Day 25: Joy to World

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!” Psalm 98:4

It is Christmas morning!  I’ll be honest with you; I’m waking up to a quieter Christmas than I had expected and hoped for.  Due to the uptick in COVID-19 cases, my son and his family will not be joining us for Christmas brunch and the rest of the Christmas festivities.  I will miss my grandson’s first Christmas.  I will miss seeing my son indulge in his favorite Christmas treats.  I will miss creating memories with my daughter-in-law and her teasing my husband about his love of tinsel.  I will miss celebrating Christmas with our friends, the Caron family.  Instead, their Christmas presents sit under the tree, with hopes to be together as soon as we can.  The decision was hard, the tears did flow, but, ultimately, it was the right and responsible thing to do.

Designed by Margaret Collins

I have spent all of December posting micro-blogs exploring Advent through scripture, songs, books, and movies.  I’ve written about the importance of choosing to hope in hard seasons and remaining calm during stressful times.  When I started these micro-blogs. I had no idea how much they would minister to me.  Both the research and the writing has challenged me in so many ways.  I believe that God knew what my Christmas morning would look like, and now He is asking me, “Do you really believe what you write?”

My answer to that question is a resounding “Yes!”  So, this Christmas morning, join with me in celebrating hope in the form of Jesus Christ.  I am going to start my morning out by listening to the song “Joy to the World”. I hope you find time in your day to listen to this familiar carol.  When researching the lyrics of this song, I discovered that Isaac Watts wrote this song based on David’s words in Psalm 98.  Even though we sing this carol at Christmas, it is so much more than about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.  It is a celebration praise about Jesus’ second return.  When Jesus comes again, sin and sorrows will no longer grow.  He will rule the world with truth and grace!!   All of heaven and nature will sing about His wonderous love!!  Merry Christmas, and I hope you find your day filled with joy and hope!

Day 24: Light in the Darkness

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

John 8:12

When my kids were little, there was a house in our neighborhood that exploded with Christmas lights.  During the month of December, Terry would deter on our trip home, and the children would squeal with anticipation.   As we approached the house, their eyes were bright with delight, pointing at all the sights and sighing with pleasure.   No matter how many times we visited the house, the children always found something new to savor.  Yet, this same house during the day, offered no amusement for my children.  It was only when the sky was dark, that the explosion of light brought joy to my family.

Photo Credit by Margaret Collins

The book of John begins with explaining the attributes of Jesus.  John states “In him was life and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”  Throughout the birth of Jesus, light was used to illuminate the presence of Jesus.  The wisemen followed a bright star to find Jesus and bright light surrounded the angels when they announced the birth to the shepherds.  Notice that each of the lights occurred in darkness, and neither the wisemen nor the shepherds were completely aware of what this birth meant.  They just knew that following the light would transform their lives.

Just like 2000 years ago, the presence of Jesus still illuminates the darkness in our world.  Ken Dillingham, of the Dillingham group, in a recent podcast stated, “The light has the greatest effectiveness when it is the darkest.”  A candle doesn’t have the same ethereal beauty during the day then it does at night.   My sweetest moments with Jesus have been the times in my life when the hard situation seemed to be closing in on me.  At these times, I would read a scripture, hear a message, or have a friend speak a word of encouragement to me, bringing light into my darkness.  This light was like a beacon for me, leading to me joy, peace, love, and hope.   Matthew describes the people that Jesus ministered to as “dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, for those dwelling in the region, and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”  It’s Christmas Eve, and the final hours of Advent are approaching.  Light a candle this evening, notice how it makes everything in your home beautiful and festive.  When you blow the candle out, know that in the morning, we are celebrating “the life that was the light of men.”

Day 23: Despair, Bells and Hope

“O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is a steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption.” Psalm 130:7

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, known as the first American poet, strolled around on Christmas morning, clutching the letter from the Army informing him that his son was critically injured.  His head down, tears streaming down his face, he could not bare the thought of another loss.  Two years earlier, he had lost his wife when her dress caught fire.  His desperate, futile attempts to save her left him scarred and severely injured.  This letter seemed a blight on any Christmas joy, especially when he heard the church bells toll Christmas carols.  He went home and penned the famous poem, “Christmas Bells”!

Photo Credit by Margaret Collins

Although Longfellow admits to feeling despair in the poem by writing, “there is no peace on earth I said, for hate is strong and mocks the song”, he doesn’t stay in that place.  He concludes that as the bells continue to ring “more loud and deep, God is not dead, nor doth He sleep, the Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”  This poem is a great depiction of Advent.  Yes, we live in a fallen world where we can see evil all around.  Just like Longfellow, we may have moments of despair, yet Advent is always a reminder that in the darkest moments, we always have hope!  Like the Psalmist David, we can declare, “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him.  He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.”

Day 22: Thumbprint Cookies

One of my favorite things about Christmas baking is making the cookies bite sized.  This size is the perfect party cookie, allowing you to fill a small plate of assorted cookies, pop one into your mouth, and continue on your merry way, engaging in conversations, creating memories, or singing carols with your friends.  I also like my cookie trays to look simple and natural, with small pops of colors.  However, when we attempted to tint the frosting in this Thumbprint cookie green and red for a more festive look, the garishness of the frosting made the cookies less appealing.

The following recipe was adapted by my husband and I the first year we were married.  Instead of jam, we decided to balance out the buttery shortbread cookie crusted with walnuts with buttercream frosting.  It soon became a hit with my friends and family.  This cookie freezes well, but I recommend tray freezing them after frosting to keep them looking as pretty as they are delicious.

Photo Credit by Margaret Collins

Thumbprint Cookies

2 c. all-purpose flour

½ c. firmly packed brown sugar   

1 c. butter, softened                                                               

2 eggs, separated                    

1/8 t. salt                                                                                 

1 t. vanilla                                     

2 c. finely chopped walnuts (best if chopped in food processor)

Preheat oven to 350⁰.  Cream butter and sugar.  Setting the egg whites aside, add the egg yolks and vanilla, mixing until well combined.  Add the flour and salt, mix for 2-3 minutes longer, scraping the bowl down until all ingredients are combined.  Shape dough into round 1-inch balls.  In a small bowl, beat egg whites until frothy.  Dip each ball of dough into egg white and then roll in chopped walnuts.  Place on a parchment-covered cookie sheet.  Make a small depression in the center of each cookie with back of a teaspoon.  Bake for 7-8 minutes, until the center of the cookie looks set.  After they have cooled, pipe centers with buttercream frosting.

Michele’s Buttercream Frosting (this recipe is from my friend Michele Cassaday)

1/3 c. butter                                                      

1 ½ t. vanilla

4 ½ c. sifted powdered sugar                     

¼ c. milk

Beat butter till fluffy.  Add 2 c. powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla.  Then slowly add the rest of the powdered sugar.  Thin out with additional milk if needed to achieve the right consistency.

Day 21: Unlikely Kings

“In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples, of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.” Isaiah 11:10

The prophet Samuel was sent by God to anoint a new king over Israel.  He was to go to Bethlehem and find this king among the sons of Jesse.  With no pageantry or public proclamations, Samuel approached Jesse and his sons, looking for the one he thought was worthy to be king.  The oldest son stood proudly with intelligent eyes, but God quickly informed Samuel that this was not the chosen one.  Another son stood before the prophet, his strength was evident in his physical stature, but he too was not be the future king.  Five more sons, each having distinct characteristics outwardly that seemed royal in nature, passed before Samuel, yet God was not interested in any of these sons.  God told Samuel that He doesn’t look on the outward appearance, but rather on the heart.  Heeding God’s word but feeling frustrated, Samuel pleaded with Jesse, did he have any more sons?  Reluctantly, Jesse admitted his youngest was left in the fields, herding sheep.  As the forgotten David appeared before Samuel, God told Samuel that this was the one.  Although David was anointed that day, his time to reign would not happen for many years.  Meanwhile, he would be insulted by his family, face giants, be chased by a king and his army, and forced to be homeless!  Only after all these trials would David finally receive his crown and rule as king.

About one thousand years later, in the small village of Bethlehem, the king of all kings was about to enter the world.  His birth would not be marked by any other leaders of his nation, only poor shepherds would acknowledge his arrival.  His parents, likely feeling forgotten and inconsequential, could not even find a proper place for his mother to give birth.  Instead, their last resort was a stable meant to house animals.  His first cradle would not be covered with plush purple blankets, the color of royalty, instead he would be wrapped in swaddling clothes, laid in a bed of straw in a rough feeding trough.  Although his birth signified the promise of redemption being fulfilled, he wouldn’t fulfill that promise for another thirty-three years.  During that time, he would be rejected by the people he grew up with, betrayed by all his closest friends, slandered by the religious leaders of his day, beaten until his body was covered with stripes, and crucified on a cross.  Yet, this king would reign, conquering death and the grave!  He would ascend into heaven, and more than two thousand years later, we eagerly await his return!  This time, his kingship will be recognized by everyone, for the Lord declares, “every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess”!

Day 20: Lessons From Dickens

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” John 14:27

“Marley was dead” is the opening sentence in to one of the most beloved Christmas stories of all time.  Charles Dickens quickly penned the novella, “A Christmas Carol”, in six weeks, hoping to inspire England to celebrate Christmas with more charity, and to improve his own financial situation.  It is reported that as Scrooge was traveling London with ghosts on paper, Dickens himself was wandering the streets of London for inspiration.  In 1843, the people of London were divided into two different worlds.  The first world was filled with bounty, lavish homes and furnishings, and idle entertainment.  The second world, containing most of the population of London, was marked by a lack of food and clothing, children working twelve-hour days in factories, poor houses, and debtor’s prisons.  Dickens hoped that his little ghost story would “help open the hearts of the prosperous and powerful towards the poor and powerless.”  In his sixty-six-page manuscript, Scrooge’s encounters with ghosts lead to his redemption with the declaration, “I will honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.”  Not only did Scrooge redeem his life, Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” helped reform much of London, inspiring changes not only in laws but also in hearts.

Photo Credit by Margaret Collins

Like Scrooge, just maybe, I needed to redeem my Christmas in 2020.  This Advent season, I am using the quietness of Christmas in the middle of a pandemic as a reset for me.  I am not rushing around shopping, or busy with Christmas programs and activities.  Instead, I am spending that time leaning into Advent, exploring it through a few devotionals, rereading portions of scripture, and listening to Advent poetry.  For the first time, Terry and I are reading “A Christmas Carol” aloud together, engrossed in Dicken’s imagery with phrases like, “You may be an undigested bit of beef.”  I feel calmer and more peaceful than I ever have, even though my oven coil broke yesterday morning in the middle of cookie baking.  Even my research for my Advent blog posts has awakened a deeper curiosity about the big picture of Jesus’ birth and the redemption it brings for mankind.  Although I am looking forward to celebrating Christmas 2021 without a pandemic, like Scrooge, “I will not shut out the lessons” I have learned this Advent season!

Day 19: Three Gifts

“Every good gift and perfect gift is form above, coming down from the Father of lights.” James 1:17

It’s my grandson’s first Christmas, and although he is not going to remember it, I am so excited!  As I was shopping for Christmas gifts for Joel, I researched the best toys for a five-month-old, trying to find something that would stimulate his curiosity and help him meet developmental milestones.  I carefully weighed my options and picked out a few gifts I thought he would love.  Terry wrapped his gifts, and I cannot wait for Joel to open them.

Photo Credit by Margaret Collins

Jesus, too, received gifts, and even if the wise men had done research, I am sure they could not have made all the connections to the significance of the gifts they chose.  As they worshiped the newborn king, they presented gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Mary and Joseph.  They would have known that each of these gifts signified royalty, deity, and consecration.  They might have even known how each of these gifts would have been used in the temple where the Hebrew people worshiped.  But they would not have understood that Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection would fulfill the symbolic uses of these gifts.  Furthermore, what the wise men could not predict is how these gifts were likely used.  Some commentaries have surmised that Joseph’s financial status was such that to escape to Egypt, he likely would have had to sell these gifts.  Think about this: the gifts were sold to save the greatest gift given to mankind.  Even more astounding, these gifts were presented by non-Jewish men, setting the stage for a salvation that was for everyone!  The research I have done for these blog posts has convinced me more than ever of the sovereignty of God.  Just like I spent time researching gifts for Joel, God even more perfectly designed every detail of the greatest gift of all, the birth of Jesus!

Day 18: Joseph’s Integrity

“The integrity of the upright guides them, but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them.” Proverbs 11:3

Mary, Elizabeth, and Zacharias sang poetic praise, Simeon and Anna spoke words of blessing, the shepherds told others the good news and the wise men asked earnest questions.  They all had a lot to say regarding the birth of Jesus, but Joseph, a principal character in the nativity, said nothing.  None of the gospels record any profound words that the earthly father of Jesus said about the miracle that others would perceive to be a scandal.  Instead, Joseph’s actions spoke louder about his character and His trust in God than any words he could have pontificated!

Photo Credit by Margaret Collins

We first meet Joseph as he is deciding to show mercy to the woman he loves, despite all evidence indicating her betrayal.  Legally, Joseph had the right to have her stoned, but he felt no justification in destroying Mary or her reputation, so he decided to divorce her quietly.  While Joseph was contemplating this decision, he had a dream from God that gave him miraculous insight into Mary’s pregnancy.  He followed the angel’s directions, married Mary, and likely endured all the gossip that ensued about his newlywed status.  He had three other dreams, all relating to the safety of Jesus, and Joseph heeded the warnings, following the instructions of angels without question.  These instructions involved Joseph uprooting his family and moving to an unfamiliar place.  Not only did Joseph lose his reputation, but also likely had to start all over in his career.  Christian radio commentator, David Jeremiah, says, “Integrity is keeping a commitment even after circumstances have changed.”  Joseph embodies this definition of integrity, providing an example for all of us on how to act in the presence of our Savior!

Day 17: Elf on the Shelf

“Judge not, that you be not judged.” Matthew 7:1

It was not supposed to be this way.  As a little girl, she had envisioned her first baby born in the presence of her mother and aunts, who knew what to expect and could help her endure the mystery of childbirth.  Instead, she was with Joseph, her beloved, traveling ninety miles from her home to Bethlehem, with the impending birth expected any day.  The roads were dusty, the days hot, the nights cold, and the scenery unfamiliar, leaving her sore, uncomfortable, and tired.  As she reflected on the last few months, she recalled whispers of judgment and disgust from her neighbors, friends, and family.  She looked at Joseph, who held his head high despite all the gossip about his decision to marry the woman who they thought had betrayed him.  Even though they both new the truth of her pregnancy, the comments still pierced her heart and wounded her soul.  Despite these wounds, she remained confident in God and continued her journey, unaware that there would be more visits by angels, shepherds, and wise men.

My niece and nephew’s Elfie is up to some silly antics.

Knowing the end of the story, it’s easy to look with disdain on the people who gossiped about Mary and Joseph.  Yet, part of the Advent experience is recognizing our need for a Savior.  I have been doing some soul searching the last few years and I have concluded that I have been judgmental about other people, including some of their Christmas practices.  For example, I admit I sneered at the “Elf on the Shelf” antics that many families orchestrated for their children.  I believed it was another piece of evidence of how others were minimizing the real reason for Christmas.  But my sneering at other people’s family traditions is no different than the gossipers in Jerusalem.  I have no idea how these “Elf on the Shelf” families may, or may not, be incorporating Jesus into their Christmas celebrations.  And, more importantly, it is not aligning my spirit with the spirit of Advent.  This has moved me to repentance and a change of heart. Although “Elf on the Shelf” was not part of my family traditions, I smile and listen attentively when I hear children talk about their mischievous elves!

Day 6: It’s A Wonderful Life

“And there was a .prophetess, Anna…She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Luke 2:36, 37, 38

It’s A Wonderful Life remains an iconic Christmas movie, setting the standard for inducing warm, heartfelt emotions which most modern Christmas movies strive towards, but fail to achieve.  The main character, George Bailey, feels like everyone would have been better off had he never lived.  He is given a rare gift by Clarence, a second-class angel, the opportunity to see what life would be like if he had never been born.  He quickly learns that the life he deemed insignificant was truly a life that was brave and impactful to those around him.  He found value and significance in his ordinary life!

Photo Credit to Margaret Collins

So many of the characters in the nativity were ordinary people who found significance in the presence of Jesus, including Anna.  Only mentioned in three verses, Anna was married for seven years before her husband died, and she lost her sense of purpose, income, and heritage.  Likely being childless, Anna served in the temple for the next eighty-four years.  The Bible records that she “served God with fasting and prayer night and day.”  Her ordinary habits of praying and fasting aroused her spiritual sensitivities to the presence of God, allowing her to recognize the presence of the Messiah in the temple.  The Bible records she instantly came to Joseph and Mary’s side, offering words of gratitude to God.  She then proceeded to prophesy that this baby would bring redemption to Jerusalem.  Society had written off any value Anna’s life could offer, yet she remained faithful to God and found a hallowed place in scripture that made her life significant!

Whether we, or society, deem our lives as insignificant, we can be confident that our lives have significance in the presence of Jesus!