A Long Way to Christmas

. . . behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:1-12)

By the time you read this, you’ll have three days. Depending on when you read it, maybe less.

Three full days before Christmas. Three days to get ready, to buy what you need to buy or ship what you need to ship. The window for online orders is rapidly closing if not entirely shut already. You’ve got three days to get your place ready. Three days to get yourself ready.

Some of you are already there. No problem. Some of you are nowhere close.

When I was very young, I would feel a slight ache of sadness or let-down on Christmas evening. The day was ending, the morning discovery around our tree, the gatherings with grandparents and cousins. It was all coming to an end and would not happen again for a full year.      

A year felt like eternity. Christmas seemed so far away.

Now a year seems to slip by with surprising stealth. Before I know it, it’s Christmas again. In church world, pastors and staff sometimes begin talking about Advent right after Labor Day. I’ve been lulled into thinking we have plenty of time – and then suddenly we don’t. Autumn yields to winter and Christmas is here.

Christmas day no longer seems so distant. More often, the distance is in me. The day will make its arrival – but I’m not where I’d like to be.

Late to the Party

Among the familiar Christmas stories that come to us from the New Testament gospel writers Matthew and Luke, no one was further from Christmas than the wise men, or Magi as they are often called. The Magi have been described as ‘astrological priests.’ Maybe we’re better off to think of them as a guild of scholars who studied heavenly phenomena as well as ancient texts.        

We’re not exactly sure where they came from. The traditional and widely accepted answer is that they were from Persia. In his excellent book Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, Kenneth Bailey makes a strong case that the Magi came from Arabia. If we accept Persia as their origin, the standard trade route to Jerusalem was about 800 miles long. Their journey in search of the newborn ‘King of the Jews’ would have taken them weeks to complete.

What we can say with confidence is that on the night of Jesus’ birth, the night that angels appeared to shepherds abiding in their fields, the night of the heavenly choir singing ‘glory to God in the highest’ because a savior had been born in the city of David – on that night, the Magi were nowhere close.

We are correct in saying that the Magi were late to the party. They missed Christmas.

Our Faithful Guide   

And yet, in the truest sense, they did not miss it at all.

Yes, when the Magi arrive, Mary and Joseph and their baby are no longer in a stable. Time has passed. The swaddling clothes have been replaced with baby clothes. The infant is growing. Matthew 2:11 says that the Magi entered a house to kneel before the child and present their gifts (likely the home of a generous relative). What we should notice is that they completed their journey. They found what they were seeking.

What we should notice is that it is never too late to make your way to Jesus.

This is good news for any and all who are a long way from Christmas. My aim in these final days leading to Christmas is to encourage you on your own journey to Jesus. Will you get there by December 25th? Maybe you will. Maybe the 25th will come and go and you’ll be left feeling like you missed Christmas. This is a year in which many have had to change their practices is such a way that it just doesn’t seem like Christmas at all.    

But don’t stop making your way toward Jesus.

For today, where exactly are you as Christmas Day approaches? What has made your own journey to Jesus long and difficult this year?

You may not see a star, but God will be faithful to guide you. Pray for that guidance today.


Ever faithful, ever guiding God – Christmas can come so quickly, finding us far removed from where we’d like to be. This year many familiar props have been taken from us, and we’re tempted to think this Christmas is lost to us. We pray for grace to keep making our way to Jesus. Give us what we need for the journey and lead us in your time to the place of worship. We ask this in his name. Amen.  

Wrestling and Waiting

Because Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly (Matt. 1:19). 

My introduction to the world of middle school wrestling was a baptism by fire.

I’ve come to learn that here in the Lehigh Valley kids can start wrestling at an early age. In Georgia, wrestling programs at school didn’t begin until the sixth grade. My son was a new wrestler, and I was a new wrestling parent. My son’s first tournament was my first tournament too. The coach had sent an email to prepare the parents. “This will be the longest day of our season.”

I had to have my son on the team bus by 6:00 a.m. and myself in McDonough, GA by 9:00 a.m. The main gym at Union Grove High School in McDonough had six mats with matches happening simultaneously all day long; another area had two more mats for more advanced wrestlers. The tournament was double elimination.  

My son lost his first match. At least one more to go. His next match was placed on the schedule and we had about an hour of waiting. He won that time.

The next match was placed on the schedule. More waiting. Then he won again.

His next match was placed on the schedule followed by still more waiting. And then he won yet again.

After more waiting he had his fifth match of the day – and that’s when it ended for him. Not bad for a debut tournament.  I learned plenty about wrestling on that Saturday in December. I learned that a wrestling match is nothing like watching your kid play baseball. Even a match that lasts a good while is over in a matter of minutes.

And I also learned that there are long stretches of waiting. In a wrestling tournament, good wrestling and long waiting are a package deal.

Grappling with God

The story of Joseph’s discovery of Mary’s pregnancy is a wrestling story. Matthew gives it to us in spare language. Mary is pledged to Joseph, the marital commitment in place without the full benefits and living arrangements of the marital relationship. This is when Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant. And this is when the wrestling begins, unseen and yet strenuous. Joseph grappling with God, grappling with his own heart and mind.

Again, Matthew shows us none of this except to say that Joseph “considered” how he could divorce Mary quietly and thus protect her from public disgrace. But can such “considering” be anything less than anguish and pain? How long did he “consider?” How many sleepless nights, how many bitter questions hurled at heaven? How many tense conversations with his beloved? How many fake smiles at neighbors as if all was well?

And even once the Angel has appeared and Joseph has taken Mary as is wife, the difficulties are hardly over. Craig Keener notes that Joseph’s decision to go ahead with his marriage was a decision to sacrifice his own reputation. The wrestling surely didn’t stop. Wrestling mingled with waiting until the birth in the Bethlehem stable.

Escaping the Headlock

Many of us come to Advent wrestling and waiting; life has us in a headlock and we’re trying desperately to find the right move that will loosen its grip. With the Psalmist we ask, “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts?” (Ps. 13:2). Christmas doesn’t change the fact that we’re wrestling with decisions that need to be made, decisions we wish could make over again, afflicted bodies, conflicted relationships and competing expectations. We wrestle through one challenge only to face another.

God sent a messenger to Joseph – an angel to coach him out of the tight spot in which he found himself. Let these words resonate deeply in your own soul today. Do not be afraid. God is at work to save. His purposes are not thwarted by what we never saw coming or what we cannot understand. Most importantly, in all things God is with us.   

In the midst of the wrestling, Joseph’s and ours, there is this assurance: The Holy Spirit is at work. To see it may require waiting, long waiting and still more wrestling. But God is active in your wrestling story.

What are you wrestling with today? Be patient in the struggle, confident in the good purposes and guidance of Emmanuel – “God with us.”


Grant to us, O God, the patience to trust you in all things and the strength to wrestle long until we see your hand at work. Show your hand in the difficult situations, the perplexing questions, the stubborn circumstances that refuse to budge. Be present with us in the struggles of this day, making us confident as we wrestle and wait in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Trying to Get Home for Christmas

The family tree of Jesus Christ, David’s son, Abraham’s son (Matt. 1:1, The Message).

There’s something about Christmas that extols the idea of home.

We hear songs about how there’s no place like home for the holidays; we hear the wistful pining of one promising to be home for Christmas. We see commercials where the distant family member surprises the gathered clan on Christmas Day with an unannounced arrival home.

The yearning for home is an echo of Advent in the human soul. Some of you know exactly what this is about. You have plans to go home for Christmas. You may be eager for that journey home, even if it’s a short one. For others of you, going home isn’t quite so simple. You may be dreading it. That might explain why you ended up so far from home to begin with.

This year, getting home for Christmas isn’t very simple for anyone. Going home may not be possible; if it’s possible, it may not be wise. Just last week so many people experienced smaller gatherings for Thanksgiving. The same will likely be true for Christmas. The expected someone will not be able to come home. The traditional trip home will not happen.

All of this raises some basic questions about the meaning of home. What is it and where do we find it?

In the midst of a season that idealizes home and the holiday pilgrimage, it is interesting to see that Matthew begins the story of Jesus by mentioning two people who are notable for the exact opposite. They left home – left and never went back: Abraham and Ruth.

The First Fourteen

Matthew’s two minute and twenty-six second genealogy of Jesus falls neatly into three sets of fourteen generations: Abraham to David, David to the Babylonian exile, the exile to Jesus.

The first fourteen generations are bracketed by two names. At one end stands Abraham and close to the other end stands Ruth.

What they share in common was an obedient departure from the place they knew as home.

Abraham and his clan were well established in a place known as Ur. God showed up in Abraham’s life abruptly, without warning. God came with command and promise, the most familiar forms of God’s word to us. The command: leave your home and go to a land that I will show you. The promise: I will make a great nation of you and your descendants. Trusting the promise, Abraham packed up and left home and never went back.

Ruth was raised in the land of Moab. Her very name in the genealogy of Jesus should surprise us. Not being a Hebrew woman, she seems out of place here, a misfit in the lineage connecting Jesus with Abraham and David. But Ruth was the daughter-in-law of Hebrew woman named Naomi. Naomi had been forced to live in Moab for a time but when the death of her husband and sons forced her back to Judah Ruth insisted on going with her. Ruth left home and went to a distant place among a people she didn’t know. There, far from home, Ruth married Boaz and became the great grandmother of David.

Presence More than Place

It’s a good thing to go home for Christmas. But maybe being away from home is where we learn to truly trust God. Some of you may be away from home because life took you there. It wasn’t your plan. Others of you may be far from home because you couldn’t get away quick enough. Either way – what leaving home offers all of us is a chance to discover where our true home is.

Home is living in the will of God, waking every day to follow wherever God might lead.

Home isn’t always identified by a street address and zip code. For those who know the yearning of Advent, home is more of a presence than a place. Once we find our true home in God, maybe we find that it’s easier to go “home” – to the house and to the people who make up our own lineage.  

We don’t expect “home” to be the perfect idealized place that Christmas songs celebrate.

We can make peace with the truth that our families are not perfect.

We can acknowledge that the roof under which we grew up was a place of both blessing and brokenness.

We come to know that home is a place where we learn to show grace. Hopefully, it’s a place where we can find grace too. But the home of sentimental songs and stories isn’t our God. And after all – God is really what we want at this time of the year. God is what we search for all year long.

Where will ‘home’ be for you this Christmas?


We give you thanks, O God, for examples of men and women who have followed you at great cost. Help us to be like them, finding our true home in you, ready to go where you lead us. Bless our journeys home in this season – whether a great distance or just across town. Be present with us as you were with Abraham and Ruth, that we might find grace in our coming and going, at Christmas and always, we pray in Jesus’s name. Amen.   

Two Minutes and Twenty-Six Seconds: An Invitation to Advent

A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham (Matthew 1:1). 

As best I can recall, I did not grow up in churches that observed the season of ‘Advent.’

Perhaps they observed the season but not the language of the liturgical calendar. Perhaps they observed the season, naming it what it was, and I just wasn’t paying attention. Either way, Advent didn’t seem to hit my radar until I was in college. A few more years would pass before Advent figured prominently in my worship experience.

The essence of the season of Advent – the four Sundays before Christmas Day – is a yearning with hope and expectation. Advent is a time of waiting. It aches with a promise not yet fulfilled; it rejoices with confidence in God who makes the promise.

For most of us, waiting is an inconvenience to be avoided. We don’t like to wait or to be kept waiting. We want traffic to move. We want the next available representative to take our call immediately. We want the server to fill our water glass without being summoned. Our moment in history and our cultural context have conditioned us to think that if we’re waiting, something is wrong.

That’s why today, as we begin the season of Advent, I’d like to ask you for two minutes and twenty-six seconds of your time.

Two minutes and twenty-six seconds. I know that doesn’t sound like much. You can do anything for two minutes and twenty-six seconds, right? But what I’m asking of you may be more demanding than you think.

That Long List of Names

The first book of the New Testament comes to us from Matthew (although Mark was likely written first – but I digress). Matthew begins telling us the story of Jesus by giving us a long list of names. He works his way through a genealogy that connects Jesus with Abraham and David. Seeking to present Jesus to a predominantly Jewish audience, this painstaking pilgrimage through forty-two generations of Hebrew ancestors was very important.

It seems much less so to us – modern citizens of the highly technologized West, well trained in hurry and productivity. Most of us skip the genealogy of Matthew 1. At best we skim it, choosing to water ski on the surface rather than do a deep dive in an ocean of names we can’t even pronounce.    

Today, I’m asking you not to skip that long list of names. Today, I’m asking you to read every word of Matthew 1:1-17. I did this myself a couple of days ago. I sat down and worked through every one of those seventeen verses at a deliberate and leisurely pace.

Reading Matthew’s genealogy will take you two minutes and twenty-six seconds.

Two minutes and twenty-six seconds to get a feel for nearly 2000 years of God’s faithful work in making and keeping his promises.

Two minutes and twenty-six seconds of patience and perseverance. That’s what reading Matthew 1:1-17 will require of you. Patience and Perseverance.

Patience and Perseverance

For much of my life I rushed past Advent and went straight to Christmas. The days immediately following Thanksgiving ushered me directly into the songs and stories that celebrated the birth of Jesus. I relished the ‘joy to the world’ that was possible because ‘the Lord is come.’

I never gave much thought to what it meant to yearn for his coming.

For the next couple of days we will linger with the generations of people who yearned for the one who would come and set things right, delivering them from their enemies, restoring them to their home, ruling with justice and righteousness. All of Israel’s kings were supposed to do this, representing the rule of God to God’s people. But most of them failed miserably.

We’ll enter into the patience and perseverance of God’s people as they awaited their messiah, their savior, their true king. As we look at this genealogy, you’ll notice some surprises, misfits who find a place in Jesus’s family tree but seem out of place. 

In some ways all of us know what it’s like to be waiting and hoping for something yet to come. We’re waiting for this pandemic to end. We’re yearning for some kind of return to what we once knew and what we once did.

How long? No one seems to know for sure. For now, we face our days with patience and perseverance. Matthews genealogy will help us live as Advent people.

But that will require two minutes and twenty-six seconds of your time. Why not make that investment right now?


Faithful God, we ask you to grant us patience and perseverance for these days. We tend to rush straight to Christmas as a way to take the edge off of the ache of waiting. Remind us that even in our waiting you are present and active in our world and in our lives, leading us to Jesus, the light of the world. Meet us in our waiting, we ask in his name. Amen.