer of Psalm 120 livedj in a faraway land. Woe to me he said that I dwell in Meshech, that I live among the tents of Kedar! John Noble and the Psalmist are separated by nearly three thousand years, yet they have the same observation about the land of their captivity. Both were lands of liars. Lying was the primary characteristic of both places.

The early Christians lived in another land of liars—Rome. In Rome Caesar was worshipped as a god. Everyone knew that Caesar was not God. They pretended to believe. As long as a nation was willing to pretend that Caesar was god, Rome left them alone. If the early Christians had just gone along with that fantasy, they would never have been persecuted.

What about now? What about our day? Lying is on the upswing. Story has become more important than truth. Lies are the rule rather than the exception.

Christianity has always existed in a land of liars. The lies of unbelievers should not concern us. The lies of Christians are far more dangerous.

Christians are no less liars than their non-Christian counterparts. In fact, they may be more. Rather than following the grace of the Gospel, and trusting in the forgiveness of sins, Christians have become convinced that they are more morally upright than others around them. They have interpreted their mission in life to be moral and upright. This is the root of our lies.

That statement requires some explanation. Before we explain it though, let’s talk about what lying actually is.

Lying is first of all not about facts. It is about truth. It is possible to get the facts wrong, and not be lying. If we say untruths that we actually believe, then it is a mistake, not a lie. There is no moral culpability for it. Lying is not about getting things wrong. Some people call a lie anything opinion with which they do not agree. But if lying is a wrong opinion, then we are all liars because we are all wrong somewhere.

On the other hand, we can lie and not say a single incorrect fact. I we can mislead with the truth. If the intent of the truth is to mislead. In California, a used car dealership once advertised a car having a “deleted heater.” Of course, this means it had no heater, but most people who read the ad thought otherwise. He did not tell anything that was not factual. But it was a lie, nevertheless.

Actually, a lie is anything we use to deliberately avoid the truth.

A lie can be silence. It can be a distraction. It can be misdirection. It can be a shift of blame. If I let you think that something is not my fault when it is my fault, then that is a lie as well.

By this definition of lying, we are all been guilty of lying. Christians are some of the worst liars, because we pretend to be more holy than we are. We lie to the church. We lie to the world. We lie to God. Most of all, we lie to ourselves.

Now, what’s so bad about that? Many people argue that a little lying is good for us, that it greases the gears of social discourse and make things run more smoothly. I see their point. Sometimes, it is better not to say everything we think. But any amount of lying or secrecy adds distrust to our relationships.

Three weeks ago, we discussed how God transforms the world through us. We are salt and light. We live a clear relationship with Him, and we will clearly reflect Him to others.

But having this vertical relationship with God is only half of what it means to be salt and light. We also need clear horizontal relationships with others. We were not put on this earth to transform the world into a utopia. We were put here to carry God into the world. We are only effective when we walk in the power of God. God transforms the world as we reveal His light.

But the less transparent we are, the less of God’s light can shine. If people cannot clearly see our insides, then our light is invisible. The more we open ourselves up to others. The more we give glory to God.

Why do Christians lie? Several reasons.

First, we do not think we can face the truth. We put off facing what is the case about us, like a fat man who does not want to get on a scale, or fudges his weight to make him feel better. As long as we do not face the truth, we cannot fully repent or be forgiven.

Second, we think we need to justify ourselves to God. Most of us think of God as a judge, But what kind of judge is He? Does He judge us like we judge a beauty contest? Does he choose who is going to heaven based upon our attractiveness, righteousness, or intelligence? Is there some standard which, if we fall below it, we will be condemned? Deep down, I think many Christians believe so. They think that they must be better than other for God to love them. So we are constantly pleading our case to God and to others, letting them know how good we are, how righteous, and how smart--as if any of that made a difference to our ultimate destiny

God is not that kind of judge. He is an absolute judge. No on can stand innocent before Him. No one deserves heaven. He is an absolute Judge, and in His eyes all of us deserve condemnation.

But this is only one part of God’s judgment. Our guilt only establishes our need for forgiveness. A human judge, sitting on the bench is not there just to determine who’s good or bad, or right or wrong, but what to do about it. H is there to give mercy where it is needed. But without an admission of guilt, we cannot get mercy.

Faced with an all-knowing judge, lying is useless. The only thing that helps us is to confess our sins to God, and to receive His promised love and forgiveness.

Third we lie because we think we are doing God a favor. We have told the world a lie—that if they are believers, all will get better, that believers do not sin, that they do not get angry, that they love one another with a warm and sincere love. We all know this is not true. There are Christians who hate each others. There are Christians who sin freely and without remose. All of us get angry and frustrated on occasion. We know it isn’t true, and the non-Christians around us certainly know it is not true. So why do we do it? Because we think that we need to maintain an illusion of goodness, even when there is no goodness. There is a word for this. It is niceness. We have learn to act nice, even if we are not nice. We learn to talk with civility even if we are doing rotten things.

But niceness solves nothing. It just delays conflict. Niceness does not give an opportunity for God’s love to shine through. Most of all, it makes the assumption that we know what part of our live experience God and and cannot use. God often shines brighter through our failures than through our successes. Who’s to say that an admission of our own weakness, may not be the thing that God will use to help someone else learn the grace of God. God needs us to admit our sin and our failings. Sinners reach sinners. The nice only attract the nice.

But the last and deepest reason Christians lie is because we do not believe that God matters. We are public Christians and practical atheists. We do not fear God, we fear men. If we lay ourselves open and vulnerable, then we do not think that God can protect us. We think we will be savaged by others, and that God will not be there to help.

I have a friend who was recently arrested for stealing from his church. For thirty years he was a trusted elder, well respected, but he was living a double life. Yet he continued to witness for Jesus, to attend prayer meetings, to do all those things expected of an elder in the church, even while he was stealing from it.

I do not know exactly what motivate him to start stealing, but I think I know what keep him stealing. He kept this awful secret inside him because he feared people more than he feared God. He did not worry that God knew about it. He worried that people would find out about it. God already knew. Loss of God’s blessing did not bother him, but loss of status in the community did.

Which did he fear more—God or men? God already knew, and he was already feeling God’s wrath in separation from His Spirit. His prayers rang hollow, yet this did not bother him. The only way we can do this is if our own relationship to God is already practically nonexistent. We assume that God will forgive, so we don’t talk to Him about it. We do not know how much our sins hurt him. We don’t want to know.

But letting others know our sins would bother us greatly. Yet only when our sins are exposed and out in the open that we can truly find forgiveness. We have to trust God, that He will take care of us when we allow others to see our true self.

Sunlight dis the best disinfectant. Truth is the best antidote for the creeping lies that establish themselves sin our minds. If we do not turn our lives over to Him, how will we know what it means to be clean, and know the power of God in us?

Let’s leave the lies. Let’s throw ourselves upon God’s mercy. Only then will we experience the grace that God promises through Jesus.


I thought I knew what forgiveness meant. That was because I had so little to forgive. But then I got hurt—really hurt. I discovered one day that there were people who were misrepresenting my motives and my intentions. Then my daughter went through a divorce due to mistreatment. Then I finally had to learn what forgiveness really was.

Here's what I have learned.

--Forgiveness is necessary to keep our relationship with God. Jesus' words are clear in Matthew 6: 14-15 “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

--All relationships need forgiveness. Without forgiveness, no relationship can last.

--A grudge poisons all relationships--even those relationships which have no connection with the grudge. We cannot be salt and light to the world if our light is hidden by unforgiveness. How can we show someone God’s love if we are not willing to let go of our grudges?

-- Forgiveness cheaply given is quickly gone. Forgiveness is a process, not a pronouncement. Deep hurts take time to heal. Forgiveness that is arrived at cheaply had no lasting power.

In first part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has a lot to say about forgiveness. If we look at some of these statements in reverse order, we see four stages of restored relationships.

First, we must forgive. Matthew 6:14-15 For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Many people say "I can never forgive." But as soon as they say, they run directly into Jesus plainly worded statement. Does our forgiveness damn us for all eternity? This statement was intended to get our attention. It is supposed to make us thoroughly uncomfortable.\

Biblical forgiveness has nothing to do with how we feel. It is about taking vengeance. In the Old Testament there were no police and few courts. Families and individuals were expected to enforce moral law. If someone killed you or robbed from you, you had the freedom to extract an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Forgiveness was forgoing the pleasure of taking the law into your own hands.

Vengeance may have been allowed, but it was hardly profitable. It is also hard for individuals to know what proper vengeance would be. That is why w have turned it over to the courts. As Christians, we turn vengeance over to God. Paul says in Romans 12:19-21

Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

When we take vengeance in our own hands for wrongs suffered, we become part of the evil we are supposed to despise, and we become our enemies. This action gets us nowhere. This is what Jesus means in Matthew 5:25-26

"Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.'

Jesus' argument is not with the moral right to justice, but its’ cost. Vengeance is an unproductive act. It may make us feel a little better, but all it produces is more vengeance. We can get our eye for an eye and tooth for tooth, but when we are all blind and toothless, we will also be helpless and alone.

Second, we learn to tolerate. When we feel someone has wronged us, we will cross the street to avoid meeting them. We do not want to see their face.

These feelings are understandable--but consider the cost. Why should their presence restrict our movements? Our inability to tolerate their presence limits our freedom of movement.--where we go, what we do, where we worship. We can be in a room full of people who love us, but if that one person who hates us is there, he will be the only one we think about in the room.

Tolerance is not learning to like a person. It is just acknowledging that that they have a right to the same air and to occupy the same planet.

Tolerance is not forgiving and forgetting, but forgiving an ignoring. We do not allow our feelings to rule our lives. At this stage, we treated them no better than a stranger, but no worse either. Matthew 5:43-48

"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus does not say that God loves is enemies. He is just allows anyone--friend or foe--to drink from the same rain and to feel the same sunshine. He gives each the same chance for survival on this earth, because He hopes that one day to reconcile with Him.

If you can’t love your enemies, treat them like everyone else. If they are sick pray for them. If they are hungry feed them--not for their sake, but because we want to imitate God.

Once we’ve managed to tolerate, then we can move on to step three.

Third, we try to reconcile. Matthew 5:21-24

"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, 'Raca,' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.

"Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”

Reconciliation is an important goal, but it is important to understand that we might never achieve it. Unlike forgiveness, reconciliation involves agreement. You cannot achieve it alone.

Let me illustrate. Suppose a woman walks out on her husband, because he beats her and he cheats on her. Afterwards, her husband says. "You say you are a Christian. Doesn't the Bible says that we are to forgive? You have to take me back. Otherwise you are not being Christian."

This man is mistaken. He assumes that forgiveness and reconciliation are the same. She is forgiving by not pressing charges or shooting him herself. To take him back into the home is not forgiveness is reconciliation, not forgiveness—and that needs a change in his behavior.

God does not expect a person who is abused to march blindly back into another abusive situation. Reconciliation only comes about through honest, open conversations and a building of trust. As Reagan said—“trust, but verify.”

What does it take to reconcile with another? What is the example of Jesus? What did it take for God to reconcile to us? God did not draw back from the sacrifice of His own Son to reconcile with us. Reconciliation always requires a willingness to sacrifice. We may have to sacrifice our freedom or our money or our dignity, but we will never have to sacrifice so much as Jesus had to sacrifice for us.

Once we have reconciled, then we can move on to final phase

Last, we seek restoration. This is the place where sin is not only forgiven but forgotten.

Great Britain is our strongest ally as a nation. But our first two wars were fought against Great Britain. Japan is our ally, too, as well as Germany. But we fought our bloodiest was against them. North and South were enemies once, but now we are one nation. Over time, the relationships were restored.

But in a human lifetime, we do not have the time to fully heal every wound. But we have the potential to heal all wounds through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus died on the cross for all our sins so that we may be reconciled, not only to God, but to each other. At the Cross we not only bury our sins against God, but the sins others commit against us..

In Charles Colson's book Born Again he writes about his conversion in prison after going to jail for Watergate-related crimes. Before he was released, he was sent to a halfway house with three other Christian inmates, who were all in prison for notorious crimes, but had like himself found salvation in jail. His three other companions in this journey were 1) A liberal Democrat congressman who had been arrested for graft charges, 2) a former grand dragon of the Klu Klux Klan, and 3) A former member of the Black Panther Party. How could four more unlikely men ever get together? They could, because all four had found redemption and new life in Christ. In Christ, not only reconciliation bur restoration and unity are possible.

In Elizabeth Elliot's book Through the Gates of Splendor, she write of how her husband, Jim Eliot and four other missionaries were slaughtered in the Amazon by Auca tribesmen. They ambushed them by the river and cut them to pieces with machetes. Later, Elizabeth went back to the same tribe and became accepted, preaching the gospel to them. Years later, she appeared at the Conference on World Evangelism with one of her converts, a minister and elder of the local church. "And" she said. "This is the man who murdered my husband."

How is such forgiveness possible? Because we have been forgiven. We are tolerated by God. We are reconciled to Him by the cross, and we have been restored to His fellowship.

How is it, then that divisions can exist among us? They do not have to, if we will take them time to work on that restoration that we all need.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Is Christmas worth the Trouble?

Recently, I read an article about how Christians should not celebrate Christmas. My first reaction was anger. I love Christmas, and see nothing wrong with its celebration.
What bothered m most about her argument was her appeal to Reformed theology.  She relied mainly on a misinterpretation of the so-called "regulative principle" of worship which states that we can only celebrate the glory of God at the times and through the methods that He Himself has specifically stated in the Bible.  We were created in the image of God to be creative. Biblical religion was creative religion, which means that our imagination and ingenuity brings glory to God, because it is the part of us that is most like God. The Biblical saints did not hesitate to invent commemorations of God's great events in history. There is no command in the Old Testament to celebrate Purim, for example, yet it records that they celebrated it in Esther.  There is no specific command to move the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. yet the Biblical Christians did.  These were innovation of worship intended to bring attention to the acts and glory of God.
Furthermore, forbidding Christmas is a denial of God's grace and freedom. Paul says in Rom 14:5-6 "One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. " Whether or not we celebrate Christmas, we should do it for God's glory.
So we may celebrate Christmas, in God's eye. But that is not the only question. The thornier issue is this--is it worth keeping? Paul said in 1 Cor 10:23 "Everything is permissible"-but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"-but not everything is constructive.  Has Christmas become more burden than blessing? That's a much harder question.
Frankly, I think it's a close call. Christmas is a ragged mess of the sacred and the profane. It brings out both the best and the worst of Christians and churches.  It's easy to just follow the customs of the day, but if we do not examine why we celebrate, we are liable to miss it entirely.  If we do not recognize the profane in Christmas, we will not discern what is truly sacred about it.
Is it worth it to celebrate Christmas?  Here's the pros and cons, as I see them.
First, the negatives.
1. Our modern Christmas has become an almost entirely secular holiday.  To most Americans, Christmas has nothing to do with Christ except the name.
This isn't new. The complaints about the secularization of Christmas extend all the way back to the middle ages.  Christmas haters point out that the Christian Christmas contains elements of the Roman Saturnalia celebration, so you could argue that the secular Christmas predated the Christian holiday.  So if we think we can get the secular out of Christmas,  forget it. It's not going to happen.
2. Christmas encourages excess. We live in a society where two out of three adults are overweight, and one out of four are overweight. Yet we all go on a month long eating binge at Christmas. Christmas adds seven pounds of fat to te average American adult.
3. Christmas encourages materialism. No, that's not quite accurate--secular Christmas is materialism. Merchandizing is the driving force behind Christmas.  Our modern pictures of Santa Claus did not start from our study of the real St. Nicholas, but from Thomas Nast cartoons of the Nineteenth Century and Coca Cola ads of the Twentieth century. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was originally a mascot for a department store. All the sleighs an elves were likewise first commercial symbols. Every year we are treated to the spectacle of wise men shopping at Macys or the Christmas star as a neon sign for a hotel chain. Secular Christmas as it is practiced today is more about our own wealth and power than the majesty and glory of God. 
4. Christmas charity has been replaced with Christmas greed. In the mid Nineteenth Century, Christmas was a time of giving to the poor and less fortunate. You can see this old tradition embodied in Dicken's Christmas Carol. But then the wealthy citizens of New York became suspicious of the poor. The draft riots of the 1860's saw mobs of poor people destroying the homes of the rich. So these same citizens began a new tradition of giving to their own children what they used to give to the poor. Hence Santa Claus was born as a device for keeping the wealth in their own family.
For centuries, Christmas has been associated with giving. But who we give to makes a big difference.  There is no good reason we should also be taking. Give to those who need, because we need to give. But do not pile up presents on earth, and ignore the riches of heaven.
5. Peer pressure, not spirituality, is the true spirit of Christmas. The reason we overdo Christmas is because we think it is expected of us. We worry we do not give enough, so we overgive. Our eyes wander to our neighbor's Christmas tree, which always seems bigger and brighter than or own. Each year we set out to create a Norman Rockwell fantasy world that never really existed anyway.
Christmas materialism carries one starkly anti-Christian message--that money can buy happiness. Bigger jewelry makes women squeal. Bigger toys makes men kiss their wives. Children are deleriously happy only when the right present is under the tree. This is the message that is preached in one minute sermons between our favorite television programs.
In Africa, I saw a village full of children with only a handful of toys between them. They did not horde toys--they were treated as public property. Yet these children seldom used the toys. They were too busy being happy and having fun with each other. They were happy, because no one was telling them they should be unhappy. No one told them they were poor, or that they should have had closets full of toys. They learned to enjoy what they had, so they had what they enjoyed.
There are the negatives about the celebration of Christmas Now for the Positives.
1. Christmas has the best music of the whole year. I know this sounds small, but it is not.  To hear Silent Night or Handel's Messiah can lift our spirits to God like few other blessings.  At Christmas time,  the sounds of this wonderful music is everywhere. Christmas carols are the one time when people actually sing together outside of church.
2. Christmas brings families together.I know we should do it all the year, but we don't. By taking the same days off, we have the freedom to gather without having to work or becoming distracted by other activities. It is a time when old and young gather and enjoy each other's company.
3. Christmas gives us time to reflect. Taking a week or two at the end of the year is a great blessing, and can clear our minds for another year of work.  In our busy lives,  we seldom have the gift of slowness. Christmas can give us this.
4. Christmas is a time of gratitude. Worship and gratitude are closely related. If we learn to be grateful for material gifts, perhaps we will better be able to thank God for the greater spiritual gifts. The practice of gift giving gives us a chance to practice being thankful and showing our gratitude to others.  This is one of the most helpful skills we may have when we come to worship God.
5. Most of all,  Christmas is the beginning of the Great Reenactment. In ancient times, the church set down a whole years of holidays, including Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. By following this calendar, we reenact Christ's birth, death, and resurrection.. For those who understand their meaning, these holy days serve as a yearly reminder of the greatness of God, and His salvation.
Christmas is a reminder of Christ. Each year, we tell the Christmas story. (the real one, I mean) But usually, we don't tell it all. The whole story begins with the dawn of time, with the sin of Adam and Eve and the darkness of sin that followed. It continues through Abraham's promise, and the promises of the prophets. Then comes the dawning of the new era, the era of the Messiah. It ends with the final victory over sin and death portrayed in Revelation.
Taking all into consideration, I believe Christmas is worth it. Others are entitled to the opposite conclusion, But if we celebrate it, we should to all we can to keep it actually Christian.
For my part, here is how I will keep Christmas Christian. 
I will try as much as possible to deemphasize the negative material aspects and emphasize the joyful spiritual side.
I will carve out a sacred space within the secular mess-- a time of quiet reflection and holy worship.
I will try to teach my family to avoid the commercialism jealousy, and greed that mark the secular holiday.
Most of all, I will seek not the baby in the manger but the living Christ who was revealed in Bethlehem.

If I can do that, then Christmas may be worth the trouble.