Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas Eve 2009 Message

Again and again he tries.  Each time, he knows he will succeed.  Though he’s failed every time in the past, this time will be different.  He approaches the ball… and it’s yanked out from under him.  Have you ever felt like Charlie Brown?  You’ve tried so hard, but things aren’t going like you expected them to go.  You didn’t plan them out this way?

When I was entering the final quarter of my senior year of college, I had my life all planned out.  I was going to graduate college and get married.  Then I was going to continue my education at Indiana University, where I would get my master’s degree in Education, after which I would get a job, where I would teach high school German and coach soccer.  I had everything planned out. To make a long story short, things didn’t work out like I had planned. My fiancĂ© and I broke up, and the last place I wanted to be was where she was, so I didn’t go to grad school.  Life didn’t turn out at all like I had planned.

I’m not the only one who has had life not turn out like I had planned it.  When we look at the situation in Luke 2, we see a life that hadn’t turned out at all like people had planned.  Israel, from its very inception, was meant to be God’s chosen people.  God called Abraham to leave his home and his family and to go to the land He would show him.  God told him this:  I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you.  I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. Genesis 12:2-3.

Then in Exodus 19, Moses went up on Mount Sinai to talk with God.  God told him that they would be His treasured possession.  Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:6).

But here we are, years and years later, and Israel isn’t a great nation.  They don’t seem to be mediating between God and humanity.  In fact, since the time of Abraham, they’ve mostly seen others rule over them.  Whether it was Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, or now Rome, someone else had been ruling over them for most of their history. Apart from a brief rebellion over 150 years earlier, they had been under the rule of other nations for hundreds of years. This didn’t seem like the place of a great nation.

As if it weren’t bad enough to be ruled by another nation, they were under the thumb of a Roman ruler who called himself a god.  And this year, Caesar Augustus was requiring all of his subjects to return to their hometowns to be counted.  There were only two reasons for an emperor to call for a census: first of all, to demonstrate to the world how powerful they were. By showing how many people were in his empire, Caesar could show that he was the most powerful man on earth.  The second reason for a census was to help an emperor know how much he should or could be collecting in taxes.  Mighty Rome would crush you if you didn’t pay your taxes. Meanwhile, you have Israel, barely more than a blip on Rome’s radar screen, mostly doing whatever it took to not be noticed.

This wasn’t how Israel had planned it.  They were supposed to be a great nation, not bowing to another nation and paying tribute or taxes.  I can’t even imagine the corporate morale of Israel.

And in this Christmas story, we meet the shepherds.  Now to know who they were, you have to know something about the economy of the ancient near east.  Shepherds were not landowners.  They weren’t even sheep-owners.  They were peasants at best.  Overall they weren’t concerned with the political situation of Israel.  They were most concerned with subsistence.  They just wanted to make enough to keep themselves and their families alive.  Talk about a blip on the radar screen; they weren’t even on the screen.

They remind me of a certain class of kids I went to high school with.  Now I went to a large high school with about 500 in each class, and there were a number of cliques.  I remember one kid, I’ll call him Jimmy, who started out trying to fit in with the “preps”. He tried his best to dress the part, but the rich kids wouldn’t have any thing to do with him.  Then he was trying to fit in with the athletes, but he wasn’t athletic enough, so they didn’t accept him either.  Next he was riding a skateboard and trying to hang out with that crowd, but they called him a “poser” and wouldn’t accept him either.  Finally Jimmy ended up with the “hoods” – the longhaired smoker kids who wore leather jackets and congregated outside behind the school before and after class.  They were almost always under the radar.  One classmate of mine wore a blatantly obscene t-shirt all day in school, and not one teacher even noticed.  Even as a teenager, I was convinced that adults purposely ignored their entire group.  This is where Jimmy ended.  He was in the same kind of social status as were the shepherds. In fact Jewish rabbis considered shepherds to not only be smelly and dirty, but also untrustworthy.

This wasn’t the lot in life they’d chosen.  In fact, they weren’t much different from Jimmy.  Much like he went from clique to clique, trying to fit, in the shepherds’ initial goal wasn’t to become a shepherd. The goal of any young man in Israel was to become a rabbi.  Every Jewish boy studied Torah and if he was good enough, he presented himself to the rabbi.  If the rabbi didn’t accept him, then he either went to a lesser rabbi or went home to follow his father’s trade.  Some young men, however, didn’t have the option of leaving home to try to follow a rabbi.  They were too necessary at home; if they left home, their family starved.  Their fathers didn’t have a trade to teach them.  All they had was their position as a shepherd, looking after someone else’s sheep.  Dirty, smelly, dumb animals.

This is where we find the shepherds that night.

Then you have Mary and Joseph.  I’ve never been pregnant, but I understand that even with today’s comfortable means of transportation, travelling when 9 months pregnant is horrible.  Can you imagine Mary’s discomfort?  Especially because of the reason for their need to travel.  It wasn’t to be with family when the baby was born; they had to travel so Rome could count them and most likely increase their taxes.  Just another reminder that they weren’t free.  And then they showed up in Joseph’s hometown and there was no room for them. 

Now most of our Christmas pageants like to vilify an “innkeeper” who turned this couple out into the cold, but in reality, it was worse than that.  The Greek word katalumen, which we sometimes see translated “inn” also means “guest room.”  Bethlehem was not the size of town to have a real “inn” and most homes of that time period would have been equipped with a guest room, for showing hospitality was not just encouraged; it was required.  But the guest room of Joseph’s family home was already full.  I remember travelling with Tara when she was pregnant. We went to visit friends in Texas.  They demanded that we stay in their room, and they slept in the living room.  That’s hospitality.  I wonder if the “no room” mandate came down because of the “condition” of Joseph’s fiancĂ©… After all, none of them had been visited by an angel to explain the whole “Spirit of God” thing...

This wasn’t the way they had intended to start their married life or their family.  I’m sure they had things planned out differently than this.  They would have a normal wedding, complete with the whole party thing, and then when the time was right, they would have children, hopefully a son who would follow Joseph and learn carpentry.

Instead, they were out in the attached barn, and instead of a clean room and a clean cradle, their baby was laid in a manger.  Not the way anyone expected the Son of God to be born.  The Messiah, promised of old.  Here are the words of the angel Gabriel, when he had told Mary about this miraculous birth: He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end. Luke 1:32-33.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t royal babies supposed to be born in palaces?  I can’t imagine what could have been going through Mary and Joseph’s minds about now.  Life hadn’t turned out like they had planned.

There they were: over the past 400 years, God had been silent.  Israel was ruled by Rome, and they were being counted so Caesar Augustus could know how powerful he was and so he could raise taxes.   Shepherds, the lowest rung on the social ladder, out in the fields, hoping to earn enough so their families didn’t starve.  Mary and Joseph, with their baby laid in a manger.  If you didn’t know the rest of the story, you might even think that God had abandoned them.

Have you ever been there?

But God had never left.  God had never abandoned them.  Way back in their history, as he handed over leadership of Israel, Moses had told Joshua, “the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6).  This is still true.  God has never left us.  In fact, the Christmas story is proof.  It’s proof that in spite of the worst possible circumstances, God is still God, and he is still with us.
Rome.  Rome was so powerful, and Caesar considered himself to be a god. But Psalm 33:16 reminds us: No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength.

Not an army.  Not political strength.  Not an emperor, king, or president.  Even in the face of persecution, God is glorified.  Jesus pronounced those who are persecuted as “blessed” – and goes another step to declare that theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:10). 

Though it looks like things aren’t what you might have planned them, you might just be in the center of God’s will.  In fact, the Greek Empire, who overran Israel before Rome did, provided the language much of the New Testament was written in, a common language through which someone like the Apostle Paul could communicate all over the ancient near east.  Rome provided reliable roads to carry the Good News all over the known world.  Even when Rome began persecuting Christians, trying to wipe them out, it merely scattered them… and the Good News of Jesus Christ was spread throughout the world. 

The shepherds, those who had drawn a poor lot in life, were visited personally by God’s angel.  Can you imagine this?  Everyone would just automatically expect God to appear to the high priest or at least to priests or to the temple workers. The elite, after all, most deserve to see God, don’t they?  But God shows his love for the least and the lost by coming to the shepherds of all people.  They got to be the first to see the Messiah, the promised one, the King whose reign will never end.  They got to be the ones who first shared the good news.  They glorified and praised God, because they had seen Jesus, the savior of the world! 

As for Mary and Joseph, their forced, painful journey to Bethlehem, the stigma of being unwed parents disappeared in the glory of being chosen to be parents to the Son of God.  Mary got it right when she said that [God] has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name. Luke 1:48-49.  Even their travel to the tiny town of Bethlehem, mandated by the Roman emperor, provided fulfillment of prophecy. The Prophet Micah had written: But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. Micah 5:2.

As for you.  Things might not be going like you had planned them.  You might be wondering where God is in the midst of your troubles.  It can be hard to see the big picture when you’re in the middle of the little picture.  But a look at the Christmas story is a reminder that God is with us.  To look at Rome is to look at a historical empire, not a current one. Our brothers and sisters around the world who are suffering government-sponsored persecution just because they worship Jesus Christ are reminded that Rome seemed all powerful at the time of the birth of Jesus, but some 400 years later, Rome was sacked and the Roman Empire fell.  But the baby who was born in the manger, the Son of the Most High, rules over a kingdom that will never end.
To look at the shepherds is to be reminded that God has a special love for the least and the lost. God showed up in a special way to the shepherds, and if you are down and out, if you are at your wits end, if you are at rock bottom, God has a special love for you.  It is you to whom he gives His kingdom. 

To look at Mary and Joseph is to be reminded that sometimes things don’t pan out like you’d planned it, but God has something much bigger and better in store.  Like my college story.  I left off by telling you that things hadn’t worked out like I planned.  Truthfully, in hindsight, I am so glad! I can’t imagine how things would have gone had I followed my plan.  I don’t think I ever would have followed God’s call into ministry, and God has blessed me and my family more generously than I ever would have imagined. 

You see, sometimes we get so focused on our plans and how we want things to go, and we come to God and tell him, “I accept you – now walk alongside me” and we continue along the path we’ve set out before us.  That’s not the message of the Bible. That’s not Christianity.  That’s just selfish sinfulness wearing a Jesus mask.

So today and from now on, instead of going your own way and then focusing on how things haven’t gone to your plan, let’s focus on God’s plan.  Let’s give up our agendas and live according to Jesus Christ’s.   This is truly living a life that matters. And it’s Jesus’ Christmas gift to us.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Living a Christmas Life

Let’s be honest: life is too short to live unintentionally.  We don’t know what is going to happen next, and none of us is guaranteed tomorrow.  Wouldn’t it be good to know that you are living a life that matters?  
There have been times in my life when I have wondered if I am making a difference.  When I was leading the evening service at my first church, we struggled with poor attendance.”  There were days when the band outnumbered the congregation.  I wondered if we were making a difference at all. 

Meanwhile, the youth group wasn’t growing, and the senior pastor and I struggled with philosophical differences in youth ministry. 

Then in New Knoxville, the District Superintendent told me that our church could grow and become an “anchor” in the southern part of Auglaize County.  I really, really wanted that to happen, yet the growth I saw while I was there was less than one person per year. 

Somehow the devil began to use what started out as a good thing. The devil got hold of the dreams I had, dreams to do great things for God, and twisted it into a “you didn’t see those kinds of results.  Maybe you’re just not good enough.”

Am I alone in this?  Have any of you ever felt like you’re not making a difference? Like you’re just not good enough?  Like you just can’t quite do enough?  Like you’ll never make the difference that you set out to make?

Then you’ll find that fear is paralyzing.  It’s hard to think about anything, let alone do anything because of the fear of failure.  And guess what: when we get to that point, we’re already in failure mode.  And then Satan is going around doing the “I’m so cool” dance because he feels like he’s won.

I bet Satan was doing that kind of dance for quite a while.  Between Malachi and Matthew, in the “intertestamental period” some 400 years passed where it seemed like God was silent.  Satan had to be pretty pleased with the course of events.  God had chosen a people to be a blessing to the nations, to act as His priests, the mediators between humans and the divine, and they had continually and completely failed.  And God was silent.  And Satan was doing the “I told you so” dance.

Then an angel shows up in the least likely place.  Mary.  A young, unmarried woman. The least in her culture.  She didn’t have a voice or status.  Yet the angel shows up and calls her “highly favored.”

Here’s the thing: Satan loves it when we’re paralyzed by fear.  He loves it when we are scared to take the next step.  He loves it when we speak negative thoughts again and again.  He loves the word “impossible.” He loves it when we look at situations and say “there’s nothing I can do.”

Can you imagine what Mary thought when the angel showed up?  The very sight of an angel had to be terrifying – scripture says she was “greatly troubled” and the angel had to preface his news with “don’t be afraid.”

He brings some wild news of a son who would rule over the house of Jacob forever.  But Mary can’t even get to the meaning of all this; she can’t get past the impossible part.  How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

I guess God had anticipated her incredulity, because the angel had an answer ready.  The Holy Spirit was going to do something miraculous.  Because, as the angel explained, Nothing is impossible with God.

Now, I’ve read this passage for years – that the Holy Spirit would come upon Mary and would overshadow her with the power of the Most High and He would work a miracle, because, after all, nothing is impossible with God.  This is how a virgin could give birth.  By God’s special intercession in the world, the miraculous happened.

But did you realize that the words from the angel are repeated later in the scripture?  In Acts 1:8, Jesus is speaking with his disciples, and he tells them “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Do you realize that we have been given that same Spirit? The Holy Spirit has come upon us. We have the Spirit of God within us.  We have the Spirit that caused a virgin to give birth.  We have the Spirit that spoke through Jesus’ disciples in all kinds of languages.  We have the Spirit of God within us.  And nothing is impossible with our God.

What do you think we could do if we realized the power that is within us?  Think about it.  Do you think we would dwell on negative thoughts and words like “can’t” or “never” – or would we explore the possibilities that God might have in store for us?

In my position, I hear a lot of negative talk. Did you know that negativity is one of Satan’s tools? There are times and places for critiques (evaluation of programs and events is vitally important – when we do this, we can figure out if we are on the right track, if the event is something that we need to continue to do or if maybe we need to retool it or even to stop doing it and look at doing something different).  But when our conversation is always negative, then we have problems.  One of these problems is that our perceptions become reality.  When we constantly hear (and speak) negatively, we begin to believe it.  Satan doesn’t usually come at us with blatant lies.  Satan comes with something that sounds like the truth.  Or he even takes something that is true and he twists it. 

This is nothing new: in the Garden of Eden, he came to Eve and asked her, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1). God had indeed forbidden Adam and Eve from eating from one tree, so the question seemed innocuous.  This is how Satan works.  Satan says things like, “You failed at that – maybe God isn’t calling you to do something special for him.” Or he says, “This is scary; maybe there’s someone else who could do it better.”  Or “I have struggled with this for so long; I can’t imagine that I’ll ever see anything different.”

When we buy into that kind of attitude, we’re just falling for Satan’s lies.  And friends, there is power in the spoken word.  Do you remember how God created everything?  God didn’t get down on his knees and build the earth.  God spoke it all into existence.  There is power in the spoken word. When we constantly speak negatively, we give credence to Satan’s lies.  So evaluate your speech; are you allowing Satan to slip in and deceive you?  Or are you willing to speak Truth into the situation?

This is personal for me.  I worked with someone who was constantly questioning me.  He went so far as to write on a recommendation "I don't know if Brian is suited for ministry."  As someone whose primary love language is 'words of affirmation' his criticism stung.  I heard some of his words repeated in my head over and over, and I actually started to believe them. 

Speaking Truth into a situation requires us to be led by the Holy Spirit.  It requires us to know scripture, not just in chunks and sound bites, but in its complete unity. What is God doing?  How might He use you.  What might you do if anything was possible?

Here’s another example.  I have been reminding all of you that you can celebrate your birthday on your birthday, but on Christmas, we’ll celebrate Jesus’ birthday.  I have been reminding you that we can make a difference in the lives of young women right here in central Ohio, children who have been bought and sold. We can bring a miracle offering (for Gracehaven) on Christmas Eve.  In the meantime, our church has faced a crisis.  Some have asked me, “Are you going to go ahead with the miracle offering?” They’ve told me, “This is pretty ‘in-your-face’ and the church needs something ‘nice’ to help them get through this.”
I recognize that there are still many raw emotions here and that things have been tough.  This is all the more reason that we need to continue with the miracle offering.  Because nothing is impossible with God.  Satan wants us to stop doing ministry.  He wanted the Night in Bethlehem to fail, and it was fantastic.  He wanted your cell groups to give up and fold.  He wanted the praise band to stop leading worship.  And he wants us to become inward focused and to forget about the world outside, to forget that we can make a difference.
Mary responded to the angel with one of the most impressive statements of faith I’ve ever heard.  “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”
What will we look like if we answer God in the same way?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Living a Life that Matters: Repentance

Luke 3:1-20

What are you looking forward to? Christmas?  The New Year?  Heaven?  Most of us are looking forward to something.  When I think of Christmas time as a child, the one word that I would use to describe it would be anticipation.  I would generally just ask for just one thing for Christmas, and then I’d have to wait and wait.  Christmas Eve was the hardest night to fall asleep, because the anticipation was so great.

So what are you looking forward to?  What are you anticipating? And what are you doing to prepare for it?  As a child, we were told that Santa would know if we’d been naughty or nice, and that our Christmas haul depended upon our behavior.  So we would ostensibly prepare for Christmas by being “nice.”

When we look at scriptures, the Bible works to prepare us for Christmas, for the coming of Jesus Christ.  The entire Old Testament works together to let us know why it was necessary for God to take on flesh and to come to earth.  For me, Christmas isn’t Christmas without reading the account of Jesus’ birth from Luke 2.  But after his introduction, Luke starts with John the Baptist.  And before he ever gets to Jesus’ ministry, he outlines John’s ministry. 

Many churches follow the lectionary, which is a three year cycle of scripture readings.  Usually there are different readings each year for a given Sunday, but some certain times in the year, the readings remain constant over the three years.  In Advent, we always get John the Baptist.  Sometimes it seems kind of awkward an even inappropriate to talk about John the Baptist when the church wants to get to Jesus.  We want the baby in the manger, and instead we get Jesus’ ugly cousin, wearing camel hair clothes eating locusts and wild honey, calling the religious leaders a “brood of vipers.”  To me it never seemed quite appropriate.  But right now I realize that this couldn’t be more appropriate, both for Christmas and for our church today. 
In Luke 3:2-6, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.  Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low.  The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.  And all mankind will see God's salvation.' "

So I ask you today: Are you ready? Are you ready for him?  John the Baptist had it right.  He was the son of a priest. He knew the words of the prophets.  John indeed knew that it was a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. He knew that the Day of the Lord, which the people of God looked forward to, was a dreadful and scary thing for those in sin.

Listen to the words of Isaiah: Isaiah 13:6-13:   Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty.  Because of this, all hands will go limp, every man's heart will melt. Terror will seize them, pain and anguish will grip them; they will writhe like a woman in labor. They will look aghast at each other, their faces aflame. See, the day of the LORD is coming —a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger— to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it. The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light.   I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless. I will make man scarcer than pure gold, more rare than the gold of Ophir. Therefore I will make the heavens tremble; and the earth will shake from its place at the wrath of the LORD Almighty, in the day of his burning anger.

Are you ready?

How about the words from Joel: Joel 1:15 Alas for that day! For the day of the LORD is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty. Joel 2:1-2a, 11Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming. It is close at hand- a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. …The LORD thunders at the head of his army; his forces are beyond number, and mighty are those who obey his command. The day of the LORD is great; it is dreadful.  Who can endure it?

Or Amos? Amos 5:18-20 Woe to you who long for the day of the LORD!  Why do you long for the day of the LORD ? That day will be darkness, not light. It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear, as though he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him. Will not the day of the LORD be darkness, not light— pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?

Or Obadiah? Obadiah 1:15 "The day of the LORD is near for all nations. As you have done, it will be done to you; your deeds will return upon your own head.

Do you get the picture? This is the background that John the Baptist knew.  And this is the context of Advent.  Of preparation. Of repentance. In our culture, we like to think of God in terms of his love.  And this is right and good.  But sometimes we paint a picture of God that just doesn’t fit with what we know of Him. Sometimes Jesus gets reduced to our buddy and God to a kindly grandfather.  It’s no wonder that some people wonder if the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament; we have often painted an inaccurate picture of the New Testament God that distorts his love to be a “whatever is fine” kind of God. 

That’s just not accurate.  God’s love is a protecting love.  God’s love is the love that wants what is best for his creation.  And what is best is himself!  Unfortunately for us, we’ve all sinned (remember Romans 3:23 – all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God), and that has left us unworthy to even come into God’s holy presence.

Let’s talk for a moment about God’s presence.  I know that sometimes I have been almost flippant when I talk about God’s presence.  When I talk about feeling God’s presence here, sometimes that takes the form of some kind of warm feeling.  Here is what the prophet Isaiah felt about being in the presence of God.   Isaiah 6:1-5 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:
       "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;  the whole earth is full of his glory."

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.  "Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."

Have you ever stopped and thought of God’s presence this way?  God’s presence is such that unclean people cannot stand unscathed!  If we had any concept of God’s holiness, we would never pray limp prayers.  We would never simply bow our heads.  We would be face down, grieved by our own sin.
When Jesus was talking to some Jews who had believed him, he said,If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:31-32).

The importance of this can’t be overstated.  We often put the emphasis on the first part of what Jesus said, that if we obey him, we are his disciples.  But the second part of this is troublesome.  Does Jesus mean that he will then give out some secret information, some secret truth, that finally then we will be able to break free?  No.  Jesus is still talking about himself.  When he later told his disciples that he was going to leave them, and Thomas declared that they didn’t know where he was going, and he questioned as to how could they know the way, Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

We often just stick with Jesus being the Way.  Yes, that’s right.  But he is also the Truth.  While Satan is the father of lies, Jesus is the Truth.  So if you are in Christ, there is no falsehood at all.  If you know Jesus, if you really, really know Jesus, he sets you free.  But to know Jesus includes to hold to his teaching.  And John the Baptist wasn’t the only one who proclaimed “repent!”

When John the Baptist came, he called for repentance. He knew that the Day of the LORD was approaching.  He knew that the need was urgent.  It wasn’t about “later”; it was about today. Knowing Jesus and preparing for Him isn’t about balancing a naughty or nice list; it’s all about entering into the presence of a Holy God.

Repentance is the way.  The way to prepare for God isn’t to just invite God to come alongside us on our circuitous route through sin and mire.  It is to admit to God that this is exactly where we’ve been.  And then to allow God to fill in valleys and straighten the road.

God is saying, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”   This means that what we do should reflect a repentant heart.  In other words, we who have been forgiven much, our response should be to love much.  I have to say that most of you have been wonderful in your outpouring of love for the families in our church in their difficult time.  Many have been evaluating everything, every word and deed, and have been rededicating yourselves daily to the LORD.  But there are others who have continued to gossip and spread discord in town.  If I wasn’t clear enough last week, let’s go over this again.  Gossip is sin.  If you persist in telling stories, even “concerned information” you are sinning.  Blatantly.  Unrepentantly.  Stop it now!

Proverbs 16:28: A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends. This is not what we are here for.  Unfortunately many people look at a small town and look at a church and actually expect sinful gossip.  I don’t expect it, and I don’t approve it.  Gossip is a symptom of a sinful, unrepentant heart.

In Matthew 15:19-20a, Jesus says: For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.  These are what make a man ‘unclean’.

Did you notice that Jesus doesn’t differentiate between the sins of adultery and slander here?  He is saying that these sins are the outpouring of sinful hearts.  If you persist in sinning with your mouth, you are simply showing the fruit of a sinful heart.  The prophets and Hebrews 10:31 remind us, It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Know that gossip isn’t the only sin that we’re guilty of.  In one way, it’s just an easy one to attack, because it has often been the “trademark” of a small town.  If you have sin in your life, it’s time to root it out, once and for all.  To follow Jesus in everything, to know Him, to know Truth, which will set you free.

Every one of us is called to produce fruit in keeping with repentance.  Here’s the cool thing about repentance: when we repent, we are cleansed. Jesus’ death on the Cross sealed that promise for us.  And he gives us the Holy Spirit to help us, to allow us to fully repent, to even know what to repent of.

So what’s next?  After Joel warned about the horrible Day of the LORD, he went on to say this: "Even now," declares the LORD, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning." Rend your heart and not your garments.  Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.  (Joel 2:12-13)

This is important, because it demonstrates what our attitude and posture should be before the LORD.  The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. This verse does more than just say something about God; it describes his character. 

Return with all your heart.  Remember that repentance means more than just quitting sinning.  It means that we stop sinning and turn in the opposite direction.  1 Peter gives us a good picture of this: Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech (see, here’s a good example of what we’ve been talking about; evil speech includes gossip). He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it. (1 Peter 3:10-11).

This is how we prepare for the coming of the LORD. Not just for Christmas, but for Jesus’ return. Turn from evil and do good. We’re not just preparing ourselves; we’re preparing others. What do people who don’t yet know Jesus think when they see Christians falling into sin (including gossip)? Our purpose – to live a life that matters, is to live repentant lives.  This doesn’t mean we’re perfect, but it does mean we become the vessels through which God’s compassion and graciousness are brought into the world. 

As we pray, we pray that God will take our sins, and because of his compassion and grace, he will nail them to Jesus' cross and remove them from us as far as the east is removed from the west.  Then, cleansed, we can stand in His Holy Presence, and we can reflect that Presence into the world.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Special Sermon

If you want to read this sermon, please contact me. I have taken it down out of respect for the community.

Monday, December 7, 2009

December 6 Sermon

I will be posting my December 6th sermon shortly, but I first have some editing to do.