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Redeemed by Belief

December 2018 was a bust – well, almost.

The first twenty-three days of my December were short on Christmas spirit and high on Christmas angst. The dominating thoughts in my mind revolved around shopping and sulking. If I wasn’t on a frustrating hunt to find the perfect present for every person on my list, I was most likely in a depressive funk. My mood was more melancholy than merry. Sadly, I must admit I was more prone to crankiness than cheeriness. To those who had to share a roof with me this Christmas season, I’m sorry.

Sadly, I know I’m not alone in experiencing a depressing December. When Christmas lights come on and jolly tunes are turned up every sadness and heartache gets magnified. Smiling Santas betray the despondent, mocking them at every festive turn. “Have a holly, jolly Christmas” doesn’t ring true. “I’ll have a Blue Christmas” sounds more appropriate. For those who have an identifiable “reason” to be sad it’s easy to slip into a season of sulking come Christmastime.

And so, on December 1st, that’s precisely what I did. I entered into a twenty-three day season of sulking.

While out shopping I was hopeless, unable to find the perfect gift for the loved ones on my list. While at home I was discontent, trapped in the sadness of my not-so-perfect life. Staring me in the face was the heavy weight of grief born out of a life sidelined by sickness. Although there was much to celebrate since last Christmas – more healing, vitality, improved health – I was blind to the many healing victories. All I could see were a lifetime of dreams and plans destroyed by a decade of sickness.

But then the light of God pierced into my darkness on December 23rd by way of a simple children’s Christmas play.

At New Life Community Church, the home of my church family, a small group of children performed a short and sweet Christmas program that shared a powerful and profound message. With bed sheets for costumes and a simple Bethlehem set, the kids told the story of Jesus’ arrival into the world. Mary and Joseph entered the manger scene followed by angels who appeared to shepherds as they watched their flocks by night. After telling them the good news about the Savior’s birth the young shepherds excitedly declared their desire to travel to Bethlehem and see the promised King of Kings.

As the play came to a close the audience’s attention was drawn back to the narrator as he said, “In believing, they found the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, their Savior. And tonight, just as it was in Bethlehem so many years ago, God has chosen you to hear the good news and believe.” That one line changed the spirit in the room – or at least it changed the spirit in me.

Belief transformed my heart.

Belief in Christ, who He is and what He came to do transformed my December bust into a beautiful time of celebration. By returning to Jesus Christ and fixating on His life from the cradle to the cross, my depression lifted and quickly disappeared. In the Savior’s presence the sadness I had experienced all season long was replaced by abundant joy and overwhelming peace.

Whether it be Christmastime or the middle of July, when we approach the manger throne believing in Christ and the salvation He delivers, we will encounter His peace, comfort and joy. By seeking the Savior and entering into His presence our hearts will be renewed by redeeming love.

Come to God bearing your bust of a month. Surrender your sadness and sorrow so He can transform it. God is faithful. He will redeem and restore you. Come to the manger and God will revive you with an eternally abiding Christmas spirit.

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Christmas is a Box of Chocolates

Tucked in the basement of an old church in downtown Erie, Pennsylvania is the fellowship and dining hall used by the Upper Room, a local homeless shelter.

The windowless space is dim and the kitchen’s appliances are ancient. The long, rectangular tables have seen better days and the hard metal chairs aren’t particularly comfortable. But, on Christmas morning, there’s no place I’d rather be than that humble dining room.

For the homeless, Christmas can be one of the loneliest and most depressing days of the whole year. While families congregate and celebrate the day with delicious meals and carefully wrapped gifts the homeless go without, often spending the holiday alone. Even places they usual gather (McDonalds and soup kitchens) are usually closed, making Christmas not only one the loneliest days of the year but one of the hungriest, too.

It was this lonely, hungry thought that inspired the Christmas Morning Brunch at the Upper Room. Five years ago members from around the community began what would become an annual tradition of hosting a meal for those in need. At the morning meal guests are invited to indulge in a spread of home cooked food complete with fluffy egg casseroles, a variety of muffins, juicy Honey Baked Ham and freshly cut fruit. There is hot coffee on tap, second helpings and even the finest chocolate in all of Erie, PA – Stefanelli’s melt-aways.

Of all the delicious food and baked goods at the Christmas brunch – and there was lots – the box of Stefanelli’s chocolates  was by far the most treasured delight. The white box filled with luscious chunks of rich chocolate was purchased from a local company in town and placed conveniently by the coffee pot where everyone could grab a piece . As guests happened upon the chocolate I watched as their faces lit up. They immediately recognized Stefanelli’s candy – everyone in Erie does. It is considered a luxury and a rare treat, especially for those who often go without daily meals. So it was no surprise when everyone that passed by the box stopped in amazement before scooping up a piece – or two – of chocolatey treasure.

Watching the reception of the Stefanelli’s chocolate struck me as profound. What I witnessed was so much more than men and women being offered chocolate to freely enjoy. What I was watching turned out to be a sweet picture of how God offers us the greatest gift ever – Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. 

Like the special box of chocolates offered at the Upper Room on Christmas morning, God made Jesus accessible to all. He sent His most precious gift, His Son, into the lowliest of circumstances – a humble stable with only a manger for a bed. Although God could have delivered the Savior into a guarded palace or high, lofty estate, He didn’t. He could have kept Jesus far away for the people and out of reach but He didn’t. Instead, God delivered Jesus right into the middle of our broken world where He could shine His light of life in the darkest places and to the most desperate of people. He made Jesus approachable, knowable and conveniently within our weak and feeble reach.

God made Jesus available to all – the worst of sinners, the sickest of individuals and even the dead. When Jesus went out into the world, He said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28). Jesus didn’t come for only the people who had their act together or who had a stellar pedigree. Jesus came to seek and save the lost, the hopeless and the “too far gone.” His gift of salvation was and is for anyone and everyone who will come to Him bearing broken lives, believing He is the Son of God who rescues sinners by way of the cross.

God gave Jesus in endless abundance – just like the box of chocolates.

By the end of the brunch we’d run out of a few breakfast foods. Certain casseroles were all gone and the hash-brown potatoes were no more but the box of chocolates was still half full. Somehow even though nearly every guest had indulged in the rich, meltaway chocolate the supply never ran out. There was enough for everyone and then some.

And so it is with Jesus. In Jesus Christ we have the one and only gift that will never run out and is always fully stocked. Anyone who approaches Jesus’ manger throne in search of the richest mercy and sweetest, most amazing grace will always find that the storehouse of His Salvation is full. Jesus, the Savior of the world, is abundant in boundless love, limitless grace, unfailing forgiveness and abiding peace. His goodness knows no end. There is always more than enough of Jesus to go around…and then some.

On Christmas morning it was a box of chocolates that delivered a special message: that God sent Jesus Christ, the greatest gift of all, into our broken world to offer us salvation through His sacrifice completely free of our charge. All He asks is that we come as we are from wherever we are and partake of heaven and earth’s sweetest, richest, eternally abiding gift: God’s one and only Son.