Friday, January 19, 2018
“Hey dad, I’m having trouble with my homework, can you help me?” “No, not now, I’m too busy. And I don’t know why you’re having trouble anyway. Why, when I was your age, I didn’t get any help from my folks, and I was a good student, I worked hard, and got good grades. I expect the same from you.”
So let me ask you point blank - are you a discourager or an encourager? Let's start with some cold and all too familiar facts of life. We live in a sinful and fallen world. Life is far from perfect. Life is hard. Life is not always fair or just. Life is worrisome and frightening. There is disappointment and suffering. Are you feeling encouraged yet? This will change, praise God, when Jesus returns at His second coming in glory and God’s sovereign love visibly rules over all. But in the meantime, we walk by faith and not by sight.
Jesus encouraged the disciples when he taught them the beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted; Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the
. Kingdom of Heaven
The apostle Paul too was a great encourager. Despite being persecuted during his three missionary journeys, despite his poor health, despite problems he encountered with other religious groups, as we are told in Acts, the apostle Paul, a man with a deep faith in Jesus Christ, and a conviction that God had called him to bring the gospel to the Gentiles, encouraged followers of Jesus and new believers on his journeys to Macedonia and Greece.
You may know the story about basketball great Larry Bird and his extraordinary record at Indiana State and with the Boston Celtics, and later as head coach of the Indiana Pacers. But you may not know what he had to overcome. He was one of six children. His father was chronically unemployed, an alcoholic, and tragically committed suicide when Larry was in high school. Larry’s mother worked three jobs to provide for the family.
From early on Larry’s love and talent in basketball was clear to everyone. But he had a bad temper, he couldn’t control his anger, and his high school coach who had talked to him many times finally told him he was no longer on the team. Larry was devastated. But the coach continued to be an important part of Larry’s life and worked and helped him to deal with his temper and refocus his energies and the next year Larry made the team again and became a star on the
team. Without that coach, basketball may
have never had a Larry Bird. Spring Valley High School
The question is can you be an encourager in an imperfect world and with imperfect lives? Of course, this is the day; now is the time. There will be no better time. Why? Because when God creates a brand new world devoid of evil and suffering, as the Bible promises there will be no more sin, or suffering or pain or injustice. So now is the greatest time of all.
Look at yourself or your own circumstances. Are you totally happy or satisfied or content? We can always find things we don't like about ourselves or our circumstances and become discouraged and quit. Or by God’s grace we can say - I’m down, but not out, get up, dust ourselves off and move forward.
Look at your relationships, relationships with family or friendships or at school, or at work, or in the neighborhood. Relationships are always less than ideal, they often don’t meet our expectations, and we can become discouraged and close ourselves off from people or get up, dust ourselves off and by God’s grace do the right thing which is often the hardest thing.
Or look at our government, politics; no, on second thought, I don’t think we will go there. Some people complain: “My life is terrible. It’s their fault, whoever they are, they caused this to happen and blame everyone around them.” Like the man who said to the pastor: “My life is a mess Rev. there is nothing you could say or do to make me feel better, but go ahead, just try, I dare you.”
The question is, if all is dark and hopeless, why are some people such great encouragers? Think of one person who encouraged you at a critical time in your life. Picture their face. Why do you think they were such a good encourager to you?
Here are some things I’ve observed as a pastor about encouragers. Often, not always but quite often the people who are the best encouragers have themselves experienced pain in their lives: suffering, hurt, disappointment, and loss. They developed an empathy for others. When you find out about them you are stunned at what they have gone through. In spite of these things, or despite them, they are positive, caring and supportive.
I’ve observed that such people are often thankful people, grateful people, and humble people. They can encourage because they do so out of a heart of thankfulness, rather than bitterness or resentment. I’ve observed that generally, not always but generally, people who have faith, a healthy spiritual life, people who trust their lives to God, people who walk with God, are there for you and with you.
I’ve observed that they are good listeners, which is I think is the number 1 quality of an encourager. They are genuinely interested in you. They take time and have time for you and really hear what you are saying. Further, they have the ability to put themselves on the shelf and put you in the center. Rather than telling you what you should do, or giving you their answer, they try to draw the answer, or solution or options out of the dialogue, out of the conversation. They seek to let God’s Spirit work and bring a more positive perspective out of the conversation.
You can be a great encourager by listening, showing that you care, praying with someone, offering to help in some way, etc. Sympathy, empathy, listening, caring, compassion and faith are great qualities for an encourager. I’ve had people say: “
she has so many problems, I don’t have any answers, I never know what to say, so
I find excuses not to call or visit.”
That is totally understandable.
Sometimes there are no ready solutions, or answers, or way of making the problems disappear and an encourager helps the person learn to accept it and live with it in faith and prayer and daily turn it over to God so they can get on with life.
It is our old nature to judge, to be critical, to not care rather than to encourage? But it is our new nature, our becoming a new person in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit that changes us and inspires us to a life of encouragement. Think for a moment about a time when you encouraged someone? Encouraging can change a life; encouraging can save a life.
An encourager isn’t blind to human flaws and weaknesses. An encourager recognizes sin and shortcomings and yet seeks a constructive approach to others. An encourager tells the truth in love to another if they are hurting themselves or others, but in a way that builds bridges rather than burns them and focuses on what is positive and possible in persons. An encourager has patience, energy, and commits others to prayer. An encourager can always find something to encourage others about.
Like the story about a concert which had just finished hearing a solo by a squeaky tenor. When finished, the applause was less than enthusiastic. One member of the audience exclaimed: “Extraordinary! Bravo!” “Excuse me,” said a puzzled woman sitting in the next seat. “I can claim some knowledge of the subject, and I think his voice was very poor.” “Voice?” replied the other man. “I wasn’t thinking of his voice. I was praising his nerve!”
As a pastor, I have worked with many families over the years, and I have seen the damage – how one’s spirit, one’s confidence, one's identity, hopes and dreams can be shattered, crushed when others have discouraged them at a critical moment.
Jesus calls each of us by His grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit to the ministry of encouragement. And what a powerful and astonishing witness it can be. Some of the greatest success stories of history have followed words of encouragement.
How can you become an encourager? You decide to. You make a decision. You pray “Lord, I want to be an encouraging person, help me to change and become an encourager.” I am personally grateful for brothers and sisters in Christ who have encouraged me in the church. I am grateful for Nancy who has encouraged me when I get down. I am grateful for teachers, friends, and family members who have encouraged me. Their words and support made all the difference. May your walk in the Spirit be a ministry of encouragement to others so that God may use it for His glory. Amen!
Friday, January 12, 2018
A church member writes: “While participating in my church's Christmas pageant years ago, I had the good fortune to be chosen as the narrator. Each rehearsal went off smoothly and I was confident when it came time for the drama. At a certain point in the drama, I said in a loud voice: ‘And we kings brought gifts to the baby Jesus, gold, Frankenstein and myrrh.’”
I recall a cartoon which pictured three women standing near the manger. The caption read: “After the three Wiseman left, three wise women arrived each presenting a gift to the baby Jesus, fresh diapers, casseroles for a week, and lots of formula.”
Which takes us to the story of the Magi, the mysterious men from the east. A community of Jews lived in the east and Magi, astrologers, who lived among them were familiar with their beliefs, including the belief that a special star was expected that would be a sign of the birth of the Jewish Messiah. When the Magi saw this star in the sky, they packed their suitcases, kissed their families’ good-bye, boarded their camels, embarked on their adventure and followed the star until it led them to
Jerusalem, and eventually to Bethlehem. The story captures our imagination because it's
a metaphor for the journey that we all are on in life.
The story of the Magi reminds us that people follow all kinds of things in life. We follow celebrities, leaders, principles, ideologies, ideals, goals, dreams, feelings, the stock market, politics, current events and yes even stars. Some of these things are good, inspiring, and noble. They help our lives to grow or others' lives to flourish. They lead to happiness, joy and fulfillment. These stars contribute to society, e.g. worthwhile causes, careers, family, medical research, military service to name a few. Other people follow things that are false stars, things that are foolish, worthless, trivial or harmful like greed, materialism, radical ideologies, pleasure, addictions, exploiting others, or evil.
I remember a conversation when I was a pastor in CO with a man who had followed his love of gambling for many years. He told me he once had a family, a job and a home. But over the years, his addiction to gambling cost him and he lost everything. When I met him he was on his way back from the bottom. He had become a Christian, had broken his gambling addiction, was dating a woman, had re-connected with his children and had started a new career.
In speaking about stars I am referring to God’s leading, God’s guidance and God’s will, which occur in a variety of forms. God’s will was that the Magi find the Messiah and worship Him. We all have the freedom and opportunity to follow stars in life. But not all stars are the same. We must distinguish between them, because what we follow in life makes all the difference. God gives us the freedom to choose, to obey and we must choose wisely. What are you following?
The story of the Magi further reminds us that God sends stars into our lives. I am not being literal here. Please think symbolically. I'm not picturing a celestial body floating over your head. God can create anything, or use anything or turn anything into a star. God sends stars to us in order to fulfill His purpose for our lives.
I think of a pastor friend in Los Angeles who saw a star in the form of God's calling, God's vision, God’s tugging at his heart to get personally involved in the tough neighborhood around his church. He got out of his office and started playing pick-up basketball with neighborhood youth who were involved in illegal drugs and violence. God used this pastor's athleticism, faith, outgoing personality, and dedication to steer many young people away from trouble, or prison or death on the streets and into productive lives. He led many to come to faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord. Yes, God sends stars into our lives to further his purposes for us or for the world around us. God sends stars to guide and use for His glory.
Further, the Magi story reminds us that in following stars us we must persevere. Just because God set's a star before us, and we have a desire to follow, doesn't mean the journey will be easy or comfortable or stress-free or risk-free.
Clearly the journey the magi took across the desert involved hardship, suffering, discomfort, and struggle. But these Magi persevered; they endured the journey, battling the elements in their quest to find the promised king.
This is what’s involved in following Jesus. It means at times we must endure hardship, and remain faithful, amid difficult circumstances, because Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, is worthy of such faith and obedience and because His purposes for our lives matter. I think of valiant people in the Bible, men and women of faith, who battled on amid adversity like Ruth, Esther, Mary, Mary Magdalene, and the Apostle Paul.
Like the Magi, God calls us to persevere, to continue the journey with every fiber of our being, which includes our body, our intellect, our emotions, and our soul. For sometimes we are plagued with questions and doubts, or we are emotionally or spiritually exhausted or physically drained. This is when we must get down on our knees and pray for strength.
Clearly in scripture and in the lives of Christians today, here and around the world, particularly the middle east, it takes perseverance, faith, determination, courage and a thankful heart to follow God’s leading in our lives.
The author Fleming Rutledge writes: “As our life of thanksgiving deepens, we discover that the more mature prayers of thanksgiving are not only those offered for obvious blessings, but those spoken in gratitude for obstacles overcome, for insights gained, for lessons learned, for increased humility, for help received in time of need, for strength to persevere, for opportunities to serve others.”
The Magi could not predict where the journey would take them, or what fortunes or challenges they would encounter, or what detours they might unwittingly take, but they trusted the star to lead them to where they could meet and worship the king. And so with us. You sense what God wants you to do or where God wants you to go, but you are not exactly sure how you are going to reach that destination. That’s why it is critical to follow God’s leading, so the star you are following in your journey into the future will be the one God has set for you, and not someone else’s.
Come on now pastor, does God really send stars? A pastor tells this story about a young woman who came to his church. “She began: ‘
could I talk to you for a minute?’ She looked to be in her early 20s. I'd never seen at our church before. ‘What
can I do for you?’ ‘Would you please
talk with my husband? He moved out from
our home and into an apartment. I don't know what to do.’ Her name was Laura. ‘Is he a Christian?’ the
pastor asked. ‘He's the one who led me to a relationship with Christ.’ ‘I'll be glad to talk with him. How can I get
in touch with him?’ ‘That's the problem’
the young woman replied, ‘I can't reach him. If he wants to talk, he calls me.’ At this point there was little I could do. I asked her to have him call me if he talked
with her again. I remember the look of
despair in her eyes as she walked away.
Friday was my day off. We were landscaping our front yard. By late afternoon, I was muddy, aching, and thoroughly tired of the whole project. I had run out of ornamental plants so I drove to the store for more. I arrived at the store, loaded my cart and headed to the checkout.
As I waited in line, I glanced at the cashier's nametag. It looked familiar. As he began to ring up the plants, I motioned to his nametag. ‘Is that your name?’ He looked at me blankly, ‘Yes.’ ‘Are you married to Laura?’ He looked wary. ‘Yes?’ I gave him my happiest smile. ‘God has sent me here to talk to you about your marriage.’”
The pastor continued: “Some 300,000 people lived in the
area then. Out of
all of them, the first person I had talked to—other than family and staff—since
Wednesday night was this husband. At
times I've really needed guidance and have prayed earnestly for it. God has helped me. But my divinely guided
trip to that husband remains my most remarkable example. Not only was I not
trying to be led, I wasn't conscious of God's leading. I just wanted the yard
Over the years that I’ve been pastor here I have had people say to me: “
Pastor, I was
looking for a church and God led me here.
I am happy to be in this church.”
I too am personally thankful for the stars God has placed before my life,
which have led me along my journey. The Magi show us the importance of being
alert to, and following, God's stars in our lives.
The Book of Proverbs says: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, do not rely on your own insight, in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” Amen.
Friday, January 5, 2018
Today, Sunday, December 31st, marks Day 7 in the Christmas season. This day pictures Seven Swans a Swimming, in the song - The Twelve Days of Christmas. Of course few people are relaxing at a park, in a tranquil setting, watching the swans gracefully swimming by.
This week is a time people start the big clean up from the Christmas festivities. Family members and relatives are getting on planes or in their cars to return home. Still others are making final preparations for the New Year. Today, December 31, is still the Christmas season and we continue to reflect upon and celebrate the birth of a baby, named Jesus, the Savior of the world.
An author writes: “A baby is God's opinion that life should go on. A baby represents life. Never will a time come when the most marvelous recent invention is as marvelous as a newborn baby. The finest watch, the fastest supersonic aircraft don't compare with a newborn baby. A baby is very modern. Yet it is also the oldest of the ancients.”
Our story from the Gospel of Luke is about an 8-day old baby named Jesus. He was brought to the temple by Mary and Joseph. Simeon sees this baby. Now is there anything more awe-inspiring, more breathtaking, more wonderful than seeing or holding a baby? There is something extraordinary about a baby. It’s hard to put into words. It’s a holy moment, a sacred moment. The birth of a baby is a miracle of God. A baby represents unrealized potential, new possibilities, new beginnings, promise.
A young couple brought their new baby to visit their elderly neighbor. He was 89 years old and he and the couple had become very close. After a brief conversation, the neighbor asked if he might hold the baby. The mother carefully laid the baby in his frail arms. He held the baby quietly, gazing intently into the baby’s face, and whispered: “I have been looking at the end of life for so long; I just wanted to look for a few moments at its beginning.”
Simeon, a devout Jew, had been going to the temple, day after day, to await the coming Messiah. Joseph and Mary come to the temple for the three customary Jewish ceremonies: the ceremony of circumcision, which required that Jewish boys be circumcised on the 8th day as a sign of the covenant between God and
a ceremony of dedication to God of the first-born and a ceremony of
purification or of giving offerings to God.
Being poor, the couple offer a pair of turtledoves or pigeons, the
minimum requirement of Jewish Law.
Simeon was an elderly man who did not live in the past, re-living memories, but rather he concentrated on the future. He lived daily with a sense of anticipation and expectation about tomorrow. He was praying for and watching for and waiting for the coming Messiah.
Simeon knew upon seeing the baby Jesus, that God had fulfilled His promise to him. Taking the baby in his arms Simeon praises God: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people
Simeon predicts the hardship of Jesus’ future ministry - “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in
.” “His ministry will encounter opposition.” “And a sword will pierce your own soul,”
meaning that Mary, Jesus’ mother, would know the grief of seeing her son’s
Simeon saw this baby as the fulfillment of God's faithful promise of a coming Messiah. Simeon saw the future wrapped up in this little baby. Simeon knew God’s plan was unfolding; Jesus was the precursor of a new beginning for the world. This baby was a symbol of the new age to come. Simeon saw in Jesus the hope of the future not only for the Jews, but for all humanity. You know, that’s an awful lot to see in one little baby.
This story brings an important message: look to the future with hope, dare to hope, never give up hope. Hope is a priceless jewel. Maintaining hope in life is indispensable. Hopelessness is one of life’s greatest enemies.
The story says: Put your hope in God, who has made himself known to us in Jesus. The message here is: Don’t fixate on what the world owes you, but rather on what you and I owe to God. This should be our perspective until the day we die. Simeon knew God had chosen him to initiate Jesus into the Jewish faith and community. He obeyed God and performed these Jewish ceremonies with excellence.
The message in this story is: Don’t get bogged down in the small things, don’t be shortsighted, don’t get caught up in trivial matters, but open your mind and eyes to see a larger purpose, a bigger picture in the events of your life, seek after and trust in what God is doing in life. Simeon lives for one thing, to please God and to advance God’s glory. That’s not a bad purpose. His passion was to greet the coming Messiah. He felt God calling him for that purpose. He lived to see the grace, the power and mercy of God in the flesh and to fulfill his religious duties.
That’s not a bad purpose in life, living to see what God is doing, living to see God at work in life, living to see God at work in your personal life. Seeing the Messiah was a defining moment in Simeon’s life, and so it is in our lives.
Simeon's story leads us to ask ourselves: “What am I waiting for?” “What am I looking for in life?” “What purpose is God calling me to fulfill? Will you wait on the Lord?” Yes, when we look into the face of Jesus, we see our hope for this year and for every year.
Rev. Billy Graham, who is my opinion is the greatest Evangelist of all time, is 99 years old. He wrote a book called Nearing Home. He too is waiting for something; he is waiting to go to his heavenly home. He says, "Growing old has been the greatest surprise of my life. I was taught throughout my Christian life how to die. No one taught me how to grow old." Does that resonate with anyone?
Like Simeon at Christmas, our eyes have seen God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. May your and my prayer be: “Lord, may I see you in my life, and seeing you, show me how I can share in your saving work in the world. Lord like Simeon, I will not lose hope, no matter what happens, for I know you are with me wherever I go.” Amen!
Friday, December 29, 2017
A father writes: “For two months before her third birthday, our daughter Sandie said, ‘I'm going to have a party,’ countless times a day. When her birthday was over, she then told people, ‘I had a party’ and repeated it constantly. Finally, we told her not to talk about the party any more. For one whole day, she didn’t mention it. But as I tucked her into bed that night she prayed, ‘Dear God, I can't talk about it, but thank you for my birthday party. Amen!’” Yes, birthdays are special.
A 5 year old girl was singing carols all the time during Christmas. Her mother asked: “Honey why are you singing so much?” She answered: “Mom, its Jesus’ birthday and I just have to sing.”
In the Gospel of Luke the angel announces: “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Christmas is about joyful news for all people. Scripture says: “In the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of woman.”
We don’t know the precise date of Jesus’ birth. Christmas was first observed by the Roman Church around A.D. 325 or later. St. Chrysostom says that Pope Julius I of
Rome appointed the date, December
25, as the birth date of Jesus.
Prior to that, a Roman pagan festival had been held on that very date to celebrate the Winter Solstice. In a bold action, the Church replaced a pagan festival with a Christian one. From that time to today, December 25th has honored the birthday of the Son of God.
Now some Christians have argued that since the roots of the Christmas date, December 25 are pagan, with symbols and trappings still attached to it, like feasts and trees and lights and ornaments representing creation, stars and planets, we should not celebrate it. The star of course, does not simply refer to stars in the sky, but the star that led the Wiseman to
Other Christians have countered that argument by saying that the church was being faithful to Jesus’ great commission, to go forth and make disciples of all nations, to convert the world, to win the world for Christ. So it was a good thing to turn a pagan festival into a Christian holy day. They argue that symbols like trees, stars or ornaments for planets are good, God the creator made them. Lights on the tree are good, God created light; Jesus is the light of the world. Carols, singing songs of Jesus’ birth are good, the angels sang; giving gifts is good, the Magi brought gifts to Jesus. So you decide which argument you agree with.
Why are birthdays special? Birthdays say: “We’re happy you were born. We are glad you lived for another year. We are happy you have a new year ahead of you. You count and we want to honor you.” We don’t commiserate with someone on their birthday. We don’t look at them with sad eyes and dress in black clothing and say: “Oh no, don’t tell me you’ve had another birthday, I’m so sorry for you, I feel terrible for you. No, we say Happy Birthday!” And likewise, we say: “Merry Christmas in honor of Jesus’ birthday.”
Children can’t wait for their birthdays. When asked how old they are they often say: “I’m 5 & 1/2,” they love sounding older. Children know the significance of birthdays. “A 5- year old boy was showing his Christmas presents to his grandma. She asked him if he got everything he wanted for Christmas. The little guy thought and said no grandma, but it’s not my birthday.”
Christmas celebrates that God entered this world and became a human being, one of us, one among us and one with us. Christmas announces that this one who entered is Jesus the Savior of the world. There are some spectacular Christmas celebrations of Jesus around the world in cities like
San Juan, Rome,
and Rio de Janero. What about at your home?
Jesus’ birth was one of historical and cosmic significance.
Other holidays recognize but one day; Christmas is celebrated for 12 days. That sounds right to me, for such an occasion as the coming of the Savior of the world. We celebrate the good news of the angel’s announcement to the shepherds. It’s good news, no matter who you are or where you are or what you have done. It’s good news, not for a select few, but for all people. It’s good news, in my view, for both political parties, who can’t seem to find much to agree on these days.
What is the heart of the good news of Christmas? It's not –“Whew, I made it through another year,” or “I'm celebrating that I've finished all my shopping.” It’s about Emmanuel, God is with you, God is for you, and God loves you. God saw that because of sin and evil, the world needed a savior and God sent one.
Listen to how the Gospel writer John speaks of Christmas: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 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.”
Christmas announces that God the creator condescended, bent down to earth, came down from the heavens and decided to get his hands dirty. The immortal God took on human mortality. God showed up in our neighborhood. Christian music like Handel’s Messiah and carols like Hark the Herald Angel’s Sing, and Christian art like Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi honor the greatest birth the world has ever known.
Christmas celebrates God’s love. God loved us so much, God loved the world so much, that in Jesus Christ God came to earth as a human. Christmas celebrates God’s revelation, in Jesus we see who God is and what God is like and come to know him and trust him and follow him and worship him and love him. Christmas celebrates God’s purpose. God sent Jesus as the Savior to bring salvation to the world, to save us from our sins, to call us to worship, witnessing and service, to give us new life and hope for today and forever.
Christmas declares the truth that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human, fully God and fully human. It is truth expressed in the language of paradox. In Jesus, God and humanity are uniquely united in one personal existence. That is a theological way of that Jesus was born of a virgin. Being born accents Jesus’ humanity and being born of a virgin accents his divinity.
Christmas says: “You are seeing God in Jesus.” No, not everything about God, there is still lots of mystery, but in Jesus we see God in a greater way than ever before in history, we see God’s nature, God’s purpose and God’s motivation. Christmas says: “Look at what God has done to get to know you personally and for you to get to know God personally.” Christmas is an invitation from God – the invitation says: “See I’ve come near to you, now draw near to me.”
May all who do not know Jesus Christ, may those here this morning and around the world, open their hearts and minds this Christmas and receive by faith the one who out of love came to bring salvation.
I close with this poem by Ann Weems: “You should lead the celebration. Run through the streets and ring the bells and sing the loudest. Fling the tinsel on the tree and open your house to your neighbors and call them into dance. For it’s to you above all others to know the joy of Christmas. It is unto you that a Savior has been born this day. One who comes to lift the burden from your shoulders, one who comes to wipe the tears from your eyes. You are not alone, for He is born this day to you.” Amen!
Friday, December 15, 2017
One Christmas, a mother listened as her 4-year-old daughter sang one of the carols. The mother was a little surprised when she heard her daughter sing: “While shepherds washed their socks by night.” I mean who knows, shepherds had to do something to pass the time as they were watching their flocks at night.
Christmas calls to mind a question which has haunted human beings since the beginning of time – “Am I alone in this universe?” Christmas dares to shout forth an answer: “No, you are not alone.”
Christmas announces glorious news, God, out of love for His creation, entered our history, our life adventure, our journey, to be near us, among us, one of us and one with us. God slipped into our time zone and has never left it.
Why did God enter the world as Jesus? It was out of love for His creation, out of love for humanity. If God had wanted to relate to trees, he would have become a tree; if God had wanted to relate to birds, he would have become a bird; if God had wanted to relate to computers, he would have become a computer; but God wanted to relate to and communicate with and bring salvation to human beings, so God became one of us. We could not rise to God, so God stooped down to come to us.
Christmas declares that an eternal light has broken into the darkness of the world. The Gospel writer John says: “In Christ was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” In Jesus, God has made his character, his heart, his mind, his voice, his will, his nature known to the world.
Christmas is about a young Jewish peasant couple, Mary and Joseph, who experience the miraculous in their life. She is with child, an angel reveals, a child conceived by the Holy Spirit. The prophet Isaiah says: “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”
Christmas is about the unique nature of Jesus. It announces that Jesus is truly God, very God, fully God. In the Gospel of John we read: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, 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.” The letter of Colossians says it succinctly: “In Jesus Christ, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” The Letter of Hebrews states: “In these last days God has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”
Bethlehem, Jesus' is God’s revelation, God’s
incarnation, God’s anointed one, Immanuel, God is one with us. Jesus is the visible image of the invisible
But paradoxically Christmas also declares the exact opposite, Jesus was a human being. Jesus was truly human, very human, fully human. The sovereign God entered the world as a helpless baby. The letter of Hebrews says: “Since God’s children share flesh and blood, Jesus likewise shared the same things. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect was tested as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary. Jesus was human, born of a woman like you and I are born. He experienced the joys and sorrows of life, yet he was without sin. Christmas declares this unique, one of a kind birth. No other world religions speak of incarnation in their faith.
Christians declare this truth: in Jesus of Nazareth, God and humanity, the divine and human are united in one personal existence. This truth is a mystery. Ultimately, comprehending it lies beyond our mind's ability to fully grasp it. Rather the truth lies in God’s revealing it to our minds and hearts. We then can accept it by faith or reject it.
Yes, for some today it’s a scandalous claim. Jews consider it blasphemy and idolatry, an offense to God because God is Spirit, not flesh and blood and because we are to worship God alone, not human beings. For others Christmas is a fairytale, with angels, animals, shepherds and kings, like the brothers’ Grimm fairy tales, Snow White, Rapunzel, the Frog Prince. For others it’s about Santa Claus and getting and giving gifts. Some see the Christmas story of a peasant family giving birth as a metaphor for poor people all over the world giving birth in humble circumstances. Some see Christmas as a time for family reunions and food and celebrations and traditions. The one thing they all have in common is that these understandings have nothing to do with Jesus’ birth.
The Christian faith announces that Christmas is founded upon a historical event. It is based upon a unique and humble birth of Jesus, a baby born in Bethlehem, in a world of Caesar's and Herod’s and Pilates, and a Jewish people under subjugation by the Roman Empire.
Why did God enter into the world in Jesus? To fulfill the prophecies of a coming Messiah from Jewish prophets like Micah, Zechariah and Isaiah: “For unto us a child has been born, a son given to us, authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, and this coming messiah, God's anointed one, would bring salvation from our sins and establish his kingdom with justice and righteousness forevermore.”
The distinguished 5th century
Church Father St. Augustine
said: “God became a man for this purpose.
Since you, a human being could not reach God, but you can reach other
humans, God became a human so that following a human, something you are able to
do, you might reach God.”
I recall when Police Chief Charles Moose, back in 2003, first made national news when he was police chief in
Chief Moose and his wife, Portland, Oregon Sandy,
went house hunting. They could have afforded to live in any of the city's best
neighborhoods. Instead, they bought an 83-year-old wood-frame house in the King
neighborhood, which had one of the highest crime rates in Portland. Chief Moose, who was 41 at the time,
was the country's only police chief to live in a crime plagued dangerous
With his move to the King neighborhood, Chief Moose was hoping to get people feeling better about their community, to improve their quality of life and build trust with the police. He said: "If someone can say, 'I live in the same neighborhood as the chief' instead of ‘I live in the neighborhood where the shooting happened or in a high crime area, "I will have achieved my goal."
The chief moved into the King neighborhood. God in Jesus moved into our neighborhood. That's the Christmas message. That is the greatest compliment that God could possibly pay us. This is the good news of Immanuel, God with us.
Christmas declares that God is at work everywhere in the midst of the world’s darkness and in the most reluctant and hardened of hearts. God is on the premises and suffers with those who suffer and judges those who perpetrate evil. God in Jesus seeks those in whom love can be born and peace can be won. God came to redeem the world and to reach out and find us and being found sends us out to let Christ’s love shine in us as light against the darkness and hope against hopelessness. The incarnation confronts us with the truth about who Jesus is and challenges us to become who God created us to be. God has spoken by His son.
What is our response? Some of course dismiss Christmas, “Bah, humbug.” Other people approach Christmas with the mind, with the intellect and critically analyze its message. That is certainly one response and is not without merit. Some find this approach quite helpful. Some have met Jesus on the intellectual path. Another approach is that of awe and wonder and mystery, where we receive the message of Christmas in humility on our knees. Some have received the message through Christmas music, like carols like: “Oh come let us adore him, Oh come let us adore him” and “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king.”
What will your response be to the Christmas story this year? Amen.
Friday, December 8, 2017
When NASA posted a job opening for a "Planetary Protection Officer," a position responsible for the microbial footprint of humans during interplanetary exploration, word about the "coolest job ever" spread widely in the media. The stringent requirements didn't stop 9 -year old Jack Davis from submitting a handwritten note to NASA. Jack has big dreams and high hopess about his future.
He wrote: "I may be nine but I think I would be fit for the job." "One of the reasons is my sister says I am an alien. Also, I have seen almost all the space movies and alien movies I can see." "I am young, so I can learn to think like an alien. Please consider me.” The Director of Planetary Science wrote back: "We are always looking for bright future scientists and engineers to help us, so I hope you will study hard and do well in school. We hope to see you here at NASA one of these days."
What is hope? It is a mode of anticipating the future. We are expectant, optimistic. Our outlook is positive. We look for good things to happen or good things to come. Of course there are also other modes of anticipating the future, like worry, anxiety and fear. Without hope, I believe life loses all meaning and joy.
Hope is both active and passive. Passive hope is like waiting for a package from Amazon. There seems to be a lot of that these days. Hope is active when we are doing something, like planning and organizing, praying and working toward some future goal.
Like the story of three store owners who shared adjacent storefronts in the same building. As retailers, they had competed for years. Times were now tough. Sales were down. In hopes of picking up sales, the owner of the shop at one end of the building put a sign over his front entrance – “YEAR-END CLEARANCE!” At the other end of the building, another owner responded with his own sign: “ANNUAL CLOSE-OUT.” The owner of the store in the middle knew he had to act fast or lose his business. He hung a huge lit sign over his front door: “MAIN ENTRANCE.” Hope is sometimes active.
Hope also has enemies. The greatest enemy is gloom, despair, discouragement. All we see in the future is a wall, a dead-end, a black hole. We can’t see a way out. We can’t find another way. We feel trapped. We believe there is nothing left to hope for or to work toward or even to live for. The light of life burns out. Our zest and enthusiasm vanishes.
What is the basis for hope? I believe there are basically two world-views, two belief systems which are the ground of hope. The first is secularism. Secularism is pessimistic about God but optimistic about humanity. The secular basis of hope is not in the heavens but on earth. Its hope lies not in God which is a false belief because God doesn’t exist, because God is a fantasy, but its hope lies in humanity. Humans alone can save themselves. There is no god to save us. We humans can save the world and preserve the future. We can rely upon reason, science, technology, and good will. We depend upon human determination, imagination, curiosity, brain power, and vision.
Together humans can work to create a just society, achieve world peace and save the environment. There will be disagreements, but humanity will find solutions and transform the world. We can save ourselves. We don’t need a supernatural being. Why – because we are on our own. That’s secularism.
The second basis for hope is religion. Christianity is pessimistic about humanity but optimistic about God. The basis of our hope is God, who revealed himself to the world in Jesus Christ. The ground of our hope is in the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world. In Scripture and faith hope literally means confident expectation.
Christianity is pessimistic about humanity because of human sin and moral evil which emanates from sin. It is optimistic about God because God is the creator and ruler of the world, because God is powerful, just, merciful, loving, because God is leading the world toward its divine fulfillment. Our hope is based upon our faith that God holds the future, that the future lies in God’s hands, that God is in control, that the future is secure. Hope is a firm assurance that that which is hidden, unknown, or confusing today will be unveiled by God in the future. Our Christian hope means that you and I can trust God to keep his promises.
To be more specific, the Christian hope for the future is two-fold. First, our hope is personal, individual. It is hope with your name on it. Our faith inspires hope today. By faith God’s hope lives within us. The letter of Romans says: “By God’s grace, through faith, we boast in the hope of sharing the glory of God.” Character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts and we have the gift of the Holy Spirit within us, who deepens our faith and hope.
We have Jesus’ promise to us personally of eternal life, everlasting life, resurrection of the body. Jesus speaks about God’s house with many rooms, and promises: “I have prepared a place for you and I will come back to take you to myself, so that you will be where I am.” Jesus’ wonderful promise is that nothing, not even death, can separate us from God’s love today and forever. Our Christian hope is of sharing in the glory of God.
Second, our Christian hope is universal. We find it in the biblical concept of the
. The Kingdom
is the reign of God, the rule of God. It
is represented in the promise of Christ’s final coming in glory and the final
judgment of the world when God will establish His Kingdom forever. kingdom of God
It speaks to God’s universal purpose. God’s plan is not only to save individuals but to save and transform the world into His kingdom. God’s ultimate purpose is both individual salvation and world salvation.
The book of Revelation pictures this beautifully: “See the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their God, they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will cease.”
As Christians, as followers of Jesus, we are to place our ultimate hope not in people, not politics, not government, not riches, not in hedonism, not even in reason, but God whom we know in Jesus Christ.
The question for the Advent season is this: “Where have you placed your ultimate hope - in man or in God?” Amen!
Friday, December 1, 2017
In an article on the Supreme Court, Associate Justice Ginsburg fondly recalled her closest friend, Justice Scalia. He always gave her roses on her birthday and shared her reverence for the law. She said that Justice Scalia was once asked how they could be such dear friends with such different views. Justice Scalia answered, "I attack ideas. I don't attack people. Some very good people have some very bad ideas. If you can't separate the two, you'd better get another job." Not a bad friendship. Not a bad concept.
Think about your friends. Who are your friends? Writer Mark Twain said: “I don’t like to commit myself about heaven and hell—you see I have friends in both places.” There was a sitcom in the 1990's titled Friends and the theme song was “I'll be there for you.”
The debate continues today about whether social media actually makes new friends and expands genuine friendships or whether it is an illusion which creates virtual and superficial friendships. It certainly raises interesting questions. An article in Hemisphere magazine explored a number of sites that are dedicated to helping you find online "friends." For instance, on the site Socialyup.com you can buy 500 friends for $30.00. Sounds like a bargain.
An interesting article discussed the overall decline of friendship in our society. It stated that fewer people have authentic friends and described a growing phenomenon about loneliness and mistrust. Do you agree? The article particularly addressed the issue of friendship as it related to men. It pointed to studies and surveys which show that men are less likely to have meaningful relationships than women do. Men have fewer friends, first of all, and the friends they do have are not nearly as close. What do you think?
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I didn’t find my friends, the good Lord gave them to me.” Yes, when we think about our friends, old and new, past and present, we too are moved to say: “I didn’t find them, God gave them to me.” One of the sad realities of life is losing our friends to death as we age, as I mentioned last week about my childhood friend Bill Frost who died recently. I have had many conversations with people over the years who have talked about the difficulty of seeing their circle of friends shrink as they age and how they miss them. I have likewise had many conversations about the challenges of making new friends.
I thank God for my wife Nancy, my best friend (who else would put up with me) and our two sons who now as adults, are our friends. That thing about being parents to your children as they are growing up and then transitioning to becoming friends when they reach adulthood can get a little complicated. We knew we weren’t our sons Best Friends Forever when they were teenagers. I am grateful for the new friends we have made here during our over eleven years at PBPC and in
God made us with the need for relationships, friendships and community. The late Dr. Norman Cousins wrote: “The highest expression of civilization is not its art, but the supreme tenderness that people feel and show toward one another. If our civilization is breaking down, it is not because we lack the brainpower to meet its demands, but because our feelings have been dulled.”
Someone said, “You can always tell a real friend because when you’ve made a fool of yourself he or she doesn’t feel you’ve done a permanent job.” The Bible is filled with inspiring stories about friendships. Biblically speaking, friendships are far different than acquaintances. One can have many acquaintances, but few true friendships. Becoming a friend is a choice. Becoming a friend is also a surprise, a gift. Becoming a friend requires dedication and commitment. Jesus says: “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Perhaps this is the ultimate definition of friendship. A friend is someone you are willing to die for or who is willing to die for you. It’s been said that friendships are like investments; you get what you put into them and they take time to mature. But the dividends are worth it.
Today we will examine one story from the New Testament. What are some lessons from this story? First, friends are loyal, they stick by one another, you can count on them, even in times of adversity. Fair weather friends are the antithesis of true friends. Friends don’t abandon you when you need help. Friends don’t give up on each other when the journey gets tough. They are in for the long haul.
In the story from Luke Jesus is teaching in a house which is bursting with people. People are literally stepping over one another to hear what Jesus has to say or to be healed. Suddenly some men arrive carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. We don’t know if these men were family or friends. But in a way it doesn’t matter. Their actions should be consistent. These men didn’t abandon the paralyzed man, they didn’t give up on him, but instead did everything they could to get him help. They believed in their hearts that if they could get him near Jesus, the man would be healed. The only obstacle was in making their way through the crowd of people.
Not to be deterred, they climb up on the roof, tear open a section of the roof, which was made out of tightly bound twigs mortared together between heavy wooden beams, and start lowering the man down on his bed in front of Jesus. Now that’s creative problem solving. That’s dedication. That’s ingenuity. No obstacle is too great when it comes to helping a friend. These men don't care if they are causing a big commotion. They are resourceful and imaginative and they are on a mission. They are willing to go to great lengths for their friend. Author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: “A true friend is one who multiplies joys and divides grief.” They were true friends.
Friends also support each other, encourage one another and are willing to sacrifice for one another. Clearly these friends of the paralyzed man fit these criteria. A friend says: “I’m here for you, and if I can’t help you, then with God’s help I will find someone who can.” These men all exhibited this attitude. And I believe they also either paid the owner of the house for the damage to the roof or repaired it themselves. They were true friends.
Further, true friends are at times direct and honest with you. They are not afraid to say what you don’t want to hear. They speak the truth in love. This is a characteristic of true friendship. These friends would have been direct with the paralyzed man. They would have told him: “We are taking you to a house where Jesus is teaching and healing.” The man might have said: “Ah, I don’t feel like going today.” I could hear them replying: “It’s no use arguing, we are going there so get ready. We are doing it because we love you.” It sounds like an intervention.
Jesus is also direct. He says to the paralyzed man, “Friend your sins are forgiven you. I say to you stand up and take your bed and go to your home.” Jesus was also frank with the Pharisees and says: “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins I will show you,” and he performs a miracle. Honesty, truthfulness, is a significant quality for a friendship.
Imagine going to the doctor's office for a check-up. The doctor says to you, "You are a superb physical specimen. You have the body of an Olympian. None of my patients are as healthy as you.” Such words alone should raise a red flag and cause us to question the doctor’s credibility. Later that day while climbing the stairs, you suffer severe chest pains. You find out that your arteries were so clogged, that you were one jelly doughnut away from the grim reaper. You go back to the doctor and say, "Why didn't you tell me?" The doctor says, "Well, ah, well because if I tell people the truth, they get offended, they know it’s going to be expensive and they don’t like me. It’s terrible for business. I want to be a friend to my patients.” You'd say: “Doctor, next time, tell me the truth or I’ll find another doctor.”
The story finally reminds us that true friends also care about your spiritual life. This man is helpless. He depends upon others. His friends realize that his hope lay in bringing him to Jesus. They are committed to this end. When we are in want or in crisis, we need to go to God. A good friend reminds us of this.
We were not created by God to make our journey alone in this life. Friends contribute immeasurably to the richness of our lives. Think of friends whom God has used to shape your life and faith. Jesus was extraordinarily impressed with the faith of these friends of the paralyzed man. “When Jesus saw their faith, he said: Friend, your sins are forgiven you.”
Thank you, God, for the gift of our friends. I close with these surprising words of Jesus from the Gospel of John in speaking to his followers, past and present: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business, instead, I have called you friends.” Amen!