The Eyes of Jesus Are Upon Me

When I got up this morning, I had this sensation that I was being watched. As I went to the kitchen to make the coffee…Hazelnut to be exact…I looked over my shoulder to see if anyone else was in the room.

As the coffee brewed I moved to the desktop computer to check news headlines. As my eyes were focused on the screen, I could sense other eyes watching my every move.

Then I went to the living room to begin this morning’s quiet time with the Advent devotional guide compiled by our Children’s Ministry at FBCP. When I closed my eyes to pray, somehow I perceived that other eyes were opened.

After a few more moments of praying for guidance, offering gratitude, and remembering the poor, the homeless, and those who are grieving during the holidays, I began to investigate the room more thoroughly. Everywhere I turned; there was Mary, Joseph, and a baby Jesus looking my way.

My wife, Amanda, loves to decorate for Christmas. We have four themed Christmas trees: a Santa tree, a music tree, a white ornament tree, and a favorite-ornaments-tree adorned mostly with ornaments given to us by friends, students, and parishioners. We also have an aging talking tree strategically located in the guest bathroom. Battalions of angels are also on display, including a chorus of wooden angels, tree-top angels, porcelain angels, crocheted angels, and a lighted angel atop the kitchen buffet who flaps her wings as if she is ready to launch.

Two fluffy stockings, one red and the other green, hang from the mantle below wooden block letters spelling J-O-Y and N-O-E-L. The other wooden blocks in the entertainment cabinet spell M-E-R-R-Y C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S! Assorted Dickens Village scenes are located on the shelves of the Entertainment Center and on the library table…all lighted and wintry scenes depicting a typical English holiday.

The Christmas cards that we receive are hung from doorframes and over the kitchen bar, some containing family photos, others portraying holiday scenes and inscribed with personal greetings. Our pink Christmas cactus is in full bloom on the computer desk and a few over-nourished Santas are scattered around like centurions guarding the Christmas goodies. One jolly ole Santa flips his lid because he is really a cookie jar, which, ironically, is empty.

The central attraction in our Christmas display is the nativity. As I surveyed our house in the quiet of the morning to see who was watching, I counted 13 manger scenes, each depicting a unique perspective on the real meaning of Christmas. Among the notable ones is a clear glass miniature grouping near the kitchen table. Another is a wooden set given to us by a Jewish craftsman in Birmingham. And the largest is a ceramic menagerie designed and painted by Amanda’s mother, now neatly arranged on top of an antique sideboard under a spotlight in our foyer.

They’re everywhere…thirteen editions of the babe-in-a-manger. It occurred to me that everywhere I go in our home, I see Jesus. But the more important epiphany is that everywhere I go, Jesus sees me. If my eyes are on Jesus, and the eyes of Jesus are upon me, I have no excuse for missing the real joy of Christmas this year.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Advent

by Barry Howard

In early October when I made a quick stop in a local discount store to pick up a few general items, I couldn’t help but notice the strange combination of items in the promotional section near the front of the store. Half of the aisle was fully stocked with Halloween items…bright plastic jack-o-lanterns, various costumes and assorted Trick-or-Treat candies. The other half of the aisle was being stocked with Christmas items including miniature trees, boxes of lights, gift-wrapping paper, and colorful candy canes. To see the decorations of two separate holidays together on the same aisle seemed a little out of place.

Now, a month later, the turkeys have been gobbled up and the dressing has been devoured and we are in the week following Thanksgiving. Christmas music is playing on the radio, Christmas sale ads are blaring from flat panel screens, and bucket trucks are hanging aging ornaments on the light poles on main street.

In our home and on our church campus, multiple trees are decorated, lights are twinkling, and the aroma of scented candles fills the air. Just before our vespers service last Sunday evening, someone who was admiring the beauty of the décor said to me, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” “Not too fast,” I said. “It’s really beginning to look a lot like Advent.” We need the season of Advent to spiritually prepare for Christmas.

At my home church, a rural congregation who helped to shape and form my adolescent faith, we didn’t observe Advent. We proceeded directly from Thanksgiving to Christmas. In that tight-knit congregation, the sacred dates on our church calendar other than Christmas and Easter were Church Conference after worship service on the first Sunday, gospel singing on the fourth Sunday night, revival during the second full week in August, and homecoming the last Sunday in July. Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Passover, and Pentecost were not in my ecclesial vocabulary.

Later, as a young pastor, I was introduced to the colors and candles of Advent and my journey toward Christmas was upgraded and enriched. Today, I am convicted and convinced that as mission-driven Christians who live in a market-driven culture, we need the reflective disciplines of Advent to keep us alert to stealth forces like materialism, busyness, greed, and indifference…those deceptive grinches who would love to steal the real message and gifts of the season and replace them with superficial slogans and glamorous counterfeits.

I love a festive and joyful celebration of Christmas. However, to begin celebrating Christmas in October, November, or even early December, is like a parent trying to skip labor and delivery to go straight to the nursery. For a Christian, Advent is our progressive, devotional journey that culminates in grateful celebration when the Christ candle is lighted and the Christmas Star shines over the manger in Bethlehem.

During Advent in our church, we will prepare for Christmas by re-visiting the prophets, singing the carols, re-reading the gospels, and lighting the candles that re-energize our peace, hope, love, and joy. Then we will be better equipped to empathize with the anxiety of Mary and Joseph, to feel the labor pains of God, to celebrate the birth of the world’s most pivotal newborn, and to recognize both the singing of angels and the sobs of Rachel weeping.

If we take the time to revisit the biblical stories, to reclaim the joyful promises, and rekindle the fires of our faith, we may find that we are more than ready to follow Christ from the cradle to the cross and beyond.

The decorations are in place. The music has started. The Bible is open…and so are my mind, my heart, and my soul. This week it’s beginning to look a lot like Advent.

(Barry Howard serves as senior minister of the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)