A.J. Thomas is the Founder of Joyful Giving Group, whose mission is to cultivate a culture of generosity.
A.J. is a practiced believer in the power of generosity to transform individual lives, congregations, and entire communities.
A.J. is an ordained United Methodist pastor with over a decade of leadership experience in the local church. He is appointed to Joyful Giving Group as an extension ministry of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.
You Got Here Just In Time! (Luke 2:1-20, Christmas Eve)
In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone
throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. 2 This
first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. 3 Everyone
went to their own cities to be enrolled. 4 Since Joseph belonged to
David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee
to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. 5 He went to be
enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was
pregnant. 6 While they were there, the time came for Mary to have
her baby. 7 She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped
him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in
8 Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding
their sheep at night. 9 The Lord’s angel stood before them, the
Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.
10 The angel said, “ Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good
news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11 Your savior is
born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12 This is a sign
for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger. ” 13
Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising
God. They said, 14 “ Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace
among those whom he favors. ”
15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds
said to each other, “ Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened.
Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us. ” 16 They went
quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17
When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. 18
Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19
Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. 20
The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard
and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.
are falling, hearts are breaking; How we need to hear from God. You've
been promised, we've been waiting; Welcome to our world.May we pray.
The greeting card industry is
big business.For Christmas, 1.5 billion
Christmas cards are exchanged in the U.S.Laid end-to-end, they would stretch for 167,000 miles, and would circle
the equator 6.7 times (source: Infographics).Here at St. Paul, we mailed 844 such cards and handed out hundreds more,
inviting our friends and neighbors to join us this evening.No doubt, many of you who are here this
evening are here precisely because you received one of our cards.We’re glad you did.You are our very special guests this evening,
and you honor us simply by showing up tonight.
A comfortable image; far from reality.
There is one unfortunate and
unintended consequence of all the cards that are exchanged, however, at least
the religious ones.It’s not the fault
of the cards themselves, mind you, simply the artwork on them, conveying the
birth of Jesus as sweet, clean, quiet, sentimental, and docile.Smiling shepherds, fluffy animals, hay that
could have been spun from fine gold, and a soft glow on the faces of the Holy
Family - a comforting and comfortable image, perhaps, but one that’s far from
What I invite you to do tonight
is put that image – comfortable, sweet, familiar, sentimental – put that image
out of your mind and hear the story as if for the first time ever.Give yourself tonight to the story of a God
who loved us - all of us - that he came into our dark, confused, and often
less-than-pleasant world and dwelt among us as one of us, the story of how God
brought light into our darkness. If you’ve come to hear THAT story, then you’re
in the right place tonight.
In those days, Caesar
Augustus, the emperor, the most powerful person in the world, ordered a census
of the peasants in Judea.The people of
Judea had been a troublesome bunch; there had been uprisings and rebellions
before, and if it happened again, Caesar Augustus wanted to know just how many
peasants there were, and how big of an army it would take to crush them.
Further, the emperor wanted
to get everyone registered on the tax rolls.Taxes were high, far higher than anything being debated in Washington at
the edge of the so-called fiscal cliff, and the poorest paid the highest
rates.This was one of the great sources
of dissension among the peasant class - the very sort of thing that would boil
over into outright rebellion.Ironically, through their taxes, these poor Judean peasants were funding
the armies that would crush them at the first hint of trouble.
In those days, in the middle
of winter, just after the harvest, the peasants went to their hometowns to be
registered.One peasant named Joseph,
from the wide spot in the road called Nazareth, took his teenage fiance, Mary,
mysteriously pregnant with some wild story about angel visitors and
impregnation by the Holy Spirit that no one was buying, to Bethlehem.
This one sounds familiar,
right?O Little Town of Bethlehem, how
still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go
by.Well, hardly.The greeting cards got this one wrong,
too.Bethlehem was far from a sleepy,
quiet, still, little town, particular at the time of the Roman census.It buzzed with all the feverish frenzy of
Myrtle Beach during bike week.The town
was crowded with its regular townfolk, all the travelers who were there for the
census, the guards hired to keep order, and the merchants who followed the
crowds hoping to make a dishonest buck along the way.Whatever your pleasure, if you wanted it, you
could buy it.
Particularly in those days
during the census, Bethlehem was far from the still and sleepy town in our
carols and on our Christmas cards.It
was loud, crowded, raucous, filthy - and against this backdrop, peasants Joseph
and Mary arrived in Bethlehem following a nine-day journey from Nazareth -
cold, tired, and hungry.They holed up
in the barn out back, because, as the story tells us, there was no room for
them in the inn, but let’s be honest, it’s the best they could have afforded
First century stone manger in Palestine.
And there, the time came for
Mary to have her baby, and she did.She
gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him up tight, and used the feeding
trough as a makeshift crib.There was no
privacy or comfort of any kind.Other
poor travelers were crowded into the barn with them.The straw was moldy, the slop buckets
overflowing, and all night long the street just beyond their accommodations
were filled with people laughing and carrying on and carousing and fighting -
the sort of thing we might see in a Waffle House parking lot at 3 am on a
Saturday.Welcome to our world, Lord
When God put on human form
and came to live among us as one of us, God came to us not in splendor, not in
majesty, not in fanfare, not in comfort, not in blinding displays of power and
might.No, God instead chose to come
among us in all humility and discomfort and disgrace.
Ed Moore tells the story of
participating in a church Christmas play when he was a child where they used
live animals.The animals were all
cooperative and well-behaved except for one rather difficult sheep named
Irving.The shepherds led the sheep up
the aisle of the church and off to the side where they were supposed to remain
for the rest of the play, all the sheep, that is, except for Irving.Irving walked up next to the manger and left
his gift for baby Jesus - a fresh, steaming pile of sheep exhaust.Welcome to our world, little Lord Jesus!You’ve come at just the right time!
Perhaps more than the other
characters in the play that year, Irving got it right.Jesus came into a real mess.Friends - that’s the message and the meaning
of Christmas.Christmas is the story of
God-come-to-earth in the person of Jesus, willingly taking our mess and making
it his mess, and cleaning it up.
The world was dark and
uncertain and messy at the time of Jesus, but thanks be to God, Jesus still
enters the dark and uncertain and messy places - certainly within our world,
and certainly within each of us.The Light
of the World, whose birth we celebrate on this holy night, shines brightest
where things seem darkest.
Good thing, too, because it
seems like there’s still a lot of darkness in our world.These four little candles that we’ve lit
through the last four weeks of Advent - these candles that represent the truest
values of God’s kingdom, these candles of hope, and peace, and joy, and love -
these little candles sure do have their work cut out for them.A lot of darkness in our world, a lot of
darkness in many of our lives.
And yet, Christmas is God’s
declaration that the darkness doesn’t win.Darkness doesn’t get the last word!This child will get the last word!Jesus gets the final say, and the words he says are hope, peace, joy,
and love - what good news for us and for our world!The candles we light tonight symbolize God’s
true light in Jesus, and we will light these candles tonight not so much
because they’re pretty, but to recognize and celebrate Jesus as the Light of
the World, God’s love come to each of us.
Samuel Rayan says, “A candle
is a protest at midnight.It is a
non-conformist.It says to the darkness,
‘I beg to differ.’”
God’s true light, Jesus,
pierces a hole in the smothering fog of all that is dark, and no matter how
low, how dark, how messy things may be in our world; no matter how low, dark,
or messy things may be in your life, know that Jesus has already been there,
and even now, he’s working to clean up the mess.
The good news of Christmas is
this:Jesus is here!God is with us!The hopes and fears of all the years are met
in Jesus tonight! The good news of Christmas is not only that Jesus came among
us once; it’s that Jesus continues to come among us again and again and again.That’s news that’s good enough to rally the
shepherds in from the hill country.That’s news that’s good enough to get the angel choirs singing.That’s news that makes a difference in our
world, it makes a difference to you and me, it makes a difference anywhere
God’s Love is made real as the light shining in the darkness.
A candle is a protest.It says to the darkness, “I beg to differ.”
Tonight, the Light of God’s
Love - God’s true light in Jesus - the light of hope, and peace, and joy, and
love - will be passed to you.My hope
for you is twofold.First, that you will
receive that light with joy, that something of God’s loving presence will be
kindled within you and chase away whatever darkness is there, that Jesus
himself will be born anew in your heart tonight.And second, I hope the light keeps burning
brightly within you, and that you have the courage that Jesus had to take that
light out into all the dark places of pain and suffering and mess of our world.
I doubt you’ll see Irving the
sheep depicted on any greeting cards next year, but Irving got it right: Jesus
has willingly come into the mess.What
is messy, Jesus cleans up.What is
broken, Jesus restores.What is incomplete,
Jesus makes whole.What is wrong, Jesus
rights.What is dark, Jesus lights.The Light of the Word shines in all the dark
places of our world, and there is no darkness, no matter how deep, no matter
how persistent, that is strong enough to overcome it.
This Christmas, we say,
“Welcome, Lord Jesus!You’ve come at
just the right time!”