Mark Saunders led his first Christmas Eve service at Bay Life Church in Brandon 13 years ago. Though the world has changed a bit, the message never will, says Saunders, 48. Whatever divides people, Jesus remains the hope for mankind.
Saunders recently spoke with Tampa Bay Times religion columnist Sarah Whitman about his Christmas message, the lack of peace in the world today and why a certain cereal is among his holiday traditions.
What does the Christmas season mean to you?
Christmas is the beginning of the redemption season. It is a celebration of the birth of Christ, who needed to be born so he could die and we could be forgiven.
What sermon themes do you focus on this time of year?
I am preaching a series right now on what the Angel sang, glory to God in the highest. That is the theme of the season, that God be praised in the highest. Jesus came as the giver of peace to mankind through belief. He offered us connection to God in our own lives, God’s grace and favor.
In America, 2017 was a bit of a rough year. What are your thoughts? How can people hold onto hope?
I agree things are not peaceful. There is a lot of anxiety in our world today. The Greek word for anxiety means torn apart or separated, divided. There is a lot of division in our country along political and even racial lines. Jesus came to be the unifier. That’s what peace is. That’s what gives me hope. Despite our differences and division, if we Christians do it right, God will bring us peace.
What are your Christmas traditions?
Stockings by the fire. Christmas trees. Gifts. All those things. When our children were little they used to act out the Christmas story reading from the Bible and our dog would be the sheep. We’ve always emphasized Christmas is more about giving than receiving. It’s about God’s gift to us. Oh, and since age 7, I’ve eaten a bowl of Froot Loops every Christmas morning. That’s my tradition. When I was a kid my family always followed a very sensible diet because we had limited resources. My father’s checks from the church weren’t very much so to get to eat sugared cereal was huge. It was like a gift to splurge and eat Fruit Loops instead of the Cheerios from the bag.
Your children are now grown. Do they still partake in the Froot Loops?
Heck yeah. We passed that one on.
For some families, gathering together can be stressful? What advice can you offer for keeping the peace among kin?
You are responsible to people but not for people. You can’t control what other people do but you can control how you react. Love those who don’t love you. Choose peace regardless if the people around you choose peace. Focus on gifts you’ve already received in life, on family and faith. The rest is just extra. Keep the main thing in mind. Jesus. That’s the main thing. Then the stress, it will float away.
For those grieving or alone this season, what comfort do you offer?
We try as a church to be a family to those without family.
What do you have planned for Christmas Eve services?
I’ll be talking about God’s favor. We have those little flashlight candles. It’s going to be pretty cool.
Christmas Eve is on Sunday this year? Does that make your life easier as a pastor?
Jesus is worth the fuss, so we’re happy to do it, whenever the event falls.
What are your New Year’s resolutions? For the church? For yourself?
We try to live by resolve all year long, to put the priorities of God first. Bay Life is on a mission to share the good news of Jesus Christ and put God first. My personal resolutions are to continue to love my wife and kids. Also, to be a Christian first and pastor second, to put my faith before my job.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Sarah Whitman at [email protected]