Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Day After Christmas

The presents are all unwrapped, the tree is losing its needles, the house is a wreck, stockings are thrown in the corner, Christmas toys are broken, and the fruitcake has been passed on to another unwitting victim.  Decorations are coming down, and people are turning off their Christmas lights.  Parties are done.  Festive music has stopped again for another year.  We’re heading into the coldest, grayest time of the year.  It’s the day after Christmas.  Christmas is over.  It can be a seriously depressing time of year.

Charities often do really well around Thanksgiving and Christmas, as many people are cognizant of the “true meaning” of Christmas, whether or not their idea of the “true meaning” has anything to do with Jesus. But the day after Christmas, after we’ve all satisfied our need to help someone, the hungry are still hungry.  The homeless are still homeless.  The lonely are even more lonely.

A few weeks ago, I was visiting with someone who challenged me that I had somehow given the impression that the Christian life was easy.  It’s not.  At least if you believe Jesus.  In John 16:33, he tells his followers In this world you will have trouble.” If that’s not a clear warning, I don’t know what is.  If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you will have trouble.  For every mountaintop, there will be a valley. For every Christmas, you will have a day after Christmas.  

There is a simple reason why.  Satan despises Christmas.  He can’t stand it.  At Easter, Jesus scores the decisive win over Satan and death, once and for all, but Christmas was when God set that plan into action.  And Satan knows that the baby born in the manger would be the One to destroy him.  So he wages war against Christmas.

But he goes about it in a clever way.  Instead of launching a frontal attack on Christmas, Satan is subtle.  He does things like cause you to get so busy that you don’t listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to your heart.  He convinces you that gifts are the reason for Christmas.  He convinces you that as long as you show up for a Christmas service, then your duty is done for the year.  But he also attacks when we don’t expect it… the day after Christmas.  

Many of you have been thinking all December of what you can get Jesus for His birthday, contemplating what might be on Jesus’ birthday list. You have been thinking of the orphan and the widow, the least and the lost, those who are always on Jesus’ heart.  

You’ve thought of families who need a hand, and you’ve reached out to them with tangible demonstrations of Jesus’ love through the giving tree. You’ve reached into your wallets and checkbooks and given generously to support the ministry at Water’s Edge and the Tom Sawyer House.  You’ve given generously to a family you don’t even know on the other side of the world in Iraq.  You provided a Christmas miracle for the clients of our food bank, some of whom were specifically praying for food this Christmas because they didn’t know what they would eat for their Christmas dinner, and your generosity in providing food for the food bank and distributing it in an already busy week.   I've been especially touched hearing our children telling adults that Christmas is all about celebrating Jesus’ birthday, not about the presents.  You’ve spread Jesus’ love, joy, and peace to those who need it most.

It’s been fantastic, but there’s often a let-down on the day after Christmas.  Now we put away our nativity scenes, the ones that automatically make us think of the gift in the manger, that draw our minds to the message the angel told the shepherds: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests!After all of this is gone, Satan starts in on the attacks.  Satan creeps in and reminds us how tired we are, how gray the days are.  He tries to convince us to put away Christmas even as we put away the decorations or to leave Baby Jesus in the manger, where Christ the Lord doesn’t threaten Satan, the ruler of the kingdom of the air.

Every time God does something awesome, Satan attacks.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; Satan doesn’t need to attack the complacent.  He doesn’t need to attack you if you’re never doing anything for God.  If you’re sitting still in your faith and never demonstrating Christlikeness in the world, if nobody even knows you’re a Christian, then Satan doesn’t need to waste his time on you.  But if you’re striving hard for the Kingdom of God, if you’re putting yourself out there and taking risks and growing in faith, if you’re demonstrating the Fruit of the Spirit, Satan will attack.  And often his attacks come right after God’s victories.  

One of my favorite prophets experienced this.  In 1 Kings 18, we see Elijah in an amazing contest against 450 prophets of Baal.  Whoever’s god brings fire – Baal or Yahweh – that’s the true God.  Baal’s prophets called on their god for hours, shouting, singing, slashing themselves with swords and spears. Nothing.  Then Elijah douses God’s altar with 12 large jars of water (in a time of drought) and prays, and God’s fire burns up the sacrifice and the altar itself and licks up the water around it.  An amazing victory.  

But in the very next chapter, we find Elijah running for his life, hiding in a cave.  He says to God, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword.  I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” (1 Kings 19:14)

I don’t know if you’ve been there, but I have.  We’ll have a fantastic Sunday morning, when God has moved powerfully, and then Satan will start in with the little things.  This wasn’t perfect.  That could have gone better.  Then he starts in with the attacks of doubt and fear – “well, we did something good here, but we’ll never be able to sustain it” or “where’s the money going to come from?” or “who’s going to complain?”
But remember when Jesus said we’ll have troubles?  He continued by saying this: But take heart!  I have overcome the world! (John 16:33) 

As you live in the day after Christmas, remember that Jesus has overcome the world.  This brings me back to the question I was asked last week: is the Christian life supposed to be easy? Unfortunately, the answer is “no.”  Doing what is right can be extremely hard.  Even Jesus struggled in this life.  Before he was crucified, Jesus told his disciples, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” (John 12:27-28a)  Jesus’ heart was troubled because he knew he was going to the cross.  He knew that some of his closest friends and most devout followers would fall away, that he would be betrayed and denied by his friends.  But Jesus recognized that the difficult times, even the most difficult time, happened for a purpose, for God’s purpose, and he knew that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  (Romans 8:28)  

He knew that to do what God had called him to do wasn’t going to be easy, but it was right.

The Apostle Paul wrote about this to the church in Corinth.  He said, We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned, struck down, but not destroyed. (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).

Through it all, they kept the faith because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence.” (2 Corinthians 4:14)
This is where Paul’s faith came from.  The knowledge that God is with us, never to forsake us.  That baby in the manger?  He grew up, lived a perfect life, was crucified and buried, but he rose again and he promised to never leave us or forsake us.  So when you’re at rock bottom, take heart! 

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Our tendency is often to fix our eyes on the past: we remember our victories, and we think of the good times and wish that things were just like they were back then.  Often our memories supply the rose-colored glasses for us.  Then we wonder why things aren’t like things were back then.  The answer?  Things weren’t ever like they were back then! And even if they were, life happened.  Every day is different, because we’re each different every day.  As Christians, we’re called to be transformed daily toward Christlikeness. Paul tells the Colossians that you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. (Colossians 3:9b-10).

Another tendency when our eyes are fixed on the past is to remember our regrets.  I spent a lot of time as a teenager living a double life and I regret all the opportunities I wasted to share Jesus and to live victoriously in every aspect of life.  But dwelling on our regrets is actually sinful; it’s denying that God’s transforming power is sufficient for us.  It’s saying, “God made junk and can’t fix it.” God doesn’t make junk.  Yes, we have all sinned.  Yes, we have all fallen short of God’s glory.  But Jesus’ gift on the cross is sufficient to cover all of our regrets, to erase every sin and fault, to present us sinless into God’s presence.

Sometimes we keep our eyes fixed on the past because we’re holding grudges.  Someone wronged us, and we won’t rest until we have justice.  If that’s where you are, you’re honestly setting yourself up as God, and God doesn’t take kindly to humans trying to usurp His position and authority.  And if that’s where you are I hope you didn’t pray the Lord’s Prayer today: “forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  

Paul tells us to fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.   For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:18)  On this day after Christmas, I invite you to fix your eyes on Jesus, on the promise of His justice, on the promise of His grace, on the promise of things greater than you ever imagined here on earth.  I’m going to invite you to a special time of prayer as we finish up.  Maybe you’ve been living with your eyes fixed on the past; God’s telling you that He has a hope and a future for you.  Maybe you need to forgive someone; God’s telling you that He’s got the justice aspect all wrapped up.  Maybe you’ve been living with pain and suffering; God’s telling you that your light and momentary troubles are achieving for you an eternal glory that far outweighs your troubles.

Do not be troubled, for God is with you.  Today, on the day after Christmas, and forever.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Sometimes You’ve Got to Sing it, part 2

Luke 1:48b-55

Last week we started in on Mary’s song.  Remember that a song in the Bible is never just a song; it’s going to be much more than that.  Mary’s song is the summary of the entire Book of Luke/Acts as well as a summary of salvation history.  It’s all about what God is doing, rooted fully in God’s purpose. 

Mary’s song started with rejoicing in her inmost being; everything she is celebrates what God has done for her.  All generations will call her blessed for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name! (Luke 1:49).  Notice that the activity in this passage is never human activity; it’s all about God.

His mercy extends to those who fear him,  from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;  he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones  but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things  but has sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”

God extends mercy. He has performed mighty deeds. He has scattered the proud. He has brought down rulers. He has lifted the humble.  He has fed the hungry. He has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant.  He has remembered to be merciful.

This is good news… at least, if you’re hungry, humble, or in need of mercy.  God has shown mercy, has lifted the humble and fed the hungry.

But if you’re the proud, the ruler, or the rich, this news doesn’t sound all that good.  1 Peter 5:5 tells Christians to clothe [our]selves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Why does God oppose and scatter the proud? Why does God bring down rulers?  Why does God send the rich away empty? Doesn’t God love everyone and want to give us all good gifts?

Yes, God loves everyone.  God loves us all so much that He doesn’t want to leave us where we are.   As American human beings, one of our biggest flaws is our fierce independence.  In some ways we never outgrow the toddler attitude of “I do it myself.”  There are things we just can’t do ourselves, but if we’re not humble, we think we can.  One summer when I was in seminary, my friend Chad and I were hired to do construction work for “Bob”.  He was completely renovating the house he lived in, and one renovation he was attempting was to put a storm cellar under a house that was built without one.  To do this, he rented a jackhammer for the day and challenged Chad and me to dig through Kentucky bedrock.  If we got down 6 feet, he’d buy us a steak dinner with all the trimmings.  We got there as early as we thought prudent to be running a jackhammer in a residential neighborhood and we pounded away.  All day.  "Bob" told us we’d be able to break off large chunks at a time.  Maybe our definition of “large” was different, but after nearly 12 hours of constant jackhammering, we had dug a trench approximately 1½ feet deep and six feet long.  Well short of our goal.

The problem wasn’t that we weren’t working hard enough.  The problem was that we had the wrong tool for the job.  Bob eventually hired real construction workers with a bobcat equipped with a jackhammer and a backhoe, and they worked most of the day and dug out his pit.

And we who are proud, independent, and rich often have built in ourselves the tendency to believe that we can do it all on our own; that we aren’t in need of God’s help, that we don’t need His mercy.  This is the attitude that pervades our society: as long as I’m good enough, I’ll go to heaven.  There are some serious problems with this attitude.  First of all, Jesus defines “good enough” in Matthew 5:20 by saying, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” He goes on to say in Matthew 5:48 “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Do you think we have a chance at “good enough”?

When we come to God with the attitude that we can do it ourselves, we come unfortunately outfitted with the wrong tool for the job.  We’re essentially saying that we are better than God, that we don’t need him, and that we’re smarter than God because we know what we need better than he does.  What we’re doing is setting ourselves up as our own gods, which puts us in direct opposition to the God of the Universe.  We’re committing high treason against our Creator.

But directly contrasted with God’s actions against the proud, we have God’s actions for the humble.  He is merciful.  Deuteronomy 4:31 tells us For the LORD your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers, which he confirmed to them by oath. 

What God is doing through Mary is a clear demonstration of God’s mercy.  Instead of abandoning, forgetting, or destroying His people, He is taking action to fulfill the covenant – a covenant which we did not uphold.  He has every right to abandon us, because a covenant, by definition, must be upheld by both parties.  But instead of destroying us, which He has every right to do, He saves us. God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8) 

God is performing mighty deeds.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, a virgin gives birth.  God does the miraculous.  He heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, restores hearing to the deaf, forgives sin, and even raises the dead!  And our God is still doing mighty deeds! 

God lifts the humble.  The book of Deuteronomy says that the wandering in the wilderness was intended to humble His people to test them to know what was in their hearts: would they then keep God’s commands?  Would they trust God with everything? Psalm 25:9 tells us that He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.  The contrast against the proud is clear; the proud person isn’t interested in having his path guided.  This is a question for the men out there: if you’re driving somewhere and your GPS isn’t working and you dropped your cell phone and it’s not working, will you stop and ask for directions?  

We don’t stop and ask for directions, because we’re too proud.  We can find our own way.  Unfortunately that extends to our spiritual life.  And the truth is, we won’t find our own way.  When I was in college, I went on a road trip with my brother and his friend, and we got lost multiple times – we drove around for three hours looking for a museum that was listed in our atlas (which we later found out had burned down three years earlier).  We drove around for three hours looking for a drive-in movie theater (we were on the wrong side of the interstate). We couldn’t find the CNN building in Atlanta.  And when we did ask directions, we asked the wrong people.  The homeless man in the middle of the street wasn’t the best person to ask directions to CNN.  The convenience store proprietor trying to keep the loitering gang kids from stealing all his merchandise was probably not the best person to ask directions to a movie theater.  And when we go asking spiritual questions, pop culture and our godless friends aren’t the right places to go.  Go humbly to God, who guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.

Remember as we read this that the poor and humble aren’t simply the unfortunate for whom life in general hasn’t been kind. The powerful and privileged by definition oppose God, while at the same time, they oppress other people.  So when God opposes the proud, powerful, and rich, he is at the same time being gracious to the humble and hungry.

God is working through individual lives (like Mary’s) and through groups of people to turn society upside down.  This is what the Sermon on the Mount is all about: if you want to read something radical, read Matthew 5-7.  Jesus turns everything upside down, completely subverting the entire structure of society, a society that calls the rich “blessed” and the poor “cursed.”

God uproots these definitions and says, “you’re blessed when you follow me, no matter what the earthy consequences might be.” Remember that Mary was called blessed, not simply because she became the mother of Jesus, but because she turned her back on all that was important to her earthly self and was 100% obedient to God.

Here’s the thing: what Mary’s song says, Jesus lives.  The act of conception set into motion the decisive work of God!  God chose for His Son a humble beginning – no room in the inn for him, attended by shepherds.  Christ Jesus being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8)

But from humble beginnings comes greatness: Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

God is at work.  And when Mary’s song includes Abraham and his descendants, she is including us as well.  We are the objects of God’s mercy, if we will humble ourselves and receive his merciful gifts.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sometimes You've Got to Sing It (part 1)

Luke 1:46-55

In college, I had a great friend who always asked great questions. One of the best questions he would ask came out of mundane, even trivial answers.  An example would be a greeting: he’d start with “how’s your day going?”  I’d give the obligatory, “good,” and he’d ask, “What’s good about it?”  Not in a dismissive way, but in a “I really want to know” way.  Then I’d get the chance to tell him what was good about my day.

This is exactly what we find in Mary’s song.  Two weeks ago, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, telling her that God had a special mission for her.  Last week, Mary hurried to the home of her relative, Elizabeth, who didn’t need any explanation, but immediately, inspired by the Holy Spirit, knew that Mary was blessed among women for her obedience.  And this week we finally get a full response to what’s going on.

She starts with a word of praise, but like the situation with my friend, she doesn’t stop there.  Instead, she elaborates with the reasons for praise.  This is the whole structure of her song.  

But don’t mistake Mary’s song for just a random outpouring of praise.  Remember last week? I gave you the tip that when someone is under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: when that person speaks, you need to pay attention, because God is speaking.  Well, whenever you find a song or a prayer recorded in the Bible, it’s more than just someone singing their favorite song.  I used to read Scripture like a musical – I’m generally not a big fan of musicals, especially because the songs can seem so contrived and hokey. Not the Sound of Music; most of those songs actually fit into the plot and sometimes even serve to advance it – after all, it’s a musical about music.  But West Side Story – really?  You’ve got gangs, and their main interaction with one another is singing?  Sometimes I’ve felt like the dialogue and action is there and the songs do little to advance the plot.  That was how I read Scripture.  I pretty much skipped over the songs, thinking they weren’t advancing the story.  In other words, I read scripture completely wrong.

Whenever you find a song, it’s going to be absolutely important.  Whether it’s Moses’ song (in Exodus 15), Deborah’s song in Judges 5, David and Asaph’s song in 1 Chronicles 16, or Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2, these are vital aspects of the text.  In fact, they often give you a summation of the entire salvation history and what God is doing.  

So when you read Mary’s song, it’s not just a jubilant reaction to the angel’s appearance or to Elizabeth’s Holy Spirit inspired words; it sets the stage for Luke’s entire Gospel (just an aside: the book of Luke is only half of Luke’s Gospel.  The other half is called Acts).  This song is more than just a song; it’s a summary of salvation history.   Let’s look at it a little more closely.  She starts with the praise: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he 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. 

To glorify the Lord is the meaning of life.  This is what we were put on earth for.  And Mary is doing this, not superficially, but from her very soul, the core of who she is.  Her innermost being is glorifying God.  Her spirit rejoices in God.  This is what the prophet Isaiah wrote of: My soul yearns for You in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for You. (Isaiah 26:9a).  It is an amazing thing to get to the place where you don’t have to force yourself or remind yourself to worship God; your spirit within you is bursting with praise for God, and you couldn’t quiet it even if you wanted to.  

This is what Jeremiah spoke of when he said, “But if I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones.  I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:9). Even if he wanted to, Jeremiah couldn’t hold back God’s word.  And even if she had wanted to, Mary couldn’t either.  Her very soul glorifies the Lord and her spirit rejoices in God.

This is typical of people who worship God.  This is the norm. It’s what God’s people are supposed to be like. Jesus Himself put it this way:  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth. (John 4:24) 

Mary is worshiping in spirit and truth.  We already talked about her spirit worshiping, and real worship is worship in spirit, but it is also worship in truth.  This means worshiping the real God, not a God of our own creation.  It means knowing the one true God intimately – and growing more and more in love with Him.  It also means that your worship is authentic, truly heart-felt, 24/7, not just something you do on Sunday.  Yes, worship is for weekdays, for workdays, for retirement, for vacation, for home, for work, for school, everywhere you go, everything you do.  Everyone around you knows that you love God with everything you are.  Nobody (except for maybe someone who hasn’t seen you in years) says, “Hey, wait a minute; you’re a Christian?” 

This gets me to something that bothers me.  It really bothers me.  The Barna Group’s research shows that “most of the lifestyle activities of [American] born-again Christians were statistically equivalent to those of non-born-agains.”  Born again believers are just as likely to report gambling, pornography use, stealing, consulting a medium or psychic, physically fight or abuse someone, get drunk, use illegal drugs, lie, get revenge, or gossip.  (Un-Christian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons).  If we were worshiping in spirit and truth, don’t you think it would stand to reason that our actions and behaviors would follow?  

It’s not that we are legalistic about behaviors – that “we don’t smoke and we don’t chew and we don’t go with girls who do.” There is great freedom for Christians – because where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Corinthians 3:17).  We are not bound by a strict code of rules and punishments.  This isn’t to say that we should use our freedom to indulge in sinful behavior; it’s not a license to go hog wild.   Paul reminds us, “Everything is permissible” – but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible” – but not everything is constructive. (1 Corinthians 10:23).  

When I was a teenager, some of my friends used to draw anarchy symbols on their notebooks or jackets.  I remember asking one kid about it, and he intimated that government was the biggest problem of society, and that without rules, things would go much more smoothly.  “No rules = good rules” was his credo.  

I asked him if he really believed that.  He said he did.  So I asked him if he’d thought it out… there were a lot of rednecks in Kokomo, Indiana in the late 80s who would have loved to have been given total freedom to mercilessly beat up a punker with no reprisal.  It was those very rules which protected him!

Likewise with the rules the Bible gives us: following the rules isn’t what saves us; only Jesus Christ has the power to save.  Following the rules is what helps keep us pointed toward him.  There are all kinds of things that are permissible but unhelpful.  

You can think of it in relationship terms: a bachelor has the ability to do whatever it is he wants to do.  He can go where he wants, whenever he wants.  He can spend his money however he chooses. He can date whoever he chooses.  He can walk around the house in boxers and belch all he wants and leave pizza boxes all over the kitchen (or living room) if that’s what he chooses to do.

Now imagine that bachelor gets married.  Assuming that his wife isn’t a slob and doesn’t approve of slobbery, one of three things can happen.  First, the wife can clean up after him and try to keep track of him and generally be miserable.  Obviously not a good choice. The second option is that she can nag him and annoy him and bug him and make him miserable.  The third option is that he can recognize that the woman he loves is more important than his freedom to do whatever it is he wants to do, and he can live it out.

This is what Paul means when he says everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial. Our freedom in Christ is freedom to worship him fully, in spirit and truth. And it’s not just because we decided to worship him – our worship of God is always initiated by God himself.  Mary was wise when she said, My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.She recognizes that God’s action was what enabled her response.  

We’re not just in a vacuum, choosing whatever we want.  In fact, as John writes: We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:19). God is the One who noticed us.  God is the One who loves us, who pursues us, who created our inmost being, who knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. (Psalm 139:13) 

God knows exactly who you are.  He knows your struggle, your pain, your sorrow, your burden.  He knows you… and loves you.  Remember this above all else – God loves you. And he gives you the opportunity to respond.  He doesn’t force you to respond, because that would not be love and it wouldn’t be worship in spirit and in truth.  It would be a farce.  Love is only love if we have the power to love or to not love.  Without that power, it’s not love.  And God loves us enough that he allows us the choice to love him or not. 

Have you chosen to love God?  If so, does anyone know?  Does your life reflect that love, or do you just manage to love God in the privacy of your own home and on Sunday mornings?  In the example I gave earlier of the bachelor who got married, what would you think of him if he continued on living like a bachelor, going out on dates with other women, doing whatever he used to do before marriage.  Would you say he really loves his wife?

And if we go about our lives, living as if we don’t even know God – if our lives don’t look any different from those who don’t even know God, then how can we say we love him?  We show our love God by doing things that reflect that love.  Christmas is a good example; we can show we love God by giving Jesus a birthday gift on Christmas.  This year we’re bringing that close to home with our Giving Tree in the vestibule, which goes to share gifts with families in our community.  Additionally, we will be taking a special offering on Christmas Eve that will go to Water’s Edge Ministry in Buckeye Lake, an area of true need, where not only are they feeding bodies, but they are feeding souls.  This is over and above our regular giving – it’s a demonstration to God that we love him so much that we will take him on his word – that he will provide for us – as individuals and as a church.

This is key to understanding our relationship with God.  He has been mindful of the humble state of his servant because of his great love.  

Sunday, December 5, 2010

I've Got to Tell Someone!

Luke 1:39-45

Have you ever had an experience where something incredible happened to you, but you couldn’t share it with anyone because you knew nobody would ever believe it?  Not in the “he’s always crying wolf” scenario, where maybe you’ve got a reputation for always telling outlandish stories, but in the “this could never happen to anyone” category.  And you’ve just got to tell someone, but you know that nobody would believe it. 

Last week we took a look at Mary, who had an amazing encounter with an angel, who told her that God was going to fulfill his promises to the patriarch Jacob… through her.  That she was going to be the mother of the Son of God.

Really, who would believe that story?  From a nobody from Nazareth… and an unmarried young woman at that.  But Mary knew someone who would believe her, so she hurried to the home of her relative, Elizabeth.  And before she can utter a word, Elizabeth knows. 

There is a reason why Elizabeth knows.  The same angel had visited her husband Zechariah in the temple, and now Elizabeth, who was old and barren, was pregnant.  But there’s more than just “we’re going through something similar” going on here.  Because as soon as Mary showed up, Elizabeth’s baby leaps in her womb, and she is filled with the Holy Spirit.

If you’re a novice Bible reader, I want to give you a hint about something.  When someone is said to be filled with the Holy Spirit and then speaks, you need to pay attention to what that person says.  It’s going to be important.  It’s just like when you read the prophets and see the words: “The word of the Lord came to ________ (the prophet)” – so this isn’t going to just be the uttering of an excited relative. It’s the word of God.

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

Now, I’ll admit that when I was younger, I was critical of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters for their attention to Mary.  But the reality is that they give her the same kind of attention that Elizabeth did, and she did so through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit!  Blessed is she among women!  Last week we looked at what Mary went through as Gabriel gave her the mission; her obedience meant letting go of everything else.  She gave up everything to be obedient to God.  So immediately after we read this, we read that God pronounces her blessed her among women.  God is affirming Mary for her faithful obedience. 

As Elizabeth says, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her.” (Luke 1:45)

I have to break in here and ask this: do you believe that God will fulfill his promises to you?  Do you really believe it?  Because if you do, your life is going to show it.  Everything about you will look different from the world.  If you really believe that God will fulfill his promises to you, you’re going to take some risks for His glory.  You’re not going to worry about all the little things, because you know that He is in control.   As Jesus said, “Seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33) That’s a promise.  But often we get to the promise without the obedience.  If we don’t seek Him first, we can’t expect to receive “all these things.”

But, as Elizabeth, inspired by the Holy Spirit, recognized, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her.” (Luke 1:45)

One thing that I love about this blessing is that it isn’t limited to Mary.  It’s open to the rest of us as well.  Later in Luke’s Gospel, we see Jesus driving out a demon and then teaching about His Kingdom.  Let’s pick it up in Luke 11:27-28: As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”

Blessing comes to Mary, not by her status as the mother of Jesus, but by her willingness to hear the word of God and obey it.  And that goes the same for the rest of us as well.  The fact that Jesus said this has great ramifications for all of us.  It means that obedience is paramount and nobody gets a free pass.  Not even Mary, the mother of Jesus. 

Let’s look at what Jesus says is required: first, to hear the word of God.  I know a lot of people who desire to hear the word of God.  We want to know God’s will for our lives, and it can be frustrating to not hear his voice.  Especially since most of us don’t ever hear him speak in an audible voice.  But what is frustrating is when someone says they want to hear God’s voice, yet they refuse to read His Word.  Here in the USA have Bibles galore.  Most of us have multiple Bibles – different translations, paraphrases, Bible story books, the Bible on CD, Bible apps for our smart phones, but many of us don’t actually read the Word.  Meanwhile our brothers and sisters in countries closed to Christianity would do anything for a Bible, and when they get one (or pieces of one) they treasure it and memorize it.  Yes, there are people who memorize scripture.  That is an awesome habit to get into.  If you say you can’t memorize scripture, yet you can give me every Ohio State sports statistic or movie quote, you’re just showing what’s really important to you.

Some people say, “I don’t like to read.” Then get an audio version.  Because that’s not the real issue.  The real issue is disobedience.  God gave us His Word, and He expects us to read it and to share it with others.  The problem is we want to dictate to God how we want him to communicate to us.  Think about it.  We think that somehow we have the standing to order God around.  How about this: God gave us His Word, and if we don’t read it and study it and learn it and memorize it and meditate on it, then we’re being disobedient and, in essence, we’re plugging our ears and making nonsense sounds.  At God. 

We can hear God’s Word in many ways, but I need to make this clear; we need to always check with the Bible to see if a Word comes from God.  You see, God will not contradict Himself.  So our job, as those seeking to hear God’s word, is to check out every Word with the Bible.  The Apostle Paul tells the believers in Thessalonica to Test everything. Hold on to the good. (1 Thessalonians 5:21). In other words, don’t just believe it because someone famous said it.  For that matter, don’t take my word for it – make sure my words line up with God’s!  In fact, the Bible calls out the Thessalonian church for this.  Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (Acts 17:11).  In other words, if you examine the Scriptures and see if what I’m telling you is true, the Bible says you have noble character.

Additionally, as Christians, we have direct access to God – through the Holy Spirit, who lives within us.  But you have to learn to listen.  Listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit means quieting everything else.  This doesn’t happen by multi-tasking or keeping busy or allowing the noise around you to consume you. Turn off the TV, the computer, the radio.  Get comfortable with silence. Pray and ask God to speak to you through His Holy Spirit.  Then listen and wait.  Don’t rush.  God isn’t in a hurry, and that is true when He speaks as well.

Remember that hearing God’s Word is only half of what Jesus requires.  We’re to hear the word of God and obey it.  Have you ever had someone ask you for advice and then not follow your advice?  Last year I was talking to a seasoned pastor, one who I really respect, and he told me that he rarely does any counseling.  He told me that nobody follows his advice, so why should he waste his time giving it?  It might sound cynical, but it’s pretty true. And it’s amazing to think that we who have so much access to the Word of God can be so lax in obeying it. 

This is why Mary was blessed among women, precisely because she heard the word of God and obeyed it.  She lived out her belief, and when God said he would do something, Mary believed and put herself into a position of unquestioning obedience.

As we near Christmas, I wonder what it is that God is telling us: as individuals as well as community. Would you spend this Advent, instead of being overloaded with activity and overwhelmed with the secular aspects of Christmas, to commit to hearing God speak – which He continually does through His Word and through the Holy Spirit. What would it look like if we spent our time focused on what He has to say to us… and obeying every bit of it.