Discovering the Signs of Christmas Jimmy Gentry December 1, 2004 Isaiah 7:10-14 & Luke 2:8-14 The signs of Christmas are everywhere. All over town you can see them – lights, trees, wreaths, and all sorts of decorations. Many places in our city are looking like winter wonderlands. Shopping centers locally and out of town are overflowing with people. Don’t you just appreciate the beauty and splendor of the worship center? All of these are good signs that remind us Christmas is near. Now there are also the “Bah! Humbug!” signs, which, too, remind us that Christmas is near. I read a wonderful article yesterday by Catherine Dickens. She’s the great-great-great-granddaughter of the famed Charles Dickens, author of the timeless classic, A Christmas Carol. She notes that the spirit of the carol, which conveys the message of redemption and hope, is still alive after more than 160 years when it was written in 1843.1 I needed that after an experience on Friday that was sort of “Bah! Humbug!” I went to the grocery on Friday. It’s dangerous when you send me. I usually end up with two or three things not on the list and that certainly aren’t needed. Anyway, I was making my way to the checkout counter, following a lady who had a couple of items in her hand. I had one of those little baskets with approximately seven items. I followed her right up to the checkout counter. One other person was in front of us. About 10 second or so after our arrival, suddenly this girl, she must have been 14 or 15, darted in between us with a shopping cart full of everything imaginable in that store. Obviously she was with the woman, whom I followed. I surmised this was a mother and daughter. Both turned and looked at me, sizing me up with one of those looks. I supposed they figured, “We can take this guy out if we have to do so.” It was one of those stern looks. You know. One of those “I dare you to say something” looks. I didn’t. I smiled — or at least I think I was smiling! They kept looking at me. I reckoned they wanted a fight. I was my pleasant, patient self. I just stood there to wait my turn. While waiting, I looked up and there was my friend Lee coming in the store. Lee’s normal smile was plastered across his face. He saw me and waved, saying “Hi Jimmy!” We exchanged greetings to what seemed to be the dismay of the two females ahead of me. Lee had purchased a Christmas tree. He was excited as he walked over to another line. When he got there, he called out, “Jimmy, come on over here. There’s nobody in this line.” I made my way over there. That seemed to bother those women. They kept looking at me with that “Bah! Humbug!” look. Lee paid for the tree, said goodbye and off he went. I paid for my seven items and headed toward the door. I just happened to look over at the female pair, who, by this time, had unloaded about a third of their shopping cart. Both had a snarling look on their faces as they were looking at me. As we made eye contact, I couldn’t help myself. I smiled and winked. I know I shouldn’t have; but I did. I thought as I left, “Those girls are in a Scrooge mood.” At least for that moment the sign was “Bah! Humbug!” Contrast those two with a father and son securing the just purchased tree atop their vehicle. Both were smiling and having a joyous time. I discovered two signs of Christmas Friday. One pleasant. One not so pleasant. The signs of Christmas, both pleasant and not pleasant, are all around. Some signs may be found in letters to Santa Claus. This morning’s Times-Georgian has several letters from local children. Some years ago, I came upon a book by Bill Adler entitled, Children’s Letters to Santa Claus.2 Listen to some of them. ” Dear Santa, Last year you left a water gun for my brother, Billy. This Christmas leave one for me so I can shoot back.” ” Dear Santa, I didn’t get anything good last year and I didn’t get anything good the year before that. This year is your last chance.” ” Dear Santa, My brother wants a cowboy suit for Christmas. Do you have one with diapers?” ” Dear Santa, There are three boys in our family. Jeffery is two, Richard is four, and Norman is seven. Jeffery is good some of the time. Richard is good some of the time. Norman is good all of the time. Sincerely, Norman.” One of my favorite theologians is now deceased, but captures the essences of Christmas. Charles Schultz’s book, Christmas Is Together Time,3 depicts the Peanuts gang in various Christmas scenes. Listen to what he says in some of them. ” Christmas is the decorations that go up the day after Halloween and Thanksgiving isn’t here yet!” ” Christmas is bowls of hard candy that always stick together.” ” Christmas is always losing your mother down the street in a crowded store.” ” Christmas is people who say nice things to you who otherwise don’t know you’re alive.” ” Christmas is wishing you had gotten that crazy present gift-wrapped.” ” Christmas is waiting for grown-ups to finish eating so we can open presents.” ” Christmas is a time for hope. . .a time of joy. . .a time of love.” ” Christmas makes the rest of the year worthwhile.” Yes, there are signs of Christmas everywhere. Centuries ago, however, there were not many signs. There were a couple of signs in particular, though, that brought the reality of the presence of the Lord home to several people. The year was 734 BC. Ahaz was king of Judah. Rezin was king of Aram, modern day Syria, and Pekah was king of Israel. Rezin and Pekah combined forces and surrounded the city of Jerusalem. It liked to have scared Ahaz and the people of Judah to death. So the Lord God, through His prophet Isaiah, gave a sign to a frightened and somewhat wavering Judean king that would encourage him to remain firm in his political commitment to Tiglath-pileser, III, king of Assyria, and resist Syria and Israel. You can glean the particulars by reading all of Isaiah 7 and 2 Kings 16 which augments it. The sign the Lord gave was this: a young woman would be pregnant, have a baby, and refer to him as “God is with us.” This reference, Immanuel, was a reminder of God’s promise that He would be with David’s dynasty in a special way. By the time this child was old enough to make wise decisions, the nations of Syria and Israel would be destroyed. The immediate context here in Isaiah referred, most likely, to Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah. The greater context, of course, refers to Jesus of Nazareth. Ahaz discovered encouragement in the sign given by the Lord. 728 years later, another sign of encouragement would be given. The third gospel evangelist, the beloved physician and historian, Luke 2. Shepherds were tending to their flocks on a Judean hillside when, suddenly, they were interrupted by angels who told them they had a sign for them from the Lord. As the sign given to Ahaz had to do with the birth of a baby, so did this one. It was the sign of a baby lying in a manger. As the Candle of Joy burns along with the Candles of Hope and Peace, I invite us to discover some signs of Christmas as they are found here in this one sign of a little baby named Jesus. It is not by accident that the sign was given at night. The scriptures tell us the shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks at night. The magi from the East were guided to the place of Christ’s birth by a star at night. The shepherds went to the manger at night. Night has always played a significant role during the Christmas season. Christmas Eve worship, midnight masses, and the lighting of candles, which symbolizes that the Christ-child is the Light, which has come into the world to overcome the darkness, surrounding us, all have to do with night. It was a dark world when Christ was born and it is still dark in some respects. During Advent, with all the merriment, delight, and joy there is as preparation is made for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, we discover the darkness of the world is dark indeed. There is still unrest in the Middle East and other parts of the world. Will there ever be peace? The darkness of hostility and violence is overwhelming in various parts of the world. The darkness of the world is dark indeed. Yet, the good news of Christmas is that all that darkness, whatever its cause – fear, murder, strife, unrest, violence – may be dispelled by the Living Light of Bethlehem’s Baby. The darkness of the world may be overcome. The darkness you and I experience may be overcome. You may be experiencing the dark night of the soul from anxiety, loneliness, uncertainty, and a host of others dark situations. If you are in the dark, I bring a word to you from the Lord. There is a sign in everybody’s night. It is the Christ-child – the Light of all humanity. God gave that sign at night to remind each of us that in the darkest hour of our lives, the Most High God gives a sign that brings life and light. And it is not by accident that this sign given at night was in a manger. Jesus did not come to the bustling marketplace. Neither did He come to the Temple, a synagogue, the throne room, or a military base. When Jesus was born, He was placed in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. The manger, in that cattle stall, indicated the lowly state of the birth of this Child and the humble conditions surrounding His birth. In this place of simplicity, God surprised the world with His unexpected appearance. God chose humble shepherds, a lowly maiden, and an ordinary stable to enter among us. This is who God is. The Bible reveals a God who has always identified with the outcast, the lowly, the poor, the sick, the ordinary, and the needy. We are to remember that God is concerned with the hurting people of this world and we are among that lot because in some way or another, all of us hurt. This is why God, who came into the world by way of the manger, introduced a new kind of power. And the power of the manger bothers many of us. When is the last time you heard a politician publicly say that America’s greatest power is found in the manger? ” Sweet little Jesus boy,” as the Negro spiritual goes, would one day show that the foolishness of God was wiser than the wisdom of humans; that the weakness of love was stronger than the force of hate; that spiritual desire would outlast material possession; that His narrow way would lead to the wideness of genuine living; and that His peace would sustain in the valley, the darkest valley – even the valley of the shadow of death. “Sweet little Jesus boy.” They didn’t know who He was. And many of us don’t, either. It is interesting to note the Holy Spirit revealed Himself on that first Christmas to shepherds while they were tending their sheep. Arnold Toynbee, in his massive work, A Study of History, observed that new spiritual revelations in every ancient culture almost always came to shepherds first. Many of the Old Testament characters such as Abraham, Moses, David, and Amos had been shepherds. Could it be shepherds were more alert to God because they were in quiet places where they could hear Him? Maybe we don’t hear God because we seldom place ourselves in quiet places where we can be alert and attuned to His Spirit who is speaking to us. In an unpretentious, modest, and gentle way, God came in a manger – simply and humbly. No wonder that sign was given to bring joy. And this is the theme of this third Lord’s Day of Advent. Joy. The shepherds received much joy. Their hearts were filled with joy when the angel of God made the announcement of Messiah’s birth. Did you hear what the angel said? I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. . . (Luke 2:10). Our joy is built upon the fact that, in Christ, God is Immanuel – He really is. He really is with us. He was with Ahaz and Isaiah eight centuries before Christ was born. He was with Christ in the century of His birth. And if we know Jesus Christ as Savior, then we, too, may proclaim the joy of the angels and the shepherds because we bear that name also: “God is with us!” Yes, indeed! We are Immanuel if we are in Christ! As a result, we may experience that inner joy and share it with others this Christmas and every day. After the shepherds saw Baby Jesus, they went back and told others what they had seen and experienced. They wondered about it. People still wonder about it today and I suppose they always will. I hope we will continue our wonderment until the Lord returns. Let us reflect upon Christmas. Let us ponder and meditate upon it. Let us experience its joy and then share it, because it is good news of great joy for all the people. Did you hear that? Good news … for all the people. “We got him.” Those are the words the U.S. Administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, delivered after the capture of Saddam Hussein. He surrendered with no resistance. Iraq and the world rejoiced just one year ago when news broke of his apprehension. I must acknowledge that I was applauding that this ruthless tyrant, possessed by the Evil One, had been seized. His atrocities upon the Iraqi people are unparalleled in the last quarter-century. But in my gloating, something seized me early that Sunday morning. Dare I say the convicting power of the Holy Spirit? Suddenly I was reminded that Christmas was for Saddam Hussein, too. Ouch! I remembered that in a bit more than three hours I would stand and read this text from Luke 2containing the words, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). I remembered that Jesus was born to bring good news to Saddam and Jimmy and all the people – all the people of the world. How many of you join with me in wanting Saddam Hussein to get saved? You know – accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior? Don’t misunderstand me. I do believe Saddam Hussein is to be brought to justice. No question about it. He should be tried by an international court of law. I believe he should spend the rest of his life in prison. I pray he’ll have the opportunity to hear the Gospel. I can only hope he’ll be convicted by the Holy Spirit, repent of his sins, be saved, and spend the rest of his days, although confined, serving Christ. I confess my naiveté, my transparency. I know this is the real world. But for some Reason, I want Christianity to be more than perfunctory, and it is so perfunctory these days. The Reason is Christmas. If there is anything for which Christians worldwide should pray, during these remaining days of Advent, it is the salvation of Saddam Hussein. Can you imagine the rejoicing in Heaven if that were to happen? I can hear the Crucified One, the Administrator of the Ages, saying, “I got him!” It could happen, you know. Why, if He can impregnate a virgin who was probably a teenager to bear His One and Only Begotten and Unique Son, and if He can raise the dead and restore health, and if He can save somebody like Jimmy Gentry, surely He can save Saddam Hussein. Wasn’t it the Angel Gabriel who told that Virgin, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37)? ____________________________ Jimmy Gentry is Pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Carrollton, GA. ____________________________ All scriptures, unless otherwise noted, are from the New Revised Standard Version, 1989. 1. Catherine Dickens, “A Christmas Carol and You: The Spirit Is Still Alive,” USA Weekend, December 12-14, 2003, pp. 8-9.2. Bill Adler, Children’s Letters to Santa Claus (New York: Essandess Special Editions, 1967).3. Charles M. Schultz, Christmas Is Together Time (San Francisco: Determined Productions, 1988). 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