Note: There was a guest speaker for which we have no manuscript. Please see the audio for this day's sermon.
January 12, 2020
Note: There was a guest speaker for which we have no manuscript. Please see the audio for this day's sermon.
January 5, 2020 - Epiphany
Bible Reading Matthew 2:1-2, 9b-11
Epiphany means appearance. This is the day we celebrate God revealing himself to the Gentiles by calling the wise men to Bethlehem where Jesus had appeared in the manger. They offered him gifts that honored him as king, as divine, and as the chosen sacrifice for our kings. Matthew describes the first and last of the story this way:
Christmas is full of signs. For these traveling wise men, it was a star in the sky, for the shepherds it was Jesus himself laying in the manger. For us, the arrival of the wise men from the east to worship the king is a sign that the Jewish prophets predicting a Messiah (a God appointed king to save his people) is not restricted to the Jewish people, but this king came to offer his salvation to people from all the nations. The prophets understood this, but that part of the message didn’t easily penetrate or change the traditional thinking that our God’s king would be only our king and our Savior. And we love that privilege.
There is a story about a Chicago bank that asked for a letter of recommendation from a Boston investment house who employed a young man they were considering hiring. The investment firm couldn’t say enough about him. They wrote that they would highly recommend him. His father was a Cabot, his mother a Lowell. Going further back in the family tree, there was a happy blend of Saltonsalls, Peabodys, and other of Boston’s finest families. The Chicago bank wrote back thanking them for the recommendation but noted that the information was inadequate. They were considering the man for work, not breeding purposes.
For those of us not in the genetic lineage of Abraham, the fact that God sent the star to other lineages tells us Jesus didn’t come from heaven and land in that manger just for the Jews is really good news.
But not everyone is excited that to learn that they are not the exclusive favorites of God. It makes them feel less special, because the only way to feel important is for others to feel less important – and so – as you see in siblings sometimes, they compare and contrast and compete to be the favorite, or at least to get the most attention, and that can lead to all kinds of good – or even bad -- behaviors. And sometimes it is not just siblings, it can be within ourselves, within our own group, or between all sorts of groupings…
I remember when I was in 7th grade and playing Tuba for the first time. I had selected and played I was the only tuba player. Early in the year, the director listened to hearing tryouts to place the order of the instruments, 1st chair, 2nd, 3rd, etc... She was announcing the positions and she said I was 1st Chair Tuba player; which brought a chorus of chuckles throughout the band. Then she explained that there was a difference between 1st chair and last chair. So the master of band room defended me and I felt special and favored in that moment. In some ways it is nice to be favored as the “only one”. But at the same time, being the “only one of one” doesn’t always feel that privileged.
On the other hand, I have 4 children and they are all my favorites in their own unique ways. When we all lived under the same roof, every once in a while I would say that Mitchell was my favorite oldest son, Ben my favorite youngest son, Angela my favorite oldest daughter, Sara my favorite youngest daughter. And like the band, they chuckle about it; knowing that no one else qualifies for those roles. But just because Mitchell is my favorite oldest son does not diminish the power of the “favorite” in that sentence – and the same with the other three. Hopefully, they all feel favored, and don’t feel a need to compete for attention or favor, but can simply accept who I am as I am, as I accept who they are for who they are, and they can accept each other for who they are.
In the same way, just because God favors all people doesn’t mean we aren’t favored. Our value isn’t diminished because we are the only one on the playing field. Nor is our value diminished because others are also legitimately on the playing field. Just because God loves all the peoples he has created does not diminish how much he loves us. We shouldn’t feel a need to be threatened by, competitive with others for God’s attention and approval. What the wise men tell us is that God cares for us all in such an extreme way that we are all his favorites in our own unique way. He loves YOU. You are his favorite you! It doesn’t matter what you background or heritage or gender or anything else… Paul tells us
If the king of the universe can be born in a stable of insignificant Bethlehem, then our truest and best identity is not in our natural lineage or heritage or anything else, but what we can become in Christ.
This is why God put a sign in the sky for these foreigners, and why they came to the manger. And they, at least, understood this king wasn’t coming exclusively for his own people, but for all people, and they wanted to come and acknowledge that with their gifts, representing his kingship, his diety, and his sacrifice.
But as I said, when we are in the “in group” it is a really hard to lesson to learn, and sometimes it needs to be learned over and over and over again. After living with Jesus for 3 years, basically 24-7 365, following him, listening to him teach, watching him act, die, live again, and receiving the Holy Spirit; Peter still needed visions and God inspired timings and trips to the house of the Gentile Cornelius before he says he finally got it figured out. The text in Acts says,
Prior to Christmas, 5-year-old Randy wanted a toy western stagecoach for Christmas. During a shopping trip with his mom, he found just the one he wanted. It was about 6" long and had cool wheels and dark brown plastic horses pulling it. "Mommy, I want this one. Pleeeease" he begged. He came near to throwing a tantrum, insisting that he get that stagecoach for Christmas. Mom finally closed the conversation with a "We'll see." Randy was sure he'd get what he asked for. Christmas morning came, and he opened the package confidently. Sure enough, it was the stagecoach he had begged for. He was so pleased – until his older brother said, "You really did a dumb thing to insist on that coach. Mom had already bought you a much bigger, better one, but when you begged for that little one, she exchanged it." Suddenly the small stagecoach didn't seem so appealing.
Sometimes we're like that with God. We pray about a specific need and tell Him how He ought to answer. We beg and plead. We want him to fix this issue or that – change this person or that, remove consequences of certain actions and choices, solve issues like food and drink and clothes… and it isn’t that he is not interested about every aspect of our life, and he also may give us exactly what we ask for, but He also may have had something better in mind. We ask for so little compared to what he is offering us.
Even in Jesus day, they wanted survival, freedom from Rome – and instead God sent Jesus to offer us victory over death, eternal life, and a full life even now. And he wants to gift this to all who choose to follow the path Jesus lays out for us. There's no comparison between death-dealing sin and this generous, life-giving gift. Sin and its consequences and its power doesn’t have a chance against God’s aggressive preemptive forgiveness we call grace. So trust and ask God's life giving power to make a difference in your life that goes beyond your expectations. Leave your life in his hands and trust his perfect way.
December 29, 2019
Bible Reading Galatians 4:4-10a
At one time people were bound by law, which operated much like guardians and trustees who control and restrict minors until they came of age to take a healthy responsibility of the inheritance that awaits them - a time that is set by the Father. Christ introduces this new age of faith, by which all genders and races and status become justified with all the rights and privileges of full children. In today’s reading, Paul writes to the Galatians describing the transition from imprisoning law to gracious faith through Christ:
Ecclesiastes 3:1-13, Ephesians 5:8-10, 15-17
As the year is about to turn and we must continue to wait for the Magi to arrive (next week), we have an opportunity to contemplate time. L.R. Knost wrote:
Life is Amazing
And then it’s awful.
And then it’s amazing again.
And in between the amazing and awful,
it’s ordinary and mundane and routine.
Breathe in the amazing,
hold on through the awful,
and relax and exhale during the ordinary
That’s just the living heartbreaking,
soul-healing, amazing, awful,
And it’s breathtakingly beautiful
The classic Bible passage on life’s time is in Ecclesiastes:
While it is included, this text is more than a mere description of individual human activity, or human interactions. It is a description of how God deals with his world in his way and time over the widest spectrum of life -- from birth to peace. God controls the timetables of how he accomplishes his purposes. Just one example – Jesus would say we humans are never in an appropriate season to hate. But in ancient history, God created circumstances that caused Egypt to love and embrace Joseph and his people, saving them all from drought. Later, the Egyptians came to hate those same people, creating a timely opportunity for them to leave and form their own nation in the promised land. We can trust that even though at times we struggle, God can and will make everything refreshingly beautiful in its time. People react to God’s rule in several negative ways.
We attempt to discover his timing.
One is to try and discover the timing of God’s seasons. We may have a glimmer of eternity in our hearts, but attempts to outguess God’s plans and timing of things usually does more harm than help.
We attempt to force the seasons.
A second reaction is to try and force the seasons. We take what we think are God’s plans into our hands and force our own timing on them. In the Old Testament, some failed to trust God for promised heirs and so took it into their own hands, creating difficult family relations and then national situations. The author of Ecclesiastes tells is that we are to recognize God’s rule through the ages and to humble ourselves under his agenda.
We resign ourselves to nothing.
On the opposite extreme is to resign ourselves to doing nothing. If God controls everything, then why bother doing anything? None of us are powerful enough (without him) to help or hinder his purposes. He will do it with us or without us. If a Bible hero had said no, he would have raised another to accomplish his purposes. While it is true that God can find others, he has graciously invited us to the great privilege of participating in his great cause. And since we can’t find another true God, it is critical for us to cooperate with and participate in God’s plan and call on our life, if we don’t, we are the ones who miss out. Even the author of Ecclesiastes says we should do all we can to do good and enjoy ourselves in the work of life – for this is God’s gift.
We heard in the Galatians reading that the time had to be fully ripe / prepared and ready -- for God to gift us with a new era of his work among the people of the world -- adopting them as his children, and freeing us from things that imprisoned us.
I remember as a youth being at a track and field event in which I ran a 60-yard dash. I lined up with some of my best friends. The rules were that you were supposed to stay in your own lane for the entirety of the race. A runner to my left, straining to run faster, lost sight of the lanes and drifted to his right across several lanes. Unfortunately, we were about even when he ventured into my lane, I can still remember seeing the top of his head (he was shorter than I). His lateral drift caused me to let up and short step to avoid getting tangled up with him. After the race ended, I found out I had lost to my best friend at the time by .2 of a second, all because of this incident. I knew this lane drifter at the time, but I can’t remember his name now. Not important now, but Paul makes it clear that we need to recognize and name what it is – within or without that keeps us from progressing – who cut you off? What slowed you down? Who turned you away from the truth and stole your step toward joy? Why are you going back to the old patterns when God has gifted us with a season where he has granted us everything we need to freely and joyfully run a good race of progress and growth?
What hinders our resolve?
Past patterns don’t easily let go. We are creatures of habit, how we exercise – or don’t. How we eat and drink or practice other comfort, escape or other activities. They easily become patterns and may even become addictive. Many of us also have mental tape recorders that echo memories of words or attitudes of parents or other significant others or even our own self-perceptions. Randomly, or triggered by certain circumstances, these recorders turn on speak to us again and again. All these habits and tapes may be true or false, good or bad. If they are negative, they can entangle us from moving forward to full maturity.
There is a story about a child who is always trying to win the approval of a parent who saw a cloud in every silver lining. – Imagine the tapes her attitudes and words put in his head. One day they were walking by the edge of the sea and a large wave caught them off guard and yanked the boy out to sea. The mother screamed, dropped to her knees and prayed. Another wave washed the boy back ashore practically into her arms. She looked him, and then at the sky and screamed again – “Hey, he had a hat!”
People patterns also pressure us to remain as we are. I left my home church to go to college. I changed, grew, and developed in many ways. When I returned to that church 5 years later, most still saw me as the youth I was rather than I person I had become. I don’t fault them. From the other side of it – I still find it hard to believe that I have to look up to look into my oldest son Mitchell’s eyes. We tend to freeze people into where we last knew them well – and we can inadvertently (or purposefully) attempt to drag them back to those less mature years and habits.
Or we freeze them with their worst event and never let them escape it. A now very safe driver may never live down an accident – even if was 30 years prior – and an accident! I’ve heard it put into the mouths of characters on several TV shows now. When a person’s past is thrown in their face – they protest, “I am more than my worst moment.”
And if they do overcome our expectations and form a new, better life, we don’t recognize it because we still have them locked into the way they were instead of what they are becoming. Even Jesus could do little good in his hometown because they remembered – and locked him into his childhood before he was recognized as the Messiah.
Encourage true growth
Often, we encourage growth with our words, but what we really expect is more of the same old established behaviors. Unfortunately, people tend to live up to expectations more than to empty words. Our goal should be not to simply to say words of progress while expecting none, but to help people move forward and put their past behind them.
A simplistic example: When my children were young, each Vacation Bible School was a big challenge for one of them. The strange new music was always too loud for his sensitive ears and so during the music time he would sit behind the others and cover his ears trying to filter out the noise. By mid-week he was starting to get used to it and by the end of the week he was on the platform singing loudly with the rest of them. And as we enter a new year, this is often a season of looking back over the year and looking ahead to the new one, and some of us make resolutions to help us be intentional about our growth to becoming a better person. Statistically, I have heard that resolutions don’t last very long with a vast majority of people, me included. Here are some tips that may help us do a bit better this year. Often we think about stopping or giving something up, but it could just as easily be adding something into your life.
1) Don’t set too many or unrealistic resolutions. If we bite off more than we can chew, we choke. Prayerfully choose just one thing (maybe two) to focus on.
2) Don’t settle for boring, unmotivated goals. Sometimes we choose goals because we think others think we ought to do it – and maybe we agree, but it is really coming from outside of us and not our own passion. Also, be creative to try to make your resolution fun and interesting and important to you. If your goal is cleaning the house more often – and you can’t figure out a creative way to make it fun or interesting – then listen to something fun while you are doing it.
3) Be aware of what masters you – (this comes straight from our Galatians Bible text) and if there is a trigger that tempts you to those things. Let’s use a silly, non-threatening example – Let’s say potato chips are bad thing – and you get cravings for them. Often, partaking in such activities that master you are so automatic we aren’t even aware of them. We’re halfway through the bag of chips before we realize we’ve even gotten up to get them. (Of course if you can keep them away from easy access, that is always a help too). Be aware (1) that you crave them and (2) that they are bad for you (3) and you really want to give them up.
Can you identify what triggers the craving? Maybe you have habitually eaten them while watching something or doing something – can those things be avoided? If not, can you substitute something healthy and retrain the trigger? So instead of grabbing chips, you grab grapes?
4) Practice progress, not perfection. Some resolutions fail because we lose our resolve after one setback. We have one bag of chips (remember, chips are just a metaphor representing that resolution). We chastise ourselves for our failure to refrain, or if the resolution was adding – then to not take action as planned). But even worse, we give up. We allow that bad thing to master our life again. Don’t quit. Keep progressing. If we happen to fall, pick up where we left off and start again.
5) If possible, give an external structure to your goal. That could mean a friend who will help keep you accountable about your “chip eating”. If it is something like – I want to learn the ukulele – join the group and it give you an organizational structure to keep on with it…
There were times I wanted to commit to weekly recreational bowling with the family. We’d go once a week -- for a week – sometimes even two -- before schedules or other activities got in the way. But when the commitment was placed in the structure of an actual league – we almost never miss.
6) Finally, connect to the why of your resolution. Want to be more consistent with your devotional life? Don’t just set up a task and prayer calendar that you can check off as you go – rather – envision the closer relationship with God that it can nourish, the wisdom to practical living it can bring. etc… Keep the higher purposes of your resolution in front of you rather than merely checking the resolution off as an accomplished task for the day…
As way of encouragement to try – let me lift up two people who did well with last year’s resolutions. Ben Williams gave up pop this year – and failed only twice. Once because the punch was spiked and he didn’t realize it – and he was pretty upset for quite a while. The other time was due to limited alternate options. And 13-year-old Leila Larsen did a read through the Bible-in-a-year program and finished a little early! That is a pretty special and inspiring accomplishment, and I’m told she did it entirely of her own volition with no prompting or reminding.
If you have trouble thinking of a resolution of your own – consider using this suggestion I received last night: Pick a person (or family) and pray for them every day throughout the year. Pray for their faith, their health, their family, their finances, for whatever need you hear they might have. Don’t tell them you are praying for them. Just do it and see what God does in their life…
We resolve to be better people - free from what masters us - because Christ came when we did not know God, and were slaves to what by nature are not gods. (Galatians text) He gifted us out of that darkness and (as the Ephesians text says) into his light of goodness, righteousness and truth -- enabling us to know the Lord’s will and to please him -- living carefully – wisely, making the most of our time, making the most of every opportunity. (See Ephesians 5:8-10,15-17)
Closing Prayer Let’s pray. Holy God, author of the Word made flesh. As we continue to reflect on why you came to earth, as we continue to sing with the angels, open our hearts and guide us to what we must resolve to do or stop doing to serve you better. May the Light of your Word comfort, convince, and change us to continue making the most of every opportunity to experience the joy of doing your good will. Amen.
Closing Music # 240 Hark the Herald Angels Sing
Closing Blessing Now as you go, resolve to stand firm in the faith. Continue to listen for God’s direction and give yourself fully to the worthwhile work of the Lord. Amen.
Not too many – or unrealistic goals
Make it your own, fun, interesting
Know what masters you
Practice progress, not perfection
Use external structures
Connect to the “why”
December 24, 2019 Christmas Eve
Advent Candles - Hope, Peace, Joy, Love
L: We relight the candle of hope
(Light candle one as the people speak.)
P: for we long to realize the birth of hope in our day.
L: We relight the candle of peace.
(Light candle two as the people speak.)
P: for God has favored us with his presence and power.
L: We relight the candle of joy.
(Light candle three as the people speak.)
P: for we are alert, delightfully expecting his coming light.
L: We relight the candle of love.
(Light candle four as the people speak.)
P: for his compassion gives birth to his love within us and for each other.
L: Therefore, we celebrate that God has come to be with us in Christ.
Hymn Emmanuel, Emmanuel
Responsive Bible Reading Luke 2:1-8
L: At that time, Augustus Caesar sent an order to all people in the countries that were under Roman rule. The order said that they must list their names in a register. This was the first registration taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
P: And everyone went to their own towns to be registered.
L: So Joseph left Nazareth, a town in Galilee. He went to the town of Bethlehem in Judea. This town was known as the town of David.
P: Joseph went there because he was from the family of David.
L: Joseph registered with Mary because she was engaged to marry him. (Mary was now pregnant.) While Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, the time came for her to have the baby.
P: She gave birth to her first son.
L: There were no rooms left in the inn. So she wrapped the baby with cloths and laid him in a [manger] where animals are fed. (ICB)
Sometimes we need something practical, but it isn’t necessarily what we want for Christmas. Sometimes we want a newest and splashiest new techie gizmo, but we may not need another device. But sometimes, what we need and what we want come together in one great gift. One person talked about college days when he needed a new printer. His father graciously said he would get one and ship it to him. But he had already picked out the one he wanted, so he figured that when it came, he would go to the store and trade it in for the one he really wanted. But when the package came and he removed the wrapping from the box, he discovered his dad had already sent the very printer he wanted.
We are here tonight because we’ve waded through many other things – some of them very good things – because we crave to hear and know again the central message of Christmas. But even though we recognize Christ’s birth (and death and resurrection and sending of the Holy Spirit) as the most important moments in history, many of us have heard the stories year after year from about every angle we can possibly hear it. So while it is one thing to recognize its importance, it is quite another to wade through the sentimental and beautifully romanticized, polished, “febrezed” smells and images of barn and animals and shepherds and candles and stars -- and to be startled, surprised, or even stirred by this major event.
We find in tonight’s story a parallel to the spiritual journey. This first journey in the above reading is a little bit about Joseph and Mary heading to Bethlehem, but it is more about God’s journey from heaven to earth in Jesus to live with us and to give us not only what we need, but what we want. Have you ever gotten one of those gifts that you didn’t know you needed or wanted until after you received it? Once you have it you wonder how you ever lived without it. Those are the best gifts of all, and are usually given by the people who know you better than you know yourself.
God knows us better than we know ourselves, knows what gift we need and want (even if we don’t). He sent Jesus, and hopes that as we open ourselves up to him, we will recognize in Jesus a gift that is even beyond all what we need, want, or could even imagine. This is why we are called to rejoice in who God has given. Let’s stand and sing.
Hymn # 224 Good Christian Friend, Rejoice
Responsive Bible Reading Luke 2:9-14
L: That night, some shepherds were in the fields nearby watching their sheep.
P: An angel of the Lord stood before them.
L: The glory of the Lord was shining around them, and suddenly they became very frightened. The angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid, because I am bringing you some good news.
P: It will be a joy to all the people.
L: Today your Savior was born in David’s town.
P: He is Christ, the Lord.
L: This is how you will know him: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a [manger].” Then a very large group of angels from heaven joined the first angel. All the angels were praising God, saying:
P: “Give glory to God in heaven, and on earth let there be peace to the people who please God.”
L: Then the angels left the shepherds and went back to heaven. (ICB)
The journey in this text is the angel and heavenly host to the shepherds to announce the news of the birth of this special baby, Jesus; God’s gift to humanity. Shepherding was not only a common profession; it was a common image of spiritual leaders through the ages, for their role was very similar – caring for the people and leading them toward God’s nourishing spirit, guiding them away from temptations that may lead to a barren life, rescuing them when they do happen wander into the troubles of errant paths.
The prophets often moaned of these shepherding religious leaders’ corruption and called them back to pure practices -- and even then, the author of Hebrews reminds us that even good shepherds could not completely deal with the stone-cold darkness of our hearts. Therefore, the prophets predicted a Good Shepherd, God’s anointed one, who would cleanse their corrupt practices and deal with our heart problem once and for all. He wrote:
Such a high priest truly meets our need — one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath [God’s promise], which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever. (Hebrews 7:26-28 (NIV))
Jesus did what no other spiritual leader could do once or perfectly. What is interesting is that this grand announcement of possible peace with God and the world was not to the Emperor Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor known as bringing the peace of Rome. The peace that passes understanding would instead come from a baby born in a stable, and it was announced to the shepherds. The angel says – he is born TO YOU, the first announcement is to the common working man – and then the hymnwriter anticipates the next steps of the journey… Let’s sing the first verse of The First Noel and then Angels We Have Heard on High.
Hymn # 245 (v 1) The First Noel
Hymn # 238 Angels We Have Heard
Responsive Bible Reading Luke 2:15-20
L: The shepherds said to each other, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened. We will see this thing the Lord told us about.” So the shepherds went quickly and found Mary and Joseph.
P: And the shepherds saw the baby lying in a [manger].
L: Then they told what the angels had said about this child.
P: Everyone was amazed when they heard what the shepherds said to them.
L: Mary hid these things in her heart; she continued to think about them. Then the shepherds went back to their sheep, praising God and thanking him for everything that they had seen and heard.
P: It was just as the angel had told them. (ICB)
They heard the news – but it was not enough to hear the news – they needed to see it for themselves. Our final journey tonight is the shepherds to the manger. Likewise, it is not enough for us to know the news, or hear it again, each of us needs to experience Christ for ourselves, and to seek him daily.
Sue Monk tells a story about how her 6-year-old tucked two gifts under the tree for her daddy and for her. They were both puzzled by what they could be. On Christmas morning they opened the gifts, his -- a navy tie with tan ducks, and hers -- some slightly familiar earrings. “Where did you get these?” she asked. Her daughter answered, “The old chest in the attic”. Then she recognized the items that had been put in storage some ten years before. Especially for us who have been around the Christmas story for a long time, experiencing the gift of Jesus is not meant to be a did and done kind of gift – (“Already got that, don’t need to get it again”). Each Christmas is about waking up again to what God’s grace has already given us and to receive him all over again.
Mary pondered the meaning of the news. One of my favorite stories for why Jesus came is about the farmer on a blistering cold winter night with the wind howling. He looked out and saw birds. The winds were too strong for flight. They were walking around in the field. If they did not find shelter they would not survive the night. The compassionate farmer bundled up and went to his barn and opened wide the door.
He called to them from the open doors. But they could not understand. He tried running around and waving his arms – shooing them toward the barn doors – but that only scared them and scattered them and forced them to run to be even more exhausted in the severe weather. Nothing worked. The farmer sadly thought, if only I could become one of them, then I could make them understand their danger and where they could find life…
What the farmer could not do, God did in Jesus. Since this event was brand new, God sent his angels to announce it to the shepherds. But once the shepherds got the message, it was up to the shepherds to broadcast the news – and they did – and today it still remains the task of God’s people to share the news… Let’s sing.
Hymn # 251 Go Tell It on the Mtn
Advent Candles - Christ
L: From that mountain the word echoes how we should live, because God’s grace has come.
P: That grace can save every person.
L: That grace teaches us not to live against God and not to do the evil things the world wants to do. That grace teaches us to live in the present age in a wise and right way--
P: a way that shows that we serve God.
L: We should live like that while we are waiting for the coming of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.
(Light Christ candle as the people speak.)
P: He is our great hope, and he will come with glory.
L: He came and was born to live and give himself for us; to free us from all evil. He died to make us pure people who belong only to him
P: — people who are always wanting to do good things.
L: It is because of Jesus that angels came to sing on the clear midnight -- causing us to ask a rhetorical question -- What child is this? The question is not seeking information. Like the hymn, And Can it Be? it is expressing the awe of what God has done and is doing in this baby. Let’s sing these songs and consider the glory of this night.
Hymn # 220 (vv 1,2) Angels from the Realms of Glory
Hymn # 218 (v 1) It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
Special Music (Solo) What Child is This?
Lighting of Individual Candles
His light continues to burn in our world -- it spreads only as each of us receives his light and walks in it. It is only as we receive the Christmas message into the passion, (the fire) of our own hearts -- it is only as we take that flame and walk with it from these holy halls in which we have gathered and move out into the streets and byways and highways and pass the flame of his light in us on to others... it is only then that the world will begin to see a real hope in Christ, It is only then that our world will begin to see the inklings of peace. It is only then that joy will begin to flood hearts; and it is only then that our world will love as it was created to love. All revealed to us by a holy Light in that holy night so long ago; a night of stillness -- yet also a night a night of joy. Let’s sing as we receive the light...
Hymn # 239 Silent Night
Hymn # 246 (vv 1,3,4) Joy to the World
Now as you go, may you be filled with the wonder of Mary, the obedience of Joseph, the joy of the angels, the eagerness of the shepherds, the determination of the magi, and the peace of the Christ child. May the Almighty Father, Son and Holy Spirit bless you now and forever. Amen.
Due to the Children’s Program, there is no sermon manuscript to share this week.
December 8, 2019
Advent Candles - Hope, Peace
L: We relight the candle of hope because we long to realize the birth of hope in our day. (Light Candle 1) Yet on some days our patience for that new day runs thin. We look at our world and our lives and we are perplexed.
P: Yet God is present with us.
L: Events fill us with fear. Fear of evil, or even fear of what God may do.
P: Yet God has favored us.
L: Circumstances surrounding us confuse us. We are not always sure how to react and feel powerless to respond.
P: Yet if we remain committed to God, he may surprise us with an inner comfort and confidence. (Light Candle 2)
L: We light the candle of peace for his Son, the Prince of Peace has come. Let’s sing Emmanuel, Emmanuel.
with Emmanuel, Emmanuel
Bible Reading Luke 1:39-50
As a child riding in the back seat of the car, we passed some houses with big front yards. It is all commercial property now because of its ideal location near the intersection of two major roads. A child ran full blast toward the street causing my mom to hit the brakes and swerve a little on this very busy street on the west side of Lansing. He jerked to a stop like a running dog gets surprised as he reaches the end of the chain. Of course, there was no chain, but his head was cocked in the air with a wide-open smile. Apparently, it was a game to surprise and scare drivers.
Our personalities vary as to how much we like to be surprised. Some like to go to the movies and vicariously experience the rush of the serial killer leaping out in the dark. Others so much don’t like surprises that they plan their own “surprise” birthday parties so that they won’t be caught off guard. Some people want to be surprised with their Christmas gifts, others make a list so they are sure their “surprise” will be a good one.
Today’s sermon title is an oxymoron, how can you be prepared to be surprised? The one who plans their own surprise party is not labeling their party correctly, for the preparation eliminates the surprise. On the other hand, no matter how prepared you are, it is impossible to go through life without being surprised; even if it is the simple surprise of your toe discovering the corner of the bed leg that you were sure was at least another six inches away, and sometimes it is unexpected company at the Christmas dinner. And depending upon the relationships you have, like unknown gifts, they can be great or sometimes you have to remember it was (hopefully) the thoughtful intent of the guests or giver that counts.
And yet there is a way to be prepared, and yet surprised at the same time. I’ve heard one reason some families make way too much food for holiday feasts is that they never know who is going to show up. So they are always ready whether someone comes or not.
And as we enter today’s text, we find Mary shocked by what she experienced, yet her faithful spiritual discipline and willingness to routinely listen and do what God wanted had prepared her for this moment. The text begins:
Luke begins with some basic back-ground needed for this announcement. A relative is pregnant, an angel is sent, and young virgin Mary is engaged to a young man who, if traced back far enough. came from a royal blood, but he himself is, or would become, a part of the construction trade in what was considered an insignificant town.
By human standards -- then and now, natural logic would lead to expectations that the Creator of the Universe would speak in majestic, public, peals of powerful thunder (like he did when he gave the law at Sinai) rather than in a still, small, private voice (which he exhibited when he called Moses to lead his people). When a rabbi was asked why God spoke to Moses from the thorn bush, he answered, "To teach you that there is no place on earth where God's glory is not, not even in a humble thorn bush."
Likewise when the time was ripe for the Messiah to come and usher in God’s kingdom, the current expectation then would have been that if he sent his anointed king, he would be born in Rome to a noble power broker, (after all, even Moses was raised as a son in the Egyptian palace). Then in his adulthood, Christ’s influence would have an immediate impact, backed by all the power of Rome. Or at the very least, or perhaps, even more likely, he would be born in Jerusalem, the religious and political center of his people.
Even though Mary didn’t know what it was all about yet, it is no surprise that an angel greeting her, Mary, who is self-described as “not great”, “lowly”, “humble”, “poor degree”, “low estate”, or as today’s reading translated it: -- “I am not considered important.” It is no surprise that Mary would be shocked (very perplexed) that God had taken note of her.
Perhaps that is why the greeting began with one of the best comforts that can be given to a faithful person -- to be reminded that God’s presence is with them. It reminds us that even in perplexing times, God is with us too -- and also that he often acts through less than ordinary people in less than ordinary times and places to do his extraordinary work.
I think of a human pyramid -- we sometimes see it in cheerleading. The one on the top gets all the attention as she climbs or is catapulted to the top and then takes a flying leap in the arms of those waiting below. But it is those who get so little attention on the rows below whose stable presence and strength that bears the weight - and the success - of those on top. Without them the whole thing collapses. In the same way, history is written by the victors, who name the ones on top, while the quiet, unnoticed workload is born by almost everyone else. Or if you want to put it to the players on the field, it is the players in the trenches -- on the lines; that make the stars shine. Without them, even the best quarterback can’t make a pass, or a runner move past the scrimmage line. God knows who usually gets the real work of a faith, of a society done. And it is through them, through the grass roots that he most often chooses to work. The angel now shares God’s work and purpose, but begins with reassuring the terrified Mary:
So not only is Mary noticed by God, and been blessed in a special way, she has found favor, been very pleasing to him. Luke doesn’t give us any back story of Mary prior to this, but these phrases make it clear the kind of young woman she was. Through an obvious life of devotion, she was, unbeknownst to her, becoming prepared, or better, God had been preparing her, all her life for this fear inducing Christmas surprise.
Likewise, we may not know exactly what God may be preparing for us, or what he may be preparing us for, by our current devotions and experiences. But as Chris Tomlin once wrote, he comes for us, we can’t run from his presence, from his arms. Jesus, he loves me, he is for me. And knowing that it creates a fire in our soul so that we will never be same, stepping out of the dark and into the light when he calls our name to fill his purpose in our lives… (Tomlin, in “Jesus, He Loves Me” – paraphrased)
It seems impossible to understand – (the news Mary got would throw any of us for a loop, even more so in our science-based world). So she asks”
Confused… but committed
The original language tells us that Mary’s “how” question is not a question of sarcasm, skepticism or disbelief. Nor does she demand a sign of proof. In the same sense as the hymn, “How Can it Be?” her question is primarily used in the sense of overwhelming amazement. Secondarily, there was a sense of science and next steps. (Would Joseph be involved? How will this be played out?”)
Gabriel doesn’t get into the specifics of the science, but simply says that God’s Spirit would work this miracle, and then, lest doubt does begin to spring into her head, he informs her that her relative Elizabeth was already pregnant. Mary and Elizabeth, one thought too pure to have a baby, and the other too old to have a baby -- yet God had already worked a miracle in Elizabeth, so there was no doubt God could work a miracle in her as well. For what God says happens - nothing is impossible. That is probably less specific than most of us would like, but it was enough for Mary.
Someone put it this way. Most children don’t understand the physics of rotational inertia and balance and all the rest that keeps a person upright as they learn how to ride a bike, but they can ride if they are willing to get on and turn the peddles and practice.
Mary did what we should strive to do when our present is perplexing, frightening, and confusing; and our future is unknown. She reached deep into our soul and found courage that came from a place beyond her own self, beyond her own knowledge and limitations. She reaches beyond her uncertain circumstances to the stability of God’s presence and power with her. And she restates her commitment to willingly serve God however he sees fit. Can we make such a commitment?
“Unimportant”… but encouraged
It isn’t clear in the English translation, but Gabriel’s words to Mary about Elizabeth contained an implication that she should visit her relative. So even though Mary didn’t ask for a sign of proof, God was more than willing to give her that encouragement. We’ve already heard in the pre-sermon reading Elizabeth’s loud proclamation confirming everything angel Gabriel said. Mary replied with a long song of which we only captured the first few verses in which she acknowledges her insignificant cultural status, but her heart felt joy that God noticed her and the great things he was going to do for her and how he always gives mercy to those who worship him.
If life feels fragile, unstable, if our situation is humbling and our schedule seems to busy, if our circuitry is hovering near overload and someone keeps stepping on our last nerve, be encouraged. Know, as many people have said, that courage is not an absence of feeling fear or frustration, but moving forward in spite of it. Be encouraged that God can come close to our life and in his time we may experience a “stable” time (a manger time) when Christ is born, or reborn in our hearts and God may choose to do great things in us.
Closing Prayer Let’s pray. Lord we long to be courageously obedient like Mary. In the most unusual of circumstances, Mary was willing to receive your Son physically into her womb. Grace us to be willing to receive Christ into our hearts again today. Like her, strengthen us to resist giving in to our fears. Prepare us for the surprises of life that lie before us -- and teach us again that the most critical part of that preparation comes through worshiping you in awe and obedient love -- because you first loved us. Amen.
Closing Music # 234 (vv 1,2,3,5) O Come, All Ye Faithful
Blessing Now as you go, May the Lord bless and protect you; may the Lord’s face radiate with joy because of you; may he be gracious to you, show you his favor, and give you his peace. (Numbers 6:24-26 TLB)
Message of Grace
December 1, 2019 – Advent Begins
Advent Candles - Hope
L: Deep darkness covers the people. Lift up your eyes and see.
P: We search the skies for a sign of hope.
L: Then you will see and you will be radiant -- your heart will race with excitement and burst with joy.
P: We listen for words of promise.
L: Arise, shine, for the Lord your Light has come. His glory will shine on you.
P: We long to realize the birth of hope in our day.
L: We light the candle of hope because kings and nations shall come to his bright dawning and will offer him their worship -- for God’s Son has come.
with song Emmanuel, Emmanuel
Do you know is a really unusual feature that many lizards and some other animals have to defend themselves in extreme situations? (claws, camouflage, lose their tails) And even after the tail comes off, the tail muscles still twitch so the tail keeps moving — distracting the threatening enemy so it can get away. Don’t you wish you had a tail to drop? (some said yes) Well, now that I know you know that about the tail, let me tell you a tale (story) about Johnny the Lizard.
Once upon a time (remember that for us that phrase means it is not a real story but it has a good point) Johnny the Lizard loved to go out and sunbathe on warm rocks under a hot sun. He often did what many of us do laying still in the heat. He fell asleep. One day when he fell asleep some mean children grabbed him — none of you are mean children are you? They had grabbed him by the tail so Johnny the lizard, shocked and scared, dropped his tail and ran away while he heard the mean children laughing at how his tail kept moving about in their hand. Eventually they threw the tail away. Johnny didn’t know where, but when he thought it was safe, he started looking for it so he could reattach it. But the countryside was big, and he could find no sign of his tail. He left everything in his life, his home, his things, his friends. Months passed and still he couldn’t find it, but he kept on asking everyone whether they had seen his tail.
One day he was asking someone, and they looked surprised and asked, “Why do you want two tails?” Johnny turned his head around and saw that after so much time searching for his old tail, he had grown a new one. On his way home he found his old tail! He began to carry it with him until a frog pointed out how icky it was. Johnny answered that it didn’t used to be that way. As he continued his journey he realized how much time he had wasted looking for something that was a part of him in the past, and that he loved so much, but what he really needed to do was drop the old thing, the worries (he had for it), and move into a new day. So he dropped his old tail and found new hope as he moved into his future. *
In today’s sermon we will hear about some smart people who didn’t look for a sign of some hope in the past. They left all that behind to find something brand new that God was doing. They weren’t chasing their tails and getting nowhere, they saw the direction God gave them chase — and they ended up at a home where the very young Jesus was living, and they presented him with valuable and meaningful gifts. Do you know what sign God gave these wise men so they could find their way to Jesus? (a star) Do you know what sign God gives today to help people find Jesus? (us) By your loving goodness and kindness and care — Paul says Christians (people who follow Jesus) shine like stars — giving hope as people find their way to Jesus.
* Based on a story “Johnny the Lizard” by Pefro Pablo Sacristan
Let’s pray. Lord we thank you that when we look for you, and we aren’t too distracted — we will see your signs, your stars, bursting all around us — you will show us the way. And if we stick with you, you may even use us to show others the way. Amen. (Hand out star bursts)
Bible Reading Micah 5:2b-5a
As the new Christian year begins, we start anticipating the birth of Christ. The front of the bulletin quotes the foreign prophet Balaam who anticipated that day in the far distant future -- much to the frustration of the leaders of his own people. Today’s sermon text sees Jesus’ birth as the fulfillment of the prophet Micah’s continuing anticipation of the glorious king that would rise over his people and bring peace to the world. Micah wrote,
… [Bethlehem], the “Ruler of Israel” will come from you to rule for me. His beginnings are from ancient times, from long, long ago. The Lord will let his people be defeated until the woman gives birth to her child, the promised king. Then the rest of his brothers will come back to join the people of Israel. He will begin to rule Israel in the power of the Lord. Like a shepherd, he will lead his people in the wonderful name of the Lord his God. And they will live in safety because then his greatness will be known all over the world. He will bring a time of peace.
Micah 5:2b-5a (ERV))
Message The Signs of Christmas Matthew 2:1-11
Because they are usually the last people to arrive in the Christmas story, we usually talk about the magi on the 12th day of Christmas. But their “late arrival in the story” may have, more than anything else, had more to do with the distance they had to travel. So for this year, for a change, we’ll see if they can teach us something different than they do on Epiphany by letting them start us off on this first day of Advent, (which I sometimes use as an acrostic to say Advent is Anticipating Divine Visitation Expecting New Things).
Obviously, Magi were searching the skies (or they wouldn’t have seen anything). What was the purpose of their quest? Was it a cry for help in difficult times? Were they desperate for something new in their nation? Was it simply a normal discipline of their religious experience? Or was it something they weren’t even looking for, but once they saw it, they couldn’t “unsee” it. One thing we do learn from them is that God is so filled with love for people that he will communicate with signs in a way that --- if we are willing to look and listen, we will be able to understand.
Sometimes that is easier said than done. For example, I was born and raised in Michigan. On major intersections, where do we look for the traffic light? Center and high, draped and sometimes swinging on cables. But I’ve lived in other places where the lights were not hanging in front of the lanes but were on the corners of the street – where our pedestrian lights normally are. I had to relearn where to look to see what I was supposed to do on my journey.
Signs: Star – Nature
This text helps us know where and how to look to see what God is wanting to tell us. Hear the first section:
After Jesus’ birth, Wise Men from the east came to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the child who has been born to be king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose. Now we have come to worship him.”
Mt 2:1b-2 (NIRV))
Whatever expertise they had, they knew how to understand and apply what they saw. We may or may not get such a direct message from nature – yet it is clear that if we look at creation through spiritual eyes, God can use it to speak to us and teach us. The Psalmist wrote:
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. (Psalm 19:1-4 (NIV))
In my college days I remember going out on walks at night seeking – because I was in a receptive stage of my life, seeking and expecting, God used things, often common things around me, to teach spiritual truths. When such truths are verified (as best we can), the point isn’t just to learn, but to act on such things. The wise ones were so sure of God’s sign to them that they left home and traveled many miles – just to see what God was doing, because they understood that there was a king (foreign to them) that would have a huge impact no only among that king’s own people, but among all the nations of the world.
Priests / Prophets
Mature examples, Bible
The danger for us, of course, is that it is not always easy to accurately hear God’s proclamations through things that don’t speak actual words. That is why the last section needs to be qualified with “verify”. The text continues:
When King Herod heard about it, he was very upset. Everyone in Jerusalem was troubled too. So Herod called together all the chief priests of the people. He also called the teachers of the law. He asked them where the Messiah was going to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied. [and we already heard the Micah passage which they quoted to identify the place] Then Herod secretly called for the Wise Men. He found out from them exactly when the star had appeared. (Matthew 5:3-7 (NIRV))
The magi came asking whoever might have heard about what they sought. Word got to Herod, who isn’t the best example – but suffering from paranoia as he did – he certainly knew how to investigate for information. He consulted priests and scribes, who in turn consulted their knowledge of their Scripture for the answer. We too, should consult mature Christians for their wisdom in the Christian life. But even they are human, so ultimately, we must consult the life of Jesus in Scripture. Thus you see the encouragement in the bulletin for an Advent exercise of reading a chapter of Luke a day beginning today – The book concludes after 24 chapters, so on Christmas Eve you will have experienced this season the birth, life, teachings, and actions, including the death and resurrection and final instructions of Jesus, reminding us why we celebrate this season, and maybe each of us will also discover some
signs to follow – some changes in life we may need to make as we follow him, which leads to our last and most important sign of Christmas
the Wise Men … went on their way. The star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them. It finally stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. The Wise Men went to the house. There they saw the child with his mother Mary. They bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures. They gave him gold, frankincense and myrrh.
(Mt 5:8-11 (NIRV))
Ultimately, God’s sign, God’s message to us is Jesus himself. As the angels told the shepherds that the baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger would be sign to them that a Savior, the Messiah, is born for them; (See Luke 2:11-12 (emphasis added)) It is not enough for us, just as it was not enough for the wise ones, to grasp a sign as a sign and know what it means, to study all about it and know all the ins and outs of the sign – they actually had to experience Jesus personally.
We too need to experience God’s risen Jesus and Spirit within our own hearts, and not only to know him as a person, but to allow him complete guidance in our lives. Just as the star guided the wise men to the manger to bow and worship and give gifts and a token of their devotion, so we need to allow our relationship with Jesus to guide us to live and worship and serve as our sign of devotion to him.
While looking for something else, I stumbled across this old picture (Kids need a stable background). But it isn’t just children who need that grounding – adults need it to – and if any didn’t get it at a kid, it is never too late to begin.
The physical signs of the coming of Christmas become more prominent each week as we walk into stores and see the street decorations, and how some of us transform our homes and yards and purchase gifts and cards and prepare for family reunions. Celebrating the season of Christmas through such signs are good, but this season, let those things help us point to our God and prepare us to look and listen for what he wants to give us as he comes to be born in us again this season. What might that mean for our lives today? And via children’s time – are we living in a way that we might become a sign of his love for others?
As we heard during the candles, the focus of advent’s start is hope. It was hope that drew the Magi from their far away homes, hope that forced them to research and ask all kinds of questions, hope that brought them to the young Jesus, hope that put them on their knees and present gifts to this new king, it was hope that caused them to believe in his worldwide influence.
After Communion, we are going to sing a song called My Hope is in You, based on a Psalm in which the author prays for help and signs to show and guide his ways because he trusts and puts his hope in God, his salvation. Well, I found a lot of things while looking for something else this week. I cam across this song by the same title written by Aaron Shust. Some of the lyrics are:
I meet with You and my soul sings out
As your word throws doubt far away
I sing to You and my heart cries
"Holy! Hallelujah, Father, You're near!"
I wait for You and my soul finds rest
In my selfishness, You show me grace
I worship You and my heart cries
"Glory Hallelujah, Father, You're here!"
I will wait on You -- You are my refuge
My hope is in You, Lord
All the day long,
I won't be shaken by drought or storm
A peace that passes understanding is my song
And I sing my hope is in You, Lord
Christmas hope is “stable-ized” and grounded on the foundation that God is with us and loves us…and in whom we receive unconditional love and find our identity as we strive to follow his light in worship.
Closing Music My Hope is in You
Closing Prayer and Blessing
Our Father in Heaven, we confess that we have not always kept the covenant we have made with you. We have at times revolted against your kingship and have not given you and your kingdom the time and commitment you deserve. We have not always bowed before you and recognized you as Lord, nor have we consistently modeled your ways... Forgive us and renew us according to the promise of Your Scripture, which says that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we walk in the light, as God is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin. Almighty Father, you caused light to shine out of darkness and shine into our hearts, cleansing us from all sins, and restoring us to the light of the knowledge of God's glory, as seen in Jesus Christ, our Savior—and on the basis of these promises we are graciously forgiven in the name of Jesus Christ…
Now may the everlasting God, the radiance of faithful souls, the hope of all nations who come to His light, and kings to the brightness of His rising -- May He fill our world with His glory, and show himself as the true light, the bright and morning star to all the nations, until the day dawns when His star rises in each of our hearts, and every heart around the world.. . Amen.
Message of Grace
November 24, 2019 – Reign of Christ the King
Bible Reading Colossians 1:13-20
This is the final Sunday of the Christian year, and so before we cycle back to anticipating the birth of Jesus; this day fittingly reminds us in these sometimes conflictual days -- that because of all Christ has done in his life, through the expansion of his true church and his final appearing as: the beginning and the end, the center of the universe, the ruler of history -- and through whom all things started and all things will be fulfilled. Paul sums these thoughts in the book of Colossians…
For we must never forget that he rescued us from the power of darkness, and re-established us in the kingdom of his beloved Son, that is, in the kingdom of light. For it is by his Son alone that we have been redeemed and have had our sins forgiven.
Now Christ is the visible expression of the invisible God. He existed before creation began, for it was through him that every thing was made, whether spiritual or material, seen or unseen. Through him, and for him, also, were created power and dominion, ownership and authority. In fact, every single thing was created through, and for him. He is both the first principle and the upholding principle of the whole scheme of creation. And now he is the head of the body which is composed of all Christian people. Life from nothing began through him, and life from the dead began through him, and he is, therefore, justly called the Lord of all. It was in him that the full nature of God chose to live, and through him God planned to reconcile in his own person, as it were, everything on earth and everything in Heaven by virtue of the sacrifice of the cross. (PHILLIPS)
Hymn # 176 Majesty
Message The Joy of Gentle Peace Philippians 4:1-2,4-9
It is important to remember that the risen Christ is the majestic King of kings, that in spite of all appearances, he is on his throne and authorized by his Father to rule the world. When we read texts like the one we are about to read, it can be like music to our ears, but it is also easy to think that Paul, from so long ago, couldn’t possibly understand what we go through in our modern, complicated, pluralistic world and that is why he is able to write what some might consider to be flippant, cliché-like platitudes that sound beautiful but don’t really work in our harsh world today. As one classic western song says -- Do you remember when You walked among men? Well Jesus, You know, if You're looking below, it's worse now than then. Cheating an’ stealing, violence and crime…
Apparently, the Middle East has always had a reputation of being place of simple, harmonious peace. (That was sarcasm). I imagine Jesus would reply, “Did you notice how I was treated for being a good person?” And even though the Good Samaritan was a parable, don’t you realize it based on a real, common events?
Likewise, Paul isn’t using Pollyanna (blindly optimistic) words written from some ivory tower (separated from the real world). For preaching about Jesus, he had just been attacked, beaten, drummed out of town, and was imprisoned while he wrote this letter to the Philippians who were facing similar threats. He was teaching them how to remain encouraged and faithful in the midst of constantly lurking danger, oppressive, depressing and seemingly hopeless circumstances.
Paul is encouraging them, and us, that we can’t back down from the life of love and service. We can continue to experience the peace of Christ by living life as Christ lived; with His values, priorities, passions, and mind set. But how? He begins by reminding them how much he cares.
1) Dear friends, I love you and long to see you. You are my pride and joy. Keep your relationship with the Lord firm! 2b) work together in the Lord...because [you] belong to the Lord. 4) Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5) Always be gentle with others. The Lord is near. 6) Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, with thankful hearts let God know what you need in prayers and requests. Then, because you belong to Christ Jesus, God will bless you with peace that no one can completely understand. And this peace will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, my friends, keep your thoughts on whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable— whatever is excellent or praiseworthy— follow my example. Practice what you’ve learned and received from me, what you heard and saw me do. And God, who gives peace, will be with you. (From Philippians 4:1-9 (Blend of CEV GW NIV NIRV))
He not only reminds them how proud he is of they are faring; he tells them to live in unity. In this letter he is confident that with the help of a mutual friend two specifically known people can work out their differences and he encourages them to do so because they are both Christians working for the Lord. In Romans, a more generalized letter, he recognizes that agreements can’t always be reached, and so he teaches us to do what is right in the eyes of everyone and that if it is at all possible, do what is within your power to live at peace with everyone. (See Romans 12:17b-18)
He says this because nothing diminishes resolve to a purpose more than disunity Most of us have probably worked on a job; be it career or volunteer; where it seems like all we do is fight against the people that are supposed to be on the same team. When siblings get to warring with each other, even in fun; the sheer volume of the thing can drive a parent up one wall across the ceiling and down the other. But when families share those moments when all are pulling for each other, trying to help when help is wanted so that success can happen —there is nothing more joyful and fulfilling.
Few things are more motivating or appealing when everyone is joyfully working together to achieve a worthy purpose. No wonder Jesus said that his followers would (should) be known for how they love each other. (John 13:35)
Paul gives us four focal points to help us find and maintain that unity.
Rejoice in the Lord
First, find a way to rejoice. Dr. Victor Frankl, a Jewish WWII camp survivor, learned the hard way that you can take a person’s relatives and family, clothes and physical freedom, but not his freedom to how to respond to what happens in his life.
But it is better if we don’t have to go it alone, to know we are loved and supported in any situation. The encouragement, the joy of unity is like motor oil -- it lubricates parts and helps them to work together towards a common goal - making the car move forward. Without oil, the parts, instead of working together; cause a lot of friction, heat, and may even grind each other to a halt; when the engine locks up; freezes; and turns your car a really big paper weight.
Joyful spirits and positive humors are lubricants that move us toward a spirit of cooperation that can reduce tension and increase the joy and unity. As someone said: "A sorrow shared is half the sorrow, while a joy shared is twice the joy." We really do need each other.
And because we need each other, when we find ourselves on different sides of a topic, Paul encourages us to not become biting, sarcastic, or to angrily rant and rave, but rather to make our point with gentleness. The original word literally means “sweet reasonableness, without harshness”. As Proverbs says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:2) We can choose to inflame or diminish relationship issues by how we respond to each other.
The Lord is Near
We respond gently because the Lord is near. Probably, partially, this refers to hanging on because it won’t be long before the Lord returns and makes everything right, but it also means God’s Spirit is near us with here and now with his reassuring peace, power and presence.
Then, when worrisome situations come our way, and they will -- we can choose to nurse them into full-fledged chronic anxiety that paralyzes our progress. Or, remembering that God is with us, and hopefully having nurtured supportive friendships, we have a better chance of facing those situations with courage.
Some of us have no problem not worrying about anything. Others of us can’t seem to ever stop. Most of us are somewhere in-between those two extremes. For those of us who do deal with worry, David says, “Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you and never let you be shaken”, Likewise, Peter says, “Humble yourselves under God’s mighty hand that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (Psalm 55:22, 1 Peter 5:6-7 (NIV))
When I went fishing as a young person, I loved to cast red and white spoons. I'd cast it out and reel it in, cast and reel, cast and reel — Everyone else was using a worm and bobber; and catching fish all the time. I think I may have caught one, once. But I just had to have something to do besides watch the bobber float on the water.
Some of us tend to worry that way too, in two possible senses. (1) We cast our problems and worries on the Lord, but then we keep reeling them back, we take the worries back. We don’t leave them with him. And in an ongoing situation, that is normal, human and understandable. So just keep on casting, day by day... But sometimes the worry is not about a situation, but a non-situation created out of an active imagination -- inflated, exaggerated, dramatized, and perhaps eventually fulfilled because we have nurtured the fear by our focus. In those kind of cases, we need to cast our cares on him and cut the line and leave it with God until we are actually faced with a potential reality.
(2) The second metaphor is completely different from the first. Let’s say the worm on a hook with a bobber represents the person who has done everything they need to do in a given situation and keeps focused and confidently waiting on God to act and reels in the answer when he does. The worrier doesn’t do what is needed (a worm on a hook) for the given situation, but prefers to simply keep busy casting (worrying), because worry gives the worrier something to do even though it yields no results.
Request with Thanks
We get our focus off our worries and on the power and presence of God by lifting our needs to God in prayer with thankful hearts because we know that God is in control. Just as we have a choice to nurture our worry, we also can choose to feed our faith through thankful prayer -- and in so doing, our doubts will starve. Do what is in our power to do but leave the results that are beyond our control in the hands of God and adapt the best we can to
Dwell on the Positive
what we face each day by thinking about good stuff. The original word “think” literally means to meditate, to concentrate, to dwell -- on good things.
By now, most of you have probably heard the story of the elderly Cherokee who told his grandson. Within the heart there is a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger envy, sorrow, regret, greed arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good -- he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.” The grandson asked, “Which wolf will win?” The elderly man said, “The one you feed.”
And in spite of our protestations about all the negative news, we tend to gravitate to and feed ourselves on the negative, the inconveniences, the blaming, the gossip, the worst case scenarios, on dreaming up all the possible problems and complications of problems, and our mind runs these negative thoughts over and over like a tape player that has no stop or off button. Now with all that focus and feeding of the problems, we still wonder why we are so depressed and worried and the larger and more insurmountable they become.
But Paul says feed -- fill your mind -- with whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy. Don't ignore your problem as if it didn’t exist, but don’t focus on the problem, focus on the solution to your problem, and on what you can do to face it, or to live the best you can in spite of it. And then this is Paul’s last piece of advice.
Put the positive into practice
It is not just a mental exercise. We don’t just focus on the good things and qualities of life. We need to strive to live them out. I mentioned a song earlier that I feel inaccurately bemoaned how bad it was now compared to then. The positive sentiment of the song requests that Jesus helps us believe in what we can become and all that we are, and asking for his help to show us the way and give us the strength to do every day what we have to do, and to teach us to take one day at a time.
And as we grow into doing these things better and better -- even if our prayers are not answered as we expect, we may sense an inexplainable sense of peace within that no one or no thing can take away.
Guarded peace and joy
For the promise is that the God of peace will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. The original words conjure up the image of a garrison - a permanent military post with filled with the best soldiers -always protecting our hearts so that worry cannot overcome us.
Summarizing a poem by Edward Sill called "Opportunity": During a battle, a soldier is hemmed in. He thought to himself, “If I only had a sharper sword like the blue blade the king’s son has -- but this blunt thing. He snapped it and flung it down, then he crept away from the battle. Enter the king’s son, wounded and weaponless. He saw the broken sword half buried in the dry sand. He ran and snatched it and with a fresh battle cry he saved his land for a great cause that heroic day.
We often tell ourselves if we only had this or only had that, or if only this happened or that happened then we would have no worries. But the resource we need to win the day is in our hand — don't throw God out! Allow him to guard you hearts and minds in Christ.
All the countless concerns that may bombard our minds can be kept at bay when God is on your side -- or more importantly -- when you are on his side, you need nothing more than to put into practice those positive qualities that you are focused on as you thankfully make known your needs and refuse to obsess over the negatives and recognize how near God is to you, and because of his power, you can be gentle with others as you rejoice in who God is and all he has done and is doing, because he and others care for you.
Closing Prayer Almighty God, someone said worry is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained. So on this day, guard our hearts and minds that we will not encourage worry, fear, anger, violence or other negative things within ourselves -- or in others. Fill our lives with true praiseworthy things, and so that in the midst of any situation, we can still be calmed by your sheltering arms and celebrate with joy all you have created and are re-creating in your world. Amen.
Closing Music # 89 Joyful, Joyful
Closing Blessing Now go in joy as the God of peace, and the peace of God guards your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus -- this day and all days. Amen.
November 18, 2019
In the sermon text, you will hear John quoting Jesus, who tells the people that the work God requires is to believe in Jesus, the one God has sent to us. In a later letter, John elaborates that belief is more than just knowing and feeling -- it is responding through words and actions -- especially actions of love. He writes:
Message The Real Bread and Butter John 6:25-35
We lived in one community that had a bread factory. Driving anywhere near it, even with the windows up… the smell was intoxicating -- and I am not even that big a fan of bread to start with. I do confess I like a good cinnamon roll (or a package of them 😊). I remember as a child going to my grandma’s farm in Dafter in preparation for Thanksgiving dinner and the appetizer the day before was hot out of the oven sticky buns – do you remember similar things?
Of course, rolls, be they cinnamon, sticky, or dinner are not the primary holiday food. It's place on the Thanksgiving table is, at least for some, the tool used to sop up every last drop of gravy, cranberry sauce, and other juices left of the plate. If it weren't for bread, we'd have to lick our plates; and for most of us, especially when holiday company is present, isn’t a proper thing to do.
But bread is more than a just a juice “sopper-upper”, or a means of holding other foods more neatly and mannerly by turning meats and spreads into sandwiches. Bread is a basic staple of many meals year-round -- and is often combined with butter.
I’m even less a fan of butter, but we need it to complete the phrase “bread and butter”. Grammarist.com says the phrase can mean something that is ordinary or everyday. In the 1700s it referred to one’s basic needs, and in the next century it came to mean one’s income or livelihood -- or something that sustained one’s lifestyle.
Jesus doesn’t mention the butter when he taught us to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread." in which he primarily means our basic needs. In today’s text he calls himself the bread which I am going to take as Jesus saying he is ordinary, common, everyday -- in the sense that he is easily accessible to everyone, that he is a basic necessity, and especially in the context of maintaining a Christian lifestyle.
Before we hear the text, the day before Jesus had healed many causing a crowd to follow him. Jesus miraculously fed 5000 plus that afternoon, which inspired the people to plot to force him to be a political king for them. Jesus responded by withdrawing up a mountain. That night, they went across the lake on initially stormy seas. The next day the crowd got in boats that had arrived that morning and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus. Now we pick up the text:
When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” 28Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” 29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” 30 So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.” 35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (NIV)
I know there are disagreements about the value of bread in our diets today, but let’s play along and for this sermon at least, let’s picture bread as representing a good, healthy thing for us, okay? Having bread, then are we thankful and content? More importantly, as Jesus' declares himself as the Bread of our spiritual quest and fulfillment, the question is: "Are we thankful and content to make Jesus be our bread, the foundational staple of our spiritual diet? And how do we digest that? That is, how does that work out into practice in our life, in our daily living? Today's text suggests a couple principles of what not to do, and what to do to be spiritually healthy.
Don’t fill up on other things
Being physically healthy means not eating so much junk food that we have no room for nutritional things. We may feel full, but our bodies are still starving for the nutrients that it really needs.
Jesus tells the crowd that they were looking for him for the wrong thing. We sang earlier today, “We’ve been searching everywhere for answers that only Jesus can provide.” The crowd sought him only because he filled their stomachs the previous day. These “full belly seekers” identified the work of God as meeting only their physical needs – that is all God was for. They, and perhaps, at times, we too, too often seek Jesus and his followers as the means to receive material prosperity, external peace, personal power and control -- things that we think will make us full, but won’t necessarily make us healthy. And it is not that He is not able or does not want to provide these things in proper proportion for each of us as he sees fit, but they are added as a side blessing of spiritual health that comes from seeking him and his kingdom first. (Matthew 6:32-34) It is Jesus and his values that is the staple, the primary foundation from which a spiritually healthy life springs.
Don’t try to earn it
Not only did they identify the works of God as tied solely to non-spiritual needs; they felt they needed to earn even those works of God. The healthily fulfilled life, they thought, was earned by executing some sort of prerequisites (pre-requirements).
Author and avid bicycler Stan Purdum tried what at the time was a very popular diet. A few days into it, he set out on a 15-mile bike ride that he'd ridden many times before. From the first push on the pedals, he felt drained. After the first mile, he said he felt the way he normally felt after a 50-mile jaunt. He thought his energy might kick in, so he kept persevering, but after about three miles, he gave up and took a direct path home, not even making it five miles total. He felt as if he were hitting on two cylinders instead eight. He had two similar experiences during that diet. Long rides were out of the question and short ones were depleting. He gave the diet the boot. What may have made it possible to lose weight also took away the essence needed for energetic living.
Likewise, some try to be spiritual without the Bread of life, but such spirituality tends to be limp, unfocused and lacking in the energy that only Jesus can provide. He is the most essential ingredient for a healthy spiritual diet.
To be Christian, we need Jesus. It sounds like a "duh" statement, doesn’t it? But you'd be surprised at how many people would love to be Christians without having to deal with Jesus, who expects to be sought -- not only for His miracles, His blessings, His provisions -- but sought as the way to conquer the evil within us (that we don’t always want to give up), to be sought as a source of godly ethics, to be sought as a guide to good living, to be sought as an example of what it means to become transformed into a new creation and servants in his kingdom. In short, he is a person who expects us to re-prioritize our lives, reshape them according to His Word.
Don’t do it in isolation
Spiritual satisfaction does not come through our own effort, nor through fulfillment of temporary, worldly needs. Now we swing to the opposite end of the pendulum. This one they did not get wrong, (inferred from the use of plurals throughout the text). But some sometimes do today. Instead of wanting a bread absent diet, they wanted a bread only diet, feeling they need nothing but a personal, private, secret, individualized faith. Some songwriters, eager to express their clear personal commitment to Christ, with words like, “even if no one else goes with me, still I will go,” I understand the commitment and sentiment, but inadvertently (at least I hope it is) is sending the potential underlying message that the only thing that matters is me and my relationship with God and it doesn’t matter what anyone else does. And there are some attractive qualities to that -- if it is just me, my actions and belief systems need never be challenged, because it is just me! There is no need to deal with dissenting opinions or who I see as dysfunctional people. A private faith is safe and comfortable.
But is bread enough? As you sit around the Thanksgiving table this year, how many of you would be content and thankful with bread and water? I don’t see any hands. Jesus himself, granted in a different context, quoted Scripture saying, "Man shall not live on bread alone." Whatever happened to Moses’ prayers about the wandering wilderness people, who in essence said, Yes, they are dysfunctional, rebellious, and sinful, but if you don’t forgive and go with them, then I don’t want to go either! We are in this together.
The author of Hebrews told his readers they needed to continue to unite to "motivate one another to love and good deeds". (From Hebrews 10:24-25 (ISV))
Most of what God has done in history is through the flesh and blood of people, and especially the flesh and blood of Christ while he was with us on earth. If Christ was ONLY what we need, when asked what the greatest command in the Law was, Jesus would have said the most important command was to love God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind; and he would not have added, and the second greatest command is like it, that you shall love others as yourself. Trying to be spiritually healthy in habitual isolation from all other believers leads to an inability to exercise our spiritual faith in a practical way. If you are going to love others, you need others to love.
Maybe you heard of the little girl who was crying over some incident in her life, and someone told her she could pray to Jesus. She replied, "But right now, I need someone with flesh on."
These are unsatisfying
And so the pendulum swings -- on the one hand it is no Jesus, just his benefits; and on the other is Jesus only, not his people. Both are tempting in their own way.
In Greek mythology, King Tantalus was punished in the underworld by being chained in a lake. The water level would rise to his chin, but when he lowered his head to quench his thirst, the water immediately lowered out of reach. Over his head were low hanging branches with fruit, but when he reached up to eat, they immediately withdrew so he could not satisfy his hunger. He became the symbol of utter frustration, and his name is immortalized in the English word "tantalize." Both extremes of the pendulum, Jesus and me, or me and just his benefits -- they have their tantalizing traits, but ultimately, both are unsatisfying and frustrating.
Therefore, believe and receive
Jesus corrects the distortions. To those who think they can earn their way to God and his benefits, Jesus says, in essence: Trying to be spiritually healthy without me, or with only my benefits leads to spiritual malnutrition and weakness. The work is to believe in Jesus.
They pressed for proof by offering a sign like Moses who gave manna, (as if the miracles of healing and feeding the 5,000 and calming the sea the night before wasn’t enough). Jesus said it wasn’t Moses who gave the bread, but God; and God is the one that gives the heavenly bread that is the life of the world. And when they requested this life-giving bread, he replies “I am the bread of life.” I am the basic essential, satisfying, healthy, foundation -- for spiritual life, and all you need to do is believe and receive the gift of God and, unlike King Tantalus, you will never be hungry or thirsty, but always satisfied (in spite of circumstances)…
Understand that Jesus is talking about more than a mental assent to the history of his life and death and resurrection.
Let’s put it this way. If you were a stock person, and you heard and believed with all of your heart that ABC Stock was going to skyrocket, it would quintuple (-tupple) (or quintuple(-toople) – the internet has it pronounced both ways) make it 5 times bigger in the next three weeks and it would make you rich. Knowing about it won't make you one penny richer. If you say you believe it, but don’t invest in it, do you really believe? But readjusting your life and investing your resources and energy because you know it is so -- that, will make you satisfyingly rich -- and the more you invest in it, the richer you will become.
That’s kind of the way it is with your belief in Christ. Knowing him as the Bread of life adds not one lick to your spiritual nutrition any more than staring at a loaf of bread on your Thanksgiving Dinner table – it is not going to add anything to your life if you don’t actually ingest it. In spite of the popular joke that even glancing at a cinnamon roll will add 2 pounds to your hips. It doesn’t really work that way. It is only as your belief leads you to reorganize your life, reinvest your resources, your energies, your time in the Bread of Life; “the finest bread that God provides”… And we invest our lives in the bread as John described it the pre-sermon reading -- that belief in Christ leads not just to words and claims, but to actively and sincerely loving others, always allowing the Spirit to abide in us as we abide in Christ -- and that leads to becoming spiritually nourished, healthy, and satisfied. So, what/who is your bread of life – what is at the foundational core of your life? And how are you ingesting – investing your lives around and in him?
Closing Prayer Let’s pray. Lord, as we sit down to dine, remind us to let any bread, or other food on the table, fill us with gratitude for your provision, and especially for the Bread of life, Jesus; upon whom we can build our lives until you calls us home. When we face the fiercest storms, it is tempting to be frightened and strive in our own strength to control what we cannot control; and to be overwhelmed by what is in front of us rather than be reshaped by you who we cannot see – with our physical eyes. When our bodies ache in pangs of spiritual thirst or hunger, help us to not seek lesser solutions, but to find our hope and direction and strength in you, the God of all comfort and love and grace. Strengthen our belief in you, that we may not work for temporary things, but for eternal life which is freely offered to those who will do the work of believing in your Son. And it is in his name that we pray. Amen.
Closing Music In Christ Alone (My Hope is Built)
Closing Blessing And now, wherever you go and whatever you do -- do everything to the best of your ability, as if you were doing it for the Lord -- because you are. Bring him glory, praise, and honor by what you say, what you do, by how you live… Amen.
Pastor Chuck Williams
Message of Grace are Pastor Chuck's Sunday Sermons.