These women's messages were designed to push us back to the real meaning of Christmas. While the busy-ness and activities that come with the Christmas season can be a relentless pull, these messages provide the grounding force necessary to help keep things in perspective. These speaking notes are offered for you to adapt and use for your own ministry.
Today we want to talk about Capturing Joy in a Crowded Season. At Christmastime, doesn’t that sound like the Impossible Dream? Look around us, we are already crowded.
Are you overwhelmed yet? And I haven’t even talked about your grocery list yet. It is a crowded season especially for us as women. There are other things that crowd our season. Things like
THIS IS A CROWDED SEASON…FOR ALL OF US
Let me ask you a question: I want you to think about the answer and then tell the answer to the person sitting next to you. Only going to take a minute, don’t tell your life story.
“Who or What might potentially “crowd” your Christmas this year?
Save that answer, we’re going to come back to it. We all are going to have a crowded season. But I believe we also all have an opportunity to capture joy, incredible, wonderful joy- “the good news of great joy”
So, let’s read about another crowded season READ Luke 2:1-7
JESUS was born into a Crowded world- There were so many people that Caesar Augustus wanted to count them. Imagine the traffic on the roads with everyone trying to get “home’ for the census. Picture the Lines that you would have had to stand in to fill out the forms. Where would you get food? or clothes or a doctor? When they show pictures of people sleeping in the airports during the holidays, the immense number of travelers, I think of the world that Christ was born in. A world crowded with people.
Ie Olivia’s story “too many people in my room”
On night when my granddaughter was little, I was tucking her into bed. We had read the story, said our prayers and were about to turn off the light when her mother came in and sat on the end of the bed and wanted to say goodnight. Then her brother came in and did the same, followed by her dad and granddad. Her little room and bed got very crowded and she was sleepy. Into the noise of everyone talking she said “There’s too many people in my room”! We couldn’t help but laugh and then leave but when I read the story of Mary and Joseph I’m sure they felt like Olivia …
There were too many people in Bethlehem too, too many for Mary and Joseph to find a hotel. The Inn had too many people, it was too crowded to give them a room. And yet, into this crowded space and time, Jesus comes and is born, his birth brings “great joy for all people.”
Truth: Our joy does not come from the absence of a crowded season, but our joy comes in the midst of it. You and I will not be insulated from this crowded, frantic Christmas season, we will live in the middle of it.
So the question becomes How do we, surrounded by the season, capture the joy that Christ came to bring?
I believe the answer is in the Story itself. The Scriptures tell us. Woven throughout the birth narrative are smaller stories of people impacted by the birth of Christ. Tonight I’d like to narrow our focus to 3 groups of people that show us 3 different ways we can Capture Christmas Joy.
When Jesus was eight days old, he was taken to the temple to be consecrated to the Lord fulfilling what was required by the Law of Moses. Many Jews at this time were looking for the Messiah to come. Some believed a great Ruler would descend on the earth and overthrow all their enemies. But in contrast to them, there were also a few people who were known as “The Quiet in the Land”. These people had a different view of Messiah. They didn’t dream of armies but instead were Jews who lived a life of quiet prayer and faithful watchfulness until God would reveal His Messiah. This very day that Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple, there was a devout elderly man named Simeon who had been told by the Spirit of God that he would not die until he saw the Messiah. Along with Simeon was an elderly widow named Anna. Listen to what happens
READ Luke 2:27-32: 36-38
They discovered what they had been looking for all their lives. When they saw Him they knew this was the Christ, the Anointed One, the Messiah. The word ”Knowing” here is not only an intellectual assent to a fact or to a proposition, like “ I know how to speak Spanish, or I know the name of the President of France” This knowing is that and much more. It is believing, trusting and putting one’s faith and hope in, knowing in the very deepest part of me, embracing with all my heart. Discovering Christ for yourself is believing that He is who He said He was. The Son of God, come to earth to be the Savior of all. Jesus, the unique God/Man, fully God and fully Man come to earth to redeem us from our sins. Receiving Christ is saying to God, I am a sinner- I am not perfect, no matter how good I try to be, I need a Savior, I trust that Christ to be my Savior and Lord.
That is the good news, the true Christmas Story.
Will Willimon writes about the contrast between the story of Christmas written by Charles Dickens and the one found in Luke’s gospel. In the Christmas Carol, Dickens tells us how we should give to others (and that’s good) but in Luke, we learn how essential it is to see ourselves first as receivers. That’s tough, we’d rather see ourselves as capable, self-sufficient, generous, caring givers. But the gospel, the good news, is for poor, needy, empty people who open their hands to the free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ.
Have you ever done that? Have you ever trusted Christ? Discovered Him?
Ie: I was raised in a Christian home, baptized, faithful in my church attendance, but it wasn’t until I was grown and married that I understood, none of those things enabled me to truly “know Christ.” I had a religion but no relationship with God. When I put aside trying to control my own life, when I put my faith, trust in Christ- I came to Know Him. Do you know Him?
Joy in this crowded Christmas season, first comes with Discovering Christ, personally knowing the One whose birth we celebrate.
Meister Eckhart “The eternal birth must take place in you”
In a group like this, many of you have Discovered Him. Many of you have come to know Him, many of you have received Him as your Savior. But I think our challenge in this crowded season is to remember that no matter how long you have been a Christ follower, Jesus calls us to be “poor in spirit,” meaning to be continually dependent on Him. To release the daily the control of our lives to Him. The call for those of us who have received Him is to come to Know Him more.
Phil 3:10 I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings becoming like Him.
Christmas= Christ- Mas= More Christ
The reason we want to Know Him more is to become like Him, to expand our faith, to grow up in Christ. This is the life of the passionate disciple.
Ie: Several years ago, we were in Israel and at the hotel we were staying there was a wedding outside in the courtyard below our room. As we walked by, in the breezeway we stopped and watched the ceremony- it was all just open. After they were married, the groom and the bride were carried around the terrace high up on chairs with everyone dancing, as they came by where we were, they tried to pull us into the dance- they wanted us to join them, spontaneous invitation. In a sense, we went to their wedding, but we didn’t know who they were and we couldn’t speak their language. We didn’t know them. Their wedding, as beautiful as it was, had little meaning for us. It is a nice memory, but it can’t in any way compare to the weddings of my daughter, daughters-in-law, my sons, who I intimately know and deeply love.
Christmas Joy is like this. Joy in Knowing Him, knowing intimately why we celebrate this time of year.
But I do believe you can Know Him and still fail to Capture Joy in our crowded season. That brings us to another story. Along with Discovering Christ, there is a call on our lives to…
The Scriptures are unclear how much time passes between the birth and the visit of the Magi. We know that Wise Men “from the East” saw a star, a unique star that indicated to them a Jewish King had been born. They traveled to Jerusalem to get information, asked where were they to go to find this baby? They were told to go to Bethlehem. In Bethlehem, a ruler would be born who would be “the shepherd of the people Israel”
READ Matthew 2:1-11
Soren Kierkegaard makes this interesting observation about the scribes in Jerusalem. They
Could explain where Messiah should be born but they stayed in Jerusalem. They did not accompany the Wise Men to seek Him. Similarly we may know the whole of Christianity, yet make no movement…what a difference! The three kings had only a rumor to go by. But it moved them to make that long journey. The scribes were much better informed, much better versed. They sat and studied the Scriptures, but it did not make them move.”
The scribes knew but they did not seek, they knew but they did not adore, they knew but they did not treasure This could be true of us too. For us, this season, we must Know the Christ Child, be born anew with His Spirit but there is more. It was the Wise Men who pursued, continued to travel to find this new King. And when they found Him, they worshiped Him, gave Him gifts, they adored Him, they treasured Him.
I like this word TREASURE especially during this season. Most of us receive gifts at Christmas, among those gifts only a few become treasures to us. I treasure an angel that my daughter-in-law gave me the first Christmas she spent with our family- it has great meaning for both of us. I treasure a small Christmas tree pin my niece gave me about 10 years ago. I treasure this gold band my husband gave me many Christmases ago. Many gifts but few treasures. I’m sure that you have special gifts: large or small, that you treasure as well. However, God’s gift to us of His Son is His treasure to us, given so that we may Discover Him and Treasure Him.
You may ask How do we treasure Christ? The Wise Men started the giving tradition that we continue at Christmas. They gave from hearts of worship because Giving is the natural overflow of worshipping hearts. Look at the Wise Men. When they found Him, they were overjoyed, filled with joy- this very same joy that we want to capture this season- bowed down and worshiped Him, they adored Him, they honored Him with their gifts.
All of us can take the opportunity to offer our worship to Christ corporately in our local churches. But we also give to Christ our adoration in quiet private times of prayer and reflection. Those times RESTORE our SOULS and allow us to take deep breaths of JOY in a Crowded Season.
I know how difficult it is for young mothers or working women, seems impossible. Maybe you only have 5 minutes or maybe it’s an hour. Whatever, Devote that time to thinking about Him, telling Him how much you love Him, giving Him thanks. Pray about that Christmas list and the people on it. Your day will be different.
Some of the things that help me to treasure Christ:
Simple ways, but intentional.
What are some ways you can treasure Christ this season? Perhaps you could share with others ways that help you treasure Christ at Christmas.
Discovering Him and Treasuring Him leads us to another part of Christmas joy. During this season like no other we have opportunities in our family, with our friends and with complete strangers to talk about Jesus. To
To share the good news, to share the joy that knowing Christ brings, to share Him with others who may be frazzled, lonely or desperate for a glimpse of True Christmas Joy.
Let’s look back in the story to the first ones to share the transformation power of His birth.
READ Luke 2:8-20
This little baby boy born into a crowded world, at a crowded season of time, invades our universe, calls to us to Know Him as our Savior, He is born so that we are born anew. He is worthy of all our adoration, a treasured King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And this good news is to be shared.
The shepherds were the first to hear the news, they hurried, they ran “to see” about “this thing” the angels spoke of, as soon as they saw, they went and shared with others.
Martin Luther writes
(the fact) That there were shepherds means that no one is to hear the Gospel for himself alone, but everyone is to tell it to others who are not acquainted with it.
I have a beautiful, beaded silk pashmina, multi-colored with long black tassels. It’s one of my favorite things. I keep it wrapped up in tissue paper in a drawer so nothing can happen to it. It is precious to me, I love it. If you were to open that drawer you would see the tissue paper but you would have to unwrap it to see its beauty. Many of us keep our faith wrapped up in tissue paper and no one really sees the love we have for Christ because we don’t share it. We keep it hidden, private.
But if you know Him, and you treasure Him, you have a story to share with others. It’s how your own life story has been changed by Christ’s birth, His life, death and resurrection.
There’s an old saying “ Share the gospel everyday in all you do, wherever you are, when necessary use words.”
That implies that we are sharing the good news everyday with our actions. I know that this crowded season will give you and give me numerous opportunities to serve as Christ to others, to give ourselves away, to embody and reflect the Incarnation of Christ, the Christ who is born in us, is manifested to a watching world. Can you think of WHO in your circle of family and friends needs to hear or be shown the Love OF CHRIST?
Truth: This is Radical Christianity: it is in the giving of ourselves to others that we receive great JOY. This is where true, lasting joy will be found. This is not news to you. We all have felt the warmth inside when we’ve been able to help someone else, done a good deed. Radical Christianity calls us to give when it’s not convenient, when it’s not easy, when it hurts or costs us, when we have busy schedules, many demands, and no time to spare.
We’re to share Christ, to be like Christ in a crowded season.
Illustration: I know all of us wrestle with situations that catch us off guard, situations we didn’t plan or abruptly confront us. A few weeks ago, I had an encounter with a homeless woman. She wanted money to buy food. After I said no and walked on to buy my lunch, I was compelled to turn back. I offered to buy her food instead of giving $. We went into a sandwich shop and I told her she could pick out anything to eat and drink. She thanked me and went outside to sit down and have her lunch. In a hurry, I got in my car and started to eat my sandwich. As I drove off I was feeling pretty good, when God impressed my thoughts “you could have stayed and eaten with her, heard her story, prayed for her…that would have been great Joy.”
Do you remember the question I asked you earlier?
“Who or What might “crowd” your Christmas this year?
Whatever your answer, the Truth is all of us will have a crowded Christmas ahead. But what will you do to Capture Joy in the midst?
Jesus teaches “we reap what we sow”…my kids like to say “what goes around, comes around”
When you choose to Discover Christ, to Treasure Him and to Share His love with others, it doesn’t matter how crowded your Christmas becomes, for you will capture the true Joy of the season.
I wonder if you will “reawaken” your commitment to Discover Him, To Worship and Treasure Him, and Share His love serving others this season- to have the Birth of Christ lived out in you- true Joy, eternal Joy, the Joy of the Good news of Glad tidings for all people.
Will you, surrounded by the crowded season, capture the joy that Christ came to bring?
It’s Christmastime—a season when company buffets of roast beef and honey-baked ham end with white elephant exchanges. Elementary schools hold food drives and Salvation Army volunteers patiently wait for their kettles to fill with coins. Icicle lights hang off eaves in neighborhoods where fruitcakes are sometimes still wrapped in red cellophane and received with polite appreciation. At home fires crackle, while at the mall window displays compete to lure in shoppers on search-and-destroy missions for “the perfect gift.” Those preferring to avoid mall traffic browse through stacks of catalogs or surf the Net—because, after all, it’s the season for gift giving.
What’s the most memorable gift anyone has ever given you?
When the great outdoorsman, Teddy Roosevelt, was president, an admirer sent him a coyote. (Unfortunately, when it arrived, it broke free and terrorized the First Family and the White House staff.) In O. Henry’s story, The Gift of the Magi, a husband sells his watch to buy his wife combs, while she sells her hair to buy him a watch chain. When my friend lost her hair to chemotherapy, her husband bought her a silver brush—expressing his hope for the future—and with it a matching mirror inscribed with “My Hero.” The sorts of gifts we give can reveal a lot about us and about our relationship with each recipient.
That was certainly the case in a different First Family—the children of Adam and Eve. In Genesis 4 we read about a murder that happened all because, simply put, one of the brothers gave a half-hearted gift. Unfortunately in this case, the recipient was the Lord.
But before we talk about details of the who-done-it, we need to set the stage. Prior to this story, our first parents had been expelled from Eden, where they had enjoyed a serene existence. But their choice to disobey God had resulted in God’s cursing of the snake and the ground. And it had also involved God’s pronouncement that there was going to be conflict. Adam and Eve probably could not have imagined how deeply they would feel the devastation within their own family, but their oldest child broke their hearts. And it had all seemed to start out so well.
The first verse we read after Adam and Eve leave Eden says, “Now the man had intimate relations with his wife, Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have created a man along with the Lord ‘“ (v. 1). The text actually says, “The man ‘knew’ his wife...” To “know” someone in the biblical sense is often used as a euphemism for intimate relations. So Adam ‘‘knew” Eve, and she got pregnant and had a son. Eve called him Cain because “Cain” sounds a lot like what she said when she gave birth to him. She chose a name that—in Hebrew—sounds like the word “create.”
That makes a lot of sense to me. You see, our daughter was eight months old when we adopted her. After a decade of infertility that included seven pregnancy losses and three failed adoptions, we finally had good news. Now obviously because of her age, she already had a name when she came to us. But we decided to change it as part of our bonding process with her. Because I had been unable to carry a child to term, we could not pass on to a daughter any of our genetics. So we chose to name our new arrival “Alexandra”—which is the longer form of my own name, Sandra. If, as her mother, I was unable to give her a part of my physical self, I wanted her to carry with her a different part of me. As she says, “Your tummy was broken, but I grew in your heart.” Like Eve I gave my child a name that sounds like something I wanted to communicate about her.
Hebrew parents did that all the time. For example, “Isaac” sounds a lot like the Hebrew word for “laugh.” And because Sarah laughed when told she was going to have to buy Depends and Pampers in the same aisle, the name seemed appropriate.
Just think about that. Imagine how you would marvel at the miracle of human birth if you’d never seen a tiny human. If for the first time you saw in the face of a son the reflection of your own humanity, unlike the animals you’ve seen reproduced, you’d stand amazed. After the agony of childbirth with no epidural or La Maze preparation, Eve must have stared at this tiny creature who looked back at her through eyes that blended her features with Adam’s. His nose. Her mouth. Her hair coloring. Her husband’s ears. “A little bit of you and a little bit of me.”
It is no wonder that Eve would give her son a name that reflects how this must have made her marvel. Often infertile couples express that some of the key losses not “solved” by adoption are the loss of their own genetic continuity, the loss of creating a miracle in cooperation with God, and the loss of a jointly-conceived child. In sort, they grieve the loss of the moment Eve seems to be describing; her expression wraps them all together: “I have created a man along with the Lord.” In partnership with God she has been a co-creator. Where did her “work” stop and God’s begin? It would be impossible to say.
The Hebrew word for man is “Adam.” So Eve’s reference to her son as a “man” rather than “child” or “infant,” as we might expect, seems to point back to God’s own creation of “Adam.” It emphasizes again the marvel of the creative process at work. Perhaps Eve’s expression is equivalent to what believing women typically say today after giving birth: “It’s a miracle!”
When I wrote books “with” my late co-author, Dr. Bill Cutrer, people would ask who wrote what. They expected me to say I wrote the relational stuff, and he wrote the medical scenes. But that’s not how it worked. He knew a lot about relationships, and I’ve experienced some medical procedures through the years. We dreamed up ideas. We argued. We compromised. We blended and we bent. I did some research; he added some stories from his medical practice. I tweaked it based on input received from ministry through the years. By the time each book was finished, it was such a synergistic blend of our thoughts combined with those of our spouses, edited by both—it was a complete co-creation. It would be impossible to carve out what was the effort of one or the other. We were co-authors. And I think that’s similar to what Eve expresses here about the miracle of birth: “I have created a man along with the Lord!”
So the scene begins beautifully, and I imagine this new mom, like any mother, had great hopes for her little blessing. And soon she has another one. In verse two we read that she names him Abel, and we get a little nervous. Though the text doesn’t say it, Abel means “breath” or “vanity.” If you’ve read in Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” that is the word used here. And it makes us stop to wonder, Will the breath of “Breath man” be snuffed out before its time?
Well, time goes by and the boys grow up. Do you wonder if they wrestled? Did they find a pomegranate and play ball? All we’re told is their occupations: “Now Abel was shepherding a flock, but Cain was working the ground.” You’ve got a shepherd and a farmer. And notice that Cain worked the “ground.” Nothing wrong with that. But it is what God cursed. So we wonder if the author is foreshadowing here that there’s bad news ahead.
Now here’s where it starts to get sticky. In verses three and four we read, “And it happened in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the ground. But Abel brought of the firstlings of his sheep and of their fat.”
If we look first at what Abel brought, we notice it was “of the firstlings.” Those are the firstborn animals. Later in the law God will require the firstborn of everything to be offered to Him. We also see here that Abel brought of their fat portions. In our culture we appreciate non-fat foods, but most other places in the world, even today, have a different view. One time when my husband and I were in Russia, we toured a hospital that invited us to eat hors d’oeuvres. At one point Gary thought he was popping a square of mozzarella cheese into his mouth, but he discovered too late that it was raw fat. So he choked it down, trying to veil his disgust. But to the Russians it was a delicacy of the highest order, and they had offered us their best stuff. That’s exactly how God regarded the fat on animals. When offered to him in sacrifice, it made a most pleasing gift.
Contrast that with the gift Cain brought. The text says simply, “He brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the ground.” There’s nothing wrong with bringing grain or produce—the text calls what both brothers brought an “offering,” so it must have fit within the category of “generally allowable gifts.” But there’s a problem here. Where are the firstfruits? We don’t see the emphasis on bringing God the very best. He just brought some of the stuff he grew. Nothing special. It reminds me of a morning when one of the women in our Bible study brought leftover donuts as a joke. Only Cain was serious.
The first ten years of my life, I grew up in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, an incredibly fertile plain with a river running by the house. There was plenty of water and good soil. My dad worked a government job, but to help support his wife and five kids, he had a one-acre garden in addition to a pear orchard and a Christmas tree farm. He was good at it, too. Every year he would set aside the largest, most perfectly formed pears and exhibit them in the state fair. Sometimes his rhubarb was of good enough quality to enter, too. Or an amazingly large squash would sprout up and make it all the way to the judges’ booth. For his display Dad chose only the biggest and the best—the choicest fruit. And afterwards he lined his walls with award ribbons. That’s the quality that God wants from Cain here. You don’t take your leftovers to the Judge. You take the finest. Hebrews 11:4 tells us that “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts.”
Unfortunately, unlike his brother’s gift, Cain’s offering revealed a lot about his view of God. He didn’t bring anything that cost him anything; he saved the best for himself. And you know what? That’s not good enough for God. So we read in verse four, “And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.”
Uh-oh. Big brother gets outdone by little brother. Big brother has spent his days working hard in the sin-cursed ground and he expects God to be like a gleaner—to come along after the fields have been harvested and accept what got dropped on the ground. And Cain probably even thinks he’s being generous here. Hey, at least he brought something! But while he has simply put together some veggies, his brother has, like the Hallmark slogan goes, “Cared enough to send the very best.” And God is smart enough to see and reward the difference.
Well, sure enough, when God prefers Abel’s offering, Cain gets upset. We read in verse five, “So Cain was very angry and his face fell.”
But God is also gracious, so he gives Cain a chance to make it right. He initiates a conversation here. We read in verse six, “Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must rule it.”
It’s like God is saying, “Don’t worry. It’s not too late.” When we read that Cain’s “face fell,” it’s a lot like how we use that phrase today. Only here it has more the idea of anger behind it than sadness or dejection. But no problem—God makes sure Cain knows he can still offer an acceptable sacrifice. The Lord also warns Cain that he’s in a power struggle with sin and he needs to stop and choose wisely.
If you’ve ever seen the musical “Oklahoma!” you’ve heard the song, “Oh, the Farmer and the Cowhand Should Be Friends.” You’ve seen how the ranch hands and the farmers constantly competed. And that’s certainly true here, multiplied by some sibling rivalry. Cain is probably feeling all sorts of competitive instincts and negative emotions. His kid brother has shown him up, and he’s not going to take it lightly. In my junior year of high school my little sister—a sophomore—and I both played on the varsity soccer team. And at the awards banquet she got the award for “Most Valuable Player.” I got nothing. My little sis was a better soccer player than I was, and now everyone knew it. Was I happy for her, recognizing I could excel in other arenas? Are you kidding? Mostly I was jealous! It’s ugly, but that’s how we often think, isn’t it?
God acknowledges Cain’s jealous rage, and he warns him that sin is crouching.
Last Christmas we gave our daughter a kitten. And for the past year, every morning when we’ve opened our bedroom door, Princess Peaches has come in to join us on the bed. Our favorite game is to move our fingers under the covers, convincing her there’s a mouse under there. And she falls for it every time. So she hides behind my husband’s knee and waits for just the right moment. Then fast as a blink she jumps through the air and pounces on her prey with claws extended. She’s so good at it that we had to have her de-clawed, because sometimes when we thought the game was over, we’d take out our hands and a few minutes later, they’d be bleeding.
Now picture what a bigger feline could do...a lion maybe, or a cougar. It could devour a person in minutes. And the writer here paints that sort of image by personifying sin as a lurking animal, waiting for its prey’s most vulnerable moment for the pounce. Sin lurks here, just waiting for the opportunity to devour Cain.
So what does Cain do? Does he say, “Okay, let me go back and get the biggest apples”? No way. Verse eight reads, “Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And it happened when they were in the field that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and he killed him.”
Can you believe it? He lures him out into the field where no one can witness what’s going to happen and no one will hear the yells for help. And Cain kills his brother in cold blood. His own brother! Instead of mastering sin, he has silenced little “Buddy” for good.
So we’re barely four chapters into the book and we’ve already got a murder mystery. Who did it? The Lord knows and He shows up again. And He does the same thing with Cain that he did when Adam sinned. He asks questions first. That’s always a good idea when somebody’s messed up—give them a chance to confess. In verse nine we read that God asks, “Where is Abel, your brother?”
Well, unlike his father, Adam’s son shows no shame. He starts out with a lie: “I don’t know.” But then he adds a smart-alecky “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Or the actual word order here is “Keeper of my brother, am I?” The word “keeper” here is the same word that described what Abel did. He “kept” sheep. And it’s like Cain is saying, “Am I the keeper of the keeper?” “Am I the shepherd of the shepherd?” It’s a less-than-subtle dig that suggests God is being unreasonable in even asking.
Do you sometimes get this attitude toward God? Do you blame him for stuff that goes wrong when you’ve made bad choices to begin with? Last year I caught Alexandra, then five years old, sucking her thumb, and I told her to stop. And do you know what she said? “Well, God should not have given me an arm with a hand on it.” In other words it’s God’s fault that I’m sucking my thumb! It starts early. We’re all prone to mistrust God—to think He’s really demanding and unreasonable and out to hunt down and slay our happiness. We want to blame him rather than take responsibility for our own sin. Back in the orchard Adam told God he ate the fruit because of “The woman you gave me,” as though God Himself were responsible for Adam’s choice. Now his son acts the same way, times two. Since the first human and the first sin, we’ve had this tendency to blame God. It’s much more comfortable than owning up to our wrongs.
So Cain smarts off and blames God. And what happens next in the Genesis story amazes me. If it were up to me, I’d do lightning right here on the spot. Capital punishment. Show no mercy to this selfish, smart-mouth.
But God—our gracious God—asks another question. Verse ten reads, “And He said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground.’” From the ground God had cursed, the ground that Cain had worked, the ground that received Abel’s blood, we see the evidence of Cain’s evil. And here’s the penalty. God says, “And now you are being cursed from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive the blood of your brother from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer continue giving its strength to you; you will become a homeless roamer in the land.’”
What? He doesn’t kill him? At this point we expect Cain to say, “Wow. Thanks for not doing to me what I did to my brother. Thanks for not giving me what I deserve.” But nooooooo. What does Cain say? Read verse 13: “Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear!”
Can you believe it? This guy is clueless. He’s getting mercy and he still thinks he’s being mistreated. He continues in verse 14 with, “Look, you have driven me out today away from the ground, and I must hide myself from your presence; and I will be a homeless roamer in the land, and anyone who finds me will kill me.”
“They’ll kill me!” he complains. Can you imagine? They might want to do to Cain what he did to his brother. How unfair!
Now you might wonder who these people are who are going to kill him. If Cain was the firstborn of Adam and Eve, how could the earth be populated? We’re not really told, but it’s possible that by now Adam and Eve have had a lot of other children, and if so, all of them would be outraged at Cain’s actions—for killing their brother. And we have to figure that if the ground will no longer cooperate to yield produce to Cain, he may have to beg his family members for food. Again, we expect God to say, “How does it feel?” Or “Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it.” Or like the Eagles’ hit, “Get Over It!”
But not this God. Instead, he shows mercy yet again. In verse 15 we read, “So the Lord said to him, ‘No, if anyone kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold.’” If you wonder what sevenfold vengeance is, it may help to know that back then they considered seven the perfect number. It was often associated with completeness. So it’s like God is saying, “I will completely avenge anyone who kills Cain.” When Gary and I went camping back in the eighties, if he’d see a mosquito flying nearby, he’d say, “I’ll kill him to the max in a second without mercy.” Then smash. And although “to the max” is an outdated expression, perhaps it helps us understand what’s being expressed here. It’s as though God is saying, “If anyone messes with you, I’ll avenge your murder to the max.”
Then the text goes on to say, “And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest anyone who came upon him should harm him.” Now in our world full of street signs, billboards, and store signs, we usually think of a sign as a visual image, perhaps something reminiscent of the Grateful Dead’s “Dire Wolf” like a placard saying, “Don’t Murder Me.” But this word could mean something a little different from that. In Joshua 2:12, when Rahab asked for a sign, she received protection for herself and her family. So the sign could simply be God’s protection. Other signs in the Hebrew Bible included a broad range of options like Noah’s rainbow reminding everyone that God would never again destroy the world with water. Or when Moses asked God for a sign that He would deliver his people, God told him the sign would be that His people would someday serve Him on the mountain where Moses confronted the burning bush.
It’s also been suggested that this could have been a special hairstyle, a mark like a tattoo—even a growling dog, though if you’re going to go there, I think a skunk might be more fitting. That would keep anyone from going near the guy. We aren’t told what the sign was, but we do know its function—to protect the murderer from anyone who might want to injure him.
What? Protect him from injury? Yes, one more time we see God’s grace. The word “murder” has been used in this chapter up until now. But when God promises to protect Cain, we see a different word—he says “lest anyone injure Cain.” In other words, he’s not just protecting Cain from those who would murder him, but from anyone who would beat him up!
So how does the story end? Verse sixteen tells us, “Then Cain departed from the presence of Yahweh and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” East of Eden is the direction Adam and Eve went when driven from the orchard. And “Nod” means wandering. So Cain went to the land of wandering—away from the presence of the Lord.
Eve’s miracle baby has caused nothing but heartbreak. And the couple who departed from God’s presence now see their son departing even further from His face.
And that is where all of us would remain without Jesus Christ. Because of Him we are no longer in the process of departing further and further from God. Through the reconciliation brought by the most pleasing sacrifice of all time, we are invited back into fellowship with the Father no matter what we’ve done.
And knowing that should evoke in us a desire to return to Him what Cain should have given—not our leftovers but our best.
What do we give to the God of grace? Do we give him our sleepiest hours or our most productive energy? Do we give him our spare change or do we give generously and sacrificially? Does our offering cost us or is it simply convenient? Do we treat His children with neglect or respect? How deliberate are you in showing how much God means to you by what you give back to him?
It’s Christmastime—a season when we get so frenzied attending company Christmas buffets and hanging the icicles on the house that we lose sight of the greatest Gift ever given. We get all wrapped up in giving gifts to others in honor of His birthday, but like Cain we offer Him—the Reason for the Season—the leftovers. Our leftover time. Some leftover canned goods we didn’t plan to use anyway. A little leftover energy. A few coins of leftover pocket change in the kettle.
So we need to stop. And in the midst of the hustle and bustle, let’s carve out some time to prepare our best, most memorable gift. If it’ll help, consider using the visual reminder of wrapping a box and putting it under the tree as a “sign” of a decision to give God His due.
What does our God of extreme grace really want from us? If we asked the Spirit to tell us His heart’s desire, what would top His Christmas list? What would really please the One who would “rather die than live without us”? No longer does he want animal fat and first fruits. Romans 12:1 and 2 tells us that he wants us—our lives—as living sacrifices. More than anything, the Father wants the love and devotion of each “miracle” child’s whole and undivided heart.
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man, I would do my part.
O what can I give Him?
Give Him my heart.
These are the author's speaking notes for a message she gave to a women's luncheon.
So glad to be here with you- Aren’t the tables beautiful? Thank you to everyone who worked so hard to transform this room into such a beautiful display.
Let me tell you about a story when my family and I experienced the simple blessing of Christmas; I was pregnant with Natalie, my second child, and I was determined she would be born early, as in before Christmas (her name means “Christmas child”). I didn’t even want to drive the hour and a half to Slidell or New Orleans where our parents lived. I had my babies pretty quickly.
My mom and my stepfather came to see us before Christmas day and brought some gifts for Sheree and for my husband and me. She also brought some puzzles that were hand-me-downs from my sister-in-law. Sheree unwrapped two stuffed toy bunnies and checked out her new puzzles (always such a bright little thing) and said, “Look at all my nice new toys!”
I pray that today we could all have that joy and be able to say, “Look at all my nice new toys! Isn’t the blessing of Christmas good?”
On Christmas Eve, sometimes we can’t help but envy our children the stars in their eyes, especially when our own eyes are dull with exhaustion. Christmas is so much simpler for a child. Can we open our tired, adult eyes to that same simplicity?
Unfortunately we have built up some awesome expectations by Christmas:
(Just look at the descriptions on magazines’ December issues)
I can’t even get a handle on all the superlatives.
Apparently magazine editors are very aware that our memories are faulty. We have had the most incredible Christmas issues several years ago and every year since.
Here are some actual examples of the Christmas Magazine siren song, from my 1992 collection: “Holiday Stress-Busters”, “Quick Gifts to Craft for Christmas”, “Make-Ahead Tips”, “630 Merry Ideas to Make Christmas Happier, Saner, More Meaningful”, and of course, “Drop 10 Pounds by Christmas.”
Isn’t this what we all want? A stress-free, merry, beautiful, delicious, organized and slender Christmas? Of course it is--so into our shopping basket jumps the Christmas Magazine.
The advertising industry definitely wants you to spend a lot of time, effort and especially money on your holiday preparations.
Consider your Christmas planning today.
If you are like me you have already been inundated for months (since September, at least, in some stores) with images of the perfect holiday. We have read magazine articles on how to trim the most beautiful tree, wrap the most adorable packages, and prepare the most delicious food, blah, blah.
There is no shortage of perfect holiday stories in literature or in Hollywood, either.
Who could forget the beautiful Christmas celebrations of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s childhood in the Big Woods or on the Banks of Plum Creek?
Or Little Women with all the sweet daughters gathered around Marmee bestowing gifts of love on a much beloved mother?
Or the wonderful hearted Whos singing in the town square even after the Grinch had stolen all of their Christmas goodies? Dah hoo doray, dah hoo doray.. or whatever those words are…
Why is there such a proliferation of feel good stories at Christmas? Because there is a hungering in every heart for a perfect time of celebration. THERE IS A HUNGERING IN EVERY HEART FOR A CELEBRATION THAT HAS MEANING. WE ARE LOOKING FOR THE SIMPLE BLESSINGS OF CHRISTMAS.
We long for happy endings, winning teams, a great sale, and wonderful surprises. We cry with joy over at Hallmark commercials.
We all want something to cheer about and, if necessary, we go to great lengths to insure that we have something to cheer about each Christmas.
I work hard cleaning my house especially on Christmas Eve so the pictures we take on Christmas morning won’t show what my house usually looks like but what it looks like for company.
We are scrambling to have the perfect Martha Stewart Christmas.
For some of us, a perfect holiday extravaganza comes easily. For some of us, it is not so easy. Whether it comes with stress or not, it definitely come with extra work or expense.
Sometimes in all of our hustle and bustle, we get confused about the meaning of the celebration. We forget that the party is for someone special.
We are looking for ways to bring meaning into our celebrations but too often we buy into advertisers’ solutions.
A few months ago I went to a wedding.
It was a beautiful location—a balcony overlooking a luscious hillside. There was an abundance of flowers. The scent of roses growing on the hillside was wafting through the air. The weather was perfect, the gown was exquisite, and the food was scrumptious.
Now at this wedding, the bride and groom were obviously in love with each other. It was beautiful to see them together. But what if that was not the case: what if the bride didn’t love the groom? What if I told you that she didn’t even know him? Not in an arranged marriage kind of way but that all she was really wanting to do was to have a perfect ceremony with her closest friends and family and give them a party to remember?
Then why, you might ask, didn’t she just have a party? Why did she say it was a wedding?
Then you would have concluded, “That wedding had no meaning.”
That sort of reminds me about some of our Christmas celebrations. If we don’t know the One whose birthday we are celebrating then we might as well just call it a winter celebration.
Because we miss out on the simple blessings of Christmas… we have celebrations without meaning.
Think back with me to a favorite Christmas memory.
What made it so special?
Was it the gifts? Ex. Mr. Microphone tape recorder
I loved my Mr. Microphone tape recorder. I had a talk show on Christmas day as I walked around our living room and interviewed all the guests. Later, I recorded myself singing painful songs with the radio.
Was it the food? One word: Cranberries
Was it the decorations? Our most sacred decoration was never even put up in my memory: It was a large (door sized) Christmas tree shaped door hanging, filled with pine cones
Was it who came to celebrate with you?
EVEN THOUGH WE LONG FOR THE BEST CHRISTMAS EVER, WE MISS OUT ON A CELEBRATION WITH MEANING. WE MISS THE SIMPLE BLESSING OF CHRISTMAS
The reality is that a lot of us have our parties without a thought to the bridegroom—without a thought to the Savior. We just want to have a beautiful time of celebrating with our family. But don’t forget what we are celebrating. It is not just the winter solstice. It is a celebration and thanksgiving of God giving us the very best gift we could ever have: the potential for a relationship with Him.
But all too often we miss that gift and we miss the simple blessing of Christmas: knowing and treasuring Jesus in your heart.
But the reality is that the Christmas magazine too often fuels my discontent. It gives me more ideas for glories we have planned and dreamed about—I mean… visions of sugarplums dancing in your head?
Oh we might get the look of the Southern Living dream house by our own talent or someone we hire but there is almost always something that goes awry. Like the year we had a fresh cut Christmas tree from a local tree farm. We brought it home with great smells and a little gift that was to hatch later. Our tree was the warm and cozy home of a nest of spiders. Let me assure you that sweet angel ornaments take on a whole new look when they are infested with baby spiders. At least they waited to hatch until after Christmas morning! There can be other disappointments: maybe a gift isn’t quite appreciated like we had hoped. Why oh why didn’t my husband like the tiny light for his sock drawer? These are the very minor disappointments. The Christmas season is certainly not exempt to great tragedies of illness and loss.
We often suffer from loneliness that can be a part of Christmas.
A friend who was single at the time told me that Christmas Eve more so than New Years’ Eve or Valentines’ Day was the hardest holiday to be alone.
Even if we aren’t alone, we have stress from too much to do. Have you ever heard anyone say, “I don’t really have anything to do so I will be able to complete my Christmas to-do list easily”? Could you introduce her to me? I have some things to share.
The stress from all the holiday busyness leads some people to forego most of their old traditions altogether.
“Simplify Christmas” is a growing drumbeat that sounds in contrast to the buy more, do more, celebrate more.
(My Google search got 1,440,000 hits on “simplifying Christmas.”)
It is fine to simplify but sometimes I think we simplify out of frustration with our frantic lifestyle instead of from a desire to get more meaning into our holidays. Sometimes we simplify and still miss the simple blessing of Christmas.
Please note that even a simplified celebration could leave you empty as well an extravagant one: You will just have a smaller credit card bill in January. Even if you set your heart on small celebrations, there can easily be disappointment.
You could still have a Christmas without meaning.
You can simplify and still miss the blessing of Christmas
The bottom line is that regardless of how much we do or don’t do, how many gifts we buy, or how many hundreds of cards we send or not send: our heart preparations are the key to the holiday. Our heart is the key to the simple blessing of Christmas: the key to treasuring Jesus.
Proper preparation of our hearts moves us from self-preoccupation to humble expectations.
In the Old Testament, God directs the people of Israel very specifically about how they are to worship Him. He tells them exactly what kind of celebrations He wants them to have. The heart behind every celebration is acknowledging the Lord, thanking Him for His blessings in their lives, and being in a right relationship with Him. God isn’t opposed to big celebrations but in the Bible it is clear over and over, we are told that the most important thing is what is going on in your heart.
The heart is most important.
There is a hungering in all of our hearts for a perfect time of celebration.
Why have a party for Christmas?
Because this is the time to remember the most exciting event in history-
When God came down from heaven and became one of us
Let me introduce Him to you.
Many years ago, before the first stocking was hung or was even a thought, an angel appeared to a young woman named Mary. Now she lived in the Middle East and there were problems with that area with warring governments and terrorists’ threats even then. This angel told the young woman that she was going to have a baby. That surprised her because Mary was a virgin. Furthermore, this baby was going to be the Son of God and it was He who would save His people from their sins. He was the long awaited Messiah.
Just so you know God is not opposed to big celebrations, in the gospel of Luke, we read that an angel came and announced Jesus’ birth.
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
The best thing about this blessing of the first Christmas was that Jesus wasn’t just born to be the center of our nativity sets at a really fun holiday in America. The angel told Mary this baby was born to be the Savior, the One who would save His people from their sins. That is really good news. But it has some bad news tucked in—The fact is the reason Jesus came is that the Bible says we are all sinners. We all have chosen to do our own thing and the Bible calls that sin. The even worse news is that what we earn because of our sin is death, or spiritual separation from God.
The whole reason for Christmas is God’s way of bridging the gap between Him and us. He provided the payment for our sin in the form of a tiny baby who would grow up to be a man, live a sinless life, then die on a cross as a payment for our sins. He took the penalty for us. After three days, He rose from the dead and is waiting for us today at the right hand of the Father. He wants us to know Him.
The very best news of all is that if we place our trust in Him as our Savior, He removes the consequences of our sins. We won’t be guilty any more. He gives us eternal life with Him.
Jesus wants us to celebrate that. In the book of John chapter 10, Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Or as a friend of mine translates it “That they might have a party.”
What if there still remains the twinge of wanting a Martha Stewart Christmas?
Aren’t we all still buying and studying our Christmas magazines?
If producing the perfect Christmas look isn’t in your skill set or your budget then let it go. Be content with a few things and rejoice that you have less to put away after the holidays.
Focus on the simple blessings of Christmas.
Focus on the birth of the savior of the world; the coming of the King of Kings.
That kind of renewed mindset is not going to happen without a little effort.
I want to challenge you to add one more thing to your to do list. I want you to add thinking about how you can focus on the simple blessings of Christmas, how you can treasure Jesus in your heart.
Your table hostesses have a list of ideas that you could try and even add some of your own.
I want to leave you with a few practical ways to add meaning to your Christmas celebrations. They have been helpful to my family and me.
There are twelve Bible passages listed there. The story may be familiar to most of you but I’d like you to read them and ask yourself: How did the individuals in these verses respond to Jesus? Am I looking at Jesus with tired, adult eyes? How can I change how I respond to Him?
I would encourage you to put a few of these on your calendar and focus on the simple blessings of Christmas. Focus on a celebration with meaning.
Celebrate for the right reasons.
Celebrate because you know the bridegroom and He knows you.
Celebrate because you have entered into a perfect love relationship with the Creator of the universe.
Celebrate because you know the simple blessing of Christmas.
When Mary was confronted with the reality of who Jesus was and what that would mean for the world, the Bible says Mary did just what God wanted her to do: She treasured these things in her heart.
The simple blessing of Christmas is treasuring Jesus in your heart. Pondering the good news that you are so deeply loved by the Creator of the Universe that He sacrificed His only Son for you. He gave His Son so that you could have an abundant life with Him forever.
Treasure Jesus in your heart. Rejoice in knowing that He is the King, the Savior who has come into the world to set things right, come into the world to rescue us from the dominion of darkness. He has come to save you from a meaningless existence of self-service. He wants to be your king and bring you into His kingdom of marvelous light, life and love. What a celebration that will be when you join Him in His kingdom! What are you waiting for? Come on in and join the party. It is a big one.