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After the gifts are opened, what’s left to celebrate?

By Mike Keppler

Simeon

What comes after the waiting is over? Let’s ask Simeon.

Christmas gift-opening for our family is a seasonal experience of merry mayhem! The usual gathering of 16 adults and children is a large-sized event for our family room. We fill up the couches and chairs and use all the floor space as well, but still have to spill over into the dining area to accommodate everyone. I just have to keep remembering that it was my wife, Monique, who wanted this large family. But everyone knows that I, too, consider this one of our greatest blessings.

Monique has tried numerous approaches over the years for this time of giving and receiving. We started out opening only one gift at a time (and still prefer this!), but in these last years we have allowed the grandchildren to open their large Christmas bags of gifts at their own frenzied pace in order to deal with their exuberant impatience. It still seems that after the paper has found its way into the recycling bag, there are some eager ones waiting on the adults who are passing and sharing their gifts with each other. With a pile of unwrapped gifts strewn before them, our “near perfect” grandchildren can be heard pleading and even demanding, “Is that all there is?!”

There is a letdown after the last gifts are opened and all the boxes, wrappings, and bows have been processed. The tree looks lonely without packages teeming under its ornamented boughs. Adults feel relief that it is over but secretly long for the feelings of anticipation they had at the start of the season. The declaration that “Christmas is over” brings a certain disappointment with the acknowledgment.

Luke’s Gospel is rich with details surrounding the first Christmas: angelic announcements to Zechariah, Mary, and the shepherds. It is the latter who are blessed to follow the angel’s directives to Bethlehem. After finding Mary and Joseph, these lowly shepherds are the first to see the baby lying in his manger bed. With great joy that night, they return to their fields and flocks glorifying and praising God on their way.

Most families conclude the reading of the Christmas story with the shepherds’ return, but Luke, the historian, is not ready to wrap up his thrilling account. He wants all his readers to wait because the story of Christmas is far from over. The scene shifts to the temple 41 days later and focuses on two saintly seniors who, with hope-filled lives, are waiting for the coming Christ.

One of these is Simeon, who, with prophetic insights that could have only be revealed to him by God himself, sings out this part of the Christmas story to all who are waiting for more. Within this prophecy, there is a musical message of singing praise, stumbling rejection, the all-important message of salvation for everyone, and even a surprising finale of sadness and sorrow.

The Singing: A sight to celebrate
“I have seen the One who was promised!” must have startled many who witnessed the crescendo of praise from the old prophet. How many who heard the old man sing this out could have thought he was a little tipsy in his prophetic merriment? How could anyone see in this vulnerable baby boy, the son of peasant parents, the Promised Deliverer? These young parents could only afford a humble and modest sacrifice at his dedication. Israel was expecting a prominent and proud warrior who would restore glory to the nation once again. Surely, many observers concluded this baby could not be the son of David, the hoped-for Messiah of God.

Simeon was so convinced by what he saw in the child that he was now ready for the next chapter of a peaceful end to his life. The promise of God was fulfilled. He had seen the Messiah.

What would Christmas be like without music? Musical programs abound during the holidays, rekindling Christmas memories. Luke’s Gospel account has even been put to poetic harmonies. Throughout church history, liturgies have been written and chancel choirs have been singing the canticles of Mary’s Magnificat, Zechariah’s Benedictus, the angels’ Gloria and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis (Latin for “now let your servant depart”). Community and church choral performances at this season become excellent occasions for inviting seekers to experience these Scriptural songs. More importantly, they allow these friends to hear the good news of the Christmas story.

As the mood swings with this old man’s continued prophecy, Simeon now predicts there will be a stumbling resistance in this child’s future.

The Stumbling: Rise and fall
Jesus was a polarizing figure in his time. Some would gladly welcome the Son of Man, and others would vigorously oppose him. Those rejecting him would say he was not their kind of Messiah. He challenged the assumptions of his enemies. They wanted a revolution of power to overthrow their oppressors and establish an earthly kingdom of dominance and glory for Israel. Jesus would come to rule over human hearts, live his life in selfless service, and die on a cross as a sacrificial lamb for the sins of the world. The opposition would declare, “Not my kind of Messiah!”

We live in a culture that speaks about and even practices spiritual things. However, these beliefs are more aligned with eastern religions such as Buddhism that emphasize self-help. Engaging people readily talk about their own ideas of the spiritual realm, but it is increasingly clear that many of them do not really know what Christianity is all about. It seems that too many individuals today want to design a god in their own image. They vigorously defend the need to love, respect, and accept others, but they are repelled by the God who holds them accountable and confronts their sin. More and more will even dare to claim they do not sin and don’t need a savior! Their stumbling over Christ is our cultural challenge in witnessing.

For centuries, Israel hoped for a Messiah who would deliver them from Roman oppression and restore the glory of their nation. Even Jesus’s disciples zealously shared this idea of Messiah. Many who saw in him hope for the future, however, turned against him when he spoke of suffering and death on a cross. They stumbled over what he was accomplishing in their presence. They refused to believe in him.

Simeon’s prophetic song predicted this child would be a light and salvation to the nations. He would expose the darkness of man’s unbelief and futile attempts to live without God. He would challenge assumptions and there would be resistance. But like Simeon, there would be many in the world who would accept Jesus and follow him into eternal life.

On this occasion of happiness and joy at the prophet’s celebrative praising, there follows a surprising prediction of great grief and sorrow for this young mother.

The Sorrowing: A sword
It is almost ironic that a season like Christmas, so full of joy, could also have a mix of grief and sorrow; however, everyone who has lost a loved one to death can say this is true. There is a letdown and sadness for many at this season when loved ones are no longer with us at family gatherings.

Mary must have been taken aback by Simeon’s painful pronouncement. The coming opposition to Jesus would result in a stabbing grief like a sword piercing her own heart. Mary, who had treasured and pondered many things at Jesus’ birth, no doubt would leave the temple that day thinking deeply about the perplexing prophecy of this devoutly righteous man.

It is sad to think, and reflects a very shallow understanding of Christmas, that for many this season is only a time of gift-giving and receiving. The nation’s retailers project the average American will spend around $900 this Christmas on holiday presents and candies. The Christmas season alone has become a $500-billion-dollar juggernaut of sales for the economy. These businesses with accounts in the red count on Christmas profits to put them back into the black.

It is surely time for Christians to say, “Wait a minute! There is more to this season!” The truth must be told that if this season is only about sharing material gifts, we will feel a great letdown after the credit card bills start coming in January. But there’s good news! The baby Jesus came for a greater reason. He came to forgive our sins through his suffering death on the cross and provide salvation for everyone who will put their faith and trust in him. Unless we are convinced of this, we will miss the whole point of Christmas.

The Saving: A revelation
Many of the Jewish faithful saw in the Messiah a hope only for Israel. They had no problem receiving the blessing of God to make of them a great nation. But Simeon’s prophetic song of salvation was more inclusive and offered a broader invitation to all the nations. This salvation would start in Jerusalem, but that would only be the epicenter. From this locale, the gospel would spread to the ends of the earth. The baby whom Simeon held with humble gratitude this day in the temple would grow up to be the Savior of the whole world!

During this season of giving to international missions, those of us who have received Christ know that we have a global missions mandate to share the good news of Christ our Lord with everyone on earth. The annual Lottie Moon Christmas Offering is a partnership among Southern Baptists to give to make this mandate a reality around our world by funding church planting and the making of disciples. It is projected that there are 2.8 billion in our world who have little or no access to the gospel. For an individual, this task would be impossible, but working and giving together, we can make an everlasting difference in people’s lives.

Some may not see the point of sharing the Christmas story with unchurched family and friends. Yet it remains that when we do get the message and the “reason for the season” to the forefront of our witness sharing, we see that the gospel does impact the lives of those who hear it. Simeon understood what God was doing the moment he saw the infant Jesus. Let’s give the Holy Spirit something to work with in our witness by sharing the good news with someone this season.

Who knows how God will work through an intentional spiritual conversation that simply retells how Simeon had a surprising encounter one day at the temple with a baby boy who would change the world. Through those conversations, we just might convince some friends of the need to accept Christ as Savior. Imagine what they will discover as the Lord blesses and takes charge of their lives each day!

You might find yourself thinking, as you follow Luke’s telling of the Christmas narrative through the part about the shepherds, “It would be hard to top that story!” However, Luke interrupts that thought like a stage manager in a theatre drama and directs the next actor forward to stage right, “Simeon! Tell your story!” And Simeon joyfully sings out, “I can top that! I’ve seen the Sovereign Lord’s Salvation with my own eyes! I’ve experienced him face to face!”

There will not be a Christmas letdown if we who have accepted Christ and do see him at the center of this Christmas season, say to our world, “Wait a minute! There is more to this story! Come. Experience Christ! Worship him! Share him with everyone!”

Mike Keppler served as pastor of Springfield Southern Baptist Church for 26 years. Recently retired, he is enjoying writing and grandfathering.

By Autumn Wall

Christmas. The season of joy. Jesus’s birthday. It’s right around the corner!

As believers, we know the real reason for the season is Jesus. This is the day we celebrate our Savior coming to earth to begin his journey to the cross which will give us freedom from sin and shame eternally. But the chaos of the season can overshadow the real reason we celebrate and distract us from the very thing we were put on this earth to do: tell his story.

This Christmas, will you be intentional to share Jesus everywhere you go? Here are some fresh ideas to keep you focused on the gospel:

• Buy some clear or blank ornaments and decorate them with your favorite Scripture verse. Keep a box of them in your car and give them away to people you encounter—at the gas station, grocery store, your kid’s school program, on a family walk, etc.

• Get a stack of invitation cards from your church (or make some yourself) to invite people to your church’s Christmas Eve service or program. So many people are willing to attend a holiday event who might never go to a “church service.” Who are you inviting?

• Host a neighborhood Christmas tea. Invite your neighbors to stop by your home just to celebrate the season together for a few minutes. Present each attendee with a small gift, card, and/or invitation to your church or small group.

• Take time to train your kids how to tell people about Jesus. It can be as simple as telling their teachers and friends that we celebrate Christmas because God came down to us and made a way for us to know him.

It’s simple in this season to share Jesus, but it’s also simple to forget to share him. How will you share him everywhere you go this Christmas season?

Autumn Wall, online at autumnwall.com, is an author, speaker, worship leader, pastor’s wife, and mom of three in Indianapolis.

Teams wrap up work

Lisa Misner —  December 13, 2018 — Leave a comment

In states hit by hurricanes

IBDR logo

Just before tornados swept across central Illinois, Disaster Relief volunteers from the state completed a long season of hurricane relief in Florida and North Carolina. Illinois Baptist Disaster Relief (IBDR) volunteers put thousands of miles on the road traveling south and east in the wake of Hurricanes Florence and Michael.

“Illinois saw key partnerships develop during the hurricane season this year,” said IBDR State Coordinator Dwayne Doyle. “We partnered with Missouri in a significant way as we responded together in locations in both North Carolina and Florida. We served with Kentucky Baptists on one of their kitchens in North Carolina. We also served North Carolina Baptists for over two months in Lumberton.”

“We sent 12 or more teams to both North Carolina and to Florida,” Doyle added. “Chaplains, tree cutters, and flood recovery teams served the Lord well. We were happy to rejoice with several who found hope in Jesus as they were served by Southern Baptists.”

Doyle said it was also a significant year for the state’s mass feeding teams. “We were able to mobilize mass feeding teams to both states as well. This is the first time in several years that we participated in mass feeding of survivors.”

Prior to the Dec. 1 Taylorville tornado, IBSA volunteers had worked 16,817 hours responding to the hurricanes, and to flooding in Illinois and Iowa. They recorded 769 gospel presentations, distributed 1,341 gospel tracts and 937 Bibles, and witnessed 15 people accept Christ as Savior.

An IBDR team from the Heartland Baptist Network was the last Illinois team to serve in Lumberton, N.C., completing chainsaw work in early November before work transitioned to the recovery phase. In late November, teams from the Winthrop Harbor area, Heartland Network, and Kaskaskia, Salem South, and Williamson Associations wrapped up IBDR work in Bristol, Fla., for 2018.

Known for the yellow shirts they wear, the Illinois volunteers were joined for the first time by “green shirt” volunteers. Sarah Maddison, granddaughter of IBDR volunteers Don and Jan Kragness, and Andrew Cairel, son of Pastor Derrick and Angie Cairel of Liberty Baptist in Harrisburg, joined recovery teams in Florida in November. The high schoolers completed the required seven hours of training including DR 101.

For more information about Illinois Baptist Disaster Relief, go to IBSA.org/dr.

– Lisa Misner

By Andrew Woodrow

The death of missionary John Allen Chau has sparked arguments among Christians. Some call the young man impulsive, while others admire his commitment to reach unreached people with the gospel. Many are comparing Chau to another missionary killed in South America more than 60 years ago.

On Nov. 17, Chau was reportedly struck and killed by arrows from a Sentinelese tribe living on a remote island off the Bay of Bengal. Born in Washington state, he had been intrigued by the tribe since his teenage years. He chose his college degree to prepare him for his mission. He underwent linguistic training, participated in global missions, refrained from romantic relationships, and later joined the mission-sending agency All Nations.

After arriving in the region in early November, Chau paid fishermen to take him on trips where he attempted to befriend the Sentinelese with gifts, songs, and declarations of Jesus’s love. Chau wrote of his fear in returning to the island for his third visit (and his first overnight one), but reassured himself that the tribe’s eternal lives mattered more. The next morning, when Chau’s companions sailed near the island, they saw his body being dragged on the beach.

For its striking similarity, Chau’s death has been compared to that of five missionary martyrs in 1956, among them the well-known Jim Elliot. Elliot also devoted his early years to preparing for missions. He and his team sought to evangelize the Huaorani tribespeople in Ecuador. They were killed by warriors’ arrows soon after first contact. Elliot journaled extensively of his desire to reach the lost tribe, and his work was continued successfully after his death by his wife, Elisabeth.

But Jim Elliot was celebrated, while Chau has been criticized.

Wheaton College’s Ed Stetzer said he imagines Elliot would receive very different treatment today. “People are much more negative about missions, partly because of mistakes missionaries have made, such as colonialism, a lack of cultural awareness, and more.”

But, “As Elliot wrote (and Chau experienced), ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose,’” Stetzer wrote. “Here at Elliot’s alma mater, we still believe and train missionaries. To some, that makes us the fools. But…if that makes us fools, we will be ‘fools for Christ.’”

– IBSA’s Andrew Woodrow was a missionary kid, living with his family in Mozambique

Service begins at home

Lisa Misner —  December 10, 2018 — Leave a comment

26 tornadoes damage 500+ structures

By Meredith Flynn and Andrew Woodrow

DR group Taylorville

After a Dec. 1 tornado in Taylorville, Disaster Relief teams ministered to homeowners like Mark Sockel (center above), who put his faith in Christ after volunteers shared the gospel with him.

Illinois Baptist Disaster Relief (IBDR) volunteers were in Taylorville the morning after an EF-3 tornado damaged hundreds of structures in the town 30 miles southeast of Springfield. The Dec. 1 storms, rare this late in the year, spawned a record-high number of tornadoes in December—at least 26—and affected several central Illinois communities. The most severe damage was in Christian County, where more than 20 people were injured.

Disaster Relief teams mobilized to Taylorville Sunday, with assessors working to evaluate needs and one chainsaw team already working to remove limbs felled by the storm. Volunteers quickly set up an Incident Command Center at the Christian County Fairgrounds, and teams moved into First Baptist Church, Edinburgh.

Three days after the tornado, the Disaster Relief response continued, with around 35 volunteers serving each day and chaplains ministering to homeowners. One Taylorville resident, Mark Sockel, heard the gospel from Disaster Relief chaplain James Bathon, and responded by putting his faith in Jesus.

He had heard people say they’d been saved, Sockel said, but “I didn’t exactly know what that meant until today.” The Lord was calling him, he said, “and I just picked up the phone today.”

Jan Kragness also serves as a Disaster Relief chaplain. “When we’re here doing Disaster Relief, we want to help you physically,” she said in Taylorville. “But we’ve not done our job if we have not also done something to help you spiritually.”

After Sockel made his decision to trust Christ, the team talked to him about church, Kragness said, telling him “the name above the door of the church is not as important as what’s going on inside it.”

“But he did tell us he thinks he wants to look for a Southern Baptist church because he’d like to do Disaster Relief,” she said.

Teams serving in Taylorville have completed 35 jobs so far. Volunteers are cutting limbs, removing debris, and putting tarps on roofs. For more information about the response in Taylorville, e-mail RespondIBDR@gmail.com. To donate to Illinois Baptist Disaster Relief, go to IBSA.org/dr.

Mistaken identity

Lisa Misner —  December 6, 2018 — Leave a comment

By Adron Robinson

Read: John 13:34-35

It may take former Phoenix NBA star Edward Arnett Johnson a long time to get over the worst day of his life. After his NBA career ended, the 6’ 8” basketball player, who is now 47, spent many years serving his community.

But in 2006, another former NBA star—6’2”, 51-year-old “Fast Eddie” Johnson—was arrested for sexual battery and burglary. Some reporters around the country picked up the story and mistakenly assumed that Edward Johnson of Phoenix was the criminal. His phone started ringing off the hook. Neighbors, even friends, were quick to tell him how disappointed they were with him.

“The thing that disappointed me the most is some people were overzealous enough to think it was me and attack me with a ferocity I can’t comprehend,” Johnson said. “That’s the part that didn’t allow me to sleep last night. That’s the part that forced me to reach out to as many people as I could and say, ‘Shame on you; that’s not me.’”

Afterward, Eddie Johnson of Phoenix said his goal was to get the word out about who he really is—and isn’t.

Just like Eddie Johnson, the church is facing a case of mistaken identity. The sinful acts of some who claim the name of Christ have sullied the reputation of the church. And because of this, we need to display God’s love first to other believers, regardless of their race, social status, or place of birth.

Second, we need to venture outside the church building and into our communities to show the world our true identity: love. A world full of hateful speech and hate-filled action needs to see and hear what true love looks like, so be intentional today about loving one another.

Prayer Prompt: Father God, your Word tells us that the world will know we are your disciples by our love. Please forgive us for trying to identify ourselves by anything else but your love. Sanctify our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit to love one another.

Adron Robinson is pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Country Club Hills and president of the Illinois Baptist State Association.

Every church, every nation

Lisa Misner —  December 3, 2018

Congregations engage in global missions through sacrificial giving to Lottie Moon Offering

Larry Pepper

Larry Pepper was a NASA flight surgeon before God put him on a different trajectory — working with the International Mission Board at hospitals in Africa.

Editor’s note: This year’s Week of Prayer for the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions is Dec. 2-9.

Larry Pepper was on a trajectory. He was a NASA flight surgeon who was good at his job, active in his church, involved as a dad—and possibly headed for space. It wouldn’t be long before he ended up as a candidate finalist for a space mission. But God interrupted his plans. As Pepper (left in photo above) thought more and more about his life and its eternal significance, he felt God saying, “You’ve committed everything to me except your job.” It soon became evident God was drawing him to walk away.

“I was beginning to see the world through God’s eyes in terms of lostness,” said Pepper, an International Mission Board doctor in Africa. “For me, that meant seeing if I could use my medical skills in a way that had more kingdom impact.”

So more than two decades ago, he, his wife, Sally, and their three children packed up and moved to Africa—first to Uganda, then Lesotho and Tanzania. Over the years, the Peppers have spent countless hours at the bedside of the hurting, leading them to lasting hope in Christ.

Pepper’s hospital is at the end of a beaten-up road in Tanzania. The facility occasionally gets as full as it can get, and then runs on empty. In the past, it’s had moments where sick children slept two or three to a bed. It’s had moments where anesthetic drugs for C-sections and suture materials for surgery have run out.

Waiting room.jpg

WAITING ROOM – Because of the volume of need at Kigoma Baptist Hospital in Tanzania, the hospital may occasionally run out of room or resources. But IMB medical missionary Larry Pepper says churches always step up to fill in the gaps.

But the situation has never stayed that way for long, the doctor said. Over and over, churches have stepped up to cover the hospital’s needs, all the way from wheelchairs to building a new pediatric wing.

“Churches of all sizes have helped,” he said. “And because they have, we have seen God work to spread the gospel in amazing ways.”

Over the past 22 years, churches have supported the Peppers’ work through the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering®, the funding source that keeps them on the field. They have provided equipment, and they have met the hospital’s daily needs.

“We’re just two people,” Larry said. “But we find that when other people get a passion to come alongside us, God uses it to further his kingdom.”

The church connection
Every week, worshipers at a church in Shelbyville, Ky., pray for Pastor Fabio in Brazil. Chris Platt, pastor of Highland Baptist Church, says that’s because they’ve met Fabio—and that in turn has made missions personal.

Ever since Chris’s church partnered with the work of IMB missionaries Scott and Joyce Pittman in São Paulo, Brazil, several years ago, the needs there have had faces and names. As the people of Highland Baptist have traveled annually to carry out outreach in the city of 22 million, it’s made them see their part in the “whole ball of wax” that is the Great Commission, Chris said.

“You’ve got missionaries doing what they can and the church doing what we can,” he said. “When you go out into their city and meet the people, your love for missions just comes alive. You give more, you pray more, and you think more about missions.”

Highland Baptist is “no superstar missions church,” Platt said, but the annual trips have bolstered the Pittmans’ work and made the church see that it is “one piece of the puzzle.”

The same is true at First Baptist Church of Andersonville, Tenn., where members give $90,000 annually—the amount needed to fund one IMB missionary couple for a year. The commitment to give has caused a cultural shift in the church, said Pastor Steve Lakin—people are more involved in giving and going too. “We’re just a small church, but through our giving to the IMB, we see how God is using us.”

To learn more about the offering, visit www.IMB.org/lmco.

– Stories and photos from the International Mission Board