Category Archives: Sermon Notes – 2019

Out of Egypt – Dec. 29, 2019

For many folks, the winter holidays are the peak of excitement for the year. As soon as fall rolls around, it is Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. Once it is all over, the tree and decorations all come down and some people start to feel a little sad or depressed.

We call that the post-holidays letdown. We go from all the excitement to the reality of the cold, dark, long days of winter. Family goes back home and ‘a quiet’ sets in. Some of us appreciate that yet others dread it.

In this Baby Blues cartoon, the parents, Darryl and Wanda are sitting on the couch. Darryl says, “I always feel sort of blue after Christmas is over.”

“He continues, “You know…when the presents have been unwrapped, the Christmas dinner dishes have been done, and the kids are in bed.” “I think it’s called post-holiday letdown.”

Wanda replies, “I just call it ‘Relief’”.

We all know that life is filled with mountains and valleys, highs and lows. If we lived with the excitement all the time, it would probably kill us. In truth, we do more of our living in the between times, in the valleys, than on the hill-tops. That is where reality lives.

Christian Singer Amy Grant writes in her book ‘Mosaic: Pieces of my Life so far’, that she suffers from depression. Known for her wonderful Christmas CDs, she confesses, “I sing joyful, Christmas songs to keep my spirits up in the darkest part of the year, after the holidays. That is how I cope.”

Amy’s inner struggle has revealed a wonderful gift that keeps others up and pressing on during the long, cold winter months. Sometimes we forget that our ability to succeed and overcome in difficult times, is almost more of an inspiration than our times of triumph in easy times.

My guess is that most of us would classify Christmas as a great time. I am sure Mary and Joseph did too. Despite the hardship and travel, Mary gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby boy.

Since they were most likely staying with Joseph’s family, they had help and most anything they needed for the child. They were safe and could finally rest. And truthfully, after having a child, Mary was not ready to hit the road and head back to Nazareth.

They remained there for about a year and a half to 2 years, and that is when the 3 wise men showed up. I imagine Mary and Joseph were overwhelmed with the visit and the gifts. They would have been filled with joy, but it would have left them scratching their heads.

And that is when everything changed. In a dream, Joseph saw an angel who said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

Joseph woke up abruptly and went to Mary. He explained the dream to her and asked for her trust. Mary must have been thinking, “O come on God, not the road again. We just got settled in.”

Yet whatever reservations she had, she put them aside and they quickly packed to leave. How do you explain that to your extended family? There wasn’t much time, because, scripture says, they left that very night for Egypt.

The gifts the Magi gave them would sustain them for the 350 mile-trek ahead. We don’t usually think of the Holy Family as political refugees, but that is exactly what they were. They were quite literally, running for their lives.

The flight to Egypt was not an unusual occurrence for a Jewish family. Throughout the history of Israel, in numerous times of persecution, Jewish people had often sought refuge in Egypt. So, in every city in Egypt there was and is a colony of Jews.

Therefore, Joseph and Mary had no problem finding accommodations among their own people for the brief period in which they lived in Egypt.

We know very little about their journey to Egypt. There are more folk stories and myths than actual accounts. A few historical documents of the time make references to the Holy family but beyond that the details are rather vague.

We know more from scripture about what happened when they left. Herod had a history of becoming suspicious, angry and vengeful. When he found out that the Magi were not returning to tell him the location of the new born child, he lashed out.

Herod ordered his soldiers to go to Bethlehem and kill all the baby boys 2 and younger.  While there is no written record of this incident, that should not be a surprise to anyone.

First, I am sure Herod wouldn’t want this recorded in historical documents. Second, the number of boys killed was 20 or less and many guess as few as 12 to 8. That would not be major news in a small town outside of Jerusalem.

But it does set the age of Jesus to close to 2 when the family escaped to Egypt and they were only there about a year. We also know that Herod died around 4BC, which means Jesus was likely born between 6 and 7BC.

The writer Josephus and others recorded Herod’s exploits. He was called Herod the Great because he oversaw a very large empire and was known as a great builder. He built the magnificent Jewish Temple and was known to be generous; he helped his nation and foreigners out during a terrible famine.

Yet Herod was also feared because he could be cruel and diabolical. He had almost a Jekyll and Hide personality. When he was bad, he was really scary.

We know he was vicious because he executed one of his 10 wives, her mother, as well as several other family members, and 3 of his 14 sons. Augustus once famously remarked; that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.

The last few years of Herod’s life were marked with a terrible illness, many now believe was caused by chronic kidney disease and a bad case of gangrene. But as his death approached, Herod ordered an elite group of Jewish citizens to be arrested; they were held and executed the day he died.

One writer documented that Herod was so afraid no one would shed tears after his death; he killed some prominent men so that some tears would fall on the day he died. It is documented that he died around the age of 66.

After King Herod’s death, an angel appeared again to Joseph and told him to return with his family to Nazareth. And so, they packed up and headed back home. Because of this, the prophecies were fulfilled; Jesus was born in Bethlehem, raised in Nazareth and called out of Egypt. (Matthew 2:14-20)

God proclaims his love for Israel in the book of Hosea. But the more he loved them, the further away they moved from God. Then God proclaimed in Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called my son”.

Like Moses, Jesus would be called out of exile and he would return to save the Israelites. But where Moses failed, Jesus would succeed. Moses led his people to freedom, but they still carried many burdens with them. Jesus would set them free from their bondage of sin so they would be able to live lives of abundant joy.

The Pharaoh, like Herod, was also a brutal leader. He also had a two-sided personality. Exodus 1:16 records Pharaoh’s desire, to have all the Hebrew boys slaughtered.

Over and over in scripture, we see the battle between dark and light. Good and evil. It seems to be occurring all the time. And that battle still goes on, it is not much different from any other in history. (Romans 12:21)

In fact, that battle is also going on in each of us. Paul said it well in Romans 7:15, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, – I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

Like in the Star Wars movies, there ‘seems to be a battle of the light and dark in each of us’; And we do not have the power to overcome the evil without Jesus. We also need the support of other Christians.

Pulitzer Prize winning author Tracy Kidder wrote a beautiful true story called ‘Strength in What Remains” in 2009. In it, he tells the story of Deo Niyizonkiza.

Deo was a 24-year-old medical student living in Burundi Africa in 1994. In the neighboring Rwanda, there was a civil war brewing between the Hutu and the Tutsi people. The conflict spilled over and he had to run for his life.

Deo was able to escape the carnage, with the help of Doctors without borders. And later, with the help of a rich medical student’s assistance.

The young man’s family bought Deo a ticket to the United States. With only $200 to his name and speaking no English, he lived on the streets in New York.  He was harassed, hungry and finally worked for $15 dollars a day. It was the love of a nun named Sharon McKenna, who rescued him. She found him a place to live with a Christian couple.

The couple helped him get into college and they paid his way.

He eventually attended Medical school. Every night, he re-lived the horror of his home in Africa. He had watched family members, friends and neighbors die. Just after completing Medical school, he returned to Africa. As afraid as he was to return home, he felt it was his calling to go back and open a free clinic in Burundi.

His life story could have gone either way, good or bad. But God provided the right folks to lead him to safety. He was supported, educated and become a help and a light to his homeland.

Our Gospel passage today, reminds us that both good and bad exist in this world. Jesus also shared that with us in the parable of the weeds in Matthew 13:24-30.

The weeds grow along with the wheat and we cannot pluck up the weeds without damaging both. So, Jesus said, “Let both grow together until the harvest. Then Jesus will have the two separated. Much like the way he separates the sheep and goats in Matthew chapter 25.

Despite our troubles, our message is one of hope. Even though we live in a world where there is good and bad, we need to be vigilant to point others to Christ and to His light of love.

John Wesley said, “We are to do all the Good we can.”

We need to be aware of the light and dark in ourselves and always nurture the good in Christ.

Ecclesiastes reminds us, that there is a time for every season under heaven. The best we can do is… keep our focus on Jesus and do the best we can from day to day. God will take care of the rest. (Ecc. 3:12)

There is nothing new under the sun. Yet we only preserver when we keep on eyes on the SON. So, this new year, act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

Share the Gospel and offer another a hand up. And maybe then, we will move closer to overcoming our seasonal let-downs.

You see, we can overcome, because of Jesus, we can move from the land of sorrow to the promise land. Our deliverer has come. Share the Good News.

Amen.

Put on the Suit – Dec. 15, 2019

When I was just 4 years old, the greatest television show to ever capture the imagination of a child made its debut. ‘Batman’ was designed to be hip and cool with a slightly serious edge. It had bold color, neat costumes and creepy looking bad guys. It aired twice a week because the first half of the program was always a cliff hanger and you had to watch the second half to see what happened.

The series was a huge success at first but would only last three seasons. Over time, it became more ridiculous and even more campy. Instead of a serious show it became a strange hippie, and jive talking show. It modeled the popularity of ‘The Monkeys’ and helped give birth to ‘Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In’.

Now, if you have ever seen the old Batman TV show, you will never forget some of Robin’s crazy lines, like…

Holy crystal ball, Batman! I didn’t see that coming?    

Or, Holy strawberries Batman! We’re in a jam! And finally…

Holy Kleenex, Batman, it was right under our noses and WE BLEW IT!

I loved it… but, hey, you have to remember  I was only 6 when it went off.

My mom made me a Robin doll and eventually even made me a Robin outfit for Halloween. And boy did I feel like a superhero when I put on that suit! If you had asked me at 6, I believed that I could have saved the world back then.

I suppose there is some truth in the saying that the clothes make the man. And, that you don’t know what another person thinks unless you walk a mile in their shoes. (or their suit)

In the movie ‘The Santa Clause’, Scott Calvin, played by Tim Allen, gets a chance to see what it is like to be Santa. After Santa falls off the roof, he disappears and only his suit is left behind. Looking for some ID in the clothes, Scott finds a card that tells him, “If Something happens to me, put on my suit. The reindeer will know what to do.”

Scott does not want to wear the old Santa suit, but his son Charlie convinces him to do it. As Scott puts it on, he complains, “You never know where this thing has been, a thousand malls.” Then, suddenly, Scott finds himself becoming Santa Claus.

Later in the movie, Scott finds out that putting on the suit means changing in more ways than he imagined. It changed how he looked; he grew a beard that couldn’t be cut off, he gained weight and his hair turned white.

It also changed how he thought and it affected how he acted. He became more understanding, more loving and even forgiving. All that happened when he put on the suit.

Christmas, we say, is the time of miracles.

Yet, most of us are not so gullible to believe that changing the surface will change the person inside. Appearance is only one side of the equation. We all know people, who look one way but act another.

In the movie ‘The Santa Clause’, all Scott Calvin had to do was put on the suit and he was changed. He never really had a choice. Real life is much different.

Back in 1999, the Indianapolis Star carried a story about a Department Store Santa Claus that didn’t behave like Santa ought to behave.

Apparently, a mother had placed her 1-1/2 year-old child in Santa’s lap only to have the child begin to cry. The mother suggested to “Santa” that he the child might quiet down if he put his arm around him, and at that remark, Santa Claus got a little belligerent with her.


When the mother started to pick up her baby, the man in the red suit said, “Was it worth it? Was it worth it for you to torture your child for a picture? You must be an evil person.”


And when the woman told the man she planned to file a complaint, he leaped from his chair and said, “You can complain about me if you want, but I am Santa Claus. I am the best person in the world. I am good, far better than you.”


At that, she told him ‘he should not be around children’, and then he became really angry. He started to rip off his clothes. He took off his beard, his wig, his coat, and his belt and tossed them to the ground.

Some stunned parents covered their children’s eyes. Santa, not surprisingly, was promptly arrested and led away by security guards, to the horror of all the children nearby. It is hard to tell the kids, that a guy in a Santa suit isn’t really Santa; but we all know that the Real Santa doesn’t act that way!

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The Apostle Paul confronted this type of situation over and over again with the cities he visited. People come gratefully to Christ at his invitation, but…after he left, the converts, begin living in ways that were contradictory to the faith. So, Paul reminded them that they must leave their old practices and ways behind and put on Christ.

What exactly does it mean to put on Christ?  What exactly is the look of a Christian? What exactly does it mean to be set apart? Is it merely a metaphor to challenge us or is there more involved?

Being saved is great. In fact, it’s vital. But it’s not the end, it’s just the beginning. There’s so much more that will fulfill us, satisfy us, make us joyful and complete us. So, if we are renewed in Christ, why do we go through life as Christians and yet appear not much different than our non-Christian friends?

Pastor Ed Dobson wanted to take on the role of living like Christ completely. He wanted to walk the walk and talk the talk. So, he took on the challenge to live like Jesus for a year. He is the author of ‘The Year of Living Like Jesus’.

Dobson grew a beard, changed his diet (by eating kosher) and changed some of his bad habits.  A friend commended him on his decision than asked, “Are you also going to do the hard stuff to; like follow Jesus in his pain and suffering? Are you going to repent, forgive, love your enemies, give away everything that you own and speak the truth; even when it isn’t popular?”

It wasn’t long before he realized that being a Christian goes much deeper than what we see and hear on the outside. Being a person of faith isn’t about speaking a few words no matter how important they are but more about living a new lifestyle.

The Christian life is about more than attaching ourselves to the name of Jesus. It is about submission, sacrifice, practicing the right life skills and experiencing a re-birth like we have never known before.

Professor and Psychologist Dallas Willard calls this journey “the transformation of the Spirit”. To take on Christ, he says, we must do it on six levels;

1) The first is the soul or spiritual level. We must engage God in regular prayer, study and by seeking God’s will. We need to really know him.

2) We must also allow God to change our social or relational selves. Who we hang around with matters! How we behave in relationships is important; it helps define us.

3) We must be rational and clean up our thought life. We can choose to avoid unhealthy T.V. programs, video games and negative thought patterns. What we put into our minds, he explained, does affect us. Then, we must ask ourselves, “What other bad habits do we need to break?”

4) We begin to make healthy choices. It is good to ask ourselves, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ It’s a step in the right direction. Also, we must ask ourselves, “What are the consequences of my actions” and “Would I be embarrassed, if ours found out what I did in secret”.

5) We must ask ourselves, am I in control of my feelings or are they in control of me? And just because I feel a certain way, doesn’t necessarily make it right.

6) Finally, we must ask ourselves, ‘Am I in control of my body? Am I honoring Christ with it? And in what ways do I harm it that need to change?’

He said, “When we get all of these things in harmony with God, then we are on a track ‘to live like Jesus’.

Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, ‘That the true test of putting on Christ is about how you live and the faith you possess between Sundays.

 
Molecular Biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn is the author of several books on stress and change. He writes, “When we are alert and aware of each thought and action, and fully present in it, it changes our attitudes, our functions, our immune systems, our brains and eventually our bodies”. When we take care of what is important inside, it changes our soul, mind and bodies on the outside.”

The costumes we wear and the roles we play are made to be put on and taken off – but putting on Christ is supposed to be the beginning of a permanent and life-altering transformation.

Jesus is the one ingredient (think relationship), that can change our entire being. Once He is allowed in, we cannot help but be changed; that is, once we truly submit to His spirit and will.

The problem is, we often close off areas in our life and try to keep him out. The tough news for us is that we must allow him in and give him total freedom to change us on every level. That takes faith and sacrifice. Jesus showed us how, he fully submitted to the will of the father. The Good News is that God is patient.

When we give ourselves fully to Jesus, that is when we finally just stop wearing the suit and become like Christ. Let me ask you, ‘How is your faith walk going?’

Are you changing spiritually, relationally, in thought, in action, in word, in choices, emotionally and in honoring your body? And what places do you still need to submit and grow?

Christmas is the place of miracles because God can still take the lost, the misguided and the stubborn and turn them into new beings. It starts with putting on the name of Jesus and only ends when we are truly transformed, from the inside out.

Your assignment is…to put on Christ this Christmas. And if you have already accepted him and taken on his name, go ahead and let him into every hidden place in your life. Imagine how the world would change if we did.

At Christmas, Jesus left heaven to be born on earth. But his true home was to be within our hearts. Will you welcome him in? There is no better time than the present.  Amen.

No Place to Lay His Head – Dec. 8, 2019

In his 2014 movie “Time out of Mind”, Richard Gere plays a homeless man living on the streets of New York. Gere said,“When I went undercover in New York City as a homeless man, no one noticed me. I felt what it was like to be truly homeless. People would just past me by and look at me in disgust.”

The film crew was far enough away to get an honest picture of what the homeless must go through. “I will never forget the feeling of being treated like human trash,” he said. At one point, during the filming, Gere decided to eat some food thrown in a trash can. As he ate the food, most people looked away. But one person did not.

A Tourist named Karine and her family were visiting from Paris. Seeing this man eat from the garbage can, she offered him her left-over pizza and apologized because it was cold. She did not recognize the famous actor.

Gere said, “Her kindness shook me to the core, and it caused a change in me.” He continued, “So many times we forget how blessed we are. We should not take that for granted. And if we can help someone in need, we should. That’s why after I was done filming, I walked around and gave food and $100 to every homeless person I saw.”   

A few of us here today, probably know what it feels like to be homeless. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development puts out an annual report to Congress, that evaluates the plight of the homeless. They say, 1 out of 10 people will be homeless, sometime in their lives.

Their 2018 report estimated that 553,000 people were homeless on any given night in the United States. That is one in 588 persons. 65% stayed in shelters and 35% lived on the streets. Around 1/5th of these were children under 18.

Currently they estimate that there are around 5,300 homeless in Indiana. We have 146 registered shelters statewide; there are 4 here in Muncie and probably many more unregistered. And they estimate there are nearly 200 people who will need shelter each night, and we cannot house half of them.

Also, take into consideration these are only the folks we know about, many fly under the radar because they just keep moving. Some estimates double or triple the number of homeless in Indiana. And these folks have no place to lay their heads.

When the economy was bad, the numbers of homeless skyrocketed and they have just finally begun to stabilize. Now, we may think that could never happen to us, but that is false. So many Americans live paycheck to paycheck, which means many are only about 4 paychecks away from being homeless. In fact, new statistics suggest it is possible that 40% of Americans are only one paycheck away from being homeless.

Joseph and Mary knew what it felt like to be homeless. They had become engaged and were most likely married in a rushed wedding because Mary was pregnant. Then, a call came out for all citizens to return to their birth places of birth for a census.

So, while Mary was very pregnant, they headed from Nazareth to Bethlehem. They arrived late and Mary was already having mild contractions. Unfortunately, the tiny town was packed full of people.

While many translations say that Joseph and Mary were turned away from an inn, modern scholars tell us that ‘an inn’ can also be translated as a guest room. After traveling all that way, it seems more likely that Joseph and Mary would have stayed with his extended family.

But, since they already had a full house, Mary and Joseph were asked to stay in the animal cellar in the basement. Now, this raises an awful lot of questions about the family, doesn’t it? Who puts a pregnant woman in a dug-out cellar where animals are kept?

An animal cellar is drafty, dirty, smelly, cool and noisy. These are not good conditions in which to deliver a baby, right? Maybe we need to think again. While many women in that day gave birth in their own homes, not everyone did.

Some still gave birth in tents, especially if they were away from home. The reason was, they had very specific cleanliness laws. To have a baby in a home made it unclean. If you had a boy, the home was unclean for 7 days and if you had a girl, the home was unclean for 14 days. (Leviticus 12:1-5)

At this point in time, during the census, the house was full. Having a baby indoors would make everyone unclean. The best choice then, was, to place them in the animal shelter. This does change the way we view the manger scene, at least a little. Mary may have had some women there to help her. But they still wrapped Jesus in swaddling clothes and placed him in a manger which is an animal feeding trough.

It just doesn’t seem right, does it, that Jesus would be born in a dug-out cellar used to keep animals. Sometimes we sing, Jesus came from heaven to earth, maybe we should be singing he came from heaven to dirt.

Paul writes to the Philippians in Chapter 2:6-7 that, “Jesus, who being the very nature of God, did not consider himself equal to God, but made himself nothing’ and he became a servant.”

Another way to say it is that he was ‘a man of no reputation’. He was homeless, common, just normal, and he blended right in.

The Bible says in Isaiah 53:2, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”

Make no mistake about it, Jesus understood what it feels like to be homeless. When he came to live with us, he left his glory behind. He was at the mercy of a harsh, cruel world. A world that can be frightening and dangerous.

In fact, within less than 3 years after he was born, his family would have to pack-up and flee to Egypt to avoid Herod’s wrath. Again, they were on the road — and again, Jesus would have no home.  (Matthew 2:13-15)

For most of his life, Jesus was totally dependent on strangers to feed, clothe and give him a place to sleep.

Jesus relied on being welcomed into the hearts and homes of others. And he was used to being rejected, despised, rebuffed, and turned away by people who could not see the gifts he brought to the world.

At one point in his ministry, while as he was traveling, a man approached Jesus and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” (Luke 9:57)

To which Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to rest his head.” (Luke 9:58)

One pastor wrote, “Think about this; Jesus had to borrow almost everything he ever used in this world. He had to borrow Mary’s womb to arrive. He borrowed a cellar and a trough to lay his head. He borrowed fish and loaves to feed others.

“He borrowed a boat as a place to preach from. He borrowed an upper room for a meal. He borrowed a donkey to ride into Jerusalem. He borrowed the arms of another to help carry his cross. And he borrowed a tomb for his burial.”

2 Corinthians 8:9 reads, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for our sakes became poor, so that we through his poverty might become rich.”

The gospel isn’t talking about us being made millionaires here; it is talking about us being rich in mercy, love, hope, compassion, faith and in generosity. But many of us have it too good, and we forget what it really cost him.

In the movie ‘Homeless for the Holidays’, a smug executive named Jack thought he had the perfect life, until he lost his job. Eventually, he takes a humiliating job flipping burgers but still can’t make ends meet. He holds out hope but on Christmas Eve, he finally faces the inevitable. His family will be out on the streets.

It is a low budget film that was filmed here in Indiana. But it has a strong message about the realty of that first Christmas, as Jack realizes that Baby Jesus lay in a dirty manger, born to a poor family.

Sometimes hope comes in strange packages and from strange places. But when we get to the heart of Christmas, it may not look like anything we imagine. People were looking for and expecting a king and instead found a baby lying in a manger born to a teenage girl.

People were looking for hope in power, military might and conquest. Yet, hope came instead in unselfishness, in servanthood and in sacrifice.

We would like to believe that all the gifts, the food and the celebrations bring us closer to Christ and others at Christmas. Yet with the rush, the gatherings, the shopping and the preparation; we might actually find ourselves further from the true gifts of Christmas.

When all is said and done, we just might find that we simply don’t have any energy or room left for Jesus or others. And what a shame it would be if we miss the One who came to take away the sin of the world. What a shame if we miss the message that He came for each of us, because he loves and values us.

I want to end with this little story from Rev. Kent Crockett, it is called ‘Still Valuable’.

A well-known speaker began his seminar by holding up a twenty-dollar bill. He asked everyone at the conference, “Who would like this new twenty-dollar bill?” Hands went up all over the room.

He said, “I’m going to give this twenty-dollar bill to one of you, but first I need to crumple it.”  He wadded up the bill and then asked, “Who still wants it?” Hands were quickly raised.

The speaker dropped the bill and ground it into the floor with his shoe causing it to tear. He picked up the crumpled, torn, and dirty bill. “Now who wants it?” Everyone still lifted their hands.

“Friends, he said, “you have all learned a valuable lesson. No matter what I did to the money, you still want it — because its value hasn’t changed. Even though the bill is crumpled, torn and dirty, it’s still worth twenty dollars. Now, let’s put that in human terms,

“Although someone may have been misused, abused, hurt and mistreated, he or she still has infinite worth. Every person is precious in God’s sight.” Crockett finishes with these words, “In God’s eyes, the homeless person lying in the gutter is just as valuable as the most admired movie star.”

I would add, ‘Please don’t forget that!’

When Richard Gere played the role of a homeless man, his eyes were finally opened to the plight of others less fortunate than himself. At that time, he changed his response. And he said these words, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

That is our role as Christians and it begins when we accept the Lord, share the Good News, live sacrificially, and be the change Christ calls us to be. The world needs more people to love like Jesus.

That my friends, is what Christmas is all about.

Your assignment is…to reach out to someone who feels left out this Christmas. Send them a card, place a phone call to them or even, if you are really feeling radical, invite them to dinner. You just might find, that you are welcoming angels in disguise.

May it be so,Amen

The Voice of Christmas – Dec. 1, 2019

In Greek Mythology, Echo was a spirit maiden who lived in the mountains and loved to sing and dance. She fell in love with her own voice and often gossiped. She was eventually cursed to only repeat other’s words.

Eventually, she fell in love with Narcissus, but she was unable to tell him how she felt. But it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because he only loved himself. Over time, her beauty faded, and she wasted away. Today, they say, all that remains of Echo is the sound of her voice.

Have you ever gone to a place where you could hear an echo; maybe the hills or a canyon? An echo is generally softer and sounds a little hollow compared to the original voice. Sometimes it is distorted or even unclear.

The dictionary describes an echo as a reflection of an original sound that arrives to the listener some time ‘after the first direct sound’. It’s a copy and copies are never as clear as the original.

God’s promises echoed through time. The prophets had proclaimed a time when God would send a Savior, but that had been far back in the past. In fact, the last word from God had come over 400 years ago during the time of Malachi.

The priest Malachi had shared these words from the Lord, “I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day when the Lord comes.” (Malachi 4:5)

But all those who had heard Malachi were long gone. For many, God’s promise rang hollow. Had God forgotten his people? The Israelites were desperate, and they prayed for a new voice, a new prophet. But they would have to wait a while longer.

The voice of Christmas began with an elderly couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah was an elderly priest who was upright and lived blamelessly. His wife Elizabeth was also faithful and God-fearing, but they had no children because Elizabeth was barren.

As Zechariah was in the Temple burning incense to the Lord, an angel named Gabriel appeared to him. “Do not be afraid”, the angel said, “your prayer has been heard. Your wife will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.” (Luke 1:13)

Most Israelites believed the appearance of an angel meant bad news or signaled the end of life, so they were often startled and afraid. But this angel had good news.

“This son will be a joy and a delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth. He will be great in the sight of the Lord. He should never drink wine or fermented drink and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit from birth.”

He continued, “Many Israelites will come back to the Lord because of him. And he will go before the Lord, in the spirit of Elijah.” The Spirit of Elijah means in boldness, power and holiness.

Because Zechariah questioned the angel, he was made mute and was unable to speak until after the child was born. You can read more about him and Elizabeth on your own right now I want to stay focused on John.      

After 9 months, Elizabeth gave birth to a son. And the whole community came to celebrate the birth of this miracle child born to an aged couple. On the eighth day, the child was to be named and circumcised, but Zechariah was still unable to speak. You see, it was the duty of the father to name his son and since he could not speak, the other men in the family decided to name the boy Zech Jr. to honor his father.

By giving the child the same name, it meant that this child would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a priest. But Elizabeth spoke up quickly and said, “No! He is to be called John.”

This started a debate with the family. A mother was not supposed to name her son. Also, no one in the family was named John. This name was just not acceptable. That is when Zechariah asked for a writing tablet. Then he wrote, “His name is John”. John in Hebrew means gracious.

Immediately, Zechariah was able to speak, and he praised God and sang. The villagers were in awe and the gossip spread about this child born to an elderly couple with a new name. And they asked, “What will this child one day become?”

You see, his parents had broken the mold. John would be distinct and have his own voice. He would also have a different life than his father. Eventually, John would heed the call to live as a prophet. He would leave home and live in the desert wilderness.

The life of a prophet was a simple life. It rejected the ideals of society and focused on prayer, meditation and reading the Holy Scriptures. Most likely, John lived in a cave and survived off the land which was no small feat.

John would have looked like a crazy, disheveled man to us; with long scraggily hair, wearing animal fur with a belt made of rope or leather and eating bugs and honey. But to the Israelites, he looked just like an Old Testament prophet.

Listen to how Elijah was dressed in 2 Kings 1:8, “He was a man with clothes made of hair and with a leather belt around his waist.” Looking at John was like looking at Elijah!

The life of a prophet is set apart and often secluded in the wilderness or the desert, but it is also a time spent building a strong inner spiritual life. And John’s later life, spoken through scripture, gives us clues to what he was doing in this time period.

Some of the strengths John developed in the desert were; a strong prayer life, deep knowledge of scripture that he could quote from memory, a deeper resolve in the things of God and he also mentored disciples.

In Luke 11:1 the disciples came to Jesus and asked him, “Teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” One scholar explained, “It took 20 years in the desert for John to be ready for just 6 months of public ministry.”

Some might say, it took him that long to find his voice. But, when John began preaching and baptizing, he left quite an impression. The Israelites had been praying for a sign or a prophet, now they had one. It is no wonder they came out in droves to see him. It had been almost 500 years since anyone spoke with such conviction and presence. “Repent”, he said, “For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”

This was the voice they had waited for, not an echo but a new authentic voice. Some asked him, “Are you the Messiah? Or are you Elijah?” His answer was no. This was John. He came in the Spirit of Elijah, but he was his own distinct man. Many Jews, today, are still waiting for the arrival of Elijah because John said he wasn’t him.

Yet Jesus clearly said to his disciples in Matthew 17:12-13, “But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him.” Scripture says, “That’s when the disciples understood that he was talking about John the Baptist.”

John’s light burned bright, but he burned out quickly. He was bold, direct, and brutally honest. John drew a lot of attention to himself, because people talked about him. So, the Pharisees, Sadducees and Roman soldiers also came out to listen and watch him. That is when John got political and talked against the Roman leaders. He was finally arrested after pointing out Herod’s sin and later would be be-headed at the request of Herod’s daughter.

In Matthew 11:7-14, Jesus said these words about John, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 

“This is the one about whom it is written: “‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you. Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 

 “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 

“And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

You see God ‘needs and wants’ new voices. The Pharisees were good at echoing the laws and words of scripture, yet they had no real voice of their own. Their words were memorized but the heart, the intent of the law, was missing.

As we begin this advent season, don’t just listen to the echoes of words written long ago, listen with new ears and an open heart. Listen for the first time, to the fresh clear voice of Christmas.

The time is at hand, repent and believe the Good News. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near. “I baptize you with water”, John said, “But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”. (Matt 3:11)

“Look for yourself and see, the Lamb of God is coming to take away the sin of the world”. (John 1:29) “And he shall become greater and I shall become less”. (John 3:30)

John found his voice; have you found yours? We have a true story to tell the world; a story of a Savior who came to set us free; a Savior who forgives and loves us. And that certainly is Good News for a weary world.

Your assignment is…to listen to the voices of hope this Christmas. Ignore those who grumble and complain. Listen to for the sounds of joy, excitement and the wonder of the season. Jesus came near, and that changed everything! Believe it.

Amen.

Hope and a Promise – Nov. 24, 2019

Tired of religious persecution, a group of English Separatists decided to leave their home and travel to the new world across the Atlantic Ocean. Two ships were hired to carry the Pilgrims to the new and mysterious land.

It was July, in the year 1620, when the Mayflower was loaded up for the trip. The Speedwell was loaded up in the Netherlands and was expected to meet up with the Mayflower and the two ships planned to travel together. But the Speedwell was leaking and needed repairs. After several false starts, the Speedwell was finally abandoned. All the travelers who still wanted to take the trip boarded the Mayflower.

But the Mayflower was designed to carry supplies not people. The original plan was that the ship would carry 60 passengers and 30 crew members. It would be tight but doable. When the Speedwall was abandoned, 42 additional passengers climbed aboard the Mayflower.

Now, with 102 passengers, the ship was jam packed. The trip was supposed to take about a month, but the Mayflower did not set sail until September16, which meant they would encounter the fall storm season on the Atlantic Ocean. Because of the waves and strong winds, the ship often traveled without its sails. It also meant that the month-long trip would actually take them 66 days. 

Many of the passengers became sea-sick as huge waves crashed over the deck of the ship. The nights were cold, dark, damp, and stinky because there was no indoor plumbing or electricity. The situation for many seemed hopeless. They began to wonder why they made the trip. Food and water were rationed, and sickness took hold.

One big man began threatening to throw the sick passengers overboard. As fate would have it, he became deathly ill and died and he was the first to be tossed into the sea. In spite of the horrible conditions, only 2 perished but miraculously, they also had two births. On November 21, 1620 they landed on Cape Cod. The first thing they did when they arrived was open their Bible and read from Psalm 100 Verses 4-5;

“Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to Him and praise His name. For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations”.

No matter the struggles we go through, the pain we endure or the fear we face, our hope comes from God. Someone once said, ‘No words in the English language are more devastating than, ‘There is no hope’

Dante wrote in the Inferno, that there was a sign hanging over the gate to hell that read, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Hope is in short supply today. Many people feel tossed and battered by the waves and winds of the times. And you don’t have to look much further than out your back door. As a nation, we have lost our moral high ground. God has been pushed further and further away.

God is not welcomed in many schools, offices or sporting events. Is it any wonder people are grasping at anything to feel safe or for a kind word? That seems to be why Mr. Rogers is being so lovingly embraced right now. 

Yet while we have moved away from God, God has never abandoned us. His hope, grace, mercy and promises are still offered and available to each of us. Unfortunately, when we are in the midst of a terrible storm, it is often hard to believe.

The Prophet Jeremiah understood this better than anyone. Jeremiah is often called the reluctant or weeping prophet. He was the last prophet to the southern Kingdom of Judah. He is also credited by many, as the writer of Lamentations.

To Lament is to complain, mourn or grieve. In Lamentations, Jeremiah writes, “My groans are many and my heart grows faint.” Jeremiah suffered persecution and attempts on his life. He was imprisoned, tortured and tormented. Yet he wrote these telling words in Lamentations 3:22-23; “Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new each morning; great is Your faithfulness.”  Where did this hope come from? What did he know, that we need to know?

As a young man, God called Jeremiah, and he said, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah 1:5

Jeremiah responds with, “I do not know how to speak; for I am only a child.” Jeremiah 1:6. Then God offered him this promise, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and I will rescue you.” Jeremiah 1:8

God had his back. No matter how tough things got, God would never leave Jeremiah. Yet in spite of that promise, Jeremiah had a tough road ahead, but he never gave up hope. His trust was in God’s goodness.

Some of you may have followed the story of Joey Feek, the singer from Alexandria and her husband Rory. She was diagnosed with reoccurring cancer and passed away in March of 2016. Before her death, she was interviewed by a reporter about her faith and her life journey. ‘No matter what life would throw at her’, she said, ‘she always had hope’.

Her hope was not in medicine but in God. ‘When all is said and done’, she said, “she was in God’s hands. And while she was able, she wanted to live life to the fullest. Each day, each moment, is precious, she said with a smile, “even in the midst of pain”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am sure she did her share of lamenting and crying out to God, how could she not? Yet in spite of everything else, she held onto God’s promises. Like Jeremiah, she trusted Him with the bigger picture.

The truth is, we all have dark nights of the soul. Even Jesus bowed his head and shed tears of blood from the anguish and suffering he endured. Yet when he was done, he turned his eyes towards heaven and trusted his Father and gave himself over to his will. Luke 22:42-44.

Jeremiah was witness to Israel’s downfall. He tried to warn others, but they would not listen. He grieved for the nation and suffered as they were scattered and enslaved.  The future was bleak and dark, yet even during all of that, God offered them some hope.

Jeremiah wrote to the exiles, these words of the Lord, “This is what the Lord Almighty says to those in exile. Settle in, build homes, marry and have children. Jeremiah 29:5-7

“Seek peace and prosperity. Pray to the lord and don’t be mis-lead. Then, when 70 years is completed in Babylon, I will come to you – and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.” Vs. 10

“For I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans for hope and a future. Then, when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will listen to you.” Vs. 11-12

They had to wait 70 years! Some would never see home again. Still, God gave them hope, and He made a promise to listen and to return their families to Israel. God had plans that gave them hope and a future.

The dictionary defines hope as a feeling or desire that things will turn out for the best. In essence, it is a wish. But hope defined in the Bible is something very different. It is a sure expectation, a confidence or solid certainty that rests on God and his Word alone.

2 Corinthians 1:21-22 reads, “He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and has put his spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”

Did you get that? When we are in Christ, our hope is guaranteed. It is a promise and God always keeps his promises. You can bank on it. And God wants us to plan for a great future.

Edward Mote was born into poverty on January 21, 1797, in London. His parents were innkeepers and they wouldn’t allow a Bible in their house. But somehow Edward heard the gospel as a teenager and came to Christ.

He eventually became a skilled carpenter and owner of his own cabinet shop. “One morning,” he recalled, “it came into my mind as I went off to work to write a hymn on ‘The Gracious Experience of a Christian.’

“As I went up to work, I had the chorus running through my head: On Christ the solid Rock I stand / All other ground is sinking sand. During the day, I had the first 4 verses complete, and I wrote them down.”

At the age of 55, Edward gave up his carpentry business to pastor a Baptist Church in England, where he ministered for 21 years.

He was loved greatly by the people for his deep faith and compassion. He resigned in 1873, in failing health, saying, “I think I am going to heaven; yes, I am nearing the port. The truths I have been preaching, I am now living and they’ll do very well to die upon.”

Today his hymn, “The Solid Rock,” or “My Hope is Built” is still popular with Christians around the world. It goes, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” 

Sometimes hope has to be believed – to be seen. The folks on the Mayflower could only trust and believe in God’s good graces, to get them to the shores of the new world. It was their faith in Him that carried them through.

This coming Thursday, we will be celebrating Thanksgiving Day. Many of you will be busy cooking turkeys, making stuffing, baking pumpkin pies…. and watching football games. That is fun stuff.  It is important to get together with loved ones and stuff ourselves… but that is not what thanksgiving is really all about – it is first and foremost about giving thanks to the Lord.

We usually picture the first thanksgiving in America, as the time when the Pilgrims and the Indians got together for a great feast. It was the first meal and a time of celebrating their partnership.

But I tend to look at that time, when the sea battered Mayflower anchored in the bay at Cape Cod, and a group of weary and worn men and women were on their knees praising their God in heaven for bringing them safely through the treacherous sea to this new land, as the first ‘Real Thanksgiving’.

It was a time for scripture, a time to reflect on the promises of our Lord and Savior, and a time to sing praises. And I believe they did it with their entire hearts.

It was the Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith, son of an Anglican priest who wrote, “Hope like a gleaming taper’s light, adorns and cheers our way; and still, as darker grows the night, it emits a brighter ray.”    Let the light of Christ, illuminate your world.

This Thanksgiving, don’t forget to say a prayer for all the gifts God has given you and for the promises He keeps. Also, say a prayer for those who currently know only rough seas. May they also know Jesus and have the peace and hope that passes all understanding.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Amen