Tag Archives: Christmas

An Un-Advent-ful World: Love

St. John, the Apostle

St. John, the Apostle

John, the disciple of Jesus, writing to early believers, mentions it almost as an afterthought. It is such a huge thought and yet John doesn’t even give it it’s own sentence. He could have written volumes on the ramifications of this thought but John only gives us a couple of sentences of elaboration.

What is John’s huge thought?


“The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” 1 John 4:8

God is love.

Perhaps no greater words have even been written. But love is a tricky entity to describe and for love to be love it must be shown by action.

How does God, as spirit, show love to physical human beings?

God becomes a physical human being.

Jesus came, fully God and fully man, as “the exact representation of [God’s] nature” (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus perfectly reflects God, a God who’s very nature is love.

In an un-advent-ful world God’s love remains an abstract idea. In an un-advent-ful world, love does not possess hands and feet. In an un-advent-ful world, love does not heal the sick, love does not feed the hungry and love does not restore those caught in sin. In an un-advent-ful world, love does not spread out it’s arms and die on a cross.

In Jesus, in advent, we have a God who does exactly that. We see love become flesh and dwell among us and in Jesus we can see God’s glory.

As your church lights the Christ candle on Christmas Eve, let’s see Advent in light of what the world would look like without it.

Merry Christmas!


An Un-Advent-ful World: Joy

“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.'” Luke 2:10-11

In this Advent series, we are looking at the themes of Advent as they are represented in the tradition of lighting the Advent candles: hope, love, joy and peace.

Joy is one of those words that rarely sees use in everyday conversation. Joy isn’t the go-to word for most people talking at the coffee shop or chatting around the office. People use words like ‘happy,’ ‘excited,’ ‘ecstatic’ but rarely ‘joy.’

The word joy is used over 200 times in the Bible but just looking at the times it is used in the New Testament, we find joy attached to a variety of events/attitudes/things:

  • The good news of the gospel brings joy (Luke 2:10-11).
  • Finding the kingdom of God brings joy (Matthew 13:44).
  • Being hated, ostracized and scorned because of Jesus brings joy (Luke 6:22-23).
  • Doing the work of Jesus brings joy (Luke 10:17).
  • Having your name recorded in heaven brings joy (Luke 10:20).
  • Seeing a sinner repent brings joy (Luke 15:10).
  • One of the fruits of the Spirit is joy (Galatians 5:22).
  • We should consider it joy when we face trials (James 1:22).
  • Jesus endured the cross because of the joy that would follow (Hebrews 12:2).

That is just a small sampling of how joy is used through the New Testament. When the angel announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, it announced news that was to bring great joy to all people- every person and every people group. This was to occur because Jesus, the Messiah, had been born. In an un-advent-ful world, we may still be able to find joy but we are going to find joy in different places than what the biblical writers tell us. In an un-advent-ful world we will find joy in the things that bring pleasure, in things that are temporary or in things that bring excitement.

We may catch glimpses of more in the joy of a child or the joy of a beautiful sunset or the joy seeing a great work of art but in Advent we are able to experience everything as joy because we have the person of joy. In the coming of Jesus joy become more than a feeling or an emotion, joy become a person. We are able to experience everything as joy because we have Jesus, the person of joy, with us in and through everything.

When we see Jesus and when we have Jesus, we have a joy that can never be taken away (John 16:22).



An Un-Advent-ful World: Hope

adventwreathIn this year’s Advent series, I want to take a look at the themes of Advent as they are represented by the Advent candles: hope, love, joy and peace. What is remembered during the Advent season is that through the coming of the Christ-child, each of these takes on a new, a greater and a fulfilled significance. These themes should not be unfamiliar to Christ followers and they are not unfamiliar to this blog. In order to look at these four themes with fresh eyes, I want us to imagine what hope, love, joy and peace would look like in an un-advent-ful world.

Hope: the belief that life will get better- or at the very least that life won’t get worse.

Our lives are really saturated in hope. We hope that we won’t get cancer. We hope that we avoid the tornado, the hurricane or the fire. We hope to find a spouse or have children. We hope that our jobs gives us fulfillment. Some simply hope that they won’t go hungry today. Hope is the admittance that much of our lives are outside of our control and, just like placing a bet on a roulette wheel, we can only wish that the ball lands on the right number.

However, even with the odds stacked against us, it remains a cultural taboo to cross the line from hopeful to hopeless. We must keep hoping because giving up stains our character. It makes us look weak, that when we can’t hope in anything we can’t even hope in ourselves.

In an un-advent-ful world, our hope can only be ourselves. We can’t hope in circumstances. We can’t hope in other people. We can’t hope in the Divine- because even if there is a God/ gods, there’s no reason to believe that God/ gods have any control or care over you and I as individual people in the midst of billions of individuals on a small planet within one solar system of one galaxy in the vastness of all space.

But even hoping in ourselves leave us lacking. It’s been pointed out by others that each of us creates a moral standard that then we ourselves fail to live by. If we hope in our own moral uprightness, there is a good chance we will find that hopeless as well.

The reality is that in an un-advent-ful world, there really isn’t any reliable place or person in which to place our hope. In Jesus, the God of the whole universe proves that he cares about each and every individual. In the coming of the Christ-child, hope comes in a person who heals the sick, calms the sea, feeds the hungry and raises the dead.

In the Advent season we hope not in ourselves but in the God that became one of us.

“Again Isaiah says, ‘There shall come to the root of Jesse, and He who arises to rule over the Gentiles, in Him shall the Gentiles hope.’ Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:12-13


Emmanuel: Because a Good Story is Worth Retelling

One of the things a theology student learns in studying the Gospel of Matthew is that one of the goals of Matthew’s writing is to show how the story of Jesus’ life parallels the story of Israel.

images-1One of the places we see this parallel within the birth narratives is in Matthew 2. Here see the threat of evil already rising against the plan of God in the self-preserving schemes of Herod. Herod, hearing of the birth of a Jewish king attempts to silence any threat by killing the male babies of Bethlehem. Jesus, however, is secretly taken into Egypt.

Knowing the story of the Exodus, one can see the similarities: Pharaoh and Herod both take the lives of innocent male children, Moses and Jesus both escape this fate and both the Hebrews (God’s people) and Jesus (as the perfect embodiment of God’s people) come out of Egypt.

What’s the importance of Jesus paralleling the story of Israel?

Most basically, is because the story of how God interacted with his people is a story that is so important it is worth retelling. And it is a story worth retelling right.

From time to time over the last several years, Hollywood has been overrun with the remake. It seemed like no movie writer could develop an original idea, and so the industry took old movie after old movie and remade them.

That is what God did with Jesus and the story of Israel. The difference though is that this wasn’t God failing to think up a new idea, rather, God, in Jesus, was retelling the story the way it should have been.

The story of Israel ended like a Shakespearian tragedy: disobedience, idolatry, oppression of the poor, war and exile. Jesus’ story turned the tragedy into the climax of all of human history; not because Jesus was somehow super human but because God, the author and director of the story, came to play the lead role.

Every year when we celebrate Christmas or Easter and every Sunday when churches gather to worship, it is our turn to retell the story Jesus. By re-telling the story of Jesus, we are retelling the story of how God saves and redeems his people- a people that fail, mess up and turn life into a tragedy. But that’s all of us and it’s our story and the story of our salvation is a story worth retelling.

Emmanuel: Because I Hate Your Church

I have a confession to make: I hate your church. It’s true. I hate hearing about your church and what your church is doing. I hate reading about your church on Twitter and I hate your “I Love My Church” hashtag. I hate seeing pictures of your awesome worship services. I hate hearing about your baptisms and how people’s lives are being changed. Mostly, though, I hate that God is moving in your church but not mine.

I have a confession to make: I hate your church.

"Presentation of Christ at the Temple" by Hans Holbein the Elder (1500)

“Presentation of Christ at the Temple” by Hans Holbein the Elder (1500)

In this Advent series, we have been thinking about the word “Emmanuel.” We saw that Emmanuel is the ultimate coming together of God and Man. Additionally, we saw what Emmanuel meant to a group of shepherds who desperately desired a personal encounter with God. But for me, one of the most interesting aspects of the biblical birth narratives and the meaning of Emmanuel actually comes after the story of Jesus’ birth when Jesus is presented in the Temple in Luke 2.

In the Temple that day there were, perhaps, hundreds of people who unknowingly were in the same place as, crossed paths with, saw and heard the newborn cries of the Christ child. But out of all those people, only two knew who Jesus was in the very moment that they laid eyes on the baby: Simeon and Anna.

When Jesus showed up, they weren’t the ones who missed him.

Aged. Wise. Prepared. Observant. Devout. All those words could be used to describe Simeon and Anna. They both knew that God’s Messiah was promised and that God would fulfill that promise and they had assurance that the promise would be fulfilled in their lifetime. They believed they would live to see the one who would be God’s Redeemer. When they saw the baby Jesus, they knew what and who they were seeing. When Jesus showed up, they weren’t the ones who missed him.When God was with them (Emmanuel) they didn’t miss it.

That’s what I fear about my church. If God showed up in our midst, I’m not sure we would know it. I think we would be like the rest of the people in the Temple that day who walked right by the Messiah instead of Simeon and Anna who immediately knew that God was in their presence.

Maybe you feel the same way about your church or yourself personally. Maybe you feel like God is moving in every other church or in every other person’s life but your church or your life. What is there to do?  I won’t say that I know exactly what to do and often I find myself in the same position and asking the questions myself. But maybe just asking the question makes it more likely that we won’t miss God when God does show up.

I don’t really hate your church, but I am jealous because I want God to show up in my church and in my life in amazing ways. I want to be like Simeon and Anna who saw and immediately knew and not like the hundreds of others who passed by and missed Emmanuel.

Emmanuel: Because No One Needed It More

Two years ago, I wrote a post on the Magi or Wise Men found in Matthew’s birth narrative. I wrote that the major meaning behind the Magi story was to foreshadow Jesus’ words in Matthew 28 where he commissions the disciples to take the message of his life, death and resurrection to the ends of the earth. But the wise men weren’t the only people made aware of Jesus’ birth- there were also the shepherds.

Why annouce the birth to a group of shepherds? Were they just the only people awake?

We find the story of the shepherds in Luke’s birth narrative. In the story, a group of shepherds are on the night watch over a herd of sheep when an angel appears and announces the birth of a Savior, the Christ or Messiah. The shepherds go and find the baby and then return “glorifying and praising God” (Luke 2:20).

Why announce the birth to a group of shepherds? Were they just the only people awake? Or is there another reason?

I always heard that the shepherds represented the unclean and the outcast, meaning that their inclusion in the birth narrative was the show that Jesus was born for the unclean and for the outcast. I think that is a correct and true observation. But perhaps there is more.

Maybe the shepherds were told of the birth of the Savior because they, more than anyone else, needed to hear that message. Perhaps those shepherds sitting in watch night after night, looking at the stars and crying out to God, if there was a God, that there had to be more than life as a shepherd. Maybe they talked about how they were tired of being “ceremonially”‘unclean and cast out by the society that desired the fruit of their flock in meat, clothing and perhaps even in forgiveness- if indeed, as some scholars claim, these shepherds raised the Passover lambs. They could make the nation clean while they could not be clean themselves.

No one needed it more than the shepherds.

When the angel appeared to the shepherds it wasn’t to tell them that their condition was okay but exactly the opposite. Their position wasn’t okay, they were made for more. They were made by a God who showed up in their lives, they were made for a Savior who wouldn’t use them then cast them out and they could go away praising God for all that they had seen and heard which was exactly like it had been told to them.

At Christmas many people find themselves in a similar position as the shepherds. Christmas reminds us that God does act in the world, sometimes even in what we would call miracles, but sometimes we need God to act personally because we are the ones that need a touch, a word, a change or a chance.

For the shepherds, Emmanuel meant that they experienced God’s presence in a way they never had before and in a way that they never even believed was possible.

For some of us that is what we need Emmanuel to be of us this Christmas.

Emmanuel: Because Hot and Cold Go Together

imagesI’m actually a fan of winter- at least for a while anyway. I’ve lived in the Northeast where snow was recorded in feet and I’ve lived in the Rio Grande Valley where we would wear shorts, t-shirts and flip flops on Christmas Day, so I’ve experienced both extremes and there is something nice about winter.  I’m not saying that I want to live in Minnesota or Buffalo, NY but I do enjoy a little cold winter weather.

The main reason I like a little cold weather is because it’s a good excuse to get warm. Cold weather is a good reason to wear sweaters and jackets, to get under a blanket, to light the fireplace and to drink endless cups of coffee, hot chocolate and hot cider. Winter emphasizes the pairing of cold and hot. It emphasizes that opposites can complement each other: hot and cold, sweetimages-1and salty, light and dark.

Christmas is really the ultimate coming together of opposites- God and Man. God and Man; not merely communicating with each other, nor dwelling along side each other but one Being, one Essence (as the early church fathers said it) that is fully God and fully Man. The Emmanuel- God with us.

Unknown-1In Jesus the ultimate opposites of “God” and “Man” came together in a way that showed the fullness of both. Jesus showed us a vision of the fullness and completeness of God as well as the fullness and completeness of Man. Jesus did the things only God could do (forgiving sins, judging hearts, ruling over creation) and Jesus did the things only Man can do (eat, sleep, laugh, cry) and in so doing showed what true divinity and true humanity are. A Jesus who was only divine could not be an example to humanity and a Jesus who was only human could not be a complete representation of God. Jesus was, and had to be, both together- the ultimate coming together of God and Man, the Emmanuel.

When I Doubt


It’s amazing the small and seemingly insignificant things that make me doubt God. Just the other day, I needed to use my cordless drill for a small project at work but when I went to get it the battery was dead and the battery charger would not charge the battery.

The result was that my thoughts naturally went:

“Why won’t the battery charger work?” to “Why does this always happen to me?” to “Everything in my life is horrible” to “Why doesn’t God care?” to “God can’t be good” to “Maybe God doesn’t even exist” to “I’ll show God that I don’t need Him.”

That train of thought seems laughable and so ridiculous as I as writing but honestly that is how the conversation in my head went. And I bet I’m not the only one who has ever done that.

Why do we do that? Why does a broken battery charger or an extra long line at the coffee shop or a bad break at work automatically make us doubt God and doubt that God is truly good?

It’s because believing in God is hard. Yes I said it; believing in God is hard.

That is why love the honesty we see in a story in the Gospel of Mark. A father brings his son to Jesus so Jesus could heal his son. In the exchange between the father and Jesus, the father opens his heart and tells Jesus, “I do believe; help my unbelief.”

That is an honest prayer.

At this Christmas season, we encounter people who reside everywhere along the spectrum of faith. They need to know that they can pray an honest prayer from wherever they are. Even Christians can learn from this prayer. We all have a tendency to doubt God and doubt God’s goodness to us. Doubting God’s goodness is, after all, an echo that resounds in our hearts from the Garden. If we cannot be honest with God about our doubts, then who can we be honest with?

Lord I believe, but help my unbelief.

© Ryan Vanderland 2013

O come, O come, Emmanuel

Unknown-1Today is Christmas and I know I’ve been having a little fun in my last few posts- especially about pooping figurines in the nativity scene. But on this morning, Christmas morning, I want to be a little more serious and take a brief look at my favorite Christmas hymn: O come, O come, Emmanuel.

images-1The song was originally composed in Latin, as Veni, veni Emanuel, in the 12th century and the author and the musical arrangement are unknown but the arrangement possibly came from a 15th century processional for French Franciscan nuns. The song was translated into English by John M. Neale and published in 1851.John M Neale




The lyrics of this song are extremely powerful and evoke a variety of biblical images.

The lyrics are as follows:

O come, O come, Emmanuel

and ransom captive Israel,

that mourns in lonely exile here

until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice!

Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel

O come, thou Wisdom from on high,

who orderest all things mightily;

to us the path of knowledge show,

and teach us in her ways to go.


O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free

thine own from Satan’s tyranny;

from depths of hell thy people save,

and give them victory over the grave


O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer

our spirits by thine advent here;

disperse the gloomy clouds of night,

and death’s dark shadows put to flight


O come, thou Key of David, come

and open wide our heavenly home;

make safe the way that leads of high

and close the path to misery.


O come, O come, great Lord of might,

who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height

in acient times once gave the law

in cloud and majesty and awe.


O come, thou Root of Jesse’s tree,

an ensign of the people be;

before three rulers silent fall;

all people on thy mercy call.


O come, Desire of nations, bind

in one the hearts of all mankind;

bid thou our sad divisions cease,

and be thyself our King of Peace


O come, O come, Emmanuel

and ransom captive Israel,

that mourns in lonely exile here

until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice!

Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.


Rejoice that Emmanuel has come! Rejoice that Emmanuel is coming again!

Merry Christmas!

© Ryan Vanderland 2012

Christmas Trees, Nativity Scenes and…Poop?

Most Western Christmas decorations are incomplete unless there is a Christmas tree and a nativity scene. Many people do not have any idea why we set up and decorate a tree or have nativity scenes in our houses or in our yards. In this post, I would like to briefly explain each of these Christmas traditions- where they started, how they developed and how these traditions help us celebrate Christmas (even through some of their oddity).

imagesThe Christmas Tree

The story of the Christmas tree has many possible places of beginning but most begin with St. Boniface who used the image of an evergreen tree to teach the principle of the Trinity. Before St. Boniface, however, evergreen trees were used as religious symbols in Egypt, Rome and Great Britain and this leads some to believe that the Christmas tree tradition evolved from pagan roots (pun intended). For these “pagan” cultures, the evergreen tree was a symbol of certain deities but also important reminder that life would return after the harshness of winter.

The modern Christmas tree can be traced to Germany. Germans brought the tradition to America around the time of the Revolutionary War. One source says that by 1900, one in five American homes contained a Christmas tree. By 1920, almost every American house contained a Christmas tree. Lights were added to represent the birth of Jesus. Ornaments began as edible reminders of times of plenty that came before and will return after winter.

The Christmas tree is also a reminder that the Christ born at Christmas would die on a tree on Good Friday.

Today, Christmas trees represent a $1 billion industry and that does not include the sales of artificial trees.  The most iconic Christmas tree in the world is probably the Christmas tree erected yearly at Rockefeller Center in NYC. Rockefeller Center Christmas TreeThe total cost of the tree is estimated to be over $73,000. However, that’s not the most expensive Christmas tree- in fact it’s not even close.

The most expensive Christmas tree ever created was displayed in The Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi. The tree stood 40 feet tall and was decorated with diamonds, pearls, emeralds and other jewels. The total value of the tree was estimated at $11.4 million. The Emirates Palace Hotel Christmas Tree

We’ve come a long way from the Charlie Brown Christmas tree.


The Nativity Scene


The first nativity scene can be traced to St. Francis of Assisi and the year 1223. St. Francis wanted the people to see a picture of what they heard in Christmas Mass. St. Francis’ nativity scene included a wax baby Jesus, actors playing Mary and Joseph, and local shepherds who watch over live sheep. There was also a live donkey and a live ox and many modern nativity sets still contain these two animals in their nativity scenes.

Over the next two hundred years, more churches incorporated nativity scenes into their Christmas worship. Some copied St. Francis’ “live nativity,” while others built static scenes. Artisans also began crafting smaller versions of nativities for the homes of wealthy clients. These early nativities were made from clay, ceramics, wood and wax- essentially the same materials used today.

Many modern nativity scenes typically contain the same characters as the first nativity: Jesus, Mary, Joseph, an angel, a shepherd or two with sheep, three Magi, a donkey and an ox. There are other traditions that accompany nativities. One tradition says that baby Jesus should not be placed into the manger until Christmas morning. Another says that the Magi should move gradually closer to the nativity up to the Feast of Epiphany.

The strangest tradition I have run across is the traditional placing of the caganer in the nativity scene in southern France and Spain. images-1The caganer is a figurine that is in the act of defecating; that’s right- he’s pooping. The tradition began in the late 17th or early 18th century and perhaps began as a bringer of fertility and good luck. This figure is usually hidden somewhere within the nativity scene and a game is often played with children to find the caganer. An interesting BBC article on the caganer can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-12059969


I bet you never thought about a pooping man in your nativity scene.

This Christmas, as you look at your Christmas tree and nativity scene I hope you’ll know a little more about how we gained these traditions. And I hope you consider adding a caganer to this year’s nativity scene- all in the name of tradition of course.

Sources in this post:







© Ryan Vanderland 2012