An Unexpected Christmas (Readapted)

I wrote this last year but thought it was so pertinent to this year as I re-read it, so I readapted it slightly in order to share it again this Christmas season. Merry Christmas! May God’s joy fill your hearts.

Last year, I found myself reflecting over how many details of Jesus’ birth were unexpected after putting on a cartoon for my son about the first Christmas.

For Mary, the angel Gabriel’s appearance and message to her was a complete surprise. She did not expect to be told that she’d be expecting as a young virgin woman, much less to the Savior of the world. She couldn’t she have imagined that her much-older, barren cousin Elizabeth would be pregnant at the same time as her either, especially since Elizabeth was past the age of child-bearing. When Mary went to visit Elizabeth soon after Gabriel gave her the news, she could not have expected for Elizabeth to bless her and recognize her as the mother of her Savior, even before Mary had told Elizabeth all that had transpired. The exchange between them led to Mary exalting God as she perhaps understood more fully the special task that God had called her to.

Joseph couldn’t have imagined the situation in which he would find himself when he discovered that his betrothed was pregnant. Although he decided to divorce her quietly, he once again experienced the unexpected when an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him to instead marry Mary. As a result of his obedience to God, he would have the enormous privilege of doing something beyond his wildest dreams. He would help Mary to raise the very Son of God.

Both Mary and Joseph could not have imagined the trip they would have to take to Bethlehem in Mary’s advanced stages of pregnancy in order to participate in a mandatory census. They neither could have imagined that there would be no room for them in the inn and that Jesus would be born under those circumstances, his first makeshift crib a lowly manger.

The shepherds watching their flock that evening could not have expected to experience such a momentous night. Not only did an angel announce the Savior’s birth, but they witnessed a whole host of angels praising the Lord. Little did they know that they’d be meeting the Messiah that evening, nor could they have realized that He would be the Great Shepherd and ultimate Sacrificial Lamb.

The wise men probably never expected to follow a star to Bethlehem to find a specific child and worship Him. No one else could have imagined the reverence and honor that they would show the child either, nor could anyone have imagined the precious gifts with which they would present Him.

The first Christmas happened in such an unexpected way, but it was through the unexpected events and details that God became flesh and dwelt among us. And because these different individuals were willing to surrender to God’s will through the unexpected events of their lives, they were given the privilege of being a part of a greater story that would surpass their lifetimes and be told and celebrated worldwide for the many years to come.

Perhaps this Christmas season was not what you were expecting. Perhaps it has been laced with confusion, disappointment, frustration, or heartache. If that has been your experience this year, then I pray that God would use the unexpected events and details of your life to birth a deeper sense of His presence in you.

The One who came as a little baby and lived the human experience was not impervious to pain or grief.  The sin that effects this world and our lives so greatly today is the sin that led Him to suffer and die on a cross. He understands pain and suffering. He knows what it feels like to be abandoned and forsaken. And He understands what it means to mourn. After all, He wept too.

He who became fully human for our sakes understands each intimate detail of our lives today, and He is full of deep compassion for us. Perhaps the unexpected details of our lives are the very areas where He would cause something beautiful to be born. Perhaps it is through them in which He would allow us to see a greater display of His power and glory. Whatever you may be facing today, I pray that God would allow to you to sense Him at work in your life and that He would overflow your heart with joy, peace, and a deep sense of hope.

Perhaps, through surrendering to God’s will in the unexpected events of our lives, we will be given the privilege of being part of a greater story that will surpass our lifetimes—one that will have an eternal impact and that we can tell to our children and their children for the years to come.

The Greater Gift

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

A few weeks ago, I was reminded of an anecdote about a father and son that I heard during a chapel service years ago. In the story, the father bought a blue, Schwinn bicycle for his son’s upcoming birthday, which he hid away in their barn. He then proceeded to ask his son what he would like for his birthday the following morning over breakfast. The son wasn’t sure, so the father suggested how nice it would be if his son had a bike to ride along the dirt roads and explore more of their farmland.

A few days later, as the son began to want a bike, the father commented on how neat it would be for him to have a blue bike—his favorite color. A few days later, the father talked about what a good, reliable brand the Schwinn bikes were, and how amazing it would be if his son could have a blue, Schwinn bicycle. Soon, all the son could think about was owning such a bike.

The day of the boy’s birthday arrived, and when the father finally pulled the blue, Schwinn bicycle out of the barn, the son was ecstatic. The father had succeeded in giving his son a desire to own such a bike, and then he fulfilled that desire by giving him the gift that he had already set aside for him before the son had ever dreamed about owning such a gift.

The chapel speaker that day went on to explain how God does the same thing for us as the father in the story did for his son. When we delight in Him, He gives us the desires of our heart (He places desires within us), and then He gives us the desires of our heart (He fulfills those desires). Psalm 37 states it best:

Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desire of your heart.”

Psalm 37:4

Ironically, as encouraging as the chapel service was that day, I walked around the campus the next few days feeling pensive as I fought back tears. That simple story shared in chapel had penetrated a tender area of my heart that I had boxed up and packed away years ago, and now I was forced to face its fragile contents and to recognize that perhaps I had wrongly stored them away. Could it be that God had really placed the things that I desired in my heart? And if so, how and when would He fulfill them? Did He really have good gifts already set aside for me?

The idea that any of this could be true was like a soothing balm to my tattered heart, yet I found fear competing for my thoughts regarding all of this. Nonetheless, I knew that fear must not win.

I ultimately asked God to help me unpack the dusty box of desires that had been sitting in the attic of my heart for all these years. I needed Him to help me sort through each item. I needed to know which desires had been given to me by Him so that I could display them in my mind as a masterpiece—a painted picture of a promise that would someday come true. Each God-given desire might not come to pass when I expected it to, and it might not even look like what I had imagined, but one thing was for certain—if God had placed a desire in my heart, then He would fulfill that desire in His timing and in His way. After all,

God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”

Numbers 23:19

Thinking of the story recently from chapel made me recall another story I heard many years ago at a campus meeting. The speaker that evening shared about a little girl whose father owned a silver dollar. He often times would take it out of his pocket in the evening to admire its shine, and his own daughter’s fondness for the coin grew each time he did. Soon, she was asking her father for a silver dollar of her own.

This man worked a humble job, so he knew he couldn’t afford to buy such a gift for his daughter. He knew how much his little girl wanted a similar coin, however, so he decided to make her a deal one evening. If she could grab the coin out of his clenched fist, it would be hers.

The little girl excitedly jumped into her daddy’s lap at the offer, giggling and bantering with him as she tried to wrestle the coin away. Twenty minutes later, however, her enthusiasm waned as the object remained in his hand. Just as she was ready to retreat to her room in disappointment, he opened his hand and willingly offered her the gift, much to her surprise and glee. As she took the silver dollar, she thanked him with a kiss on his cheek, then she hopped off his lap, giggling as she skipped to her bedroom to further admire her new treasure.

Much like the chapel speaker, the campus speaker related this father to God. The truth is, the girl’s dad didn’t have to keep the coin from her for a time since he knew he’d offer it to her anyway. Nonetheless, he withheld it momentarily because he loved how her desire for the coin drew her closer to him.

Perhaps it is no different with God. Any desire God has given us will be fulfilled in due time. But as we wait, our heavenly Father is offering us a greater gift. He is developing a deeper, more intimate relationship with Him as we cry out to Him from the depths of our yearning hearts. He is drawing us to Him as we wrestle with these unfulfilled longings, teaching us to trust Him in the waiting and producing patience, perseverance, and hope within us, which alone are good gifts from the Lord.

As we yearn for any unmet desire, let’s ask God to help us desire Him most. Let’s ask Him to help us see the good gift He is offering us now—a deeper sense of His presence in our lives. Furthermore, let’s especially remember how this was made possible this Christmas season—because Jesus came to the earth as a baby so that He could ultimately die for our sins. He is the best gift that we could ever receive, so let’s celebrate Him and trust Him with all other longings.

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear Desire of ev’ry nation,
joy of ev’ry longing heart.
Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus by Charles Wesley

An Unexpected Christmas

I put on a cartoon about the first Christmas for my son over a week ago, and I’ve been reflecting on how unexpected the details of Jesus’ birth were ever since.

For Mary, the angel Gabriel’s appearance and message to her was a complete surprise. She did not expect to be told that she’d be expecting as a young virgin woman, much less to the Savior of the world. She couldn’t have imagined that her much-older, barren cousin Elizabeth would be pregnant at the same time as her either, especially since Elizabeth was past the age of child-bearing. When Mary went to visit Elizabeth soon after Gabriel gave her the news, she could not have expected for Elizabeth to bless her and recognize her as the mother of her Savior, even before Mary had told Elizabeth all that had transpired. The exchange between them led to Mary exalting God as she perhaps understood more fully the special task that God had called her to.

Joseph couldn’t have imagined the situation in which he would find himself when he discovered that his betrothed was pregnant. Although he decided to divorce her quietly, he once again experienced the unexpected when an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him to instead marry Mary. As a result of his obedience to God, he would have the enormous privilege of doing something beyond his wildest dreams. He would help Mary to raise the very Son of God.

Both Mary and Joseph could not have imagined the trip they would have to take to Bethlehem in Mary’s advanced stages of pregnancy in order to participate in a mandatory census. They neither could have imagined that there would be no room for them in the inn and that Jesus would be born under those circumstances, his first makeshift crib a lowly manger.

The shepherds watching their flock that evening could not have expected to experience such a momentous night. Not only did an angel announce the Savior’s birth, but they witnessed a whole host of angels praising the Lord. Little did they know that they’d be meeting the Messiah that evening, nor could they have realized that He would be the Great Shepherd and ultimate Sacrificial Lamb.

The wise men probably never expected to follow a star to Bethlehem to find a specific child and worship Him. No one else could have imagined the reverence and honor that they would show the child either, nor could anyone have imagined the precious gifts with which they would present Him.

The first Christmas happened in such an unexpected way, but it was through the unexpected events and details that God became flesh and dwelt among us. And because these different individuals were willing to surrender to God’s will through the unexpected events of their lives, they were given the privilege of being a part of a greater story that would surpass their lifetimes and be told and celebrated worldwide for the many years to come.

Perhaps this Christmas was not what you were expecting. Perhaps it was laced with confusion, disappointment, frustration, or heartache. If that was your experience this year, then I pray that God would use the unexpected events and details of your life to birth a deeper sense of His presence in you.

The One who came as a little baby and lived the human experience was not impervious to pain or grief.  The sin that effects this world and our lives so greatly today is the sin that led Him to suffer and die on a cross. He understands pain and suffering. He knows what it feels like to be abandoned and forsaken. And He understands what it means to mourn. After all, He wept too.

He who became fully human for our sakes understands each intimate detail of our lives today, and He is full of deep compassion for us. Perhaps the unexpected details of our lives are the very areas where He would cause something beautiful to be born. Perhaps it is through them in which He would allow us to see a greater display of His power and glory. Whatever you may be facing today, I pray that God would allow to you to sense Him at work in your life and that He would overflow your heart with joy, peace, and a deep sense of hope.

Perhaps, through surrendering to God’s will in the unexpected events of our lives, we will be given the privilege of being part of a greater story that will surpass our lifetimes—one that will have an eternal impact and that we can tell to our children and their children for the years to come.

Star of Wonder

A Hallmark card sent by a friend
Oh, star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy perfect light

-We Three Kings

These lyrics have been running through my head as of late, all thanks to a special “star” that I read about in an article recently. The “star” is actually the alignment of the planets Jupiter and Saturn1, which can be seen today through December 26th during the evening.2 According to one article, the alignment of these two planets is very rare, having happened the last time over more than half a century ago.3 We truly have the chance to see a wonder this week worldwide. I’m praying that the skies will be clear enough here to catch a glimpse of this beautiful sight.

As I have thought about this phenomenon, I have been reminded of several passages throughout the Scriptures. The first one has been from a passage found in 1 Kings 19 in which the word of the LORD comes to Elijah in a cave and asks him what he is doing there. Elijah responds out of discouragement, explaining that he has fled the wicked Queen Jezebel, who has sworn to have him killed. According to his limited (and faulty) knowledge, all the other true prophets have been put to death, and he is the last one remaining.

After Elijah expresses these complaints to God, he is commanded to stand before the LORD on the mount, and the following events occur:

And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.”

1 Kings 19:11b-12

When Elijah hears the low whisper, he wraps his face in his cloak and goes to stand at the entrance of the cave, implying that Elijah understood that the LORD was in the whisper. After the devastation of the wind, earthquake, and fire, Elijah was reminded that God was as near to him as a whisper. He had not abandoned Elijah, nor would He.

This year, the world has experienced the same tragic events that Elijah experienced in that moment before the LORD. There have been winds (both tornados and hurricanes), earthquakes, and fires in addition to a plague and the political and social unrest that has ensued, and it has been difficult to sense God’s presence in any of these things. But after a year filled with tragedy, we are left with the reminder that God is still near to us through something so reminiscent of the first Christmas long ago, and with it we remember that Jesus entered this sin-filled world to ultimately become the sacrifice for our sins. As believers, He is our Emmanuel—God with us. He has not abandoned us, nor will He.

The second passage that has come to mind as I think about this special “star” is the following:

Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near.”

Isaiah 55:6

When I think about the special “Christmas star”4 of this year, I can’t help but think of the wise men that followed the star so many years ago that ultimately led them to Jesus. As a result of their willingness to follow, they were given the privilege of worshipping the King of Kings and offering precious gifts to the One who would ultimately offer us the greatest gift of all.

The “star” of 2020 is a vivid reminder that mankind can still seek Jesus today, just as the wise men did so long ago. God can still be found, and He not only longs for us to seek Him but gives us opportunities to do so. He has, in fact, placed each of us in the optimal setting to do just that.

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place,that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for“‘In him we live and move and have our being’.”

Acts 17:28-28

The “Christmas star” of this month is yet another tangible expression of God’s active part in this world, and I pray that this rare, beautiful sight will inspire individuals to remember the first Christmas and to seek and find Jesus as a result*. I also pray that it will renew the hope of many and that it will provide comfort to those who mourn that God is near. He has not abandoned us this year.

If nothing else, the “Christmas star” is a good reminder to look up. So while the year draws to an end, let’s look up as we look forward to a new year.

*If you want to seek Jesus and don’t know where to start, the following website is a good place to begin: The Four Spiritual Laws-English-knowing God Personally (4laws.com).

  1. Rare “Christmas Star” of December 2020 Brings Hope (crosswalk.com)
  2. Christmas Star: How To See ‘Double Planet,’ First In 800 Years | The Daily Wire
  3. Rare “Christmas Star” of December 2020 Brings Hope (crosswalk.com)
  4. Ibid

Argentina-Style Empanadas

Crispy, savory pastry meets seasoned, slightly sweet beef in this dish, with extra bursts of sweetness from the raisins throughout, and a surprise bite of hard-boiled egg and a tangy green olive.

Several months after JJ and I got married, we had the opportunity to visit his parents in the hometown where he grew up. Other than wanting to spend quality time with his immediate and extended family, we didn’t have a lot of expectations for our visit. We did have one main goal, however—to learn how to make empanadas from JJ’s father.

JJ and I had very distinct reasons as to why we wanted to learn, although equally as strong desires. For JJ, it was a beloved dish reminiscent of special moments throughout his childhood. I wanted to learn, on the other hand, because making authentic empanadas from my Argentine father-in-law was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

Although JJ’s father was not too excited about the long, laborious process of teaching us how to make this main course, he conceded to our request, and we were soon learning how to make this tasty dish.

The empanadas that JJ and I formed that day were nothing near lovely, but they were delicious. Enough so, in fact, that JJ and I decided to try our hand at them again for our first Christmas together as a married couple several months later. JJ pulled up the short clips he had recorded from our empanada-making session with his dad, and I got out my notes with rough estimates of each ingredient used.

 It was quite the process for us to form and fry the empanadas, but several hours later, we had a heaping bowl full of these tasty, golden treats, and our tradition of making empanadas during the Christmas season began.

Since learning how to make empanadas, I have noticed that there are other Argentine empanada recipes online. Some are similar to the ones that we make with a few additional ingredients, and some are different altogether. Nonetheless, the recipe below is what JJ’s father taught us, and it is the one that we love and that we will pass on to our son as he grows. We hope it will stay in the family for many generations to come.

If you make these empanadas, please let me know how they turn out. I hope you like them as much as my family and I do. Who knows? Perhaps they will even become a new family tradition of your own.

ARGENTINA-STYLE EMPANADAS

Ingredients:
1 lb. ground beef
1 ½ t paprika
1 t crushed red pepper 
1½ T taco seasoning mix
1 to 1 ½ T sugar, according to desired sweetness
1/3 c raisins
2 hard-boiled eggs, cut into small cubes (around 12-15 pieces per egg)
Small jar green olives (one green olive per empanada)
2 packages Discos Goya*(thawed in refrigerator overnight)
Oil for frying

Instructions:

Brown the beef and drain its grease.  Return to low heat and add the paprika, crushed red pepper, taco seasoning mix, and sugar and mix well. Stir in the raisins and remove from heat. Place a couple of tablespoons of the meat mixture into the middle of the disco Goya. Add a piece of hard-boiled egg and one olive to each, then fold the dough in half. Make a crease along the opened end, then pinch the dough along the crease line to ensure complete closure of the empanada.

Heat up enough oil in a frying pan for the empanadas to float above the bottom of the pan. Flip each empanada after 30-60 seconds, or once the side submerged in oil is golden. Fry the other side until golden, then place on a plate lined with a paper towel to allow to cool slightly. Makes 20 empanadas.

NOTES: If you are not familiar with discos Goya, I recommend searching for them in the frozen section of ethnic food at your local Walmart. If you do not have a local Walmart and/or simply do not have access to discos Goya where you live, the following website provides a fairly simple recipe for making them: https://www.laylita.com/recipes/how-to-make-empanada-dough/. Please keep in mind, however, that I cannot attest to the taste of these discos nor their similarity to discos Goya since I have always been fortunate enough to find discos Goya at the store.

To make a healthier version of this dish, use lean ground beef, lightly brush the dough with oil, and bake until golden.