Tag Archives: Manger

A Savior is Born

21 Dec

shepherds-11You can listen to the podcast here.

God is amazing. Two weeks ago I preached about there being no room at the inn. I wanted to remind you of the incredibleness of one verse about the birth of Christ. Nothing happened by accident. It was all part of God’s plan even though it’s hard for us to understand. If Joseph and Mary had waited a month or if Caesar made that decree just a few weeks later or earlier, things would have been different. God is the God in all circumstances and His timing is always best.

Luke 2:11 says, “For today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

This was a huge announcement. Notice the first phrase of the verse, “For today in the city of David.”       There can be some confusion about the city of David. In the Old Testament this phrase is used about 45 times and refers to Jerusalem. In 2 Sam. 5, David leads his men to Jerusalem which was under the control of the Jebusites. David defeated the Jebusites and 2 Sam. 5:9-10 says, “So David lived in the stronghold and called it the city of David. And David built all around from the Millo and inward. David became greater and greater, for the Lord God of hosts was with him.” In the New Testament the City of David is only referred to twice and it means Bethlehem. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Bethlehem is controlled by the Palestinians – Arabs. Tourism is the main industry of Bethlehem and all the holy sites are very commercialized. At the center of Bethlehem sits the Church of the Holy Nativity. Inside this church you walk a long corridor that lead to a room where there is a very tight stairway leading down to the bowels of the church where it opens up into a larger room. In that room you find a silver star with a hole in the middle that leads down to the earth marking the place where Jesus is believed to have been born. During a trip to Bethlehem in 1865, Boston pastor Phillips Brooks looked over the hills of the little town and penned the now famous words, “O little of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.” Back in 1865, all was still quiet in Bethlehem. Remember King David and his family lived there and David most likely tended his sheep on the hills just outside the little town.

This announcement was no surprise to anyone familiar with the prophecy. Micah the prophet told everyone this would happen in 5:2, “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.” That prophecy happened about 700 years before Christ was born. Bethlehem was, “too little to be among the clans of Judah.” Back when Bethlehem was no more than a little, inconsequential place, the Lord decided it would be this way. It wasn’t even big enough to have a flashing yellow light. The Jews of the day would certainly have known this, but listen to this exchange found in Matt. 2:1-6. Jews should have been well versed in this prophecy. It kind of reminds me about things that as believers, we ought to know, but don’t. Something else to think about is the magi came from the east and show up in Jerusalem and ask about the King of the Jews that had been born. The magi knew and went looking for the King. The chief priests and scribes certainly should have been looking for this. Bethlehem is such a short distance away so wouldn’t you think they’d have been watching and waiting for years? Even though they should have had the knowledge and the wherewithal to investigate, they didn’t. It’s not enough just to know, knowing should lead to action.

Here’s the reality of His coming. In Lu. 2:11 the angel says, “For today in the city of David there has been born for you.” “Born for you.” Focus on those three words. The Son of God has been born for you. Oddly enough, for something so miraculous, the pregnancy and birth of Christ really was ordinary. The miracle occurred nine months earlier. Joseph had nothing to do with Mary becoming pregnant. When she asked how, the angel told Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Lu. 1:35) In Matt. 1:20 an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “The child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” That’s when the miracle took place. I’m sure Mary battled all the things pregnant women face. Morning sickness, fatigue, swollen feet, intense hunger that occurs without warning. The virgin birth is incredibly significant because it comes after the virgin conception. He was born of Mary so He was human. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit so He was deity. God enters humanity just like us taking on all the issues we face and yet with one distinct difference. 2 Cor. 5:21 says, He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” He was fully God and fully man. Somehow this overshadowing by the Holy Spirit created life in Mary that was totally divine and totally human. How can it be? I have no idea. He was and remains totally unique. The totally unique became completely common for the following nine months.

This is a story of faith. Some people read Luke 2 and call it theological fiction. It’s a great story, but it’s simply a fairy tale with religious significance. It’s like Lord of the Rings or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Luke said, “for today” in his writing. It’s widely recognized that Luke’s purpose for writing was to provide a detailed account unlike any other biblical writers. That’s what he says in Luke 1:1-4. When you read the words of Luke, you need to read it like you are reading history. It is truth, not fiction and we believe it by faith. Look at the result of the coming of Jesus. Luke says, “For today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Those three titles should jump out at you. Savior, Christ, Lord. Each word is significant. Savior is actually an Old Testament word that means one who delivers his people. Christ is the Greek version of the Hebrew word Messiah which means the anointed One. Lord is a term for Deity. It’s a synonym for God. When the angel appeared in Joseph’s dream, he said, “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:21). No sin is too great; no one is too far gone. No one is beyond His grace and His mercy. That’s the message of Christ’s birth. Luke 19:10 says, “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” This is the essence of Christmas. God loved you so much that He was willing to give up His one and only Son so you could have life.

So what you ask, you’ve heard it all before. What’s the purpose of His coming? Look at our verse one more time. “For today in the city of David there has been born for you.” Don’t gloss over those two little words, “For you.” Remember what’s going on here. There were unnamed and unnumbered shepherds in the fields. The angel is speaking to them collectively, but gives an individual declaration. Being a shepherd took little skill and was often fulfilled by young people. Remember David was just a boy when he tended sheep. Did you ever ask yourself, why did the angel appear to a bunch of shepherds. Why didn’t the angel appear to those Jewish scholars that were hanging out in the temple less than ten miles away? Jesus said, “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Ma. 2:17) Jesus came for you. It is the simplicity of the Gospel that gets so many people wrapped up. Why would He do that? It doesn’t make sense. Many people believe in the birth of Christ, but it’s not enough to believe that it happened. We must come to the conclusion that Christ came for me. The gift of God is available when you receive it as your own.

In five short days, Christmas will be here. Across the globe, people will celebrate in much the same way. They’ll gather around the tree that has presents piled high and often all around it. There are kids that wake up their parents literally in the middle of the night because they are so excited to open the presents. There are kids that know that Christmas is exactly 108 hours away. Do you ever leave presents under the tree that remain unopened? Of course not, yet we have been given a gift that came with incredible cost. As I reflected on this principle, I am more convinced than ever that we profess that we have received the incredible gift of God’s Son, but like that ugly Christmas sweater or tie, we simply don’t use it after it’s been opened. We put it in a closet and we’ll only wear it, or bring it out when the gift giver is present. Isn’t that like our relationship with Christ? Do we just wear it when the pastor or our church friends come over? Do we keep it in the closet until we need it. Over the years, Kari has given me some really great gifts. A shotgun. Reloading equipment. A basketball goal. I still have the shotgun, but haven’t used it in a number of years. Same for the reloading equipment. The basketball goal was sold on a yard sale.

As I get older, I need less and less things and want even less. As believers, the biggest, most incredible gift we’ve ever received is the gift of Christ. It’s a gift that is useful regardless of the season. It doesn’t wear out and it never gets old. It ever goes out of style. The gift of Christ is a gift that should keep on giving. It’s a gift that has immeasurable value. It’s a gift we should be grateful to use and show others how to use it too. What have you done and what are you doing with the most incredible gift ever given?

Advertisements

Can You Hear the Angels Singing?

14 Dec

AngelsYou can listen to the podcast here.

Take a look at the familiar Christmas story found in Luke 2:8-14.

Apparently angels are scary beings. The angel told Joseph, “Do not be afraid.” Gabriel said to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” And the angel told the shepherds, “Do not be afraid.” Put yourself in the shepherd’s place. All of a sudden, an angel appears and tells them that Jesus has been born. “And there appeared a multitude of the heavenly host praising God.” The sky was filled with more angels than you could count. They were singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

This is the way it typically happens. The key word in that text is the word suddenly. God always works in His own time and I think we wish there were more of these types of moments. Suddenly means without warning, it means quickly and unexpectedly. The angels weren’t there and all of a sudden, they were and they filled the sky. The shepherds were out in the field taking care of their flocks by night, but could the angels be seen in Bethlehem? What about in Jerusalem eight miles away? Did the angel’s praise reach across the miles? These are questions to get you to think. Of course, we don’t know the answers, but I can tell you one thing for sure: the angels filled the sky and the shepherds saw them.

Are angels real? Of course they are. 2 Ki. 6 tells the story of Elisha and his servant when the Aramean army surrounded them in the city of Dothan. Seeing the enemy on every side, the servant cried out, “What shall we do?”  Elisha responded by declaring, Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.” And the Lord opened the servant’s eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Ki. 6:16-17) The angels were always there, but the servant simply could not see them. When his eyes were opened, he saw what had been there all along. There are skeptics all around us so how should we respond to someone like that? It is a matter of faith. Just because you cannot prove something does not automatically disprove it. That was part of my journey to recognizing that God is real. There are things all around us that people take by faith, or I think a more applicable term is take for granted. How can you see the beauty of nature or the beauty of humanity and not see God? You cannot ignore the supernatural element of Jesus’ birth. Angels are a huge part of the story. An angel tells Mary she will give birth to Jesus. An angel tells Joseph not to dump Mary. That angel would then tell Joseph what was going on and that the baby would be called Jesus. An angel warns Mary and Joseph to flee to Egypt. An angel tells them when it’s safe to return to Israel. And in Lu. 2:11, an angel tells the shepherds that the Savior has been born and then the sky is filled with angels. Later, we have the mysterious star that led those far away Magi all the way to the very house where they found Jesus. And the Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod but to go home another way. Angels and stars and dreams. Crazy supernatural stuff throughout this story. I think these are some things we know, but really have forgotten how incredible they are. When you reduce Christmas to good feelings and family time, you miss out on this incredibleness. This story helps us solidify that there is a heavenly realm. This world is not eternal. We look forward to the day when we join God in our eternal home. This world is not our home – that’s why we’re strangers and aliens here. Our citizenship is in heaven. We are pilgrims on a journey from this world that is passing away to a world that will last forever. We are looking for a city with eternal foundations, whose builder and maker is God.

The end is coming. What we know today will be gone soon. Those things that many feel are so important will pass away. 1 Jo. 2:17 reminds us that, The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.” We are here today and gone tomorrow. Jesus said, Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.” (Matt. 24:35) Rev. 16:18 says, “There was a great earthquake, such as there had not been since man came to be upon the earth, so great an earthquake was it, and so mighty.” That earthquake destroys all that we know. All the incredible architecture gone. The great masterpieces of the ages gone. All the earthly treasures held so dearly are gone. There is nothing we can do to save any of it including ourselves. Our salvation comes from another source. That’s why Christmas is so important. Miracles surround Christmas: the angels, the star, the dreams, the prophecies, and most of all, the virgin birth. But those miracles are just signs pointing to the greatest miracle of all. Since we get a play by play of events from Scripture, it’s only fitting that we look to the Bible to see why. Jo. 3:16 tells us that, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” Tit. 2:11 says, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men.” Gal. 4:4 says, But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law.  Phil. 2:6-7, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and being made in the likeness of men.” One of my favorites is found in Jo. 1:14, The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The birth of Christ is the incarnation of God. It is the unity of deity and humanity. The infinite became finite. The immortal became mortal. The Creator became the created. The omnipotent lived inside a young girl’s womb. The Almighty became helpless. The Deity was wrapped in rags. The King was born in a stable. The incarnation is essential in our faith. Without the incarnation, there can be no birth. Without a birth, there can be no sinless life. Without a sinless life, there can be no atonement for sin. Without atonement, there is no need for the crucifixion. Without the crucifixion, there can be no resurrection. Without the resurrection, there is no hope. Without hope, there is nothing.

I don’t want you to miss the main point. Having a biblical worldview is supernatural. When you take the supernatural out of Christmas, you’re left without the miraculous. You’re left without hope. You’re left in your sin. As Christians, why would we want to do that? The central point, the main thing, the primary focus, the theme, the moral of the story is all summed up in two words: “I am.” Christmas without Jesus is like a computer with no operating system. It’s like an iPod with no music. It’s like a phone that doesn’t make calls. It’s like cooking without food. It’s like Face Time with no face. Those things just don’t make sense.

Anytime we see angels in Scripture, I think they appear suddenly. Even though we might say we want God to work suddenly, I don’t think we really do. Especially when you consider how long you’ve prayed for lost family members and friends. Or when you consider that loved one that is dying. I think we often pray for more time. Right now we have some time, but who knows how long.

We have the time this moment to share the truths that the angels sang about that first Christmas. Today, we sing those same songs. Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her King! If you listen with all your heart, you can still hear them singing: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth among those with whom he is pleased!” “Hark the herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King! Peace on earth and mercy mild God and sinners reconciled. Joyful, all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies with the angelic host proclaim: Christ is born in Bethlehem. Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

No Crib for a Bed

7 Dec

CribYou can check out the podcast here.

Lu. 2:7 says, And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

As you may know, my wife Kari loves nativity scenes. We have them in almost every room in the house and some remain out year round. Those scenes are generally the same give or take some animals, wise men, or shepherds. They show Mary holding baby Jesus with Joseph lovingly looking down on her. Maybe Mary and Joseph are standing looking adoringly at Jesus as He lies in the manger. Nativities have Jesus wrapped tightly in white linen swaddling clothes lying in a pristine manger on fresh hay. Put that same manger in front of a City Hall or public park and watch a few very vocal people have a conniption fit screaming separation of church and state. There’s always going to be someone offended by this peaceful, wonderful depiction of the birth of the Messiah, but I wonder why people aren’t offended at the liberties taken with the scene.

Gal. 4:4 says, But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law.”

There was no room at the inn. This is a something we hear all the time and probably don’t give it much thought. What’s wrong with this picture? When I was growing up, I liked to look at those cartoons that show two seemingly identical scenes and you have you figure out what’s different about the two. In the manger scenes of today, what’s different about the scene portrayed in Scripture? If you’re God, why would you make it happen like this? Think about it, if Joseph and Mary had hurried along, maybe they would have gotten that last room. Can you picture Joseph, “Come on Mary, hurry up, it’s late and we want to get a room.” God could have ensured there was room at the inn. He could have spoken it into existence. It’s like He planned for it to happen. Bethlehem is located about eight miles south of Jerusalem. Today, it could be classified as a tourist trap. It’s very commercialized and very anti-Israeli as it is controlled by the Palestinians. Back in the first century, it was a no nothing town, hardly a blip on the map.   The only thing of note was that it was the hometown of King David. The whole reason Joseph and Mary were there was because of Caesar Augustus and his decree. He ordered a census be taken so that taxes could be collected throughout the Roman Empire. In order to do that, you had to go back to the place of your birth and be counted. Joseph was a descendant of David. It just happened that Mary was in the final days of her pregnancy. I’m sure you women can imagine what a fun journey that must have been. So they end up in Bethlehem at just the right time for Mary to deliver. But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.” (Mic. 5:2)

This was not your typical inn. No room at the inn brings up all sorts of connotations. We have a hard time separating ourselves from our modern conveniences. Maybe we picture a quaint bed and breakfast. Nobody was leaving the light on for you in the Roman Empire. There were no global leaders in hospitality. There was no choice of pillows or free breakfast. The best the Empire had to offer pales in comparison to even our mediocre hotels. The only thing travelers wanted back then was a place to lie down and not be attacked by bandits. The inn was a building without the creature comforts we would expect. Luke uses two different words for inn in his writings. One word refers to a small building dedicated to serving travelers. At one end of the building, you tied up your transportation. For an additional fee, the innkeeper allowed you to sleep on a rough mattress on the floor. He also kept the fire going and provided food for the animals. This is the kind of inn mentioned in the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Lu. 10: 34.

When Luke told the story of Jesus’ birth, he used a different word for inn in 2:7 that basically means a guest room. This inn would be smaller and simpler than the one in Lu. 10. The animals would be kept in a stable that was often nothing more than a cave in a hillside with low rock walls to keep the animals from getting out during the night. This was the kind of inn where there was no room. Why was the place full that night? Why were they told there was no room? There were lots of people traveling due to the census. Maybe they didn’t have any money. We really don’t know. From our perspective, there’s something wrong with the picture. Jesus deserved better and God could have done better. If you want to play the sovereignty of God card; that was the way it was meant to be. There was no room at the inn because that was part of God’s plan.

Why was it that way? Let’s back up the story a bit. Mary and Joseph had to return to Bethlehem as part of the census. Mary was pregnant and they arrived in the little town of Bethlehem in the very last stage of pregnancy. It was a difficult journey because of the route they took. They would have avoided Samaria because it was Samaria and they would travel about 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It would have taken about a week because Mary was pregnant. Have you ever traveled with a pregnant woman? Even today, traveling by the quickest mode of transportation is made impossible by pregnancy. Several major airlines refuse travel to women in the last days of pregnancy. The most restrictive is American; you can’t fly within 30 days of your due date unless you have a note from your doctor signed within 48 hours of traveling. All the airlines require you to consult with your doctor prior to flying. So Mary and Joseph would be taking the slow route – driving today. They arrive in Bethlehem tired and most likely hungry to find a place to stay, yet there was no room at the inn.

In writing about this text, Charles Spurgeon answers the question “Why would God allow it like this?” in three ways. He asks, “Would it have been fitting that the man who was to die naked on the cross should be robed in purple at his birth?” He says that Christ would be a peasant His whole life. Nothing is more fitting since He laid aside His glory to take on flesh. Second, He was born like this because he was the King of the Poor. The poor and the outcasts knew Jesus was one of them because of the way he came into the world. Spurgeon goes on to say, “In the eyes of the poor, imperial robes excite no affection, a man in their own garb attracts their confidence.”  The poor of the earth know that in Jesus they have a friend who cares about them. Third, He was born like this in order that the humble might feel invited to come to him. The whole scenario of there being no room at the inn, born in a stable to relatively poor and unmarried parents is an invitation to those that are rejected by society, the abused, mistreated, overlooked and forgotten people of the world that desperately need a savior. In His flesh, Jesus was like us. Jesus had to be born like this. If you look into Jesus’ future, you can even see why. Is there a hint here of his upcoming death? Sir Francis of Assisi said, “For our sakes he was born a stranger in an open stable; He lived without a place of his own wherein to lay his head, subsisting by the charity of good people; and he died naked on a cross in the close embrace of holy poverty.” This baby lying forgotten in an exposed stable, resting in a feeding trough is God’s sign to humanity. God has come to the world in a most unlikely way. Phil. 2:7 says, “But emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” On the surface, there was no glow around baby Jesus. There was nothing about Him that seemed super natural or God like. At the time of His birth, there were no choirs singing the Hallelujah chorus. He was just a little baby born to ordinary parents. And this was exactly the way God wanted it.

What do we learn from this? When we stand back at look at this aspect of the Christmas story, some really incredible truths emerge. We learn that God uses adverse circumstances to accomplish His purposes that make no sense to us. No room at the inn is really an insignificant detail that few people take time to evaluate, but since it’s part of the story, we have to ask ourselves why. Put yourself in Mary and Joseph’s place. It wasn’t some minor detail, but a huge obstacle. Even though an angel had spoken to Mary and to Joseph, there still must have been doubt. I think of all we have available to us, and we still doubt. Sometimes we don’t see things clearly until years later. We also learn that the world really has no room for Jesus. Jo. 1:11 says, “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.” He came to the people who should have known him best. He came to the people who knew He was coming. Even those wise men, the Magi from the east recognized the sign that God gave them. But His own people rejected the Christ Child. We also learn that His humiliation started early and continued to the very end. He was born outside because they wouldn’t let Mary and Joseph come inside. In Matt. 8:20 Jesus told a scribe, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” When He went to the cross, He had nothing except what He was wearing and the soldiers gambled for His coat. When He died, He was buried in a borrowed tomb. Jesus was an outsider. He was born outside and He died outside. Finally, we learn that as His followers, we share His fate. We live with Him, we suffer with Him, we die with Him, and we will reign with Him. What happens to Jesus happens to His followers sooner or later.

One verse has so much packed into it. There was no room at the inn is more than a minor detail – it was there for us. Every detail of the Christmas story is there for us. The sequence of events, the timing, the census, the journey, no room at the inn, no crib for a babe are all details for us to recognize Emmanuel – God with us. Will you make room for Jesus in your life?

Faded Glory: Why Jesus had to Come

30 Nov

Baby Jesus

You can listen to the podcast here.

We kick off a Christmas series this morning at C4 called Everything I need to know, I learned at Christmas. I’ve adapted these messages from Dr. Ray Pritchard, President of Keep Believing Ministries out of Elmhurst, IL. You can find them in their original form at keepbelieving.com. Pulitzer Prize winning columnist George Will wrote a column called “The Happiest Holiday” on Dec. 24, 1998. His opening paragraph states: “A sardonic British skeptic of the late 19th century suggested that three words should be carved in stone over all church doors: “Important if true.” On Christmas Eve, at the end of the rarely stately and always arduous march that Americans make each year to the happiest holiday, it sometimes seems that they are supposed to celebrate Christmas as though they have agreed to forget what supposedly it means.”

Have we forgotten? Growing up I can honestly say I did not know the meaning of Christmas. I was not raised in church and had no knowledge of the Savior that was born in the little town of Bethlehem. I didn’t know there shepherds guarding their flocks by night. The three kings of orient were non-existent in my mind. Now we can’t even say oriental – it would be we three kings of Asia are. Some people really have forgotten. Some never knew or don’t care about the eternal importance of this holiday.   This doesn’t change the fact that they can still enjoy Christmas and all the non-Jesus activities, festivities, good will, and time off that occur. Some are so bent on making Jesus the reason for the season that they get hung up on clerks that aren’t allowed to say, “Merry Christmas” and are outraged that Starbucks only offers a plain red cup at Christmas. Does Jesus need us to come to His defense this year? The evidence that the American church is conforming to the secular society is all around us. As long as you keep your faith to yourself and don’t bother anyone or talk to anyone about it, as long as it makes you feel happy and connected, then it’s all good. But the moment your faith steps out of your brain and into society and you start expressing those beliefs then you become enemy #1.

The words of that unnamed British skeptic that said, “Important if true” should be bouncing around in your mind especially at this time of year. Are we going to approach Christmas with a biblical worldview? We tend to fall into the same holiday routines and traditions as unbelievers. Our hearts get soft as we think of Christmas memories rather than the most important event in human history. Christmas is more than nostalgic songs from Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. The coming of the Messiah, the Savior of the world, establishes the foundation for all we believe. In its proper context, the birth of Christ is incredibly relevant to 21st century people who say that Christmas is nothing more than eggnog, gingerbread, and candy canes. I want to show you over these four Sundays, that the Christmas story is the foundation for all that we believe.

Here are some Christmas story facts according to the Bible. An angel visited a virgin who became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. The baby in her womb was the Son of God from heaven. God caused a heathen emperor to call for a taxation that sent Mary and Joseph back to Bethlehem at the very moment Jesus was born. Prophets foretold the virgin birth and that it would occur in Bethlehem hundreds of years before it happened. A star led the Magi from the East directly to the house in Bethlehem where Jesus was. Angels spoke to shepherds. An angel spoke to Joseph on three separate occasions. An angel spoke to the Magi, warning them not to return to Herod. The slaughter of the baby boys of Bethlehem fulfilled ancient prophecy. When the elderly Simeon held baby Jesus in his arms, he prophesied of His death on the cross. We also see the incredible names of Christ. Wonderful Counselor. Mighty God. Everlasting Father. Prince of Peace. Jesus – Savior. Immanuel – God with us. Son of the Most High. Christ the Lord. There are also the things He would accomplish. He will save his people from their sins. He will reign from David’s throne in Jerusalem. His kingdom will never end. These are incredible truths when you stop and actually think about them. How often do we mindlessly sing Christmas hymns without listening to what we are actually singing? I encourage you to stop and think about what the Bible claims happened that first Christmas.  Charles Wesley wrote the words we sing often at this time of year, but do we stop to consider their meaning? “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity. Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel. Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, Glory to the newborn King!” How about, “True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal, Lo, He shuns not the Virgin’s womb; Son of the Father, begotten, not created. O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.” Begotten, not created ties in with John 3:16.

We were created to be much more than we are. Ps. 8:4-6 says, What is man that You take thought of him, and the son of man that You care for him? Yet You have made him a little lower than God, and You crown him with glory and majesty! You make him to rule over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet.” In that passage we see the glory and tragedy of humanity. We are crowned with glory and honor. We were created to rule over the earth. We were made in the image of God; that is our glory. We’ve twisted this up in our society. In sports we have the MVP and the award means what it says. In the movies there are the Oscars, and the Grammys are for singing. We have all these worldly accolades, but who was it that won the Oscar for best actor last year or who won the Super Bowl last year? Eddie Redmayne and the New England Patriots. Those worldly accolades are just for a moment. All our heroes are just people that fade into history. Robert Frost wrote a poem called “Nothing Gold Can Stay”. It goes like this:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

I hope you caught those five little words that capture humanity. “So Eden sank to grief.” That’s what happened when Adam and Eve disobeyed and ate the fruit of the tree. Sin entered and death became our destiny. Sadness became a reality. We were made for greatness. That’s what David meant in the Psalm. The plan was for us to be a little lower than the angels for a time, but the angels fell, and so did we. We see the evidence all around us and it invades us every day. Sometimes we see it in a very personal way. That’s what Frost meant when he said, “So Eden sank in grief.” Nothing gold can stay. We were made for greatness – for something so much better than we see in this world cursed by sin. But having been made a little lower than the angels, it sometimes seems that we have sunk so low that we are more like the demons than the angels. Even our righteousness is like filthy rags in the presence of God.

Why would God visit us? God made us for greatness and we blew it. There is a but. God is not finished with us yet. David asks a question in Ps. 8:4, “What is man that you take thought of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” I think that’s a valid question. We blew it in the garden. God gave us another chance and the wickedness was so great on the earth, that He told the only righteous guy left to build a boat. Have you ever thought why God didn’t just give up? Listen to David’s question again, “What is man that you take thought of him?” Why would God care so much to send His one and only Son; that He would actually come to us? The writer of Hebrews tells us, “But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.” (Heb. 2:9) Jesus wasn’t born into human royalty – He was born into poverty delivered by a man that wasn’t his father in a stable in a little known village, ignored by most people. Jesus came to undo the curse on humanity and one day we will see Him just as He is. (1 Jo. 3:2) The writer of Hebrews quotes David when he said, You have put all things in subjection under his feet.” For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. But now we do not yet see all things subjected to Him.” But that has yet to happen. We weep over the pain and suffering of this world, but there are better days ahead. G. K. Chesterton said, “Whatever else is or is not true, this one thing is certain – man is not what he was meant to be.” We were made for glory, but our glory faded a long time ago. We disobeyed in the garden causing us to die spiritually and die physically. And then inexplicably, we tried to do things on our own. We wonder why the world is the way it is and we question God’s love, but for many people, we need look only in the mirror. Our spiritual state is reminiscent of the famous Pogo comic strip quote that states, “We have met the enemy, and he is us. As is often the case with God, there is a but. There are at least 10 direct references in the Bible where God says, “I will not leave you or forsake you.” God sent prophets to tell us how to get to Him, but the people killed them. He gave us Scripture that we ignore. He tells us how to live and we tell Him He’s old fashioned and out of date. Jo. 3:16 says He loved us too much to leave us to our own devices.

That is the Christmas story. Most people didn’t pay attention. It didn’t make sense how a young woman could become pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. It didn’t make sense why it would happen in such a way. A King born as a baby in the little town of Bethlehem where there was no room at an inn. He was Immanuel, God with us that would save us from our sin. He grew up the son of a carpenter, lived a sinless life and then we killed him on a cross. But death could not hold Him and He rose again just as He said He would. The general population is wrong about God and is wrong about Jesus. C.S. Lewis said, “The son of God became a man to enable men to become the sons of God.” The good news of Christmas is that God has done it all. The only thing left to you and me is to believe. God wrapped up his Son in swaddling clothes and proclaimed to humanity, “This is my Christmas gift to you.”

Do you believe it? Will you receive it? Remember that columnist George Will that I started with? His column was called, “The happiest holiday,” and he’s right. I made the decision that Jesus is the Christ, the strong Son of the living God. Christmas is happiest for those that know Jesus. Important if true. You must decide.

Christmas, Then and Now (Part 2)

23 Dec

Win GiftYou can listen to the podcast here.

Last week we began looking at the origins of Christmas from Genesis. We saw the beauty of God’s creation destroyed by the free will choice of the two God desired to have a relationship with. God determined that Christmas would come. We left last week with God pronouncing judgment on the snake as well as the man and woman.

When did Christmas come? At this point in Christmas, Adam and Eve are still in the garden. The consequences of their actions was monumental affecting not just them, but humanity. There would be enmity between the serpent and the offspring of the woman for generations to come. This enmity was quickly seen with the next generation as Cain killed Abel and the warning of, “Sin is crouching at the door” (Gen. 4:7) must have been echoing in the ears of Adam and his wife. But while Genesis speaks of enmity, it also speaks of victory. Look at the incredible statement God makes in Gen. 3:15 regarding Christmas, “He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.” This is what is going to happen; this points ahead, but it is as good as done. How would Christmas be accomplished? We know from Genesis that God is pointing to the future, but do we have any other evidence of how this will occur?  Is. 7:14, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” If you search the Scriptures, you’ll find just one virgin that was with child.

What Child is this? Luke 1:26-35 says, Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.”

You can search the rest of the Bible, you can search throughout the world and throughout eternity and Mary is the only person that conceived a child without ever having any involvement from a man. Even with in vitro fertilization, there must be involvement of a man. But not with Mary. While they were there in Bethlehem, “The days were completed for her to give birth and she gave birth to her first born Son.” (Lu. 2:6-7) In the story that is familiar to even the most casual observer, Mary and Joseph had to go from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be counted in the census. It was an 80 mile journey and they find themselves without a room for the night. Their Christmas was full of poverty and anxiety, not mulled cider, turkey, ham, and peppermint sticks. I’m not sure how Mary and Joseph would describe their memories of Christmas, but it was probably not a silent night where all was calm and all was bright. Mary and Joseph were alone in a strange place and of that night we sing, “The cattle are lowing the poor Baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.”

Even if it looked bleak for them, Gal. 4:4 says, “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law.” It was the right time for Christ to be born. Is. 9:6-7 sing out, For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.” The promise of Gen. 3:15 was fulfilled in the flesh of Jesus who is the Christ. While Genesis points to the victory we have in Jesus, the battle is yet to be won. After His circumcision on the eight day, Jesus steps out of history. He reappears at the age of 12 teaching in the temple in Jerusalem and then disappears for another 18 years before coming on the scene again to be baptized by John at the Jordan River.

What’s this have to do with Christmas? Jesus was born in a little nothing town of blue collar working parents. He never wrote a book, had no education, didn’t travel far from where he was born and lived in relative obscurity for most of His life. At the age of 30 he entered public ministry where He was loved and followed by many people. The tide of public opinion and popularity changed when the religious crowd became threatened by His teachings that were so contrary to theirs, so radical that the religious leaders plotted against Him and declared Him an enemy of the state. After a pitiful excuse for a trial, the government found Him guilty and sentenced Him to die. Roman soldiers tortured and humiliated Him before hanging Him to a tree fashioned into a cross. He died there on the cross being forsaken by all those that loved Him. He was hurriedly taken off the cross following His death as the Sabbath quickly approached and was placed in a borrowed grave where He laid for three days. Just three days for God’s plan for Christmas to come full circle. The wonderful gift of Christmas was complete as the tomb was opened to the chorus of the angels singing, “He is not here for He has risen!” (Matt. 28:6) Christmas is about the sacrificial gift of Jesus that we tend to leave in the manger during this time of year. You cannot separate the child in the manger from the message of Christ on the cross. Christmas is not just about the birth of Christ, it is about His death and His glorious resurrection.

Satan was defeated in Gen. 3:15 when God revealed Christmas would come. Satan was defeated when Christ rose in victory conquering death. Satan is defeated each day when we who are followers of Christ choose to walk in the light. Satan will be forever defeated as John writes, And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” (Rev. 20:10) Christmas redeemed us. The gift is waiting, but it’s not yours until you open it and accept it. 1 Jo. 3:8b, “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.” There is no room in our celebrations for anything but Jesus.

Christmas Perfection

26 Nov

Check out the podcast here.

Last week we were reminded that Immanuel is God with us. We were challenged to tear down the idolatry of commercialism and consumerism and to expect a miracle. This morning we’ll get a reality check as we seek out perfection at Christmas.

The great gospel of Luke 1:30-31, 34 says, “The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’”

In the classic Christmas movie “Jingle all the Way”, Howard Langston attempted to make the season just right for his son. Howard, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, was a procrastinator and tended to put his job ahead of his family. All his son Jaime wanted for Christmas was the Turbo Man action figure and Howard promised him there would be one under the tree. Turbo Man was the hottest gift of the year and every kid wanted one too. Of course it was Christmas Eve before Howard thought about the gift. Howard was trying to make Christmas perfect for his son. To make things worse, his neighbor Tim played by Phil Hartman looked like he had planned for the perfect Christmas. He had a picturesque house filled with decorations and all the presents neatly wrapped beneath the tree. The search for that perfect gift – that perfect Christmas – led to a frenzied search mission to find Turbo Man that included fights, deception, theft, burglary, racketeering, assault, police obstruction, as well as numerous violations of traffic laws. And of course, what Christmas movie would be complete without the perfect neighbor making a play for our main character’s wife? Howard tried to make Christmas perfect, but the reality is there is no such thing. For many people, Christmas is a reminder of heartache, tragedy, and suffering. Clever marketing and Victorian Christmas traditions have replaced the biblical principle of Immanuel – God with us.

Today we have a sanitized nativity scene. Our nativity scenes often portray the parents lovingly looking down over the holy Child lying in a hay lined cradle, not a manger. In our pursuit of the perfect Christmas, we forget that Mary and Joseph were spending the night in barn – a place where animals live. Where there are animals, there’s poop. Where there’s poop, there’s insects, and smell. There was no medical treatment available and Joseph was the only support Mary had and if he’s like most of us first time dads, he didn’t have a single clue. We want this clean, picture perfect nativity with no complications, no heartache, and no trouble. We have this idea that if we sincerely love God then He will grant us serenity now. No fuss, no muss in our dainty, clean, sanitized, Christian lives.

Luke tells us it was anything but perfect, anything but simple. Lu. 1:26 tells us it was the sixth month of Mary’s pregnancy before any answer to her dilemma was made evident. “Do not be afraid, Mary,” the angel tells her in Lu. 1:30. Easy for the angel to say. Mary faces an unwanted teen pregnancy. This was different from pregnancies today. She had never been with a man. It’s easier for us to understand because we know how it ends. How easy would it have been for her parents? Joseph? The town’s people? Put yourself in Mary’s shoes; she knew the truth that no one else knew. The angel says, “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.” This is where it starts for all of us. We are favored because of God’s great love; His unconditional sacrificial love. This is where Christmas begins. Not just that Christ came, but that He is still here.

Mary was favored, not perfect. It’s hard for us to comprehend unconditional love. God wants a relationship with you even if you’ve been naughty or nice. Why? Because you are highly favored. It’s easy to understand when you consider your children. You favor your kids over someone else’s kids simply because they’re yours. It doesn’t have to do with their abilities, or their aptitude, or what they look like. You favor them because they’re yours. It’s the same way with God. The favor He shows you is because of Him, not you. Being favored does not mean bad things won’t happen. Look at Mary again. As far as relationships, she had done right; had kept herself pure and she finds herself with child. Interestingly enough, nothing is mentioned of Mary’s righteousness. Even after the angel’s explanation, Mary is left asking, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lu. 1:34) I’m pretty certain the theological implications of the baby she carried were not fully realized for some time. How many of us have been in similar situations of uncertainty where we are called on to exercise our faith? You have done all you can to remain true and pure and faithful to God and then that suddenly hits.

Think about Mary’s emotional frame of mind. God’s favor would bring a significant measure of pain and suffering to her life. We read about this miracle of life knowing that the stone was rolled away and the tomb was found empty. We look at this event through the sanitized lens of knowledge. Mary didn’t have the luxury of knowing. She shares the story with her fiancé who would obviously put her away certain she is lying after all; he had never seen or heard of any virgin becoming pregnant. She faces death by stoning for the sin of adultery. The walk of faith provides no guarantees for a neat and orderly life free from life’s suddenlies. Nowhere in Scripture does it say everything that happens to us will make sense. As a result of Jesus’ birth, King Herod ordered the execution of all male babies under two. Hebrews 11 is known as the hall of faith. Stories of great faith abound in this chapter.      What are the results of this great faith? Abel was murdered. Noah suffered 120 years of ridicule and the earth was destroyed by a flood. Abraham was ordered to sacrifice his only son. In fact, I encourage you to take the time and read Heb 11:35-12:2. How about Paul? Surely he escaped problems. Look at 2 Cor. 11:24-27 and you’ll see what he endured for the cause of Christ. Paul warned Timothy that even a desire to live godly will bring persecution. (2 Tim. 3:12)

Do any of us really count the cost of an authentic relationship with Christ when we choose Him? In his book The Present Future Reggie McNeal concluded that, “church culture in North America is now a vestige of the original movement, an institutional expression of religion that is in part a civil religion and in part a club where religious people can hang out with other people whose politics, worldview, and lifestyle match theirs.” We have rewritten the original Christmas story of pain, suffering, and loneliness to one of unrealistic perfection with a hint of cinnamon and ginger. Mary asked, “How can this be?” The angel provides the answer in Lu. 1:35, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.” After that triumphant declaration – silence. No bells and whistles, no warm gooey feeling, just silence. In that silence, I wonder if doubt crept in? We can face the same thing. The Holy Spirit is with you always and particularly in life’s suddenly moments.

When we seek perfection where it does not exist, we’ll be left feeling empty and unfulfilled. We want a “G” rated Christian life in an “R” rated world. Why did God choose Mary? Look at what she said in 1:38, “And Mary said, ‘Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.’ And the angel departed from her.” When faced with this seemingly impossible situation, Mary chose to trust and obey. May it be the same for us.

Expect a Miracle

19 Nov

You can listen to the podcast here.

And so it is Christmas. We begin our Christmas series for this year. Every year seems Christmas seems to come earlier and earlier. American retailers capitalize on our materialism, our over spending, our overeating, and our overwhelming urge for self indulgence. I hope it will be a Christmas like no other for you and your family as we cut through all the distractions of the season.

Is. 7:14 says, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” What does God look like?

We know from Genesis that we are created in His image. We know he has hands and he hears and sees. Would we know God if He walked in or when He showed up? Over the years artists have sculpted God, have painted God, have drawn images of what they think God looks like. Would we recognize God or would be like people in the old west that asked, “Who was that masked man?” Centuries before the Messiah came, prophets proclaimed, “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.” (Is. 9:6-7) This soon coming king would suffer, would be rejected by his own people; He would know heartache and pain. This King would hang out with the ones society deemed low class and poor. People had been told about this King and they had different expectations about what he would look like, what he would act like, what he would be like. Some thought this king would be a political leader that would turn the world upside down; someone that would return the world to the time of King David.

When we talk to loved ones or friends on the phone, you have the mental picture of what they look like. When you pray, what mental picture of God do you formulate? Is it the condemning judge that sits on His mighty throne waiting to drop the hammer on you? Is He like that parent that never says no? That never provides guidance or discipline that lets you do whatever you like? Is He a God that rewards obedience with material wealth or physical health? Or is He a God that is present with you regardless of your circumstances? Immanuel – God with us.

When describing God we use adjectives like all-mighty, all powerful, majestic, consuming, liberating, rich, and infinite. And yet, not one of these words would describe Jesus. Jesus was not at all what people expected. His life is a contradiction of worldly values and ideals. He was not born in power in strength, but in weakness. He was born to a poor family in a poor town filled with marginalized people. He spent his early years as a refugee in Africa where He escaped political genocide. He spent his childhood in a blue-collar, working class family. As He grew into a man, he faced opposition from religious leaders. He resisted the world’s obsession with money, power, and recognition. He had compassion and empathy for the weak, the orphans, and the destitute of society. What does God look like? He looks like Jesus – God with us!

Is this today’s Jesus? We often view Jesus as the genie in the bottle. He exists to grant our every wish. We have redefined Jesus into our own image who promises to give us everything we want. He has become an idol of consumption, materialism, and self indulgence. He has become Santa Claus Jesus. We know the familiar song . . . He knows when you are sleeping, he knows if you’d been good or bad. In this same way, we have reduced God to a heavenly watchdog that judges what we do or don’t do and then grants punishment or reward. This is not the God we see in Jesus. He doesn’t come bearing gifts to give to good boys and girls. God’s gift of Jesus cannot be neatly wrapped in a box with a pretty bow on it. If you’re picture of God is distorted, your view of life will be distorted. We have this commercialized idea of Jesus as the magical gift giver sent from above and as a result, we have certain expectations for Christmas, but Jesus doesn’t do magic. Magic is trickery, sleight of hand, it’s an illusion, it’s for our entertainment; our enjoyment not for our transformation. God doesn’t do magic; He does miracles. That magical, wonderful, ideal, storybook Christmas is unattainable. We get all the new and improved decorations, holiday recipes, and latest gifts to create a warm, fuzzy experience and we’re left wanting. The fuzzy feelings pass and we’re left exhausted, stressed, and overwhelmed at the shopping, spending, school programs, cooking, entertaining, and wrapping of gifts we don’t need or will never use. In the hustle and bustle of the holiday festivities, we miss Immanuel – the gift of God with us. The idolatry of consumerism is tough to knock down. John Wesley said the wallet is the last thing converted in a person’s life. Jesus said it Himself in Matt. 6:24, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

Get ready for a miracle. Christmas is the celebration of a miracle. A young girl conceived a child without the participation of a man and yet we push the miracle worker out of the celebration. Merriam Webster defines miracle as “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.” Every salvation is a miracle of God’s love, of God’s involvement, of God’s desire for an intimate relationship with His ultimate creation. Do you feel like you’re not worth it? In John 7:38 Jesus said, “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, from his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.” The same Holy Spirit that conceived the Miracle that Mary carried within her lives inside of every ordinary believer. Our Messiah was ordinary too. Is. 53:2-3 says of Jesus, “For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.” Not quite the leader the world was looking for. He would not have been one of the cool kids at school. He was from the wrong side of the tracks of an insignificant little town where one person asked, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (Jo. 1:46) He was ordinary looking, probably plain, nothing that would draw people to Him. That’s the way most of us are yet God chooses to use us, to work in us and work through us.

Scripture is filled with ordinary people that God used in extraordinary ways. Moses was not eloquent in speech and had anger issues. Jonah was disobedient.    David was an adulterer, a conspirator, and a murderer. Peter spoke without thinking. Thomas was a doubter. Paul was a persecutor of Christians, but God had plans for each of them and He has plans for you. “For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.” (Jer. 29:11) Are you willing to pay the price? The angel greeted Mary and said, “You have found favor with God.” (Lu. 1:30) Mary faced certain rejection, criticism, and ostracism because of her unwed pregnancy. While grace is free, it’s not cheap. It was not culturally acceptable to be pregnant out of wedlock and Mary had to be thinking, “Wow, if this is God’s favor, I don’t want to be on His wrong side.” What about Joseph? I’m sure life was tough for him too. His wife was pregnant and he wasn’t the father.

Jesus came to this earth not just to die sacrificially on our behalf, but also to demonstrate sacrificial living. How far has our modern Christmas diverted from the original Christmas? We want to be warm and fuzzy surrounded by family and friends with the gentle sound of Christmas carols playing softly in the background. Mary and Joseph were alone in a strange place and of that night we sing, “The cattle are lowing the poor Baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” Their Christmas was full of poverty and anxiety, not mulled cider, turkey, ham, and peppermint sticks. And let’s not forget the reason Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt was to escape government sanctioned genocide. I’m not sure how Mary and Joseph would describe their memories of Christmas, but it was probably not a silent night where all was calm and all was bright.

Christmas is about the sacrificial gift of Jesus that we want to leave in the manger. But you cannot separate the child in the manger from the message of Christ on the cross. The meaning of life is not found in material possessions or personal comfort. The meaning of Christmas is not found in endless debt and getting gifts not needed. I agree with Paul is saying the meaning of life in found in, “know[ing] Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.” (Phil 3:10) Expect God to perform the same miracles in your life that He performed in Mary and Joseph’s lives.

How Nazareth Missed Christmas

20 Dec

You can listen to the podcast here.

Several years ago a fad in Christmas decorations swept across America.  It is an artificial tree that is upside down.  Hammecher Schlemmer offered a 7 foot prelit tree for 599.95.  If you didn’t get one, it’s too late, they no longer offer the tree.  Who wouldn’t want one?  In their ad, the company says there is more room for presents than a traditional tree. You can still find these trees ranging from $200-400. Most people don’t need a tree to be turned upside down at Christmas.

Left unchecked, Christmas can be turned upside down in a hurry. Our gift buying can leave months of extra debt to pay off, our holiday schedules can leave us exhausted, and our materialism can leave someone searching for Christmas blind to the true meaning and spirit of the holiday. Americans will spend almost $22 billion this Christmas on toys alone. We used to talk about cars being upside down and now we’re upside down on our houses. So here’s the question, “Wouldn’t you like to trade your upside down Christmas for something better?” From Nazareth to Bethlehem, there were countless opportunities to celebrate Christmas, but few people managed to do so. In the case of Nazareth, missing Christmas led to something far more troubling because this community managed to miss life-changing faith, even with Jesus living in their midst. As it turns out, in the 12th Century, Christians hung fir trees upside down in their homes at Christmas to remind them of the Trinity. Back to Nazareth. The story started there, when Mary got the word that she would carry the long-awaited Christ child.

Take a look at the familiar passage in Luke 1:26-38.

Mary’s had a dream and in that dream, she found Christmas. It’s not just that the angel of the Lord found her, but it was Mary’s willingness to be used. Mary called herself a bond slave in verse 38. A bond slave is one who gives himself up to another’s will and whose service is used by Christ in extending and advancing His cause among men. It also means someone devoted to another to the point of disregarding your own interests. There was a period of time when Mary was the only person to believe God was at work in a new way. It took a miraculous dream for Joseph to get on board.  Check out Joseph’s dream in Matt. 1:18-24. Mary would spend her pregnancy and her labor away from her village, her friends, and her family. The lesson for us today is more important than you might think. Yes, we’d like to reclaim the rest of the holiday. Yes, we’d like to remember the real reason for the celebration. Yes, we’d like to spend less money on gifts, and realize what an incredible gift God has given to us. But if we miss the meaning of this season of faith, we also might miss the opportunity for experiencing life-changing faith years later. It happened that way in Nazareth.

When Jesus began his teaching ministry, he went back to Nazareth and went to the synagogue. When Jesus delivered the same message that was already being accepted in other villages, the people of Nazareth refused to believe. The story is found in Mark 6:1-6a. Jesus was amazed at their lack of faith. Nazareth had been told through Mary and Joseph that angels were delivering important messages from God, but the people of the village refused to believe. Perhaps they knew Mary and Joseph too well to believe God might be using them. Nazareth had seen evidence of Mary’s pregnancy and evidence of Joseph’s decision to believe a miracle had taken place. Nazareth had access to the Scripture in its synagogue, and had surely read the promise in Is. 7:14 that said “a virgin will be with child” and that he would be called a Nazarene according to Matt. 2:23 where Matthew quotes what the prophets said. Even with the evidence that Jesus of Nazareth had been born of a virgin, that His birth was a miracle, Nazareth refused to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. They were too familiar with Jesus.  He’d grown up among them.  He’d lived among them every day for decades. No one could remember Jesus doing anything wrong. No one could even remember Mary or Joseph getting frustrated with Jesus. They knew Him. Even though miracles were happening in other places because of Jesus, in His hometown, people with diseases, pain, and disabilities returned home lacking the faith necessary to be healed. This faith would have changed their lives and shown them the truth of Christmas.

So what’s the impact of this story? Most of us are as familiar with Jesus as the people of Nazareth. If you’ve been in church very long, you know the stories, you’ve sung the songs, and you’ve even memorized scripture. But there’s still a huge gulf of faith and trust that needs to be bridged and only you can build that bridge. This Christmas, would Jesus be amazed at your faith, or at your lack of faith? Will it be another Christmas filled with too much to do, too much food, and too many expenses? Could this be the Christmas when faith finally grabs hold of you and like Mary you say, “I am the Lord’s servant.”

This is the right time for the right message. What’s the right message? As people are consumed with shopping, decorating, and buying, most of our culture misses the reason for all the activity. His name is Jesus, and He is called Immanuel. Immanuel means God with us. There is no better time of the year than Christmas to share who Jesus is and why He came. It’s not about spending more, it’s about spending less, doing less, and enjoying Christmas more. How can we share the right message, right now? Take a stand and let others take notice that you want to make Christmas what it should be. Relax, take time with God and reflect upon what He did to make it all possible. Make a family tradition of giving a major gift to missions. That’ll make a bigger impact on the world than giving your child the latest gaming system.

It’s the right time for the right message and this is the right place for the right message. Nazareth was not the right place for the home of the Messiah. The character of Nazareth was proverbially bad.  To be a Galilean or a Nazarene was an expression of decided contempt. The village did not have the best reputation. In John 1:46, Nathaniel said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And yet Isaiah promised that the Messiah would be despised, even contemptible. Few people grow up thinking their hometown has the chance to produce greatness. With 820 people living there, Tampico, IL produced Ronald Reagan. John Wayne was born in Winterset, IA – 4805. Andy Griffith was born in Mt. Airy NC – 8484. Dick van Dyke was born in Crawfordsville, IN – 15,243. Tiger Woods was born in Cypress, CA – 49,000. Bush 43 was born in New Haven, CT – 124,000. Tim Tebow was born to missionary parents in Makati City, Philippines, just one kid trying to find his way among the 510,000 people living around him.

Any place, at any time, can produce a great leader or athlete or an unforgettable entertainer. This place, our place, happens to be the right place for the right message of Christmas. Who else is going to bring the Good News to our community? Everyone else is too busy at Christmas. We all need to realize that the best person to reach our family, friends, and neighbors is us. It’s not someone else’s responsibility.  It’s not even someone else’s opportunity. You are there, inside the circle, armed with years of relationships and trust. Find a way to get the message to your sphere influence this year. Include a spiritual side to your family celebrations. Pray before you open gifts. Read the Christmas story from Luke. Think about what your family or community might be like without your contributions. George Bailey had an opportunity to see what his community would be like without his positive influence. You can make a difference.

It’s the right time for the right message.  This is the right place for the right message, and you are the right person for the right message. You may have doubts about your ability to deliver the good news or you may be very comfortable sharing your faith. Each of us, in our own ways, with our own skills, has been gifted and charged by God to deliver the life changing news of Christmas. Mary and Joseph accepted the challenge, trusted God, and found the miracle. They paid a price for accepting the task God gave them. They endured shame and scorn and traveled hundreds of miles. The rest of Nazareth endured none of the discomfort or pain that Mary and Joseph did because they did not accept the challenge of faith. They missed Christmas. What a person does with the right message, given in the right time, at the right place, is completely up to him or her. Life-changing faith – Christmas-finding faith – is the kind of faith that puts your faith in action. The decision belongs to you. Take the journey of faith that Mary and Joseph took, and you’ll find the miracle. If you have a hard time trusting and believing, you’ll suffer the same fate as people in Nazareth who never overcame their lack of faith. If you can trust, if you can come to faith in Christ, then you’ll find the same truth that Mary found as she took one step after another in her walk of faith. Remember the words the angel spoke to Mary, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37)

The right place, the right time, the right person and most importantly, the right message. Christmas started in Nazareth, went to Bethlehem, and then back to Nazareth. Both villages were filled with people who missed what God was doing in their midst. It’s the same way people in our culture can celebrate a huge holiday without ever comprehending what God has done, and continues to do, in our midst. And yet God is at work, changing lives one at a time, and getting the message out in some surprising ways. Don’t miss Christmas this year because you’re too caught up in Christmas.

How Bethlehem Missed Christmas

12 Dec

You can catch the podcast here.

It’s possible to miss Christmas even as it happens all around you. The stress of finding the right gifts, wrapping them, and paying for them can mask Christmas so well it might just disappear altogether. It happened to a lot of people that very first Christmas and nowhere was it more obvious than in the little town of Bethlehem that slept right through the most important birth in history. Christmas came to Bethlehem, but almost everyone there missed it. Bethlehem, however, had a good excuse. The people there were overwhelmed with life. An unexpected census caused that little village to be packed with people. The town was not prepared for the extra people. The demands for food, water, and lodging must have stretched the townspeople to the max. To make it worse, many of the people there probably had to be somewhere else to be counted for the census. It looked like a golden financial opportunity, but before it was all over, Bethlehem was overwhelmed with grief.

Take a look at Matthew 2:13-18.

The loss of a child is particularly painful.  In America when a child is abducted, an Amber Alert is posted.  Signs across highways light up to let people know that a child is missing. The truth is that a lot of things can keep you from Christmas, a lot of really normal life-things. Just as it did in Bethlehem, grief can steal the joy of Christmas faster than any other enemy.

God is always at work so we worship Him. The angels’ song was worship at its finest. It considered nothing of the circumstances of earth, but only considered the majesty of God. The angels had a view of God that completely blocked their view of anything on earth, and they sang as if God alone was worthy of praise. They sang as if the glory of God was making a difference in the lives of those who lived on earth. But people on earth were so focused on their circumstances; few of them caught so much as a glimpse of what the angels saw on that first Christmas night. In Luke 2:14 the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” In other words, this is the best day the world has ever known. Mary and Joseph probably didn’t get the full impact of the angels’ message. Joseph was more stressed than he’d ever been, and when his young wife needed him the most, the best he could do was find a smelly stable in Bethlehem. Mary had just given birth and was certainly exhausted. The labor and delivery must have been difficult. No meds. No modern child birthing techniques. Loneliness – Mary’s mom wasn’t there to support her.  The shepherds were physically and emotionally tired – they had been watching over their flocks at night. The people of the village were packed into tight quarters, exhausted from a census and all the trouble the census had caused. For everyone involved, life was hard. If their circumstances were the reason they would give glory to God in the highest, then this probably wouldn’t have been the night for a song.

Your circumstances are probably very different from any of those in Bethlehem. Maybe it’s your job that applies the daily pressure. Maybe it’s a relationship challenge that dominates your thoughts. It could be that December’s schedule is packed too tightly with things to do, things to buy, things to wrap, things to cook, things to decorate, things to eat, or things to attend. Maybe your circumstances are more painful. Maybe there is some loss, some illness, some point of grief that has taken away any desire to celebrate Christmas, or even life. Perhaps financial pressures have taken the joy right out of life. When life is difficult, or even too busy, it’s possible to miss the truth of the angels’ song that broke into the night skies over troubled Bethlehem. Regardless of your circumstances, God is worthy of your praise. He never changes even as your circumstances change constantly. God is worthy of your best song, your best love right now. Whether you can see it or not, God is always at work.

Not only is God is always at work and we should worship Him, but God is always in control so we should trust Him. Mary and Joseph were facing some big changes in their lives and probably wondered if they were on the right track. Mary’s instructions had come in a vision. Joseph’s instructions had come in a dream. As time passed after they were given their instructions, it seems that there was silence from God. How many times had Mary wondered if she heard the Lord correctly? How many times had Joseph second-guessed his decision to stay with Mary? It must have surprised Mary and Joseph when the shepherds arrived full of excitement and filled with the wonder of a miraculous message. From the shepherd’s point of view, Mary and Joseph confirmed their own encounter with the Lord. Eight days later, Mary and Joseph met Simeon at the temple. The Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not see death before seeing the Christ child. In the temple on Jesus’ eighth day, Simeon said, “Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart 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 OF REVELATION TO THE GENTILES, And the glory of Your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32) “At that very moment [Anna, an 84 year old widow] came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:38) Those events solidified what the Lord had told Mary and Joseph. By the time Joseph had a second dream, a few nights later, there was no hesitation in his willingness to believe, or obey. He and Mary took the child and ran toward Egypt, trusting that God was in control at that moment, just as God had been in control in the events leading up to that moment.

Trusting God is probably the greatest challenge in our lives. It is the essence of faith. The Bible is woven around this principle. Moses had to trust that God was in control, even as Pharaoh turned the people against him. Noah had to trust God even though he’d never seen rain let alone a flood. Ruth trusted as she walked toward Bethlehem with bitter Naomi. David had to trust as he waited to become king. Daniel had to trust as he was thrown into the lion’s den. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had to trust as they were thrown into the fiery furnace. Jeremiah had to trust as he followed a trail of tears out of Jerusalem. When Mary and Joseph were asked to trust God in Bethlehem, they weren’t the first. They were simply two more people in a long line of God’s people who had been asked to believe that God was in control. Even if they couldn’t see the evidence of that control right at that moment. You’re in that line, too. God will ask you to trust Him, to believe that He is in control. We need to understand a fundamental principle. Not everyone can make the leap of faith that is required here. The shepherds managed to make it to the birthplace, but no one else in Bethlehem did. The old-timers in Bethlehem surely knew that one of the prophets had promised that Messiah would be born there and were probably able to quote Micah’s prophecy. But when the big moment came and went, the meaning of Christmas slipped past them just as it sometimes slips past us. Trusting God is a decision that you must make daily.

God is always at work and we should worship Him, and we know that God is always in control and we should trust Him, but we must also realize that God loves us more than we’ll ever know: this is the gift of Christmas. As we have seen in past weeks, in our culture, Christmas is all about the gifts. We spend billions on the gift exchanges every holiday season. Christmas was God’s ultimate gift. It was God’s love for us that served as the motivation of Christmas Remember what Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3:16? It was a personal encounter with Christmas. Meeting Jesus impacts everyone in a different way.  Some accept His free gift and some don’t. The shepherds heard the song of Christmas and returned to their fields with a different outlook on life. The magi were impacted with the child they found, literally changing their path home as a result. Mary and Joseph – already convinced that God had led them to Bethlehem – left there with a deeper conviction than ever that God could be trusted and that the child they carried with them was the greatest gift the world had ever known. Through the ages, millions have found the gift, realizing that the God who is so worthy of worship, the God who demands that we trust Him, is also the God who first of all gave us a gift, motivated by unspeakable love, so that we could know Him personally. God is always at work and we should worship Him, God is always in control and we should trust Him, and God loves us more than we’ll ever know and that is the real gift of Christmas.

It turns out the song of Christmas is a beautiful one if people will only hear it. Most in Bethlehem missed the song. Pain and grief and tragedy and busyness got in the way. But for those who were listening, and for those who responded, the gift the received was nothing short of life-changing. Every Christmas, the song plays again, with God’s constant invitation for us to hear, to believe, and to respond.

The Leaders who Missed Christmas

28 Nov

You can listen to the podcast for this message here.

Here we are in the Christmas season again. I wonder how many will miss the reason we celebrate Christmas? Even Christians who are pressed to the max with school parties, work parties, church parties, neighborhood parties, decorating, baking, and shopping for presents are prone to miss Christmas. In the classic movie A Christmas Carol, we find the tyrannical and unlovable business owner Scrooge complaining every step of the way because poor Bob Cratchet wants half a day off on Christmas. If the story was written toady, the roles would likely be reversed. We would see Scrooge looking forward to Christmas because as a business owner, he would see profits rise. He’d begin advertising before Halloween and offer ridiculous store hours on Black Friday maybe even opening at midnight. Maybe the story would follow how Bob Cratchet developed his complex shopping plan camped out hoping to find those trendy, state of the art gifts for his kids. He probably scanned the 102 million results found on Google by searching Black Friday 2011. Bob would come to despise the Christmas music that begins just after Halloween. Scrooge would love Christmas, Bob Cratchet? Not so much. In the ever increasing commercialism and materialism that is Christmas, can we change the pattern? Do you want to?

Missing Christmas is nothing new. Since the very first Christmas 2000 years ago, people looking for the real meaning of Christmas missed it. In the first century, the Temple was one of the busiest religious centers on the planet. Sacrifices were constantly being offered on behalf of people’s sin. Priests, worshipers, and the religious crowd were ever present. The religious crowd sat around and “discussed” the finer points of the Law. They evaluated the 613 rules they supposed people ought to follow as they interpreted the Law. Somewhat different form the 10 that came down with Moses from Mt. Sinai. They read from and memorized the Torah, they talked about the prophets. They looked for the Messiah. Messiah is born just about 5 miles from where all these religious leaders were. He was born in Bethlehem and not a single Jewish leader made it to the manger. Jesus was laying in the manger for just over a week and probably no one came to see this little boy.

So let’s look at the story that occurs eight days after Jesus was born. Grab your Bible and read Luke 2:21-38. According to Jewish law, male babies are taken to the Temple on the 8th day and circumcised because He was born under the law according to Gal. 4:4. Mary and Joseph take baby Jesus to the Temple. The reason for Christmas is taken to the Temple, the very place you’d expect to find Messiah. Christmas nearly comes and goes from the Temple just like it comes and goes for many people today. There were two people at the Temple that day however, that were eagerly anticipating Christmas. The religious leaders at the time who earnestly searched for Messiah did not find Him. Even as Messiah hung on the cross 33 years later, the leaders looking for mankind’s deliverer missed Him. How could anything good come out of Nazareth after all? (Jo. 1:46) How can people miss something so obvious? How could they miss something that is apparently so obvious to us? If we were in Jerusalem that day, we would see the hustle and bustle of Temple life. We’d see the steady stream of religious people doing religious things. We’d smell the smells of the sacrifices, hear the animals, hear people laughing and crying – we’d see all the activity. We’d see people so consumed with life and they’d miss Christmas because they were just too busy. These leaders would remain busy for the next 33 years. They missed the miracles, the teaching, the love, the authenticity, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension. The religious leaders were so busy doing God’s work that they missed the most important work God ever did for mankind. They had the Law, the prophets, the very Word of God and yet they missed what all of these things pointed to.

It’s not a stretch when we consider what the holiday season has become. Children so excited about what they will receive that they can barely get to sleep on Christmas Eve. Sleep doesn’t last long as many families are awakened by their children in the wee hours of the morning to open presents giving little to no thoughts as to why they’re getting gifts. Christmas has been replaced with consumerism and materialism, with the rush to find a bargain on an item we don’t really need. It shouldn’t shock you to know that few people know the real reason for Christmas. We’ve lost the simplicity of the manger, of the shepherds that were watching their flocks by night. I wonder if we should spend some time in the Temple looking for Christmas.

Did everyone miss Christmas? If we were flies on the wall in the Temple mount, we’d notice two people. The first is a man named Simeon. The second is a woman named Anna. The Pharisees and the Sadducees and most of the religious leaders of the day missed Christmas. I want to focus on these two people that give us some clues on how to avoid missing Christmas. If you want to find Christmas, you must be willing to wait. Simeon is described as, “righteous and devout.” He was upright, just, and God-fearing. He was, “looking for the consolation Israel.” The Messiah was born of very humble beginnings. He didn’t come as the religious leaders thought He would come. The Christ child did not come as royalty, he didn’t come as a major league political figure. He came as a baby, born of a virgin.

Look at Luke 1:68-75. Simeon waited. Luke 2:26 tells us that, “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” Simeon was apparently an old man that had been looking for that consolation of Israel for a long time. He waited because the Holy Spirit revealed to him that he would not see death until he saw Christmas. Luke 2:28-32 says, “Then he [Simeon] took Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said, ‘Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart 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 OF REVELATION TO THE GENTILES, And the glory of Your people Israel.’” Can you imagine waiting for something for so long and then holding Salvation in your arms? Simeon offers a blessing to Mary and Joseph and then disappears from the pages of Scripture.

Then we come to Anna. 84 years old and she spent all of her time in the Temple area. She served, “Night and day with fastings and prayers.” Compare her to the religious leaders who argued the finer points of the Law, offered a life time of sacrifices and yet still missed the sacrifice for all life. The priests were engaged in continual sacrifices for the people. When you look at God’s design for the Temple, you’ll find the lamp stand, the table of showbread, the basin, the alter – all the materials needed to make sacrifices to God. Did you ever notice that there aren’t any chairs? There was always sacrifices to make; never time to sit. Heb. 10:11-12 tells us, “Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, SAT DOWN AT THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD.” The priests were so busy making sacrifices for the people that they missed the sacrifice made for them. Many people in today’s church have bought the same lie that the priests of old did. Busyness equates to spiritual maturity and that is just not true. Simeon and Anna were purposed to find Christmas – to find Messiah, the Christ Child, the consolation of Israel, the redemption of Israel. They waited – they were patient. What part of Christmas today is patient? Is it the packed shopping centers and the traffic jams? Is it the pushing and the shoving in the lines to get into the stores at midnight on Thanksgiving Day? Is it the after Christmas sales that now begin before Christmas?

What will you do to avoid missing Christmas? How will you reconnect with the original Christmas? You’ve heard of the still, small voice of God? I wonder how well you can hear that in a crowded mall? I encourage you at some point very soon, get alone with God and listen to Him – and wait until you hear Him. If you want to embrace what that first Christmas was like, you’re going to have to wait like Simeon and Anna did. And it doesn’t matter if everyone around you misses it.

You must trust that God will keep His promises. Simeon waited a lifetime to see God’s promise. When he saw Jesus, Simeon knew the promise had been kept. Anna waited decades. It’s significant to note that she was a prophetess. That means as she waited for the redemption of Israel, she told others about the Christ. I’m sure that included telling people of the promises of God. The promises that include telling people that God will never leave you nor forsake you. That is comforting considering that Christmas is one of the most stressful times of the year. Maybe this holiday season will be filled with new normals. A new marriage. New babies. Maybe your children were married this past year. Maybe this is the first year without that loved one. We can stand on the promises that God will not leave you; He will be with you to help you as you go through this time of year. Contrary to popular opinion, this time of year produces 40% fewer suicides than at other times. He will be there with you, will you trust Him?

You must be willing to proclaim what God has done. Simeon and Anna never considered keeping the good news to themselves. Simeon tells Mary and Joseph what Jesus’ future holds. As soon as she saw the child Anna, “Came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Don’t neglect to tell people what God has done in you.

At the center of Christmas is this gift that has been prepared for you. Don’t miss the gift of God among the gifts of men. Don’t miss the center of Christmas and that is the Christ child that was sent to save mankind from themselves. God willingly sent Jesus just for you. He came as the King of kings and the leaders of His days missed Him. Don’t miss Christmas this year.