Archive for December, 2018

Bulletin-Image-wk4As we search for wonder in this season, we turn our attention to a promise.

I was preparing for my senior year at Greenville College. The summer was moving by pretty quick and I had many plans to make, including finding housing for the upcoming year. Now, for those who experienced large scale school where you had to have housing all set up almost a year ahead, this was a bit different. I needed to tell my school whether I was going to live on campus or off, but if I chose off campus, it was up to me to find where I was going to live. But there weren’t scores of buildings with apartments to choose from. This was in a smaller town, one with a population of around 2000.

Well, being the procrastinator that I am, I waited until mid-summer to find a place to live. I found a little apartment in my price range, and without seeing in in person, mailed my deposit to the owner. I was excited to move into my new place. This was going to be the first time that I lived alone, no roommate for that year. I was going to have the place all to myself.

Move in day came and since I drove myself down to school, I had limited space to bring things with me. As I moved the few things I had into the apartment, I realized the condition was not as good as I thought it was going to be, more than that, I didn’t have some of the things that would help pass the time. No TV, no stereo, no video games, no telephone, nothing, not even much furniture to sit on. Those first few nights were horrible. I was incredibly alone. More alone than I had ever been before, and I didn’t like it. I wanted friends, family, anyone to help share the time with. But I had no one, especially because I was off campus.

I am not the only one with these feelings either. Many of you have felt the same way, in fact, you might be thinking of a time when you felt alone like this. Maybe it was at school, maybe it was in your job, maybe it was during special holidays, maybe it was during Christmas. There are a lot of times that we feel alone, discouraged, depressed, or even desperate at Christmastime. But there is hope.

During our time of Advent, we have talked about wonder. We’ve looked into the wonder of a star, the wonder of a name, and the wonder of a manger. Each of these themes point in a certain direction, and that is the wonder of a promise.

So, what was the promise? The promise comes from the prophecy from Isaiah, the 7th chapter; “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel.”

Isaiah was one of many prophets who spoke God’s word to the Israelites. Like many other prophets, Isaiah spoke about the things that God despised, about the sin of the people, but also of a promise, a coming King who would rule on the throne of David for all eternity. The people were waiting for a King, they were waiting for the Messiah who was promised in this prophecy from Isaiah. But then, 400 or so years goes by. Silence. I can only imagine how alone the people felt. Alone, waiting, hoping, trusting in a promise from so long ago. But there was something different about this promise from God. The child’s name would be Immanuel, God ‘with’ us. The people had known about the God who was above us, creating all things, watching over us. And they knew of God against us when we sinned, passing judgement on what we do and say. But they also knew of God for us, especially when we were doing things right. When we were living into God’s calling on our lives, following the commands, loving God and neighbor.

But this promise was a bit different. This was Immanuel, God ‘with’ us. What could that possibly mean? For the Israelites, there was always someone between them and God. Moses, a priest, a prophet, or even a king. There was someone who could intercede on their behalf. But this promise was new. God was proclaiming that the desire was to be God with us, so that we would never have to be alone again; not on Christmas or any other day. We would not be alone on our best days, just as we wouldn’t be alone on our worst days. That is the promise of Christmas, of this birth, of Immanuel, is that God is with us, always.

I remember a family that I was able to be with during the worst time in their lives. The mother and father had just lost their 1-day old child. The emptiness and aloneness they must have been feeling, the seemingly absence of God in that moment and the silence must have been deafening. However, as I sat down and was only present with them in that moment, was the moment they felt the very presence of God in the room. At once they knew they were not alone. God was not just above them. God was not against them. God was ‘with’ them. They were not alone, just as we are not alone.

This is what God does for us. This is the wonder in a promise. God promised to be with us, and God is. Christmas is not a one-time story, but a continual story. The wonder of Christmas is that God is with us, and we can claim that promise for ourselves now. We claim that promise by living our lives, proclaiming that original promise of God with us to all those around us. My prayer is that we would all live into that promise so that all who see us will know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the promise God gave all of us is real, and it’s for them too.

Christmas is the assurance that no matter how far we have traveled from God’s will in our lives, no matter how far we’ve fallen, no matter how much we’ve sinned, or hove badly we’ve been hurt, abandoned, judged, or viewed by others, God has not come to judge us, but to be with us. To walk with us, to love us, to cry with us, to encourage us.

God is not just above us. God is not against us. God is not some far off deity, observing but never engaging. God, as we remember the promise of Christmas, is with us. We are not alone. We are never alone.

Bulletin-Image-wk3Christmas is full of joy and happiness, and sometimes that flows over to jokes, scenes of joyful exuberance, and even practical jokes. One of the most heard of pranks is stealing baby Jesus from yard sized nativity scenes. It seems like we can’t go a Christmas season without hearing about another Jesus-napping. But why? Why steal Jesus from a manger?

Or maybe the better question really is, why would Jesus be in a manger in the first place? Why would God deliver the best present to the world into a manger, a feeding trough?

Why would God enter the world in this way? Why wasn’t there more pomp and circumstance? Why wasn’t the birth in a palace, or at least in the comfort of a home? Why a stable, why a manger? Because it makes perfect sense.

E. Stanley Jones writes about a story of a little boy during World War II and his Christmas wish. It seems as there was a certain little boy at a mission boarding school during World War II. And because of all the fighting, the little boy could not get home for the Christmas holiday. Christmas day came, and he felt incredibly sad and there was nothing that could cheer him up. He didn’t come out of his room all day. He stayed in there even through mealtimes. Finally, the headmaster went to check on him. Seeing that the boy was upset, the headmaster tried to comfort him by asking him what he wanted for Christmas. The boy looked over to his dresser where a photo of his dad was resting, and said, “I wish my father would step out of the picture.”

A Christmas wish that for the boy would not happen, but one that happens for us during this special season. This is exactly what God did in Bethlehem on that wonder filled night. God stepped out of the picture and entered this world as one of us.

William Ezell describes it this way; “It is as though we were looking at God through one of those snowy glass balls and couldn’t clearly see God, so Jesus stepped out of the encasement and took up residence on this planet so we could better understand and know God.” Eugene Peterson explains in the Gospel of John; “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” God came near, and it began through the wonder of a manger.

Jesus Christ stepped out of the picture and right into our reality on that first Christmas. God became fully human, having the full human experience, all while remaining fully divine. This means that God can know and empathize with all our experiences, because he has had them too. This is why, as Hebrews tells us that Jesus is our high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses. He was tempted in every way that we are, but he is without sin.

You see, the wonder of a manger is that God would actually become human, and humbly invade our world with love. God chose to arrive as a powerless, unassuming, and insignificant baby, laying in a manger. This was not by mistake. This was not something that just happened. This was a part of a greater plan, God’s plan. That means there is significance to everything, including a manger.

There’s something thing that struck me as I reflected on a passage from Luke and the thought of a manger. What is a manger? We tend to romanticize the thought of a manger and think that it could be like this one we have here in the sanctuary. And it is possible. But it is also possible that it would have been a box where people would throw food in so the animals could eat. It was a feeding trough. This was where the animals would come to fill their bodies with what they needed for the day. This was where they would gather with other animals.

Jesus is born in Bethlehem which means house of bread. Jesus is the bread of life. We pray each Sunday morning for God to give us our daily bread. We feast during Holy Communion on the body and blood of Jesus Christ. There is a direct connection to this thought of Jesus as the bread of life, the living water that is given, and the first place he was laid as a baby, a manger, a feeding trough. God is showing us who Jesus is by placing him in the wonder of a manger. We see and know who God is by this simple act.

This is the wonder of a manger. This is the wonder of Christmas.

God became human. God took on our human condition. God embodied love for us. Jesus showed us how to be truly human by loving others, serving others, and redeeming our lives by reconciling us back to God. God moved into our neighborhood through the wonder of a manger.

Bulletin-Image-wk2Last week we began a new worship series called “The Wonder of Christmas” as we focused on different areas of wonder in our lives. We looked at the wonder of a star and how we could see that wonder in our lives as we looked for signs that lead us back to God. This week we turn our attention to names. More specifically, the name of Jesus, Emmanuel, Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace, Lord, King of Kings. There is power in that name, there is healing in that name, there is salvation in that name, there is wonder in that name.

Whether it’s given to us at birth, or one that we pick up along the road of life, our names have a meaning. Our names tell others about us. The name of Jesus is no different. So, how did Mary and Joseph find the name? They didn’t have the internet to search, or countless baby name books to reference, so how did they? Well, the name was chosen for them. What is interesting is that the birth of Jesus is mentioned in only two of the four gospels, Matthew and Luke. And while they differ on much of the story, there is one thing that they share in common; the naming of Jesus. Could this show just how important the name is? If so, what is the meaning behind the name Jesus?

Jesus means ‘one who saves.’ So, if Jesus is the one who saves, we must need saving. It is certainly written in the gospel of John that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, that if we believe in him we would have eternal life. We would be saved. But saved from what? What is our problem?

I guess we could see that we could be saved from an ignorance of God. But if that were the only reason, Jesus could have just been a teacher. We could see that we need saving from our brokenness. But if that was it, Jesus would just need to be a healer. If we needed saving from only our relationships, Jesus would only need to be a counselor. Or if it was just lifting us out of poverty, Jesus could have been a financial advisor.

But we must see that our problem runs much deeper than just these things. We need saving from all of these things, and even more. We need a savior who can save us from the root of all these things, sin. We need someone to search us out and save us from ourselves.

Jesus is the one who saves, just as his name reflects. Matthew 1:21 tells us that his name will be Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. My sins, your sins, we are all saved from those sins when we call on his name, the powerful name of Jesus, and ask for forgiveness. And this forgiveness is not limited to just a few people, this is open to all who believe. Regardless of cultural or socio-economic status, race, age, or orientation, all are welcomed. This is for you, it’s for me, it’s for your neighbors, and it’s even for your enemies. It is for all of us. Jesus is the one who saves, and he saves us all!

What’s more, is that when we decide to believe and follow Jesus, we are given a new name. Sure, we still have our first names, but we are called by a new name also, Christian. There is wonder in that name. It’s a powerful name, one that you should be proud of, one that you should proclaim by what you say and do. It’s a name that you don’t want to lose.

There’s a story about Mark Cuban, one of the sharks on Shark Tank as well as the owner of the Dallas Mavericks. Around the year 2000, he offered a Chicago sports radio host, David Kaplan, $50,000 to legally change his name to Dallas Maverick. Kaplan declined the offer, but Mark wasn’t done. Mark Cuban raised the stakes by offering him $100,000 and another $100,000 to his favorite charity if he would change his name for one year. Kaplan thought about it, and even after many emails from listeners who said he would be stupid if he didn’t take the offer and change his name, he stood his ground and declined once again. Kaplan said, “I’d be saying I’d do anything for money, and that bothers me. My name is my birthright. I’d like to preserve my integrity and credibility.”

When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we gain this new name of Christian and it is our birthright. We have a responsibility to live every day in a way that brings honor to that name. For me, that name is not for sale. That name is not a bargaining chip. That name is not something to take lightly. The name Christian has power. The name Christian has integrity. The name Christian has honesty, love, compassion, and so many other characteristics that go along with it. I am a Christian, and I wear that name boldly.

Remember, that this is a time to feel once again, the wonder of Christmas. We are reminded that once we believe, anything is possible. Today we believe in the wonder of a name, Jesus Christ.

Bulletin-Image-wk1One of my favorite memories from Christmas time as a kid, was getting the catalog in the mail. You know, the big one. The Sears Catalog. My brothers and I would take turns with different colored crayons, circling the toys we wanted for Christmas that year. It was similar to that scene in the Christmas classic “A Christmas Story” when Ralphie spots the Red Rider BB Gun in the store’s window. Eyes were filled with wonder as the possibilities swirled in his head about what he would do with that toy gun.

There’s something magical about watching children experience the wonder at Christmas. With all the demands and distractions of the season, we often wish we could recapture some of that ‘wonder’ for ourselves.

Today I am thinking about a familiar story of the three kings, who are traveling from the east, following a star. These kings noticed the star in the sky and realizing that this fit with prophecies of the Messiah, they began to follow it. The stars were they’re GPS of the day and they were getting close. As they arrived in Jerusalem, they figured that the current king would know all about the birth of the new king, so they stopped by the castle to get directions from Herod. What a confusing scene this must have been, as they asked a current king about a possible successor, one that was not related. Herod didn’t know, so he called together his council who proceeded to tell him about the prophecies and where Jesus was to be born.

With ulterior motives, Herod sent the kings of to Bethlehem to find the child and report back to him. The kings continued on and after finding the child, they offered their gifts to Jesus. They bowed down and worshiped him, leaving with their hearts full of the joy, comfort, and peace that God gives. They left with the wonder of what they had just witnessed. They left with the wonder of the possibilities this child would bring. They left with the wonder brought from following a star.

The kings experienced this wonder because they had eyes to see, because they had courage to follow, and because they had humility to worship. The star was there for all to see. The kings saw the star, Herod saw the star, the shepherds saw the star, the whole world saw the star. The difference came when you began to notice who had eyes to truly see the star and what it meant to the world. The kings saw the star and recognized that it was a sign from God that would lead them closer to what they truly desired. It was a sign that would lead them to God.

The three kings knew that there was more to this life, more in this world, more than just wealth and prestige, and they longed for it. They searched for it. They followed a star for it. Herod strived for more of what he already had. He wanted more money, more influence, more power, and he would stop at nothing to get it. This blinded him to the true message of the star, the true wonder of the star.

Do we know that there is more? Do we long for something different and more meaningful than wealth, prestige, and power? Are we able to see the wonder of the star, the sign that will lead us to God? Do you have eyes to see?

For the kings, the star was a sign, a sign to lead them to God. We may not have a star leading us right now, but our lives are full of signs that point us to God. What in your life is pointing you towards God? Will you be like Herod who ignored the signs and remained too proud to get off his throne to approach God? Or will you be like the three kings who had eyes to see, the courage to follow, and the humility to worship Jesus for who he is?

The wonder of a star welcomes us to this journey. Like the wondrous star that guided the kings to the Christ child, God has placed signs in our lives, all meant to lead us to God. Do we have the eyes to see them? Do we have the openness to feel the wonder of this season?

This is a time to feel once again, the wonder of Christmas. We are reminded that once we believe, anything is possible.