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The deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history is now fully contained. But the destruction and devastation caused by its path is still gut-wrenchingly unreal; more than 18,000 structures destroyed, including some 13,972 homes, and at least 85 lives lost.

A close and lifelong friend and his family live in Paradise, California. As news came in about the fire we feared the worst for them. By God's grace, they, like many of their neighbors, escaped the flames to safety. Unfortunately, they later found out, along with eighty percent of Paradise residents, that their home was destroyed to nothing but ash. Not only did they lose their home, but the community they loved was completely wiped out. Only a few public structures and homes remain while the city's infrastructure is totally destroyed.

My heart sank upon this news for my friend, his family and their community and stayed in my stomach for weeks. What does one begin to say? What can one do? What does one do? Of course, prayer is the place to start, and our family continues to lift up in prayer the Hogan family and their community to the God of all mercy.

Thank you to all who have joined our prayers for our friends and the community of Paradise. Thank you to our Saint John's Lutheran World Relief sewing group, who helped us send a box of quilts to Paradise. Thank you to those who have passed along gift cards to send to Paradise and to everyone who donated to the offering taken for LCMS Disaster Response’s wildfire relief.

In the midst of tragedy, a picture of hope has surfaced and remains for a community devastated by such unimaginable loss. It is a cross in the parking lot of Our Savior Lutheran Church. Even though the fire destroyed the church and parsonage, the cross remains standing in the midst of the rubble and ash.

Pastor Brandon Merrick, in a letter to his congregation, put it well: "I hate this picture. However, I also love this picture. … For me, this picture is not just a heartbreaking reminder of what can happen to the things and people of this world, this is our one true hope in the midst of tragedy that cannot be destroyed by anything. God is with us. … The hard work of the people of Our Savior Lutheran over the last 54 years, some who are still with us, was not lost in the fire because the cross still stands. God is still with us, and on the foundation of His promise and sure Word, we will continue to stand."

The cross standing in the parking lot of Our Savior is not only a picture of hope for the people of this congregation, but for the entire community of Paradise. It is also a picture of hope for us. For this, too, is our hope, and this, too, is what Christmas is all about.

Christmas is perhaps the most joyous season of the year. It has, unlike any other season, a certain sentimentalism attached to it that fills our hearts with joy and gladness as we recall childhood memories and times with family and friends over the years. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this (these, too, are good gifts from God) as long as we don't lose sight of the reason we gather together, what and why we celebrate; namely, the Nativity of our Lord. (See Carl Jorgensen’s Christmas memories).

Christmas is about hope in paradise lost! It's about a promise God made to Adam and Eve after paradise was squandered by the fall into sin and all the world was cursed. A promise that God would put enmity between the serpent's seed and Eve's seed; “he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) A promise that One from Eve's offspring would come to restore paradise lost by reversing the curse, destroying sin, death and the serpent forever.

Christmas is about the One who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin, lived, died and rose again to make right what has gone wrong with the world and with mankind. Isaac Watts captures this well in his beloved hymn, Joy to the World: “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make His blessings flow Far as the curse is found, Far as the curse is found, Far as, far as the curse is found.” St. John put it this way: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

We give thanks to God that He graciously and lovingly spared our friends from this horrific fire. Most of all, we thank the Lord for the hope we have in Christ symbolized by the cross that remains standing in Our Savior's parking lot.

Christmas is about hope in paradise lost. It is about the hope we have in the promise of paradise restored in Christ and the life He gives now and forever that nothing can touch or destroy! “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” Joy to the world, the Lord will come again!

Blessed Adventide and Christmas,

Rev. Shawn Nettleton is Senior Pastor at Saint John’s Lutheran Church. You can reach him in the church office, by email at or at 970-305-2420.