Religious holiday ceremonies will focus on love, hope

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 21, 2001

NATCHEZ – Messages of love, hope and peace will resound from pulpits on Sunday and Monday in churches throughout the Natchez area. Some ministers have polished their words; some continue to reflect on challenges of presenting yet another Christmas message to Christians eager to hear again the story of Christ’s birth.

Some spiritual leaders will use the September 11 incident to lead into their messages. Others will preach, as they are accustomed to do, that the birth of Christ cannot be celebrated without also considering His life, His death on the cross, His resurrection and His ascension.

For the Rev. Alfred Camp of St. Mary Basilica, the message of Christmas will be a simple one, based on the example Jesus set for all who study His words and ways during His life on Earth.

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&uot;Acceptance. That’s an important part of the story,&uot; Camp said. &uot;Jesus doesn’t discriminate. He loves us all no matter who we are.&uot;

Too often, he said, we exclude and make outcasts of those whose lives are not neat and clean.

&uot;There is room for everybody – people with AIDS, people with addictions they can’t handle, even old uncle so-and-so who just doesn’t have it all together.&uot;

Jesus sought out the outcasts, Camp said. &uot;The worse they were, the more likely He was to spend time with them.&uot;

Camp said that he may use the September 11 incident in his sermon, but his message will be that the awful deeds on that day did not really change the world.

&uot;Today’s world is no different from the old world. That’s the essence of why Jesus came,&uot; Camp said. &uot;The problem of evil is one of the key theological problems. We’ve never been able to figure out why if God is good there is still evil in the world.&uot;

The Rev. David de Vries of First Presbyterian Church agrees with those thoughts, and he will use in his Christmas Eve sermon a 16th-century painting by Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel to illustrate the unchanging nature of man.

&uot;There’s a huge panel that represents the whole city of Bethlehem. The painting is called ‘Numbering at Bethlehem,’&uot; de Vries said. &uot;People are bustling around doing their own things and off to the side is a tiny place where Christ is being born.&uot;

Life was going on. People were busy. In no way were people throughout Bethlehem aware of the birth of the Christ child.

&uot;The world as it is now after September 11 is more like the world Jesus was born into,&uot; deVries said. &uot;What does Jesus have to offer that could speak to this world today?&uot;

At First Baptist Church, the Rev. J. William Hurt will continue a series of sermons on the advent – preparing for Jesus’s birth. Hurt will emphasize keeping Christmas alive throughout the year.

&uot;I’m taking words from ‘The Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens,&uot; he said. The famous story describes Ebenezer Scrooge as knowing how to keep Christmas well.

&uot;What can we do different to keep Christmas alive 365 days a year? I’ll take three figures from the Christmas story in the Bible to answer the question,&uot; Hurt said.

People who visited the Christ child eventually had to leave the scene. They had to go home. &uot;We will have to leave Christmas behind, take the decorations down, but people around us ought to sense a difference in our lives based on our relationship with Christ and not just knowing about him.&uot;

Hurt will point out the marveling expressed by the shepherds and others as they visit the miracle. Mary handles the extraordinary moment in her own way, and she is worthy of note. &uot;Mary ‘pondered’ these things in her heart,&uot; Hurt said.

And so should we – every day and not just on special occasions. &uot;We should treasure the things that are dear to us – our family, our friends and our country,&uot; he said.

The shepherds came to the manger to worship. So should Christians come to Christmas services to worship, Hurt said.

The Rev. Derek McNamara of Covington Road Church of Christ will preach on &uot;trouble at the inn at the birth of Jesus.&uot;

He will point out the inaccuracies and the inconsistencies in the scene that has become familiar to people today. &uot;The shepherds and the wise men were not there at the same time, for example,&uot; McNamara said.

He will emphasize the connection between the birth and the ensuing life and the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, he said.

Like many ministers, McNamara has been preaching sermons that prepare for Christmas Day. &uot;Last week we talked about the complexity of life. Mary and Joseph found their lives much more complicated by the birth of Jesus, and they could share many things only with each other.&uot;

How does that translate into today’s world? McNamara said it has never been easy to be a Christian. &uot;The early Christians were persecuted for their faith. Life was not easy for them. Often it is not easy for us.&uot;

Living in a violent world, we seek refuge in God just as people in the Old Testament times did, he said. &uot;God has to bring that peace to us, and He has done that through Jesus.&uot;

Like Camp at St. Mary, McNamara points to the kinds of people Jesus lived among and even those from whom he was descended in the earthly genealogy. &uot;Jesus came from those people and he came to save those people.&uot;

The Rev. Joe Pickett, who will preach Christmas messages at two churches, Zion Hill Baptist Church and Union Baptist Church, will center his sermons on the birth, followed by the death and resurrection.

&uot;In I Corinthians: 15, that’s the Scripture,&uot; Pickett said. That chapter, in fact, is the Apostle Paul’s message to the people at Corinth about resurrection.

Pickett will also use Romans 1:16, &uot;For I am not ashamed of the Gospel.&uot; The power of God is revealed in that Scripture, he said.

&uot;We don’t have to find pretty or eloquent ways of saying it. The Gospel in the heart of the hearer will bring about change in them.&uot;

Pickett said the message of Christ is the same at Christmas as in the rest of the year. &uot;The Gospel is simple but powerful. It will make ignorant people wise; unintelligent people, intelligent; hateful people, kind. But it all must be received. It’s an invitation we must accept.&uot;

The Rev. James Earl Herndon of Jefferson Street United Methodist Church has had his messages organized for weeks, and he is excited about continuing the series.

Beginning with &uot;Polished up for Christmas&uot; on Sunday, he will continue with &uot;Christmas Eve: A Song, a Star and a Savior.&uot;

&uot;The Sunday message will emphasize preparing for Christmas by reaching out to others who are in need and by allowing Christ to be born in our hearts,&uot; Herndon said.

&uot;I’m an upbeat person, and I try to take Christmas as a time to lift people up,&uot; he said.

On Christmas Eve, Herndon will focus on three thoughts, beginning with the song of the angels, &uot;Glory to God in the highest and on Earth, peace and good will toward men.&uot;

We all need a song we can sing, he said. We also need a star to follow. &uot;Star leads to the Savior, and we all need a Savior.&uot;

Herndon said his messages are prepared to help people leave worship service knowing that life is good, that tomorrow will be better than today.