Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Don't Be Afraid: Christmas Eve

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

God has a great sense of humor. I am reminded of that every time I look in the mirror. Here’s something that I find really funny. Back in 2 Samuel 24, we read about King David, against God’s will, taking a census of his fighting men. His rationale for doing so was for bragging rights; he wasn’t at war when he might need to know the strength of his army; Israel was at peace. David just wanted to show off how powerful he was in the size of his army and his nation. This was where his faith lay, not in God’s ability to protect them regardless of their number.

Now, in Luke 2, we find Caesar Augustus requiring everyone to go to their hometowns to be counted. Why? He wanted to know the extent of his empire. He wanted to know how many potential "taxable units" there were out there that he had power over. He had bragging rights and wanted to show off how powerful he was in the size of his army and nation.

So we have the Roman ruler doing exactly what King David was punished for, and in the midst of this census, the King in the line of David was born. I wonder if that irony was lost on those who first heard the good news, that in spite of Caesar’s show of his power, something, someone much more powerful had come.

But instead of offering a mighty show of power to Rome, God chose to show his power by not flexing his muscles. He chose to show love, tenderness, and gentleness in the form of a helpless baby, born in humble surroundings.

God sometimes shows his power in great, huge, miraculous ways, but not usually. In 1 Kings 19, there is a great episode where Elijah, God’s top prophet of the day, was extremely discouraged.

The Lord told him that His presence was about to go by.

A great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind.
After the wind, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.
And after the fire came a gentle whisper, a still, small voice

And the Lord was in that whisper, and he came, encouraging Elijah.

God speaks today, often in a quiet, gentle voice, not flexing His powerful muscles. But although He is quiet, He is powerful.

The angel’s words to the shepherd were appropriate: Do not be afraid. No matter the size of the enemy, there is nothing to be afraid of. Whether it is the power of armies or any of the fears that the children mentioned this evening, God’s power is greater.

The angels, God’s personal messengers, and the mighty warriors of God, came not to fight, but to announce a birth. Certainly the shepherds were terrified as God’s glory shone around them. Back in the time when God was giving Moses the Ten Commandments, Moses asked to see God’s glory, and God told him, in Exodus 33:20, You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.

Now God is showing his glory to common shepherds. Of course they were terrified. But God shows His power by not killing them, but by giving them Good News!

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.

God is working to bring Himself glory, even to the least and the lowest, to show His character as the Lord, who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and mercy. The angels announce good news for all the people: God comes to bring peace to all people, because he loves us so much.

Because of his love, we don’t have to be afraid of anything. In Romans 8:35, Paul asks, Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? He answers his question in verse 38, I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is what Christmas means. No fear. Glory to God!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Prepare for the Impossible

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of this father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.

"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"

The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God."

"I am the Lord’s servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her.
Luke 1:26-38

It was a dark night and I was driving home from the worst choir practice ever. The choir director had invited me to come, and I liked to sing, so I showed up. I hadn’t sung in a choir since seventh grade, when my mom finally let me quit the children’s choir (believe me, it was hard being the only kid singing bass…). The practice was… not the best. First of all, the "bass" part was way too high for me to sing; I was used to singing whatever I wanted, usually the melody a couple of octaves below everyone else. So not only was I singing a real bass part, but we were singing Black Gospel and they often split into 3 parts instead of 4: soprano, alto, and "men." And those "men’s" parts are really, really high. So I had a terrible headache from trying to sing too high. Oh, and did I mention that as the new guy, I got to sit on the end of the row, next to "Ed" who had a policy of picking one note and sticking with it? To make matters worse, besides the director, I had only even met one person there, and he kept annoying me when I was trying to sing.

So on the way home, I had me a little conversation with God. Well, God, I showed up and sang. Good enough, eh? Then God’s voice came through: What are you doing for me? That was a fine question, because, after all, I was a seminary student! I was training to lead people for Him!

Then God answered: No, what are you doing for me?

It wasn’t long until I realized what God was saying: I was going to have to stick it out in the choir. Even though I couldn’t sing the part, and even though I didn’t know anyone, I was going to have to sing God’s praises in front of people.

Have you ever had a conversation with God? One where you have all the answers, but God has something else in mind? Where you know what is possible, but God has something else for you?
Just because you know the story, don’t gloss so quickly over this conversation Mary had with God. First of all, an angel showed up. "Greatly troubled" sounds so innocuous. I think I’d use the phrase "freaked out." Here’s the ironic thing: she was freaked out before the angel told her what was going to happen. The angel’s mere appearance and greeting were enough to mess her up.

But the angel told her that God planned to do the impossible.

Mary’s response: I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.

Doesn’t she know that regardless of what an angel says, that virgins don’t give birth? But the angel told her that God had different plans. Think about it: God was the One who created the reproductive system; certainly He can change the way it works! It’s like this: one year for Christmas I received an electric train set. I loved setting my train up and driving it. It was fun watching the train go round and round. But sometimes the train went off the track. Then I’d reach down into the train scene I’d built, pick the train up, and set it back on track.

God can reach down into His creation at any time and can change the parameters.

  • He is not constrained by money – or lack thereof.
  • He is not constrained by disease. Cancer’s got nothing on Him.
  • He is not constrained by the rules of physics; He created Physics!
  • We know that God will act in accordance with His character , but He is not constrained by our understanding of Him.
  • He is not constrained even by our actions. Jesus told a bystander that if his people didn’t praise His name, then the very stones would cry out. Did you know that right now in Muslim countries with nary a missionary, Muslims are having dreams of Jesus Christ and are turning to Him for salvation?

What I see here is really a control issue. We don’t only want to know how, where, and when God will work, but we really want to control how God works and through whom God works. Once when I was serving as associate pastor, we had a healing service. The Senior Pastor asked for prayer for his shoulder, as he had slipped on ice earlier, and his shoulder really hurt. So I prayed for him. The next Sunday, he told me, "You don’t have the gift of healing. My shoulder hurts worse than ever." Whatever the case, his comment said this to me, "I want to know and control how God works."

Really, not having the gift of healing has freed me up greatly; I don’t have to have the gift of healing for God to do the healing, and then if God chooses to heal someone after I’ve prayed for them, He gets the glory, not me.

Mary had faith enough to tell the angel "May it be to me as you have said."

Even though it doesn’t follow the hard and fast rules of biology. Even though it was way above her pay grade. Even though she had no understanding of how it would happen.

What would it be like if we were to give God that same offering? I am the Lord’s servant: may it be to me as you have said.

What would God do with this church?

  • I see a church tearing down Satan’s strongholds in Millersport and beyond.
  • I see a church so compassionate that the lost and the lonely are found and enfolded in fellowship.
  • I see a church on a mission, making disciples of Jesus Christ.
  • I see a church transforming people into Christ’s likeness, one person at a time, that we would be characterized by repentance and response to Christ’s call to salvation.
  • I see a people who are so on fire for Jesus Christ that they will count the cost and pay whatever the price to see revival sweep this land.
  • I see a church whose heartfelt praise and worship reaches to heaven as a pleasing gift to God – not just as we sing, but as we live.
  • I see a church where buildings can’t contain our growth.
  • I see a church whose message is so clear that lives are changed forever.
  • I see a church who desperately care about the souls of their neighbors, co-workers, friends, and family members, and will stop at nothing to see them transformed.
  • I see a church who daily communicates with God through Bible reading, study, and meditation.
  • I see a church who is characterized by listening prayer: who wait on the movement of the Holy Spirit, but when the Spirit moves, are ready to move.
  • I see a church characterized by intercession – that we won’t sit back and allow Satan to have victory in any aspect of our lives or the lives of the families in our church.
  • I see a church that is a healing place: that we are known as somewhere that people are healed physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
  • I see a church where young people are not only accepted and invited, but cherished and empowered for ministry.
  • I see a church serving in mission, here in Millersport and throughout the world.
  • I see a unified church: not two services who tolerate one another, but one church on a mission for God.
  • I see a church whose head is Jesus, whose help is the Holy Spirit and whose focus is the Great Commission.

Yes, the church that I see could well be our church.

What could we be if we will say along with Mary: I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Prepare for a Feast

On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations;
he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all Italicfaces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth.

The LORD has spoken.

In that day they will say, "Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the LORD, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation."

Isaiah 25:6-9:
There is something about a feast that gets me excited. I love Thanksgiving: I love the food. It's my favorite meal probably because it’s no mere meal, but truly a feast.
The big question is this: who is invited to a feast? Or moreso, who is welcome at a feast? I know that I’ve been to meals where I’ve not really been welcome. Some people are extremely uncomfortable having the pastor sharing at their table. It’s actually funny seeing someone squirm while trying to hide a beer behind their back. Then there are the courtesy invitations: you’re invited, but we don’t really want you to come. All we really want is a gift.

So who is really invited?
This is a sensitive issue. Isaiah was Jewish and he prophesied to God’s chosen people. The whole Jewish year is built around their holidays, which are, interestingly, feasts. These feasts celebrate what God had done for His people in the past. So naturally only Jews would really be welcome at a Jewish feast, right?

Others could show up, and if they went through the right rituals to become Jewish, they could possibly participate.
But here, Isaiah is saying the ridiculous: this feast is for all peoples. It is not only open to everyone, but it is specifically prepared for everyone.
This is something to think about as a church. I have heard from various people around town that their perception of our church, of us, is that we’re elitist. That we’re a clique and that they aren’t welcome. Before you get riled up, how inviting are we? We can be just like the Old Testament Jews when it comes to welcoming outsiders who don’t look like us, dress like us, listen to our favorite music, etc.
Did you notice that the food isn’t just leftovers or fast food; it’s God’s very best. In fact, the "best of meats" mentioned here is the portion of the meat that would have been given to God as an acceptable sacrifice. Instead of receiving it from us, God is giving it out freely. The idea here is that God asks us to give to Him, not so He can hoard what we’ve given Him, but for Him to give back to us!
Back to the idea of feasting; the feasts weren’t just about eating; they were about celebrating what God had done. One of the biggest Jewish feasts was Passover, in which they celebrated God delivering them from Egyptian slavery. The only difference in the feast that God speaks of here is this: it is a celebration of something that God will do.
What exactly is it that Isaiah prophesied that God would do? On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth.

I usually read a similar passage at funerals: it’s one of my favorite passages, from Revelation 21:3-4, where John hears this: Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
Though we aren’t experiencing this in its fullness, the good news is that this feast has already started! This is the essence of what we celebrate in Advent. We celebrate that God came to dwell with men and women in the person of Jesus Christ.
If we look back at what Isaiah said, he talked about God destroying the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations. What is that shroud? What is the only thing (besides taxes) that’s a given? Death. We’ve all got a terminal condition, and we’re all going to die. But in his triumph over the cross and grave, Jesus doesn’t merely defeat death, but He swallows it.
So, what is this feast? Jesus describes the feast this way:
John 4:13-14: Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of living water welling up to eternal life.
John 6:35: I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.
John 7:37-38:If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.
This is the feast we get to sit down for: Jesus Christ Himself!

I love the way this scripture looks in the Bible. It’s written in poetic form, but then, at the end of verse 8, right justified is this statement: The Lord has spoken. When God speaks, no further explanation is necessary. It doesn’t need anything more, just his Word. Last week we sang a song with the lyric "Savior, He can move the mountains, our God is mighty to save" and I first made a mental picture of God pushing a mountain. But then I thought about it and realized that God doesn’t have to push a mountain; He says a word and the mountain moves. That’s the power of God’s Word. And when God says death is defeated once and for all, then it is.
And so we get to the payoff.
In that day they will say,
"Surely this is our God;
we trusted in him, and he saved us.
This is the Lord, we trusted in him;
let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation."

The day when God makes his dwelling with us is now. Jesus already came and lived with us, and the Holy Spirit, who is God lives within us now. Death has already been defeated.

So we can live our lives with rejoicing and gladness, even while we await the fullness of His promises.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Prepare the Way

When you cry out for help, let your collection of idols save you! The wind will carry all of them off, a mere breath will blow them away. But the man who makes Me his refuge will inherit the land and possess my holy mountain.

And it will be said, "build up, build up, prepare the road! Remove the obstacles out of the way of my people."

For this is what the high and lofty One says – He who lives forever, whose name is holy; "I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite."

Isaiah 57:13-15

Our church is comprised of all generations. In this church, we are the "greatest generation" who changed the world. We are the Baby Boomers, who also changed the world. We are Generation X, who never set out to change the world, but did so anyway. We are Millennials, who once again believe they can change the world.

Those who lived through the Great Depression and learned to scrimp and save to get by; they figured out how to use every scrap, because they would probably need it.

Then came World War II, through which people voluntarily lived on less in order to help the war effort.

After these lean times came times of prosperity: we had everything we need. We built bigger houses and drove bigger cars, and even a recession and a gas crisis in the 70s was more of a speed bump than anything else. For years, the stock market was constantly growing and growing.

But unless you’re living under a rock, you can’t escape the news: we are living in uncertain times. If I hear the phrase "bail-out" again, I think I’ll puke. What I see is that much like the people of Judah in Isaiah’s time, our country is crying out.

Why do we cry out? Plain and simply, life is hard. Sin got in the way of our the life we were meant to live, a life spent face-to-face with God, a life depending on Him for everything.
Because our life is hard and uncertain, and because our sin has separated us from God, we make our own way in the world. We find things to satisfy ourselves or to dull our pain. Why do you think alcohol and drugs are so popular? Because they take the edge off a hard life... for a while, that is.

And often the things we have chosen to lean on become elevated to the utmost importance. We depend on them, and they become objects of worship. What is it that takes God’s place as THE only one worthy of our worship? In ancient times, the nations built idols to represent their gods, but the Bible is clear that idol worship is more than that.

Ephesians 5:5 says this: For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure, or greedy person – such man is an idolater – has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

Devotion to anything over God is idol worship, and it must stop now. None of our idols can save us. We’ve learned that Wall Street can’t. Politics can’t. Good health and physical fitness can’t. Having the right name or social status or living in the right neighborhood can’t. Our possessions can’t.

Isaiah 57:13 says When you cry out for help, let your collection of idols save you! The wind will carry all of them off, a mere breath will blow them away. But the man who makes Me his refuge will inherit the land and possess my holy mountain.

Idols will not save. But the Good News is that the Kingdom awaits the one who makes God his refuge.

So the prophet Isaiah says, Prepare the road; remove the obstacles out of the way of my people.

What gets in the way? Anything can get in the way of us worshiping God with everything we are. We worship the creation rather than the created. Usually that comes in the form of self. I don’t mean a "stare-in-the-mirror" kind of narcissism, but a reliance on self for everything.

In the New International Commentary on the Old Testament, John Oswalt says this:

Since God is the only high and holy One, the people He most definitely
cannot live with are those who try to make themselves His equals.

The only people who have any hope of living with Him are those who
recognize who He is and who they are.

Our job is to prepare the road: we are the ones who make the obstacles, and it’s our job to remove them as well! When it comes to preparing for Christmas, we do a really good job. We decorate and buy and host parties. But these things don’t prepare us for Jesus’ return. Advent is a time of thanksgiving, hope, excitement, and joy, but it is also a time of reflection and repentance.

In Isaiah 57:15, God tells His people this: "I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite."

John Oswalt again:
Our God offers life to those from whom the life has been all but
crushed out; he offers life to those whose spirit has been ground down to
nothing. They need not be captive to their sin and shame, as they need not be
broken by their captors.

The Holy One is with us for our deliverance. This is the good news of salvation!

I started this message by talking about what characterizes your generation. As a church, our mission is to be and make disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world. Let’s allow God to transform us into multiple-generations of disciples, characterized by transformation and reliance on God for everything.