MAKING USE OF THE SEASON

Christmas-Eve-Picture

So this season, get into it. Enjoy the anticipation. Look forward the presents. For crying out loud, have some eggnog for me. But use it all to let God draw you closer. Use it to feed a hunger and thirst for him.

 

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CHRISTMAS 2014: Using the Season

I have felt disconnected from Christmas this year. What with one thing and another, we didn’t get a tree until about ten days before Christmas. The house wasn’t decorated, and we weren’t listening to Christmas music. We were busy, and I, at least, wasn’t out and about where Christmas stuff was happening. Then just a few days ago I did some Christmas shopping. I was ashamed to find that the decorations and music and the ways the stores are decked out actually started to get me more into the “Christmas spirit.” I thought, “Really? This is what helps me appreciate Christmas? This isn’t even what it’s about!”

Like it or not, the truth is, Christmas has become a cultural phenomenon. Sometimes, as Christians, we want to fight it. The commercialism can be disgusting. The whole holiday adds a great deal of stress to every December. And everyone seems to miss the point, anyway. We don’t want to get caught up in it all, because we know that when it is all over, we’ll just be left with new stuff that will eventually become old stuff, a ten-foot-high-pile of wrapping paper, a dead tree and maybe seven extra pounds.

But why not, this year, get into the whole Christmas thing again? Get caught up in it all, get excited, let the joy infect you – and use it to let Jesus draw you closer to himself.

No one knows for sure the exact date of Jesus’ birth but I did some research recently. Jesus was born less than nine months after his relative, John the Baptist. John’s father, Zechariah, was a priest in the priestly division of Abijah. Zechariah’s priestly division was the eighth out of twenty-four, and so we can estimate when he was serving at the temple and when John’s birth was first predicted. The Jewish new year varied a little bit each year, but the best guess for that year would be that Zechariah encountered the angel sometime in May or June. Luke says “after those days,” Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth conceived John. Five months later, the angel visited Mary, and then Luke says “in those days” Mary came to Elizabeth’s house. So if it all happened immediately, that would mean John was born in April and Jesus was born in September. But we don’t know exactly how much “after those days” and “in those days” really means. If there was a total lag time of just two months in those two flexible periods, then Jesus was indeed born in December. The exact date of his birth doesn’t really matter, of course. I just think it is interesting, after all the years I’ve heard “Jesus wasn’t even born on Christmas” to find that the evidence shows it is quite possible, maybe even likely, that he was born, if not on December 25, sometime close to it.

Even so, no one knows the exact date. So how did we get December 25th? In the middle 300s (AD) the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian. At that time, the big Celebration of the year for the Romans, was Winter Solstice. They celebrated it on December 25, because that was the first day they could tell that the days were getting longer again. It was a big time holiday. It had nothing to do with Jesus.

But Constantine, after becoming a believer, decided to make use of the pagan holiday to help people think about Jesus. So he declared December 25 to be no longer Winter Solstice, but now the commemoration of the birth of Jesus. He used the joy and pageantry in the service of the one true God.

In some ways, in our culture, Christmas has returned once more to a pagan holiday. Christmas trees come from a pagan tradition. The way stores use Christmas to drive sales has nothing to do with Jesus. Probably a majority of the people who celebrate Christmas, don’t care much one way or the other about Jesus. Even so, like Constantine, we can make use of it.

Think of it this way: what is it that we like about Christmas? What gives us so much anticipation and excitement. What makes it “the most wonderful time of the year?” I think most people look forward to one or more of these things:

• Time spent with loved ones.

• Rest – very few people have to work on Christmas

• Receiving gifts (and, in some cases, people look forward to giving them too)

• Food and Celebration

• Connecting with something deeper and bigger than ourselves (often through traditions).

Each of these are worthwhile things in and of themselves. We can make them even more worthwhile by using them to provide a boost to our relationship with Jesus. Let’s look at how.

TIME SPENT WITH LOVED ONES. One the greatest joys of Christmas is spending it with someone we love. One of the greatest sorrows is the first Christmas you spend after a loved one is no longer with you. If you are missing loved ones this year, use that to remind you of the promise of Jesus’ resurrection. Because of his forgiveness, and his resurrection from death, our sorrow will be turned to Joy. One day, nothing will ever part us from those we love:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” (Rev 21:1-4)

Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. 2 There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? 3 When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am. 4 And you know the way to where I am going.” (John 14:1-4)

REST. We love the break of Christmas. Most people don’t do unnecessary chores at Christmas. We can relax and enjoy at least a single day. But God has promised us a rest that continues, not just for one, day, but forever:

God’s promise of entering his rest still stands, so we ought to tremble with fear that some of you might fail to experience it. For this good news—that God has prepared this rest—has been announced to us just as it was to them….So there is a special rest still waiting for the people of God. For all who have entered into God’s rest have rested from their labors, just as God did after creating the world. So let us do our best to enter that rest. But if we disobey God, as the people of Israel did, we will fall. (Heb 4:1-2 & 9-11)

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matt 11:28-30)

Turn the mood of this Christmas season into leverage for helping you rest in Jesus.

RECEIVING GIFTS. What did you get for Christmas last year? To be truthful, I cannot remember without putting some serious thought to it. What I do know is this: I am usually thrilled about new gifts, but it isn’t terribly long until the thrill wears off. But the Lord gives us gifts that never spoil or fade:

“Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. (Matt 6:19-21)

“You fathers—if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” (Luke 11:11-13)

Use the joy and anticipation of gifts to help you receive what the Lord is offering us – his Holy Spirit, and an unfading eternal future. Use the presents to help you focus on the eternal and immeasurably valuable gifts that the Father has given us through Jesus Christ.

FOOD & CELEBRATION. Often in scripture, food is used as a metaphor for fellowship with God. As we anticipate eating, and actually eat, let’s consciously invite the Lord to be a part of our lives.

Yes, I am the bread of life! Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, but they all died. Anyone who eats the bread from heaven, however, will never die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and this bread, which I will offer so the world may live, is my flesh.” (John 6:47-51)

Listen! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and have dinner with him, and he with Me. (Revelation 3:20)

So let’s feast! Enjoy the food. And as we do, worship, and receive Jesus’ invitation to close fellowship. Celebrate with loved ones, and use it to remind you of the eternal celebration we will have when we are finally together with Lord and our loved ones in the New Heavens and the New Earth.

CONNECTING WITH DEEPER REALITY. I think it is during this season the greatest numbers of people are really open and willing to consider something bigger than themselves. At Christmas we seem more ready to acknowledge that we want more – not just more stuff, but more –something – in our lives. That something is a relationship with Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

By the way, we can use more than just Christmas. I find that I usually deeply enjoy the period leading up to New Year’s also, and can use it the same way. But it isn’t even just season. We can use any time of joy, any celebration or event to which we are looking forward. We can use these things to point us toward what is greater and more eternal; the real celebration.

So this season, get into it. Enjoy the anticipation. Look forward the presents. For crying out loud, have some eggnog for me. But use it all to let God draw you closer. Use it to feed a hunger and thirst for him.

Pause for a moment. Can you sense we are on Holy Ground? The presence of Jesus transformed a plain, ordinary, smelly stable into a holy place. Let his presence do that for you not just at Christmas, but year round, wherever you find yourself.

Have a very merry Christmas!

DID JESUS REALLY COME TO BRING PEACE ON EARTH?

mary_2

This little baby presents each one of us with a difficult choice. Even Mary, his mother, was faced with the same choice.

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Christmas Eve 2013

Luke 1:26-38. Mary

Tonight, I’d like to focus a little on Mary, the mother of Jesus. We think of her as holy and exalted. She carried the divine nature of God, joined to her egg, within her very body. She shared her own blood with Jesus. Think of it – the blood that he shed for the salvation of the world came originally from her. After he was born, she nursed him, feeding him still from her own body. She wiped his bottom when he did what all babies do. And yet, he was ultimately her Lord, her creator, her savior. In some ways, Mary must have had the most unique relationship with Jesus that any human being has ever had.

Even so, I think we can learn from Mary. In many other ways, her experiences were exactly like our own. One of the messages of Christmas, of Jesus coming to earth, is that we are faced with a choice. He isn’t just a sweet little baby. He himself said:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matt 10:34-39, ESV2011)

And yet, we think of Christmas as a time for “peace on earth.” The truth is, Jesus is divisive, because he calls us to respond to him. Even Mary, who, for more than anyone, had a real relationship with a sweet little baby, found that even Jesus as a baby, as an unborn baby, presented her with a difficult choice.

Let’s back up to a young woman entering adulthood. We make much of the fact that Mary was only a teenager, but in her culture, she was considered an adult. She was betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter. In that culture, her betrothal meant several things. First, it meant that the marriage was a done deal. Solemn promises and vows had already been exchanged. The only thing different between betrothal and marriage was that the couple did not yet live together, and had not consummated the marriage. Breaking a betrothal was like getting a divorce.

Generally, the betrothal period lasted about a year. I’m not sure why. It’s likely that it might take that much time for bridegroom to raise the necessary money for the bride-price and for the wedding festivities. It would probably also take several months to spread the word and gather any relatives who lived far away.

Wedding festivities lasted for week. The actual “wedding” began with an extensive parade through the town. The bridegroom paraded to the house of his wife, with friends and family accompanying him and celebrating along the way. It was obviously a very public occasion; in a small town, a wedding would be almost like a holiday.

On this occasion, the bride would be wearing the beautiful clothing that she could possibly obtain. Her hair would be elaborately styled, and all in all, she would feel as beautiful as she ever would in this life. For this one day, all eyes would see her as beautiful.

After meeting at her family’s house, the bride and groom would parade back through the town, again with singing and celebrating, to the home of the groom. Again, they would be surrounded with the joyful faces of friends and families, singing, shouting and joking.

Back at the groom’s home, they would eat one of the most lavish and delicious meals of their lives. A wedding in those difficult times was one of the few places you could count on to eat more than enough of your favorite foods. Guests would look forward to the food alone for months ahead of time. Surrounded by loving family and friends, the bride and groom would be blessed, prayed for and toasted. They wore crowns, and were treated like royalty on this day. After that, after the guests departed, the couple would consummate the marriage, and they would be officially husband and wife.

The angel came to Mary sometime during the year of betrothal. Aside from whatever daily chores she had to do, her life would have been consumed with the details of the coming wedding. In dirt-poor Nazareth, her wedding was one of the only major life-events that Mary had to really look forward to. No one took vacations or pleasure trips, or had the resources for such things. For a young woman like Mary, her wedding was going to be the highlight of her entire life.

Now, enter the angel. He told her that she would become pregnant. It was obvious that he meant right now, not after she was officially married, but now, before she had ever been with a man. We know from Matthew’s account that Joseph found out Mary was pregnant some time before the wedding celebration, so this may have happened fairly early during the year of betrothal.

And just like that, there went the one thing in all her life that Mary had to look forward to. She didn’t know Joseph very well – engaged couples were seldom in love, or even close to each other, before the marriage. The safe assumption was that Joseph would divorce her before the wedding day.

We know that a quiet divorce was, in fact, Joseph’s plan. God intervened and angel appeared to him also. Trusting God, Joseph did not divorce her. Matthew records that he took her as his wife, but that they did not consummate the marriage until after Jesus was born (Matthew 1:24-25). He doesn’t give any great detail about the timeline – in other words we don’t actually when they were married. Luke, with a little more detail, suggests that they were still only engaged when Jesus was born (Luke 2:1-7).

I think it is quite probable that Mary never got her “event-of-a-lifetime” wedding. In fact, I doubt they had any wedding celebration at all. It was highly unlikely that they would do so, because it would only highlight the shameful and disgraceful fact of her pregnancy. If they had the celebration after Jesus was born, it would have been just as bad. Of course, Joseph and Mary knew that there was nothing shameful or wrong going on, but no one else was likely to believe them. If they had a wedding celebration, many guests might have refused to come.

I think this is one reason why both Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for the census. It was probably sufficient for Joseph to go alone, but they were probably both eager to get out of Nazareth and the shame and disgrace they were under. There are indications that they lived in Bethlehem for almost two years after Jesus was born. The census certainly did not require them to move there. I think they weren’t excited to get back to Nazareth.

Now, understanding the background, I want to say this a different way. When Mary received Jesus into her body and her life, it meant she lost the one cherished event in her whole life that she was really looking forward to. It meant she was exposing herself to disgrace and ridicule, and accepting a very uncertain future. It wasn’t as easy as saying “I get to be the Messiah’s mother? Cool! Bring it on!” By agreeing, Mary was inviting, divorce (without ever getting the fun of the wedding), ridicule and shame. She was relinquishing her only chance to have just one beautiful shining week in a life that was otherwise filled with crushing poverty.

I’ve thought before, the angel said that Mary had God’s favor. God has a funny way of showing his favor. It probably wasn’t what Mary would have chosen for herself.

With all that in mind, listen to her reply:

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38, ESV2011)

Mary’s sacrifice is something we often overlook in the warm-fuzzies of Christmas. We are happy enough to contemplate the little baby Jesus, all clean and quiet. We could hold that little child and feel all peaceful and happy. Mary did. But she also gave up her own dreams to do so, and received much hardship and disgrace in their place. It really cost her something to receive Jesus.

Are we ready to recognize that receiving Jesus costs us our own agenda, or own control over our lives? Mary took Jesus on God’s terms, not her own. It meant giving up something she really wanted, but she was willing to do so. Are you ready to do the same? Can you receive Jesus on God’s terms, and give up your requirements?

The good news, is that when Mary did that, she found incredible grace and joy. A few months later, talking to her relative, Elizabeth, she said:

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, ​and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.

For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. (Luke 1:46-49, ESV2011)

When we give up our agenda, and humbly say, “I’m your servant, Lord. I’ll receive you on your terms,” we may lose some cherished dream, or control over life the way we want it. But in turn, we do receive the Savior, the healer of our souls, the unending source of grace and unquenchable joy. Mary could have had a week of joy during her wedding feast. She gave that up for an eternity of joy in presence of God. Losing her wedding, being subject to disgrace, she actually felt blessed, because what she received was greater than what she gave up.

My prayer for all of us this Christmas is that we make the same choice as Mary, and unconditionally receive into our lives the Savior of the world, the Lord of our lives, Jesus Christ.

FRUIT, OR FLESH?

fruit

When you are facing a choice or considering whether or not something is from the Lord, ask yourself: “Does it look more like the flesh, or more like the fruit?” The fruits of Spirit are the manifestations of the character of Jesus in us.

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Galatians # 22 . Chapter 5:22

We’ll consider the other fruits of the Spirit this time, and possibly even wrap up chapter 5.

The next is patience. The New Testament uses this word in connection with two main things. The first, is to describe the patience of God, when he withholds judgment (Rom 2:4; 9:22; 1 Peter 3:20; 2 Peter 3:15). In that context, it has the idea of withholding punishment, putting up with us and forbearing.

This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” — and I am the worst of them. But I received mercy for this reason, so that in me, the worst of them, Christ Jesus might demonstrate His extraordinary patience as an example to those who would believe in Him for eternal life. (1Tim 1:15-16, HCSB)

There are many other verses using the same Greek word. Often it used just like it is here (2 Cor 6:6, Eph 4:2; Col 1:10-12).The Christian Life should be characterized by it:

Walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God. May you be strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for all endurance and patience, with joy giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light. (Col 1:10-12, HCSB)

Patience is not the same as mere restraint. I think one key to understanding it is that there is waiting involved. Patience doesn’t give up – it waits with expectation, but it waits without agitation. You can’t manufacture Holy Spirit-patience. The only way to get it is to keep on getting closer to Jesus.

Kindness is an interesting Greek word: chrestotes. If you know any other languages, you know that sometimes a direct word-to-word translation is impossible. Some languages have words that others simply don’t have. I think chrestotes is probably one of those words. A few versions of the bible translate the word as “graciousness.” The word means something like “moral excellence, combined with compassionate intentions and actions.” In other words, it isn’t just blindly being nice to people. It is moral goodness combined with benevolent actions or intentions. The “moral excellence” is a very important part of this word.

Or do you despise the riches of His kindness, restraint, and patience, not recognizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (Rom 2:3-4, HCSB)

Another way to describe kindness might be “righteousness combined with compassion.”

Goodness. “Good” is such a common word, both in Greek and English, that is sometimes hard to get a handle on it. What does it mean that goodness should be growing in us like a fruit? Moral “rightness” is part of goodness. A sense of being blessed is associated with what we call goodness. In this case, your goodness will give others a sense of being blessed through you. I know a few people that I would describe as good. You know, almost right away, that they are trustworthy. You know that they will do the right thing. You know you are safe around them.

Faith is the Greek word pistis, which I have often mentioned in the past. I contend that most often, it should be translated to mean “trust in Jesus.” In this context, however, we assume that you won’t have any fruit of the Spirit at all, unless you first trust Jesus. So here, I think Paul means a practical, daily trust, an entrusting of your everyday life to Jesus, his will and his purposes. It means you trust him with your problems and relationships, you trust his guidance and what he says through the Bible. You release control of your life to Jesus.

Gentleness. 1 Peter 3:16; 2 Timothy 2:25 and Galatians 6:1 all talk about gentleness in the context of correcting others. We are supposed to hold firmly to our beliefs. But we are not supposed to be harsh with those who are going astray.

Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. However, do this with gentleness and respect, keeping your conscience clear, so that when you are accused, those who denounce your Christian life will be put to shame. (1Pet 3:15-16, HCSB)

In other verses, gentleness is supposed to generally characterize how we treat each other.

Self-Control is not a compound word in Greek, as it is in English. It implies that you are master of your own desires. Remember, the flesh gratifies itself. But the Spirit exerts control over desires of the flesh. As the Spirit grows in you, you become more able to say “no” to the flesh and “no” to your immediate desires.

As I mentioned last week, all of these thing grow in us, if we remain in Jesus. I also suspect that the different kinds of fruit grow at different rates in each person. I know people who seem to exude peace, but they don’t have much self-control. I know others who have a lot of self-control, but joy is still a very small and immature fruit in their lives. That’s probably normal. We do want all the fruit of the Spirit to keep growing in us, but I think it is OK to accept that some kinds will grow faster than others, and that other people will have different strengths and weaknesses.

Let’s back up and remember the context for all of this. Paul has said we do not live any more by law. This isn’t an excuse to gratify or indulge the flesh. Instead, now, free from the law, we walk by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit, working through our spirits, leads us. More than that, the Holy Spirit is putting the character of Jesus into our lives.

Remember what Paul said in Galatians 2:20

For through the law I have died to the law, so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Gal 2:19-20, HCSB. Italic formatting added for emphasis)

To put it another way, the fruits of Spirit are the manifestations of the character of Jesus in us. That character is being formed in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is important for several reasons.

First, this gives us a little bit of help in knowing where we stand with Jesus. The law can’t help us, but the evidence of Jesus’ character in us can. Paul says the works of the flesh are obvious. If we see those having power in our lives, we know that there is problem. Jesus, living in us, does not do the works of the flesh. On the other hand, when we see the fruit of the Spirit growing – even if it is small and unripe – we know that Jesus is at work in us. The point here is not how much you have, but rather, how much it is growing. The question is not, “How much peace do you have?” Rather, the appropriate thing to ask is “Do you have more peace now than you did last time you faced this kind of situation?”

It is helpful to remember the fruit of the Spirit when you are looking for guidance. I actually knew a Christian once who claimed that God led him to have an affair. He was out of a job, and we prayed for him to find a new job. He did, and he felt like God gave him that job. The first person he met at the new job was a woman, and they really connected. So, he reasoned that God wanted them to meet, and to have an affair. But if he had been willing to pay attention, this passage would have showed immediately that God was not leading him to sin. That is clearly listed as one of the works of the flesh. It was his flesh, not the character of Jesus, which led him.

Say you have to make a decision, and you want to walk by the Spirit, not by the flesh. If you think you are being led, make sure, first of all that your choice will not result in the works of the flesh. Then, look at the fruits of the Spirit. Is there joy associated with one choice? Joy is a fruit of the spirit, so the Spirit may be leading you in that direction. Is what you want to do motivated by self-sacrificing love, love that puts the welfare of others before your own? If so, it may be the work of the Spirit. Do you have peace as you move forward in this direction? True peace comes from the Spirit, so it may be him. Are your desires, and the desires of the flesh, under control, or is this about self-gratification? Does your choice involve moral excellence or kindness or gentleness? We can learn to recognize Jesus at work in us, showing his character, to point us in the right direction. To sum it up, when you are facing a choice or considering whether or not something is from the Lord, ask yourself: “Does it look more like the flesh, or more like the fruit?”

There is another place where knowing about the fruit of the Spirit can be helpful. True Christian maturity is measured in terms of the fruit of the Spirit. A lot of folks like to measure it by the gifts the Spirit, or even by outward appearances. But the Lord gives different gifts and abilities and looks. A mature Christian may or not be a dynamic preacher. A mature Christian may or may not be gifted in making people comfortable. He might not have a gift of making others feel good about themselves. A mature Christian may or may not have the gift of tongues, or the gift of healing. A mature Christian might not be outwardly successful. She might be fit, or might be a little bit overweight. She might be plain, or beautiful. None of these things have to do with maturity.

And just because someone does have the gift of healing, or does have a successful ministry, does not make them mature. I know of two different individuals who have a proven gift of healing. When they pray for people, those people are genuinely healed of real physical ailments and diseases. It’s amazing. And yet, both of these individuals are significantly immature in the fruit of the Spirit.

We don’t measure Christian maturity in terms of gifts, skills or talents or success. We don’t measure it by outward appearances. We measure Christian maturity by these things right here: the fruits of Spirit. That is because these fruits are manifestations of the life of Jesus inside of us.

Paul finishes with this thought:

Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, we must also follow the Spirit. We must not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. (Gal 5:24-26, HCSB)

In many ways, this verse reiterates what Paul said in Galatians 2:20. We are dead to the law. Our flesh is also dead to us. As I’ve said before in this series, our flesh is actually physically dying. Let its passions and desires die with it. Now, I know that all sounds fine and noble, but the truth is, Paul describes it as a crucifixion. Our flesh is crucified with Jesus. But when deny our flesh, it does hurt. It is hard. Crucifixion is painful. So, I’m not saying it is easy. But it is a matter of focusing on who you truly are, in Jesus.

Paul said something very similar in Romans:

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. (Rom 8:5-10, ESV2011)

We need to set our minds on the things of the Spirit. We need to focus on who we really are, in Jesus. What are those things? Well, a great place to start is right here in Galatians 5:22, with the fruit of Spirit.

Ask the Lord to speak to you about this today.

CHRISTMAS 2012

 

Nativity-Scene

 

The gift of Christmas is a person. It is not the blessings and things we think we want. It is not “presents” but rather, presence. Like children, we are so easily distracted by the things we want. We don’t dream that we could be satisfied by a relationship with a person. But what the Bible says is the greatest Christmas present of all time, is a person

 

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CHRISTMAS EVE 2012

Imagine a woman from a poor family who gets married to a wealthy and talented doctor. She loves the status that her marriage brings. She loves the privilege of belonging to exclusive country clubs, and being treated deferentially by restaurant managers at expensive places. She likes being seen at society events. She enjoys driving newer models of luxury cars. Shopping is a joy and a delight, and she loves the fact that she hardly ever has to worry about how much something costs. She is constantly adding shoes to her closet and jewelry to her case.

Now, she isn’t entirely shallow. Coming from poverty, she knows what it is like. So she likes to give money away too, as long as it doesn’t affect her lifestyle too much. She even gets involved in charitable causes, and those charitable organizations are grateful for the social standing and monetary support that she represents.

But none of these things that she spends so much time and energy in, none of what she values so much, is her relationship with her husband. It comes with the husband, but it isn’t him. When they talk, she likes to talk about new purchases or ways to increase their social status and fame. She talks with him about the possibility of joining new clubs, or maybe trading in that two-year old Mercedes for a brand new Lexus.

This woman rarely listens to her husband when he has something say. Occasionally, she is brought up short when he refuses to spend the money for a trip to Vienna or something like that. Usually, that gets her attention, but mostly, she just complains and asks why. Her relationship with her husband is all about what his wealth and status can do for her. It isn’t about living life with her soul mate. It isn’t about loving him for better or worse. When things are “worse,” she wants to know why, and she wants it to change right away. Although she seldom really expresses love for him personally, she’ll probably never leave him, because she thinks he is the best chance she has to get what she wants in life.

If we are honest with ourselves, I think most of us would look down on somebody like this. Such a person, is clearly using her spouse to get what she wants out of life. Her life is not partnered with his. Her goals and desires are her own; he is a part of them only to the extent that he can grant her wishes. She has not taken the time to really know him. She has not learned to appreciate him, admire him and love him at anything more than a superficial level.

Suppose one day, the doctor comes home to his wife and shares his burning desire to be a medical missionary in central Asia. He wants her to be a part of his mission, heart and soul. It means that they will have sell everything they own, and move to a place where no one knows them, or cares who they are. They will be living in conditions akin to poverty. He invites her to join with him in his work, to be his partner and co-laborer. But this is not what she wants. She married him in order to get all of the things that he now wants to leave behind. She files for divorce.

Brothers and sisters, do we treat God this way?

Christmas is a terrific time to evaluate this, because it involves both an eternal relationship, and bunch of blessings. Which do we focus on more? Would Christmas feel just as joyous to you if you received no presents? Would you be equally as excited about simply receiving Jesus and getting closer to him?

Too often, I think I treat God mostly as a source of blessings, rather than the abiding passion of my life. I want his help more than I want him for his own sake. I like what I think he will give me. But do I like him? Author Larry Crabb said this:

“Offer a young child the choice of having Daddy present Christmas morning with no gifts, or having Daddy absent and a stack of gifts pile high beneath the tree, and the child might choose the gifts. Only the mature value the blessing of presence over the blessing of presents.”

Crabb rightly says it is about maturity. As we get older, presents become less important. But unfortunately for many of us, the same isn’t necessarily true about God’s blessings. Imagine you were given a choice: You could have a life where you had the blessings of getting paid to do what you love, and harmonious relationships, and no financial struggle; OR, you could struggle financially and in relationships and in your work, but the presence and love of God would be incredibly real and dominant in your life. The choice is between a better life, or a closer relationship with God. Which would you take? Would you sell all you own and live in a mud hut to be with the one you love? Or would you find that you don’t love him that much?

We all want both, of course. But we can’t have both unless we want God more than his blessings; and for that we have to be willing to do without his blessings. If we insist upon having God’s blessings along with God, then we aren’t willing to have him without them. We would be like the woman in the analogy above. Once her husband stopped providing what she wanted out of life, she left him.

People do this to God all the time. They don’t get the promotion they want. Sometimes it is much more serious than that – maybe their loved one dies of cancer, in spite of all their prayers. So they walk away from God. He didn’t do for them what they wanted him to, and so they abandon him. This is demand that God give us blessings. It is a refusal to follow Him unless he blesses us. What makes a such a person any different from the shallow woman in our analogy?

The gift of Christmas is a person. It is not the blessings and things we think we want. It is not “presents” but rather, presence. Like children, we are so easily distracted by the things we want. We don’t dream that we could be satisfied by a relationship with a person. But what the Bible says is the greatest Christmas present of all time, is a person. Listen to Isaiah:

For a child will be born for us, a son will be given to us, and the government will be on His shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. (Isa 9:6, HCSB)

Or to John:

And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. The one who has the Son has life. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have life. (1John 5:11-12, HCSB)

Or to Jesus himself:

Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. “If you know Me, you will also know My Father. From now on you do know Him and have seen Him.” (John 14:6-7, HCSB)

The gift is a person. It is a relationship. He came to be the love of your life. It isn’t about how he can improve your life or fulfill your dreams. It is about HIM. Sometimes, he blesses our lives with good things. Sometimes he does not. Often it is hard to tell why he does or does not. But the point is never supposed to be about the blessings or their lack. It is supposed to be about closeness with Jesus.

The truth is that a life of blessings without God as our prime desire, is an empty one. For proof, look in any celebrity-oriented magazine, any day of the year. You’ll see beautiful, incredibly wealthy people, married to other beautiful people, adored by millions, completely free from any financial burdens, who are desperately unhappy. They have access to the best healthcare. Anyone in the world would jump at a chance to have a friendship with them. Their spouses are attractive beyond belief. They have the money to pursue any path they choose. But droves of them are addicted to drugs and alcohol; they have eating disorders; many of them secretly feel they are ugly; they get divorced in record numbers.

There is no meaningful life in blessings alone. Listen carefully. If our relationship with God is mostly about the blessings he can give us in life, then we are still just living for the blessings. God is just a means to get them, just as movie-acting is just means to fame and fortune. We are no different from those celebrities.

So this year, I plead with you to struggle, as I do, to connect with the truth that the only true and lasting blessing, the only one I need, is Jesus himself. Not what he does for me, but him.

Jesus does promise us a life full of blessing, of freedom from worry, pain and fear. But that is not this life. That is the eternal life we will receive if we choose Him, here and now.

My prayer is that you do that.

Imagine an alternative ending to my little parable. Suppose the woman takes a risk. Realizing what a good man her husband is, she changes her mind. Full of fear, she agrees to go to central Asia with him. There, in service and near-poverty, she learns to love her husband more than she ever thought possible. She finds un-dreamed of joy serving with him, even in spite of the rough conditions. Now the blessings she tried so hard to hold on to mean very little to her. Instead what means the most is being with the one she loves.

May this be your story! Merry Christmas!