Sermon illustrations


An Unlikely Adoption

Joseph exhibited the true spirit of adoption. It is a vivid picture both of God’s adoption of us as His children in Christ, but also the call every believer has in welcoming into our homes and communities the world’s most vulnerable and forgotten. It was Jesus’ brother James who would later write that true religion is defined by care for orphans and widows (James 1:27). With Russell Moore we can speculate that perhaps James first learned this by watching Joseph. “Did the image of Joseph linger in James’s mind as he inscribed the words of an orphan-protecting, living faith?”

Ultimately, we don’t know really what happens to Joseph after he is mentioned in that visit by Jesus to the temple at the age of twelve. He doesn’t show up again in the Scriptures, and there is reason to believe that perhaps he met an untimely death. In every other passage of Scripture where the family is featured, it’s only Mary and Jesus’ siblings who are mentioned. Given that he was likely older than Mary and life expectancy for a first-century peasant Jew was not great, it could be that losing His father was Jesus’ first instance of human suffering.

Daniel Darling, The Characters of Christmas: The Unlikely People Caught Up in the Story of Jesus, Moody, 2019.

Bethlehem: Neither Still nor Silent

The writer of this song, Phillips Brooks, depicted Bethlehem as “still” and resting silently in “deep and dreamless sleep.” And yet we know that on the night Christ was born, Bethlehem was not still or silent. It was crowded with people because of the census. There was no place for Joseph and Mary to stay, and probably the streets were full of people. Most likely Brooks was thinking of Bethlehem not as it was on the night Jesus was born, but at the time the prophet Micah wrote about this little village: “You, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you, one whose origins are from the distant past” (Micah 5:2). Micah prophesied that a day would come when this insignificant little town would see the birth of a mighty ruler, the promised Messiah.

When the writer of this carol penned, “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light,” he depicted a scene of a dark night in Bethlehem and people who were utterly oblivious to the significance of what was taking place. The Son of God was born, and a light dawned that most of the people living there did not see and could not comprehend. But there, on that night, the one who would later say “I am the light of the world” broke through the darkness of this world.

While the writer of this carol takes us to the dark streets of this sleepy town, he also helps us to see what is happening in the heavens around Bethlehem—what human eyes cannot see. “While mortals sleep, the angels keep their watch of wond’ring love. O morning stars together, proclaim the holy birth. . . .We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell.” This helps us see what is unseen—all of heaven bending down to see what God was doing as he brought Jesus into this world. The angels looked on in awe and wonder, helping us to see the wonder of it all.

Nancy Guthrie, Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room: Daily Family Devotions for Advent, Tyndale Momentum, 2011.

Bigger and Bigger Christmas

Kristen Welch, in her book Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World, described the growing discontent their family experienced after pursuing more and more stuff. She describes it this way with respect to Christmas:

We scraped our money together, packed up our rented 1,000-square-foot townhome, and couldn’t believe the sellers had accepted our bottom-dollar offer on our dream house. We moved in mid-December and scrambled to put up a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, mostly for our two kids, who were two and four years old at the time. There were a few gifts scattered underneath the tree, but we all knew we’d really gotten a house for Christmas…

Every year Christmas got bigger and bigger in that house. We put up the biggest tree we could find in the front bay window and the thousand white lights that adorned it could be seen from the street. I spent a lot of time and money decorating nearly every room. I’ll never forget the Christmas morning when my kids were six and four years old and there were piles of presents under the tree, dozens for each of them. I didn’t feel it was excessive because I was an organized deal shopper and had gotten most of the toys on sale months before. I was as excited as my kids, and I couldn’t wait to see their faces as they opened each gift in delight. What had once been more than enough eventually became not enough.

But it didn’t really happen that way. It was a blur of grabbing and tearing into gifts, and within minutes the room looked like a tornado had ripped through it. I watched my kids go from one gift to another, hardly taking the time to even remove all the paper. With piles of opened gifts and still more to go, they actually seemed tired from the exertion of opening so many. We took a break and cleaned up for a bit before we started round two. There were some gasps of delight here and there, but with a room full of stuff, I don’t think I’ve ever felt emptier.

Kristen Welch, Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World: How One Family Learned That Saying No Can Lead to Life’s Biggest Yes, Tyndale House Publishers.

Christmas Carols

Christmas carols always seem to bring out the best in people. It’s as if we can travel back in time to a place where life was less complicated and Christmas was full of joy and magic. The churches fill with people and in our villages, towns and cities people meet to stand together in the cold to sing songs.

Dominic Walker Taken from Mark. Lawson-Jones, Why Was the Partridge in the Pear Tree?: The History of Christmas Carols (p. 8). The History Press.

The Christmas Gift

A preaching professor at Harvard University tells the story of the year his 5-year-old son was working on an art project in his kindergarten class. It was made of plaster, resembled nothing in particular, but with some paint, sparkle and time in a kiln, it was ready to be wrapped as a gift. He wrapped it himself, and was beside himself with excitement. It would be a gift for his father, one three months in the making.

Early in December, when the child could hardly contain the secret, the last day of school finally came. All the parents arrived for the big Christmas play, and when the students left for home, they were finally allowed to take their ceramic presents home. The professor’s son secured his gift, ran toward his parents, tripped, and fell to the floor. The gift went airborne, and when it landed on the cafeteria floor, the shattering sound stopped all conversations. It was perfectly quiet for a moment, as all involved considered the magnitude of the loss. For a 5-year-old, there had never been a more expensive gift. He crumpled down on the floor next to his broken gift and just started crying.

Both parents rushed to their son, but the father was uncomfortable with the moment. People were watching. His son was crying. He patted the boy on the head and said, “Son, it’s OK – it doesn’t matter.” His wife glared at the great professor. “Oh yes, it matters,” she said to both of her men, “Oh yes, it does matter.” She cradled her son in her arms, rocked him back and forth, and cried with him.

In a few minutes, the crying ceased. “Now,” said the mother, “let’s go home and see what can be made with what’s left.” And so with mother’s magic and a glue gun, they put together from the broken pieces a multi-colored butterfly. Amazingly, the artwork after the tragedy was actually much more beautiful than what it had been in a pre-broken state.

At Christmas, the gift was finally given, and as long as he taught at Harvard, the professor kept the butterfly on his desk. It was a constant reminder that grief is real, and that loss hurts. It was also a reminder that from great loss, great beauty can eventually emerge.

Andy Cook

Covering the Bald Spots

Every year at the end of November, my husband, Ike, and I load the kids in the car and drive to the nearest Christmas tree lot. We are committed “real tree” people—not to be confused with “fake tree” people who keep their trees stored in a box—so the hunt for the perfect tree is one we anticipate and enjoy every year. No matter where we live or how busy we are, we set aside time to visit a farm or a store in order to make our pick. Ike, the kids, and I painstakingly inspect every single option, examine them for gaps, assess their sizes, and scan for brown spots.

Then, after we have made our choice, Ike hoists the tree on top of our car, ties it down, and drives us home. Once we get back to the house, we carefully mount the tree on the stand and carry it inside, trying to scatter as few needles as possible. For the rest of the night, the sap on our fingers attracts dirt, hair, fuzz, and other light debris. I don’t like the mess and I don’t like the hassle, but it’s a hassle we are happy to endure.

Nothing beats the smell of Fraser fir filling the air, and nothing transports Ike and me to our childhood Christmases quite like the glow of a fresh tree in our home. At least, that is how it normally goes. Several years ago our Norman Rockwell moment was not to be. Ike and I bought a discount tree at a local store. That was probably our first mistake. The tree had several bald patches and multiple brown spots. The branches were dry and the needles prickly. We should have read the signs, but I was optimistic. I thought I could hide the gaps with some faux poinsettias and no one would be the wiser. So we took the tree home. For the first few days, the tree was stunning. I loaded it with ornaments, ribbons, and pearls. It was shiny, full, and smelled like an evergreen forest. It was probably the most aromatic tree we’ve ever had.

All was well except for one niggling concern: the tree wasn’t taking any water. If you have ever purchased a real tree, you know they guzzle water, especially at first, and especially after the lights have been weighing on their branches for a while. But not this one. Every time I checked the stand, the water level had barely dropped. That’s when I suspected something wasn’t quite right. Not long after, the branches were drying out, and the needles became so thorny I flinched to brush against them.

And the smell that I loved so much? Over time the scent of evergreen was replaced with a musty, rotten odor. That was when it became clear: our tree wasn’t just a dud. Our tree was dead. That was a disappointing year in the Miller home. We decided to keep the tree for those remaining days before Christmas, but whenever I passed by it, I was reminded of something I had missed amid all the Christmases before. No matter how much you dress up a “real tree,” no matter how much you cover it in family heirlooms, silver bells, tinsel, and lights, a Christmas tree is still a dying tree. And this, I realized, was a tree-shaped sermon about my life.

For many of us, that Christmas tree is our story. We look great, our church looks great, everything seems fine. Until the day we pull back the branches and discover the sickness hiding within. Underneath all the ministry commitments, the Christian conferences, the growing churches, the bestselling books, and the uplifting social media posts, there is fear. There is pride. There is a need to control. There is self-preservation in place of generosity. Defensiveness in place of humility. Silence in place of boldness. Shouting in place of listening. Cynicism in place of hope.

We can hide all of these things behind the ornaments of nice Christianity, which allows them to exist undetected for years. These ornaments do not simply mask the sickness, they contribute to it as well. The baubles that decorate brittle branches also weigh them down. The lights that obscure a tree’s dehydration dry it out faster. 

Sharon Hodde Miller, Nice: Why We Love to Be Liked and How God Calls Us to More, Baker Publishing Group, 2019.

Crafting the Perfect Christmas

Ann was a working mother in her 30’s, and one of the millions of women who saw the marshmallow castle on the December cover of a popular women’s magazine. Ann confessed, later, that she felt like a “bad mother” unless she made something from the magazines every Christmas. But the marshmallow castle was the Waterloo of her annual battle to be Super Mom at Christmas.

The directions for the castle assured her that it was a “traditional project that would add so much to a festive season,” and would provide the “focal point of your holiday decorating” as well. More than likely, the article also said the castle would be fun for the entire family to construct. Ann tackled it by herself.

The ingredients were advertised as inexpensive, but Ann spent much more than she’d anticipated, and was off to a bad start even as she left the grocery store. The editors also claimed that the project was simple enough for a child to make, but Ann spent ten frustrating hours putting it together.

The hardest part for her was the turrets that surrounded the castle. The directions told her to paste peppermint candies to four vertical cardboard tubes with marshmallow crème. When Ann went to bed, the peppermints were holding fast to the towers, but when she woke up the next morning, they had oozed away from their stately positions. The castle was sagging, the towers looked exactly like naked toilet paper rolls, and the peppermint slugs were disgusting.

Ann’s children wanted only to eat the marshmallows. Ann’s husband took one look at the white glob of goo and declared it the ugliest thing he’d ever seen. “He didn’t even want it in the house,” she said.

The next Christmas, Ann was much more selective with her Christmas energy. “This year I’m going to spend that time with my children,” she said. “That’s what they really want from me, anyway.” (Source: Unplug the Christmas Machine, Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli, New York: William Morrow, 1991, pp. 28-29)

Andy Cook

Doubting Santa’s Existence?

It is astonishing that some people still doubt the existence of Santa Claus. Despite the vast amount of photographic evidence, the hundreds of annual reports on Father Christmas’s activities from perfectly reputable news sources, and the bulging stockings full of presents that reliably appear on Christmas morning, somehow the doubters remain unconvinced. Thankfully mathematics can help. The conspiracy theorists have already tried turning to science to demonstrate their (clearly incorrect) position.

They calculate that if Santa were to visit the 1.9 billion children in the world,* he would have to travel at 3,000 times the speed of sound while carrying more than 300,000 tons of presents (about the weight of six Titanics). Richard Dawkins, king of the skeptics, has insisted that the lack of any noticeable sonic booms from all that zipping about at supersonic speeds is more than enough evidence that Santa cannot possibly be real.

Worse still, some claim that this astonishing weight of parcels travelling at such a remarkable speed would practically vaporize the leading reindeer, who would have to withstand the full hit of air resistance. Meanwhile, sitting in the back of his sleigh, Santa would be subjected to forces tens of thousands of times stronger than gravity, making it impossible for him to breathe or to retain any of the physical structure of his bones or internal organs, thus reducing him to a liquefied mess.

From Hannah Fry & Thomas Oléron Evans, The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus: The Mathematics of Christmas, The Overlook Press Copyright © 2016, 2017.

Embracing the Call

So what did it mean for Joseph and Mary to accept the Word of the Lord, to say, “We embrace the call to receive this child. We will accept whatever comes with it”? What did it take for them to literally have “God with us” in their midst (Matthew 1:23)? What does it take to be with him? This text’s answer is courage. And a willingness to do his will, no matter what.

When the angel said to Joseph, “Marry her,” he was saying, “If Jesus comes into your life, you are going to be rejected. You will have to kiss your stellar reputation good-bye.” And he married her. Surely some of Joseph’s friends said, “Why in the world did you marry her? Either you did that or she was unfaithful to you.” Can you imagine Joseph trying to tell them the truth? “Oh, I can explain. She is pregnant through the Holy Spirit. We learned all about it from the angels.” The truth wasn’t something his friends would understand, and therefore he knew they would always think ill of him.

Timothy Keller, The Mother of God (Encounters with Jesus Series Book 10), Penguin Publishing House, 2013.

Finding the Gift in Challenging Circumstances

It’s easy to label what we consider “good things” in our lives as gifts from God and to welcome them with gratitude. But when difficult things happen, we don’t look at them as part of God’s good plan for us. Mary’s example shows us we can also welcome those things we would not necessarily label “good,” confident that God’s gifts sometimes come in perplexing and even painful packages.

When we belong to God, we know he will use whatever he allows into our lives for good. Somehow, in God’s hands, these things also become gifts of his grace toward us. It takes faith—faith to rest in who God is and his love for us; faith to be confident that he is doing something good in and through our difficult circumstances—to see the hard things in our lives as gifts of God’s grace.

Nancy Guthrie, Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room: Daily Family Devotions for Advent, Tyndale Momentum, 2011.

A Force of Love and Logic

The idea that there’s a force of love and logic behind the universe is overwhelming to start with, if you believe it. Actually, maybe even far-fetched to start with, but the idea that that same love and logic would choose to describe itself as a baby born in straw and poverty is genius, and brings me to my knees, literally. To me, as a poet, I am just in awe of that. It makes some sort of poetic sense. It’s the thing that makes me a believer, though it didn’t dawn on me for many years.


A Gift That Requires Swallowing your Pride

Christmas is about receiving presents, but consider how challenging it is to receive certain kinds of gifts. Some gifts by their very nature make you swallow your pride. Imagine opening a present on Christmas morning from a friend—and it’s a dieting book. Then you take off another ribbon and wrapper and you find it is another book from another friend, Overcoming Selfishness. If you say to them, “Thank you so much,” you are in a sense admitting, “For indeed I am fat and obnoxious.”

In other words, some gifts are hard to receive, because to do so is to admit you have flaws and weaknesses and you need help. Perhaps on some occasion you had a friend who figured out you were in financial trouble and came to you and offered a large sum of money to get you out of your predicament. If that has ever happened to you, you probably found that to receive the gift meant swallowing your pride. There has never been a gift offered that makes you swallow your pride to the depths that the gift of Jesus Christ requires us to do. Christmas means that we are so lost, so unable to save ourselves, that nothing less than the death of the Son of God himself could save us.

Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas, Penguin Publishing Group, 2016, pp. 16-17.

The Humanity of Jesus’ Birth

By stating that Jesus is “born of woman”—this Mary (as both St. Matthew and St. Luke attest)—St. Paul insists that Jesus is most emphatically human, the “firstborn of all creation. That this Mary is at the same time a virgin prevents the birth of Jesus from being reduced to what we know or can reproduce from our own experience.

Life that is unmistakably human life is before us here, a real baby from an actual mother’s womb; there is also miracle here, and mystery that cannot be brushed aside in our attempts to bring the operations of God, let alone our own lives, under our control.

The miracle of the virgin birth, maintained from the earliest times in the church and confessed in its creeds, is, in Karl Barth’s straightforward phrase, a “summons to reverence and worship….” Barth maintained that the one-sided views of those who questioned or denied that Jesus was “born of the virgin Mary” are “in the last resort to be understood only as coming from dread of reverence and only as invitation to comfortable encounter with an all too near or all too far-off God.”

Taken from Eugene Peterson, God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas ed. Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe, 2007, p.5.

“I’m in the Secret Service”

Jim was leaving church after Christmas services when the pastor greeted him and said, “Jim, it’s time you joined the Army of the Lord. We need to see you every Sunday.”

“I’m already in the Army of the Lord, Pastor,” Jim replied.

“Then why do we only see you on Christmas and Easter?”

Jim looked to the right and to the left, and then leaned over to whisper, “I’m in the Secret Service.”

Source Unknown

Magnifying the Lord

Another Bible translation says that Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord” (NKJV, emphasis added). What did she mean by magnifies? When you look at something through a magnifying glass, it looks much bigger than it actually is. Is that what Mary meant when she said, “My soul magnifies the Lord”?

Was she trying to make God look bigger than he actually is? We can never make God bigger or greater than he is. The truth is, we can never fully take in or understand God’s greatness. But we can magnify him. We magnify God not by making him bigger than he truly is, but by making him greater in our thoughts, in our affections, in our memories, and in our expectations. We magnify him by having higher, larger, and truer thoughts of him. We magnify him by praising him and telling others about his greatness so they can have bigger thoughts about him too.

Nancy Guthrie, Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room: Daily Family Devotions for Advent, Tyndale Momentum, 2011.

Managing the Big Battalions of Life

A century ago, men were following with bated breath the march of Napoleon and waiting feverishly for news of the war. And all the while in their own homes, babies were being born. But who could think about babies? Everybody was thinking about battles. In one year, there stole into a world a host of heroes. Gladstone was born in Liverpool, England, and Tennyson at Somersby. Oliver Wendell Holmes was born in Massachusetts.

The very same day of that same year, Charles Darwin made his debut at Shrewsbury. Abraham Lincoln drew his first breath in Old Kentucky, and music was enriched by the birth of Felix Mendelssohn in Hamburg. But nobody thought about babies. Everybody was thinking about battles.

Yet, which of the battles of 1809 mattered more than the babies that were born in 1809? We fancy that God can only manage His world through the big battalions of life, when all the while He is doing it through the beautiful babies that are being born into the world. When a wrong wants righting, or a truth wants preaching, or a continent wants opening, God sends a baby into the world to do it. And where do you find God on Christmas? In a manger. A baby was born at the heart of the Roman Empire, that when the Roman Empire would crumble and fall, that baby, who would become a man,

Frank W Boreham, Mountains in the Midst, 1909.

Mary & Eve

I first encountered Mary and Eve by Sister Grace Remington at my friend’s house in Atlanta. It was hanging as a decoration in their bathroom, and I was stunned by its message. My friends may have been worried by how long I was in there, but I eventually emerged inquiring, “What is this painting, and who made it?”

It’s like they’re at a cosmic party where they don’t know each other at first, but when they get introduced, they find out they are deeply connected on so many levels. They also notice they have a billion mutual friends on Facebook.

In this incredible image, Eve is experiencing hope and grace from a brokenness she never thought she’d see an end to. Yet her face could also be that of a knowing mom bestowing wisdom and compassion on a new mom, as if to say, “Parenting is one of the greatest and hardest adventures of a lifetime. You’ll love your children and want to have them forever, but you may see one of them die before their time, and it’s the absolute worst.”

Scott Erickson, Honest Advent: Awakening to the Wonder of God-with-Us Then, Here, and Now, Zondervan, 2020.

Mary & Joseph were Poor

They were poor. We know this because the two young turtledoves Joseph and Mary brought was the smallest offering they were allowed as devout Jews and yet the largest they likely could afford.

With two birds, they presented the Incarnate Word on the steps of the temple in Jerusalem. Poor and yet the richest people on the planet. Paradox upon paradox in the person of Jesus: God and man, divine and human, gentle and demanding, servant and king conquering death through death.

Taken from A Spacious Life: Trading Hustle and Hurry for the Goodness of Limits by Ashley Hales Copyright (c) 2021 by Ashley Hales. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Master of the Universe Born a Baby

The promised Messiah, whose voice sounds like rushing waters, who holds the key to death and Hades, also grew in secret in Mary’s womb. He kicked and elbowed as all babies do, and came at the appointed time, though I’m sure it didn’t seem right to Mary and Joseph. Jesus welcomed small—he welcomed limits—as the pathway to love. I imagine Mary breathed through the contractions, giving herself to the process of her own opening body, with the same acceptance that she had told the angel: “May it be to me as you say.”

May it be as you say. These are not the words of inaction or self-obliteration; they are words of acceptance; they are vows. They are words that create a place. So, Mary bore down, grabbing on to Joseph, wondering, even as she submitted herself to wave after wave of contraction: Is this how the Son of God comes? Here, now, like this?

The master of the universe submitted to become multiplying cells, submitted to the slow process of growth in a human womb. Before that, he orchestrated and waited, through generation upon generation of prophecy, babies born, and his people falling away. Finally he was born in the city of King David; he had the vernix scrubbed off him and his umbilical cord cut, and the air of the earth filled his lungs. All this shows us how Love flourishes by limits. He cried a cry to let everyone know he had arrived: I’m here. Finally. The rescue all humanity has been waiting for.

Taken from A Spacious Life: Trading Hustle and Hurry for the Goodness of Limits by Ashley Hales Copyright (c) 2021 by Ashley Hales. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Message of Christmas

The message of Christianity is, instead, “Things really are this bad, and we can’t heal or save ourselves. Things really are this dark—nevertheless, there is hope.” The Christmas message is that “on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” Notice that it doesn’t say from the world a light has sprung, but upon the world a light has dawned. It has come from outside. There is light outside of this world, and Jesus has brought that light to save us; indeed, he is the Light (John 8:12).

Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ, Penguin Publishing Group. 

No Room

I have a friend who teaches in the upper peninsula in Michigan. He has one of those schools that run from kindergarten all the way up through eighth grade, including special ed. One of his students was intellectually slow, couldn’t do very well in classes. And when Christmas Pageant time came he wanted to have a part in the Pageant. What’s more, he wanted a speaking part. He wouldn’t settle for anything less.

So they made into the innkeeper. They figured he could handle that because all he had to do was say, “No room,” twice: once before Mary spoke, once after she spoke. The night of the Pageant, Mary knocks on the door he opens the door, and he says in a brusque fashion, “No room!” Mary says, “But I’m sick, and I’m cold, and I’m going to have a baby, and if you don’t give me a place to sleep, my baby will be born in the cold, cold night.”

He just stood there. The boy behind him nudged him and said, “No room, No room, say, “No room.’” And finally, he turned and he said, “I know what I’m supposed to say, but she can have my room.”

Anthony Campolo in, William H. Willimon Ed, Sermons from Duke Chapel: Voices from “A Great Towering Church,” Duke University Press, 2005.

Noticing Where You Find Yourself

One Christmas Eve in Vermont when my children were small, we did the things you do when your children are small on Christmas Eve. We stuffed and hung their stockings. We put out a draught of cider and a cookie on the mantelpiece for Santa Claus—who would be tired by the time he got there through all that snow—and we put them to bed and then went upstairs and got the presents out of the closet off the guest room, and we dragged them down and put them under the Christmas tree.

…we were just about to tumble exhausted into bed when I remembered that our neighbor just a short distance down the hill had gone off to Florida, I think, for a couple of weeks and had asked me if I would feed his sheep while he was gone. Late as it was, I knew I had to do it.

So my brother and I put on our boots and our coats, and we trudged down the hill through a lot of snow to the barn where we each picked up a couple of bales of hay and carried them out to the sheep shed in the back and pulled the string on the 40-watt bulb, and the sheep came bumbling around the way sheep do, and we split the strings of the bales and shook the dust out and put them in the rack.

And there was the smell of the hay and the bumbling of the sheep and the dim light and the snow falling outside and it was Christmas Eve, and only then did I realize where I was. Being a minister trained me to notice things, but it was only then that I noticed the manger, though I might have not noticed it at all. And it seems to me the world is a manger, the whole bloody mess of it, where God is being born again and again and again and again and again and again. You’ve got your mind on so many other things. You are so busy with this and that, you don’t see it. You don’t notice it.

Frederick Buechner, The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life, Zondervan, 2017.

The Origin of the “J Shaped” Candy Cane

Legend has it that the choirmaster of Cologne Cathedral was the one who first bent straight white candy canes into their familiar inverted “J” shape. It wasn’t to represent the name Jesus, as is often thought, but to represent the crooks of the shepherds to whom the angel announced the first Nativity. August Imgard, a German immigrant, brought the tradition to Ohio. He is generally credited with being the first person in America to decorate a Christmas tree with candy canes.

David McLaughlan, The Top 40 Traditions of Christmas: The Story Behind the Nativity, Candy Canes, Caroling, and All Things Christmas, Barbour Publishing, Inc.

The Origin of Santa Claus and Stockings

The man behind the unlikely tradition of Christmas stockings is usually thought to have been Nikolaos of Myra. He was a Greek Christian who became bishop of Myra, a city of Asia Minor. Nikolaos, or Saint Nicholas as he became known, was a kind man, and his faith was such that he became known as Nicholas the Wonderworker for the miracles he performed. The title “Saint Nicholas” was expressed in Dutch as Sinterklass, and this came into American English as “Santa Claus.” Nicholas’s personality and piousness was such that he is revered by both Catholic and Protestant churches…

Bishop Nicholas…was wandering through town one evening, according to legend, when he overheard a father’s lament. His three daughters all had men they wanted to marry, but he couldn’t provide them with dowries, so the weddings couldn’t go ahead. Nicholas waited until the middle of the night then slipped into the man’s house. He carried with him three bags of gold, one for each daughter. Looking around for a place to put them, he spotted the daughters’ stockings hanging over the fire to dry. He left the bags of gold in the stockings—and a Christmas tradition was born!

David McLaughlan, The Top 40 Traditions of Christmas: The Story Behind the Nativity, Candy Canes, Caroling, and All Things Christmas, Barbour Publishing, Inc.

Seek not Courts

Seek not in courts, nor palaces, 

Nor royal curtains draw; 

But search the stable, 

see your God, Extended on the straw.

William Billings, “Methinks I See a Heav’nly Host,” in The Singing Master’s Assistant (1778). The full text available here.

This Constant Bickering

The monks at a remote monastery deep in the woods followed a rigid vow of silence. Their vow could only be broken once a year—on Christmas—by one monk. That monk could speak only one sentence. One Christmas, Brother Thomas had his turn to speak and said, “I love the delightful mashed potatoes we have every year with the Christmas roast!” Then he sat down. Silence ensued for 365 days.

The next Christmas, Brother Michael got his turn and said, “I think the mashed potatoes are lumpy, and I truly despise them!” Once again, silence ensued for 365 days.

The following Christmas, Brother Paul rose and said, “I am fed up with this constant bickering!”

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The Twelfth Day of Christmas

In many Christian lands Epiphany is the most important feast of Christmas. Especially in Latin countries the arrival of the Wise Men, the Three Kings, looms large in the imagination. My native city, New Orleans, is heir to a European, especially French and Spanish, heritage. Twelfth Night not only concludes the Christmas season, but also inaugurates the festive days of Carnival, leading up to Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras.

…In Latin countries, Epiphany is the biggest day of the whole Christmas season, when gifts are exchanged to recall the gifts of the Magi….The twelfth day of Christmas—the Epiphany—is about God making this sovereignty known not just to Israel but also to all the peoples of the world. To understand this story, we need imagination: the eyes not of rationalism but of revelation.

The Christmas season begins with incarnation and ends with manifestation. The star that guided the Magi was governed, not by gases and gravity, but by God’s desire to convey a message to his people. It is a majestic story meant to be embroidered in tapestries shot through with gold.

Emilie Griffin, God With us: Redisovering the Meaning of Christmas ed. Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe, 2007, 167-168.

Three Boys Living in this House

A little boy wrote a letter to Santa Claus that said, “Dear Santa: There are three boys living at my house. Jeffrey is two, David is four, and Norman is seven. Jeffrey is good some of the time, David is good some of the time, and Norman is good all of the time. I am Norman.”

Taken from Rick Warren: On This Holy Night Ed. Thomas Nelson, 2013, p. 77.

What Do You Want for Christmas?

What do you want for Christmas this year? If you were to ask a typical little boy, he’d probably give you two words: video games. There’s a little boy I know named Brian. For weeks he bugged his parents about getting a watch for Christmas. Finally his dad told him, “Brian, if you mention that watch again, you’re not going to get it. Quit bugging us!” One night Brian’s parents asked him to lead in prayer before dinner. Brian said, “I’d like to quote a Scripture verse before I pray. Mark 13:37: ‘I say unto you what I have already told you before—watch . . .’”

Taken from Rick Warren: On This Holy Night Ed. Thomas Nelson, 2013, pp. 71-73.

Worship in Space

A little more than a year ago, three men were orbiting the moon in a space capsule. It was Christmas Eve, and they took turns reading Genesis 1, the opening chapter of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,’ a most magnificent choice of texts for Christmas Eve. The Apollo 8 spacecraft was transformed momentarily into a Jewish/Christian pulpit.

Man’s most impressive technological achievement to date was absorbed in the declaration of God’s creative act. Apollo, the most dashing of the pagan Greek gods, bowed down in worship to “God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” The astronauts did what a lot of people spontaneously do when they integrate an alert mind with a reverent heart-they worshipped.

Eugene Peterson, As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God.

See Also illustrations on Incarnation, Jesus, Messiah, The New Year

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on Christmas. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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