The Spirit of Christmas

“Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”
Luke 2:14 (Common English Bible)

There is a Christmas song that ponders in a rather wistful manner, why the world is
unable to embrace the spirit of Christmas all year long. At Christmas, we crawl out from our
hard shell of self-concern, our eyes sparkle with wonder, and we behave with an
uncharacteristic charity toward all people. We slog through eleven months of drudging effort,
eyes squarely focused upon survival in a competitive marketplace with little attention to
others, and then Christmas comes. We throw off the heavy coat of selfishness for a time.
Kindness permeates the places of our soul made callous by fear of scarcity and generosity
flows from hidden springs in our heart. We play, we laugh, and we are amiable to the stranger
and friend equally. That Christmas song is on to something. Why can’t we have the spirit of
Christmas all year long?

Bethlehem is a divine interruption. The world today is little different from the world that
welcomed the birth of Jesus. Enemies are everywhere and national security continues to be a
pressing concern. Inequity of wealth among people of every nation conveniently ignores the
apostle Paul’s call that those who have much shouldn’t have too much and those who have
little shouldn’t have too little (2 Corinthians 8:13-15). But Bethlehem invites the world to a
fresh imagination; to imagine a world where instruments of war are repurposed into farming
instruments and people impulsively and joyfully share from their abundance so that others
may simply have enough. Bethlehem asks that we look at the world differently, asks that we
live differently. 

The spirit of Christmas is a deep and persistent call to pay attention to God. It is a call to
see and participate in the creation of a new world where peace and good will abounds.
Bethlehem is not an occasional indulgence – an occasion where we lay aside for a moment
careful attention to our health and consume copious quantities of Christmas cookies and
eggnog. Bethlehem asks that we care about the world of which we are a part. Bethlehem
invites us to join the angels in announcing that God has unleashed upon the world a new
order where all people may find carefree rest in God. Bethlehem is not a charming dream. It is
not an aspirational goal. Bethlehem is a confident and certain reality. God has come into this
world and nothing is going to be the same.

Go to Bethlehem this year. Go and bow down before this magnificent birth of a new world
order. Discover in Bethlehem God’s divine intention for each of us; discover that peace and
good will is not for one month of the year but God’s gift to be embraced and shared all year.
But if you go to Bethlehem, recognize that Bethlehem makes demands upon all who visit.
Bethlehem asks that you dedicate your life to speeding up the tempo of good will in all your
relationships. Bethlehem will ask you to guard your speech and exercise restraint in the use of
acrimony, harsh, and mean criticism. Bethlehem will demand civility, humility, and respect of
others, particularly of those you disagree with. And Bethlehem will ask of you uncommon
generosity toward others. Bethlehem asks a good deal from all who visit. But Bethlehem gives
in return God’s peace. That is the spirit of Christmas. 


Not Ashamed of Jesus (Location: Caesarea)

The following is a reprint of a previous meditation by Dr. Doug Hood.

“Agrippa said to Paul, ‘You may speak for yourself.’
So Paul gestured with his hand and began his defense.’”
Acts 26:1 (Common English Bible)
     Along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, between Tel Aviv and Haifa, rises the restored city of Caesarea, built by Herod the Great in 20 B.C. and named in honor of the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus.  Caesarea served as the Roman capital for the province of Judea for nearly 600 years and was the official residence of its governors, including Pontius Pilate who sentenced Jesus to death. It is here that several major events in the formative years of the Christian church took place including the baptism, by Paul, of a Roman military officer named Cornelius (see Acts 10:1-8).
      For two years, the apostle Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea for preaching Jesus Christ and Christ’s resurrection from the dead. During his imprisonment, King Agrippa and the king’s sister, Bernice, came to Caesarea. During a conversation with Porcius Festus, the current governor of Caesarea, King Agrippa and Bernice learned of this man, Paul, and that he was being held there in that city as a prisoner. Fascinated with the story of Paul, his preaching and teaching and Paul’s imprisonment, Agrippa said to Festus, “I want to hear the man myself.” The very next day, King Agrippa and Bernice entered the auditorium of Caesarea with considerable fanfare and Paul was brought from his prison cell to address the King and honored guest.
      Recently I sat in what remains of that auditorium, a place that can still seat hundreds, and imagined the apostle Paul standing in chains before the King and the city’s most prominent men. Asked to speak, Paul “gestured with his hand and began his defense.” In that day, the hand gesture was a common movement to quiet the audience and signal the beginning of an important speech. In that single movement of his hand, Paul delivered a bold sermon. Though he stood before a King, himself a prisoner in chains, Paul had the audacity to say, with that hand movement, “Listen, and be silent, for I have something of deep importance to say.” Paul was not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
      For whatever reason, I have entered a place in my life where I sense things more deeply than ever before; I am easily brought to a place of tears. Seated in that ancient auditorium, looking down to an empty stage, a place that was once occupied by Paul in chains, I pictured him making that hand gesture and I had to hide my tears from my colleagues. Paul thought nothing of his present humiliation, a prisoner in chains, and placed all his energy into one thing, the message of Jesus and Jesus’ power to change lives.



The View from the Top (Location: Mount of Beatitudes)

The following is a reprint of a previous meditation by Dr. Doug Hood.
“But the gate that leads to life is narrow and the road difficult, so few people find it.”
 Matthew 7:14 (a sentence from the Sermon on the Mount, Common English Bible)
Most people travel the broad road. This is the road that is motivated by a desire to please people; the road that seeks approval of others. Values are forged from observing behaviors that seem popular. When questioned about an unwise decision, those who travel this road answer simply, “Everyone else was doing it.” Travel along this road may bustle with energy but misses the life we were appointed by God to live. 
The narrow road is a little lonelier. This is the road of true disciples. Those who travel this road may be sensitive to what others think of them. They may desire to be loved and appreciated as those who travel any road. But ultimately, it is God’s approval that shapes the large and little decisions of life. Thomas Tewell once shared a story of a woman in his New York City congregation who meets friends at the end of the day for drinks. When the friends order another round she excuses herself and says she has to be going. “Where are you going?” her friends asked. Without apology she answers that she is attending an evening Bible study at her church. When pressed why she goes to church she simply answers, “It makes a difference in the way I live my life.”
Many who travel to the Holy Land include in their spiritual pilgrimage a climb up the Mount of Beatitudes, the location where Jesus delivers his great Sermon on the Mount. There they find great views over the Sea of Galilee and many of the sites associated with Jesus’ ministry. The serenity of this beautiful place, however, may be slightly unhelpful for travelers seeking an authentic spiritual journey. The splendor of the setting may suggest that Jesus’ words were calm and soothing – conjuring images of a worship service back home with beautiful music, an inspiring sermon and a lovely Sunday brunch following church. In fact, Jesus’ sermon was radical, demanding and countercultural. They were hard words to hear for many who had gathered that day. Jesus was calling people to a new way of life. Those who chose to follow would be few.
The road up the mountain attracts the casual tourist, of course. But for anyone on a spiritual pilgrimage, the road is difficult and few will find it. It is a road that demands that priorities be reordered, habits changed and room made in busy lives for God. It isn’t a road for the faint-hearted or for those who still care more about what others think of them than obedience to God. But for those who make it to the top, the view is out of this world.



It All Boils Down To This (Location: Upper Room)

The following meditation was written by Dr. Michael Brown,
our Distinguished Preacher on January 26, 2020.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another, even as I have loved you.”
John 15:12 (New Heart English Bible)
     In the written records of what Jesus said, there is only one time when he used the word “command.”  Even in Matthew’s gospel where the author’s entire intent is to portray Jesus as the “new Moses” who reinterprets the Commandments, he never says “command.”  It only happened in the Upper Room.  John tells the story.  Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet (i.e., he stooped to serve others).  Immediately he said, “Do you know what I have done for you? I have given you an example” (calling his disciples to live lives of service, as well).  And then, in case they still hadn’t got the message, he said it clearly and unequivocally:  “This I command you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you.”
     That’s it – THE Great Commandment.  You and I were put here to love.  That is our only purpose, at least, according to no less an authority than Jesus.  Leo Buscaglia used to say: “Find love, find life.”  The opposite of that, clearly, is: “Fail to love, fail to live with purpose and meaning.”
     At the end of the day, it all boils down to this:  Those who live a life of love (even when it’s not easy) are genuine followers of Jesus.  Others who yield to anger, prejudice, greed, gossip, unkindness, impatience, intolerance, revenge, hatefulness or hurtfulness in word, deed, or on social media, can use all the religious talk they choose.  However, it’s just talk.  If we’re not motivated by love for others – and that means all others (even those who don’t look like us, think like us, act like us, or vote like us) – then we’re not authentic followers of The Messiah.  “This I command you,” he said.
     I have always believed that “Love” is a verb. It’s not just something we feel. Instead, it’s something we do about what we feel.  So, to say “Yes” to Christ’s command basically means this:  Every day in every decision and every encounter, we will ask, “Is this the loving thing to say or do?”  If the answer is Yes, then we move forward. If it’s No, we don’t.  If we cannot make that commitment, then we may have heard the voice of Jesus in the Upper Room but we didn’t listen.   “This I command you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you.”