Sunday, December 25, 2016

Celebrate Immanuel; Psalm 96, Matthew 1:18-25

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Preparing for the Glorious Appearing; Titus 2:11-14

Tonight we celebrate the end of the Advent season. Jesus Christ is born! He is the grace of God that brings salvation. He has made Himself known to all. The coming of Christ was a cosmic event which forever changed the world. God became flesh. God is not only with us, but became one of us. In Jesus Christ, God fully entered the human experience. And as He lived, we caught a glimpse of the divine experience. He died and rose that we could be united with Him. And we ought to be different because of Christmas. Still, there is more to come. Christ will one day return in a glorious appearing. We live in the time between, and Paul gives us instruction on how we are to live. There are those who say Jesus was a great teacher. Indeed He was. Paul tells us what Jesus taught us by His life—that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present age. If we have been saved by the grace of God through Jesus Christ, we are to live differently according to what Christ taught, not only through His words, but through His life’s example. We are to deny ungodliness. Ungodliness is wrong thinking. It is thinking differently than the way God thinks. How can we know the mind of God? We certainly aren’t going to know what God knows, and that’s what got us in trouble in the first place in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve wanted to know what God knows. But we can think through things in a godly manner as we have choices put before us. In I Cor. 2:16, Paul tells us that we have the mind of Christ. If Christ lives in us, we can use His mind to discern God’s will. Remember when “What Would Jesus Do?” was so popular? This is what the originator of the campaign had in mind. Think like Jesus would. And certainly this is what Paul says in Titus 2—deny ungodliness, repent of it, stay away from it, have nothing to do with it, and live in a godly manner instead. Jesus also taught us to deny worldly lusts. He did not succumb to the temptations for wealth, power, and bodily appetites. He knew the difference between needs and wants. Through His life and teachings, we can learn to distinguish between needs and wants and not give into our greed and desires for worldly things. Instead, we are to live as Jesus did, soberly, righteously, and godly. We have already talked about godliness. To live soberly is to the opposite of giving into worldly lusts. It is to live sensibly, to be intellectually sound, rational, logical; it is not to be carried away by what we feel. It is self-control. To live righteously is to do what is right and just. Thankfully, we don’t have to try to do this on our own, because we cannot. But Immanuel came to be with us always. When Christ ascended, He poured out the Holy Spirit upon us, to dwell in us, to apply what Jesus taught and to empower us to live as He lived. The values that we emphasize this time of year—generosity, hospitality, kindness, forgiveness, compassion, charity—God wants us to live out every day. It takes discipline and so we are disciples of Jesus Christ. Though the Christmas season has reached its peak, we live in the season between Christ’s two comings, and we do not know when the 2nd one will be, so let us strive to make each day count. Jesus was a great Teacher, but He was so much more than that. Jesus is God’s visible grace. He is our great God and Savior. Salvation is now available to anyone, no matter what culture, or ethnicity, or station in life, no matter how wealthy or poor, no matter how sinful or how seemingly good. He came to redeem us from every commandment of God we’ve broken. He came to take away our sin, guilt, and shame so that we can become children of God by believing in His name. He came to make us God’s special people. He was made like us, so that we might be made like Him. We are to become more and more Christ-like. He came so that we could continue God’s good work in the world and to grow God’s family by introducing people to Jesus Christ. Jesus wants us to be passionate about serving Him. In that way, we are prepared for His return. And that grace that has appeared will sustain us until He comes again. Yes, our Savior is coming again as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He will make everlasting peace on earth. There will be no conflicts and wars. There will be no darkness nor sorrow. There will be no more confusion. All of creation will be perfected. Tonight is a glorious night! Our Savior is born. God’s grace has been lavished upon us. But Christ is coming again, and that will be even more glorious. But it could not have happened without His first coming. We wouldn’t be prepared without Christ. If you have not received the gift of Jesus, then you are still not prepared for His glorious appearing. The greatest gift has been given to you. God has given Godself in the person of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Will you accept the gift that given? If you have received the gift, then be zealous for good works. God wants you to live and share the Good News. Serve God through acts of justice and kindness. Live as those with the sure hope of your salvation and the kingdom that is to come. Love with the love with which God loves you. Jesus wants us to practice the life which we will live when He returns. Every time we successfully live into His will, we get a glimpse of the Kingdom to come and hopefully allow others to see those glimpses as well so that it will be something they desire. In a short while, we will share in the sacrament of Holy Communion. In the prayer of Great Thanksgiving, there is usually an acclamation in which the congregation is invited to join: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. This is a summation of the central truths of the gospel. These truths have eternal implications. In this Titus passage, the acclamation is slightly different, and will be the one you hear in the Great Thanksgiving tonight. And you are welcome to join in saying it when you hear it: Christ is born, Christ has ascended, Christ will come again.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Power of a Humble Heart; Luke 1:39-56, Micah 5:2-5a

Today’s gospel reading is Mary visiting Elizabeth. After hearing from the angel, and discovering she and her older cousin are pregnant, Mary goes with haste to visit Elizabeth. By the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth is able to confirm with a blessing what the angel had told Mary. Mary is encouraged and responds in what is known as the Magnificat, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” One of the things that stands out about these two women is their deep humility. I think that is what made them such usable vessels for God. They didn’t assume that they were worthy or deserving; rather, they realized how much they need their Savior. First, we see humility in Elizabeth. Though she is older, Elizabeth humbles herself to Mary, as the “Mother of her Lord.” She is honored by Mary’s visit. She blesses Mary for believing what God has said. Perhaps Elizabeth thinks of her husband Zechariah, who was made mute for his initial unbelief. Or perhaps she is thinking of Sarah, Abraham’s wife, who laughed when God told Abraham that she would have a child in their old age. Mary too recognizes her unworthiness. She says, “For He, the Lord, has regarded the humble estate of His bondslave.” Another thing that strikes me about Mary is that she knew her Scripture. In this song, she pulls together parts of Hannah’s song in I Samuel as well as bits of different psalms and a quotation from Job. She knows that God’s promises are true, not just for her or even just for Israel, but for all people who fear God. She reminds us that God is for the humble, poor, needy, and hungry, and against the proud. Furthermore, Mary submits herself to God according to the angel’s word at risk to her own life. She didn’t understand how it was going to work, and being pregnant outside of wedlock could have not only meant the loss of Joseph, but the loss of her own life. Maybe they would spare the child and stone her later. Maybe she would have to raise the child on her own, hoping relatives would help her out. She was not given a lot of information, but she was obedient to what she heard God saying to her in that moment. God isn’t going to give us all the details either, but we can humbly obey God, even though we do not know what it ahead, even though we might speculate about all the problems and pitfalls that might come as a consequence of our obedience. Or we can be prideful and think our plans are better than God’s. But I guarantee that we will be the losers if we choose our way over God’s. You can imagine that was a real temptation for Mary, but she trusted the Lord. But the humility of these women goes even further. They knew that they were merely bearers of children who would become men who would turn the world upside down. They themselves were not the focus. Though Mary rightly prophesied that all generations would call her blessed, she also knows that she is the Lord’s servant. Elizabeth’s baby would be a prophetic voice. Her son, would make a way for and then give way to the Messiah. Mary’s child was the Son of God, the long-awaited Messiah, the Savior of the world. The older would once again serve the younger, and yet not younger, for our Micah passage tells us that the Messiah existed from eternity. If we kept reading in Micah, we would come in chapter 6 to the verse we heard on Homecoming, Micah 6:8, “He has shown you, O man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy (or kindness), and walk humbly with your God. Micah has been prophesying against the people. God has been angry with Israel and especially with the rulers for being socially oppressive and taking land, especially taking land from widows. God has been angry with the people for going through the motions of worshipping Yahweh while worshipping other gods as well, living selfishly, and even giving God 2nd-rate or worse offerings. For this God has sent the people into exile, but God promises restoration, including the promised Messiah, which is the passage we read today. In chapter 6, God tells the people all they need to do to remain in God’s favor. Verses 6-7 are beautifully poetic, but they are really meant to be sarcastic. In other words, enough of the gloom and doom prophecy already, Micah! What will it take to get God off my back? Micah speaks as the voice of the people: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God most High? Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression? The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Micah employs exaggeration and extremism, though the god Molech did require child sacrifices. And then the answer in verse 8. The answer to the questions is an emphatic, “No!” God has already shown you what is good and what is required. Notice again, humility is one of those 3 things God requires. We must remember who we are in relation to who God is. We don’t have the right to demand from God. God does have the right to all we are and all we have. We petition God, we ask in prayer, supplicating ourselves before God, and God wants us to ask. That is not the same thing as giving God orders and telling God what to do. And yet we do that sometimes, don’t we. Which is why humility is described as a walk—it is a journey and a way of life. To live in humility is a continuous day by day, moment by moment thing. And when we cease to be humble, we repent and begin again. Mary and Elizabeth do what the Lord required of them. They sought justice, not simply for themselves but for their people. Mary sings in verses 51-52… Mary and Elizabeth were kind. Elizabeth takes in Mary in time when she had no one. Joseph was seeking to put her away quietly. The community probably wouldn’t have accepted her. We see Mary’s mercy when she asks Jesus to turn water into wine. We don’t know what Mary’s official role was in the planning of this wedding. Maybe she was a relative in charge of some of the preparations or maybe she was a guest who didn’t want the host to look bad, but she asks Jesus to help so that the reception is a success. And Jesus is merciful in return, fulfilling His mother’s request, even though His time “had not yet come.” But most of all, these women were humble. They were not perfect; they were both sinners in need of a Savior, but they were obedient, and their obedience had eternal results for the world. We are not perfect either. We too are sinners in need of a Savior. This very fact ought to move us toward humility, to leave ourselves behind and let God take over. And when we allow ourselves to be filled with the Spirit, our eyes are opened to see a little more of the power, and majesty, and awesomeness of God. Mary and Elizabeth were willing vessels. We may be cracked and broken vessels, but if we are willing, God can take us, clean us up, and fill us with Himself, and actually use us to accomplish His will and His work in the world, just as he used Elizabeth and Mary. When we empty ourselves of ourselves, which is what humility is, God can then fill us up with His Spirit and empower us to do incredible things that can have lasting, even eternal implications in regard not only to our own lives, but in regard to those around us. We may even be used to change the world. The greatest example of this is Jesus Himself. The great Christ hymn in Philippians 2 tells us that though the Son was equal to the Father before He became incarnate, He didn’t regard His equality as something to cling to at all costs, but humbled himself—literally, He emptied Himself, and became human. The hymn says He made Himself nothing—from God, to I’m no better than anyone else is a big difference. Jesus became the servant of all, and submitted Himself to a shameful death on the cross. He chose only to do the Father’s will in the power of the Holy Spirit. No, we are not Jesus, but Paul tells us that we ought to have that same mindset that Jesus did—that we should not think of ourselves as better than anyone else, but seek to serve. Jesus said, “Greater works you will do than I.” The Spirit wants to do great works through us. Do we trust God enough to give our whole self to God? Are you a willing vessel?

Make Known His Deeds; Isaiah 12, John 3:1-19

Have you ever been around someone who loves to name drop—someone who mentions all the famous people and “big wigs” that they know or have contact with? Name dropping can be annoying, or it can help you get a job! There’s one name that we are supposed to name drop, and that’s the name of Jesus! Our Isaiah passage today is a poem of thanksgiving and praise, and in it we are encouraged to sing praises to the Lord in all the earth, to give thanks to the Lord in the presence of others, to proclaim the name of the Lord, to shout aloud about what God has done and about God’s presence in our lives. Church consultant Reggie McNeal says, “God loves it when we let God do God’s job. God loves to show up and show off.” In Experiencing God, Henry Blackaby describes how God invites us to join Him in His work and gives us God-sized tasks, so that we know that we cannot accomplish the tasks without God and so that God gets all the credit for the results. The apostle Paul said, “May I never boast except in Christ my Lord.” Ray Ortland says, “As God catches us up into His purpose sweeping through history, what do we contribute? Nothing to be proud of. What does God contribute? Grace greater than all our sin.” Our Isaiah passage today says, “Make known God’s deeds among the peoples.” We are to make known God’s deeds. It’s not about what we do. It’s not even about what we do for God or in God’s name, because if we are really doing those things in God’s name, it’s not us doing them anyway. We have no place to brag or take any credit at all. But when God does something in or through our lives, we need to share those things. When God answers prayer, we need to share. When God touches our lives, we need to share. When God uses us as God sees fit, amazing things happen. What is God doing in your life right now? Have any of your prayers been answered lately? How have you seen God at work around you? How have you participated in God’s work? These are the deeds of the Lord, and we can sing and shout about them and make them known. We do have so much to praise God for. God works in and through our lives all the time. English pastor Charles Simeon said that the key factor in maintaining and growing in his Christian walk was "Constantly meditating on the goodness of God and on our great deliverance from that punishment which our sins deserve. Keeping both of these in mind, we shall find ourselves advancing on our course; we shall feel the presence of God; we shall experience His love; we shall live in the enjoyment of His favor and in the hope of His grace. Meditation is the grand means of growth and grace." Personalizing God’s grace in our lives, when we meditate as Charles Simeon says, results in us having a confident testimony that God is real, that Jesus Christ does transform lives, that the Holy Spirit is present with us and working through us. And as we access that grace, we find that joy, which is our key word for Advent this morning. Isaiah says, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” Jesus described it as living water springing up within us. But shared meditation on these things not only helps us to grow, but others as well. It is our mission to corporately and publicly proclaim God’s grace. It’s interesting to note that in this text, the “you” in verses 1 and 2 is singular. It is personal to each of us. Individually we give thanks for God’s grace in our lives--for the times God has forgiven us when we deserved punishment, for the times God has comforted us instead of shown anger, for the times God as assuaged our fears, for the times that God has been our strength when we thought we couldn’t endure one more hardship or heartbreak or resist one more temptation, for our salvation! And even our prayers are answered by “No,” and we can’t see the good in that “no,” God is still God, Jesus is still our Lord and Savior, and we still have reason to rejoice. Puritan scholar John Trapp said, “It is no less a sin not to rejoice than not to repent.” In verses 4-6, the “you” is plural. We each have a story to share, a testimony so to speak, and together we witness to the world. Pastor Lester Agyei McCorn points out that in verse 5 where it says, “sing praises”, “The Hebrew word for praise employed here is yadah, which signifies the stretching out of one’s hands in thanks while singing. It is a confession of utter dependence upon God for the inferred gift, namely God’s deliverance. A people who were once scattered and symbolically disconnected from their God are now reunited, and thus reconnected to the One who has created them. There is an eschatological hope that has been fulfilled “in that day.” Their profound longings for “home” are now met in a glorious family reunion made possible by a God who promised not to forsake them. More importantly, they can bow before their true King without inhibition or recrimination. They can now wave their hands in joyous gratitude, for three essential reasons: God remembers, God redeems and God restores.” It’s also interesting to note that in verse 6, “inhabitant of Zion” is feminine. This symbolizes the church—the one body bride of Christ, we are to shout aloud and sing for joy. We don’t want spiritual amnesia; we need spiritual anamnesis—the opposite of amnesia, it is the recollection of past events for the purpose of reliving them in the present. It’s remembering who and whose we are. Last week, we were reminded by the life of John the Baptist to call people to repentance. We saw that if we love people and don’t want them to miss out on the joys of Christ’s kingdom, we will warn them of their need to repent because Christ’s return is soon. Shortly, we will sing “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations.” In this hymn is the refrain of the truth of Advent—that the darkness will turn to the dawning and the dawning to noonday bright. And Christ’s great Kingdom shall come to earth—the kingdom of love and light.” This is the joyous good Advent news that the world needs to hear through us—Christ has come and Christ is coming again. We often share praises and thanksgivings when we have our prayer time in worship, but today we are going to have the opportunity to share joys, praises, and thanksgivings in this part of our worship time. The Thanksgiving holiday has passed, but the time to be thankful and joyous is still present. How have you seen God remember, redeem, and restore? Your responses may be for something in the distant past or recently. It may be an individual praise or for something God has done corporately for His Church. Let’s make known God’s deeds among the people gathered here... As much as these praises and thanksgivings are, they will be all the more when Christ does make the invisible kingdom visible. On that day we will sing like we’ve never sung, shout like we’ve never shouted, praise like we’ve never praised, and be joyful more than we have ever, ever known. Until that day, may we continue to testify and witness to the wondrous love of our Lord.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Pointing to Jesus; John 1:6-28

The Second Sunday of Advent is often designated as Prophet Sunday. We have heard from 3 prophets this morning—Hosea, Isaiah, and John the Baptist. John was the final prophet to announce Jesus’s coming and to identify Him as the promised Messiah and fulfiller of all other prophecies. Jesus said that there is no one like John the Baptist and that John had the spirit of Elijah, and John himself is very humble, though he is confident in his role. He takes his job to point to Jesus and to prepare people to receive Jesus very seriously. John’s warning is urgent. John’s life & words are still important for us today. First, have we heeded the call to repentance? We confessed our sins corporately this morning, hopefully in response to God’s invitation as heard through other prophetic voices and in the prompting conviction of the Holy Spirit. But it can be easy to say a written prayer in church and go through the motion. So have you really surrendered your life to Jesus Christ? John says that if we have, our lives will bear fruit worthy of repentance. We should live differently if we belong to Jesus. We are about to partake of the Lord’s Supper. If we haven’t opened our hearts to Jesus, the sacrament is not merely meaningless, but we eat and drink judgement upon ourselves by taking unworthily if we have not placed our trust in Jesus. Second, John wanted people to be prepared to receive Jesus. He wasn’t preaching a message of repentance because he was angry and wanted to make people feel unloved. He preached repentance because he was concerned for people’s lives. He did not want them to miss out on experiencing the joys of the kingdom that Messiah was bringing. He wanted them to be ready for Jesus’s coming. We know Jesus is coming back and that His return is soon. Do we love people enough to urge them to repentance? Do we love people enough to want them to surrender their lives to Jesus so they can experience the joys of His presence and His kingdom? Do we really believe the time is short—that next year, next month, next week might be too late? Do we have an urgency to share the good news of Jesus? And finally, do we take our role as Christ’s ambassadors seriously? Do we live humbly, pointing to Jesus, or are we trying to make a name for ourselves, to draw attention to ourselves and our accomplishments? Do we strive to glorify Christ with all of our lives, with each action and choice so that others are drawn to Him?