Calvin Miller: The Christ of Christmas: Readings for Advent

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December 1st, 2002

Well, welcome everybody. This is your friendly guide, Dick Staub. And, you know, it’s hard to believe but the Christmas season is upon us. Preparations are underway for decorating the tree and the house and shopping for gifts, and invitations are out for wonderful parties and dinners and family get togethers. But truly, how do you prepare for the season spiritually? It’s the most important thing we need to do, and it’s one of the most challenging things to do these days.

Q. Pastor and author Calvin Miller has written a wonderful new book designed with your spiritual preparation in mind. It is called, The Christ of Christmas: Readings for Advent. And Calvin, it’s wonderful to have you back with us.
A. Thank you, Dick, it’s great to be here.

Q. Let’s start just by talking about Christmas in the home in which you were raised. Were you raised in a Christian family?
A. I surely was. And-and I was, you know, I always tell everybody the great depression was over in most of the United States in 1931, but in Oklahoma it lasted ¢â‚¬Ëœtil 1936, when I was born.

Q. Hm. Wow.
A. I mean, there were a lot of pockets of poverty, Dick, like there will be getting out of the current financial crunch, you know.

Q. Yeah.
A. They don’t-they don’t warm up as fast as some parts of the nation. So we were-we were poor. And yet I-I have a book, Dick, where I say that one of the great attributes of my mother is that we never guessed we were poor.

Q. Wow.
A. We always thought we were¢â‚¬¦ I can remember, for instance, at every Christmas, without fail, Mama read us a little book that she’d bought at a drugstore in Guthrie, Indian territory. Mama was born in 1900 in Oklahoma and it was Indian territory then.

Q. Wow.
A. And she bought this little book there. And she read it to us every Christmas. And-and the little book was A Christmas Carol.

Q. Huh.
A. And I can remember that she created such empathy as she read that story that we always felt sorry for the Cratchetts because they didn’t have anything but a goose, but we never even had a goose. And I think-I think that’s a tribute to a great set of parents is they create a sense of abundance at this time of year.

Q. So what did you do at Christmastime? You read A Christmas Carol. What else went on?
A. Well, I could-I can remember that was the big thing. Now, you know, I try to, you know¢â‚¬¦ All of us parents we have these stories about how we walked to the school through the snow and all that to tell our kids¢â‚¬¦

Q. Yeah, exactly. And we need to pour it on buddy, keep it coming.
A. And we had that, too. I mean, we had-we had that, we-we just really looked
forward to it because we didn’t have like REA. Rural Electric didn’t come through our part of Oklahoma until I was 14

Q. Wow.
A. ¢€œso I was, you know, we-we read these things by coal, as we used to say coal oil, a kerosine lamp, and Mama would, you know, turn the wick up a little bit, and we’d all snuggle in and she’d read.

Q. Man.
A. And that was the season for us. We did have a little tree usually that she got somewhere but¢â‚¬¦

Q. Yeah.
A. Gifts I’m sure were not as abundant as they have since become.

Q. When you-when you called the faith your own and-and went out and kind of established your own life, what kinds of things did you want to do in terms of establishing traditions in the Christmas season that would keep your mind and heart focused on the right stuff?
A. Well, I think-I think the one thing that I did early on as an evangelical, I-I moved to Omaha, Nebraska in the year 1966, to begin a church.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. And it was in a-a pocket of the country that’s fairly non-evangelical. Omahais a wonderful place, but it-it is non-as non-evangelical as say Baltimore or Boston

Q. Yeah.
A. –in percentage to the populations to evangelicals who are present. So I just began saying, hey, what-what are all the Lutherans and Catholics doing in Omaha? How do they do¢â‚¬¦

Q. Huh.
A. One of the things I determined, I’ve always believed this, that if you’re starting a church your neighborhood should, to some degree, determine the kind of church you start. Your programs should meet local needs.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. And so I just¢â‚¬¦ I started studying Lutheran and Catholic catechisms and, particularly at Christmas, I began to feel like they really had something going at Advent. And so way back there when my children were little we started Advent guides for Christmas.

Q. Hm.
A. I think many times I-I wrote my own because southern Baptist came very late to Advent. So I had to write it. But now it’s kind of amazing, you know, Dick. I-since this new book about-this new Advent book has come out that I’ve written, man, there must be a thousand southern Baptist churches using it now.

Q. Wow.
A. And I guess the thing that’s kind of amazing to me is that these churches, many of them, probably they couldn’t hardly spell Advent–

Q. Yeah, exactly.
A. ¢€œten years ago, but I’m glad they’re into it.

Q. You know, one of the things¢â‚¬¦ I’m a third generation preacher’s kid, and-and I’ve got a lot of friends who are pastors. And-and I find it interesting that they will say that-that Christmas is both the most exciting and the most challenging time to communicate because, as you say in the introduction to this book, so many things are common about Christmas, and the themes are not brand new. And yet, in that they are so exciting and they-they can be new every year for us. How-how did you kind of stay fresh year after year during the Christmas season as you tried to determine what God wanted you to say to people about this wonderful season?
A. Well, one-one of the things that helped me, Dick, of course, I was a pastor, so every Advent I pulled into a special series of sermons–

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œwhich I happened to be studying myself, to-to bring to the people. And then we had the Advent readings for church. And then, of course, we had all the-the programs that go with it, the special communions, the pageants, and so forth. So for my own part, at least, living in the Christmas story was not so much the problem. But I do think one of the things that Robert Webber says in some of his wonderful work about Christmas is that evangelicals have unfortunately come to be in a time in which consumerism is king.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. And it’s very difficult to separate out the pure strains of what Advent traditionally was. Like, I constantly have to remind people that the 12 days of Christmas actually began on Christmas Eve. I mean, we’re doing it all backwards now. Up until very recent times people celebrated Christmas from Christmas Eve, December 24th through January 6th. And so they didn’t, you know, they didn’t have this thing that we do now where we just have this huge build up until December 25th, and then it’s all over for evangelicals.

Q. Yeah.
A. But there was a movement, there was a movement on through the 6th of January, the 12 days of Christmas, there were carols about this. We know that one or two of them still hang around.

Q. Yeah.
A. And then there was on January 6th was Epiphany, when Jesus was manifest as the Son of God to the world. It was a global kind of theme. Plus Advent, in the early years, in the early centuries, had a lot to do with the second coming. They didn’t talk-they talked about Jesus’ first coming, but it was always with a view to remember he was coming again. And we sort of lost that in Advent.

Q. Yeah. It-it’s interesting, you keep making reference to evangelicals. And there are many wonderful things that evangelicalism has brought into our life and into our culture and into our society, but it really only recently and you-you mention Robert Webber as an example, that we’ve really tried to understand more about-about-about liturgy, about-about different ways of expressing worship that, in fact, in traditions, as you’ve already mentioned Advent during the Christmas season, that really bring about a sense of expectation and-and regular focusing on the themes that we ought to have our minds on during this season.
A. I-I totally agree, and-and I think the one thing that¢â‚¬¦ One of the things that’s really great about Advent is-is the use of candles. Now, I-I don’t know that we adults need it as much, although it doesn’t hurt us either, but children get very excited about candles.

Q. Yeah.
A. And a candle ring, you know. And you light a candle and you read a scripture and you say, kids, this is the fourth candle of Advent.

Q. Yes.
A. And it’s four weeks ¢â‚¬Ëœtil Jesus’ birthday. And three weeks ¢â‚¬Ëœtil Jesus’ birthday. And you keep those candles lit. And it’s-it’s a high sense of anticipation. I think it’s wonderful.

Yeah, it is wonderful.
Well, folks, it’s about time now that we settle down and start talking about some of the themes that are actually in the book, The Christ of Christmas: Readings for Advent. We’re going to do that when we come back. The book is published by Broadman & Holman. And as Calvin Miller has already said, it’s being used all over the place in the southern Baptist churches, but certainly not exclusively there. And it’s-it’s a wonderful way as an individual or as a small group to focus on the themes of Christmas. We’re going to talk more with Calvin Miller coming up right after this. Stay there. We’ll be right back.
(Break.)

Q. Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. Our guest is pastor and author, Calvin Miller, who is a favorite of many of yours. And you’ll be excited, if you’re not already aware, that there is a book out called The Christ of Christmas: Readings for Advent. 31 Days of Devotions, by Calvin Miller. And it is just a wonderful collection. And nicely bound. Describe how you set up the format of this book so that there would be
different elements on each day of Advent.
A. Well, you know, what I tried to do, Dick, is I-I tried to look at-at the very prominent miracle. I guess, I’ve always really rather agreed with Madeline L’Engle that really, in the New Testament, there’s only one really great miracle, and that’s the incarnation. Once you believe that, everything else is duck soup, you know, that God could actually become a man in Christ.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. So I tried to-I tried to focus on the passages that really look at this great miracle. Jesus coming as a baby, the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary, the conflict and consolation between Mary and Elizabeth, the liberation of Zachariah in speaking the word John, and so forth. There’s so-so many wonderful themes. And I-I think that one of the things I tried to do, of course, is build toward the actual birth event on Christmas Day and then
Q. Yeah.

A. ¢€œand then keep it going to look at what happened to Jesus until age 12. It ends on December 31 with the manifestation of the temple of Jesus at age 12.
Q. Yeah. Within each chapter we have-you have a verse that you-that you start with. You do kind of an essay, a meditation on that.
A. Right.

Q. Then there’s an additional reading and then there’s a prayer so that
A. Right.

Q. ¢€œpeople everyday have a variety of ways at getting at the theme that you’ve chosen for that day.
A. Yeah, that’ right. Plus I-I¢â‚¬¦ Every one of them contain a little epigram. For instance, the epigram for the reading on December the 19th says, “The heart is that small, fleshly vault that holds vast treasures that none can ever take away.”

Q. Yeah.
A. That-that’s a kind of highlighted epigram. Everyday has one of those little things that I think¢â‚¬¦ If-if all you had time to do was read that, though, I timed these things because Decision Radio is going to be using my readings through Advent, and I timed¢â‚¬¦ Each of them only take about 3_ minutes to read out loud.

Q. Yeah. Well, you know, it-it’s’s interesting. This-the-the approach that you took reminded me of my grandmother, late grandmother, who died when she was 93. She was one of those people that started reading through the Bible every year when she was 15 years old, and-and many times read through it twice a year.
A. Right.

Q. And-and when she was like 70, she told me of the-the practice that she had during the Christmas season of-of taking a different character or a different aspect of Christmas and just meditating on it everyday for a few minutes. And-and trying to look at the Christmas miracle through the perspective of that character or that event or that¢â‚¬¦ And it’s a wonderful practice, and yet a lot of us are not¢â‚¬¦ She was a very, very imaginative person, very intellectually creative. A lot of us aren’t that imaginative. And so it-it’s useful to have somebody who kind of provides help for us. But you did it in such a way that leaves a lot of room for us to kind of sit back and do our own thinking.
A. Oh, yeah, I think so. And I-I hope people will do that. There is along with each reading some suggested alternate scriptures that might play the mind a little further. 3_ minutes is not much time to give each day.

Q. Yeah.
A. But if you go into the extra readings, then I think you’re going to round out the Christmas season with a lot more understanding.

Q. Well, we’ll give some folks some examples. On the very first day you start by talking about John, John the Baptist
A. Right.

Q. ¢€œwho was called to bear witness to the light. Only a man named John. And yet, what a wonderful reminder of our opportunities during the Christmas season.
A. Right. That’s so true. And-and John, John to me is-is the most-one of the most exotic characters in the New Testament. Jesus said he was-there was none born of woman any greater. But I-I-I look at John and I think, you know, it isn’t just the fact that he-he announced Jesus’ coming, he’s sort of an exotic recluse. He’s Elijah, redivivus. He’s in the wilderness and hungry to see this distant cousin from Nazareth who shows up on the banks of his baptizing river, and God-God has laid it on John’s heart, you know. When you see the Holy Spirit descending on somebody, that’s the guy.

Q. Yeah.
A. And I’ve always loved that. I’ve always thought, you know, if-if you could pick your moments to be where the Pharisees were and to hear the voice above the river¢â‚¬¦ The bath kol, as Aramaic says, the loud voice that says this is my beloved son, I-I think this would have been a good moment to be present

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œin the ministry of Christ.

Q. Well, on the fourth day we’re also reminded of-of-of Zachariah. And you chose the theme when old men trust which, believe me, as I get older, I begin understanding why that’s such an important feature of-of the Christmas story, because there’s Zachariah, as the old man, and-and then you’ve got the rewards of waiting out on day 21 with Simeon.
A. Yeah.

Q. There’s such a wonderful cluster of people from all different perspectives. Here’s a couple of older guys
A. Yeah.

Q. ¢€œthat waited and trusted.
A. Yeah, which-which bears out your grandmother’s doctrine, or your mother’s¢â‚¬¦ Or your grandmother?

Q. That was my grandmother, yeah.
A. Yeah, grandmother, about picking a character and-and looking at and thinking about him.

Q. Yeah, absolutely. When we-when we look at your Day 3, you do something with the begat passages which is, frankly, when most people start dropping out in their reading through the Bible in a year.
A. Yeah.

Q. You know, it’s very tough when you get into the begats. And yet there-there’s something important in the-in that-that word and in the tradition that’s behind it.
A. Yes. The great thing about it is just that the begats are a solid reminder that God interfaces in a major way with the human race. And one man’s family, as I call it, you know, this is-this is one man’s family, it’s Abraham’s family, and Jesus is a part of it.

Q. Yeah. You-you-you remind us, and-and I think this is a very important aspect of the Christmas message. I mean, we’re so familiar now with the stories and with the angels appearing to Mary and the angels appearing to shepherds. Aand we’ve got all the bathrobes and all the other memories in there kind of tucked away. But you-you-you refer to-you refer to-to the appearances, the visitations, as God’s “unnerving visitations” at one point. I mean, these were really wonderful visitations, but they were-they were a little bit disturbing.
A. They certainly were. I always think-I always think the angels, it’s kind of beside the point when they say, “fear not,” right after they scare the wits out of people.

Q. Exactly. Well, they have to say that next because, I mean, the poor guy is sitting there quaking away.
A. So true, so true. And, you know, one of the nice things, it’s just easier to read it out of a nice, leather-bound Bible than to be out on the Judean hillside and have to think about this or face up to it.

Q. Well, you know, one thing¢â‚¬¦ I was talking with Philip Yancy last week and he¢â‚¬¦ We were talking about G. K. Chesterton and his great wit and his great, the bigness of his person and his personality.
A. Right.

Q. And the way he-he¢â‚¬¦ Even people that disagreed with him left the occasion just enjoying it. And-and Philip made the comment that we’re in an age of sadness in which people need a different kind of prophet, not just a prophet to tell them they’re doomed, but to remind them, you’re not doomed yet. And-and one of the things that you see in-in December 10th, as you talk about the way back to joy, that Christmas is a time of joy, and I think that is such a timely message for this culture.
A. Yeah, I do, too. You-you know, I-I experience this just almost daily in stores, but I-I think, God forgive me, but particularly in airports. They’re busy places. And I’m sure that people who sell tickets and help you get on the plane and announce that you need to, you know, board and things like that, that they have to have a hassled life. But I’ve wished I could just set them down and teach them the elementary art of smiling again. And it’s just a busy, busy time, you know? And-and it’s such a gift to try to be a human being. I-I’ve just came in today on the plane. And I set down next to a little girl. And she was reading and doing some algebra problems or something, which I’m not terribly good at. But nonetheless, she was little and she began to ask me questions. Before long I found her very, very charming. And I-I-I don’t¢â‚¬¦ I’m the kind of guy that always tries to be remote on airplanes because I always have plenty to do. But all of a sudden I find myself wanting to be a human being. And I-I guess, maybe that’s the mark of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Q. Yeah.
A. I don’t know. I’d like to think so.

Well, and it’s the-it’s the joy that God brings into our life during this season that we can-we can participate in and spread. We’re going to be back with a few concluding comments from Calvin Miller. Don’t go away.
(Break.)

Q. Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Calvin Miller. His new book is The Christ of Christmas: Readings for Advent. Now, I-I chose to do this right now because it gives you time to still go out and pick it up and make use of it for your own holiday season. It’s brand new. We didn’t mention the artwork, too. There’s beautiful artwork. And-and, of course, the Christmas story has attracted so much attention in literature and in art and in music throughout the centuries. It’s just such a revolutionary, remarkable event. I was just reading something by a skeptic the other day who was saying, well, you know, even if Jesus existed, which most people think he did¢â‚¬¦ And I was thinking, how absolutely ridiculous, you know, to-to have that kind of mind-set when you look at the way this one person has totally changed the shape of world history, whether you’re a follower of Jesus or not.
A. Yeah, that’s right.

Q. He’s-he’s made this impact. And yet, one of the wonderful things you draw back, draw out, Calvin, in The Christ of Christmas, is the small things, the-the tune of the unknowns, you know, where the proud and mighty fall, the-the outback, Bethlehem. Nazareth. Small town surprises. This-one of the great aspects of the Christmas story is the little people and the little places play such a big role.
A. Yeah. And do you know what’s most remarkable about that is and I’ve always said and continue to say I would always believe in Jesus if for one reason only, and that is that these little people who were absolutely Aramaic, rural, and virtually prosaic and provincial and nothing–

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œsuddenly become inflamed with the world on their mind. And people like Simon-Peter, once content to fish in a little lake called Galilee, die 1500 miles away in Rome because they got to preach the gospel in a bigger context. I-I think that’s remarkable. I-I guess I look at Jesus and I say, you know, here’s Mary, a hill girl, who suddenly is doing this beautiful sonnet we call “The Magnificat.”

Q. Uh-huh.
A. And she sings and the world is thrilled. And operas are written around it.

Q. Yeah.
A. Nobody but God could put this together. So whoever the smart alecks are that say that Jesus-Jesus may not have lived, I’ve often wondered if they really take a good look at it.

Q. Yeah.
A. I-I would doubt-I would doubt most of the smart alecks before I would doubt Jesus.

Q. Yeah, absolutely. On December 22nd you remind us that-that always the-the cradle and the birth story has to be viewed through the cross. And there’s this wonderful phrase when Simeon blessed them and told his mother Mary, indeed, the child is destined to cause the fall and rise of many and to be a sign that will be opposed. And a sword will pierce your own soul. In the thoughts of many hearts there was already a little sense in the Christmas story that this wonderful, joyous occasion was also going to be one that was going to bring some pain.
A. Absolutely. I actually mention in one of these devotionals, you know, the great song, We Three Kings, and the gifts that they bring, whether we-whether they were three we don’t know, but we do know that there were three gifts. And one of those gifts was myrrh

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œwhich was a burial spice.

Q. Yeah.
A. And so there-there’s hidden, even in the kings, this bit of discord. It’s-it’s like the gargoyles on Notre Dame Cathedral. You have this wonderful, huge building in tribute to Jesus. But all of a sudden in the middle of this are stone demons that are water spouts with the great Cathedral.

Q. Yeah.
A. And I often-I often think, I-I think the Lord Jesus intentionally and God, himself and I’m not even opposed to putting a demon in the stone work of-of Notre Dame because I think we need to be reminded that we live in a world caught between God and evil.

Q. Yeah, absolutely. On December 13th you bring something in that-that some people say, well now, you know, we got 31 nice meditations and we got this one. How do you handle a scandal? And-and yet it’s an important part of the story.
A. It is an important part. And, in fact, to me¢â‚¬¦ Boy, I-I-I’ve often thought, you know, we-we can read pretty fast through Joseph but, goodness, when he has a mind to put Mary away privately, he-he was saying essentially, I don’t believe her.

Q. Yeah.
A. And this had to be a huge contest in their marriage, or their preview on the steps to marriage. That was in the way. And-and scandal was a very real part of it all, I think. Mary goes to Elizabeth because she’s so hungry for someone to say, blessed art thou. And Elizabeth does that.

Q. Yeah. One of the-the things that you help us understand in this devotional is the importance of every word in the story. And a lot of times, as you said, we’ll read quickly over a story and miss something. And-and you spend some time on December 20th talking about Jesus was the firstborn. And-and a reminder of-of while your little epigram that day is, “He who have been adopted into God’s family are made rich with his gifts.” The reminder that we share a part in this ancient tradition of-of riches poured out upon the firstborn.
A. Yes. Yes, and the-the most wonderful thing besides this passage is Romans 8, you know, where we are adopted. We are the children, too, and joint heirs. All that is Christ’s is ours.

Q. Yeah. When you-when you look at this particular Christmas season with whatever is-is on your schedule and on your mind and in your life, are there any particular themes that-that you are either already sensing are going to be important to you or that-that you are going to spend some special time thinking about during this season?
A. Well, I-I would like to. I-I think we’re on the brink of the feel that we had in say, 1940 or ’41. Now, we may not go to war with Iraq, but there’s something so beautiful about Christmas when a nation is in upheaval. And I-I think that so many of the carols that were popular in 1940 to 1945 became American favorites because¢â‚¬¦ By the way, they were generally Jesus-focused.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. That I-I-I think, I’m hoping that the struggle of-of this year, of this season, with all that faces us will call us to a wonderful awareness that the Christ of Christmas is the Christ who is healer of the nations.

Q. Uh-huh, absolutely. One thing that you-that you remind us of in this story is that there comes a time when God actually lifts the curtains and gives us a sense of-of eternity and of heaven. You know, we pray, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And then you say, well, what’s going on in heaven?
A. Yeah.

Q. And you have this chapter, the highest glory. God lifts the curtains and we see a multitude of the heavenly hosts. I mean, you know, again you read that and you think, oh yeah, okay, I’ve seen that. I’ve seen that in the Christmas play. There’s those kids off on the right up on the balcony. You know. And this is-this is, you know, real stuff where God actually broke into history in real time and-and gave a few humble shepherds a little peek at what’s going on up there.
A. Right. You know, it’s kind of like those wonderful plays in which the actors leave the stage and come out in the audience and do some lines. Every once in awhile you’ll see that done–

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œtheatrically. And it’s so wonderful. Usually they’re up on the stage, you know, and the apocalypse is real. They draw the curtains and you see the play. But then-then there are the times when-when they come out and they’re standing right by you in Row 13

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œand they’re shouting across the theatre to another actor. And that’s how I see
these angels. It’s not just revelation anymore. It’s not just mere apocalypse.

Q. Yeah.
A. It’s God is with us. It’s Emmanuel in the flesh out in the audience. And I love that. I think the shepherds must have been witless. But God bless them. It was nice that they would give us this closeup view of God.

Q. And, well, the book is The Christ of Christmas: Readings for Advent. 31 Days of Devotions, by Calvin Miller. And I-I’ve got to believe that you’re already getting just tremendous feedback from people even though they’re-they aren’t going to start using it for a few more days.
A. The-the thing has been in and out of stock because of just multiple printings. I-it-it’s just sold incredibly well. I haven’t seen anything quite like it this season, for one thing.

Q. Yeah.
A. And I’m hoping that-I’m hoping the publisher will bring it out next year again because I-I just think, boy, so many people wanted it. And churches wanted to use it and haven’t been able to get it. I hope it will be at your bookstore, though, and people will look it up.

Q. Thank you so much, Calvin, for being with us today.
A. Thank you.

Q. I appreciate it very much.
A. Thank you, Dick, so much.

Q. Merry Christmas, to you and may you have a great season.
A. Merry Christmas to you. Bye, bye.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, this is Dick Staub. We’re going to be back with more of The Dick Staub Show coming up right after this. Don’t touch that dial.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

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