The Greatest Holiday Ever!

photo credit: |vvaldzen| via photopin cc
photo credit: |vvaldzen| via photopin cc

There is something about Easter that sets it apart as one of the most significant holidays to celebrate. Thanksgiving and Christmas rank right up there, of course, but aside from peanut butter eggs and sugary peeps, Resurrection Sunday continues to be one of the most meaningful days on the calendar.

One thing that I especially appreciate about this three-day holiday experience is that it conveys a profound message of hope while still maintaining a firm grasp on reality. In a natural sense, there is very little good about Good Friday, and yet, its continued remembrance provides an ongoing reminder of humanity’s desperate need. Sin is dark and violent—a reality that we dare not ignore. Yet through the cross, not only is sin addressed but it is dealt a fatal blow with Christ’s resurrection from the grave.

The timing of Easter is also quite meaningful as it signals the arrival of new life bursting forth after the long, cold months of winter. The lengthening days and increased warmth of the sun provide a powerful sense of hope and anticipation. What an awesome time of year!

If there is one word that I could use to describe Easter, it would be new. That we speak of new life is evident, but a greater dimension remains that often receives only lip service. The resurrection of Jesus Christ marks the initiation of the New Covenant. The original meaning of new in a Biblical Greek context doesn’t simply mean a more contemporary version of something one already owns. Rather, it speaks of something entirely new and different compared to what has previously existed.

photo credit: mbtrama via photopin cc
photo credit: mbtrama via photopin cc

If I decide, for example, to purchase a new car to replace the one that I already own, I am simply buying another vehicle of a similar type. But if I chose to purchase a car that also serves as a boat, a submarine, and an airplane, I would obtain a vehicle that is unlike anything known to all of my neighbors, friends, and relatives.

The New Covenant, while yet another in a series of sacred and binding relationships between man and God, is totally different from any type of relationship previously known to humanity. Through the New Covenant of grace, we are offered the extreme privilege of being able to relate to God on His terms—not through the law-based existence of our ancestors.

People who are repulsed by the all of the judgment seen in the Old Testament often focus on only a small piece of the puzzle. One of our most deadly errors is to miss the fact that the Apostle Paul compares the Mosiac Law to a harsh school-master who points the way toward the New Covenant of grace.

Before the coming of faith we were all imprisoned under the power of the Law, with our only hope of deliverance the faith that was to be shown to us. Or, to change the metaphor, the Law was like a strict governess in charge of us until we went to the school of Christ and learned to be justified by faith in him. Once we had that faith we were completely free from the governess’s authority. Galatians 3:23-25 (Phillips)

photo credit: Michael 1952 via photopin cc
photo credit: Michael 1952 via photopin cc

This passage calls to mind the image of a strict Catholic school nun of an earlier era. (I know that they weren’t all hard-nosed, but there were enough mean ones to make the stereotype somewhat viable; each of my Catholic childhood friends had his own traumatic story to tell.) Step out of line in any way and you could be sure that Sister Mary Meanheart would immediately smack your fingers with her wooden ruler—her continued harshness awakening within each heart an intense desire for salvation, or, at the very least, a nicer nun.

God never intended the Mosaic Law and its judgments to be a permanent way of life. His goal was to show the futility of a legalistic worldview and leave us longing for a new type of existence. This realization makes it especially unfortunate that we so often define Christian maturity in light of how well people obey certain rules. At its very core, the Gospel is a message of freedom, not one of requirements and obligations.

Not only does Easter mark the arrival of spring, it indicates the initiation of a truly new way of life—one filled with hope and peace and everything good. For those who grasp the true meaning of the season, this is a holiday worth celebrating!

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The Violence Cocktail – Guns Are Not the Only Ingredient

photo credit: ~Steve Z~ via photopin cc
photo credit: ~Steve Z~ via photopin cc

Once again the liberal/conservative battle lines have been drawn. Adamant about the need for gun control, many liberals seem to believe that banning all gun ownership would lead to a peaceful and happy society. On the other side of the front, a lot of conservatives give the impression that if every American packed, violence would come to a virtual standstill. Once again, as is often be the case, both sides are completely missing the heart of the matter. If heaven were a giant GPS unit, the entire Earth would hear “RECALCULATING” sounding through the skies.

So, if the violence in our culture (and in our world) isn’t really about guns, then what is it about? The answer can be found in a common word ripe with profound meaning – identity. Almost all of the conflict on earth is the result of not knowing who we are in the eyes of heaven.

I am not saying that guns are irrelevant when it comes to the problem with violence but that there are deeper things happening beneath the surface—issues that we don’t understand or prefer not to touch. We tend to focus on what we know; that which we can see and touch; the things that relieve us of any personal sense of responsibility. Guns, then, become the primary issue, but listen to any expert talking about a mass shooting and you will find that they are always identity related.

Our problem with gun violence is actually the mix of a deadly cocktail with four primary ingredients—all of which are strongly influenced by our materialistic culture.

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1. Lost identity – In a general sense, children receive care and nurture from their mothers, but find their primary source of security and identity from their relationship with their fathers. Further still, wise and loving parents will learn how to shape a child’s heart so that he or she is tender-hearted toward God and entirely secure as a beloved child of the King of the Universe. The breakdown begins, however, when a father is harsh, distant, or entirely absent, resulting in what we might call an orphan spirit in the heart of a child. Generally, a young woman with an orphan spirit will look to a romantic relationship with a man to satisfy her need for validation, while a young man will seek out ways to prove himself.

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2. A culture of violence – A young man looking to establish a sense of identity will pursue success as defined by the subculture that surrounds him. Most of the time, this means trying to prove himself on some type of masculine field of valor. When we add violent movies—and especially video games—to the mix, his heart is desensitized.

3. The loss of moral constraints – Through the influence of atheism and the erosion of traditional Judeo-Christian morals, not only is morality becoming meaningless, but so is the value of a human life.

4. The availability of guns – When we add easy access to high capacity firearms to the previous three ingredients mentioned, we cannot help but expect the types of mass shootings we saw at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and now Sandy Hook Elementary.

The solution to our violence problem has long been with us but very few recognize or appreciate its value. Two thousand years ago, ours was a world that had lost its way. Political, economic, and even religious leadership, had become entrenched with a self-absorbed elitist mentality—a mindset bearing the fruit of oppression and injustice. It was then that heaven send the most powerful “RECALCULATING” message ever known to mankind.

photo credit: lennyk410 via photopin cc
photo credit: lennyk410 via photopin cc

Jesus came not as a king but as a carpenter. Born in a stable through questionable circumstances, and to parents of lowly status, the very Son of God provided the means for every person on earth to find security as a much-loved child of God. His was—and is—the only sure and certain formula for true peace on earth. More powerful than any weapon of destruction ever envisioned by humankind, the Gospel of Jesus Christ remains the cure for all that ails us. If we truly care about the children of this world, we will seek to to rediscover the amazing power of the Gospel. What better time of the year to do this than at Christmas?

How You Can Help to Prevent Mass Shootings

Sandy Hook Shooting
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It has been several days since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and I am still struggling to process the reality of such a horrible event. Other mass shootings in recent years have scarred communities, but this one has left deep and lasting scars for our entire nation. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 had a similar effect, but there is something different this time around. Those killings were the work of religious extremists operating from halfway across the globe. What happened in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday, December 14, 2012 was the product of our own societal dysfunction. That a young man would maliciously murder twenty first-grade students, jolts suburban and rural America with the realization of what inner-city dwellers have known for quite some time:  something is terribly wrong in our beloved nation.

Of course, an intense battle will be fought over gun control. Some will contend that guns should be banned. Those in opposition will argue that law abiding citizens who carry weapons will actually help to make our streets safer. Both sides will support their arguments with various statistics and anecdotal stories. The battle over gun control, however, provides a convenient diversion from deeper, more difficult issues that must be addressed. To say that guns are at the core of the problem is to grossly over-simplify the issue, while avoiding any sense of personal responsibility for the collective citizenry of our nation.

Greed
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The bottom line is that we have become a nation of self-centered consumers. And while I would never say that such a description applies to every person in the U.S., I do believe that it is quite accurate in a general sense. Even issues such as the misappropriation of pharmaceutical drugs or the prevalence of violent movies and video games are closely tied to greed.

Our freedom that was purchased in blood has now become our demise, for freedom only works when the people of a nation collectively seek the greater good. The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians was both true and prophetic:

For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. Galatians 5:13-15 (NASB)

Today, even the Church is driven by a consumer mentality. Unfortunately, many Christian leaders cater to this destructive mindset because they believe it is the only way to get people into their churches and to fund their ministries. Our American gospel is all about what God can do for us, while the true nature of the Christian faith remains relatively untouched.

Money App
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God, it appears, has become an app that we can access in time of need. We have a salvation app, a provision app, a comfort app, and, at this time of the year, a Baby Jesus app. The sovereign King of the Universe, however, will not cater to our self-centered terms. If we want to relate to God, we must fully subscribe to His entire operating system—one that calls us to seek Him with all of our hearts as a way of life. If we would flock to our churches to seek His presence and drop to our knees in prayer with the same intensity of emotion before a national tragedy, there probably would not be the need to do so afterward.

Violence in America began to seriously escalate in the 1960’s. What brought it on? I am convinced that the roots can be found to have materialized just after World War II with our collective pursuit of the American Dream. While our nation held to a form of religion, at that point money became our national god. We honored Jesus with our lips, but the real god of our hearts was materialism. Psalm 16:4 tells us that, “The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply” (ESV). Is this not an accurate representation of our grief over the Sandy Hook shootings? The violence of our day is, at least in part, the fruit of over half a century of materialistic idolatry on the part of an entire nation.

Shooter
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On a practical level, our incessant quest for more stuff, combined with the rise of secularism and the gradual rejection of the Christian faith, has precipitated the horrible decay of the nuclear family—the building block upon which a healthy society functions. More specifically still, the growing absence of loving, faithful fathers has led to an identity vacuum in the hearts of our nation’s children. Show me a culture lacking in a healthy sense of identity and I will show you a nation of young men immersed in a climate of violence.

As I consider these things, I can’t help but think of the ancient nation of Israel as they found themselves exiled in Babylon—an exile brought upon by their own idolatry. But the God who they had rejected and ignored spoke to them through the prophet Jeremiah with a message of kindness and hope.

“For I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29:11-13 (NASB)

No matter how far we have fallen, no matter how things may appear, and no matter how dark and foreboding the future may look, we can all help to turn the tide of violence in our culture by seeking God with all of our hearts, by putting material possessions in their proper place, and by genuinely loving those around us. Can there be a better season of the year to get our priorities right than at Christmas?

Jesus: Lord of Rest!

Carrot on a Stick
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We all want it in one way or another, but some of us definitely more than others. I speak of our human need to be in control—that elusive capacity to get what we want, when we want it, and how we want it. Like a vain pursuit of the proverbial carrot on a stick, a quest for control will leave us both frustrated and exhausted.

But why does the need for control matter so much to us? Why do we invest so much time and energy pursuing it? Why do we exhaust ourselves trying to attain something that we might be able to only faintly grasp? Simply put, it is the way we are wired; and it has been that way from almost the beginning of time.

The Fall
Photo courtesy of Pitts Theological Library

When Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they were seeking to be like God apart from God. Who is God? He is the Sovereign King of the Universe. This means that our Creator is accountable to no one and that He has the authority and ability to get whatever He wants whenever He wants. God, however, has chosen to limit Himself in this regard as He relates to the human race. Because He wills it, we each have a certain degree of freedom to make our own choices. The King of the Universe then mysteriously directs those choices toward His sovereign purposes.

The human desire to be God operates quite differently. Although we seek the ultimate sovereignty possessed only by God, we lack the power and authority to fully engineer people and circumstances in directions that we deem to be favorable. Our natural tendency, therefore, is for us to try to control all that surrounds and affects us. And while the need to be in control is entirely natural, that does not necessarily mean that it is good for us. There is nothing artificial, for example, about poison ivy, but you won’t find a poison ivy beauty cream anywhere on the market.

Poison Ivy
Poison Ivy Photo by Puzzler4879 — CC BY 2.0

There is something about the human will by which we think that having our way will make our world bright and rosy, yet the opposite becomes our reality. For someone who is not God to try to play the role of God is nothing short of exhausting because there is so much in our world that we can never control. Rather than experiencing peace, joy, and an overall sense of fulfillment, we find ourselves frustrated, angry, resentful, anxious, and depressed—all while immersed in a deep sense of weariness. The older we get, the more entrenched this feeling of exhaustion becomes.

Once again, the Gospel provides the answer to all that ails us. God calls us to seek first His kingdom and to completely surrender our wills, not because He is on a power trip, but because it is what’s best for us. How we begin to experience fresh life when we finally learn to surrender our need to be in control! But letting go is much easier for some than for others. Those of us who have been through especially painful or traumatic experiences will find the desire for control to be a downright compulsion. This means that we must deliberately cultivate a strong faith in God so that our hearts will be free to let go.

The Nativity
Photoby Keith Williamson — CC BY 2.0

In this Christmas season when we so often focus on Jesus as Savior alone, we will gain so much more by recognizing that the good news of the Gospel is to also see Him as Lord. Allowing Jesus to take His rightful place as Savior and Lord over our lives is to experience a measure of freedom and rest that an envious world can only long for.

In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people;  for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:8-11 (NASB)

Searching for Peace? Bend the Knee!

By John WIlliam Waterhouse - Public Domain in U.S. Due to Expired Copyright

A teenager sneaks out of the house in the middle of the night. A wife continually nags her husband. A man explodes in anger because dinner is cold. A politician agrees to cover an indiscretion in exchange for a vote. A science professor blackballs a promising young PhD candidate for believing in God. A young girl dabbles in witchcraft to cast a spell on the classmate she despises. An aspiring supervisor spreads false rumors about the current boss. A church splits because of an argument over the color of the carpet. A couple of gang members drive through another gang’s turf spraying bullets in all directions. A drug lord brutally murders a leader from another cartel. Several terrorists bomb an elementary school filled with children….

The common denominator in each of these scenarios? They all involve efforts to dominate and control others. This struggle for power, inherent to the entire human race, is a third primary source of the conflict that continually mars our world. But it wasn’t meant to be this way!

27God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. 28 God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” Genesis 1:27-28 (NASB).

The "First Mourning" by William-Adolphe Bouguereau - Public Domain in U.S. Due to Expired Copyright

Notice that man was given dominance over animal life, but not over other people. Everything changed when Adam & Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in an effort to be like God apart from God. Immediately conflict erupted; a blame game was soon followed with their eldest son murdering his younger brother. Domination and control.

In so many ways God can do what we humans cannot. God can be the center of the universe without becoming self-centered. God is able to receive massive amounts of glory and yet never be demeaning to others. God is the sovereign Lord of the universe, yet still gives humans the freedom to make individual choices. God reigns, but He doesn’t control. Mankind seeks to control, extinguishing freedom and creating conflict.

Someone might argue that, historically, religion has been used to oppress others—and I would wholeheartedly agree. But I would also be quick to note the marked difference between rule-based religion and New Covenant Christianity. Confusing the two never results in anything good!

I know that this flows totally against our natural way of thinking, but serving Jesus as the Lord of our lives is actually the path to true freedom. The “good news and great joy” of the Christmas Story is not just that of a Savior coming to Earth (as awesome as this is) but also of a Lord; a Lord of a very different character than those who use their position and authority to dominate and control those beneath them.

Ignore Christ or try to remove Him from Christmas? To a certain degree, God will allow us to. But we’ll be on our own as we reap the consequences of the resulting conflict!

Photo by xenia - morgueFile

Personally, I’m learning more and more to celebrate the lordship of Christ. The peace of His kingdom is of an entirely different nature than the forced peace that results from a domineering ruler squelching every voice of opposition. The peace of Christ brings wholeness and well-being, covering us with an umbrella of safety in the form of love-shaped freedom. Are you searching for peace? Willingly bend your knee to the Christ the Lord!

“Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” Luke 2:10-11 (NASB).

A Double-Edged Sword of Glory

As Christmas nears, so does the push to remove its Christian roots. Eric Bolling of Fox Business News recently sparked controversy when he kicked atheist Dan Barker off of his show. Barker, a spokesman for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is based in Wisconsin, was pushing for the removal of a nativity scene from the property of a public courthouse in Texas.

While listening to the interview, it became quite clear that Barker’s efforts (and most likely those from the entire Freedom From Religion Foundation) were primarily motivated by the perceived Danger in the Manger. Bolling (a professing Christian) sees nothing offensive about a nativity scene, whereas Barker feels that, “The nativity scene basically is an insult to human nature, that we are all doomed and damned…” This story points us toward a second source of conflict as found in the Christmas Story—A Double-Edged Sword of Glory.

This format does not permit the opportunity to unpack a more complete understanding of the issue, but that doesn’t prevent us from recognizing that human beings crave significance, status and greatness–glory! In the Garden Adam & Eve had been clothed with God’s glory, but in choosing independence from their Creator, the human race finds itself with a glory deficiency. Our insatiable appetite for glory cuts two ways in creating conflict: 1.) in lifting one person (or group) up and 2.) putting another person (or group) down.

Photo by Ariaski - CC BY-ND 2.0

Nazi Germany provides an extreme example of the same type of conflict that has destroyed millions of lives throughout history. The Nazis exalted themselves as the superior Aryan race while violently oppressing the Jews (who they painted to be less than human). Through the Double-Edged Sword of Glory, one is exalted; the other insulted.

Barker is right in observing that Christ’s coming to Earth as Savior is a huge “insult to human nature”. It’s as though God was saying, “I’ve given you thousands of years to get things right, but when I survey the Earth it’s obvious to Me that you have screwed things up beyond human hope. The only option left is for Me to come down there and fix humanity Myself.” To add insult to injury, at the birth of Christ a host of heaven appeared saying, “Glory to God in the highest . . . .” (Luke 2:14)

Through the Christmas Story we see that God is exalted to the highest place of status and significance. Humanity, on the other hand is deemed to be lost beyond human remedy. Indeed, this is the message of the nativity as correctly interpreted by atheists such as Barker.

But which message provides real hope for humanity? If we were to totally remove Christianity from our landscape, would atheism lead us down a path of hope and peace? Would it provide the antidote for every human’s self-centered quest for glory? I think not.

Photo by o0o0xmods0o0o - morgueFile

And if not from the Garden, where does mankind’s inherent need for glory originate? According to an atheistic worldview (founded upon naturalistic evolution), humanity has simply evolved from some primordial slime pit. We’re no different or better than the animals. We have no eternal substance or significance. It makes no sense that we would crave glory. In other words, from a perspective of naturalistic evolution, humans should have absolutely no reason to be offended by the birth of Christ. If atheists were correct in their unbeliefs, the Nativity would simply be irrelevant—not an insult to human nature.

Is the Gospel of Jesus Christ an offense to human nature? Absolutely! But within the Gospel we also see the power to sheath the Double-Edged Sword of Glory. Christ came into this world for love, not judgment. Those who yield to His plan become sons and daughters of God, living temples of the Holy Spirit. I can imagine no higher honor, no greater significance. Through knowing our high place of status in the eyes of our Creator, each of us can finally be free from our animosity-ridden glory deficiency. The result? It can be seen in the second part of Luke 2:14: “on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

His glory is our peace! May both His glory and His peace pervade your households as you exalt Christ during this Christmas season!

Danger in the Manger!

Photo by southernfried - morgueFile

Picture the scene with me if you will: An obnoxious siren blares loudly as emergency lights flash and a mechanical voice drones on with an unending mantra of “DANGER! DANGER!” Soon a group of workers in Hazmat suits begin cautiously dismantling a crèche sitting in front of the county courthouse.

One by one they carefully load various animals onto a hazardous materials truck—an ox, a couple of sheep and, of course, a donkey. Mary and Joseph soon follow. Finally, all that is left is the especially dangerous baby Jesus. With the same extreme caution of moving a nuclear bomb, the workers inch the infant closer to a containment vessel.

Original Photo by RDECOM - CC BY 2.0

Finally, latches are clasped and locks sealed; the truck and its large entourage of police cars and military vehicles disappear out of sight, soon followed by the final flashing of the last red emergency light. A few stragglers linger in front of the courthouse, but within the hour all are gone; the uninformed never realizing that another deadly disaster has been luckily averted!

It all sounds a little extreme, I know, but with the onslaught of lawsuits against manger displays on government property, one might tend to think that there is something exceedingly dangerous about a baby lying in a manger. But, you see, there is!! That seemingly helpless infant is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords! King Herod thought him enough of a threat to murder all of the young male children in His geographical area. Since that time, repressive governments have consistently sought to repress all Christian expression. The stark truth remains that there is Danger in the Manger—at least to the kingdoms of man (used in a generic sense).

Through my next few posts I’d like to highlight three primary areas of conflict between humanism and Christianity as seen in the Christmas Story of the Gospel of Luke—you know, the one still legally (thankfully) recited by Linus on A Charlie Brown Christmas. Each of these three areas poses a point of contention between humanism and the kingdom of God, but also amongst the individual kingdoms of man.

The first arena of conflict isn’t necessarily spelled out for us, but is certainly inherent to the Christmas Story. At the center of any kingdom stands its king. The instant that Jesus arrived on the scene, He became the central figure.

Shepherds left their flocks to seek Him. Caravans traveled from distant lands to give gifts and pay homage. Priests and prophets immediately began to declare His awesome supremacy. And all of this probably took place before Jesus the Son of Man was even old enough to walk!

In the Western culture of the United States we have worked tirelessly to remove Jesus from the center of our existence—and with surprising success. We’ve somehow managed to secularize the very holiday celebrating His birth to the point that it’s all about us. All about our needs, our wants, our desires. All about our shopping experiences and corporate profits. All about our warm and fuzzy Happy Holidays feelings. All about some jolly mythical figure who provides us with all of the self-absorbed pleasures of Christmas, while making no claim of centrality. I’m no Santa hater, but you can be sure that he was created by man solely for the benefit of man—mainly because Jesus would never tolerate such nonsense.

Through our deliberate and persistent efforts, we’ve lost not only the substance, but also the peace of Christmas. You see, peace isn’t just about an absence (of conflict), it’s about a Presence. His presence! It’s a peace that goes beyond words—even beyond comprehension. A peace without which the human race will continue to find itself mired not only in conflict, but also with a gnawing sense of emptiness; an emptiness which no number of presents under the holiday tree can ever fill.

Original Photo by richcd - morgueFile

Is there Danger in the Manger? You’d better believe it! But only for those who insist upon a self-centered existence.

8“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. 12And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ 13And 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 and goodwill towards men.’” Luke 2:8-14 (KJV)

“…And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”