Saturday, December 28, 2013

What Do You Really Want

What Do You Really Want?

Back in August, we embarked on a study of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We started with the section that is commonly known as the “Beatitudes” – the “blessed are” statements where Jesus pronounces blessings or abundant life, on those who would follow him wholeheartedly. He lets his followers in on a secret: God isn’t all about those who look the part; God is most interested in the heart and the motives of those who would be His people. So it is possible to look “religious” and completely miss the mark.

We took a break from the Sermon on the Mount for Advent, where we focused on preparation for Christmas and for Christ’s return. We looked at the four words of Advent: Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace, and on Christmas Eve we celebrated Jesus who is the fulfillment of each of those words. He is our Hope. He is Love. He is Joy, and He is Peace.

Today we dive back into the Sermon on the Mount with Matthew 7:7-12. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

What did you ask for this Christmas? Did you get it? I don’t remember when I made my first Christmas list, but I know what it looked like. We would get the toy catalog and my brother and sister and I would put our initials by any toy that we wanted or circle the toy. This week I overheard someone talking about family Christmas. It seems that her sister-in-law always gives her a very specific gift list for her kids, and the expectation is that she must buy precisely what is on the list. I had to laugh, because that’s the kind of list my family members have always wanted for my kids so they know exactly what to buy!

It can be pretty disappointing to get the wrong gift – both for the giver and for the receiver! But here’s the other part of this: there are plenty of times when we know what our kids want, but we make them “make words.” Just grunting in the direction of something doesn’t count either.

As Jesus continues his Sermon on the Mount, he tells his followers to ask, seek, and knock. I have always wondered why exactly Jesus tells us to ask. He already knows what we want and what we need, so why doesn’t he just give it to us? In fact, Jesus knows better than we know what we want and what we really need, and there are times when what we want isn’t what we need. When I came into the United Methodist Church, I was already ordained in another denomination, but because of denominational regulations, I had to go through the Supervised Years process. I didn’t want to do it. But God had some things He wanted to teach me through it, and even some friends to make through it. God knew what I needed, even if it wasn’t what I wanted.       

So I sometimes wonder why God tells us to ask. I came up with several reasons. The first is that God values relationship, and relationship comes as we talk with one another. So while God is telling us to ask for what we want from him, it could be more about the relationship that the conversation brings about than even the request itself. While I believe this is true, in this passage, Jesus actually says that whoever asks, receives.

So it’s more than just about the relationship, but I believe that’s a starting place. Jesus tells us to ask him for what we need because he wants us to know that we can trust God. This is why he draws the comparison between God and a human father. He asks the fathers, “if your child asks for something to eat, who is going to give him a rock or a snake?” This is, of course, a ridiculous question. Of course the human father will give his child something to eat, or, at the very least, not give the child something harmful. And, as Jesus says, we human fathers, as loving as we try to be, are at root sinful. So how much more can we expect to get good gifts from our heavenly Father?

Does this mean that he will give us everything we ask for? No. It doesn’t. But, as we already heard from the Sermon on the Mount, it does mean that God will take care of our needs, so we need not worry about what we will eat or drink or wear. God has all of that covered.

There are times when God wants us to ask to clarify what we want. Is this really what we want? In John 5, we find Jesus by the pool called Bethesda, where the disabled used to lie. This pool was apparently linked to a miracle; it was said that from time to time, an angel would show up and stir up the waters, and if you were the first one in, you’d get cured of whatever disease or infirmity you had. Jesus met a man who had been an invalid for 38 years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6)

What kind of question is this? Do you want to get well? Of course he does. Or does he? I believe Jesus asked this question on purpose and not just to get the man to say, “Duh!” He wanted the man to evaluate what he really wanted. Did he really want to get well?

He also asked him the question so that the man would consider and evaluate what had happened. When we have our hearts set on something material, but God shows us that we might be better off without it. There are other times when we might know what’s right, but do we really want it? The disabled man might have thought, “I have been disabled for this long; my whole identity is that of a disabled person. What might happen to me if I get well? Will I have to find a job? I won’t be able to beg; I’ll need to go to work. Will I succeed? How hard is it going to be?”

My brother went off to Northwestern University to college, and one time when I visited him, we went downtown Chicago on the El. I was kind of dozing when I was startled awake by a beggar near my seat. He was going car to car with a sign hung around his neck proclaiming that his name was Michael and he had been terribly burned and any money would go toward medical treatment. I was so horrified at his appearance that I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t move and I couldn’t speak and I couldn’t even reach for my wallet. You just didn’t see things like that in Kokomo, Indiana.

I remembered him for years, so when I read an article about him in the Daily Northwestern, I knew exactly about whom it was referring. The Daily reported their findings: local hospitals had offered to do reconstructive surgery for free, but he had refused it. It seemed that he didn’t want to give up his main source of income. So Jesus’ question was legitimate. Do you really want to get well?

And Jesus tells us, when we have a need, ask him. Sometimes just putting thought to word will help us evaluate if we really want it or not.

Jesus also wants to make sure that God gets the credit. Some months ago, Jerry asked for prayers for a co-worker who was having knee problems. Jerry made sure that the co-worker knew that our church was praying; when something happens, the co-worker will know that we were praying. Maybe they will still think it’s due to medicinal science or coincidence, but certainly seeds have been planted. One of the big reasons why we have a time to share joys is that many times we pray for someone but we never hear what happens. After a while, they just quietly go off the prayer list. We have an obligation to give God glory and credit when we get the answer to prayers!

Jesus tells his followers to ask, but also tells us to seek. I believe seeking goes a bit deeper than simply asking. How is this? A seeker is not a passive person who wonders but doesn’t do anything about their question. It isn’t someone who just wishes they had something; they go out seeking it in an active way. Seeking in the context Jesus presents involves faith and trust.

In Matthew 13:45-46 Jesus tells a story about a pearl. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” The pearl merchant is seeking something specific: he wants to find that perfect pearl. He knows there is something out there, so he goes looking. He doesn’t just wait until someone brings it to him; he goes actively looking.

Today, if I told you that there was money hidden under one of your seats, what would you do? Would you trust me enough to look? Or you might just shrug your shoulders and think, “He won’t make me look like a fool.” Jesus tells us to seek and the promise is that if we seek, we will find.

I remember having a conversation with a teenager who self-identified as an agnostic. After asking him if he minded if I shot straight with him, I asked him if he knew what “agnostic” meant. It literally means “no knowledge.” Gnosis is Greek for knowledge, and “a” is the negating prefix in Greek. So to call yourself an agnostic is to say you don’t know, and we’ve applied that to knowledge of God. So an agnostic is one who doesn’t know if God exists. I challenged him: if you are an agnostic, that’s fine as long as you are seeking. Otherwise you’re just willfully and intentionally ignorant.

Just a word here about doubts. I believe that our God is big enough for our doubts and questions. If you are truly seeking God, you will encounter resistance, and not all of it will be external. You probably will have questions and doubts at times, and that’s not wrong or bad or heretical or blasphemous. Jesus tells us to seek, and if we already had the knowledge, why would we have to seek?

Jesus also tells his followers to knock. This reminds me of the story Jesus told in Luke 11:5-8 about a friend who comes at midnight, knocking on the door, asking for a loaf of bread. It seems like an imposition: the door is locked and the kids are already in bed. Luke 11:8 I tell you, though he will not give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs.

Now, in our culture, we can imagine not offering hospitality, but that was unheard of in Jesus’ culture. Of course, if your friend came, no matter what the hour, you would gladly offer that friend some bread to eat. And furthermore, the term “friend” (which Jesus uses four times in this story) is much more than the friendship of our culture. This isn’t a Facebook “friend” who you might not even know in real life. The kind of friendship that Jesus is talking about is a “best friend” with whom one would share everything. There would be a real sense of “What’s mine is yours,” in a relationship of this kind. So the request is not out of character. But the way Jesus tells the story, it would come across as ridiculous. The original audience would have gotten to the first part, the part where the friend came knocking, and they would already be preparing the bread.

They would know that of course they would invite the friend in, not only because hospitality rules required it, but because of the relationship involved. And so it is with God. When we come to God, asking, seeking, knocking, we often behave as if we are inconveniencing God, as if God has better things to do. In the old movie, Bruce Almighty, Jim Carray’s character, after questioning God, gets the “gift” of doing God’s job. Now he can hear prayer requests, and it’s overwhelming for him. There are just too many to deal with, so he just gives a blanket “yes” to all of them, not taking into account what it might mean if every prayer was answered “yes.” (and, of course, as this is a comedy movie, all hilarity ensues).

Sometimes we act as if God is bound by our human limitations. “I don’t want to bother God with this request.” But here’s the problem with that: there are times when God is just waiting for you to ask. James 4:2b says, You do not have, because you do not ask God.

The point that Jesus is making is that God is not bound by human limitations. God isn’t sleeping. God doesn’t try roll over and put a pillow over his head to ignore the sounds outside.  God isn’t inconvenienced by our prayers. The very point of Jesus’ story is that of course God will answer our prayers. But are we bold enough to ask?

But when Jesus tells us to ask, seek, and knock, he is doing something else. And this is one reason why verse 12 fits in with this passage. Jesus finishes this section with the Golden Rule: So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:12). Jesus offers a succinct summary of his teaching: if it’s the way you want people to treat you, then treat them that way. This is a whole sermon in one verse, and it should and could warrant a whole sermon or even kick off an entire sermon series, but today I just want to look at it in its context.

Jesus tells us to treat others as we would have them treat us. And when he tells us to ask, seek, and knock, he is not telling us to “do as I say, not as I do.” Indeed, asking, seeking, and knocking are indispensable aspects of God’s very character. One of the most famous of Jesus’ parables came in Luke 15 – Jesus actually told three interrelated stories. The first was about a lost sheep, where a shepherd had one hundred sheep and loses one. The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine and goes out after the lost sheep.

Then Jesus tells about a lost coin. A woman had ten coins and lost one, so she lights a lamp and carefully searches the house until she finds it.

Jesus ends with a story about a lost son. Many of us know this story as the story of the Prodigal Son. A father has two sons, but one of them decides he’s had enough of living in his father’s home, so he takes his share of the inheritance and leaves and squanders his money.

In the first story, God represents the shepherd, going out seeking the lost sheep. In the second story, God represents the woman, searching diligently for the lost coin. And in the third story, God represents the father, watching and waiting, with tears in his eyes, for his lost son to return, and when he does return, the father runs to him and lavishes him with gifts and throws a party, for this son of mine, who was lost, is now found, was dead and is now alive! And God rejoices when the lost is found.

You see, not only does Jesus tell us to ask, seek, and knock, but God himself is a God who asks, seeks, and knocks. Indeed, in Revelation 3:20, we hear Jesus say, “Behold! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. This is God’s character, and as we seek after him, we become more and more Christlike!

So as we go from this place, let us go, asking, seeking, and knocking. Let us give every request to God, for he cares for us. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve: Jesus is Hope, Love, Joy, Peace

Throughout Advent, as we have been preparing for Christmas and for Christ’s return, we have been focusing on the four words of the Advent candles: Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace. Today, as we celebrate Christmas Eve, we lit the most important candle, the Christ candle. And as we light the Christ candle, it is only fitting that we would focus on Christ and his place within this wreath.

Jesus Christ is not only the center candle for his obvious central role in the Christmas story, but his spot in the center of the wreath is because he is the fulfillment of all of the candles.

We began Advent with hope. Fitting, that Hope Church would focus on hope. For a people caught in the “in between” times, Micah’s prophecy includes these words of hope: But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord, I wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me. (Micah 7:7)

In the Old Testament, when you find the word “hope” it is almost always characterized not simply as “hope” but “hope in the Lord.” Here is one example, from Psalm 130:7: Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. In fact, the prophet Jeremiah (in Jeremiah 14:8; 17:13) goes so far as to call God “the Hope of Israel.”

God saw Micah watching in hope for the Lord, waiting for a Savior. God saw Israel’s hope in the Lord, hope for full redemption. As the Hope of Israel, God responded. How did God respond? By sending Jesus.

This is why, in the introduction to his first letter to Timothy, Paul calls Jesus our hope. [Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope, (1 Timothy 1:1)]

Every other hope disappoints, but hope in the Lord does not. Their hope was fulfilled on that night when Jesus was born. Here was born love and full redemption. If you think about it, nothing and no one else could have fulfilled that hope. Hope was born that day in the manger.

But Jesus was not only the hope for a people long ago and far away. In his letter to Titus, the Apostle Paul reminds us that Jesus is still our hope.

For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2:11-14)

Only Jesus is the hope of the world, the one who can redeem us from wickedness and purify us. This is how we prepare for Christmas and for Christ’s return: Jesus himself is our hope, and it is he who prepares us.

Not only is Jesus our hope, but Jesus is also love. Love was born in that manger.

We often think of love in purely emotional terms, and that does us a complete disservice. Love is so much more than a warm, fuzzy feeling. 1 John 4 tells us (twice!) that God is love. That’s something that most of us can support. God is love. But the Bible also confirms that Jesus and God are One. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:1, 14a)

The Word, as John refers to him, is Jesus. When we sing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” the second verse is a powerful theological statement: True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal, lo he shuns not the Virgin’s womb. Our hymnal says Son of the Father, but others include the phrase “Word of the Father” begotten, not created – o come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

True God of true God. Because Jesus is God. And God is love, and Christmas is when we celebrate Jesus’ birth, so love certainly did come down at Christmas.

Listen again to 1 John 4:7-10: Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God because God is love. Here is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Love isn’t just a feeling. Love is God seeing his beloved people trapped under the weight of our sin. Love is God, calling sin “sin” and not leaving us in it, but instead, confronting our sin by sending his Son to provide our atonement.

Love was born on Christmas.

God’s love, born to us on Christmas, provides joy unspeakable. Do you remember the definition of joy that I provided on the third Sunday of Advent? Joy is the delight of the mind arising from the consideration of a present or assured possession of a future good.

In the Person of Jesus Christ, not only are we in possession of something good, but we are in possession of the best possible good. Jesus Christ is the One who comes, bringing delight and joy. I love the scene in Luke 2 with the angel and the shepherds. Now, remember that biblical angels weren’t quite like the pretty, sweet angels we put on top of our Christmas trees. They were God’s messengers and God’s warriors. They were terrifying. So in Luke 2:10, the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.

From a terrifying celestial creature comes the word: do not be afraid (they always say that). Why not? Because of the good news that will cause great joy. That good news is Jesus Christ. He comes, bringing greater joy than we can imagine – forgiveness of sin. Salvation. Redemption. Reconciliation. Freedom. And greater still, he comes bringing himself. For he himself is the greatest good and is the greatest joy.

Joy was born on Christmas.

And as we celebrate hope, love, and joy on Christmas, we celebrate peace. As I’ve said many times, the peace God gives is not like that which the world gives. We generally consider that if there is no fighting, we must be at peace. But Jesus gives a different kind of peace, one that Paul describes in Philippians 4:7 as “transcending all understanding.”

The peace that transcends all understanding is a peace in the face of struggles, strife, war, and difficulty. Apart from Jesus, the world will never know this peace, because Jesus himself is this peace. This is why the angels appeared, saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Luke 2:14

The peace that God gives in Jesus Christ is best described by the Hebrew word “shalom.” This is more than just no fighting, but includes peace, prosperity, wellness, wholeness, and completeness. French Mathematician and Philosopher,  Blaise Pascal, once said, “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.”

Without God, there is a hole, an incompleteness in us. And Jesus comes, giving his shalom to us, not by getting rid of the problems around us, but by filling us with what we are missing, namely himself, and, as Ephesians 2:14 tells us, Jesus himself is our peace. Peace was born on Christmas.

When I was a little younger and I knew more than I do now, there were all kinds of things that annoyed me. There are still a lot of things that annoy me, like “Santa Baby” and the Christmas Shoes song, but one thing that used to annoy me was the bumper sticker slogan “Jesus is the Answer.”

I would be all smart-alecky and say something like, “I didn’t ask a question.” The reality is that Jesus is indeed the answer. Jesus is the fulfillment of all of our longing. In his book, Soul Cravings, author, speaker, and pastor Erwin McManus contends that all of our soul cravings can be boiled down to three areas of longing: intimacy, destiny, and meaning. In other words, these three areas encompass all that we are looking for and everything we long for at the deepest core of our being. Intimacy, destiny, and meaning.

And Jesus is the answer of all of our soul cravings. Jesus is the God about whom David wrote: For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. (Psalm 139:13-14a). Jesus knows us intimately because he created us.

As for our destiny, David writes: All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139:16b).

And our meaning: We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:10

Jesus is the answer! It may sound trite, but it is true. Everything we long for can be found in Jesus: intimacy, destiny, and meaning, were born on Christmas. And everything we look for, everything that this world needs: hope, love, joy, peace; it was all born on Christmas. Jesus is the answer! And so we celebrate Christmas, because it is the birthday of Jesus, the answer, the fulfillment of everything we desire and everything we need!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Peace has Come

When we started lighting the Advent candles three weeks ago, we started with Hope. We then lit the candle of Love, and last week we lit the candle of Joy. The fourth candle of our Advent wreath is the candle of Peace.

It might be a shock to some of you to be reminded that our country is a country at war. Operation Enduring Freedom, or the war in Afghanistan, has been going on for over twelve years (since October 7, 2001) with an American death toll of 1098 with an additional 2379 wounded. Yet we can be blissfully ignorant of this fact as we go about our lives. We can even pretend to live at peace, all the while having no peace in our lives.

I don’t have the time to cover this topic completely this morning, but please understand that peace is not simply the absence of conflict. Just because you’re not at war doesn’t mean you have peace. And, in fact, Jesus comes, bringing peace in the face of war.

The world says: peace is when we stop fighting. Jesus says, in John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

In the midst of turmoil, in the midst of a world at war, God gives us the gift of peace. This gift came in the Person of Jesus Christ. Born in a lowly manger, a birth that excluded nobody. Listen to the prophecy from Isaiah 9:6-7 concerning Jesus:

For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

Israel expected a temporal king. They expected another ruler, maybe like one of the Judges, or even better, a Moses-type who would come and deliver them from enemy rule. But the problem is, they had already had that kind of leader, and they would change and follow God only for a time and then they’d jump back into sin. And they never experienced true peace. What’s worse, they had leaders and prophets who proclaimed false visions. Listen to Ezekiel 13:10-11a: “‘Because they lead my people astray, saying “Peace,” when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash, therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall.

False peace is not peace at all. In fact, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus himself prophesies not peace, but division. “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” (Luke 12:51) Again, the peace Jesus brings isn’t like the world’s peace: his peace brings division. We have seen that first-hand in Jackson County, with the storm caused by a simple Jesus picture in a school. When I was an associate pastor, our church hosted a preschool. The director asked me to say a prayer for their Thanksgiving feast, but, “make it generic.” When I pressed her on what that meant, it came down to this: don’t pray in Jesus’ name.

Because Jesus’ name is offensive to the world. They’re like the people Jeremiah spoke of when he said, “To whom can I speak and give warning? Who will listen to me? Their ears are closed so they cannot hear. The word of the Lord is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it.” Jeremiah 6:10

But Jesus’ peace is much bigger than “we’re not fighting” or “I’m not offending anyone” or “can’t we all just get along?” Jesus brings a different kind of peace than we can get from the world. In John 16:33 he tells his disciples: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

We often think of the Christmas scene as a peaceful one, and it is, but not in the way you might be thinking. A baby’s birth is not peaceful. If you think it is, you haven’t had children. A manger isn’t a peaceful place. Even filled with friendly beasts and loving shepherds. Bethlehem was in turmoil, a conquered nation being taxed. But into this chaotic world of trouble, Jesus came, bringing peace.

And so, as we close, receive this priestly blessing from Numbers 6:24-26 "The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Preparing With and For Joy

What brings you joy? This time of year is often associated with joy – people experience joy in Christmas. Advertisers would like you to believe that only if you buy their products will your joy – or the joy of your loved ones – be complete.

This is the third week in Advent. We started with hope: the hope of Christ’s birth and Christ’s return. Last week we focused on love: love came down at Christmas in the Person of Jesus Christ, and love lives within us, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, allowing us to love other people, even the unlovely. Today our focus is joy. Joy is one of those Bible words that in some ways has lost its meaning, partially because there are many words that we translate to joy, and they vary in their intensity. Just like we can say we “love” all kinds of things, from our favorite sports team to our favorite food to our spouse, “joy” can also carry different weight.

It’s one of those things where we know we want it, but we don’t necessarily know how to define it. How can we experience joy, especially if we’re unclear about what it exactly is? There are various Hebrew and Greek words that we translate “joy” – and they come in a wide range, from “gladness” or “cheerfulness” to “exultation” or “transport” – meaning someone is so overjoyed that they are lifted to a different level or even existence.

I love the definition I found in the Unger’s Bible Dictionary: Joy is the delight of the mind arising from the consideration of a present or assured possession of a future good. In other words, if you have something good or you know you’re going to get something good, the delight in your mind is called “joy.” Obviously some things bring more joy than others, and some joy is long-lasting while other joy fades.

There are levels of joy, and joy is not just something that is experienced by believers. I believe anyone can receive and experience joy, because God has programmed joy into our hearts. God created us to enjoy his presence, and even in our fallen state, we can still taste joy. In fact, God has given us so much that gives us joy, all with the purpose of pointing us to him. So if you get joy from seeing a beautiful sunrise, the idea is that you will see that sunrise and praise the One who created it.

The problem, however, is that we have become the people who worship that which is created rather than the Creator, as Paul preaches against in Romans 1:25: They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is forever praised. Amen. We take good things, which God gave to us, and worship them. Instead of enjoying food, we become gluttons. Instead of enjoying people and fellowshipping with them and uplifting and encouraging one another, we use people for our own selfish desires or we worship people – athletes, celebrities, actors, musicians, whoever. Instead of enjoying wine, we get drunk. Instead of using medications to help fight disease, we abuse drugs. We worship the created things instead of the Creator.

And when it comes to joy, we often lodge our joy within the realm of the created. We rely on the external circumstance to bring us joy, and when it doesn’t, we are crushed. In the movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Clark Griswold is expecting a big Christmas bonus, enough to pay for the in-ground pool he has already made an advance payment for. When he finds out that his boss cut the Christmas bonuses and instead gave him a subscription to the jelly of the month club, he is furious! (and, of course, all mayhem ensues)

Remember that Joy is the delight of the mind arising from the consideration of a present or assured possession of a future good. So there is a such thing as misplaced joy. When you hold out hope for something and it doesn’t happen, joy is crushed.

Around 730 years before Jesus’ birth, God’s people, Israel, were in exile. They had repeatedly disobeyed God, and now they were paying the price in captivity. Part of their joy had been misplaced; they had trusted so much in their identity as God’s chosen people that they had translated that into “we can do whatever we want with no repercussions” and now they were reaping what they had sowed. They were a conquered people in exile.

But into that context, the prophet Isaiah speaks: (Isaiah 35:1-10) The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God.

Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.”

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

Though the prophet is speaking to a people long ago in literal exile and literal captivity, he also speaks to us today. Have you lost your joy? Perhaps our joy has been quenched by sorrow. Perhaps our expectations haven’t been met. Perhaps we are separated from those who brought us joy. Perhaps we are facing illness or our own mortality. This life can be hard and miserable. But Isaiah’s prophecy was true for Israel then and it is true for us today.

Maybe you are in a desert or a parched land or a wilderness; the Bible doesn’t necessarily say that you’ll get out of it. But it does say that the desert and parched land will be glad and the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. In other words, God will transform it from a dry and hostile land into a place of glorious splendor. Even the harsh land will rejoice and shout for joy.

The word that Isaiah uses here for “joy” is a form of the Hebrew word gîl which means: to leap or spin around with pleasure. If you’ve ever seen a little child who is so excited and happy that they can’t contain themselves and they begin to jump up and down and spin around, this is the word picture Isaiah paints. Can you imagine it?  The hard lands, the desert and wilderness, so joyful that they are leaping and spinning with pleasure.

They are not leaping and dancing because they already have seen the fulfillment; they do so because they know it is coming. Beyond a shadow of a doubt. Why is that? Because the earth takes God at his word. The prophet reminds us to say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” (Isaiah 35:4)

God makes the promise that the blind will see and the deaf will hear. The lame will leap and the mute shout with joy. (Isaiah 35:5-6a)

When is all of this going to happen? It has happened! This is a prophecy concerning Jesus! In Matthew 11:2-5, we find John the Baptist in prison, hearing about what Jesus is doing. You might not realize it, but even heroes in the Bible are people, too, and John was experiencing doubt and frustration in prison.
When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.”

Jesus is saying to John, “Yes, I am the One who is to come.” But he is also saying, “I am the One about whom Isaiah prophesied.”

Isaiah said these things would happen, and in Jesus, they did. He provides the sign to prove that the rest is true as well. Isaiah said that there will be a highway called the Way of Holiness.

To the brokenhearted. To the frustrated. To the broken. To those who cry out, “He is too far away. I cannot reach him,” the answer comes, “You do not have to reach him. He comes to you.” In the Person of Jesus Christ, God makes a sure path for those who seek him, for the redeemed and the ransomed to return to the Lord.

This prophecy concludes with the attitude of those returning to worship: They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away. (Isaiah 35:10)

Though part of this prophecy has already occurred, this part hasn’t yet. But it is the climax of the prophecy: a time when we will be set free from our sins and the consequences of living in a fallen world. We will boldly approach God to worship, for nothing will stand in our way. No sorrow, no grief, no pain, no sin.

There are some who say that there is no heaven, that our duty is to make this world better so that it will somehow become heavenly – the picture from the Enlightenment was that we are getting better and better and that image has been co-opted by many liberal or so-called progressive Christians to say that it is our duty to create Heaven on Earth. While we do have a duty to continue Jesus Christ’s ministry, doing the things Jesus did, our hope and our joy are not in this world or of this world.

Because God makes promises for beyond this life, and, as Paul says, If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Corinthians 15:19). In other words, our hope and our joy is for far more than this life and this world.

So how does this knowledge help us prepare for Christmas and for Christ’s return? Remember that as we go through tough times, that they aren’t the end. There is more; God promises us joy, and if God is God at all, we can believe all of his promises.

So allow God to fill you with joy. Remember that joy is different from simple happiness, which is more or less an emotional response to your surroundings.  Things make you happy. Other things make you unhappy. That’s part of life. Even good things can fail to make you happy. But joy rises above circumstances, focusing on God’s character.

We can find joy in God’s righteousness.
In God’s mercy.
In God’s faithfulness.
In God’s creation.
In God’s Word.
In salvation, which comes from God.

There are people who seem to relish wallowing in their misery. That is not Christian. God actually requires a joyful attitude from the believer. Paul tells us: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (Philippians 4:4) The final verse of the final Psalm says: Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord! (Psalm 150:6)

This is how you prepare for joy with joy. Praise God in everything. Prepare your heart for Jesus by focusing on the joy that he has brought and will bring. Shortly after Paul wrote to the church in Philippi telling them to rejoice in the Lord always, he gave them a hint as to how to do this. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)

Focus your thoughts on Christ. And know that even if you are going through a tough time, your present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. (Romans 8:18) What God has in store for us is enough to redeem even the world’s most terrible evils! Recognize that our Advent preparations are also preparing us for Christ’s return!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Love Came Down at Christmas

In our hymnal are many amazing songs. Some are deep in theology, some have catchy tunes, and some have complicated and beautiful harmonies. There are some songs that we only generally sing at one particular time of year, like the Christmas section. I love it when we sing Christmas songs – there is something about the familiarity of these favorite hymns. One year I had the church in New Knoxville sing “Joy to the World” on Easter, partly to confuse the people who only come to church twice a year, partly to be obnoxious, but mostly because if you want something to bring joy, Jesus’ resurrection is the ultimate joy bringer! But there are plenty of songs that I have never heard (and some I don’t ever want to hear again – God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale, for one). One year, the musicians decided we would do a “Christmas carol hymn sing” during the Sundays of Advent. Congregation members would pick a song and we’d sing the first verse. Someone chose a song I’d never heard: In the Bleak Midwinter, and listen to this uplifting first verse:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Yeah, I decided we’d better sing the second verse as well. One Christmas song I’ve never heard is called “Love Came Down at Christmas.” Listen to the simple lyrics:

Love came down at Christmas
Love all lovely, love divine
Love was born at Christmas
Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead
Love incarnate, love divine
Worship we our Jesus
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token
Love be yours and love be mine
Love to God and to all men
Love for plea and gift and sign.

The theme of the second Sunday of Advent is love. When I looked over the lectionary readings for this Sunday, I was hoping for something obvious, like 1 John 4, but instead I got the story of John the Baptist calling the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers” and a prophecy from Isaiah. That works well for our theme of Be Prepared, but it doesn’t sound all that loving.

Our culture looks at love as a romantic emotional response. We feel tingly and sappy and the operative word is “feel.” We have expressions like “love at first sight” and “fall in love,” when the Bible describes something different, something deeper.

One of the most popular scriptures on love comes in 1 Corinthians 13. It is often read at weddings (in fact, we even had it printed up on bookmarks to give to those who attended our wedding), but it’s not really about the love of a married couple. This scripture is about how Christians are supposed to get along with one another. Paul has been talking about the church, one body with many parts, each given different gifts to use for the church. Then Paul gets to “the most excellent way.” [And now I will show you the most excellent way…]

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a)

The word “love” that Paul uses here is not phileo – brotherly love – or eros – romantic love. It is agape – unconditional love. It describes nothing short of God’s love. God loves us so much that he is patient with us as, by the Holy Spirit, he pours out his grace on us, wooing us toward repentance. 2 Peter 3:8-10 describes this: But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.

But did you notice that even in a verse that is positively dripping with God’s love, Peter puts in the reminder: God is patient, wanting everyone to come to him, but be prepared, because, just like Jesus said, the day of the Lord will come like a thief. You don’t know when. So be prepared.

Some 730 years before Jesus’ birth, Isaiah prophesied to a people in captivity. Their hope was gone. They were conquered and exiled. But in the midst of this, God says: here is my love for you. (Isaiah 11:1)

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

The “stump of Jesse” refers to King David’s family line. If you remember, Jesse was David’s father. Their monarchy had been conquered and cut down. Yet from the stump, a shoot will arise a branch will bear fruit. This is not just any “branch” – listen to how this branch is described:

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him – the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord – and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. (Isaiah 11:2-5)

There is so much in this passage, way too much for one sermon, but did you notice that right in the midst of a prophecy of hope for the exiles, Isaiah brings up judgment? Here is where things get difficult: judgment is a necessary aspect of God’s love. Why? Our culture likes to remind us that God is love, which is true, but God is also just. Justice requires payment for sin. God does not force us to love him, because God has given us free will and has given us the choice to love him or not. Since we have this choice, and since we sin, justice requires judgment. If you don’t like the idea of justice, then try to live without it. But don’t come complaining when someone breaks into your house and nobody does anything about it. We generally want justice for us, not on us. In other words, we want justice for those who have wronged us, but we want mercy when we are the ones who have done wrong. In God’s mercy, he gives both. And the judgment is not only of what is seen and heard, but on motive. Remember the Sermon on the Mount? Where Jesus comes out and says, “It’s not about just following the rules; it’s all about your heart.” This isn’t a new concept that Jesus came up with in time to give a sermon. It’s what God has been saying all along.

So God judges by his Word. In college I had some classes where the professor gave us a copy of the essay questions we would be tested on. Once a professor gave us two possible questions: one was very specific about one little aspect of the readings and the other was an overview of the entire philosophy behind everything we had studied. I bet the farm on the second question. The professor asked the first. I didn’t have any excuse for my poor performance.

Likewise, we have no excuse for not knowing God’s expectations.

What are God’s expectations? Are you prepared to be judged based on them? When Jesus was asked about God’s expectations, namely, “which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” here is how Jesus answered: “‘Love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

As we prepare for Christmas we prepare with love. And love is also the way to prepare for Christ’s return. Are we ready for judgment? The only way we can answer that is to ask: is my heart full of love? Do I love God with everything I am? Do I love my neighbor as myself?

This love is the greatest commandment, because everything else rides on it. It controls our motives and our actions. In his “love chapter” that we spoke of earlier, Paul concludes with this statement: and now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13) Without love, nothing else matters.

The big question is how do we love with this kind of love? There are times when it is easy to love – at least certain people. But other times it is impossible to love. So how do we love? We have to understand that Love comes from God.

1 John 4:7-10: Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God because God is love. Here is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

As we prepare for Christmas we have to get beyond the baby in the manger and realize that love came down at Christmas, an atoning sacrifice for our sins. When we recognize what this means and all of its ramifications, this should have a profound impact on us. God loved us, not because we were loveable, but in spite of the fact that we weren’t loveable. As Paul puts it in Romans 5:8: But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

God loves us like this, and it is God’s love that even enables us to love at all. So because God loves us, love one another. 1 John 4:11: Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

God gives us the incentive; because of God’s great love for us, while we were sinners, and because of the transformation God enacts in our hearts, we are able to love other people. If you need help loving other people, ask the Holy Spirit to allow you to see them with his eyes. It’s hard to hate, especially groups of people, when you see them through God’s eyes. Beware, however; if you say this prayer, be prepared for your heart to break.

But when we love one another – this is really cool – not only are we rewarded with the pleasure of having loved someone, but God lives in us and makes his love complete in us. [see 1 John 4:12] John Wesley talked about this in terms of “perfect love.” He understood that everything the Christian does is motivated by love and that this love comes from God. Sometimes we as pastors can fall into a trap. We know how important works of service are and how vital it is to demonstrate love to one another, but we bypass proper Christian motivation, which is simply God’s love for us. And as we accept God’s love, God actually lives in us in the Person of the Holy Spirit. Thus we receive God’s perfect love and are characterized by that same perfect love. And our motivation changes – from selfish to loving and we actually begin to behave like Jesus, not because we’re trying harder and harder, but because the Holy Spirit, living in us, is motivating us to good deeds.

But there’s more. Love prepares us for Christmas and for Christ’s return, because love prepares us for judgment. As 1 John 4 continues, God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 John 4:16b-18)

There is no fear in love. A little bit of John Wesley history, and a personal note: I never had any intention of becoming Methodist, even at a predominantly Methodist seminary. Going to Asbury wasn’t about its Methodist or holiness roots, it was a seminary with a great reputation and when I stepped on the campus, I knew that was where I was supposed to go. It wasn’t until I took a required course on John Wesley’s theology that it clicked – his theology is so solid and I realized that I’d found a theological home in Wesley. His emphasis on God’s grace… his emphasis on personal and social holiness going hand-in-hand… But anyway, John Wesley went on a mission trip to Georgia, back before Georgia was in the Bible Belt – before there was a Bible Belt – back when Georgia was a colony. It was a terrible experience, and Wesley went home with his tail firmly between his legs. But on the way there, the ship met a terrible storm, and John Wesley feared for his life. There was a group of Moravian Christian missionaries who demonstrated godly living and service, but more telling, during the storm, they were singing hymns calmly. They were not afraid. John Wesley realized that his fear was more than just fear. His fear was an indication that he was not yet perfect in love.

The reality is that true love casts out all fear, and (follow me here) God is love, and Jesus is God, so true love is incarnate in Jesus Christ, in other words, Jesus is love in the flesh. And it is Jesus, true love, who won the last and greatest battle when he defeated sin and death.

And so love is how we prepare for Christmas. We prepare by receiving the love that came down at Christmas, allowing that love, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, to transform us, to change us, to perfect our love, to make us Christlike and make us into loving people. So what is one way you can live out that love as you prepare for Christmas?

Remember that loving the unlovely is Christlikeness, so if you know someone who you have a hard time loving, it’s time to let God love that person through you. You’re going to have to ask Him to do it, though, and be patient as God gives you opportunities to love. And don’t expect some great happy story out of it; it will be difficult. Loving with God’s love isn’t easy. But allow God to do it through you.

Monday, December 2, 2013

I Hope

What is it you hope for this Christmas? If I ask ten different people that question, I imagine I will get ten different answers. But I think I can boil it down into several categories. Our kids make Christmas lists of things they hope for – sometimes those are more like “demands,” like the ones someone holding hostages might make: I’ll let these innocent people go if you’ll get me the following top nine hot toys from Toys ‘r’ Us:

Despicable Me Talking figure: $59.99-$69.99 (age 4-12)
Sofia the First Royal Talking Vanity $79.99 (age 3-5)
The Ugglys electronic pet $29.99 (age 5 and up)
Doc McStuffins Deluxe Get Better Check Up Center $79.99 (age 3-5)
Ever After High Dolls
LeapFrog LeapPad Ultra $149.99 (ages 4-6) – comes in green or pink
LEGO the Legends of Chima The Lion CHI Temple $98.99 (age 8-14)
Razor Crazy Cart $399.99 (age 9 and up)
Xbox One $499.99 (technically age 6 and up, though games have their own ratings)

Girlfriends and boyfriends are hoping they bought “the right” gift for their significant other. Parents and grandparents are just hoping that they have enough money for all the Christmas gifts they’re buying for their children and grandchildren.

This year during Advent, I co-opted the Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared. I like to have a certain theme for my Advent sermons, and this year we will focus on preparation. Even our decorations focus this way this year. Throughout this season, we are preparing ourselves for Christmas. What do you do to prepare? Some people have a Christmas account at the bank, where you’ve been putting back money to save up for Christmas. You hope to have enough money saved up to buy the things you want.

We prepare for the visiting with family members – whether they are coming to us or we are going there. There are many who have difficult family situations, so you have to juggle personalities and conflicts in addition to schedules. You hope everyone gets along and maybe even has fun. Or at least that nobody kills anyone!
We prepare meals – who here eats a special Christmas dinner? You hope everything tastes good. You hope you have all the ingredients in your house. You hope everyone helps you clean up – OK, maybe that is more of a wish than a hope.

We prepare for Christmas parties and different Christmas activities. Many times, my wife’s schedule is booked solid all December with different violin gigs. Locally, the Christmas parade is coming up, and we’ve asked you to make cookies and help serve those who will meet Santa at the City Building after the parade. The city is having a Christmas Tree lighting complete with Christmas carols. Our church leadership team will have a dinner instead of our usual monthly meeting. We will have special services, Christmas caroling, the children will present a Christmas program, we will have a Christmas Eve service, and there are all kinds of things that go into preparing for these. You hope you get everywhere you need to go and you have everything ready.

Most of us prepare by putting up a Christmas tree and decorating it, fighting with the light strings, getting out all the ornaments and other decorations. For quite a few years, my mom has threatened to not put up a Christmas tree, but every year she breaks down and puts it up and decorates it. I think a big reason is because her grandkids have made ornaments for her and when else does she get a good chance to display them? And you hope that everything looks nice and that the cat or the toddler doesn’t knock your tree over.

Some of us put up Christmas lights. I remember putting up lights at our parsonage in New Knoxville – we put them up on a Friday night and finally got them up after dusk. We had them lit until about nine, when I turned them off as we went to bed. The next morning there was an event at church, and they were all buzzing about the lights at the parsonage. Information travels fast in a small town… everybody knew about it, and some of them had gone out at night just to see our Christmas lights! It had been a long time since that parsonage had been lit up for Christmas. Of course, there are other people who never take their Christmas lights down. I especially liked the house where they not only left their lights up, but it said “Marry Christmas” on their window… in June…

So, with all this in mind, are you prepared for Christmas? And will Christmas fulfill your hopes?

Many pastors build their sermon schedules around the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a listing of scriptures, four for almost every Sunday, which rotates over a three-year schedule. It includes an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a Gospel reading and another New Testament reading. The idea is that if you use all four readings, over three years, you will cover most of the Bible. Anyway, today’s Gospel reading comes from Matthew 24:36-44. If you look back to the beginning of this chapter, you’ll find Jesus walking by the Temple with his disciples. He tells them that the Temple will be destroyed.  The disciples asked him, “when will this happen?” So Jesus answers, telling them about some signs and warning them against false prophets. And then we get to today’s passage.

“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. This is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.

Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

Our hopes for Christmas range from the shallow – I hope I get the right gift – to the deep – I hope for peace this year. As children the hope that it will finally be Christmas is a hope that most of us, as adults, have forgotten, because we know the nature of the calendar – it will be here soon enough. The question is, are we prepared?

In the years before Jesus’ birth, there was hope. The Jews had the hope for their coming Messiah. They were prepared, or so they thought. It became clear that they were not prepared for who Jesus really was. In fact, immediately after Jesus’ resurrection, two men were walking along the road to Emmaus and Jesus showed up and walked with them and talked with them, but they didn’t recognize him. They explained their disappointment – they had expected for Jesus to be the one to redeem Israel. But he had died and with that death, their hope died as well. Until they recognized him when he broke bread with them.

As we prepare for Christmas, do we get so caught up in our mundane preparations that we lose sight of what we ought to be preparing for? Do we still prepare for Jesus’ return? I remember a couple of years back when some guy named Harold Camping got his fifteen minutes of fame by predicting that Jesus would return on May 21, 2011.

I remember when a friend of my family went and sold everything to live up in some compound in the mountains to wait for Jesus’ return. Yeah, that didn’t work out very well either. But it seems that there are always people who hold out that hope, a hope so strong that for some reason they think it should supersede what Jesus said, that not even the angels nor the Son know the date or time; only God knows.

But the problem is, we’ve been waiting for two thousand years and we’ve gotten complacent. We go about our daily business, and we think, “I’ve got time for this. I can focus on Jesus-stuff later. I’ve got my whole life in front of me.” But the truth is, none of us is promised tomorrow.

Listen to what Paul says in Romans 13:11-14: And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of the darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissention and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.

One of the problems in our society is that it is so easy to be a Christian. You can pretty much do whatever you want whenever you want. And come to church on Sunday. If you want to. Nobody is checking to see if you read your Bible. Nobody is clocking in and clocking out on a prayer clock. We don’t monitor your conversations to see if you are sharing the Gospel. Most of us could be described as spiritual sleepers. Paul is saying that we need to wake up from spiritual slumber! We need to prepare with a sense of urgency.

When I was in elementary school, I rode my bike all the time. That was what elementary school boys would do – I’d ask my mom, “Can I go ride bikes with Darrell or Jeremy?” and off I’d go. Once Jeremy and I were riding around the high school parking lot, and Jeremy headed out right in front of a car. I grabbed him, he fell off his bike, and the car missed him. I can remember him looking at me wide-eyed, saying, “You just saved my life!”

What would have happened if I’d thought it over and come to the conclusion, “well, Jeremy has the freedom to choose if and when he wants to ride out into a parking lot. Who am I to interfere with his choice?” No, I did what I needed to do to stop him. The problem is that we often don’t see spiritual matters with the same kind of urgency. Are we prepared for Jesus’ return?

Now, I was tempted to stop and camp out a while on Paul’s description of what he called the deeds of the night, understanding that any time a news story starts with the time being after midnight, it’s never going to be a good story. I was tempted, because it’s easy to take potshots at sin. But I also remember last week’s message about judging others while sinning, and I will allow the Holy Spirit to do the judging. A good way to think about it is: if you wouldn’t want Jesus watching over your shoulder or listening in, it’s probably not a good thing to be doing. And it doesn’t help prepare you for Jesus’ return.

But hope does. When our hope is in Jesus, everything else is put into perspective. I like Paul’s admonition: wake up from spiritual slumber and clothe yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ.

What might our hope look like if we did this? Wake up with the blessing from Psalm 146:5: Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God. Know that the God’s blessing is life, abundant, full life. Not just in heaven, but now. While you prepare for Jesus’ return, you can live a life of true meaning.

Our culture prepares for Christmas by buying things that will break, toys our kids will outgrow and forget, electronics that will suck your time and soon will need ungraded to a newer model, and clothes that we will outgrow, that will go out of style, that we’ll wear out (just as a sidenote, if your closet is full of clothes that you don’t wear, donate them before they’re horribly out of style so that someone else can enjoy them – My Brother’s Place is a good place to donate, as that donation also ensures that someone will have food).

We as Christians prepare for Christmas and for Jesus’ return in a different way:  Listen to Micah 7:7: But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord, I wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me.

In the scripture I read earlier from Matthew 24, Jesus talked about it in the negative – if you knew when the thief would come, wouldn’t you take precautions? Wouldn’t you lock your doors, dial 9 and 1 and have your finger poised over the final 1? Or have your finger waiting patiently by the trigger, for those a little differently armed? Micah puts it in the positive – watch in hope for the Lord.

So here’s the practical: how do we watch in hope for the Lord? You might think I’m a broken record (for those who don’t know what that means, ask someone my age or older…), but there is one first step that will impact anything else you do: ongoing engagement with God’s Word. Read the Bible. Every day. Let it soak in. Some of you need to engage in a regular Bible reading plan – a few years ago, I read that some teenagers decided to read through the entire Bible on their Christmas break. Don’t you think that was transformational? When I heard they had done that, I led some others in a journey of reading the whole Bible during Lent. I also routinely read through the while Bible in a year. You don’t have to do that kind of reading plan, but make a plan to read the Bible.

Some of you are deep in a Bible reading plan, but you’re reading for quantity instead of quality. You read so much that none of it soaks in. If that’s you, then try reading less and engaging more. Focus on the paragraphs, phrases, even words. Let them soak in and transform you.

In seminary Bible courses, our first assignment was to read the book. Aloud. Three times. That’s why I took Mark as my introductory course instead of Matthew (16 chapters versus 28). Our first assignment would focus on a book-level view, then subsequent studies would narrow the focus to the point where we would be looking at a phrase. When this was explained to me on the first day, that we were expected to put approximately nine hours into each assignment, I wondered how I could possibly spend that much time on one lesson. For the second to last question on each assignment, we were responsible to tell our professor how much time we’d spent on the lesson. The last question asked, “If you’d had more time, what would you have liked to have investigated?” Guess what – I would end up spending 12-14 hours on the lesson and still had unanswered questions. Scripture is often so simple that our children can understand but so deep that scholars have spent years trying to correctly interpret the nuances.

So no matter if you are aiming to cover large sections of the Word or to focus on short passages, begin your reading by asking the Holy Spirit to speak to you as you read.

Another way to be prepared is to find some way to focus your hope on Christ. Psalm 147:10-11 says: His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, nor his delight in the legs of the warrior; the Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love.

A modern paraphrase might say: God’s strength and provision doesn’t require money or armies. Those things don’t please God. But God finds his delight in those who fear him, those who revere him, take him at his word and obey him. It pleases God when we put our hope in his unfailing love. If your hope is in something else, it will fail you. This is why fasting is such an important spiritual discipline; it helps train us to put our hope in God and in nothing else. And if our goal is to please God and to enjoy his presence, then we will be prepared, not only for Christmas, but also for Christ’s return.

I want to close with a thought from Isaiah 40:30-31: Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

Understand that some are struggling. Maybe you feel like the youths Isaiah described: tired and weary, stumbling and falling. But hoping in the Lord is the recipe for renewing your strength. It is not just a recipe for “feeling better” or “getting by.” Hope in the Lord will transform you, lifting you on wings like eagles. I love what Jesus says in Matthew 11:29-30. Listen to the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

So prepare yourself for Christmas and for Christ’s return by coming to Jesus and walking with him. That’s the only way.