Editor’s Note: Have you heard the news? Because of Bethlehem, the four-week Advent study by Max Lucado, is coming back as our Christmas Online Bible Study this year! This study impacted so many lives last Christmas – we had to bring it back for our new Bible study friends and for past participants wanting to make it an annual tradition. All of the videos will be available for free online during the entire study, so you can watch them at your own pace.
Here’s a preview of the first session…
The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. — John 1:14 MSG
The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons
Video: God Has a Face
Play the video segment for session 1. As you watch, use the outline provided to follow along or to take additional notes on anything that stands out to you. Spoiler alert: Max does mention that Santa Claus “is not real” in the opening, so if you haven’t broken the news to little ones, fast forward between the seconds of 3:05-3:20 if watching with children.
Christmas is a season of traditions. To most kids, that jolly old elf is the very face of Christmas — and that face is everywhere this time of year.
Christmas can also be a season of sadness, of lost hope and disappointments.
The story of Mary and Joseph:
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. — John 1:14 NKJV
Why did God go so far? A chief reason is this: He wants us to know that He gets us.
Through a scandalous pregnancy, an imposed census, an untimely trip, and an overcrowded inn, God triumphed in Mary’s story.
The story of George Harley: Everything changed when the villagers saw the tears of the missionary. Everything changes for us when we see the face of God.
God became one of us, and because of this, He knows us.
If the King was willing to enter the world of animals and shepherds and swaddling clothes, don’t you think He’s willing to enter yours?
God took on your face in the hope that you would see His.
- What part of the teaching had the most impact on you?
- At the beginning of the video, Max acknowledged some of the Christmas traditions he looks forward to each year, such as sleigh bells, carolers, and the holiday classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas. These are just a few examples of traditions that typically lead up to Christmas Day and help us experience the Christmas spirit. Using the list of categories below as a prompt, briefly describe one or two traditions that help you to enjoy the season and prepare for Christmas each year.
- Decorations (decorating home or Christmas tree, going to see the lights, etc.)
- Christmas cards (sending or receiving)
- Outdoor activities (snow skiing, ice-skating, snowshoeing, etc.)
- Food (cooking or eating special meals or desserts)
- Crafting (making decorations or gifts)
- Volunteering (serving others through a church or charitable organization)
- Gift shopping
- Hosting (parties, special events, overnight guests, etc.)
- Entertainment (concerts, movies, plays, favorite television shows, etc.)
- Church (weekly services, special events, etc.)
- Cultural or ethnic traditions
- Visit to Santa
- Family traditions
- Other: _________________
What do you enjoy most about the tradition you described? How does it contribute to making it feel like Christmas each year?
What might be gained and what might be lost if you experienced none of these traditions before the day itself? In other words, no holiday decorations, no cards, no special meals or entertainment until Christmas Day. Would you feel more or less prepared to celebrate and enjoy Christmas? Why?
- For centuries, Christians throughout the world have used the season of Advent to prepare themselves spiritually for Christmas. The word advent comes from the Latin word adventus and simply means “coming” or “arrival.” Beginning each year on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, Advent commemorates the First Advent — Jesus’ birth — and also anticipates the Second Advent — Christ’s return. Although we tend to think of Advent as a season of celebration, it was originally conceived primarily as a season of preparation — a time for prayer and self-reflection.
How would you characterize your experience of Advent over the years? For example, is it a tradition you grew up with or is it new to you?
What, if anything, changes in your perspective when you think of Advent primarily as a season of preparation rather than celebration? Overall, would you say it makes Advent more or less appealing to you? Share the reasons for your response.
God with Us
- Advent is a season of preparation because it is also a season of anticipation — a glorious gift is coming soon and we want to be ready to receive it! In the prologue to his gospel, the apostle John proclaims the miraculous truth of the incarnation, the gift of God with us in human form:
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen His glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth… No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made Him known. — John 1:14, John 1:18 NRSV
Because God became human, we can see and know God in the person of Jesus. We can also rely on the fact that God knows us. He understands how we feel because He has faced what we face, including weakness, testing, and suffering.
Author C. S. Lewis elaborates on the vital importance of this truth:
God could, had He pleased, have been incarnate in a man of iron nerves, the Stoic sort who lets no sigh escape Him. Of His great humility He chose to be incarnate in a man of delicate sensibilities who wept at the grave of Lazarus and sweated blood in Gethsemane… He has faced all that the weakest of us face, has shared not only the strength of our nature but every weakness of it except sin. If He had been incarnate in a man of immense natural courage, that would have been for many of us almost the same as His not being incarnate at all.1
Lewis contrasts two options for the kind of man Jesus could have chosen to become — an invincible man of iron nerves, or a vulnerable man of delicate sensibilities. Had Jesus chosen to be the invincible man, how do you imagine it might have undermined the miracle of the incarnation or diminished its power?
Briefly recall a recent or past experience of weakness, testing, or suffering. As you were going through it, which aspect of Christ’s nature would you say you were most aware of and drawn to — His divinity (power) or His humanity (vulnerability)? For example, did you find yourself praying more that Jesus would intervene and change your situation, or that Jesus would be with you and comfort you?
- Max described the Christmas story as one that actually has particular relevance for those who find themselves in a season of sadness, lost hope, or disappointment. We see this especially in Mary’s experience. Although she eagerly anticipated the arrival of her child, nothing leading up to the birth of Jesus would have met Mary’s hopes and expectations. She hoped for a joyous celebration with family, but her unwelcome reality was a scandalous pregnancy, an imposed census, an untimely trip, and lowly accommodations with sheep and cattle.
As you anticipate these weeks leading up to Christmas, what hopes and expectations are you aware of?
Words that describe Mary’s unwelcome reality include scandalous, imposed, untimely, and lowly. What words would you use to describe any unwelcome realities you may be facing this holiday season? Or, in what ways, if any, might this be a difficult time for you?
In spite of, and out of, Mary’s chaos and hardships, Christ came. The season leading up to the first Christmas wasn’t what she hoped for, but it was a miracle in the making. At the most unexpected time and place, Mary saw the face of God. Describing how God triumphed in Mary’s story Max writes,
The manger dares us to believe the best is yet to be. And it could all begin today.
As you consider both your hopes and the unwelcome realities you face, how do you respond to the idea that, like Mary, your circumstances could be a miracle in the making, an occasion in which you may soon see the face of God?
What might the manger be daring you to believe?
Walking Together through Advent
- In addition to studying together, it’s also important to walk together through Advent — to share your lives with one another and to be aware of how God is at work among you. In each session, there will be many opportunities to speak life-giving — and life-challenging — words, and to listen to one another deeply.
As you anticipate the next few weeks of learning and walking together, what request would you like to make of the group? For example, how do you hope other members will challenge you or encourage you? Use one or more of the sentence starters below, or your own statement, to help the group understand the best way to be a good friend to you throughout this study. As each person responds, use the two-page chart that follows to briefly note what is important to that person and how you can be a good friend to him or her during your discussions and times together.
You can help me to take Advent seriously this year by…
I’d like you to consistently challenge me about…
It really helps me to engage in a group when…
I tend to withdraw or feel anxious when…
In our discussions, the best thing you could do for me is…
Each session in the Because of Bethlehem study includes an Advent practice for you to complete between sessions. Although the practice is completed on your own and outside of group time, it’s a good idea to briefly preview the practice description before concluding your meeting each week. As an intentional act of preparing our hearts for Christmas, the Advent practices throughout the study require setting aside a brief amount of time each day to complete. To get the most out of the practice, it’s important not to hurry or try to complete activities at the last minute.
In addition to the Advent practice, session 1 also includes an optional Advent reflection. This brief exercise is designed to help you begin Advent by considering how the weeks leading up to Christmas typically impact you. It’s not necessary to read through the reflection as a group, but before concluding, do review together the session 1 Advent practice, which follows the reflection.
Excerpted with permission from Because of Bethlehem by Max Lucado, copyright Max Lucado. Published by Thomas Nelson.
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