December 10 2023

Do Not Be Afraid at Christmas

In the Christmas story in Luke’s gospel, the angel appears to three characters – Zachariah, Mary and the shepherd – and on each occasion, he starts by saying “Do not be afraid” (See Luke 1:13, 30 & 2:10).

Why did he say this?

Well, despite what you might have heard, it has nothing to do with the angel looking scary or even frightening their visitors with their appearance.

One of the more cringeworthy parts of the new musical film “Journey to Bethlehem” was when the angel Gabriel appears to Mary as bumbling and nervous and has to yell her name to wake her because she is a heavy sleeper. She startles awake and the angel apologizes saying “Do not be afraid. I’m sorry I frightened you” Watch it HERE if you dare. This misses the meaning of these great words completely.

The Fear of the Lord

The idea that a messenger of God appearing would be a fear-inspiring experience is throughout the Bible.

The principle is established explicitly back in Exodus 33:18-23 where Moses asks God to show him his glory, and God allows him to experience his presence but God states “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

The idea is that God is holy and we are sinful and to see God exposes that reality and we are exposed to God’s judgment.

Consider these two episodes in Judges:

“When Gideon realized that it was the angel of the Lord, he exclaimed, ‘Alas, Sovereign Lord! I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face!’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Peace! Do not be afraid. You are not going to die.’” (Judges 6:22-23)

“When the angel of the Lord did not show himself again to Manoah and his wife, Manoah realized that it was the angel of the Lord. ‘We are doomed to die!” he said to his wife. “We have seen God!'” (Judges 13:21-22)

Then you have Isaiah’s amazing vision in Isaiah 6 where he sees God in his throne room and all the angels are crying “Holy holy holy”. Isaiah’s instinctual response was:
“‘Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.'” (Isaiah 6:5)

This is similar to Peter’s response when he meets Jesus and realises that he is from God. He falls to his knees and says “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8) and what is Jesus’ response to him? Jesus starts by saying, “Don’t be afraid.” (Luke 5:10).

The Fear of Bad News

The reason why a messenger of God inspires fear from humans is not because the messengers are scary to look at. It’s because for a sinner to be exposed to the light of God’s holiness is a terrifying thing. We think from TV shows like “Touched By An Angel” that coming into God’s presence would be all warm and fuzzy. It is not. As the writer of Hebrews puts it: “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31)

This is why the angels say “Do not be afraid”, and also why Jesus said it to Peter. It’s not because there is nothing to fear. It’s because, for these encounters with God, the presence of God is not bringing about judgment, but rather mercy.

That’s why the angel comforts Mary by saying: “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God.” (Luke 1:30) He is saying, you have found favor rather than judgment.

That’s why the angel declares to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” (Luke 2:10) He is saying, I bring you good news rather than bad news.

The presence of God does not naturally bring us peace and joy and comfort. Apart from the good news of mercy, it brings us fear. If it doesn’t for you, then you either don’t know the depth of your sin or the holiness of God. Or more likely, you haven’t ever been faced with the presence of God. Peter was fine being around Jesus until he realised who he really was. If you have no fear now, that doesn’t mean you won’t when you come before him face to face.

In fact, as many people approach death, they start to feel that fear of their own sinfulness before a holy God and their need to prepare. As I sat by my father’s hospital bed over the last few months of his battle with cancer, we had several precious conversations on this very topic and I was able to share with him the hope that Jesus offers to those who fear death (Hebrews 2:14-15).

The reality is that fearing God is not only natural, it is the beginning of wisdom. The message of Christmas is not that our fear is misguided or foolish. It’s that God has come in Christ “to bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10).

Therefore, despite our sinfulness, despite God’s holiness, and despite the judgment that we rightly deserve…

in the gospel of Jesus we can hear those precious words of comfort…

“Do not be afraid!”


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December 20 2022

The Facinating History of the Christmas Tree

Part One

Why are trees a part of Christmas celebrations?

Where did this tradition come from?

Well, you may have heard some say that Christmas trees are just a pagan symbol that Christians stole from other religions. 

Though this idea is popular, it’s not actually based on much historical evidence.  

The closest we have to anything like that is an old story about St Boniface – an English missionary who traveled to Germany to tell people about Jesus around the year 730AD.

The story goes that he came across some native Germans who were going to sacrifice a child to the god Thor in front of a large oak tree. To save the child, St Boniface chopped down the tree to the amazement of the Thor-worshippers, who had expected Boniface to be struck down by lightning. 

In later accounts of the story, after the tree is chopped down, St Bonface noticed a small fir tree growing nearby. It was around Christmas time and so Boniface told the Germans: 

“This little tree, a young child of the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight. It is the wood of peace, for your houses are built of the fir. It is the sign of an endless life, for its leaves are evergreen. See how it points upward to heaven. Let this be called the tree of the Christ-child; gather about it, not in the wild wood, but in your own homes; there it will shelter no deeds of blood, but loving gifts and rites of kindness.” 

Now, we don’t know for sure if this later bit actually happened. But what we do know is trees were being used as a Christian symbol hundreds of years before St Bonface went to Germany.

Most likely the origin of Christmas trees goes way back to Medieval Times in the 5th century.

In an era when most people couldn’t read the bible for themselves, churches put on “Mystery” or “Paradise” Plays, in order to teach the people bible stories. December 24 had been assigned as the feast day of Adam and Eve in preparation for Christmas Day. The idea was that the sin of Adam & Eve was remembered before we remember the birth of the Messiah.

In the lead up to Christmas, the Medieval Church used to put on plays telling the whole story from the Garden of Eden to the coming of Christ. One of the main features of this play was what they called a “Paradise Tree”. It was an evergreen tree that they hung red apples and white wafers on. The red apples represented the forbidden fruit and the white wafers represented Christ.

Believe it or not, this is actually where the tradition of hanging red baubles and other ornaments on the Christmas Tree came from. Over time, the idea of using a decorated evergreen tree to remember and celebrate the birth of Christ became a tradition not only for church plays, but also for Christians individually. 

Lots of other religions have used trees and branches as part of the worship of their gods. But that doesn’t make trees themselves a pagan symbol. God’s people have had trees as part of their religious narrative from the very beginning – from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, to the olive leaf telling Noah the Flood was over. Think of Moses and the burning bush, and the branches used in the Feast of Booths or to praise Jesus on Palm Sunday. The cross Jesus died on is even described as a tree, and in the last book of the Bible, the sign that the curse of death is gone is the return of the tree of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. 

Part Two

Trying to tie down the history of the Christmas Tree to one thread is not easy. Two countries in Europe claim to be the first to host a Christmas Tree in their public square. Latvia claims it was in one of their cities in 1510, and Estonia claims they did it earlier in 1444. 

But how did Christmas trees become a decoration that people would have in their own home?

Well, that tradition is attributed to the Christian reformer and German preacher, Martin Luther.

In 1536, one winter’s night before Christmas, Luther was walking through a pine forest near his house. He looked up and saw the beautiful stars twinkling through the tree branches. He was so moved, he went home and told his children that it reminded him of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth at Christmas. Luther went, chopped down a smaller pine tree, brought it into his house and decorated it with candles to represent the stars. This is said to be the first time that lights were used to decorate a Christmas tree.

The story goes that Luther led his family in singing a hymn that he had written in 1531. These are the first two verses of that hymn:

Good news from Heav’n the angels bring,

Glad tidings to the earth they sing:

To us this day a Child is giv’n,

To crown us with the joy of Heav’n.

This is the Christ, our God and Lord,

Who in all need shall aid afford;

He will Himself our Saviour be,

From all our sins to set us free.

Now, we don’t know how this story about Martin Luther was spread, but from that point on we have evidence of Christmas trees growing in popularity, particularly in Germany.

The first official record of a Christmas tree being used is found in German Lutheran documents from the 16th century that state that in 1539 a Christmas tree was placed in the Cathedral of Strasbourg.

The earliest depiction of a Christmas tree is dated to 1576 and found in a keystone sculpture in an archway in early Germany.

By the early 1600s, decorated Christmas trees were a common tradition in Southern Germany, as one German writer reported in 1605:

“At Christmas they set up fir trees in the parlours of Strasbourg and hang thereon roses cut out of many-coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold foil, sweets, etc.” 

But how in the last 400 years did Christmas trees spread from Germany to become such a staple part of Christmas traditions across the world?

Part Three

By the 1800s, the tradition of Christmas trees has taken hold across all of Germany and was seen to be an expression of German culture. As Germans travelled the world they took this tradition with them, but it took a while to for it to be embraced by other countries.

German immigrants brought it to the US, but it was generally seen as a bit of a weird European practise. Because of this, the rumour developed that Christmas trees were a pagan idea, despite the fact that Christians had instigated and developed the tradition from the very beginning.

In fact, over the centuries, Christmas itself was frowned upon by many Protestants both in England and America, with Christmas celebrations being made illegal at different times in history. 

It was the influence of the English Royal family that ultimately changed the attitude to Christmas and Christmas trees across the globe. On the 10th of February 1840, Queen Victoria married her German cousin, Prince Albert and with that, the German love of Christmas traditions came into the English monarchy. In 1841, Prince Albert had a Christmas tree set up at Windsor Castle and the public opinion of Christmas trees in England very quickly began to change.

Every year, Queen Victoria advertised their Christmas celebrations and these were illustrated and shared across, not only the British Empire, but also America. The English Royals were the trend-setting celebrity influencers of the 1800s and their customs, clothing styles and yes, holiday traditions shaped the fashion of the West. 

Possibly the most significant month in the history of the Christmas tree, was December 1848, when the Illustrated London News published a drawing entitled “Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle”.

It portrayed the Royal couple with their children standing around a tree decorated with candles and ornaments and topped with an angel. This illustration went the 1800s equivalent of “viral” and with that, Christmas trees turned from being seen as some weird little German decoration, to the epitome of high fashion across the Western world.

The popularity of Christmas trees continued over the next two centuries, with the invention of electric lights, plastic decorations and artificial trees in the 1900s. Slowly, the Christmas tree, like Christmas itself, has become more and more commercialised and fake. Those old rumours of Christmas trees being just a pagan rip-off have resurfaced, and the Christian origins of the Christmas tree have been forgotten by many.

We no longer look at the red baubles and think of the fruit on the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  

We don’t see the twinkling lights and reflect like Martin Luther, on the stars of the heavens.

But one tradition has stayed. Most people, whether Christian or not, still put either an angel or a star at the top of their Christmas tree – pointing to the angels who declared the birth of Jesus and the star that led the wise men to the Messiah that they were seeking.

The Christmas tree has had a very interesting history. If you have one set up at home, I hope you can remember these words from the story of St Boniface:

“It is the sign of an endless life, for its leaves are evergreen. See how it points upward to heaven. Let this be called the tree of the Christ-child; gather about it, not in the wild wood, but in your own homes; there it will shelter no deeds of blood, but loving gifts and rites of kindness.” 


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September 17 2021

Free Christmas Ministry Ideas

Are you hunting for some creative, gospel-focused, tried and tested, free ideas and resources that your church can use this Christmas?

Well, here are three that I have developed and used myself, and that you can use for free as well!

“When Santa Learned the Gospel” Carols Pack

I published my first children’s book called “When Santa Learned the Gospel” back in 2017. It’s a quirky Christmas book that shares the gospel in a unique and very engaging way, by looking at it through the eyes of Santa and his “naughty and nice” philosophy. Literally tens of thousands of people across the globe have used this little book as a way to start gospel conversations at Christmas, and churches especially have used it as a gift for visitors to their carols services.

Now the book isn’t free, but I also spend a year and thousands of dollars to develop a whole series of free resources that compliment the message of the book. These are all part of the “Carols Pack” and they include things like an original song, a theatrical script, a high-quality animated version of the story of the book, and a whole bunch more.

Watch the videos below or click on the button to find out more about the “Carols Pack”.

“A Zoom Christmas Story” Online Play in 4 Acts

Last year (2020), like many in the world, my church couldn’t hold an in-person carols event, and so I directed an online event which featured all the elements of an entertaining and evangelistic carols night. You can watch the entire event HERE.

One of the features of this event was a play that I wrote and directed, called “A Zoom Christmas Story”. It basically tells the first few chapters of Luke’s gospel as if it was a Zoom meeting. As you can imagine there is lots of opportunity for humour, but there is also a really strong gospel message. The benefit of a “Zoom” production is you can actually have your performers reading off the script during the performance, which means it is much easier to put together with non-professional actors. It still requires some rehearsal (especially for knowing when to click on and click off) and it requires some editing after it has been recorded on Zoom, but if you are in lockdown, then this may be a great option for you.

Watch the show on the video below, or click the button to download the script.

“Nazareth” a Hamilton Parody

I wrote a parody of the opening number from Hamilton which tells the Christmas story and message. I had lots of fun writing, filming and editing it and the video went a little bit “viral” which was fun and weird to witness. So, you can use the video to share or play at your church, but if you have a group of good singers/rappers, you might even want to perform your own version of it. I’d love to see that!

Watch the video below, or click the button to download the lyrics.

Giving a Christmas Gospel Talk – a conversation with Andy May

For years I have worked alongside pastor Andy May to put on the Christmas Carols Event at Bundoora Presbyterian Church. We have tried lots of different ideas over the years. But everything has been to serve the aim of communicating the gospel.

Watch the video below as I sit down with Andy and ask him how he thinks about giving a gospel talk at these events.

I hope something in this collection of free resources is useful to you, and if you do use any of it, I would love to hear about it, even I would even more love to see it if it gets recorded or livestreamed. Please put a comment or contact me privately below:


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April 24 2021

Why Are My Angels Scottish?

In 2002, I started a theatre company called The Backyard Bard and for nearly the last two decades, I have been committing to memory and performing Scripture. This theatrical artform is called “Biblical Storytelling”, though it isn’t limited to Bible stories. I also love performing sections from the epistles, prophetic writings, and Biblical poetry.

Narrative texts however, give me the wonderful opportunity to play lots of different characters, which is always heaps of fun. The most fun character I love to portray is an angel, and if you’ve ever seen a storytelling performance by The Backyard Bard, you’ll have noticed that our angels always have Scottish accents. See below as an example:

Once I performed at a very prestigious private boy’s college for the school chapel assembly, and even in that formal setting, there was an angel in the story, and so the Scottish accent came out. I recall being introduced to one of the teachers on campus who was actually Scottish. The school staff member introducing me told them that I had performed the angel in a Scottish accent and wanted their reaction. Without a beat, this teacher cheekily shrugged and said in his thick accent, “Aye, I’ve always thought angels were Scottish.”

Many have asked, so what’s with the Scottish angels? I often answer jokingly, “Well, if you ever meet an angel that doesn’t sound Scottish, tell me and I’ll do their accent instead!” But there actally is some thought that went behind choosing that accent for the angels, so I thought I’d explain it here.

Choosing an accent

Firstly it’s worth pointing out, I love doing accents. My Pharisees and kings often have posh British accents, my shepherds sound Aussie occa, Pilate and the Roman guards sometimes sound Italian and with the occasional character I might play with a bit of a Yiddish accent. I even once told the story of Samson from Judges, giving him the voice of Arnold Schwarzenegger (check it out HERE).

Each of these accents plays into stereotypes and so I am careful when or if I use them. But sometimes those stereotypes can really help communicate some aspect of a character’s personality, like with the posh British accent reflecting affluence, status and a sense of arrogance, whereas the Aussie occa shepherds communicate their humble status and simple good nature.

The accent would of course, only be one in a smorgasbord of creative tools the actor has to create a distinct and engaging character. I’d also think about how I’d move my body, my hand gestures, my facial expressions and what simple props (either mimed or physically present) I might use. I generally would avoid costumes, because with Biblical Storytelling, you’d be switching between characters so quickly it would not be practical. In light of that, accents in particular, became a very useful device to make each character distinct and memorable.

What do angels sound like?

So when it came to a story that included an angel, I had to make a call – what should the angel sound like? Well, the most important thing I knew I wanted was for them to sound DIFFERENT. They were angels! They aren’t little cute cherubs with sweet sounding choir voices. They are awesome celestial warriors! Messengers from God that shone with the holiness and glory of God! In the bible, when people meet an angel they are either bowing down in worship, terrified for their life or wracked with guilt over their sin exposed by the presence of God’s holiness. That is why the very first words angels often say are “Do not be afraid!” Sometimes, like in Judges 6, the angel literally says “Peace! Do not be afraid. You are not going to die!”

So I knew I needed the angels accent to not sound like any of the other accents I used for other characters. It needed to be powerful, arresting, terrifying, warrior-like and clearly “not from around here”. It needed to be… Scottish.

Why Scottish works

The first time I used the Scottish accent in a Biblical Storytelling was back in 2005 in the performance you can see in the video above (the full video can be viewed HERE). It was the Christmas story from Matthew’s gospel and the angel appears and begins bossing Joseph around.

Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.

Matthew 1:21

Then a little later in the story he does it again!

Get up! Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.

Matthew 2:13

Sure, you could also imagine that the angel spoke in a soft, comforting tone, but I wanted to shake people’s stereotype of what an angelic appearance was like. It was exciting! God was doing something! The brash boldness of the Scottish accent worked really well. It probably also helped that films like Braveheart and Rob Roy had culturally made the Scottish accent synonymous with being a warrior (at least in my mind) and this was the type of angel I wanted to portray.

I remember, in 2006, a year after I had introduced the Scottish angel, the movie The Nativity was released. I wasn’t overly impressed with the film, but the scene portraying the angel’s visitation was particularly disappointing.

The angel is relaxed and talks and looks just like anyone else she might meet on the street except for being dressed in white (and not as bright as lightning like in Matthew 28:3). And Mary’s reaction! So deadpan! One thing I learnt in Biblical Storytelling is that the performer is the “emotional guide” for the audience, helping them know when something is important or terrifying or news that will literally change the course of history!

Anyway, this film solidified for me that the choice of a bold and larger-than-life Scottish warrior that was one part William Wallace and one part Billy Connolly, was the right way to go.

Good news of great joy!

I mention Billy Connolly, not only because that’s the type of Scottish accent I try to go for, but also because he is a comedian. Inevitably (as you can see in the videos of my performances) the use of the Scottish accent will inevitably cause people to laugh. It’s just undeniably funny to hear a Scottish angel. Unless you’re that teacher I referred to at the start, it’s unexpected and disarming and people consistently respond to that surprise with a laugh.

Is that a bad thing? After all, the angel is a messenger from God Almighty! He should be feared, not laughed at. Isn’t inspiring laughter during a presentation of God’s Word disrespectful or ireverent or even blasphemous?

Well, as you can imagine, I don’t think so. And in my many years of portraying the Scottish angel, I haven’t found it to take away from the seriousness of the scene. That is partly because I take care to play the angel seriously. When he speaks with authority, I portray that. When he speaks tenderly, I change my tone. The Scottish accent is surprising but it is not silly. The laughs always come right at the beginning, but people quickly get used to the voice of the character and the initial comedy does not distract from the angel’s message or the point of the scene.

Also, often, bringing a smile to people’s faces is very appropriate at the arrival of the angels. Although the other characters may be terrified, we know their message is often one of hope and wonder. Or as the angel says in Luke 2:10 “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people!” I have often found, including humour and allowing laughter in a Biblical Storytelling performance lifts the mood right at the moment when the mood needs to be lifted. And when done intentionally, and not just for laughs, it can draw people into God’s Word far more than distracting them from it.

Anyway, I hope that answers your questions about why my angels are Scottish.

If you know of any angels that speak in a different accent and are feeling misrepresented, please do tell me.

I’m sure, on the day I actually meet an angel, they will speak with such a divine voice that I could not possibly try to immitate that now.

Or maybe… they’ll sound like Billy Connolly. I guess we’ll find out.

If you haven’t had enough of the Scottish angel, you can enjoy this Christmas play that I wrote and directed for my church’s carols event last year. It is a modernised adaptation of the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel and the angel pops in now and then.


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April 13 2017

“When Santa Shared the Gospel” – a sequel

“When Santa Shared the Gospel”

A sequel to “When Santa Learned the Gospel”.

When Santa shared the gospel, he went first to Easter Bunny.

He wasn’t sure how he’d respond – if he would find it funny.

He wasn’t sure if he would scoff, or if he’d turn his back.

In truth, he had just no idea how Bunny might react.

But Bunny was a friend of his and so what could he do?

The gospel had transformed his life. It could bless Bunny too.

The gospel had led him to Christ and he’d been born again.

So Santa knew he couldn’t keep this good news from his friend.

He loved his friend and had to share he was a new believer,

But he didn’t want to jeopardize their solid friendship either.

And so when Santa knocked upon the Easter Bunny’s door,

His heart was filled with hope and fear (but fear a little more).

The Easter Bunny greeted Santa with a smile of joy

“What brings you ‘round?” He laughed, “Or have I been a ‘naughty boy’?”

“Well funny you should say that.” Santa said as he sat down,

“I’ve actually had that whole system of thinking flipped around!”

“I’ve got something to tell you. I feel awkward. A bit scared.

I know I don’t know all that much, but what I know, I’ll share.”

So Santa shared the gospel. It was simple. It was short.

And when he stopped he couldn’t tell at all what Bunny thought.

He worried he had caused offense. Was their long friendship wrecked?

But then his friend said something Santa didn’t quite expect…

“That’s great.” smiled Easter Bunny. “Yeah, I’m really glad for you.

You probably didn’t know, but guess what? I’m a Christian too!”

“What news!” cried Santa joyfully, “This must be brand new, is it?

How’d you learn about the gospel? Did my elf friend pay a visit?”

The Easter Bunny laughed, “Nah, my folks are Christians too!

I was brought up with the gospel. I’ve always known it’s true.

I attend my local church each week, and mid-week Bible Study.

Hey! Now that you’re a Christian, we can be church-going buddies!”

At this Santa was puzzled. He’d known Bunny now for ages.

He’d never seen him go to church or turning bible pages.

He’d never heard him talk of Christ or sharing the good news.

And Bunny said, “Look Santa, I can see you’re quite confused.”

“See, I’m not much of a talker. Definitely no evangelist!

I’ll answer questions if I’m asked, but if not, I won’t insist.

My philosophy is simple. It’s a saying I once heard:

‘Preach the Gospel at all times. And if needed then use words.’”

“I like that motto. Words are hard! I’d rather preach through deeds.

And so instead of talking I’ve been sowing subtle seeds.”

“Like, you know how every Easter I make you a hot cross bun?

Well, I hoped that cross might vaguely point you the ‘Jesus’ one.

And the eggs I paint each year are symbols of the resurrection.

I guess I hoped you’d see the subtle gospel-rich connection.”

“Why didn’t you just tell me?” Santa asked, shaking his head.

“Well, I didn’t want to force my faith upon you.” Bunny said.

“I had really hoped to ask you if you’d come to church with me.

But for years I’ve just been waiting for the opportunity.”

“Oh Bunny”, Santa sighed, “I’m sorry that you felt that way.

I understand you feeling awkward but there was no need for delay.

The gospel has the power to save, you shouldn’t feel ashamed!

You’re the Easter Bunny after all. The gospel’s in your name!”

“When I first learned the gospel, I was told it by an elf.

Her example showed me all you need to do is be yourself.

There’s no need to be clever. Don’t have to try to sell it.

You don’t have to be subtle. All you have to do… is tell it.”

“Look, I’m all pretty new to this, so don’t think I’m comparing,

But if Jesus is alive, my friend, that’s good news that’s worth sharing!”

“You’re right,” said Bunny sheepishly, “I’ve wasted time I know.

I could have shared the gospel with you years and years ago.

“Well, no regrets!” smiled Santa, “Let’s go out and celebrate!”

The Easter Bunny grinned and said, “You know what? That sounds great!”

His bunny eyes were twinkling as fresh joy brightened his face,

“And while we’re out how ‘bout we go swing past Tooth Fairy’s place?”


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December 27 2013

When Santa learned the gospel – a poem

santa gospel 2


UPDATE! This poem has now been turned into a children’s book and animated video.
Find out more at

When Santa learned the gospel, he first heard it from an elf.

This tiny Santa’s helper had just learnt of it himself.


A child had asked for Christmas to receive a Bible book.

This elf had made one in the shop, then paused to have a look.


He read all about Jesus and the call to follow him.

He learned how Jesus lived and taught and died to pay for sin.


He learned how Jesus rose again and how he will return

And then this elf read how he should respond to all he’d learned.


He shut the book, put down his tools, then closed his eyes and prayed.

Right there and then this little elf trusted in Christ that day.


The next day he told Santa. It was awkward, unprepared.

He knew he didn’t know that much, but what he knew he shared.


He told Santa the gospel. It was simple. It was short.

But a seed was sown in Santa’s heart, which grew into a thought.


Santa reflected on his life and the message he supported,

Then compared it to the gospel that the elf had just reported.


He’d always thought that everyone was naughty or was nice.

He had them all on two big lists. He even checked it twice.


He’d always thought that you got gifts only if you’d been good.

The naughty kids got lumps of coal. That’s what he understood.


They’d all line up in shopping malls and sit upon his knee

And claim that they were always nice. As nice as nice can be.


Of course, he saw them when they slept and knew when they awoke.

He also knew their nice attempts were pretty much a joke.


Their heads were filled not with nice thoughts of kindness, peace and joy,

But with the never-ending list of their desired toys.


He knew their hearts, but he had thought, “They’re trying to be good.

That’s good enough to make the list. Otherwise no one would!”


So every year their “good enough” with toys would be rewarded.

And every year (he realised) this message he supported:







That was the message that he knew, but now he knew another.

He had just heard the gospel. So he compared them to each other.


The message of the gospel turned his message upside down.

The good, the bad, naughty and nice, it switched it all around.


“There’s no one good but God alone” he’d heard Jesus concluded.

And those who claim they’re “good enough” are simply just deluded.


If there’s a list of who is “good”, the standard we’ve all missed.

And Santa saw that even he was on the naughty list.


That shook his world. That rocked his boat. That gripped him in his soul.

To think that even Santa Claus deserved a lump of coal.


But that was only half of what the gospel message said.

It also flipped what happened to the naughty on its head.


Instead of being written off as just not good enough.

The message to the naughty list was one of grace and love.


The gospel offered mercy to all those deserving coal.

The gospel offered forgiveness and cleansing of your soul.


The gospel told how Jesus died our death to pay the price

To reconcile us all to God – both naughty and the nice.


This offer was a real gift, unlike presents ‘neath the tree.

It was not earned by being good. It was offered for free.


For all his life Santa had claimed that if you had been bad

Then you would not get presents and your Christmas would be sad.


Santa compared his message with this new one he had learned.

His message said you get the presents your good deeds had earned.


The message of the gospel offered something so much greater…

Jesus had come to reconcile the world to their Creator.


When Santa grasped the gospel, he did not know what to do

And so the elf said nervously, “How ’bout I pray with you?”


Then that night at the North Pole, by the fire in his den,

With a simple prayer led by an elf, Santa was born again.


And now, in Christ, forgiven, free – his new life had begun

and Santa had a new message to share with everyone.


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December 25 2012

The Message of the Magi

The Magi, (or as they are more commonly known, the Wise Men) are mentioned only once in the whole Bible. Their brief story is found in the first 12 verses of the 2nd chapter of Matthew’s gospel…


1After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: 6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.


Despite this story being quite short, the Wise Men have become a staple part of the Christmas nativity scene, inspiring one of my favourite Christmas carols, “We Three Kings”. Sadly however, this carol is a perfect example of how we so easily re-shape Christmas into something that suits our fairy tale version of the Bible, rather than reading and responding to what the gospel record actually says. Here are just a few ways we get the story of the Magi completely wrong:

MISTAKE #1: They weren’t kings.

The Magi are never referred to as kings. The concept of kings coming to see Jesus and pay homage is one that makes a wonderfully powerful statement about the authority of Christ over all human rulers. It just has no basis in the original story. I have even heard it said that God ensured that both the poor (represented by the shepherds) and the rich (represented by the “kings”) were present so that we knew that Jesus came for people of every demographic. But no, the Magi were not royalty. They weren’t even necessarily wise (To me, “Wise Men” gives them a sort of ancient guru-like feel). All the text tells us about the Magi is that they came from the East. That doesn’t even tell us much. Were they Magi from the far, far east? Were they gentiles? Were they Jews? Who knows? Read the text above again. Remember, that’s all we really have to go on.

Now, the term “Magi” is mentioned in several other cultures. Some Ancient Greek sources refer to a specific tribe of people  in Ancient Iran (then known as Media), but it also is used as a generic word for any sacred sect or mystical order. This is how we get the generic word “magician” (a “magi” person). Ancient Persian sources refer to the Magi being the religious sect that Zoroaster was born into, and some time before 6 BC, in the eastern parts of Ancient Iran, his teachings became the foundation of the religion, Zoroastrianism, also known as “Magianism”. This religion was alive and kicking at the time that the biblical story is set and this has led some to argue that the Magi were Zoroastrians (or at least converts from Zoroastrianism). If that is true, then they were just some religious guys who were seeking the Jewish Messiah. Now, I don’t want to downplay that. In fact we shouldn’t downplay that. It’s awesome! There’s no need to stretch the story to make them kings or even particularly wise (other than the wisdom they showed in seeking Jesus, but then we should equally call the shepherds “wise men”!)


MISTAKE #2: There weren’t only three. 

All the pictures, movies, nativity sets and carols about “We Three Kings”, suggest that the Magi were a small band of men riding camels, making a lonely trek across the sand dunes and joining the quiet and solemn scene, almost just slipping in at the back unnoticed. Over the year’s we’ve even invented names for them – Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. But read the story again and you’ll find the only reference to the number three is the fact that they brought three different types of gifts (“Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.”  Matthew 2:11). Also, the implication from the text is that it wasn’t just three gifts, but multiple amounts of gold and incense and myrrh as it was taken from their “treasures”.

The biggest clue that the Magi included more than three men, is found in the first 3 verses of the story. Verses 1 and 2 describe the Magi arriving at Jerusalem and asking where the Messiah was. If they were three religious men on camels, this arrival wouldn’t have made anyone take notice. Jerusalem was a huge city and it had a constant traffic of visitors from a variety of nations. But when the Magi arrive, what do we read in verse 3? “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” 

The arrival of the Magi caused a disturbance across all Jerusalem which even reached King Herod himself, enough to make him fearful of losing his own royal position. How many people must have been part of the Magi’s procession for their arrival to have such an epic impact? It sounds more like there could have been hundreds of Magi! There could have been a massive pilgrimage of seekers with horses and elephants and musicians and an entourage of servants carrying loads of treasures for “the one who has been born king of the Jews“! Who knows? There is absolutely no description of the number of Magi who had come from the east or what their group was like. The only thing that can guide us, is the disturbing effect they had on the great city of Jerusalem and the security of Herod the King. Does that sound like three guys? Not likely.

MISTAKE #3: They weren’t even at the Nativity scene. 

That’s right! Every children’s Christmas pageant and that beloved family Nativity set that sits on your mantlepiece has got it wrong! The Magi were not there alongside the shepherds and the cattle by the manger. They weren’t even present at the event of the first Christmas! They came along possibly years later, after Jesus and Mary have moved out of the temporary emergency maternity ward mentioned in Luke 2:7 and moved into a house somewhere in Bethlehem (possibly staying with relatives, as Joseph had to go to Bethlehem for the census due to his family line. See Luke 2:4).

You can read where the Magi actually visited the child in Matthew 2:11-12: “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.” It clearly states that they came to a house, not the barn, stable or cave mentioned in Luke 2:7.

But is that the only reason why I think they were not there at Christmas? Not at all. The biggest clue is not emphatic, but it does make sense. This is the next part of the story found in Matthew 2:13-16…

13 When they [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

Okay, if you’re getting confused, this is how the story of the Magi has gone: Around the time Jesus is born the Magi see a star appear and they somehow get the idea that this signifies that the Jewish Messiah has been born. The story doesn’t elaborate on how they learned this, but they at some point decide to make the journey from where they live to Jerusalem. When they eventually get to Jerusalem, they meet with King Herod who asks them exactly when they first saw the star. They then leave, following the star to the house where Mary, Joseph and Jesus are now living. They respond to Jesus as a king – bowing down to him, worshipping him, and paying homage to him with their treasures.

Now, they were supposed to report back to King Herod, but God warns them to go back to their home in the east without telling the King anything. The King is furious because he wanted to know exactly where Jesus is living so he can find him and kill him. He only knows two things: 1. Where Jesus is approximately (somewhere in or around Bethlehem), and 2. How old Jesus is approximately at this stage.

He works out Jesus’ age by how long it’s been since the star originally appeared (marking when Jesus was born). We aren’t told exactly when this is, but we are told that Herod orders the death of all the children in and around Bethlehem ages two years old and under. This means that Jesus is not a new born any more. In fact, Jesus could be up to two years old according to King Herod’s logic. Maybe Jesus was only one year old and King Herod ruthlessly wanted to just make sure that he got Jesus by killing children older than he needed to, just in case.

Now, this horrible story, traditionally entitled, “The Massacre of the Innocents” really deserves its own contemplation (my brother wrote a thoughtful blog on it which you can read here), but for the purpose of this blog, it points out that the whole story of the Magi and the star is not set at Christmas at all. Jesus is not a newborn baby lying in a manger when the Magi follow visit, he’s a one or two year old child and they visit Jesus at the house he is living in.

But so what? What’s the problem with tweaking the stories of the Bible so that they fit better into carols and nativity sets? Who cares if the Magi actually aren’t a part of Christmas? Who cares if the “We 3 Kings” were actually “We 300 Zoroastrians”?

Well, I think that’s the problem. We don’t care to read what the Bible actually says. Like in the video above, spoken by the Mayor of Orlando, we are happy to “celebrate the biblical story of the three kings”, without really caring if such a “biblical” story even exists. Although it’s still positive and a quasi-endorsement of the Bible, it’s actually promoting a way of changing the Bible to suit ourselves, rather than grappling the Bible as it stands to let it change us.

The best analogy I can think of to explain why this is an issue, is the Quentin Tarantino movie, “Inglourious Basterds”. You may not have seen the movie, but it’s sort of a fantasy re-telling of the events of World War 2, where a group of US soldiers plan to assassinate Hitler – and they succeed! Now, if you know you history, Hitler wasn’t assassinated by American soldiers, he committed suicide. Of course, one of the things that makes the movie, “Inglourious Basterds” such a clever movie is that this fact is known and so Tarantino can make this film as a sort  of “wouldn’t it have been cool if” sort of movie.

But imagine if that movie became the staple history of World War 2? What if all other historical records were ignored and that’s just how the Mayor of Orlando referred to the death of Hitler? What if sermons and songs were written about this fictional history, teaching us about the might of American soldiers and how they were even able to kill Hitler! Not only would this be a lie about America, it would also be an insult to the German resistance, who actually came the closest to assassinating Hitler on the 20th July 1944 with “Operation Valkyrie”. This is actually something I think Quentin Tarantino would hate to have happen, as the power of the fantasy of his film relies on the backdrop of the truthful history being known.

Likewise, when a false version of the Bible is told and re-enforced, it promotes the Bible, not as history, but as mythology and fairy tale. But I believe, more than any other religion, Christianity proclaims the Bible (and especially the gospels) as a record of actual, historical events that are real and true and have effected the history of the world. As Peter, the close friend and follower of Jesus wrote, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16)

The message of the Magi is one of non-Jews (like most of the people reading this blog) seeking the promised Jewish Messiah. Their message is to bow down and worship Jesus like they did. It is a message worth listening to and following.

But the message of the Magi is also that if we are to really grapple with who Jesus really is and respond to him as he truly is – rather than how we would like him to be – we must not simply listen to the carols and the Christmas Day TV special. We must go back to the source material. Read the Bible for yourself! Don’t trust what I say about it in these blogs. Pick it up and read the actual words that are on the page. It’s hard to throw out the baggage and the expectations you may have about Jesus, but I encourage you to try to do so.

If in the end, you choose to follow Jesus, I want you to follow the real Jesus.

If in the end, you choose to reject Jesus, I want you to reject the real Jesus.

Because in the end, you’ll be standing before the real Jesus, and I’d hate for you to get a shock.


To leave you on a lighter note, I’ll finish this will my all-time favourite example of how we like to design our own Jesus. This scene is from the pretty lame movie, “Talladega Nights”, but it includes a very relevant line for this discussion, especially at this time of year. Will Ferrel’s character, Ricky Bobby says, “I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I’m saying grace. When you say grace you can say it to grown up Jesus or teenager Jesus or bearded Jesus or whoever you want.”

Enjoy and have a wonderful Christmas!



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