Christmas List…

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Christmas list: check.  Travel plans made: check.  Menu for Christmas Dinner: check.  Husband delegated to get tree: check.  Kids’ pictures with Santa: check.  Party invitations mailed: check.  Strategy for dealing with strange relatives: in process.

This time of year, Santa is not the only one making a list and checking it twice.  Even kids have a list: “What can we buy for Mom and Dad at the Dollar Tree?”  Right now, I have three lists on my desk: one for tomorrow, one for shopping, one for work.

Imagine Mary and Joseph’s list for Christmas.

Unexpected messages from angels: check.  Imagine being fourteen and sixteen, the probable ages of Mary and Joseph.  You’re betrothed.  An angel appears to Mary.  It’s the last thing she expected.  “You’re going to have a baby who will save the world,” the angel says.  In a moment of supreme trust, she says, “I’m God’s servant.  Let His will be done.”  Obedience: check.

Then she goes away for a few months.  Joseph misses her until she comes back.  She’s got a baby bump he didn’t put there.  He’s beyond hurt.  He decides to quietly divorce her (the only way to break an engagement in those days).  Then an angel appears to him.  “Joseph,” the angel said, “Don’t divorce Mary.  God’s up to something in this baby.  Call him Jesus.”  Jesus means “God saves.”  Joseph believes.  Obedience, husband version: check.

Trip with pregnant woman: check.  Just when things couldn’t get any crazier, a far-off Roman emperor puts a whole empire in motion.  Mary and Joseph knew, as did all Israel, that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, the city of David.  Imagine them trying to figure out a reason for a trip to Bethlehem.  Imagine them laughing when they heard the news an empire had been turned upside down just for them.  Then imagine Mary walking to Bethlehem (no mention of a donkey in the real Bible Story).  Imagine any pregnant woman willing to walk ninety miles so the Son of God could be born in the right place.  Imagine Joseph being a newlywed husband but under instructions from God not to do what every newlywed husband wants to do.  Faithfulness: check.

Place to stay: check, sort of.  They tried to find a decent place for the Messiah to be born. Everything was jammed.  The place they expected to stay couldn’t even offer them a corner of the floor.  Instead, they went out back to the barn.  Jesus started as an outcast before he even made his entrance into the world.  I wonder if Mary and Joseph felt like they were letting God down by not arranging things better?  Humility: check.

Strangers dropping by to visit: check.  The night Jesus was born, the shepherds stopped by.  With wonder in their eyes they described an angel speaking to them and then a heavenly choir of tens of thousands singing.  The noise must have been thunderous.  With a song ringing in their ears, they went to find Jesus.  They praised God that the lowly and outcasts had been included.  Grace: check.

The wise men showed up, too.  No one is sure how much time had passed.  It could have been anywhere from two weeks to two years.  These were the brightest of the bright, the most scholarly of scholars.  The shepherds brought their wonder.  The wise men brought gifts of honor.  Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were gifts for a King.  Praise: check.

What if God wanted you to have a Christmas list like the people of the first Christmas?  What if on your list there was obedience, faithfulness, humility, grace, and praise?  Maybe Christmas wouldn’t be just a holiday to complicate your life; maybe it would become an event to change your soul.

Walking Away…

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A re-telling of an old story:

There was this young, hot-shot politician who was on the fast track. A sharp young man, he was shrewd enough that he wanted to cover all his religious bases. He had heard about a new preacher in town and wanted to be sure and get him on his side.

The young politician couldn’t help but be impressed with the crowd that surrounded the preacher at his regular preaching time. He was more amazed that unlike other preachers, this one did Q and A with the crowd. From personal experience, the young politician knew this took courage.

The young politician worked his way to the front of the crowd, nodding, grinning, and shaking hands as he went. His mind was flying about the best way to get the preacher on his side while impressing the crowd at the same time. Being a clever man, he hit upon just the right question. When the preacher paused for a breath, the young politician spoke up, loud enough so everyone could hear him: “Preacher, you are so wise! So what do I need to do to have the best life possible?”

The preacher looked at him with a dry smile and said, “Why are you calling me wise? Only God is wise. I’ll bet you already know the answer. Keep your life between the ditches. Don’t kill, sleep with someone else’s wife, take what doesn’t belong to you, tell a lie, or cheat anyone; and do right by your Momma and Daddy.”

With the perfect touch of humility and pride, the young politician said, “Preacher, I’ve done all that ever since I was knee high to a grasshopper.”

The crowd murmured approval, because this young politician had the reputation of being an upright guy. They looked at the preacher, certain he was about to heap praise on the young man.

But the preacher looked at him with a look that conveyed affection and truth. He said, “You’re missing one thing. Go back to your office and put everything up for sale. Liquidate it all. Empty your bank accounts. Take it all the money down to the wrong side of the tracks and give away. When you empty your bank account, your account balance in heaven will go way up! Once you’ve done that, find a spiritual adventure to go on.”

You could hear the air sucked in by the crowd. The young politician looked stunned. He’d come thinking he would get a high five from the preacher. Instead, he was blindsided by a reality about his life: He’d rather be rich than be right. He’d been born into money; it meant status and security. He didn’t want a spiritual adventure; he wanted an endorsement of his life as it was. The preacher didn’t cooperate with his agenda. With a heave of his shoulders, he turned from the preacher and headed back to the office.

Years went by. He heard how the preacher was lynched for his teachings down at the capital. Then there was the crazy news that after a few days, people saw him alive again. The crazy nuts that had sold everything and followed him were telling everyone the best life you could ever have would be to follow him. The now old politician still didn’t believe it, though every now and then an ache in his soul seemed to say: “Is counting my money all there is?”

The old politician had dismissed that thought so many times, it rarely came up anymore. But whenever it did, he went back to the day of his encounter with the preacher. He made the right decision, he reminded himself. After all, what would he have gained if gave up all his money and saved his soul?

(see the original version of this story in Mark 10: 17-22).

The Last Will and Testament of Judas Iscariot…

“I, Judas Iscariot, a troubled soul, do hereby declare this to be my last will and testament.  In a few moments I will end my life, because I have committed the most despicable deed and I can no longer live with myself.

Just eight hours ago I betrayed my Master, the one I believed would deliver my people from the Roman oppressors.  Now he hangs on a cross, beaten, sure to die before the sun goes down.  I will die before him, though only God knows what waits for me on the other side of death.

I began to follow Jesus three years ago.  I had heard of him, of course.  His teaching was like no other: plain, understandable.  A power radiated from him.  When he beckoned me to follow him, I cast aside my labor, left my father and mother, and went with him.  Something in him kindled hope in my own heart.

The miracles amazed me; such power!  Could such power be used against the Romans?  Could Jesus drive them out and restore the Kingdom of Israel, the Kingdom of God?  That was my hope, my dream, my passion.

I knew Jesus was closest to Peter, John, and James, of course.  But I knew I was special to him.  Soon after our journey together began, he approached me with the sack of money given to him by some well meaning women.  ‘Look after it,’ he said.  He trusted me.

Why then did I betray this man?  I thought he was losing touch with reality.  During the past three months, he talked about his death and then coming back to life.  The words were clear enough, but we did not understand what he meant.  For all his talk about the Kingdom of God, it was plain he was not going to raise an army to fight the Romans.  The hopes I had for our people began to dim.

During this last week, it obvious Jesus was on a collision course with our leaders.  It was on Tuesday, when he was teaching in Temple, that something in me broke.  He spoke of being a judge, of coming back at an unexpected time.  I saw him turn his back on financial security for his ministry and watched perfume worth a great sum flow onto the floor, wasted with the dust.

The thought entered my mind: ‘What if I told the Religious leaders where to find him?’ They would reward me.  Jesus would have the chance to show his power and be the Messiah I expected him to be.  Or I would realize my dreams had been placed in the wrong man.  Either way, I could force him to reveal who he truly was.

I made my deal with the religious leaders; I sought my chance; I led the soldiers to the place I knew he would be.  Then I called him “Master” for the last time and kissed him.

The soldiers pushed me aside; I stood on the fringes of his trials.  A sinking feeling began to overtake my heart.  Why was he not displaying his power?  As I watched him stand before Pilate, a wave of nausea hit me.  He was going to let himself be killed.  I knew nothing he had done was deserving of death.  A rush of memories flooded my soul: the time he calmed the storm, the way he smiled at me, the compassion in his voice when he told me last night “Do it quickly.”

As they led him off to Skull Place, I charged the smirking priests.  ‘He’s innocent,’ I cried.  ‘Stop this!  Take back your money.’

With cynical smiles they smirked, ‘It’s out of our hands now, and yours.’

I threw the money at them, ran from the plaza.  I passed a rope dealer and a plan leapt into my mind.  I purchased a length of rope, enough to do the job.

Now, I sit under the shade of this tree, penning these words, in hopes that whoever finds them will learn from me:  I should have stayed with Jesus, even when I did not understand.

I leave my cloak, my sandals, and my all my possessions to my brother Justus.  May my shame not touch him or my parents.

A hangman’s noose awaits.  God have mercy on my soul.”

Will you stay with Jesus even when you do not understand?