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Let Us Go Over To Bethlehem And Find The Faith of Christmas, December 3, 2023

Luke 2:15-20. When I was little, from about 4 years old to about 14, Christmas was all about what I wanted and what I was going to get.  In some ways, some of us are still like that.  We miss the REAL GIFTS OF CHRISTMAS!! 

          Let’s open up to the Gifts of Christmas Faith!

          All of these recent hostage takings and seeing the reunions reminded me of Tom Southerland.  You may not remember Tom but you may have heard his story.  In 1984 the Islamic Jihad kidnapped Sutherland while he has dean of Agriculture at America University in Beirut, Lebanon.  He was at the University to help folks in the middle east learn what science and history told them about growing food in this hard scrabble land.  These Terrorists held TOM captive for over six years... much of his time was spent in solitary confinement.  

          In his speech after his captivity he asked an unforgettable question.  He asked, "Do you know what it's like to be in prison?  To be held hostage?  To be a captive?  It's very lonely and you worry that people will forget you.  I felt abandoned.  

          I didn't think anybody even knew I was in prison."

         

          During his imprisonment, Tom Southerland could hear a radio that the guards had.  It was tuned into the BBC channel... and every day Tom Southerland would listen intently to the newscast... hoping and praying that he might hear his name... hoping and praying that the newscaster would talk about him on the air and tell the story of his imprisonment and his innocence.  

          But his name was never mentioned so he assumed that nobody in the United States even knew that he was being held hostage.  

          Finally, after more than six years of captivity, Tom Sutherland was released.  Our government flew his wife, Jean, to the area so they could be reunited.  They were so excited to see each other.  

          A few days later, they flew home together to San Francisco.  

          As they were getting off the plane back home in the United States, Tom Southerland was amazed to see that there were lights and television cameras, reporters and people holding signs... and a huge crowd at the airport.  Tom turned to his wife and said, "Jean, look at all these people.  There must be a celebrity on the plane with us.  Look around and see if you can spot who it is. " And Jean said, "Honey, they are all here for you! It's you!  This is all for you!"

          When his wife told him that, Tom Southerland started crying and he couldn't stop.  He cried and cried...  

          He couldn't believe it.  He said, "I thought everybody had forgotten about me.  I didn't think anybody knew I was in captivity.  

          I felt completely abandoned.  I didn't think anybody cared.  

          Thank God, I was wrong."

          Before I read today’s scripture, Please read today’s scripture from Luke 2:8-21, “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

          14 “Glory to God in the highest,

              and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”  When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us."

          16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.

          17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.

          18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.

          19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” 

          This is The Word of the Lord.  Thanks be to GOD.

          The shepherds at the first Christmas must have felt something like Tom Sutherland felt when he came home.  Society had cast them out and pushed them down to one of the lowest rungs on the social ladder.  They were considered unclean physically and spiritually... and they must have felt abandoned and forgotten.  

          They must have felt like nobody really cared about them.  Have you ever felt totally rejected and unwanted?  Most of us have not been treated like the shepherds were treated.  Try to think how you would feel.

          As the shepherds found out on that first Christmas night that, Thank GOD, they were wrong.  Somebody did care!  

          The One who counts the most did care!  He was there for them!  Of all the people on the face of the earth, the Angel of the Lord appeared to them.  I believe that’s why the POOR of our world are drawn to Jesus, he came as a POOR person to POOR shepherds in a POOR place!!

          And as they made their way to Bethlehem to see the Miracle of Christmas, they discovered in the process:

          Three Great Gifts that Christmas Faith gives to us; 3 great gifts that money can't buy; 3 great gifts available now to you and me.  If we will receive these gifts then we can share those gifts with those we love and those we meet alone our journey.

          First of all, there is the Gift of Acceptance that the Shepherds found.  After an absolutely terrible year in the 5th grade, my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Lawson accepted me.  What a great gift.  She loved me into behaving. 

          I thrived under her leadership. 

          God comes with the open arms of acceptance for all of us.  To each one of us, he says, "You are valued.  You are included.  You are wanted.  You are precious to me.  This love from my son Jesus is for you, YES, YOU!!."

          Now we have to do our part.  We have to accept His acceptance.  We have to receive this gracious gift.  We have to welcome him into our hearts and lives with faith, but this Christmas present of acceptance is offered to us from God, and when we receive it and live in that spirit and pass that gift on to others then we are giving them a Christmas present wrapped in heaven... 

          the gift of acceptance.

          If you want to give something special to someone for Christmas this year - to your children, your parents, your neighbors, your co-workers, your friends, TELL THEM, "You are valued, you are included, you are wanted and needed.  You are precious to me."  However, you want to say it... express that... and you will give them a wonderful Christmas present... the gift of acceptance. 

          Second, There is The Gift of Forgiveness.  Steven Spielberg's movie, "Schindler's List," is a graphic, shocking, unflinching depiction of the 20th century's most staggering horror - the methodical, brutal extermination of millions of human beings in those Nazi death camps of World War II.  

          Oskar Schindler was a most unlikely hero... but through the efforts of this one man, some 1200 persons were saved from certain death.  He put them to work in his factory where he could protect them.

          One of the most powerful moments in the movie is when Oskar Schindler is in conversation with the commander of the labor camp in Krakow, Poland.  They are talking about power, and the commander (in his swaggering way) brags about the authority he has over these people.  A man comes before him and he has the absolute authority to kill that man, exterminate that man, if he so chooses... and the commander has been in the habit of doing just that... killing people brutally right and left with no conscience at all.  

          But Oskar Schindler says, "Oh no, Commander, you are wrong.  That is not power.  Anyone could do that.  But to have a man come before you and to say, 'I could take your life if I so choose but no... instead I pardon you!  I pardon you!'  

          That, Commander, is power!"

          Indeed.  Power...real power is found in forgiveness...

          a pardon from our sins and that's the Christmas gift God offers us.  Martin Luther once became so frustrated with the evil he saw going on around him that he shouted, "If I were God and saw people acting the way they do, I would smash the world to bits!"  

          Luther might have, but not so with God.  

          God comes into the world offering the gift of forgiveness...

          "I pardon you.  I forgive you.  I want to reclaim you."  

          That's the gift he offers, but we have to do our part.  We have to accept the gift in faith.  

          And when we accept forgiveness and offer forgiveness to others, and live in the spirit of forgiveness, then we are doing a God-like thing.  We are offering a Christmas present wrapped in Heaven... the gift of forgiveness.  There is the gift of acceptance, the gift of forgiveness and...

          Third and Finally, There is the Gift of Jesus Christ. 

          That's really what it's all about, isn't it?  

          RECEIVE JESUS SO YOU CAN SHARE JESUS WITH OTHERS…

          A little boy named Paul, who was 4 years old, said to his mother, "Momma, I love Christmas almost as much as I love you."  His mom said, "Well, tell me Paul, what you love about Christmas."  And Paul answered, "I love the lights.  I love the presents, and Mom, there's one more thing and you are going to like this best... most of all I love the Baby Jesus."

          Paul was right.  His mom did like that best, because she has taught him that Jesus is the reason for the season.  Indeed so!  

          He is God's gift to the world... the gift of the Savior... a gift money can't buy.

          Did you know that Socrates taught for 40 years, Plato for 50, Aristotle for 40, and Jesus for only 3 years.  Yet the influence of Christ's 3-year ministry infinitely transcends the impact left by the combined 130 years of teaching of these greatest philosophers of all antiquity.

          Jesus painted no pictures, yet the finest painting of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci received their inspiration from Him.  Jesus wrote no poetry, but Dante, Milton, and scores of the world's greatest poets were inspired by Him.  Jesus composed no music; still Haydn, Handel, Beethoven, Bach, and Mendelssohn reached their highest perfection of melody in the hymns, symphonies, and oratorios they composed in His praise.

          Remember at the start of this sermon how Tom Southerland thought he had been forgotten and that nobody cared, and his plane landed in San Francisco and he saw all the people and the lights and the cameras... and he thought there was a celebrity on board the plane... and his wife said to him, "It's you!  This is all for you."  Well, that's what I want to say to you this morning about Christmas... Christmas Faith!!  It's all for you!

         

          In Christmas Faith we find the three wonderful gifts: 

          The Christmas Gift of Acceptance, 

          The Christmas Gift of Forgiveness, and

          The Christmas Gift of Jesus Christ... they are all for you; to receive and to share! 

          Only in Jesus Christ do we find true HOPE!!

         

          Please pray with me, Oh Great GOD please help us share these wonderful Christmas gifts of Acceptance, Forgiveness and YOU Jesus, Our Lord and Savior, help us share your love.  Please guide us as we prepare for …Holy Communion!!

         

          Oh Great GOD please help us share these wonderful Christmas gifts of Acceptance, Forgiveness and YOU Jesus, Our Lord and Savior, help us share your love.

          We call this candle THE CANDLE OF HOPE because its light reminds us of the hope we have in God’s promises even in the darkness.  For our hope is in the Lord, who made heaven and earth, and who has promised to be faithful to us every moment of our lives.  We also have hope that in Christ, God will make all things new, and bring hope, peace, joy, and love to all.

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