Gifts of Christmas – Rest

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For most people, the Christmas season is the busiest time of the year. In the United States things start to wind up with the Thanksgiving holiday and start building steam until after New Year’s. Our calendars tend to get overly full of events of all kinds (some obligatory and other things we love) or for some of us the calendar seems emptier than we wish. There are hopes and expectations to spend time with family and close friends, and this year that increased after so much locked down in the last several years. Lockdowns and precautions still exist, and families are also still broken for many reasons and those things and times we hope for don’t always come or don’t look the way they once did.

There is more than the usual amount of shopping for some of us to do between more meals and more people to feed than our ordinary days. There are also decisions about gifts to buy, how much to spend, what will please this person or that, and more. All these things and more result in most of us being aware of and saying we are tired – tired of the physical drain and all the energy expended to create the season we want or believe we must have to match what we always had or hoped we had had. Year by year we determine we will do it differently next time and then something like a pandemic shut everything we love down, and we go right back to create what we missed during that season that was unlike any most of us had known.

Even if we hope to focus on the One we are celebrating when we celebrate Christmas, Christ can get lost in the shuffle and we awaken Christmas morning worn out from all the going, doing, and late nights to try to get it all done. In the end. we often spend more than we planned and try to do more than is reasonable.

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Maybe one of the reasons it all happens is that we are already living a schedule that keeps us on the ragged edge of tired much of the time and we keep going anyway, trying to push that reality aside as we set another lunch date and agree to serve on another committee. The things we enjoy in too great an amount no longer seem enjoyable to us. Are they now driving us?

“Our wheels spin as we shove more to do in a day with no available daylight hours left, only to find ourselves wanting at the end. Not wanting more to do. No, we have plenty to do. We find ourselves wanting more time to do the things enjoy doing.

We want time to enjoy our kids. We want time to make love to our spouses. We want time to linger over a good meal. We want time to use the bathroom without interruption. We want more time.

But there is no more time. Time is. It is both infinite and finite. It goes on and on. With or without us it will continue. Our number of days are known by God alone. Time chimes in loudly over the roar of our anxious minds, initiating a battle between warring fears and courageous rest.”

Saundra Dalton-Smith, M.D.

It can be so easy to believe everything depends on us to get done. It can be easy to try to recreate the Christmas season we had as a kid or the one we wished we had. We forget that none of these things are really about Christmas and rather the traditions we love or want to create.

But during all this, God sees and knows us well. Perhaps that is why one of his very best Gifts of Christmas is rest!

He came to earth in human form to show us who He is and to know us as we are. He knows we strive and often get lost in doing, doing, doing for so many different reasons in many different seasons. He knows we sometimes do that to avoid deeper emotions and wounds that are easier to ignore or set aside if we stay busy. But God’s design for us from the very beginning was to need rest and we need it in every area – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and more.

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And guess what? He showed us in his time on earth in the form of a man that we needed to value rest. He was God in human form, and He rested. He slipped away from even those closest to Him for times of rest with God alone. He slept and not only had a great deal of his time spent in focused ministry but also spent time in casual relaxed settings with a few good friends that nourished and replenished Him.

We too often think the solution to our tiredness is more sleep, more naps, more coffee, a weekend away, an idyllic vacation, or something else that will revive every part of us. Some of us know that even though those things are delightful, they don’t always satisfy the need we have for rest because it isn’t just about stopping doing everything or changing the scene. It’s about recognizing what is going on within us and us changing right where we are.

Yes, it is hard to do, but adrenaline and fatigue from too much of it will not work well over time. So, despite the challenges of all there is “to do” this season this year, what would Christ recommend we do to receive the gift of rest and still accomplish all that is necessary for us to do?

The answer for each of us might look a little different. Maybe it starts with sitting alone with ourselves and Christ and talking this through a bit and then listening for his response even if we resist that because we are stubbornly determined to keep going and doing because we or others expect it of us.

“Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.”

Philippians 4:6-7 (MSG)

Yes, there is much to do, and it can be easy to be more like Martha who wished her sister would chip in and help when food needed to be prepared and guests were in the house. But Jesus reminded her of what was most important. He loved Martha and was not unaware of what needed to be done, but He wanted her to consider the moment. He was right there in their midst and would not always be with them in human form and I think Jesus didn’t want her to miss that. Despite some sermons, I am not convinced He was trying to give Martha a hard time. He loved her and wanted her to not miss Him in the doing of what was needing to be done.

“We all need sanctuary, a secure place where protection reigns and comfort is received. We need relief from daily struggles and times of immunity from outside attacks. Sanctuary is not simply a place; it’s a state of being. There we find a sense of security and peace that flows from our connection to God. Sanctuary is where we lay down our fight and rest. In the process, we find our way back home to relationship with God.”

Saundra Dalton-Smith, M.D.

Try opening the Christmas Gift of rest now. Don’t wait until Christmas morning!

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Gifts of Christmas – Assurance

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I still recall the day my husband stepped off the plane after 14 months of separation due to military deployment. I knew he was on the way home but also was aware of how many things that could affect it, alter it in some way. And some of those happened and almost changed the arrival when he was eating with a friend he had not seen and nearly missed his flight back to the United States. We had learned to trust God for safety for him as well as me and the delivery of our first child that occurred while he was half a world away in a war zone, but I needed the assurance of seeing him and having him hold me in his arms again.

I can easily recall other such moments that were major points of significance to me throughout my lifetime but for each of us there are needs for reassurance in what seem like the ordinary moments of our lives. We see it clearly when a baby or toddler looks everywhere in the room to find out where mom is if she is not holding him or her. They need a point of connection, a sense of not being abandoned or alone, a feeling of someone bigger and stronger making them feel safe and protected.

Crisis points like separation from loved ones, health crises, loss and death, accidents, and so many other things stand out as the things that highlight what is true every day for each one of us no matter how much bravado we may appear to have that belies the need beneath it.

And assurance comes to us in many ways. It may be an unexpected card or phone call that comes just at the time we most need it even though the person could not have known that. It comes in simple ways like a friend taking my hand briefly on a recent Sunday morning. But it also comes in grand and glorious ways like hearing our cancer is in remission, a financial need has been met in miraculous ways, and more.

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Without a doubt, the grandest and most glorious way assurance came to us was in Christmas.

The fall of mankind had resulted in the world becoming a dark and fearsome place with humankind isolated from the intimacy they had with God before that choice in the Garden of Eden that changed everything. Adam and Eve knew an intimacy none of us can imagine of God walking with them in the Garden, inviting them to name the animals and providing for any need they might have. But they missed the hidden danger of the serpent because he was cunning, clever, and did not appear at all like he was.

Mankind experienced so much in that loss, but God promised that He still had a plan and a way. He made provision time and time again and spoke to the prophets that He would come again and restore mankind to Himself for all who would believe in Him.

God offered assurance that despite the fall, He would lead them back to Him and they would not be alone or without light forever despite the difficult and hard consequences of their choices.

The time of waiting for that grand and glorious evidence of reassurance was long and many gave up and stopped believing. And when they did, they lost hope and sought to find whatever assurance they could make for themselves by more wrong choices that never satisfied.

And then it happened as God promised. His words were true, and He arrived in a humble stable one night to a young couple chosen by Him to provide the earthly parents to Jesus, his Son and God in the flesh. People could hear his voice, touch Him, watch how He walked, learn the tone and cadence of his words.

Christ came amid a dark world to assure mankind that He loved them, they were not alone, He had not abandoned them, and He had a way for them to come close to Him again. He spent 33 years on the earth showing us what we had struggled to believe. For those who did believe, they found hope and faith and assurance. He changed the people He created despite the world itself not being changed.

We were perplexed when God’s plan meant He would die and leave us in his earthly form, but while here He gave us other promises that we could hold in our hearts.

“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

John 14: 3 (ESV)

“Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:20 (NLT)
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The disciples wondered at his words about always being with them as He departed through the clouds into heaven, but He had promised a sure promise of how He would fulfill that.

“I’m telling you these things while I’m still living with you. The Friend, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send at my request, will make everything plain to you. He will remind you of all the things I have told you. I’m leaving you well and whole. That’s my parting gift to you. Peace. I don’t leave you the way you’re used to being left—feeling abandoned, bereft. So don’t be upset. Don’t be distraught.”

John 14:26 (MSG)

And for those who believed in Him, that “Friend” would be the solace at all those crisis points. He would offer the assurance that could touch each one of us at the same time, in ways that were not possible when Jesus was here in earthly form. What a grand and glorious gift of Christmas that we can have long before Christmas Day arrives. And then there is the promise Paul writes about to hold fast to.

“For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 (NIV)

It is not yet December 25, but this is a gift you can open now. No matter where you are in the world or what this season may be for you, no matter what crisis point that may be your current circumstance, He offers the gift of assurance that you are not alone, not abandoned, not forgotten, and He invites you to believe.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Hebrews 11:1 (ESV)
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Gifts of Christmas – Wonder

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If we want to capture wonder, there is no better place to see it than in young children. They discover and delight in every aspect of things they see, touch, hear, and feel (and sometimes they discover hard lessons too that are not delightful). They are awake to the sensory experiences in their lives with a fascination that is observable. Somehow, we can lose that sense of wonder as we get older, but at Christmas time we get glimpses of it again no matter what season of life we are in.

What is wonder?

Wonder means amazement, awe, marvel, astonishment, and surprise. We look and look but we cannot believe our eyes. As we are taught and learn more, we often lose some of that sense of wonder as we try to figure things out from a factual perspective. It affects every aspect of what we think we know. Before we knew about how the earth rotates and revolves around the sun in orbit with other planets, humankind wondered at the order of day and night and seasons and so many other things.

What is your first childhood memory of Christmas? If you take a backward glance to consider that, I suspect you will discover there was wonder there.

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Most of us were captivated by the sight of our Christmas tree, no matter how tall or short, crooked, or straight. There were beautiful lights that captured our attention (especially when all the other lights in the room were turned off). Ornaments of vibrant colors caught our eyes as well and we wanted to touch them and the tree to take in more than what our eyes alone could see.

We learned there would be surprises ahead on a certain day (Christmas) and we would receive something under the tree from someone who knew us and cared about us. For some of us that included Santa Claus and all those traditions when we were very young and for others there was an awareness the surprises were from our parents.

We wondered what there would be under the tree for us and soon learned we could make a list of our wishes.

My earliest memories were of my dad reading the Christmas passages from Luke on Christmas Eve and the admonition to go right to sleep when it was time for bed. In our family the tradition was that when we awakened on Christmas morning we could only come down to the bottom of the stairs of our farmhouse and then wait until we were told we could leave that spot. After that we might glimpse the tree, but breakfast had to come first before we could look at what surprises awaited us. And how long that whole process seemed to take.

We were not poor but not wealthy either so I soon learned that most of the surprises (gifts) would be practical things we needed instead of all those amazing things we saw in the Sears catalog or in store windows. There were times an aunt of ours who had no children of her own would surprise us with something special and not practical such as perfume for me when I had just become a teenager. And a favorite part of the season was when my parents would get us into the car, and we would drive around neighborhoods in awe (and wonder) at the beautiful lights and displays so many homes had in the best parts of town.

Wonder is one of the gifts of Christmas, not because all these things that might give us those feelings but because when we talk about God being a God of wonder, it means everything about God begins and ends with wonders. He carries out miraculous works and He alone can do great wonders. From his creation story at the very beginning of all things to eternity yet to be experienced on every level, God is indeed a God of wonder. We can’t totally figure out everything where He is concerned.

The Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, puts it this way as He speaks of God through the revelation he was given:

 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.

 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts”

Isaiah 55:8-9 (KJV)
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As we grow up a bit more, we hopefully come to realize that Christmas is not about what is under the Christmas tree or even who is around it, but rather WHO Christmas is. Only God can reveal that to our hearts and how He can do that is indeed a wonder.

Look at Paul’s words:

“For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.”

1 Corinthians 2:11 (NIV)

And above all else Christmas is when He wants us to see and learn who He really is and why He really came. He came as a baby to live as a man on the earth to show us who He was and to help us see He understood us far better than we believed or could have imagined. To add to that understanding is also to know that even as a babe in a manger, He knew that He came to die.

In July of 1933 in a small town in North Carolina, a small girl was overheard singing a captivating melody expressing wonder at God’s choice and gift of wonder during a revivalist meeting led by her evangelist father. They were forced to leave the town after using the fountain in the town square to do laundry and from there they were off to wander to some other place. John Jacob Niles heard the young girl, Annie, singing the first three lines of the song. He was a collector of folk songs as he traveled the hills and mountains of Appalachia, and he heard Annie singing and asked her to sing to him repeatedly and as she did, he jotted down the three lines of verse. (Each time she repeated the song, he paid her 25 cents.) The tune and the words gave Niles the idea for a carol for which he added new lyric verses. It resulted in him publishing “I Wonder as I Wander” in 1934. Perhaps you know the lyrics, but if not, they are a way to remind us of the Christmas gift of wonder:

” I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die.
For poor on’ry people like you and like I…
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

When Mary birthed Jesus ’twas in a cow’s stall,
With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all.
But high from God’s heaven a star’s light did fall,
And the promise of ages it then did recall.

If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing,
A star in the sky, or a bird on the wing,
Or all of God’s angels in heav’n for to sing,
He surely could have it, ’cause he was the King.”

Let God awaken in you once more that gift of wonder, one of those amazing gifts of Christmas.

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Gifts of Christmas – Promise

Before Christmas Day arrives, of all the preparations for the day one of the ones most personal happens when we pull out the boxes of ornaments to decorate the tree. Even though stores have shelves of ornaments, every person and family’s tree is unique. Some ornaments are made by children when they are young and stored and added year after year as we recall each season of that child’s life. Other ornaments are those handed down from generation to generation perhaps or given to honor specific points of celebration or achievement. They may be paper, glass, metallic, or ceramic and of every color we might imagine and chose because they delighted our eyes.

If we are older, we recall the different styles of trees we have known over our lifetime. Most of us had “real” trees when we were young. Some of us had trees covered with snowy substances to give a sense the tree standing in our living room was still outside. Others of us once had a tree made of silver aluminum with a color wheel underneath to display a rainbow of hues. Many more of us have had a variety of “artificial” trees and settled the debate within the family if we were going for all white lights or the old-fashioned colored lights.

Unwrapping each ornament reminds us of a person, an occasion, and the sentiments they evoke.

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On our tree there will be a variety of those types of ornaments. Some are very old like several delicately crocheted snowflakes given to us by a friend when we were first married nearly 57 years ago. Others are ones we chose from various favorite vacation spots. We have several mirrored little boxes from one special friend and a few adorable bear ornaments from another. They each give us a backward glimpse of special people and places.

When our first grandchild was born we started a tradition of giving a special ornament at Thanksgiving to put on their tree at Christmas. Six grandchildren later and 27 Christmases since that first time, we are still sentimental about choosing a special ornament for each one to receive at Thanksgiving. Those ornaments are reminders of us they may have for many years ahead.

But one of the Gifts of Christmas before any of these things even begin is the gift of promise. Though we had no idea what it would look like or the exact hour it would come. God promised that He would send us the “gift” of Christmas that would restore our relationship with Him that was broken in the Garden of Eden. We find evidence of that in the oldest book of the Bible, Job.

“But as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives,

    and he will stand upon the earth at last.”

Job 19:25 (NLT)

Those who knew the story of God’s creation and believed in Him knew the promise that one day a Redeemer would come to earth. And after Job, the greatest prophets of old like Isaiah would tell us to expect Him no matter how many years we would wait.

And in the waiting, some stopped believing and looking for Him to come. Some others never gave up and lived to see that day. Of course, there were the wise men we remember easily, but there were others such as Simeon that Luke writes about who had been promised he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ and on the very day Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple to present Him there, the promise given to Simeon was fulfilled. But Simeon wasn’t alone, there was 84-year-old, Anna, a widowed prophetess who also believed and looked for the promise.

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But what about now? What about us?

Do we understand that the birth of the Christ at Christmas was not the only promise that came? The gift of Christmas went far beyond that scene in the manger we try to recreate in our nativity scenes. It was a promise of relationship restored with God that would extend into eternity for those who believed and waited even to this day for when that babe in the manger would return to have us join Him in the place He prepared for us so that we could live in fellowship with Him forever.

Yes, it has been a long time since Christ came as the babe and we and generations before us have been waiting, but have we stopped believing He will come again, or do we hold fast to the promise? When Christ came and we choose to believe, we are adopted as sons and daughters and God is a Father whose promises are sure and true. They are not those “pie crust promises” we have heard about – easily made and easily broken. God made the promise and knew what it would cost Him. He loved us that much and wanted us to know that promise was for each one of us who believe.

Peter, the apostle who walked with Christ and learned to know Him, reminds us of the promise:

Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.”

1 Peter 1:3-4 (NIV)

And a bit later in the chapter, Peter makes it plainer still:

“But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.”

1 Peter 1: 8-10 (NIV)

So, as you pull out those cherished ornaments and light the candles and sing the carols, don’t forget the Gift of Christmas – Promises – made and kept!

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Gifts of Christmas – Anticipation

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Can you sense and feel it in the air?

Long before Christmas Day, we have a sense of its coming. By Thanksgiving Day Christmas parades children are already making out their lists of things they hope to find under the tree and each day after that it builds a little more. Days until Christmas vacation from school get counted down. Advent calendars get hung weeks before stockings get hung waiting to be filled. Cookie recipes get pulled out from family favorites long before they are baked or placed on a plate waiting for Santa to enjoy them when he pops down the chimney.

No matter how grim the headlines or steep the challenges we look for the good things we believe Christmas can bring. Even if we have no certainty a gift will be able to be purchased or a meal with all the trimmings can be managed, we look toward Christmas with optimism or at the least, hope for something better.

The Christmas gift of anticipation comes long before all these other things.

It always has! And we believe it will come because it always has. It has come in lean times and times of plenty, in times of war and times of peace. It doesn’t rely on mankind to make it happen because it is God’s gift to the world. And for a few short days we catch a sense of the gift to us, and it changes most of us, softens our edges, warms the coolness of our faith, and strengthens our awareness of God’s resolve despite us.

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It’s what causes us to risk believing once again, to hang stockings that are empty with the anticipation of good gifts filling them. It was that hope of believing for something better that lays behind what happened on Christmas Eve in 1914 in the muddy trenches during WW I. It’s a story worth remembering and worth honoring.

History tells the story like this:

A member of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment was shivering in the muck and trying to keep warm on Christmas Eve. Fear and sleeplessness had been his constant companions and then about 10pm that night, he began to hear a noise, a murmur of voices, coming across the field where his enemies had been firing upon them. As he listened more closely and asked a soldier about it, he became more aware that the sound drifting over the cold night air was that of the German soldiers singing carols.

And then in the darkness, some of the British soldiers began to sing back and then a shouting from the German side echoed back saying, “Come over here.” It was unthinkable to respond to the enemy’s request, but one of the British soldiers suggested he come halfway and asked them to come halfway as well.

What happened next would, in the years to come, stun the world and make history. Enemy soldiers began to climb nervously out of their trenches, and to meet in the barbed-wire-filled “No Man’s Land” that separated the armies. Normally, the British and Germans communicated across No Man’s Land with streaking bullets, with only occasional gentlemanly allowances to collect the dead unmolested. But now, there were handshakes and words of kindness. The soldiers traded songs, tobacco, and wine, joining in a spontaneous holiday party in the cold night. 

Incredible? Yes, but true! And even more miraculously, it wasn’t confined to that one battlefield. Starting on Christmas Eve, small pockets of French, German, Belgian and British troops held impromptu cease-fires across the Western Front, with reports of some on the Eastern Front as well. Some accounts suggest a few of these unofficial truces remained in effect for days. It became known as the Christmas Truce.

During the horrors of that war so long ago, the anticipation of Christmas hushed the guns on the battlefield without an order ever being given and bridged “No Man’s Land” as enemies sang carols.

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What could we learn from this story as we anticipate this Christmas where more division and strife pervades the world than we could have imagined, and friends and family members stand at a distance and at odds with one another over a long list of wounds, bitterness, and anger?

Could we allow the gift of anticipation to shift our focus as it did that Christmas Eve of 1914 as men laid down their arms and became just men instead of mortal enemies.

Who but God could have brought such a wondrous gift that night? Only He could have produced anticipation amid hopelessness and misery on that bloody battlefield.

But that is just like God! He offers the gifts of Christmas despite our condition, without reservation.

So long ago God gave the glimpse of that when He promised that Christmas would come, a child would be born, and would transform our sorrows and offer us hope. Those who looked for that day often wondered if it would ever come. Over time, some doubted and gave up, but for those with ears to hear continued listening and looking. They were the very same ones who would show up to greet Jesus without an engraved invitation.

They were the humble shepherds tending sheep on the hillsides to whom the angels appeared. They were the wise men who had studied the prophecies without even being a part of those who were promised this gift of a Savior. Their anticipation prepared them to hear the good news of a child born in a manger and they had to go see this for themselves.

As we consider “The Gifts of Christmas – Anticipation” and sense that anticipation this Christmas season, are we also anticipating that same One will return and keep listening and watching for that unknown date? The first Christmas did not have a fixed date on the calendar. The next one won’t either.

God has already given us the Christmas gift of anticipation and it isn’t about the presents (or lack of them) under a tree.

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