Tag Archives: christmas

Are you dressed and ready?

2 Jan
Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Why did you chose to wear the clothing you have on today? 

Clothing is often about form rather than function.  We want to look good, look appropriate. But clothing is also about function.  Do you wear a uniform for your job?  Or perhaps your employer or hobby requires you to wear clothing that makes the job or hobby easier.  Football players wear all kinds of gear.  Same for soldiers or people who work outdoors, or underground, or people who need clothing to hold tools. 

Today we are talking about getting dressed and ready!  But while we are going to talk a lot about clothing, we are not actually talking about clothing.  This is our final sermon in our Advent and Christmas series following the readings from the Lectionary.  Each week, we’ve been seeking the thread that ties all four passages together.   Turn to 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26, for our first reading.

We are going deep into the history of the nation of Israel, in a period when judges ruled their land.  By this time the nation of Israel had taken possession of most of the Promised Land of Canaan, but they really struggled to consistently and deeply follow the way of the Lord, and as a result enemies would attack and persecute them.  The people would cry out, repent of their evil ways and God would answer by sending them a judge who would lead them to victory over their enemies.  Today we are going to read about the very last of these judges, a prophet named Samuel.

In this passage we read about a time when Samuel was just a boy, serving in the tabernacle, and he had a uniform.  The text says that Samuel wore a linen ephod.  An ephod is a Hebrew word that refers to a kind of decorative apron that was worn over a robe.  The high priest of the land also wore an ephod, which held the breastplate made of metal and decorated with precious gems.  But those serving in the tabernacle, like Samuel, would wear a much simpler linen version.  Still, Samuel’s ephod showed the role he played, a helper in the temple.

But who was this Samuel guy, and why in the world is a child away from his family and serving in the tabernacle?  If you turn back to 1 Samuel 1, you can read the story in which Hannah, Samuel’s mother, had no children.  She came to the tabernacle pleading with God to allow her to have a child, and she said that if God would give her a child, she would dedicate the child to serve the Lord.  God gave her a child, and Hannah kept her word, dedicating Samuel to the Lord. 

As you keep reading the story, Hannah is amazing. She made sure Samuel was dressed and ready to serve!  Every year she visited him, bringing with her a new robe that she had made for Samuel. Hannah followed through on the promise she made to God. 

The section concludes with a note explaining the Samuel grew in stature and in favor with the Lord and men.  Keep that in mind.

That takes us to our next passage, Psalm 148. This psalm is pretty straightforward: over and over it says, “Praise the Lord!”

Did you notice any other repetition in the psalm?  I’m not just talking about the word “praise him” over and over and over.  I wondering if you noticed the structural repetition? There is a literary structure to the psalm, and the writer of the psalm crafted the structure very much on purpose. 

Here is the structure. 

A – verse 1a – Praise the Lord!

B – verses 1b-4 – List of things that should praise God: spiritual and physical heavens

                             C – verses 5-6 – Reason to praise the name of God: act of creation and promise

B’ – verses 7-12 – List of things that should praise God: all things on the earth, weather, land, animal and human.

                             C’ – verses 13-14a – Reason to praise the name of God: his name is exalted above all, and he raised up a horn for his people.

A’ – verse 14 b – Praise the Lord!

How might a psalm like this, filled as it is with so much praise, relate to our theme of being dressed and ready?  Perhaps the compiler of the Lectionary had Isaiah 61 in mind?  I can’t say for sure, but there is an interesting possible connection.

Read Isaiah 61:1-2.  Does that passage sound familiar at all?  It is the very passage the Jesus read from when, very early in his ministry, he stopped in to the synagogue at his hometown of Nazareth and read to the people from the Old Testament.  Luke in Luke chapter 4 records that Jesus read only the first few verses, proclaiming that these verses were fulfilled in him. 

What he reads to them is a description of his mission: to preach good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives, to release prisoners from darkness, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s Favor.  All that began when Jesus was born as a baby, which is what we are celebrating each Christmas!  This mission of Jesus continues today as our mission.  It is as though we are living in an extended year of the Lord’s favor, through the ongoing influence of the Spirit of God in our world, through the church.  Look what God desires to accomplish through his Spirit-empowered church?

As you see, in verses 2-3 there is a reversal. God’s Kingdom is always about the great reversal.  Thus sometimes it is called the upside-down Kingdom, because in God’s Kingdom there is comfort for those who mourn, provision for those who grieve. God gives a number of wonderful gifts to replace the darkness and pain of their lives: the crown of beauty replaces ashes, the oil of gladness replacing mourning, and then notice this last gift, the garment of praise that replaces the spirit of despair!  There’s a connection between between praise and clothing. 

God wants to clothe us with a garment of praise!  In the midst of our despair, God wants to give us a new set of clothing, a garment of praise. 

There is a great connection here, as well, to Hannah’s song praise in 1 Samuel 2:1-10.  She was in the midst of great despair because of her lack of a child.  God answered her prayer, and she bursts forth in praise to him. In the same way, at Christmas we burst forth in praise because we are celebrating how God entered into the darkness and pain and despair of our world, becoming one of us, Emmanuel, God with us, to save us and bring us hope. 

Thus is right and good for us to praise God like Psalm 148 does.  In fact Psalm 148 reminds us that every single thing praises God.  What we find when we put on this garment of praise is that praising the Lord is transformative.  It glorifies God when we praise him in the midst of difficulty.  Just like Hannah did.  That is what it means to wear a garment of praise.

This garment of praise brings us to our third reading, Luke 2:41-52. Does this story remind you of the passage in Samuel?  Both boys serving the Lord in the tabernacle/temple? 

There has been much scholarly discussion about this passage.  In the first century Jewish world that Jesus grew up in, he would have gone to school like all children his age.  But only the most capable students would study on beyond age 12.  Those students identified with special gifts would then attend advanced rabbinical schools.  Is that what we are reading about here?  We just don’t know.  I’ve read good arguments supporting the idea that Jesus went to an elite rabbinical school, and I’ve read good arguments against the idea. None of the Gospel writers mention anything about his life between this event and his baptism.  It is regularly assumed that he just learned to be a carpenter, or mason, like his father Joseph.  But the Gospels actually don’t say that either.  We just don’t know. 

What is quite clear, however, is that Jesus knew, even at the age of 12, his role in the mission of God.

Look at verses 46-47, for example.  Do you see the verbs that describe Jesus?  He was sitting, listening, asking.  He was understanding and answering.  Look at his response in verse 49.  Many Bibles translate this passage as: “I had to be in my Father’s house.”  Others translate Jesus as saying, “I had to be with my Father” or “I had to be about my Father’s business.”  The point is, Jesus knew his mission!  He was dressed and ready!  Even at age 12.  Those of you that are 11, 12, 13, or older teenagers, that means you can follow Jesus’ example at your age too!  Of course we adults can as well.

Do you remember the final verse from the Samuel passage that I asked you to take note of above?  1 Samuel 2:26?   The one that talked about Samuel growing in stature and in favor with God and man?  Look at Luke 2:52!  This is another excellent description of what we are talking about today.  Young people, you are growing.  In my home, we’ve had teenagers in our home for the past 8 years, and we have watched them shoot up, taller and taller. Just like Samuel’s mom, Hannah, visiting him every year to give him a new robe, our kids grow out of their clothes, and we buy them new ones.  We want to keep them dressed and ready.  But the description of Jesus and Samuel is more than just physical growth.  They are growing in wisdom, and in favor with God and man.  They were dressed and ready spiritually!  Young people reading this, I especially want to ask you: as your body grows physically, how are you growing spiritually?  Are you giving attention to your spiritual growth?  You are old enough to read the Bible, think deeply about how God’s words apply to your life, and spend time talking with God or writing to him in a journal, seeking to change your life to honor him!

And that brings us to our final passage.  Colossians 3:12-17. Throughout this last month, the Lectionary has taken us to a number of these short letters in the New Testament, almost all from the Apostle Paul to his friends in various churches.  This letter is to the church in Colossae.  Today, all that remains of Colossae, located in modern-day Turkey, is a hilltop that has yet to be excavated.  In Paul’s day, though, there was a bustling city and Christians lived in it.  So what did he say to them? 

Look at verse 12.  He tells them that because they are God’s chosen people, they need to see themselves as holy and dearly loved!  They have a special relationship with God.  This cannot be underestimated.  It is so vital.  You and I need to dwell on this.  We are dearly loved.  That is so evident at Christmas.  God showed his love for us by giving us his Son! 

Paul then says that our relationship with God means we should live a certain way, and look at the metaphor he uses: Clothe yourselves!  Be dressed and ready!  How are we to clothe ourselves?  We already saw that we are to wear a garment of praise. But now Paul has a lot more clothing for us to wear:  Compassion, Kindness, Humility, Gentleness, Patience.

Then he describes this clothing even more precisely in verse 13, “Bear with each other, Forgive whatever grievances you have, forgive as God forgave you!”

Are you dressed and ready?  Are there any of these clothes that you need to put on?

Paul has more clothing for us in Verse 14, and this is the most important piece of clothing!  “Above all [Put on] love, which binds all the previous quality in unity.

Then in verse 15 he describes this clothing even more: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since you are called to members of one body, and be thankful.”

Paul is covering all he bases here.  He has a whole closet full of clothing!  Are you dressed and ready?

But there is still more:  In verse 16 he says, “Let the Word dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish, as you sing, with gratitude.”  So verse 15 finished with a mention of thanks, and now verse 16 does too.  Being thankful must be an important piece of clothing!

Paul’s wardrobe continues in verse 17.  He says, “Whatever you do, do it all in the name of Jesus, giving thanks to God.”  Did you hear that?  Thanks is mentioned again.  In 15 and 16 and 17! 

God is seeking to clothe you with his righteousness so that you are more prepared to serve him!

I recently heard the story of a woman was clothed and ready to serve. 

Candice Benbow couldn’t sleep.  Music was blasting from the apartment next door.  Her neighbor would crank the music often, but on this night it went really late because he was having a Christmas party.  At 3:30am she couldn’t take it anymore.  So you know what she did?  Get on the phone and call the cops?  Nope.  Go over there, bang on the door and yell at the neighbor?  Nope.  The passive-aggressive move, maybe?  You know, just pound on the wall?  Nope. 

Benbow got up and decided to bake a cake.   A pound cake to be precise.  And she brought it over to her neighbor, and left it on his doorstep with a note. 

Her neighbor, Tom Amaro, said that Benbow’s apartment had been empty for a while, and he didn’t know anyone had moved in. 

Amaro got the pound cake, and soon after the music died down.  In each of the next few nights, the music was also quieter, and then on the second day the two neighbors met.

Benbow said that Amaro apologized for the noise, promised to invite Benbow to his next party, and then said her pound cake was amazing!  Amaro later said that he was so grateful Benbow didn’t take action like calling the police.  Since that time, the two have become friends.  They each realized that they were new to the area, and that the holidays were tough because of the memories of lost loved ones. 

Showing that she was dressed and ready to serve, Benbow tweeted, “we never know what folks are going through and it is always best to lead with kindness.  When we can extend grace, we really should.”

There is so much in this section of Colossians!  Which part is God speaking to you about?  Read it again slowly.  Maybe read it every day this week.  Is there a word or phrase that you feel God wants you to pay particular attention to, or work on in your life?  Maybe his Spirit wants to transform you in that way in 2019.  Because when you are dressed and ready, God will use you.

Is there hope during these dark days of Christmas 2016?

22 Dec

Image result for people walking in darkness

Just in the news on Monday 12/19/16:

  1. The Chinese Navy intercepts a US Navy underwater drone.
  2. A Turkish man assassinates a Russian Ambassador.
  3. A man drives a truck into a Berlin, Germany, Church Christmas market killing 12, injuring dozens more.
  4. The American Electoral College elects Donald Trump president, a candidate whose major proposals included building a wall to keep immigrants out of the USA, and deporting Muslim people from the USA.
  5. Lots of discussion about whether Russia interfered in our election process through hacking of emails.
  6. People fleeing the bombed-out Syrian city of Aleppo.

That was all on one day.  Geesh.  Kinda gives me the shakes just looking at it.

The other day I was driving my car down the road to the church as I always do, and it struck me how normal the drive was.  People in other cars passing me.  Houses.  Trees.  All very normal.  And then I thought, I wonder how life will change in these next four years with our new president.  Will driving down the road be just as normal as it is today?

That might sound like a ridiculous question.  But I wasn’t really thinking about the act of driving, or the technology of a car.  We know that car technology is changing, and in four years from now there will be different cars, with different technology.  Maybe there will be cars that drive themselves, or cars that talk to one another.  Maybe it will be a safer way to travel.  But that’s not what I was thinking about that day.

In my mind I was thinking about the world.  I was thinking about the news and how troubling it all is.  Any one of those news items I mentioned are serious and in bygone eras have been acts of war that led to devastating conflicts.

I think about the song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”  You know that song?  Here’s how it goes:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

You’d think the song was written for our time.  But it wasn’t.  The lyrics of the song are based on an old poem.  One of America’s greatest poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote the poem “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Day 1863.

Think with me about what was happening in our country in 1863.  The Civil War.  In March of that year Longfellow’s oldest son, joined the Union Army without his father’s blessing.  Longfellow found out in a letter.

Longfellow wrote the poem on Christmas Day just a month after getting the news that his son was severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia.  Two years before that, Longfellow had lost his beloved wife of 18 years when she was terribly burnt in a fire.  It was a dark Christmas day for him.

We might not be in Civil War, but the world feels very dark this Christmas Day, doesn’t it?  As we have been learning this past month studying Isaiah, the world was a dark place for the Judean Israelites during Isaiah’s day too.   Armies from all around were constantly threatening to invade them.  The world was dim.  In the next prophecy God talks to the people walking in darkness.

Into that dark world, both theirs and ours, God gives Isaiah a prophecy.  Join us this Sunday, Christmas Day at Faith Church, as we look at Isaiah 9:1-7.  Will we find light and hope to encourage us in the darkness?  I trust we will.  I know this.  We will learn the end of the song.  There are more verses…

If you God gave you one wish… (or what to do when you feel God is distant)

19 Dec

wishIf God came to you saying “I’ll give you anything,” what would you ask for? 

In our study of prophecies of the Messiah from Isaiah, we come to Isaiah 7, and God does something that highly unusual.

In Isaiah 7:10-12, God gives the Judean King Ahaz the opportunity to request a sign.  And not just some simple sign like Gideon’s fleece.  He tells Ahaz he can ask for anything.  I love how Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “Ask for the Moon!”

I would be drooling.  I’d be thinking “Okay, God!  Yes!  Thank you!  You remember that one time when you parted the waters of the Red Sea?  How about you do that again!”

Or maybe “Lord, drop a million bucks in my bank account, and I promise I’ll give 90% back to the church and missionaries.”  And I’d still have 100 grand!

This is a unique situation.  God is asking giving this wicked king, Ahaz, the opportunity of a lifetime.

If you’re like me, you’re wondering why in the world YHWH would do this?  Is he testing Ahaz?  Is he giving him a riddle of some kind?

I would like to suggest to you that none of those reasons are why God did this.  Instead this is an instance of YHWH being caring.  Caring?  Yes, YHWH is being caring.  Let me try to explain.

God in the Bible often says “be faithful”, just like he has said to Ahaz in verse 9.  You need to know a few details about Ahaz.  I’ve already said that he is a wicked king, and you can read about that in 2 Kings 16 or 2 Chronicles 28.  What you find there is that Ahaz was a slimy guy.

For example, in 2 Kings 16:2 we’re told that Ahaz did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God.  He walked in the way of the kings of Israel (to the north) and even (this is hard to believe) sacrificed his son in fire, or made his son pass through fire, following the detestable ways of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites.  He offered sacrifices and burned incense at the high places on the hilltops and under every spreading tree.  He went on to pay lots of money to the Assyrians to help him out when Israel attacked him.  And Ahaz even made a new altar to foreign gods, had it installed in God’s temple and put away temple furnishings, shut the doors to the temple, and erected altars in every street corner of Jerusalem.  In other words, Ahaz was a regular dirt bag.

Now in Isaiah 7:1, we find out that two local kings are threatening to invade Ahaz and his kingdom.  Isaiah tells us Ahaz and the Judean people are so scared they’re shaking like trees in the wind.  Where is God?  He seemed distant to them.  They need help badly.

It is at this moment that God shows up!  He comes to Ahaz through in a message from the prophet Isaiah, telling Ahaz to stand strong in his faith.  As we already found out, Ahaz doesn’t seem to have much faith.  Will this message from God’s prophet be enough?

This got me thinking about us.  Will God’s message be enough for us?  God says things like “stand strong in your faith a lot.”  1st Corinthians 16:13 for example: “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong.

And when he says “Be strong” to us, how many of us say “Thank you, Lord, that is just what I needed!”?  How many of us read the words “Stand firm in your faith” or hear those words in a sermon, or in a song on the radio and think “Yes, that is all the motivation I need, and I will now be totally faithful!”?

Especially think of hearing those words right smack in the middle of a difficult time, when you are really stressed out, when you are really discouraged, or when something tragic has happened in life.  When God feels far away and distant.

Just reading those words or hearing those words is good.  But so often they are not enough.  We don’t want words.  We want the difficult situation to change.  When God feels far away, what we want is for him to come close, to clearly show himself, to make things better.

In the middle of pain, we would really love more than just words.  We would love some sign that the word is true.

We’re really hesitant about asking for a sign, though, because we feel we would be coming across as lacking in faith.  Shouldn’t we just trust the word of the Lord?  Do you ever think about asking for a sign that would prove to you that God is actually really close, that he actually cares, that he actually is going to keep his promises? But you feel like you can’t ask for a sign because you are afraid God would consider it a lack of trust in him.  Been there?

What is so amazing about this story is that God not only tells Ahaz to stand strong in his faith, he also offers the sign to Ahaz!  Ahaz doesn’t have to ask for it.  God goes out of his way to give Ahaz a chance at a clear confirmation of the promise to rescue him.

But what does Ahaz do?  He says he won’t ask, that he won’t put the Lord to the test.  Sounds like a wise choice, Ahaz.  Sounds righteous.  Sounds very trusting in God.  But does Ahaz ever say that he believes in God, that he trusts in God?  Nope.  The only thing he says is that he won’t request a sign, he won’t test God.

Here’s the thing though.  Is this situation an example of testing God?

No!  God offered it, so it is not a test.  If Ahaz had asked for a sign, he wouldn’t have been challenging God at all.  God was saying, very graciously I might add, that he wanted to bless Ahaz.  What we actually have here is a pretty rude response by Ahaz, rejecting the Lord.

Here is God saying basically “Ahaz, I want to rescue you and your people, and to show you how much I care. I even want to manifest myself to you through a sign.” In other words, God is saying “I don’t want to be distant from you, Ahaz, I want to be close.”

And Ahaz says “No thanks…”

God, as you can imagine, is quite upset by this.  In Verse 13 he confronts Ahaz for trying his patience, and in verse 14 God gives a sign anyway, the promise of a virgin who will give birth to a son named Immanuel.  Immanuel means “God with us.”

That name is really interesting given this story of Ahaz.  We think of Immanuel every Christmas.  We immediately know that it refers to Jesus and his birth, and that he is Immanuel.

But think with me for a second what Immanuel meant for Ahaz.  Here’s Ahaz, a wicked king, not really concerned about God.  But Ahaz is freaked out about being attacked by neighboring nations.  Maybe God feels distant from Ahaz.  But Ahaz doesn’t seem to have ever walked with YHWH, and is much more focused on pleasing the Assyrian gods.

Then when God comes to him, when God comes close, when God is with him, even offering to show himself to Ahaz through a sign, through more than just the words of the prophet, Ahaz says “No, thanks.”

So what does God say? “You don’t want me close?  You don’t want a sign?  Guess what buddy, you’re getting a sign, and that sign will be a child called ‘God with us’.”  Kind of a slap in the face to Ahaz, isn’t it?

God says “You don’t want me close?  I’m coming close.”  God is a God who comes close.  In the prophecy God promises a day in the future when his Messiah will come and God will be with us.

That is a promise we can apply, that in Jesus alone is the hope of Promise.  In Matthew 1:23, in the story of Jesus’ birth, Matthew quotes this prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, applying it Jesus!

Let’s take a look at how Jesus is Immanuel, God with us.  He is God in the flesh John 1 tells us.  In Philippians 2 we learn that he became human.  In Hebrews 4:15 we are told that “…we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”

Then think about how the Holy Spirit is God with us.  We are told in 1st Corinthians 6:19 that our body is the temple of the Spirit.  We learn in 1 Cor 2:10-12 that the Spirit helps us understand the mind of God.  In Romans 8:26 the Spirit prays for us.  In John 15-17 is our comforter and guide.  When we read in Acts that the Holy Spirit filled the first Christians, and when we read in Ephesians 5 that we can be filled with the Spirit, we have an amazing way of understanding God with us!

Isn’t it amazing to think that we have Jesus as God with us, and the Holy Spirit as God in us.

So have you been asking “Where are you, God?”  People experience God in a variety of ways. Some super close, some distant, some in between.

Perhaps the impact of “God with us” is lost on us because we have always assumed that he is with us?  We get to read in the Bible about Jesus walking the roads of Israel.  We’ve been told the Holy Spirit is with us.  And at Christmas, with all of the Nativity scenes people put on display, are we looking at the birth of Christ as just a quaint story of a little baby?

But how do we make Immanuel matter to our actual lives?  We might know all the facts about Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but if we are honest with ourselves, we feel distant from God.  Or he feels distant from us.  What can we do if we feel far away from this God who wants to be close?

In James 4:8 we read: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

We need to see the amazing importance of what God did to be God with us.  Christmas is a momentous event!  It is the radically altered version of life on planet earth.  God took on flesh.  He drew near.  Then he gave his life for us to smash the barrier which separated us from God.  That barrier is sin, and when Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead, he tells us that a new way of becoming close to God is now possible.  If we repent of our sins and give our lives to trust in a follow him as his disciples, we are ushered into a new relationship with him.

That’s how it all starts. But many of us have started a relationship with him, maybe many years ago.  Now, though, we feel distant.  Maybe the ups and downs of life have made that relationship fade.

It is possible to draw near to God again!

Do you remember Brother Lawrence?  I’ve been talking about him a lot these past few months because I’ve been reading his book, where he describes how he drew near to God.  The practice of the presence of God.  God was already there in Lawrence’s life, like he is already in yours and mine.  But Lawrence made a choice to deliberately concentrate on the presence of God, to intentionally remember that God was already there.  Lawrence made a choice to acknowledge God’s presence by talking with God.  All the time.

Sometimes, he says, it was an audible conversation.  Mostly, though, it was a conversation in his mind. But it was intentional.  Whether he was working in the monastery kitchen, or on a trip, or in a worship service.  He kept up a conversation with God.  The result was that he experienced the presence of God like never before.  It was such a powerful connection with God, that he could hardly contain his joy.  In fact, he said that he had to wrestle with him emotions because he didn’t want to become a distraction to the other monks or brothers at the monastery.  Lawrence didn’t want to be the center of attention.

I urge you to read his book.  It is available free here.

How will you draw near to the God who is with us?

Church signs and a God who can feel very distant

15 Dec

2016-07 Church Sign - Pokemon GoHow do you feel about the messages that churches place on signs?  Just google “stupid church signs” and get ready for a groan fest.  On second thought, don’t google that.  If you already did, I’m sorry for even suggesting it.  I just spend ten minutes looking at them, and I wish I hadn’t.

As you can see from the picture, Faith Church has a sign alongside our road, and it has a section where we can place messages for passersby.  (For those of you who remember the post about us dropping the word “evangelical” from our sign, quick update: we haven’t done that yet, but the change is coming in the next few months!)

If we don’t have an event that we’re inviting people to, I struggle with what should go on the sign. I don’t want it to be cheesy.  Numerous articles have been written about ridiculous church signs.  I would love for the sign to be humorous, thought-provoking, and engaging.  When people driving by, and we have lots of traffic on our road, read the sign, I don’t want them to roll their eyes and say to their passengers “Why do these church signs always have to be so cutesy?”  I want them to think “that was a good point” or “I needed to hear that.”   There are times when I want the sign to provoke a response, so that they want to ask for more information.  For example, there was the time we put “this church will leave the building on Oct 8th.”  It provoked a response. Three different churches who were renting other spaces contacted us or stopped by asking to purchase the building from us!  To their dismay, we were simply advertising our annual Church Has Left The Building Sunday, where in place of a worship service, we go out into the community and worship by serving.  Then we’re back to regular worship the next week.

One message I placed on the sign a couple years ago hoping for a response, however, did not get much of a response.  The message said “Feeling distant from God? Stop in to talk.”  Or something like that.  The message part of our sign, like Twitter, limits the size of our messages.  That limitation is a very good thing, because it forces the message-maker to be creative and concise, which makes it much easier for people driving by to read.  But this particular message about feeling distant from God did not generate any stop-ins.  Maybe most people feel close to God.  Or maybe most people who feel distant from God don’t care, or feel too awkward about stopping in to a random church to talk about it.

So how about you?  Do you feel distant from God?  If so, why do you feel that way?  Is it because God has distanced himself from you?  Or is it possible that you have from him?

I suspect that God feels distant for many people.  He certainly has seemed so at times in my life.

This coming Sunday at Faith Church, we come to the Fourth Sunday of Advent, and the lectionary reading in the Old Testament brings us to Isaiah 7:10-17.  Take some time and read it.  See if you might be able to discern why this prophecy would relate to God feeling distant.  Then join us at Faith Church this Sunday to learn more!

 

How to survive the holiday blues

12 Dec

surviving-the-holiday-bluesAre you feeling low this Christmas?  Though there are Christmas lights everywhere, does your life feel like a dark place?

In the sermon intro blog post, I introduced a story in the history of the Israelite nation of Judea.  At the time, Hezekiah was King, and he was trapped inside the Judean capital city, Jerusalem.  Outside the walls of the city, the powerful Assyrian juggernaut, 185,000 soldiers strong, was knocking on the door saying “Surrender or die.”  If you want, you can read that post before continuing here.  And look up Isaiah 36-37 to catch up with the story.

When we left off, we were on the battlefield just outside the walls of Jerusalem.  The Assyrian field commander had just mocked the Jews.  In fact, take a look at verse 20 and notice the very last thing he said: “How can the Lord deliver Jerusalem from my hand?”  He had just pointed out that so far no one else’s god has saved them.  If you look back just a few verses farther to 18, he says to the scared Jewish soldiers on the city walls, “Don’t let your king Hezekiah mislead you when he says the Lord will deliver you.  We’ve been bulldozing our way through every town, and they all have gods too, and no one is stopping us.  You think your God is any different?”

What a challenge!  He even uses God’s personal name.  YHWH.  Notice in verse 20 how the word LORD is in all capital letters?  That means the Hebrew here is actually using the personal name of God, YHWH.  That’s a real slap in the face of God. This Assyrian field commander thinks YHWH is a joke, just like the other so-called gods that had put up no fight.

Hezekiah’s envoy returns to the palace and tells him the dire news.  It’s not looking good for Jerusalem.  The choices are awful: either try to hold out on a siege and slowly starve, or surrender and lose everything.  What would you do?

Hezekiah’s response is amazing.  Look at chapter 37:1.

He tears his clothes and put on sackcloth.  Instead of calling his response “amazing”, I could have said that it is strange.  If you didn’t know this was in a Bible story, you’d think it was a Hulk Hogan move, tearing off his t-shirt.  In our culture, tearing your clothes is not what you normally do when you are sad, afraid, scared or nervous!  What do you do you when you’re upset?

Lay in bed.  Get a huge bowl of ice cream.  Shop online.  You probably wouldn’t tear your clothes and put on a canvas bag.  That would be seen as odd. And no one would understand you.

In the Ancient Near East, however, when you were really worked up, you tore your clothes and put on sackcloth.  It was how you showed everyone that what was going on was a big deal to you.

What Hezekiah does next, though is awesome, and it will seem a lot more familiar to you.  He goes to church.  In Jerusalem, the church was the temple.  Hezekiah is deeply distressed, and so often when we are distressed like that, we do what Hezekiah did.  We seek God.  Then he sends for the prophet Isaiah.  He wants to hear from God.  He is seeking out counsel.  This is just like you and I might seek out wisdom from a trusted spiritual advisor, a pastor, a counselor, and we might go to the Bible and pray.

Hezekiah tells his envoy to pass a message to Isaiah the prophet telling Isaiah all that has been going on.

Isaiah hears and responds.  In fact, he has a message from YHWH.  Now this is getting good.  YHWH, who has just been defamed by the field commander of Sennacherib, is now speaking back.  What does God say?

“Do not be afraid of that underling!”  Isn’t that awesome?  God calls the field commander an underling.  And what’s more, God says that field commander is not going to last long.

“Do not be afraid.”  Maybe you’re are one of those people who likes to count things.  How many times in the Bible do think God says “Do not be afraid”?  There are people who have counted it.  And they found that God says “do not be afraid” 365 times in the Bible.  One for each day.  That would be a cool study to do throughout a year!

Will Hezekiah give in to his fear?  Or will he trust in God?  And what will his men do?  Will they be faithful to their king, or will they mutiny?  We’re about to find out.

Briefly the setting of the story moves away from Jerusalem.  We read that the Assyrians are winning still more battles, and Sennacherib continues to taunt Jerusalem in a new letter to Hezekiah saying that there is no stopping them.  Not Jerusalem’s God, no one, can match the power of his Assyrian army.

Now what does Hezekiah do?  Things have gotten worse.  Any help that Judea might have gotten from surrounding cities and nations isn’t coming.  Assyria controls it all. What’s worse, YHWH hasn’t shown up yet.

Sometimes when life is low, the hardest part is the waiting.  When you pray, how long should you have to wait for God to show up?  We want him to respond immediately.  He might, but he might not.  The fear, the uncertainty, can start to eat away at our already-thin faith.

Was Hezekiah starting to lose faith?  We’ve been learning a thing or two about Hezekiah.  He was a good dude.  He does what he did before.

He takes this new letter to the temple. He spreads the letter out before God and starts praying and says “All this stuff Sennacherib is saying, Lord?  It’s true!  Nothing has been stopping him.  But you, Lord, deliver us, so that all may know that you are the one true God.”

And just like last time, after Hezekiah went to the temple and Isaiah had a word from the Lord, now Hezekiah has gone to the temple again, and Isaiah has another word from the Lord.  This time the Lord rips into Sennacherib’s arrogance and says to him “I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth and make you return.”  That’s YHWH saying “I will totally dominate you Sennacherib.”

Then YHWH speaks directly to Hezekiah in 37:30: He talks about the future, planting vineyards, and a remnant of people that will take root and bear fruit, a picture of growth and health and vitality.  This is a new vision of hope, and he says “the zeal of the Lord will accomplish it!”

Zeal is not a word we use all that much.  Here the word in the original Hebrew is often translated “jealousy” or “envy.”  God is saying that he has strong feelings for Israel, and he will achieve his goal.

What about this massive Assyrian army?  YHWH says in verses 33-35, “Don’t worry about the Assyrians.  I have got this.”

What happens next is absolutely mind-boggling.  That Assyrian camp of soldiers that was laying waste to everyone and everything?  An angel of God goes out and puts 185,000 of them to death.  It is total decimation.  The men on wall of Jerusalem wake up the next morning to get a look at their enemy, and to their shock, they see nothing but dead bodies.

Sennacherib?  He doesn’t make it either.  By the end of chapter 37, the war machine of Sennacherib is gone.  YHWH did what he said he would do.  And why?  Look back at 37:21!  One little phrase tells us why.  “Because Hezekiah prayed to YHWH.”  Hezekiah trusted in God. God said “Do not be afraid,” and Hezekiah believed and trusted.  Therefore the prophecy was fulfilled.

There are generally three kinds of fulfillment we normally see in prophecy: the conditional, the immediate, and the future kinds of fulfillment.

The story of Hezekiah and the Assyrian attackers is so helpful for understanding the prophecy one chapter earlier in Isaiah 35.  Notice that for the one who listens to the prophecy and trusts in it, the promises come true!  Most prophecy is like that.  So often we think of prophecy as just telling the future no matter what.  But most biblical prophecy is conditional. When I say “conditional”, I mean that most prophecy says “I will tell you what the future will be like, IF YOU TRUST IN ME.”  Fulfillment of the future vision was contingent on the people trusting in and obeying God.

As we walk through the prophecy in Isaiah 35, we see these elements of prophetic fulfillment.

First, in verses 1-2, this prophecy with its images of a desert wasteland blooming into a garden reminds us of a future peaceable kingdom similar to the one we talked about the previous two weeks.

Second, in verses 3-4 we see the admonition to the people, such as those in Hezekiah’s day who were possibly the first ones to receive this prophecy, to stand firm, and wait for God to come and save them.  That is a conditional prophecy.

Third, verses 5-6 sure seem like they are describing the ministry of Jesus don’t they?  The blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk.  That is future fulfillment.

Next, the second half of verse 6 and into verse 7 we find an image very reminiscent of Moses’ ministry, through whom God provided water for the children of Israel during their Exodus from Egypt.   Some people have talked about how modern-day Israel has done a lot with irrigation, and thus how this passages shows us that we are in the end times.  Or is this image just a symbolic of the Messianic peaceable Kingdom?  We don’t know.  Again, what the prophecy is suggesting is future fulfillment.

The final section of the prophecy is in verses 8-10, and there we see the future ministry of the Messiah to make redemption possible.

While there are five parts to the prophecy with various levels of fulfillment, two of these I would like to look at further for the practical way they relate to our lives.

In verses 3-4 the prophecy says “Be strong, do not fear, your God will come.”  We might not get to be the ones who see this part of the prophecy fulfilled.  When this same thing was happening in Hezekiah’s day, not all people in Jerusalem got to see it.   People still were born, lived and died.  Generations of them did not see it.  But it did happen.

Yes, there was an immediate fulfillment of deliverance in the story of Hezekiah that they did see.  But there was also a future fulfillment 700 years later in the birth of Christ they did not see.  The same goes for us.  We might not live to see the second coming of Christ.  That is hard to take because we look around our world and there is much to fear.  But we have the same words spoken over us: be strong, do not fear, your God will come.

No matter how low you feel this Christmas, be encouraged.  God will keep his promises.  It doesn’t mean that we go hide in our houses and just let wickedness and injustice rule.  No we work for the flourishing of God’s mission now.  We don’t sit on our hands and wait for God to come.  We do what Hezekiah did.  We pray for deliverance, we seek godly counsel (meaning that we avoid individualism, we avoid going it alone), and we faithfully obey God.  We obey even when we don’t feel like it, when it seems ridiculous.  Imagine how tempting the thoughts of surrender would have been for Hezekiah.  As he is waiting for God to keep his promise, maybe Hezekiah feared the Assyrians were right, and the Judeans would have a better life in Assyria?  I can see how Hezekiah would be wrestling with this.  Yet he obeyed the Lord.

The next practical application in the prophecy is found in verses 8-10, and there we have a problem.  The vision describes a highway, the Way of Holiness it is called.  This is the Way to God.  The problem is that the unclean, the wicked will not be able to walk on the Way of Holiness.  Aren’t all of humans unclean and wicked?  Surely there are many of us who aren’t that bad as to be called wicked, when you consider how deeply evil some people can be.  But none of us are holy.  This Way of Holiness requires perfection.  That’s a huge problem.  Who can walk on that way to God?  Who are the clean, the righteous ones that are able to walk in that way?

Look at verse 9-10.  The ones who can walk on that highway are the redeemed, the ransomed of the Lord.  So what does it mean to be redeemed, ransomed of the Lord?  1 Timothy 2:5-6 tells us that there is someone who can ransom us.  Jesus.

We need to remember the story of the Good News of Jesus, starting with Christmas and carrying through Jesus’ perfect life, death and resurrection.  When we trust in him by believing and obeying him, we can be redeemed.  Have you been redeemed?  Have the chains of sin been broken in your life?  If you’re not sure, I’d love to talk with you about that.

Hezekiah is a great example for us.  We show that we trust not just by believing something in our mind, but by staking our life on God’s promises.  Hezekiah’s decision to go to the temple, to pray, to not give in to the powerful Assyrians, was an amazing act of faith.  It was risky.  It was literally putting his life on the line.  God had to show up, or Hezekiah and Jerusalem were finished.  There was no human way of stopping the Assyrians from destroying Jerusalem.  And God did show up.

The same thing goes for us.  When we look around our world and we don’t have hope, when there doesn’t seem to be a human solution, we can feel hopeless.  In those moments, when we still obey God, when we still walk in his way, we show that our faith is real.

So put these two applications together.  Combine them in the middle of your life situations.  I know that there are many situations in life that can bring us down. Scary situations.  Hardships.  God says to us “Be not afraid.”  He is a faithful God that we can trust in!  I’m not saying that he is promising to make all the bad stuff of life go away.  Instead I am saying that when we trust in him, we can know that we will always have his promises in our lives.

First there is the promise of a future in his peaceable Kingdom.  Even if life is hell on earth on for us now, we can hold on to the hope we read about in verses 9-10, the hope of gladness and joy, everlasting joy, and our sorrows and sighing fleeing away one day in his Kingdom.

But second, there is also the abundant life of Christ that we can experience now.  And I would love to talk with you about that.  If you feel like the word “abundant” is not describing your life now, and you have little hope that you will experience the abundant life of Christ, please don’t be forlorn or upset.  You’re not alone.  Many people don’t experience it.  And many wonder why.  What should you do?  The first step is to talk about it. Follow Hezekiah’s example.  Reach out to the Lord and to the people who know him.  Please feel free to comment here to talk further!  There is hope!

Q & A with Jesus – How many will be saved?

24 Dec

Every now and then I get to preach on a passage of Scripture that I’ve covered before.  This coming Sunday is one of those times, as we will study Luke 13:22-35.  Last time it gave me the chance to talk about a guy I’d like to think I know pretty well, Bono, the lead singer of the band U2.  At the time, I was preaching the Lectionary texts for Lent.  (You can read all about it here.  And the follow-up post here.)

I try to read back over those sermons each time I preach them again.  If there is material I can use again, I just might, but almost always I find that I need to start from scratch, even if I feel that previous sermon was decent.  Technically, last time I only preached on Luke 13:22-30, and this time we’ll add verses 31-35.

Take a look at the passage, as it raises some difficult questions.  Luke sets the scene by telling us that Jesus is continuing his preaching and teaching ministry in the towns and villages he passes through as he is on his way to Jerusalem.  The crowds are big, no surprise, and on this particular day, a person in the crowd starts a little Q & A with Jesus.  The person asks “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”

It is a question that comes up often in Jesus’ ministry, and one that people still today ask.  Recently a college friend asked this very question.

The answers are varied.  Some believe all will be saved.  We call that view universalism.  It is quite popular as it depicts a gracious, loving, merciful God who can’t let any of his human sons and daughters perish in hell.

Others believe there is no hell.

Still others believe that there is a hell and people will go there.  Some views depict God placing people there of his own desire and choice.  Others say that humans choose to go there, mostly out of disobedience to God, primarily for failing to believe in him and follow his ways.

What is so interesting to me, as I write this on Christmas Eve, is that tonight at our Christmas Eve Service we will be talking about and celebrating the purpose of Jesus’ birth, and in Luke 13:22-35 Jesus himself, about 30 years into his adulthood, is also talking about his purpose.  What does adult Jesus have to say about why he came?  What he has to say directly relates to the question of how many will be saved!

As is so often the case, he decides to answer the question from the crowd with a story.  A story about a man with a house that has a door.  Then he goes on to liken himself to a chicken, and a female chicken at that!

Join us Sunday at Faith Church to hear how Jesus answers the question of how many will be saved!

On shouting a Christmas message that can get you killed – Luke 2:1-20

24 Dec

2014-12-24 Advent Art Panels - close

It’s Christmas Eve!  My younger kids (age 9 and 11) are charged with excitement, begging to open just one gift, or at least put them under the tree.  They cannot contain themselves.  At Faith Church we’re looking forward to a wonderful time of worship tonight.  We’ve had artists from our congregation creating art to illustrate the four weeks of Advent, and tonight we celebrate as more people from the congregation will add artistry through voice and the spoken word.  Like my kids, ours will be a church like so many others today, filled with joy and light and excitement!

On that first Christmas there was another group that couldn’t contain themselves.

The Shepherds.

After hearing glorious news of the birth of the king, they rush into town to verify the message.  Finding it true, they cannot keep their mouths shut, as they start telling everyone what just happened.  The shepherds are positively beaming. It might be the middle of the night when they finally return to their sheep, still shaking their heads at the once in a life-time experience they’ve just had. And they are praising God!

Joy to the World the Lord has come.

I imagine their joy eventually wore off. That was a big night. But things get back to normal pretty quick. Sheep to watch, sheep to feed, sheep to shear, sheep to sell. Real life. What pays the bills. And that baby isn’t heard from again. I wonder if any of them were still alive 30 years later, when his time had come?  Did they remember?  Hearing stories of an up-and-coming teacher and miracle-worker and how some people were speculating that he was the Messiah, might one of them added up the years and realized this was the baby, now a young man?

I wonder how long they told the story of that one glorious night?

I wonder if life got in the way. I wonder if they started to doubt. I wonder if people started to make fun of them, say they were hallucinating, dreaming, and that babies are a dime a dozen. “Where is this king now?” people might say. “The Romans are quite solidly in power. Shut-up, shepherds. We don’t want to hear about the angels anymore.”

And maybe they did shut-up.

Have you?

We make a big deal out of Christmas every year because it is a big deal.

When that baby was born, and those angels blazed in the night sky, and the shepherds’ hearts were bursting, it was because it IS a big, big deal. There is hope, there is a savior! God wants to have peace with humanity! That’s incredible news for those of us walking in darkness.

But have we become quiet about this?

Have the years gone by, the job that requires too many hours, the busy family, the house, the lawn…in my case these last few weeks, the wood stove, the fridge, signing up for new health care…

Life.

Has life gotten in the way? Has life shut us up?

If we feel the burden of life, then we need these boisterous Christmas celebrations. We need Advent. We need to cry our eyes out because our great God has shown us grace and mercy and peace in Jesus. And we need our hearts to be filled.

And we need our tongues loosed to tell the good news. Those humble shepherds’ tongues were loosed.

60 years after these events, Luke wasn’t afraid to directly challenge Rome by telling the story. He wrote it in a book. It was the kind of story that could get you killed!  A new king’s birth that trumped the current king? Sitting kings don’t always take kindly the news that a contender to the throne has been born.  They like to kill off the competition.  Right after Jesus’ birth, word got to the local king, Herod, and he responded in an infant genocide that caused Joseph and Mary to flee with Jesus to Egypt.  Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth presents a bold message to the world leader in Rome, the Caesar.  Take a look at this thought-provoking article that shows how Luke’s courageous message could have gotten him killed!  Because his heart was filled to overflowing and his tongue (or pen) was loosed, and he told the story of God’s peace for all, there is a Savior for all, and he welcomes everyone to his Kingdom!

When was the last time you were so jacked up about something you just couldn’t keep quiet about it?

When was the last time you experienced something so amazing, so incredible you just wanted to tell everyone about it?

When was the last time you got good news and you started lighting up Facebook about it, thumbing out text messages to your family and friends?

That’s what Christmas is all about. Let’s not just keep the carols in our churches tonight. What could it look like for you to spread Christmas joy, hope, love, grace and mercy to the people in your life?