The Most Wonderful Time of the Year | Influence Podcast


Andy Williams sang that Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year.” He was right, though for the wrong reasons. Now, don’t get me wrong! “Parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow” are great and everything, but they’re not what Christmas is ultimately about.

In Episode 161 of the Influence Podcast, I talk to Joseph Castleberry about the real reason why Christmas is such a wonderful time of the year. We also debunk a few myths people believe about Christmas.

Dr. Castleberry is president of Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington, an ordained Assemblies of God minister, and a former missionary to Central America. More germane to this podcast, he’s author of 40 Days of Christmas, published by Broadstreet (which I reviewed here).

Advertisements

40 Days of Christmas | Book Review


Christmas doesn’t begin at my house until Thanksgiving is over. But once the turkey is digested, the tree goes up, Mariah Carey’s Christmas album gets played on endless loop (it’s that good!), and the countdown to December 25th begins. Literally. The kids have a chalkboard that says, “Santa comes to our house in _____ days.” (As of today, it’s 28 days, in case you’re wondering.) For my family, Christmas is a season, not just a day.

Joseph Castleberry’s family and mine are evidently of like mind about the Christmas season. In his new book, 40 Days of Christmas, he provides a daily devotional to guide individuals and families from November 28 to January 6. In the traditional Christian calendar, November 28 is the earliest date Advent can begin, and January 6 is the Feast of Epiphany — a total of 40 days to reflect on the humble birth of Jesus Christ at Bethlehem and to hope for His glorious Second Coming.

Castleberry — “Joe” to his friends, among whom I count myself — is president of Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington, a Pentecostal minister, and a former missionary. He brings scholarly erudition, pastoral insight, and intercultural sensitivity to bear in these short daily devotions. Even if you don’t follow the traditional Christian calendar, these devotional thoughts are certain to inspire your celebration of the Savior at this time of year.

I appreciated three things about 40 Days of Christmas in particular. First, the book skillfully handles Old Testament prophecy. At Christmastime, we too often detach messianic prophecies from their original contexts. But as Castleberry reminds us, “Old Testament prophecies [such as Isaiah 9:6–7] usually had a near-term meaning that related to the time in which they were given, but the prophecies would carry a ‘surplus of meaning’ — elements that contemporary fulfillment did not exhaust.” By noting both the “near-term meaning” and “surplus of meaning,” Castleberry’s devotions help us better understand and appreciate the prophecies Christ fulfilled.

Second, 40 Days of Christmas debunks several Christmas myths. There was no “inn” at Bethlehem that refused Joseph and Mary service. The Greek word refers to the extra room at a house. Christ was not born on December 25, but the reason we celebrate His birth on that date is not because early Christians sanctified pagan holidays. And, there’s nothing wrong with Christians singing “secular” holiday classics like “White Christmas” or “Jingle Bells.” For Christians, even Santa Claus is OK. “He’s a good brother, and he does good work,” as one Pentecostal “prophesied” after his pastor excoriated St. Nick in a sermon — a funny and true story Joe got from my dad, as it turns out.

Third, and most importantly, the book keeps its focus on Christ. Bing Crosby memorably sang, “I’ll be home for Christmas,” and many of us associate Christmastime with going “home for the holidays.” But as Castleberry notes, this isn’t what Christmas is really or ultimately about. Ironically, he writes, Christmas “has everything to do with leaving home on a noble and holy mission to save those who have become lost and helpless without God, who face the danger of losing their heavenly home for eternity.” Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. That’s the reason for the season.

Castleberry concludes the book with a brief nod to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which speaks of the “Spirit of Christmas.” For Dickens, the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future showed Ebenezer Scrooge what his life could have been and still could be. For Castleberry — good Pentecostal that he is — the Spirit of Christmas is the Holy Spirit, who played such as prominent role in Christ’s birth (see Luke 1–2) and who “continues to deliver every good and perfect gift that comes from the Father.” If we want to celebrate Christmas all year long, we must be filled with the same Spirit who filled Jesus Christ.

If you’re looking for a devotional to read personally or with your family, I highly recommend my friend Joe Castleberry’s 40 Days of Christmas. Here are his closing words: “My prayer for you is that God will fill you richly with the Holy Spirit, bringing miraculous help to your everyday life throughout the year to come, and indeed throughout your whole life.”

Amen to that!

Book Reviewed
Joseph Castleberry, 40 Days of Christmas: Celebrating the Glory of Our Savior (Savage, MN: BroadStreet, 2018).

P.S. If you liked my review, please vote “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

Boy Jesus | Luke 2:41-52


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 2:41–52

What did Jesus do when He was a boy?

The Gospels provide little information about Jesus’ early years. Mark and John begin their Gospels with an adult Jesus. Matthew and Luke provide brief descriptions of His parentage and birth. Only Luke tells us a story about Boy Jesus.

Some Christians in the early years of the church made up stories about Jesus’ childhood in order to fill in the gaps of the Gospels. One shows Boy Jesus making clay birds on the Sabbath. When a religious neighbor protests, Jesus brings the clay birds to life. Another story speaks of Jesus striking a playmate dead, only to resurrect him when the kid’s parents protest to Joseph and Mary.

None of the apocryphal stories has a basis in fact. The one story of Jesus’ childhood with any historical credibility is found in Luke 2:41–52. Jesus is 12 years old. His family goes to Jerusalem for the annual Passover Feast. When they leave to return home to Nazareth, they realize Jesus is not with them. (It’s easy to lose a kid in a caravan!) Joseph and Mary quickly return to Jerusalem to find Jesus.

Two things stand out to me in this passage: (1) Jesus is a smart kid. He knows how to interpret the Bible well enough to amaze everyone who listened to Him. (2) Jesus has an intensely personal relationship with God. He’s not just smart, in other words, He’s truly spiritual. In verse 49, He asks, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” For Jesus, information about God is good. But a relationship with Him is better.

We shouldn’t read this passage as if Jesus were fully spiritually formed at age 12, however. As Luke puts it, “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.”

Jesus got smarter, bigger, more spiritual and friendlier as he aged. Even for the Son of God, spiritual formation was a process, just like it is for us.

So, what did Jesus do as a boy? Whatever it took to become the man God made Him to be. We would do well to follow Boy Jesus’ example.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

The Hardest Part | Luke 2:21-40


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 2:21–40

Several years ago, I was working at a church in Costa Mesa, California. For Pastor Appreciation Day, the church gave each staff member a generous gift card to a nearby restaurant. Two or three weeks later, most of the staff still had their cards. Not me. I used it the day I got it. In fact, immediately after the chairman of the board of elders handed me the card in the service, as I was walking down the aisle, I looked at a friend and signaled that we were having lunch together that day. I have a problem with delayed gratification, it seems. The lyrics to a Tom Petty song could be my motto: “The waiting is the hardest part.”

Luke 2:21–40 tells the story of a man who waited to see “the consolation of Israel” (verse 25). His name was Simeon. Let’s take a quick look at his story.

According to Luke, Simeon was “righteous and devout” (verse 25). Moreover, “the Holy Spirit was on him.” Luke goes on to say, “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (verse 26). From this statement, most interpreters reasonably infer that Simeon was old or near death when Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple for ritual consecration. Taking Jesus in his arms, Simeon prophesied about the boy’s future.

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and the glory of your people Israel (verses 29–32).

This Christmas song goes by the Latin title, “Nunc Dimittis,” meaning “you now dismiss.” In it, Simeon praises God for bringing salvation not only to “your people Israel,” but also to “the Gentiles.” For Simeon, salvation was an accomplished fact, even though Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection lay 30-odd years in the future. He was certain that God would accomplish His purposes through Jesus Christ.

Simeon was not as certain about how individuals would respond to Jesus. “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (verses 34–35). In other words, God’s grace is certain, but our faith is an open question. Will we follow Jesus or not?

Simeon also says something to Mary: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” I think this statement refers to the maternal anguish Mary felt as she watched her firstborn son being crucified. Following Jesus isn’t easy. It always takes us to the cross.

Simeon’s message is an important one for instant gratificationists such as me to hear. Our culture wants microwave-dinner spirituality: quick and easy. But salvation requires “a long obedience in the same direction,” to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche — just like Simeon’s patience. And when we receive God’s grace, we find that the waiting wasn’t so hard after all.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

Value, Worship, and Evangelism | Luke 2:1-20


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 2:1–20

 

The Christmas story in Luke 2:1–20 teaches us five lessons. We looked at the lessons of sovereignty and humility yesterday. God rules over all creation, directing the course of history toward the fulfillment of His purposes. And one of His purposes is to draw all people to himself, which He does by sending His Son in the humble form of a baby in a manger. Today, we’ll look at three other lessons the Christmas story teaches about value, worship and evangelism.

What is most valuable to you? All right-minded people will say they care most about their relationships. The value of a loving family and good friends far outweighs that of material possessions. God values relationships too, to a degree that we will never fully understand. Most of our significant relationships are mutually beneficial; we supply what our friends lack, and they supply what we lack. But we have nothing God needs or wants. He loves us, not because of any benefits we provide Him, but simply because He loves us and because we need Him.

We see God’s values at work in the angel’s announcement of Christ’s birth to the shepherds. In Jesus’ day, shepherds rated low on the hierarchy of valuable relationships. They were considered dishonest and disreputable. And that, it seems to me, is precisely why God sent an army of angels to shepherds to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It was His way of reversing worldly values and saying, “I value these men. I love them. I want to save them.”

At Christmas, we ought to pay special attention to people whom the world doesn’t value, precisely because that is what God does.

Worship is a way that we express God’s value to us. Notice the song of the angels: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (verse 14).

This song makes two statements: (1) that glory belongs to God and (2) that the byproduct of grace (divine favor) is peace among people. Unfortunately, we too often focus only on the second statement. We want peace on earth. But peace comes as the result of right values. Jesus said, “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6.33). The only way to have “all these things,” including peace, is to seek first God’s kingdom. God values you. Do you value God?

If you do, the next obvious question is this: Do you share God with others? The angel said to the shepherds, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (verse 10). And the shepherds shared the good news of Christ’s birth with everyone they talked to. “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child” (verse 17). The Christmas story is the gospel, and all who tell it become evangelists.

God values you. Do you value Him? And are you helping others to value Him? Those are good questions to ask yourself at this time of year.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

Strength and Humility | Luke 2:1-20


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 2:1–20.

 

In Luke’s Gospel, the Christmas story begins on a throne and ends in a manger. As we read the unfolding of its plot, we learn valuable lessons about sovereignty, humility, value, worship and evangelism. Today, let’s look at the first two items on that list.

The Christmas story begins on the throne of Gaius Octavius, the nephew and heir to Julius Caesar. In 27 B.C., the Roman Senate proclaimed him Caesar Augustus (“the exalted one”), making him the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Under his reign, Rome expanded its boundaries and established peaceful conditions throughout the lands under its control — the so-called pax Romana (“peace of Rome”). These lands included Palestine.

Empires are costly things, and at some point, Caesar Augustus decreed a census of his empire for the purposes of taxation. Such was the power of his sovereignty that thousands of miles from Rome, an affianced couple packed their belongings to make their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem so they could be enrolled for the census.

At one level, of course, the Christmas story is about the sovereignty of the Roman emperor. It is about his ability to make unknown people far away from him jump through hoops to bring him more money. And yet, a greater sovereignty is at work in the Christmas story, for biblical prophecy foretells the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), not Nazareth, which is where Joseph and Mary resided. Caesar Augustus may issue the decree, but it is ultimately God calling the shots. He makes Caesar jump through hoops to bring us a Savior. Now that’s sovereignty!

But to what end does God exercise His sovereignty? Does He pull strings so that the Savior is born in a palace? No. The home of a wealthy person? No. A nice hotel? No. A cheap motel? No. There is no room for Israel’s Messiah in any of these places. Instead, a cave where animals are penned is Mary’s hospital room, and a manger where animals feed is Baby Jesus’ incubator. If God has the power to make Caesar Augustus do His bidding, why doesn’t He provide better circumstances for Jesus’ birth?

The answer comes in one word: humility. The humble circumstances of Christ’s birth allow everyone to draw near to Him. Rulers have bodyguards to protect them from the crowds. The wealthy live in gated communities that keep away uninvited guests. Hotels and motels have front desks that limit entry to all but paying customers. By contrast, anyone can walk into a barn. Jesus is humble; all are welcomed to draw near to Him.

Even those who wish to kill Him. In Philippians 2.8, Paul links Jesus’ humility with His death on the cross for our salvation. Jesus does not bother to surround himself with layers of protection to keep the people away. Instead, from birth to death, He draws all people to himself. And in His humble sovereignty lies our salvation.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

Through Us, Not Without Us | Luke 1:67-80


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:67–80.

 

In this passage, Zechariah teaches us something important about Jesus Christ and something important about ourselves. Yesterday, we looked at what he teaches us about Christ. Today, we will look at what he teaches us about ourselves. Pay careful attention to verses 76–80.

Notice, first of all, that this is a statement about John the Baptist. Zechariah is telling us who John will be (“a prophet of the Most High”) and what he will do (“prepare the way” for the Lord). Each Gospel mentions John’s ministry in some way or another (e.g., Matthew 3:1–12, Mark 1:3–8, Luke 3:2–17, John 1:19–34). And in each Gospel, John prepares the way for Jesus.

Second, Zechariah’s statement about John highlights a central theme in the Christmas story, namely, the role of human beings in God’s plan of salvation. Mary accepted the divine gift of bearing Jesus Christ in her womb for nine months. Joseph accepted the divine gift of fathering a son who was not his biological child. John drew great crowds to himself, only to direct their attention and loyalty to another man, Jesus Christ.

In each case, God accomplishes His plan of salvation through human beings, not without them. God does not impose His will on these people. He invites them to place their faith in Him. So, Mary says, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38). And Joseph “did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him” (Matthew 1:24).

Such willing obedience is not easy. It requires great humility. It demands that we think first of God’s will, not of our own wills. One of the most poignant statements in the Gospels comes from John’s lips as he realizes his ministry is drawing to a close: “Jesus must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). God works through us, not without us, and the more we obey Him, the more others can see Jesus through us.

Which brings me to my third and final point: Just as John was an evangelist within his sphere of influence, so we are evangelists within ours. Do we prepare the way for the Lord into the hearts of our friends and family members? Do our lives and words give people “the knowledge of salvation” (verse 77) so that they can find forgiveness, mercy, spiritual illumination, guidance and peace?

If not, why not? God worked through John in the first century. He works through us today, if we become less so that He can become greater.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here: